Wednesday, July 24, 2013

20 Miles with a Stranger: Loonies Midnight Marathon Race Report

Last Friday night/Saturday morning, I ran the Loonies Midnight Marathon. The race was in a tiny little town called Livingston, TN about two and a half hours away.  Coach Justin had me run it as a training run only, not a race.  I had already run 40 minutes on Monday, strength trained/run 2 miles on Tuesday, done an extremely difficult speed workout of 7 miles on Wednesday, then run 5 miles on Thursday.   I had already had a FULL week of running by the time Friday rolled around.  This is not the way I usually taper for a race!  I guess, technically, I did have a rest day on Friday, but my legs were anything but "fresh."

I went down to Cookeville, TN, late on Friday afternoon, checked into a hotel, and met some Run It Fast Club people for dinner.  It was a really nice group, and I met four or five new people.  (I'm in the green shorts near center.)

 Then I went back to my room to relax for a little while and dress in VERY bright, reflective attire.  At 10:00 p.m., I headed to the race start, about 25 minutes away.  It felt strange to leave for a race at 10 at night!

The race got a bit of a late start.  Around 12:05 a.m., we sang the National Anthem.  We had a pre-race prayer.  Then we listened to a bagpipe rendition of "Amazing Grace" in honor of those lost and injured at the Boston Marathon.  Then we sang "Sweet Caroline," a Boston tradition.  That was pretty fun.  Finally, near 12:15 a.m., we started.

The race began with the firing of several muskets.  We started with a 1.2 mile loop that brought us right back to the start.  I ran alone for most of the 1.2 mile loop--kind of behind a big group of people and ahead of a big group of people.  I kept finding myself at a 10:10-20 pace, which I knew was a little fast.  I tried to slow it down a bit.    Near the end of it, my friend Clark from RIF and his dad caught up to and then passed me.  We chatted briefly.  Then it was time to start the first of my five 5-mile loops.  

That first loop was LONELY.  I found myself running solo again.  It was all a little surreal:  here I was in the middle of the night running through this sleepy little town I'd never seen before, past dark houses, down quiet back streets, up hills and down hills in silence, in darkness, in humidity so thick, it hung as a dense fog all around.   I was following reflective spray paint or volunteers' instructions to make the many, many turns as there wasn't anyone in view in front of me.   Once I heard a man huffing and puffing and coming up to me from behind, and it was almost eerie.  He passed me and then led us the wrong way briefly at a confusing intersection, but a policeman talking on his cell phone happened to notice and correct us.   Other than the runners and volunteers, the city felt a bit deserted.  There was a guy picking a banjo at one intersection.  There was one local sitting on his front steps spraying a hose into the air for us to run through.  There was another local just sitting in a lawn chair.  When I thanked him for being out, he just giggled.  I think his cigarette might have been of the herbal variety. 

After completing my first loop at a 10:40 pace, I noticed a young man walking for a second just ahead.  He started running right before I pulled up alongside him, never even noticing me.   I hung back just behind his right shoulder--DRAFTING!  It was so nice to not be alone anymore, to not have to think, "Am I going the right way?  Where is everybody??"  I just followed his lead.  Sometimes on an uphill, I'd pull up beside or even ahead of him, but then on the downhill, he'd pass me back up, but just a little.  It felt like we were racing!    Finally, after about 2 miles of this, I initiated conversation.  "I've never drafted anyone before.  I hope you don't mind!"   Then for the next 18 miles, we talked.  And talked.  And supported one another.  And encouraged one another.  And shared suffering. 

I'm terrible at guessing age, and I was surprised to learn Tim was only 27 years old.  A quick calculation told me I was old enough to be his mother, technically.  (I'm 42.)  He'd been running marathons since the age of 18, which is pretty amazing.   What would a 42-year old and a 27-year old talk about for four hours?  Tons!   We talked about races, running, family, teaching, coaching, his girlfriend, and more.   He is an 8th grade math teacher in Houston.  I was an 8th grade English teacher when I was his age.  He's a running coach.  I'm a running coach.   We just found plenty of common ground.  The miles passed wonderfully.  Once, he had to stop to go to the bathroom, and so did I.  He finished before me and WAITED for me.   I kept telling him to run on if he needed to, but he didn't want to.   So, we stuck it out.  For a total of 20 miles.   It saved my race!

We had run loop 2 a little fast, and that as well as my miles earlier in the week started to catch up to me in loop 4--around mile 18 or 19.  Tim was feeling tired, too, having run a marathon the weekend before and hiked 30+ miles in the Smoky Mountains all week.  He estimated at that point we could run 12- minute miles and still finish under 5 hours.  We were relieved as we were getting tired.  Then we clocked a 12:15 mile.  Oops!  Too relaxed!!  We had started walking the three biggest hills and through the water stops.  Maybe we dawdled a little too long at one of them.  After that, we were all about finishing under 5 hours.  We were determined afresh.  Focused.  It was time to start to dig.

By the time we started loop 5, the final loop, my legs were very tired and I was losing the mental game.  I half hoped he'd go on ahead, so I could walk a lot more often.  But he didn't, so I didn't.   He would only let us walk certain hills, and then only after we reached a point about 1/3 up.   I had to turn on my music at around mile 21, and that helped energize me a bit.  I felt like he was carrying me along, but it was actually pretty mutual.  His Achilles started bothering him badly around mile 23, and I was feeling ok.  It was my turn to be the pacer, then encourager.   We brought it home to the finish.  I ran hard at the finish line, thinking he was with me, but actually finished before him by several seconds.  I was sure he'd finish beside me, but he just didn't want to sprint with that Achilles.   I gave him a really sweaty hug at the finish and told him I could not have run a 4:57:04 alone.   I know without my buddy, I would not have broken 5 hours on those tired legs.   I would have walked much, much more.  But I had it in me all the time.

Sometimes the mental game is the hardest game of all.

I saw young Tim just once after the finish. He was getting in his car to drive back to Houston.  I wished him well.  I'm sure I'll never see my friend again, but I hope he knows how much he helped me.  Throughout the race, the running community supported one another.  I tried to say something encouraging each time I saw a runner I knew (I knew about 15 on the course), and many of them encouraged me.   That is the beauty of running.

Twenty miles with a stranger?  Not strange at all. 

Marathon/ultramarathon #10 in the bag. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

When Opportunity Knocks

Several months ago, I was perusing Runner's World magazine and came across a tidbit about a marathoner named Justin Gillette, who had won a whole bunch of marathons.   I randomly sent him a Facebook friend request, and to my surprise, he accepted it.  We actually chatted about running that very day.  I thought, "Wow, that's weird.  I just had a conversation with an elite marathoner.  That just doesn't happen."  He's actually ranked 5th in the world in marathon wins, having won 64 races. 

After seeing his Facebook posts a few times, I realized he was not just an elite marathoner, but a running coach as well.  I'm also a certified running coach, and I've been living by the mantra, "Coach Thyself" for quite a while.  Why would I PAY someone to coach me when I know all the ingredients that should go into a training plan?  I have the books Run Less, Run Faster, Hal Higdon's Guide to Running a Marathon, and a few others.  Plus, I can get online training plans for free on the Runner's World website or just from the magazine.  So, for a while, I just wrote my own plans or loosely followed plans from books or websites.  I made progress.  I PR'd at every distance in one calendar year except the marathon.  The next year, I trained aggressively for the 2012 Kentucky Derby Marathon in hopes of beating 4:45, and ran 4:36, a significant PR. 

But since then, progress has stalled.  I decided to focus on running FAR for a while instead of fast.  I ran miles and miles of trails and two very slow trail marathons.  I ran two ultras.  I ran a marathon just for fun and got injured (unfortunately).  The injury further derailed progress.  After eight weeks off, it was as if I was starting from scratch. 

So, enter that particular issue of Runner's World, and one random friend request.   I was coming off that injury at the time, but one day I messaged Justin about coaching me.  I wanted to know if he coached "regular people" like a slow-running, forty-something mom of three who had only been running for 5.5 years.  Turns out, he did!   He also coaches some pretty elite athletes, as well.

I waited until I was fully healed from my injury and requested the start day of July 1.  I did a few races for fun because I knew my running was about to get serious.  I took on two personal training clients to help defray some of the cost of paying a coach monthly.  And I simultaneously dreaded/looked forward to the starting day.  

Last week was my first week.  What I found was that training with a coach might be the missing puzzle piece in my running.   The workouts challenge me much more that I challenge me.  The long runs have quality miles sandwiched in the middle-- what??   I get daily feedback on my training log, giving me the benefit I think I enjoy most-- accountability.   My plan might say, "I want you to run 2 miles at a 9:55 pace, then two at a 9:09 pace or better."    After the workout, I have to report back that I either did it, didn't do it, or couldn't do it.   There is an element of not only disappointing myself by not digging deep, but also of disappointing my coach.   I'm one of those people-pleasers, so I, of course, hate disappointing others.  (I dissappoint myself, however, regularly!  Ha!)

I can dig deep to finish a trail marathon in blazing June heat when my legs are just done and my knees and feet hurt.  I can dig deep to finish 38.5 miles in an ultra when I just want to SIT DOWN and get off my blisters... I mean, feet.  Persistence and determination and relentless forward progress-- I have in abundance.  But dig deep and hit an 8:00 minute pace?  Hard for me.  I struggle to find that gear.  Sub-8?  Something had better be chasing me.

I was actually embarrased to report back some of my paces last week on the "easy runs."  I know they look so slow.   But my legs came back to life mid-week, and  I rocked the Saturday hard long run.  I was really proud of myself.  I ran HARD.   I love it when I feel that way as a runner.   Too often lately, I've tasted disappointment on the roads and trails.   This is a  nice change.  I know I won't hit my goal paces in every workout, but I think I will at least enjoy HAVING A GOAL. 

When opportunity knocks and you have the chance to work with an elite marathoner, an experienced coach, and an all-around nice guy, you have to open the door.  :-)

Monday, July 1, 2013

Finding Joy in the Suffering: A Review of The Summit Seeker

Do you have an ultramarathon inside you?   As runners, we conquer distance after distance--5K's, 10K's, move on to half marathons, then marathons.  We chase PRs and hope our next, flatter road marathon is faster than our last.  However, there is a path less traveled, a whole WORLD outside of road running. 

If you are an endurance runner of any distance, I highly recommend you read The Summit Seeker by Vanessa Runs.  You WILL be inspired.

Reading the Introduction, I immediately knew I'd found a kindred soul.  Vanessa writes, "I'm someone who's life changed through ultra trail running.  These are the stories of how running restored me, how it shifted my perspective, and how it healed my wounds."  She hopes to inspire runners to "run more trails, or try an ultra.  Or to just let the quiet beauty of getting lost on the side of a mountain supersede the urgency of PRs and race stats." 

In the first part of the book, Vanessa shares her life with us in a raw, open way--her difficult childhood, failed relationships.   Personal turmoil leads to running, in which she finds her true self.  She quotes Haruki Murakami saying, "A person doesn't become a runner because someone recommends it.  People basically become runners because they're meant to."   I think that statement resonates with all runners. 

The stories chronicle Vanessa's immersion into the world of running from 5K's to ultramarathons.  I particularly enjoyed these insights:

The fitness and running world encourage us to improve our weaknesses.  There is some wisdom to this, but we should be putting the same amount of effort, or more, into developing our strengths.  I learned early on in my running career that I was not fast.  But I seemed to have a good endurance base.  So instead of developing speed, I ran longer. 

The ultra distance is an amazing thing.  I told my sister:  "No matter what has happened in your life before, or what will happen in your future, nobody can ever take that ultra away from you.  When you're an ultrarunner, you're a runner forever." 

And probably my favorite:

As a friend once told me, we need people to run 100 miles just as we need people who can sing above an orchestra, or who can paint a masterpiece.  It proves to us the wonder and versatility of humanity, and reminds us that as a species we are capable of extraordinary feats.   And we need an army of runners who can move swiftly with no purpose.  Who seek out trails that lead to nowhere.  Who scale mountains just to see the other side.  More importantly, we need things in our lives that we don't have to rationalize.  Things we can just love recklessly.  And we need to stop asking why. 

Vanessa makes a 100-miler seem attainable for all:  "One hundred miles is just ground and earth and mud and space.  It is all the things we already know, and it belongs to all of us.  We can walk it, we can run it, and with enough time we can cover it.  It's public domain."  

In running her second 100-miler, the Javelina Jundred, Vanessa has an epiphany about the inevitable suffering that comes along with any long distance:  "I decided that I would be grateful for my 100-mile suffering.  I am lucky because this is a suffering that I choose.  It is not suffering I cannot control.  It is something I picked and even paid for.  It was my choice, and for that reason far easier to bear....  My mantra for the rest of the race became 'I chose this.'  It reminded me to bear my suffering with joy.  And for the entire race, joy was what I found."

Inspired yet?  I know I am.  Pick up a copy on today!