Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Lighting the way

Hill workout, Bryn Mawr

I had taken my usual head start--to keep my warm-up pace easy, not worry about trying to keep pace with faster runners.

Most nights, when I leave the relative well-lit security of Lancaster Avenue for the shadowed streets off Pennswood Road, there's always a residue of fear. Even the squirrels aren't visible in the dark. Occasionally a dog's bark will echo from a fenced-in yard. I keep my headlamp on, wear the requisite reflective clothes, yet wonder if that's enough to prevent collisions with oncoming cars. Occasionally another runner passes by and we greet each other, speed at that point less important than the discovery that we aren't alone.

But last night was different. There at the bottom of Avonwood Road, the starting point of the workout, I saw the doe--her ears pointed, large eyes meeting mine, both of us surprised . To reassure her, I turned off my headlamp, and for a long moment, we studied each other, until she bounded off into the underbrush.

Soon afterward, a couple of the fastest runners appeared, followed by the larger group, and once Bob announced the workout, it was down (or up!) to business. Yet thinking of how quickly the deer took off, I wondered if she'd leapt into my spirit. "Run like a deer," I told myself. I won't say the heel didn't hurt, won't say the knee didn't protest. But I carried the vision of the deer up and down the hill, her eyes on mine with panic and curiosity.

Then, as I begin the second part of set number four (run hard for one minute), Jason--cutting his workout to four sets... he had a meet coming up Thursday--coached me through the one-minute run, then through the first part of set five (all the way up the hill, medium effort). Both of these repeats were my fastest of the evening (thank you, Jason!).

I was wearing the same body that had carried me up the hill earlier. And certainly, it was my own body making the effort, yet what a difference when someone is at my side encouraging me. While I was moving faster and feeling the effort, I wasn't overwhelmed with it, because the presence of a friend somehow lifted me, quieted the "noise" and gave me air.

This is what a friend can do. And we all need this sometimes, the friend who gives us air, quiets the noise with encouraging words and presence.

The backdrop of this workout remained--a challenge I'd chosen, a challenge I choose every Tuesday and hope to continue. I come to these workouts knowing they will push my limits, knowing I'll be running with much faster people--and sometimes wondering if I should be there, if I'm too much outclassed, if, in the dark, I'll catch my foot and fall.

But I keep coming, not with the grand ambition of winning races (although I do hope to be competitive in my age group), but because my body and soul need the time, and if I continue to show up, what I will learn isn't only about running faster, good as it is to do that.

What I will learn is what's in me--and what I will also learn is to be open to what surrounds me, look in the eyes of a doe and feel her energy and curiosity, feel part of this parade of runners plying their way up and down Avonwood, and learn what encouraging words can do to lighten our feet--and lighten the dark.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

All of the above

I’m a ____ runner. (Fill in blank with one or more of the selections below.)

(a) fast
(b) slow

(c) in between
(d) competitive
(e) recreational

(f) all of the above

(g) none of the above

To be honest, whatever you chose, you’re right. Or you’re wrong. Or both.

And this is (or is not) a problem for me… and/or for you.

I am a misfit.

I run speed workouts with a group whose fastest members are winning races or in the hunt. I’m well behind even those at the back of this group. I am this group’s Slowpoke in Residence.

And I’ve been known on occasion to trot along happily at the back of a pack in a race, happy to collect my t-shirt and first place in age group of one award.

But I also have been known to run a 6-7 mile speed workout one day and ten miles the next in training for a ten-mile race.

And I have passed by silently as one of my competitors stopped to drink from a fountain I knew wasn’t working.

I have chased down 10-year-olds mercilessly.

And I have put every ounce of my ten minute mile energy (okay it was a hot day, though) into placing in my age group in a 5k.

But I’ve worked relentlessly to bring my 5k time down from 30 to 27something minutes. I’ve taken special pride in beating my 2008 half marathon time. In that 2008 half marathon, I left a $5 bill lying on the ground when it was a choice between taking the money and aiming for a time.

I showed up in a thunderstorm to run a speed workout with Bryn Mawr.

And I’ve jogged along at 12:30ish pace in a prediction run, with no shame whatsoever.

Recently, in the post-workout breeze-shooting session, the guys were talking about a half marathon in which 1:35 got you into the first corral--and what a slow time 1:35 was for a half, not worthy of corral 1--but also noting that it was in the very top percentile of times because so many were just in the race to participate, not race.

This got me to thinking about my 2:06:39 half. For the runners near the front, my time would be an easy jog, maybe with a lot of walking thrown in. For me, it was a push just about all the way. I doubt I left anything on the course, especially during the last few miles when I pushed as hard as I could and heard in my mind, “Show them how tough you are!” And yes, I was proud of my time. After hearing the conversation about how slow 1:35 was, I began to have my doubts. I began to wonder if my time should embarrass me rather than make me proud.

True, it placed me pretty high in my age group. I was 4th out of 62. This isn’t just a default place. True, I finished ahead of a lot of younger people, both men and women. And true, for many, simply being able to run a half-marathon is a gift that I am fortunate to have.

Even so, the aspiring, competitive side of me began to worry. Began to doubt. Began to wonder if I should run with a club whose fastest members regarded a time I couldn’t even daydream about as a slow time.

But wait! Both sides are right! Put in a faster runner’s perspective, my race performances are going to look undistinguished. And that’s something I have to live with if I want to run with clubs like Bryn Mawr. I have to recognize that, yes, there is a gap between my best efforts and theirs. And yes, it’s humbling. Yet it also challenges me to reach deeper, to give my best to any workout, to set goals that feel like a reach. Sometimes I’ll reach them, sometimes not, and it will sometimes feel discouraging.

Yet when I do reach my goals, which at the moment are necessarily much more humble than those of my faster friends, I do it because I know the group mindset is performance oriented, and whatever my results, if I left nothing on the course, gave it the best I had, notched up my game as far as I could, I could feel good about my results. This group challenges me to aim high. It may not be comfortable to hear the discussion of 1:35 as a slow half marathon. But I didn’t join this group to stay comfortable.

I love pats on the back—don’t get me wrong! Sometimes, in fact, I feel ravenously hungry for them. I want recognition, want it from people who really might have every reason not to give it to me. (Sincere compliments from them are pure gold.) I love, truly love, sharing successes, showing off awards! I won’t lie.

My ego LOVES a nice gentle massage as much as my body does. But just as sometimes my body needs that deep, hurtin’ massage to break down scar tissue and restore free movement—not that nice soothing massage with relaxing ocean sounds in the background—so my psyche also needs the “friction massage” of conversations about the slowness of 1:35 half marathons. I don’t think I could handle the “friction massage,” however, without the gentle type. Either for my body or my psyche. They’re both needed. And I am not one kind of runner. I embrace a bunch of realities.

So…. I am a fast, slow, in-between, competitive, recreational, young, and old runner. I am a misfit. I think that just might be a good thing (hence, the teal font, a mix of colors).

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Hills in the dark, speed in daylight

Tuesday evening found me heading for the Bryn Mawr hills in frigid cold weather. I knew I needed to get back to some real workouts after my New Year's Day race in Swarthmore. The time on my watch was 29:12, which will probably show up slower when they publish official results. Not my strongest effort, but even so I was second in my age group, which was lovely enough for me that day--just a nice workout on a sunny, warmish day for January--way better than the ice field that covered the track last year.

Still, it was clearly time to get back to the shape I was in when I ran 27:34 n the Reindeer Romp! The holiday eating was delicious and I loved all the wonderful rich food--and even more, the wonderful, richly happy family gatherings! Much valued rest time after an intense year of reaching goals!

Now, new year, new goals!

So, this week, maybe because of the rest, the workouts proved all the more satisfying.

  • Bryn Mawr hill workout: Bob's assignment--9 repeats of the entire hill (which I later learned from Jason was ~450 meters... given my times, I was hoping it was closer to 600, but Jason reassured me by reminding me that gravity played a part in the effort. A large part in my case. I ended up with seven repeats, only because after the seventh, I saw the group looking poised to return to the store, and I didn't want to be in an isolated place by myself for the remaining two. The good news was that the sixth one, the last one I timed, was the fastest and I felt as if I could do more if I didn't the isolation. Spiritual take-away: en route there, despite having looked forward to coming back to the hill workouts, all the doubts crept in. The inner "whiny kid" started up: "This is crazy! It's cold! It's dark! I want to go home! Whimper, whimper!" "Oh pipe down!" my ambitious self said. "Time to get mentally tough!" And the more encouraging, gentler side chimed in, "Remember, there's beer afterward!" So I stayed in the moment, dropped off my bag in the store, and headed out. I always start before the others. It takes me longer to get there, and I'd rather not get to the workout by the time everyone's leaving. (Okay, I'm not THAT slow, but when I warm up, I am considerably slower than the rest of the group.) The whimpering started up again from the store to the hill. "It's dark! I'll trip! I'll get hit by a car! Blah, blah blah, etc. etc." But again, the stronger side of me jumped in. "You KNOW you're not going to give up now!" When Bob announced the workout and I learned that it was by distance (the length of the hill) rather than by time, the frightened little kid again started up. "Everyone's going to be faster! I can't do this! I'll trip! I can't see! I'll look like an idiot!" But again, the stronger me came to the rescue. "JUST DO IT! Who cares if the others do twice as many repeats! You're here for your workout, not theirs! Do your best!" After a while, I settled into a rhythm, didn't trip on any cracks, and managed to get faster almost every time (not, you should know, anything like "elite fast"--or even "fast for me" fast, but faster than I was at the start. This was at least somewhat encouraging! After the sixth one, I'd planned to stop, but I had left one of the layers I'd shed at the bottom of the hill, so I needed to go back for it. Even then, I thought if the shirt another runner had left was still there, I'd try for all nine, but it was gone. Still, I had time for one more hill. It wasn't nine but I realized that even my fear wasn't a bad thing. Life will give us times when we have to make our way in the dark, not sure where we are, stepping carefully, feeling cold, wanting to go home--and to have practice handling this feeling is a good thing.
  • Lansdowne Y, 1500 yard swim, Wednesday. This was done at a relatively comfortable pace, but I noted with satisfaction that I eventually easily passed a man who at first tried to stay ahead of me. I noticed I was able to hold my form for a longer time. And afterward, I felt surprisingly light.
  • Uppper Darby High School track, Thursday: Probably my most comfortable of the three workouts. 3 x 400/100 easy, 300/200 easy, 200/300 easy, 100/400 easy (800 easy after last set). Times surprised me: Set 1 2:09.54 (expected to see 2:20); 1:35.15, 1:02 (but was maybe a couple seconds faster--couldn't stop watch right away); 24.00; Set 2 1:59.96, 85.95, 55.3, 24.3; Set 3 2:00.21, 86.69, 56.09, 23.23. I was considering a fourth set, but realized it was wiser to hold off, get my body used to this kind of workout. The 100s surprised me the most. In the first set, I expected to see a 27 or 28. In fact, just about all the times were faster than expected. I'd gone to the track to look for my speed which I thought possibly still on holiday break (given my times in the 5k and in the hill workout), so I figured it might be lurking somewhere on the track. And there it was, waiting for me! Coming back with it, I noticed I was running more relaxed, more freely. My speed and I back together!

A good week of workouts so far!