Wednesday, August 20, 2008

My competitive nature

Last night, my running group did a hill workout. Rick spoke of my competitive nature "rearing its ugly head," because I was breathing hard, even though Mike had said "nice and easy." For me, "nice and easy" would have involved running only a couple repeats, and I wanted to squeeze in more. And, in fact, I must admit, I do have a competitive nature. I did want not to be behind Rick at every turn. It's not so much about staying ahead of him, though, but about, occasionally, not being last. If someone else were near my pace, I'd key off that person instead.

I responded to Rick that in fact my competitive nature was "rearing its beautiful head."

Possibly some view competitiveness as ugly. And it isn't of the flowers-in-springtime poetic version of beautiful. Yet I suspect it is as inseparable from that kind of beauty as a stem is from a flower. I think of Dylan Thomas' "The Force that through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower"--the intertwining of life and death.

The force that lifts us from a prone position, out the door, into the neighborhoods and running tracks and trails is our passion for life, for experience, for blossoming... and withering.

Yet it is a necessary force. What would we do without the pain and beauty it breeds?

I count up miles, reach a "magic number" such as 50, and celebrate that. But also celebrate the journey to get there, some of it through flowers, some along a river, some breathing hard as I labor uphill, or enjoy the release of letting my feet fly downhill as I did when I was a child. I know it's important to balance these needs: the magic number that helps me believe in my capacity as a runner to blossom, to find new possibilities in me, to reach deeper, reach higher--with the blossoms and butterflies that meet me on the journey. And the sheer, stubbornness that makes me sometimes want to push past those who say "you can't" and "you shouldn't."

In her novel To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf described the paradox of the butterfly, through the eyes of artist Lily Briscoe reflecting on her painting:
"Beautiful and bright it should be on the surface, feathery and evanescent, one colour melting into another like the colours on a butterfly's wing; but beneath the fabric must be clamped together with bolts of iron. It was to be a thing you could ruffle with your breath; and a thing you could not dislodge with a team of horses.'

I want both the beauty and brightness--and the strength--of this image in my running. Butterflies so often are companions to me on the run, their flight seeming more windblown than willed. Yet they have been known to travel thousands of miles--and so, to some degree, are "clamped together with bolts of iron."

Sometimes I want to prove my worth as a runner, show Mike and others that I deserve to be taken seriously, that I may not have the speed of the faster runners, but that I have drive of my own. Yet I know it's not fair to see my efforts or even my work ethic as equal to theirs. I am chasing humbler goals--no sub-3 hour marathon, but perhaps one day one that gets me to the starting line in Boston? No sub-30 minute 10k, but maybe a faster one than I ran last time?

Competition is a chase, an adventure, inward as well as outward, and although it can't be measured by numbers, numbers enter in, just as they do into poetic rhyme and meter. Yet the goal is to both embrace and transcend the numbers.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Reached 50... miles for a week

No, it's not Olympic gold, not even Olympic, period.

My weekly mileage would amount almost to a week off for the high-caliber distance runners who have performed and will perform in the Olympics currently in progress.

But for me, it represents the fulfillment of a goal I set in late May/early June: a fifty-mile week by the end of August.

Many sources on running tout the performance benefits of increasing running mileage, although some disagree about whether older athletes (50s+) might also experience a down side in the form of increased risk of injury. And since my average weekly mileage tended to be closer to 25-30, I knew I needed to strike a balance between increasing the number and overdoing. The hundred plus miles per week that mark the regular schedules of elite athletes would be unrealistic for me, certainly not in a single summer, if at all.

But fifty miles--probably taking me as long as it would take an elite athlete to cover twice the mileage--seemed like a reasonable goal, and I take a lot of satisfaction in making that goal.

What have I learned/gained? When I finished my last lap on the rutted middle school track this morning, there was no flag to drape around me. There were no witnesses, no crowds cheering, no medal ceremony... just me and the rutted track. And yet I felt a quiet kind of thanksgiving and joy that I had reached a milestone. As a way of giving something back, I picked up some litter on the track and dropped it into a trash can. And enjoyed a leisurely walk home. And at home... a Zone bar and a cup of coffee.

I admit I e-mailed my coach--not even sure why, since, as stated, my mileage is pedestrian compared to his faster runners, and really wasn't it a personal goal, not one he'd had any stake in setting? I doubt very much it could impress him. And yet I needed for him to know I'd done it. I needed him to know I had stuck to my goal and realized it. Yet I always have my doubts about whether I deserve any attention from him--and also always hope that I do..

In truth, perhaps I actually should get more realistic about my possibilities as an athlete. Let's be honest. even in my age group, many, many women are faster than I am.

I am injury-prone. I am struggling with other issues in my life. What, honestly, does reaching my humble goal really mean? To others, not really all that much. I haven't discovered a cure for cancer, written a Pulitzer Prize winning book, won a marathon, etc. etc. Some--myself included--would wonder why dwell on this small achievement at all.

But I do think we need to take some satisfaction, celebrate our victories, even the small ones. Some of us--especially women, I think--become too used to dismissing successes, reaching them, yes, but thinking, "if I did this, it's not all that special, is it?" But how productive is such thinking? Does it inspire us and give us confidence to set more goals and reach for them?

I think there's a middle path somewhere, and I remember a rabbi expressing it well--I can't remember his name, and my apologies to him for that--but he wrote a religion column some years ago for the Inquirer--and talked about true humility as standing at your full height and looking at the stars. Not being boastful and inflating one's achievements, but not bowing down and pretending to be smaller... just taking satisfaction in one's successes even as one gazes on the immensity of the universe.

I feel very fortunate, very grateful to be able to run. When I run, if I am smart, I learn to pay attention--to the high pitched cries of hawks, to red-winged blackbirds, to wet pine needles, to peacock sightings... And while I'm pleased to have run the mileage I did this week, I'm also grateful that it means I have had more opportunities to pay attention to what matters.

Even small steps move us forward.

For those who might want to know...

A quick run-down (excuse the pun) of how it played out this week:

Sun. 14 miles easy although I threw in a mile near the end at marathon goal pace
Mon. 5 miles
Tues. a.m. 7 miles; p.m. 6 miles. Evening workout was 2 miles easy, including run to start of group workout.... then the following repeats interspersed with 1/4 mile jog recoveries: 1/4 mile 2:10; 1/2 mile 4:29; 3/4 mile 6:42; 1/2 mile 4:24; 1/4 mile 2:06; then a mile cool-down.
Wed. 4.5 miles w/ 6 x 100 strides
Thurs. 8 miles w/ 2 miles at 18:17, a mile easy, then a mile with 400 hard (2:02), 100 easy, 300 hard (1:26), 200 easy, 200 hard (56), 300 easy, 100 hard (26). 2 miles each before and after this workout
Friday easy 2.5
Sat. easy 3

I was, let's say, VERY glad I had front loaded enough miles to give myself the two easy days, because tomorrow I want to run 15. Next week and the week after, I plan to take the mileage down a bit, then go back to 50, the first week in Sept. (starting with a 17-miler Labor Day weekend). After that again, I want to taper two weeks leading to the Philly Distance Run.


It seems there are two runners in me. There's one who sometimes forgets the numbers and concentrates on what happens IN me during runs. And there is a competitor, who is constantly adding up the numbers, calculating the distance, setting specific speed and mileage goals.

You might expect me to like the first runner better, but in reality I embrace them both. The second runner pushes the first one out the door on those days when she is reluctant for whatever reason (lack of confidence or energy or whatever). The second runner asks me to expand my limits and my sense of what I can do. The first--when awakened--lends her imagination to the enterprise, celebrates it in stories or poetry. Let the second runner dominate, and the poetry is lost, but if the second runner isn't present, it's too easy to get lost in daydreams. Thoreau said, I believe, "If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost. Now put foundations under them"--thus recognizing the need for both the castles and the foundations.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Stray thoughts on the run

Lately, I have been increasing my mileage--ostensibly this is to train for the Philadelphia Distance Run, then based on that to see whether to aim for a marathon this year or hold off another year (which would put me in the 18-month window to try for a Boston qualifier in the 60-64 age group). However, today I discovered another benefit.

I set out, wondering what I was thinking to do a double on Tuesdays. I run an interval workout Tuesday with the group, but in May/June, I started adding a morning run, the result of reading the "Summer of Malmo," more a manifesto than a running "program" which urges runners to build mileage. Of course, the people it's addressed to, I suspect, are young and fast. So I have made some adjustments based on not being young and fast... I assume many who follow Malmo's advice are aiming at mileage somewhere in the low hundreds. However, since my mileage was around 25 a week, I decided to scale the idea down and aim for about fifty a week by the end of August. Malmo urges people to do doubles. I started very modestly with a couple miles on Tuesday mornings--often people do these doubles on their hard workout days, and so Tuesday seemed about right.

However, those two miles became three, then four, then five--and now six. And I ask myself what am I trying to prove and to whom am I trying to prove it? Am I setting myself up for an injury? Is this just hubris? Also, I began to notice how obsessed I was getting with making sure I had enough miles to show on my (so far non-existent) log. I wondered if adding miles for the sake of adding miles had turned running into a job, not a joy.

And so today, before I set out on my run, I took a bookmark with a Prefontaine quote: "Why do I keep running? It always comes down to self-satisfaction and a sense of achievement."

I said a prayer to Pre's spirit--I want that today on my run. I want that self-satisfaction. But most of all, I want to enjoy the run, just for itself, not for the miles I can add to my collection. Just for itself.

And so I set out with that in mind... run through the park, reach the track, run three miles (actually turned out to be 3.25... added a lap, just in case... of what? also just b/c I felt like it). This run was very leisurely. Some could walk faster.

But in the park, the cicadas and woodpeckers and jays and cardinals formed a symphony... and when I reached the track, I noted with delight that the sprinkler was on, watering the infield... and me, as it would turn out.

In addition to the sprinkler, the hose had a couple of pinholes that squirted water and if I veered to the outside of the track when I stepped over the hose, I'd get a sprinkle from the pinholes.

This was going to be fun! I had no concern at all about the time... stayed in outer lanes and used my watch only to help me remember how many laps I'd covered, not that it was a big deal, just for information.

The best laps were the ones during which I was sprayed by both the water from the pinholes and the water from the sprinkler. It was pleasant enough--not cool exactly, but not unbearably hot either--so that I was running pretty comfortably, unhurried, only to accommodate the speed workout later, not because I didn't feel up to going faster.

The sprinkler wetting my hair and clothes brought me back to those carefree childhood summers running through the sprinkler in a swimsuit.

Butterflies occasionally joined me... and the shadow of a hawk glided at my feet when I glanced down at one point.

I left not ecstatic about reaching any specific time goal--just content with the warm comfort of the sun, the clear sky... waved to another runner about to start his workout, greeted a pair of women about to take their walk around the track...

The trip through the park--took a detour around part of the high school cross-country course simply because it seemed fun--chose not to run across the stream in my shoes as the kids do in races... only because I wanted to save the shoes for tonight... But it was tempting! A sense of calm and peace filled me as I left the park. A rabbit skittered into nearby bushes just before I reached the lawn and right of way that leads back to the street.

This morning's run helped me remember that beneath the collection of miles and the goal setting and the races and the hope that I can prove something--to whom? me? others?--there is the simple contentment running offers... the closeness to nature, the greetings exchanged with others, the chance not just to look out the window at the seasons passing by but to wear them on my skin--the heat, the breezes, the cold, the snow, the rain--to move through it all, among the animals, on the run.

Later, I will join my group for the speed workout... and a second helping! One good run deserves another!