Thursday, October 16, 2008

I finished third!*

BUT, honesty compels me to mention that I was the third of three females in the Catholic League Open Cross Country 5k race, held on Belmont Plateau, 10/15/08, a race very ably directed by Dave Thomas, who this year provided--so appropriately for an autumn event that follows directly on the heels of school races--a box full of shiny crisp apples as well as plentiful water.

Normally, this event is held on weekends, but this year, it was changed to a Wednesday, and thus turn-out was lighter than normal. Yet, the size of the crowd didn't diminish the size of our enthusiasm.

The weather cooperated relatively well, certainly better than last year's mud and rain soaked day. Although the high school students were racing in the warmer parts of the day, by 5 p.m. when the open race began, the weather had become if not autumn-crisp, a tad cooler, and I could even feel a light breeze at the top of Flagpole Hill.

My goals for this race were modest, since it came the day after the Tues. night workout:

--to support the while getting in my Wednesday run,

--enjoy the experience, and

--perhaps beat my best time in this race, which, let me tell you, is a very soft record--I think about 30:50ish.

My time was 31:25, so that last goal didn't happen, but no worries. The other two goals would still be covered. And even if the time wasn't my fastest, it wasn't my slowest either.

The race itself:
What I don't understand about myself is how I manage to forget how "sneaky steep" Flagpole Hill is.

This time my memory was slightly better. For those unfamiliar with the race course, runners experience Flagpole Hill almost immediately after starting. Standing on the starting line, the runner can see a tree-lined trail that leads up what looks from the start like a gentle rise.... but sucks the air out of the lungs in short order. Starting conservatively, I quickly found myself at the end of the pack, but close behind a man wearing a knee brace. And despite my humble position in the race, my competitive side still kicked in. Although I chose not to worry about passing my rival for second-last place right away, I found myself assessing how far he'd get before the knee banded by the brace would start to feel the effects of this roller-coaster course. Not to say I felt no sympathy. I've had my battles with knee problems, so I admired his bravery in taking on the race. But I still wanted to beat him. ;)

Flagpole mercifully finished, I had the joy of running along a grassy almost level stretch that eventually leads downhill, through a parking lot, past playing fields--at which point I passed my rival, then passed the finish line, and headed into the woods toward the infamous Parachute Hill.

First mile time was 9:39. I'd pretty much caught my breath after that uphill start, and didn't feel overly taxed. But I knew what was ahead: Parachute tends to chew up race times and spit them out misshapen and bearing teeth marks.

This hill, though, at least states its intentions clearly. You have to crane your neck to appreciate its height. Having experienced Belmont Plateau in the past, I chose to forgo the neck craning and take the hill piece by piece. It does not, despite rumors to the contrary among runners laboring upward, rise forever. It only seems to. The runner thinks, "I must be almost at the top." But still more uphill that even a craned neck can miss.

Parachute, however, offers a fun downhill ride if you can keep your feet. Rocks lie in wait and the runner hopes none have her name on them, as one did on Sunday in the first mile or so of my long run--I finished that run, by the way, but I didn't make it look pretty. Fall racing is a lovely thing--racing falls, not so lovely. So I took the downhill cautiously and stayed on my feet. (Oh yes, another race goal with Sunday in mind: to complete the course while remaining upright.) :)

Back through the woods to Flagpole for the second time. For some reason, this time it didn't take my breath away as it had earlier. I'd already survived it once, knew it was the last serious uphill, and so was psyched. And still ahead of my rival.

But well behind the rest of the runners. Off in the distance, as I romped over that grassy stretch for the second time, came a booming voice announcing the results of the high school competition. Attention was focused there, as I made my solitary way around the course. Did I mind this? Not a bit! I had the course almost to myself, and the sky was turning a deeper blue as day slid into evening. Off on the horizon, the cityscape... framed by fields and woods, reminding me that city and country embraced each other. Away from the stresses of the city, I would return to them recharged, energized. Exactly what running should be!

Who was behind me? Who ahead of me? It didn't matter right then. I was where I needed to be. I was doing what I wanted to do.

Soon--too soon (in spite of my near-back-of-pack finish)--it would be over. As I made the final turn to the finish, woman number two (doing her cooldown) came to cheer me on. Some scattered cheers erupted as I finished.

A little later, my rival for second-last place came in, so just as my female competitor came out to encourage me, I trotted out to offer support to him.

And then there followed some relaxed chatting, awards, and modeling the new Greater Philadelphia Track Club (formerly the PAC Track Club) warm-up suit I'd bought. First time I've had warm-ups that match. Perhaps that means I will run faster--one continuous flow of royal blue... one continuous line of energy, no competing colors (unless I decide to wear, say, a purple and lime green t-shirt under it). :)

On the starting line, I learned that with only three women in the race, I had a lock on third place female! All good!

The men had more competition, but my GPTC team-mates all delivered strong performances with Kevin Forde--like me only WAAAAY faster and with a bunch more finishing after him--taking third overall.

As it's part of the USATF off-road series, I was glad I could be there: no other female member of GPTC had come, so they would not have had a full team without me. Although I couldn't offer speed, at least I could offer presence.

Local running standout Gary Fanelli (U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, 1908 and 1984 as well as winning and placing in both open and masters' divisions of area races) showed up resplendent in Hawaiian shirt to watch the racing, although he declined to join the open race. "I already ran ten miles," he told us.

But he happily cheered on the runners and traded racing stories with us.

It was one of those lovely, magic mid-week respites from the rush and bustle of work. Wall Street and its problems faded away and the talk was of the strong LaSalle JV and the O'Hara girls, and the open competitors whose numbers included both public school and recent alumni lightning bolts--and a 9-year-old boy running with his dad--and a silver-haired man... and paces ranging from 5something to 11something per mile. And all of us celebrating running and the passion we bring to it.

Monday, October 13, 2008

"Why on earth would you want to run a marathon?"

This was the understandably exasperated question that Mike asked last year at our running group's post-Philly Marathon party. While I was taken aback by it, I have to admit it's a question I ask myself, even after signing up for this year's Philadelphia Marathon.

What reasonable person--especially as she gets older--puts herself through the ordeal of 20-mile training runs, twice a day runs, and interval workouts?

Another good question, but the key word here is "reasonable." I never claimed to be reasonable, and I'm not about to adopt this quality at this point in my life. Reasonable people don't view a 5.25 mile swim as a fun thing to do on a Friday morning. Reasonable people don't decide to embark on a 24-hour team relay on the hottest day of the year.

Not that there isn't a place for reasonableness: I'd love to see more of it in the Presidential election campaign for instance. There's too much hatred going on there. But that's for another blog entry.

Today, the focus is on this crazy 20-mile training run I did yesterday. Or was it crazy?

Let's just say the start of it was somewhat unpromising.

I came to this run full of self-doubt. What was I thinking to have signed up for a marathon? To have set for myself the need for these elongated training runs. Five miles is a "health run." 20 miles? A 5k race is a nice lark. A 26.2 mile race--and I say this having done seven of them already, with a personal best of 3:54:47 in 1995--is really, despite its growing popularity... crazy for someone with my injury history and the pain I experienced in past marathons... and on long runs generally. So I wasn't feeling too optimistic that this 20-miler was going to be anything but painful.

And it was.

But not for the reasons I thought it would be. Thanks to a Chirunning workshop given by Craig Strimel, a friend I met through the "Back on My Feet" program, there is far less muscle soreness than I expected. There's some because one doesn't learn all of this at once. But less than I thought there would be.

But the the most significant pain? Put simply, I was mugged before I'd gone a mile and a half... by a rogue rock protruding in the dirt path alongside Kelly Drive.

The rock caught my foot and tripped me, causing ugly scrapes, but fortunately no broken bones, no muscle tears, no damage to the moving parts.

But much damage to my sense of well-being. Almost enough to make me bag the run, see the fall as some sort of confirmation that I was nuts to undertake it. Had it not been for the assistance of a woman nearby who'd also experienced a mugging by the same rock and was therefore empathetic to my plight--and a man who stepped out of the MS Walk that was taking place on the paved path, who offered both "mugging victims" some water to pour on our cuts--I would have succumbed to the urge to make a u-turn, have done with this run, abandon my marathon plans. The woman and I both decided we were still (despite our wounds) ambulatory enough to run, and went on our respective ways.

However, my mood had soured. This fall had ruined my enjoyment of the sunny, comfortable weather, and I was cursing myself and God and the rock and all the forces that came together to throw me to the ground. Yes I was grateful I wasn't hurt worse. But I can't say I was too grateful. How was I going to go 20 miles in this condition? Somehow. That's all.

I resolved simply to get through it, expecting no more than that. I'd come to run 20 and I was determined to go home having done so.

More than ever, I needed not to worry about pace, just focus on what I'd learned in the Chirunning workshop Saturday: "engage the core"; "relax your shoulders"; "relax your ankles"; "lean forward," etc. Also drank water every ten minutes... took three gels, a Coffee Nip, and even a granola bar. Probably some would recommend not quite as much intake as that, but it worked for me. (We're talking survival!)

Occasionally, I'd pause to stretch, using the stretches we were shown in the workshop.

Other refreshing pauses that began to restore my mental balance:

--Several minutes after I fell, I saw a friend and fellow age group competitor from other races: she too was out for a 20-miler, having also entered the Philly Marathon. It would be her first marathon. I warned her about the rock (no sense having another person get "mugged" by it), and we wished each other well. Something about another 50something woman out with the same intention--to train for a marathon--buoyed me up. I wasn't alone in this craziness. Even though we were heading opposite directions, I felt companionship, knowing we were both facing the same "what, are you nuts" voices in our heads and rising to our own challenges.

--Further along in my route (which I'd decided for the sake of exactness to include a run out and back to the six mile mark and another out and back to four miles, totaling 20 altogether), I was told by a woman on a bike that a hawk had landed on a tree branch just above me. When she noticed I was having a hard time seeing it, she u-turned and pointed it out to me. I thanked her and stopped for a few minutes simply to look. There it was, so blended in with the tree, one wouldn't have seen it if it hadn't moved slightly from time to time: this bird could give a lesson on successful camouflage. It seemed content simply to perch there on the branch, not paying me too much attention, just taking its ease. I thought of hawks--their ability to fly far and fast, to soar, to see for miles and home in on their prey. Very strong birds. I silently thanked the hawk for coming to this spot at this time, just when I needed to reach deeper inside myself, find some healing from the mental and physical hurt that I'd experienced. Once I had rested with this bird, I felt ready to continue.

What can a hawk teach me not only about camouflage but about enduring? That they knew how to make their bodies aerodynamic, to catch the wind and fly with it, to fly high but know when to rest. I think this bird shared its energy with me.

After that encounter, although I still had some tired, out of sorts moments, I found that I could focus, keep going, know that this run was possible. The cuts had dried and scabbed. I was still in motion. It would be slow, this run, but it would happen. And finally, it did.

And while the fall won't live in my memory as a high point in my run, it reminds me that there's a strength in me that can out-rock the rocks that trip me. That friends and hawks and other cool surprises await a person who dares to be unreasonable sometimes.

Later, on the "Pflash" bus (a tour bus that takes passengers to various Philadelphia landmarks for $2 a ride and that stops at the Art Museum... this bus has carried my tired body into Center City after many a long run), I met three women in their 60s, 70s, 80s--not sure, really--who were visiting Philadelphia on an Elder Hostel trip. They told me they'd taken many such trips and enjoyed them. I thought of Mom and her many Elder Hostel trips--and how much she enjoyed them--and shared this with the ladies. They were excited, animated, carrying maps and guidebooks, telling me how friendly people were. They were out in search of their own adventures--interested in life, as Mom IS. I think of Mom always in present tense. Maybe they too had experienced their share of rocks that tripped them, but they were still exploring their world.

"Why on earth would you want to ...[fill in blank: run a marathon, visit new cities, swim across a bay]?"

Why not?