Sunday, August 15, 2004


Sat. Aug. 14

Long run: 14 miles,* 2:28:31

This run took me to and around the three-mile high school loop on Belmont Plateau, and back to the start at Lloyd Hall, then along Kelly Drive to the two-mile mark, and again back to the start. I tried to work the pace a bit harder after passing Lloyd Hall. Didn’t do too badly until the last mile, when I felt I was coming unglued, had to walk/jog/walk/jog…Tried some strides just to get me back sooner. I wanted to be done at that point. It hurt. I was feeling wasted. We were to do a 2 hr. 15 min. run, and when we got to Lloyd Hall, I’d reached 1:44, so in reality, I’d have done better to turn around at 1.5 miles. But I wanted to complete 14 miles—since the schedule said 14-16 miles. (Yes, I’m obsessive, next question?) I wanted to “be as good as the others,” I think. But as I neared the end of the run, the last 100 or so yards, I began hyperventilating, and when I stopped, the hyperventilating continued, until Dave had me take “belly breaths.” After a few minutes or so, I began to feel better, and we all took off for breakfast at Little Pete’s where challah French toast with strawberries and syrup and plentiful black coffee eased the re-entry into the “real world.”

*Actually, there’s a fifteenth mile, because earlier I’d missed the trolley to 69th Street, so I ran to the terminal, about a mile. But I’m not sure that really counts.


I thought of a story that Marc had told, months ago. He said, “When I sign up to do an Ironman, I like the fear of not knowing. I like not knowing if I’ve trained well enough to finish. I like not knowing if my bicycle will break down. It’s the not knowing that makes it interesting. Who would want to know? Life is like that. I’m in my mid-fifties, and when I look back, I realize that despite all the doubts and the not knowing, things work out.”

--Dean Ottati, The Runner and the Path, p. 256

As I started up Flagpole Hill for the first mile of the cross-country portion of the Saturday long run, I felt it. When I begin races, I feel it. When I start long runs, long races, and especially marathons, I feel it. The what-if’s. What if it hurts? What if I can’t finish? What if my coach thinks I should give up running and try, say, Olympic sleeping?

In the last marathon I attempted, a calf pain began gnawing at my leg early in the race and would not subside. I would alternate running, jogging, limping—and finally, at around 15-16 miles, I decided I’d had enough. That was not a marathon I was destined to finish, not unless I was willing to put up with a chronic injury. I stepped out of the race, worked my running club’s water stop for a while, then discovered just how much harder it was to limp/walk back to the start than it had been to run from the Art Museum to that point in the race. I developed hypothermia, needed an IV in the med tent. Mike laid down the law the following Tuesday about not getting right to the start again and getting warm. It was not one of my better marathon experiences.

It was the second of my marathons to involve hypothermia, and the third that involved time in the med tent. I have (variously) developed a side stitch, knee pain, a blister, and the down-deep pain of hitting the wall at 21 miles.

So my fears have some basis in experience. Things can go wrong, it can hurt, months of training can be undermined by a crucial mistake on race day. But what if I didn’t try?

I once entered an open water swim—having never tried one before—and was second-to-last. I started that race with the definite sense that I’d made a mistake to enter. I had barely reached the starting line after swimming almost a quarter mile, and the gun went off, upon which everyone quickly disappeared into the distance. But since I’d already committed to the race, I was going to finish it unless an official told me to stop. Eventually, I fell into a rhythm, began enjoying simply being there, the warm sun, the cool water against my skin, my crawl stroke getting a little more efficient as I loosened up, even managing to pass someone (who soon passed me, but at that point, I didn’t worry). It was a glorious day, an experience I was glad not to miss. No one will recruit me for the Olympic swimming team, but to be there, to try something new, to risk a little: I was grateful for the courage not to pass that up. Afterward, I relaxed in the restaurant with the other swimmers, wearing my one and only t-shirt obtained from an open water swim. I am proud to have earned that t-shirt.

Sometimes I forget, in my fear, to embrace the moment, where I am. My mind races ahead to what can happen, and I sometimes almost forget to notice what is happening: the mockingbirds flying across the trail in front of me; the valuable conversation time with Rebecca, my team-mate, as we keep each other going; the choppiness of the river. I sometimes think, “I can’t wait to finish this stretch!” I want it to be done so I will know I’ve safely made it through. But sometimes the uncertainties, even the fears, need to be embraced, learned from, and this is why I race.

Maybe it’s also how I need to live, remembering David Wagoner’s lines from his poem, “Lost”:

Wherever you are is called Here,

And you must treat it as a powerful stranger.

Eventually, Here is the way home, and is home.

Friday, August 13, 2004

I want to be able to fly . . . like you

First, a short summary of my week's running (since last post)

Sunday (8/8): 75 minutes--felt good; weather was cool, breezy, clear; a sub-10 mpm pace felt comfortable. Took a "carboom" gel before the run, and began thinking wild thoughts about sub-4 hour marathons...note to self: what DOES this gel have in it!

But heard later in the day that my boyfriend's father passed away. His 100th birthday would have been on Aug.

Monday: 60 minutes—weather had heated up, foot was bothering me…took it very slow, walked some, ran some. Felt better after a half hour, but stayed cautious. From Sunday to Monday... what a difference. Alternately heated/iced/stretched/massaged foot, and wondered if it would be okay for Tuesday. It was!

Tuesday: Group speed workout: ladder consisting of 200, 400, 600, 800, 400; mile warm-up, mile cooldown: times were 49, 1:50, 2:59, 4:11, 3:07, 2:00. The first couple surprised me because I didn’t think I’d done them that fast. In a track meet several weeks earlier, I ran a quarter in about the same time, and it took all the breath I had..felt like a fish out of water at the end. This time, it was a hard effort, yes, but I felt I had something left! No problem w/ foot but did feel twinge at the end

Wednesday: 62 mins. easy; no problem with foot

Thursday, 10:30 warm-up, 8x2 mins. hard, abt. 1 min. rest, abt. 5 minutes cooldown. Worried a little about foot but heated/ massaged/stretched it, and it was fine.


"Excuse me . . . how do you run like that?"

The woman approached me yesterday after I'd finished the last repeat of my workout, the one I almost decided not to do.

Neil would be picking me up at 10:30, and we'd be going to his father's funeral. I didn't think there would be enough time to do the workout justice, and I wondered if I should do something that would distract me from being ready when Neil came. I like a nice cushion of time before and after hard workouts.

But the itch to run would not go a way, so I chose a less structured form of two-minute repeats--not quarters on the 400m track as in the previous such workout, but a mixture of repeats on the road and on the fifth-mile middle-school track (so I wouldn't be comparing times or worrying about pace). Since time was limited, I decided on a one-minute rest between repeats instead of two as before.

On the track with me were two men, one walking/running, the other running a steady clip--I keyed off him and discovered that his pace looked easier than it was for me-- and the aforementioned woman. As I shot past the woman and the slower of the two men, I wondered if they'd judge me as a show-off. But I hoped that they'd find me harmless enough, just another fanatic doing her workout. As I turned out one repeat after another, I noticed that I covered a little more of the track with each one--but I couldn't catch the faster runner, and I couldn't imagine anyone could see me as exactly gifted in the sport. It didn't matter either way. I was just grateful to be able to do the workout without a twinge. I practiced one of the pylo drills that Dave taught--stepping on and off a small curb until I noticed a slight twinge in the right foot (the one without the injury history), and decided I'd better back off that particular drill, try another--when the woman stopped to talk.

She told me that she'd started to walk in order to lose weight and had also recently stopped smoking. She was walking twelve laps of the track daily and told me that she envied the runners who "could fly around the track like you do and make it look so easy. How do you do it?" I suggested Glover's book for beginning runners and the "couch to 5k" program on the Coolrunning web site. When she asked about shoes, I recommended a couple of area running stores. She resolved to visit one of the stores, check out the web site. Her enthusiasm and eagerness to get started inspired me. Her self-putdowns made me sad, especially since, as I reminded her, when she told me about her background and achievements, she had so much to offer.

She was obviously ready for a new direction in her life, but also afraid. "Am I too heavy to run?" she asked me. I told her that heavier people than she had started to run and successfully lost weight. She had been afraid to approach me at first, she told me, because what if I blew her off? Her courage moved me. I assured her that most runners are eager to help newcomers to the sport, and not to be afraid to ask--and even if she met someone unfriendly, not to let it worry her. There would be plenty of others who'd encourage and support her efforts.

We exchanged names and I gave her my phone number before we parted. Whether she follows up on my suggestions, I felt I'd been given a gift by being reminded of what a gift running was, by being given the opportunity to share something I enjoyed and valued, and, yes, by being unknown to myself at first, admired. Sometimes I take my strengths so much for granted, seeing only my weaknesses, that like the woman I met, I forget about what I have to offer, sometimes simply by doing what I love.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

Breath-taking...breath giving...birthing

1. Quick recap of my week's running
2. Thoughts about today's (8/7) run


Recap (feel free to skip over, although runners might find it of interest)

Tuesday: Mile, then 4x1/4
Mile: 8:37 (2:03, 4:09, __, 8:37)
Quarters: 1:57, 2:00, 2:04, 1:59
Mile warm-up/cooldown
Pylo drills: skips, shorter, then longer distance; “majorette” steps; curb steps (fast up and down for ten seconds)

Wed. Easy 45 mins.—weather hot and humid, spent about ½ hour in gym on treadmill, then did some weights

Thursday: One hour run with ½ hr. at goal marathon pace. Ran it on the track—cool, overcast conditions. Here’s how it broke down:
First mile, 9:34—2:20, 2:25, 2:25, 2:24
Second mile, 19:15—11:55?, 14:15, 16:44? ~9:41
Third mile 28:58—21:34, 24:53, 26:25 ~9:43

28:58 @ 3 miles, then @ 3 miles + 200m it was 30:12

My goal pace approximately 9:45. So in that sense, this was successful, but I did slow down each mile, which I’d like to correct.

Friday: off

Saturday: Ran mostly on Belmont Plateau
Easy run (warm-up) ~25 mins.
2.9 mile (“5k”) time trial on old xc course: 31:04.73
Uphill skips (6 reps)
Ran from Belmont Plateau to Lloyd Hall for cooldown

2. Today's run

Breath-taking...breath giving...birthing

The runner has emerged from the gravel path leading away from Parachute Hill, a hard climb that required a few walking steps. Two weeks earlier she got lost on that section of the course, took a wrong turn, and ended up with a considerably longer mile than planned. This time, cones were in place, and she finished the second mile without incident—except for the searing, burning breathlessness and the full knowledge that the pain was not over yet. The last hill, up through a patch of trees, and through the web of branches left by a downed tree at the top, loomed ahead. Her chest could hardly hold enough air to pump through her tired body. And behind her, nearing her were breaths, footsteps. A place about to be surrendered. No way. Muttering to God and to herself, she ungracefully negotiated the fallen branches and was in the open, where she felt confident that she could shake the next runner if she pushed the pace hard enough. But no, he came flying past—and was not in the race, to her relief. Still, the next runners could be close, and she was going to hold on. Past the buildings, down the hill, hopping islands of grass, and making her way around batting cages. “Go Akiba!” showed up worn but clear alongside one of the baseball fields. “Go Akiba” she whispered to herself, although she was not an Akiba student at any time during her life. It just made sense to pretend she was at this moment, so that the worn letters could form a cheer for her. Through the grass, around the pole, and through another clump of trees whose exposed roots slowed her down again. She was not about to take a header so near the finish, only because she was dealing with enough pain now, thank you. She could hear no one behind her by now, but it wasn’t worth taking chances, and as the finish line came into view, she picked up her pace still more, much as it hurt, and sprinted in, holding on to third—third to last place.

This little drama took place today, Saturday, August 7, 2004, on Belmont Plateau. The protagonist was not a high school or college student but me, a 53-year-old woman whose speed has been fading of late, but who, like the goddess who shares my name (or a variation of it), glories in the chase. Never having run for a high school or college (would I even have had the sense to do so if the opportunity were available?), I have signed on for a team experience, with Peak Performance and Team 26.2, groups composed of adult runners who regularly claim the sacred space of Kelly Drive and Belmont Plateau for our forays into youth. I look at the backs of most of the runners, many younger, faster, with more potential than I ever had. Yet I keep coming back.

The cheering helps. From the fastest to the slowest, people cheer one another on. My 31:05 doesn’t lessen the enthusiasm of the people who have finished and are shouting for me as I come in, some of whom have finished in less than 20 minutes.

But even deeper, each day, with each step I run, something good, something healing takes place. I felt, as I approached the finish the cheers not only of my team-mates but of family members, including my mother, felt their pride in their niece, grand-daughter, daughter crazy enough to dash around Belmont Plateau at whatever speed she could muster, getting her feet soaked and her hair dissheveled, disregarding the “I’m too old for this” rule that society tries to impose.

I come to learn what is in me. Sometimes I surprise myself. Sometimes disappoint myself. But it’s all temporary, really, both the surprise and the disappointment. What would disappoint me more is not to try, not to find out that, yes, I can run this course without getting lost, tripping over a root or rock. Yes, I can survive this course. Yes, I can survive.

Moments before we started, I felt apprehension. I wasn’t sure why. I could fall perhaps. I could finish dead last because I didn’t have enough breath to cover the miles, perhaps. I’d look completely foolish. Or, more primordially, it could hurt. I took a moment to “chi-breathe,” the belly breathing taught in my t’ai chi class, took a moment to tell myself, “the best you can do is all you can do. The rest is up to God.” Took a moment to let fear float away, decide that whatever happens, it will be an experience, and I’ll variously hurt and love it. And so I did.

The flip side of the running workout coin is the Thursday evening t’ai chi class—slowness emphasized. Joe, my t’ai chi instructor, keeps reminding me to slow down my movements—my competitive, get-it-done-first side fights but yields. Interestingly, some of the movements in the class are slowed-down versions of the bounding drills that Dave teaches us. I mentioned this to Joe, and he said that the common thread was that in both I was pulling energy to me, and sending it out, that the two were intimately connected, needed each other—giving and receiving, receiving and giving. The essence of my team experience. Of my solitary running experiences. Breathing in, breathing out. Recognizing that it is about the journey. Noticing from the top of the hill after the skip bounds when the lungs rebell the skyline of the city off in the distance, framed by the plush green of the hillside and trees and the swirling white clouds playing through a blue almost autumnal sky. Why do they call a view “breathtaking”? Inspiring? It both takes your breath away and gives it back again. You are stopped in your tracks—and moved, receiving in return for your attention senses and soul sharpened by pain and pleasure, receptive to amazement in simple things.

Balance: what I breathe in during t’ai chi, and breathe out when I run, if I’m getting it right.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Soaking up the atmosphere

“Each wet sock is a stinking foot soldier in the war against postmodernism.”

--A guy named Marc to Dean Ottati, quoted by Ottati in his book The Runner and the Path: An Athlete’s Quest for Meaning in Postmodern Corporate America (Breakaway Books, 2002), p. 21

In today’s long run, the foot soldiers formed a regiment. Our group—and some ominous looking storm clouds--gathered early this morning outside Lloyd Hall. Dave--still hoping that he could help us keep our socks dry--changed his original plan to have our long run take in some of Belmont Plateau. Instead, we would run the Schuylkill River loop, one full lap and as much of a second lap as we could manage in two hours.

Just as we started, the sky opened up, and the rain washed away any illusions of dry socks—or dry shorts, singlets, skin, hair, internal organs, and perhaps even auras. The paving stones in front of the Art Museum were slick with puddles, and I felt uneasy about slipping. But I felt even more uneasy with letting Nancy and Rebecca get too far ahead. When that happens, a psychological barrier arises and I lose my confidence in my ability to catch up again. So I swallowed my fear and kept them in sight, across the paving stones, across the entrance ramp to the Expressway, and across the bridge with a guardrail that feels perilously low in high winds, and more so in high winds and rain. Moving onto the street felt safer, however, and I remained with my companions as we headed out along the bike path.

We were on our way, still gingerly avoiding the puddles when possible, and making decent progress toward the Falls Bridge, when the faster members of our group came back, led by Dave, who warned us to turn around at the Montgomery Avenue Bridge. It couldn’t be that bad, we reasoned. Surely, we could somehow skirt our way around the puddles. But shortly after passing under the bridge, we saw what Dave meant. We’d be in at least a foot of water, and it was hard to say how much more, if we kept going. Listening to our coach—and our better judgment—we made a U-turn and started back toward Lloyd Hall, where we’d stop for a drink and continue along Kelly Drive.

By this time, water pooled into puddles ankle-deep, the rain showing no sign of letting up. And by this time, I was having fun. The lights of the boathouses created small havens of warmth in the morning gloom. Flocks of gulls and geese offset the green and gray of dripping trees, stone bridges, walls, and clouds. The smell of breakfast cooking wafted from some undetermined source. I began seeking out puddles and splashing through them, kicking up the water around me as I have when wading across the ford in Naylor’s Run Park. Rebecca remarked that all I needed was a bright yellow raincoat and rubber boots. The image of the child playing in puddles was perfect. I was a little girl, my inhibitions washed away by the river and the storm. An Outward Bound saying came to mind: “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.”

I got into it, and after a while found myself running faster with each puddle that I leaped into, feeling like the fairy-tale girl in the “seven-league boots,” the puddle water some sort of elixir, a fountain of youth. By the time we’d made another U-turn at Lloyd Hall and started back on West River Drive (Kelly Drive was just as waterlogged, Dave warned us), I was a full-fledged kid, skipping, clapping, fearless, humming rain songs from my past, then dredging up memories of snow songs—“Winter Wonderland,” “Sleigh Ride” and more. Slippery paving stones? No problem! Low guardrail? What’s to worry?

Running in a thunderstorm will do that to you. Running in a thunderstorm means discovering where you should have applied Body Glide. It means shivering and sweating at the same time. It means hair and clothes plastered to you as if you’d simply taken a dive into the river. It means your hands are too slippery to open your post-run power bar. It means recognizing that you are basically insane and that this is all right with you.