Launch Day

My mom was dropping me off in downtown Richmond for the marathon, and it reminded me of all the mornings when I was a kid that she had the same thing. 
Most days pass by, one after the other, with little memory to differentiate them, blurring together. Days and weeks and months become one blob. Fleeting moments will come, acting as waypoints on the journey.
And then, there comes a day. A cold, sunny morning when you’re walking through downtown, past crowds of other runners, in the same boat as you. Those months of training, of sacrifice, brought together from disparate places and climes–all to stand in line, shivering and waiting your turn to dash into the port-a-potty. Yep, few things say ritual like that pre-run pee. No matter the color, gender, ability, age, that run before the run is as communal a moment a runner knows. 
And so is the wait. Being a slow runner, I’m almost always in the back, meaning a long wait to the start. A couple of weeks before, it took nearly an hour for me to get the line for a half-marathon. With 15,000 runners, it’s to be expected. In Richmond, though, the wait was only 10 minutes–manageable and easy, with only 4,500 for the full marathon. 
I was standing next to this guy also running his first marathon. And I admired his courage—his longest run was nine miles. The fact that he was a smoker didn’t help matters–he even had some smokes on him. (I checked–he did finish). 
There was an advantage for me in running in a city I had spent time in–familiar with the landmarks, the people. It lent a measure of comfort in an endeavor that was anything but. And in the journey, I saw some areas of the city I never thought to go to, or ever had a desire to see. Like Lee’s Revenge. It’s a big hill in the West End, near the Country Club of Virginia. Back in the early years of the marathon, runners had to climb up it. And no, I’d rather not imagine trying to pray my way up it. It was a late-race feature, I think, which made it all the more daunting. This time, the challenge was different–take it easy going down the hill, to leave the quads in one piece with 19 miles left. 
This will sound like I’m shilling, but I’ll roll the dice. The Richmond course is really beautiful–the Monument Avenue stretch, the Hugenot Bridge, the stretch along the James, heading under the Pope Avenue arch. The beauty of the course somewhat eases the pain of the pounding. 
What I remember about the journey that day wasn’t just the pain. Yes, I had to stop several times after 20 miles to stretch my calves. But there was also the woman who stopped to pet every dog along the road. (I lost sight of her around mile 5). There was the older man who cheered me on at mile 4. And at mile 14. And then at mile 24. I’m trying not to tear up at that, but it meant a lot, especially at 24. I was almost there, starting to feel like, ok, I think I can do this. This stretch on Brook Road is long, and mentally tough. And on the side of the road, there he was, yelling out my name. It was a great lift.
Just down the road, I made the turn into Virginia Union, and that’s where it started. I can do this. I can finish damn thing. 400 miles, countless hours, craploads of doubt and fear, a lot of early mornings. Making the turn onto and down Grace, my thought was–I don’t remember any of these inclines when I was at VCU. They sucked now, as I had to walk more than I would have liked to. But I kept chugging along, until I got to the corner leading to 5th Street, where Penny Lane Pub is. Making the turn, you hit the final straight for the finish. It’s still a good ways off, but I felt, I did it. This is mine.
You have to be careful on the finish for Richmond. It’s a pretty decent downhill, and you have to manage your speed so as to not blow out your quads. Or eat pavement, like one runner did earlier in the day. After 10 minutes of gathering his wits, he did finish. 
And so did I. A steady trot downhill, not too fast. This hurt enough, no need to hurt more. When you come into the finish chute, you hear people, but you hear crowd noise, you don’t hear specifics.
Unless your mom and dad are there, calling out your name. 
They weren’t there for those early runs and all the quiet moments of uncertainty. All I asked of them was to be there at the finish. And, they were. I wanted them to share this with me, and I’m grateful they did. Most of the races I run are solo endeavors–I show up and skitter off without a cast or crew. There’s no wife or girlfriend there to share in a sweaty hug, and I’m good with that. But this one, I needed someone to be there. Not just for the ride back. But because for this one moment, I didn’t want it to happen alone. I had done most of it solo. I have a friend in Princeton who paced me for the first part of 15 and 16 milers. My best friend gave me moral support. I had inspiration from the friend who got me into running in the first place. 
I have pictures of me with mom and dad after crossing the finish. They will mean a lot to me for a long time to come. 
So will the memory of being sore for three days. My god, I’ve never been so physically wrung out in my life. Getting into and out of a car was its own production. And the next time I do this, I’ll walk up the stairs backwards.
Next time…It took me three months to decide that yes, I want to run another marathon. It won’t be this year, though. The time commitment is intimidating. The physical toll is tough, as it the mental toll. But…I’ve done this before. I made it through the fires, and a different person came out the other side. If and when I decide to give this another shot, experience teaches me that I can do this. And do pretty much anything.
The week after the marathon, I went on a date, my first in months. It went pretty well, and we dated a few more times before it sadly ended. It didn’t take very long to recover from that and continue with life, with living. There were times after the long runs, where I would be lying on the floor, or on a porch, and wondering why I was doing this to myself, and being grateful to have made it. But by the middle of next day, I was fine. I gave myself the chance to rest, recover and reflect on what I had done. The marathon showed me how to be resilient, to forgive myself, to be easy with myself. I can survive much, and I have to remember that, no matter what endeavor is next.

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Epilogue 

Instead of walking to the start of the local 5K in a steady steady, cold rain, I drove. Lazy, I know. This course isn’t easy–downhill first mile, then uphill for at least a quarter-mile to a third. I’m slogging along, nearing the track where the finish is, and thought–how in the absolute hell did I ever make it throw a marathon? 
I got the hell out of my damn way, that’s how. 

Taking the slow road

Where have I been these months? Oh, the places I’ve been. Some of these places required getting in a car. Others, a schlep to the airport. Still more, nothing more than stepping out of my building. And running down the street.
Memorial Day weekend, I decided to run a marathon. I’d been shuffling along for two years, running 5ks and completing a couple of half-marathons. In that time, I’d look at the mirror and say no. Or wonder why I was thinking crazy thoughts. 
Then Memorial Day weekend happened. A five-miler on the shore, a good weekend with friends. Then a look at the mirror. 
It’s time.
There’s always that moment of buyer’s remorse, that fleeting feeling of, what have I gotten into. And deciding to run a marathon maybe one of the bigger ones. 
I circled the date and choose the site of the run, close to home, where I would have support and some familiarity with the streets. 
And so it began–five months of early morning runs, early bedtimes. Watching what I ate, getting the proper fuel in me. Saturday mornings of long runs, then long stretches on the couch in recovery. 
And the idea constantly chasing me—will I die doing this? I’ve heard of runners passing away from runs, and I gave up avoiding the thought. (Though I did avoid stories on those deaths.) That meant I had to pay attention–what was my body telling me? Slow down, you’re going a little fast. Ok, walk here for a bit. Alright, chocks away, let’s go. Breathe.
As the training progressed, and I was doing longer runs, I’d choke up a little when I finished. I made it through another run. I was grateful for making it, surviving. But something happened on my 20-mile run. That was the dress rehearsal–I had to make sure I had all the gear ready, just like on marathon morning. I drove to the park, got the GPS watch ready, strapped on my hydration pack. I started out on the odyssey–and started choking up. The tears came much early that I thought, maybe in some recognition of what I was about to do, mentally and physically. And some recognition of the journey that brought me to that park on that morning. 
I’m going to endeavor to write a bit about the race itself soon. But the least stressful day I had was marathon day–I knew that I’d done as much as I could to get to the start. Or had hoped so. The journey to get me to the start changed me in ways that are subtle, but unmissable. The journey continues to reverberate.

Slowing down, and still moving

The winter in the northeast sucked if you have to and want to run. I’m not one of those hardy souls who can run in single-digit weather and ice on the road, so I’m familiar with the treadmills in my gym–when they’re working. But when they are, they’re good for regulating speed. Which is important for a slug like me. But sometime in late January, I became more of a slug than usual. I ran my short runs faster at the start of the year, and I felt confident about my speed, and my state after the run. Then came snowstorms, ice, a pile of work and staying in the city a couple of overnights. It was a perfect storm of ryhthm-destruction. I tried to do some core work, but that’s no sub for cardio. At the start of February, trying to recapture that pace. And…it was a struggle. Getting through four miles was an awful slog, so much so that I felt light-headed, a rarity  for me–and a warning sign. What’s wrong? What’s happening here? Was it the food I was eating? Was it my health? The self-diagnosis was terrible; I had to look back at what I was doing, and not doing, and figure out how to fix this. It looked dark for a while, as I’m preparing for a 20k and a 21k–would I have to abandon the first run? (I’m not abandoning the second–too much money sunk into it, plus timme is on my side there). Then, the thought quietly came–slow down a little. Ego says you need to be building, building, building, faster, faster, faster. But even getting through a 5k on the treadmill was a struggle. It wasn’t fun, but a chore. One evening run, I slowed the treadmill down just a little bit. And it made all the difference. I was happy going slower. Speed and times are fine, but with running, the experience for me is paramount. I want to finish in decent  shape, feel the relief of hitting the finish, listen to strangers cheer me on. I can always look up the times I finished, but the memories of races–the snow, the sun, the signs–mean more to me.

Back on the good foot

Yep, it’s been a while, so it’s time to get back at. 
 
I feel guilty about not doing it (like I do now). It continues to occupy my head in a way that, frankly shocks me. I don’t thing I’ve ever done anything that hurts so much while I’m doing it, and feels so good after I’m done.
 
I’m still running. As much as it can hurt, I’m still on the treadmill and the road. All winter, I ran at least twice a week, prepping for a stretch of runs in the spring and hoping that I could improve on the slack-ass run I had on New Year’s Day. A 5k, an 8k and a 5k later, I’d say it’s mission accomplished. The first run, on a cold and damp day, saw me finish about a minute faster than my very first run last summer. Given that I hate running in that stuff (it’s chilly, and cold weather make strenuous activity that much harder for me), I was pleasantly surprised. 
 
Next up was the 8k, a distance I’d only completed in practice runs–a couple of weeks before. Race weather was a little bit of a shock–nippy 50s at the start, but 60s at the finish. And this was the best race I’ve been so far–6,000 or so at the start. With these runs, I try to run the first mile completely, then run-walk the rest of the way. Imagine my surprise when I felt fresh enough to go almost a mile and a half without stopping. Don’t knock it–I was still moving. 
 
I was slogging toward the finish as the two top finishers in the half-marathon blew past me (I know one of those guys). As cresting the hill toward the line, I could hear the crowd, and that gave me a little boost to make it. I have to say, it felt great to hear my name from the MC as I crossed the finish–in under an hour. As with many of these runs, you get a medal. It makes me glad to have run the 8 and not the half–the 8K medal was a helluva lot better.
 
On to the next run, this time, in my hometown. It felt wonderful to walk back in to my hometown school, see folks I hadn’t seen in decades, and run a 5k for the school’s bands. The one advantage I had over the other races was that I grew up in this place and knew the roads and streets. 
 
The morning was sunny and warmer that I thought–I didn’t need the running tights I had on. The run started, and I slogged to the first mile. It was a small field (lots of little kids, though), so the runners were strung out a bit, a little more alone on the course than I’ve been used to. But rounding a corner and hitting one of the main streets, the energy came back. My strategy was to run two blocks and walk one. And it worked–I hit a PR. Home cooking tastes good.
 
And so, this Sunday, on a bit of a lark, I’m running another 5k. The races help me train toward a goal–like being part of a triathlon relay team in mid-July. Running feels like jazz felt when I was in my early 20s–something I can do and keep up with for a very long time. I’ll have about two months between races, so I have to–sorry, want to–keep training, eventually hitting a duathlon and then, by this time next year…a half-marathon. That’s my moonshot–that’s the one I want to complete. 

 

Back on the good foot

Most sensible people would spend New Year’s morning nursing a well-earned hangover. I was suiting up to run a 5K in the cold. It was the fourth run I’ve done, and the worst one, in terms of the weather (below freezing) and time (a shade over 40 minutes). But the sweatshirt you get for registering was worth it. 

This running thing is becoming a test of will now. Running is not comfortable for me–I can run a mile nonstop, but it can be a struggle, especially in the winter. It can be painful for my knees. It can get boring–there’s no way I can run more than five miles, lest I lose interest. If I were faster, I wouldn’t worry about my attention being held. 

It’s a struggle–getting up, getting dressed, huffing and puffing, wondering why I do this. 

Why I’m doing this, isn’t just for the physical payoff. It seems like the mental challenge is the biggest hill to climb. I told a friend that I want to be an “international man of leisure.” This running is as far away from that as you can get from that. While I like being on my bike, that takes little effort–it’s natural. The running isn’t; it feels like a Rube Goldberg-like process to get out the door. 

And yet…I got out of the bed and out the door this morning. What running is doing is pushing me to be in places in my head that I haven’t been before. Even though my time on New Year’s wasn’t great, the sense of accomplishment was still there. 

There’s always a lesson to be learned, and it’s  to prepare. I wasn’t ready to run the last one (six miles on the bike the week before doesn’t count). So this winter, I’ll be on the treadmill, running twice a week. It’s not much, but it’s a restart. I’ve got runs coming in the spring–I want to run a little better for those. 

Inside the running mind of chehaw

The Saturday of the 5K, I jotted some prerace notes down, I guess in a way to burn some energy…

(No, there are no caps–sue me… 😉

i’ve never been a great starter; a little worried about this 5k and starting; like my dad said, pace myself (I started out OK, no great shakes.; though I did completely run the first mile)

 
don’t worry about competing with anybody, even yourself. just run. (The thought experiment…I thought of a line from a Living Colour song: No expectations, just living free)
 
a sense of relief that is over (I nearly cried after hitting the finish line)
 
all of this started because of a woman i’m no longer speaking to; should i let her know i ran it? maybe 😉 (Haven’t let her know…yet)
 
i think i want a steak after this is done (Great burger and fries and beer; well earner, I’d say)
 
this is not the craziest thing i’ve done, just the most tortuous (My body felt ok afterward; my knees, pretty damn good; the craziest thing I’ve done wasn’t in this country)
 
this is so funny, what i’m about to do (There was something slightly absurd about me running; it ran counter to me being an international man of leisure)
 
i need to wear my mala beads–need all the help i can get (Forgot them, though I did ok)

Random notes after a run

As I was hitting the finishing chute in the 5K,I didn’t feel this massive surge of energy propelling me to the line, but I felt more amazement than anything. I topped my projected time by nearly a minute, but that wasn’t the biggest thing. Panting after hitting the line, I grabbed my medal for finishing, walked over to the boardwalk railing, and tried to hold back tears. The sense of accomplishment was nearly overwhelming. The work of preparing to do something out of the ordinary was daunting–the physical of having to run three times a week and eating smartly to prepare the body, the mental in pushing past pain, wondering why I’m doing this. I did it to see if I could it–set a goal, do the work to prepare, then actually achieve it.

And I was heading to the line, I played a game with myself. Let’s have a thought experiment: just run. Don’t worry about the time, or the people passing you. Pay attention to you–how you’re running, your steps, your breath, the sweat pouring down. If you need to walk, walk. When you’re ready to run, run. I tried to meditate while I ran. We often think of meditation as only sitting still, when it’s also simply paying attention to yourself and what is happening within you.

The warrior meditates only when he is performing his duty. As soon as he puts aside his sword, he relaxes his attention. Suzuki Shosan, “Warrior of Zen”

I tried to be there at the run, and nowhere else. It’s a lesson I need to extend elsewhere in life. In anything, from folding laundry to sex, you and your attention have to be there. Your clothes and your partner will thank you.

While I was training for this run, I compiled a playlist to get me through–Living Colour, Pat Benatar, AC/DC, a lot of uptempo dance music. So as I was walking to the starting line, what song was in my head? Stravinsky’s “Pastorale,” a beautiful piece of music–and not exactly pulsating work. But my brain knew what it was doing: calming me for the run in the sun.

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