Wednesday, July 23, 2008

"If you don't leave your house today, you may miss something wonderful"

The title of this post comes from Kim Krolak's essay, "Running Lessons," in How Running Changed My Life, ed. Garth Battista (Breakaway Books, 2002), p. 157. On this muggy morning, my body and mind wilted from post-relay letdown and a vapid performance at my Tuesday interval workout, I was engaged in one stall tactic after another to postpone my five miler.

Had I really performed so well in the relay? My team was fourth, five minutes out of third in our division, and I could not help but return in my mind to that time I stopped, even though I felt all right, to let the volunteers help me. What if I hadn't stopped? What if, later, I'd picked up my pace more? What could I have done better? Coming to the workout last night, the shadows of these questions had overtaken my joy at completing the two loops, had made me forget about the "force," that magical light stick I waved as I crossed the finish line for the second time. The memories of being last picked in school and in children's recreation programs haunted me. And my half mile repeats last night went from okay to slow to barely moving--until I resolved to just run the distance easy, so I could have the five miles I'd promised myself for the day. I am no athlete, not much of a runner. Everyone on my team had delivered except me. And stepping out to run today was the last thing I wanted to do.

Who was I kidding? Why did I do this? I found myself thinking of all the "I'm sorry's" I wanted to say to everyone and anyone. I'm sorry I held you back. I'm sorry I'm an underachiever. I'm sorry I didn't run faster, catch the ball that would have won the game, struck out. I felt more like Charlie Brown in his "goat" moments than like the warrior that I felt I was that night at the relay.

But as I browsed through the "running lessons" essay, those words, "you may miss something wonderful" spoke loud and clear.. ."Don't do this to yourself," I thought. At the very least, I could miss five miles that would be mine, that no one could take from me. They might be five very slow miles, but they would be my five miles.

So I set the book down and was out the door. Despite some cooling off from a rainfall the night before, the air was still and damp--the dampness of a wet, moldy towel.

But I was not about to miss something wonderful, and wonderful things can happen even on muggy, hot, sticky days. I'd witnessed that on Saturday. Whatever my performance, the event had raised thousands of dollars to help people struggling to find their feet.

My route to the Upper Darby High School track takes me through Naylor's Run Park, a green oasis in an increasingly populated suburb, the site of the high school's home cross country course. Whatever goes wrong elsewhere in my life, that park is my friend--a place of solace, offering shade, a wood chip trail (a short stretch, alive with woodpeckers, cardinals, and occasional rabbits skittering off into the woods). In this park, I have seen a fox, an egret, hawks overhead, snakes (not poisonous, just a black or garter snake, whose movements, runners, should offer a lesson in speed), and without losing a pound on the scale, felt lighter after leaving than before entering.

When I reached the track, the usual group of kids from a program for people with retardation had gotten there first and were variously walking and running and talking and laughing. I almost decided to bypass the track for this reason, wanting solitude, but something told me to go ahead down the steps to the track. I reasoned that possibly the something wonderful that could happen would occur there. But whether it did or not, I would at least be assured of two miles (approximate distance to the track was a mile and a half... add two miles on the track and a run home, and I'd have five miles... in an uncomplicated fashion). I wasn't running for time, in any case, so some zig-zagging around the knots of walkers and runners wasn't going to make much difference. One lap at a time, I told myself when that overheated self resisted, wanted to bag it and go home. One lap at a time.

And eventually, with no time recorded, my stopwatch on 0:00.00--I had decided against timing myself and thus being reminded starkly of my slow pace--but eight laps completed, I was ready to head home. Still doubtful. Still sorry for not being a better runner, a faster runner, the runner in my fantasy who flies over hills and jumps over streams and breaks the tape. But at least satisfied that I hadn't entirely given in to the self-pity so much that I quit prematurely. At least I'd eked out two miles. A man working on the school grounds commented, "I don't know how you can run when it's so hot. I can't." I wasn't sure how I could run either, but I didn't say that, just said, "gotta do what I gotta do." And then headed back along the driveway toward the garages and the path down the hill to State Road.

There, between the garage and the dumpsters, perhaps the school's grungiest location, near the hiding place for teens skipping class for a cigarette break, came that something wonderful.

In the midst of the "I'm sorry" thoughts danced forgiveness in the form of a butterfly.

Its wings--a yellowish-orange-gold, the colors shining into my gloom, reminded me, as the butterfly fluttered in circles around me, that the "something wonderful" I could find on my runs hadn't so much to do with the mythical athlete of my dreams, the one I wished I were--but the reality that even grungy places (in the mind or on a school property) can yield wisdom and beauty.

The butterfly would sometimes stop to rest, closing its wings together into a triangle and opening them again. And although even in repose, its closed wings subtly striped, hinted at the drama within, it revealed its full y glory when opening its wings to fly, reminding me to do the same: open my wings and fly. Take the risk.

Butterflies would give up if they saw only their worm selves and never opened themselves to their possibilities for transformation. They have had to be still for part of their journey, allowing the process to happen. And they have had to push through a chrysalis, awaken, and fly. Always with the chance that the cruel forces of the world could snatch them up, but still, open their wings, forget the worm and be the butterfly they were destined to be.

I lingered there at that spot near the school garage for several minutes, not wanting to leave, wanting to let the butterfly tell its story to me right there. Finally, it was time to go--and so I pronounced a blessing on this butterfly.... protection, safe flight, a peaceful passing when the time came, and inspiration to many more people who might stop to notice its beauty. And as I headed home, memories came of a different sort--not of the failures but of times when I had helped others, made a difference for the better. Forgiveness. A dance. An opening of the wings. A memory of wings open.

So on I run. Thanks to that something wonderful that happened when I left the house.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

20in24 relay

July 20

Yesterday, I participated in the 20in24 Relay.

Today I am trying to sort through the maze of impressions this event left on me. My hope is that those who read this can experience it as I did, see what I saw, feel what I felt, hear what I heard, and know how it is to want so much of oneself, while recognizing that even in the effort, there is achievement.

This event, as the link will tell you, was set up to benefit Back on My Feet, "a nonprofit organization that uses running as a vehicle to promote self-sufficiency within Philadelphia's homeless population."

This organization was started by Anne Mahlum, a marathoner who befriended residents of a homeless shelter she passed on her morning runs and eventually invited them to run with her--thus began last year an effort that has now involved many shelters throughout the city and has assisted people in finding jobs, education, and housing.

It's a cause I was proud to support.

And I ran with a team I was proud to join forces with.

Patrick's team: so-called (mais oui!) because Patrick, from my Tuesday night running group, Peak Performance, was our team captain. This team consisted of four members of Peak Performance--Patrick, Lillian, Jill, and me--and my bf, Neil (and we made Neil an honorary member of Peak Performance--I found an old Peak Performance singlet to give to Neil to wear--and we women began the day with our matching red singlets with the Peak Performance logo).

This event offered four levels of team participation and two individual options. Individuals could choose to be "Lone Rangers"--these runners went solo for 24 hours or a significant part of that, some aiming at 50 or 100 miles, others to see how many miles they could complete--or run in the Midnight Madness race, consisting of one loop that started as the name indicates at midnight.

The team options included one, two, three, or four loops per team member--with each team consisting of five members.

Those are the facts, but what the facts don't begin to reveal is what it meant to participate in such an event on a day when weather forecasters issued a heat alert and cautioned Philadelphians to stay indoors and air conditioned and not venture outdoors unless they had to.

Okay, so we ventured outdoors. Did we have to? Strictly speaking, no. We'd raised/paid the money for participating, as had other teams. We could have been sensible and said, "way too hot for this craziness."

But we members of Patrick's Team/Peak Performance joined others as crazy as ourselves in this heat-fest. And I'm glad we did!

On arriving at the race site, Lloyd Hall, the start and finish of many races and everyday runs, the start and finish of our Peak Performance workouts Tuesday nights, we were already aware of the encroaching heat. A thick, heavy blanket of humidity draped itself over the start area, sending runners indoors to the air conditioned comfort of Lloyd Hall, which soon began to fill with runners and their sleeping bags, canopy chairs, and buzz. We'd have to face the heat soon enough; while waiting, we drank our cold water, spritzed ourselves with ice water, drank more cold water, and planned our survival strategies... and did I mention drinking cold water?

A sound system in place offered music and announcements. It would later remind teams that their relay runners were two miles out, then finishing.

Finally, it was time to start. We headed out to see off the lone rangers and the teams' lead runners. Jill started our team off with a very strong 1:10 (approximately 8:20 pace). I have on occasion come close to that time--in younger days with PERFECT conditions. But Jill pulled it off in 90something degree heat. None of us equaled that performance the rest of the day. So I award Jill the title of "Gold Standard Bearer" for our team.

When she returned, she warned us--wisely, as it turned out--to bring a water bottle along to have in between aid stations.

Our next runner, Lillian, also finished ahead of schedule (Patrick had set up a schedule that assumed 1:15 for the others, 1:30 for me--in my case, particularly, that turned out to be optimistic).

My turn had come. So had the hottest part of the day--I started around 12:20-12:30. And with the naive optimism I never have quite learned to shed when conditions don't warrant it, I had hopes for myself of running at least close to the 1:30 predicted for me. This would have me running around 10:30 pace. Seemed reasonable. Except that my first mile was 11:06. I picked up a little on mile 2 and reached it in 22:01. That was probably my last sub-11 min. mile of the day. At first, excited to be starting off, I was oblivious of the temperature--or thought I was.

As I began to feel the heat wrap more tightly around me, penetrating my blood and bones and squeezing the speed out of my body, I worked on giving myself positive messages: "the sun is GIVING you energy!" I repeated to myself. Um... not quite, although it seemed to have the desired effect at first.

Coming upon two miles, I saw a bin of ice. Probably should have grabbed some to put in my bottle, but kept going. I had plenty of water--although it was getting lukewarm by that that time. Never mind. Not long afterward, I reached the first fully staffed aid station with water, gatorade, and chilled wet towels, took a towel, gatorade, water--welcome respite--and moved on. Refilled my bottle with ice when I found another ice bin a couple miles later. Trotted along, wishing as, no doubt others were, for a sudden blast of arctic air, but otherwise feeling reasonably well, all things considered.

The volunteers at the second aid station thought otherwise.

"You okay? You look shaky." I might have been weaving a little but mainly because of the cracks in the pavement on the Martin Luther King Drive side of the course. Perhaps that made me appear more wobbly than I felt.

"No problem. I'm feeling fine."

"Well, you should have the doctor look at you. You don't look well." (Note to self: fix hair and make-up next time I pass aid station 2.)

Seeing their concern, I agreed to allow them to check me--"just to make you feel better."

The doctor had me take a seat on the cot--which then collapsed under me when the runner sitting in the middle of it got up. Apparently, these cots are like the playground seesaws, which require weight to be distributed evenly on both sides or in the middle. No damage... I landed on my backside, which seems to take impact well. The runner apologized profusely--and I accepted, laughing. After taking my vitals--in between offering me another cold towel and gatorade--the medical people determined I was well enough to continue on. They asked if I wanted to sit for longer, but I had visions of my team wondering whether I'd slipped off to a local bar for a beer break, so I assured them I was fine.

Perhaps the stop was a hidden blessing. I could no longer put any time pressure on myself. This might have saved me not only for the rest of the first loop but for the second as well. Crossing the Falls Bridge gave me a psychological lift. So did ditching the earlier "the sun is giving you energy" baloney.

Nope. I programmed my brain with Christmas songs--the more references to snow the better. Jingle Bells and the like. Think COLD!

This change in mental focus, together with a breeze on the Kelly Drive side, restored some energy. Not that it showed in my pace. Still... as my swimmer friend from last year's Cross-Bay keeps saying in his blog... "go, go, go." Last year, I swam 5.25 miles, nauseated for the last mile from chop that tossed me back and forth like a balsa wood boat. If I could manage that, I could keep on running. Think COLD. Think COLD. Think COLD.

I plugged along without further incident, except having a full water bottle thrown at me from a car. Was the person just trying to help? I don't know. But as the bottle didn't hit me, my heart rate settled back into hot-weather normal.... the landmarks showed promise....

The water fountain... grandstand... then 1 1/4... then the trash can we used as a marker for 200 repeats... then the mile... nothing to it. Soon enough, or not soon enough, depending on your point of view, I reached the boathouses... the finish line came into view... Neil stood ready to take off... and Patrick had his camera ready (hope it didn't break it when he took my photo, ha!). My watch read 1:44somethingorother when I crossed the finish line, but I comforted myself with the idea that it would have been a faster time if I hadn't been stopped.

My relief on reaching the finish--and the chance to take shelter again in Lloyd Hall--renewed my energy. Spent the time chatting with team-mates... Mike and Jill returned soon after Patrick began his leg, as Jill was then ready to lead off the second round.

The prevailing opinion shared by all the runners: HOT, HOT, HOT, HOT, HOT. Heat radiating from everywhere. Above, below, around... especially during the first two miles, all under direct sunlight. But we didn't have it as bad as a man on another team. As I prepared to start my first leg, a nearby runner told me that a team-mate had gotten lost, crossed the wrong bridge and found himself in West Philly, then had to go back and complete his loop. Probably still ran it faster than I ran mine, but he was, I'm told, young.

Things could be worse, I told myself. I could get lost... or be a "Lone Ranger" and running multiple loops, one after another after another. Instead, one, then rest... and another. I had, after all, on many other occasions, run two loops consecutively.

Even the callous that I noticed had started to bleed after round 1 didn't worry me. I'd run the second half of a marathon with a blister. I'd hiked in Maine with blisters all over the bottoms of my feet. (Okay, so that was years past, but even so....) This was not going to interfere with my reaching my 40 mile goal for the week. I was not going to be the runner who chickened out. So I had one of the EMT guys spread some antibiotic ointment on it, wrap it up... and that would be that. Add a couple tylenols, and I would be good to go.

Buoyed by reports that conditions had improved from torrid to merely muggy, I had hopes of beating my (supposedly) very "soft" first round time.

Mike advised against being too time conscious, and I agreed it would be silly to think in terms of equaling the times of the others, but maybe 1:43 instead of 1:44? Especially if no one stopped me this time? But my forays outside made me rethink my goal: what if I just went for finishing without being stopped? That seemed doable.

Everyone advised caution--to someone who likes to throw caution to the winds. I ended up having to take their advice. After all, there was little wind to which to throw my caution and so I couldn't get any distance on such a throw.

I waited for Lillian a little more stiff-legged, despite a massage and some stretching... doubtful about the blister... but still optimistic. It had cooled off, the sun was going down... it was after 7. This was going to be fine.

And it was fine.

Not fast. The handwriting on the wall at the first mile was clear: 12:18. This was not going to be about setting any records. Or even beating my first loop time.

So I decided, this was not going to be about running fast but about being there, in the moment, savoring this run, savoring this time. How often do I get a chance to run entire river drive loop at sunset, to see the light taking on a different cast, the water turning gold... the heat relaxing its grip on me.

Forget time. Enjoy timelessness.

Turn the watch to "time of day" rather than stopwatch mode. In any case, as the shadows deepened, I couldn't see the watch face.

Just as well. What would it tell me that I wasn't getting from the landscape...from the other runners--both relay and ultra runners... from the volunteers at the aid stations? from giving my energy on the hottest day of the year to support people who had more life hurdles to overcome than heat and humidity.

The blister tried to make itself felt, but somehow could not reach through the bubble of hope that surrounded me as the night provided the cool comfort of breezes... over the bridge again onto Kelly Drive... I'd succeeded in passing the aid station where they'd stopped me earlier. All downhill from here, I told myself. A volunteer on a bike gave me a light stick--turned it on after a while and it glowed like Luke Skywalker's Force. There I was with my magic Light Sword, feeling like a night warrior.... I prayed only that the light would last until at least the finish so I could cross joyfully waving my light...

The time, when I switched the watch back to chrono to reveal it was the same as before... 1:44somethingorother. But it no longer mattered. The quality of the time, the glow-in-the-dark "Force"--the playfulness and craziness and adventurousness of a day spent enjoying the company of team=mates, completing my distance with a flourish, and relaxing and joking with Patrick and later Neil, as well as friend who'd come to the Midnight Madness run (a simultaneous race and light show as people paraded by us at the start, armed with glowsticks, body paint, battery operated Christmas lights and high spirits)... then posing for an end-of-the-day photo with Patrick, Neil, and Jill--and her white German Shepherd.... --Mike and Jill had rejoined our company at the end when Patrick finished.

Despite the "mash unit" appearance that Lloyd Hall's gym had assumed as the day wore on--or maybe almost because of it (think Woodstock, those of you in my generation... although rain and mud was the weather du jour during that festival, the feeling that we were allies together in the face of hardship pervaded)--the sense that this was not so much a contest of team against team or runner against runner. Instead, we shared goals, shared pain, shared pizza, sandwiches, water, ... and watermelon (thanks, Jill and Mike). And a desire to find that something extra in ourselves, whether to win, place, or finish standing up.

In the end, there was one team: all the relay teams, all the runners, all the volunteers, the race director, and people such as Mike and others who'd come to cheer.

And everyone on that team can be proud of being a part of it.