Thursday, August 30, 2012

My summer of tempered enthusiasm

I'm starting to notice a pattern in the careers of many (though certainly not all) ultra-runners, the famous and infamous as well as the mid- to back-of-the-packers. You discover the sport through a friend or blog or magazine article, run your first 50K, and fall instantly in love. You are, for most intents and purposes, a fairly laid back person with a seldom revealed, more intense dimension to your personality that points toward borderline ridiculous tests of endurance and strength. You tend perhaps to be the kind of person who "drives straight through" or "pushes on past" or "takes one last run" long after everyone else, all the normal people, have checked into a motel for the night or sought medical care or headed in for a hot toddy at the lodge. Suddenly in the midst of that first 50K, you find yourself unexpectedly surrounded by people like yourself. How unusual! Of course, you love these people. You bond. You want more of this.

So you train and you train and you race and you train. The world makes perfect sense to you now. You have a real "excuse" to go out and run as many miles as you want. You're training! You have 50 and 100 mile races in your future. These distances do not phase you. All of your new friends are running like this. All of your old friends think you're either superhuman or completely bonkers. You, however, are quite certain you have found your calling.

Things go along like this for a period of time. Maybe months, more likely years. For a lucky few, even decades. And then, inevitably (?) your body starts to rebel. Things don't work as well as they should. Body parts ache more than even you consider normal. You find yourself having to take breaks from running and this makes you sad. You have to think about backing off, about finding other outlets for all of that time and energy spent (gloriously spent!) running.

You must, in other words, temper your enthusiasm.

I haven't run an ultra since last October, almost a year ago. My foot and knee went south and remain doggedly un-well. I can run, but I don't dare take on 50 or 100 miles. I don't want to mess myself up for years and years. I do intend to get back to ultras, hopefully next year, but with a new sense of boundary and proportion. (I say that now; talk to me again in a year.)

So this summer I have, mostly through dire psychological necessity, tried to take on other challenges. My foot and knee do fairly well on flat ground, so I have focused a bit more on speed over the past few months. Track workouts, tempo runs, even some barefoot runs on the grass, you know, all of the stuff the real mountain runners shun entirely. And I like it. I like running fast on a track. It's a different kind of challenge, more intense and sharp, over quickly, but my-o-my. My kids are in on it as well. Inspired by the Olympics, they literally beg me to take them to the track every day. They're 7, 9 and 11, those magical years when you believe it entirely probable that you too will someday stand on the podium and hear your national anthem. They have clipboards and charts for their times. And they keep me on my toes. I'm not fast. But they are.

I have also re-discovered biking this summer. I've reconnected with some of my old biking friends from my pre-kid triathlon days. I like it. Even the hill repeats. I love moving quickly over bigger distances. Nothing hurts on the bike. Never mind that I more or less suck at it. It was always my weak link in the triathlon. My eleven year old daughter dusts me on her hybrid (me on my expensive road bike). But the rhythm and feel of the bike is somewhat addictive. I may get into it more seriously next year. I started too late this year. The bike season in New England is pretty short.

Mostly I have been swimming. I swam just about every day in the spring and early summer, 4000-5000 yards at a shot. My shoulder got a little cranky toward the middle of July, but I was able to work through it with the help of Bobby the Chiropractor Extraordinaire. He does something to it once a week that hurts like torture, like I will tell him anything he wants to know, government secrets, whatever, gladly, just to get him to stop. And then afterwards the shoulder feels amazing and my goodwill and natural reserve are restored.

In the spirit of the aforementioned "dimension" of the ultra-personality, I went ahead and signed up for a long open water swim race. 4.75 miles, sort of a 50K of open water events,  in the mighty depths of Lake Willoughby in the NEK (as I learned they call the Northeast Kingdom up there in VT).

More on that next post......

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

2012 Mystic Triathlon: Give me a decade and I'll tri anything

Okay well, since I’ve been swimming so much, and since swimming necessitates that I go to the local YMCA every morning, and since that local YMCA puts on a friendly little triathlon every year, and since so many people asked me if I was doing it, I finally bit the goddamn bullet, and Thursday morning, three days before the actual event, I signed up.
I am so glad I did. I had a blast swimming, biking and running my way around my hometown. The last time I did this race, my now-11-year-old daughter Nell was just eight weeks old. That was back when I was regularly racing triathlons. I was in a bit of a postpartum funk at the time and needed an event on the horizon to (sort of) train for, and the Mystic Triathlon came through with flying colors. I did the race, regained my sense of self, and went on to have two more kids.
That was eleven years ago. When I had babies in the house it became highly inconvenient to train for triathlons. It was much easier to put the babies in the stroller and run. And then I discovered ultra running, got hooked on the trails, and pretty much forgot about biking and swimming for a decade.
So here I am, eleven years older, slowly starting to get my running back together after a long winter of injuries, and sitting pretty with several months of solid swim training under my belt. Never mind that I had only biked once this spring, back in April, maybe 30 miles. I took a bunch of spin classes over the winter. Surely that’s good for something.
The swim portion of the race starts from the little beach behind the Y in brackish water close to the place where the Mystic River dumps into Long Island Sound. There were three waves of starts, three minutes apart, and all women were placed in the third wave, right behind the Over-40 Men. The water was chilly with a little chop, perfect for fast swimming. I took off as quickly as I could to get out in front of the pack, and then stayed there. I swam for all I was worth, gasping for air the whole time. I caught the back of the Over-40 pack before the first buoy and spent the rest of the swim like Miss PacMan, dodging in and out of big, blobby men in black rubber suits.

Coming out of the water and seeing Ben cheering made me smile and I didn't stop smiling all day. My friend John Conlon, Hawaii Ironman, died last year. This is his wetsuit. I was so happy to have it.

Learning that I am first woman out of the water.
When I got out of the water I was well and truly shocked to hear that I was the first woman. That gave me a little boost. My husband and kids were there cheering, which was the sweetest thing in the world.

And I then proceeded to have something like the third slowest transition all day onto the bike. Wrestle off wetsuit, doot de doo, sit down, put on shoes, la dee da, helmet, glasses, WOOPS, shirt before helmet, tra la tra la, hop on the bike and off we go.

Feeble attempt to put on bike shoes while standing up. (My friend Mary in purple back there was on a team and passed me so fast on the bike it made my head spin. I swear I detected a Doppler effect -- wooooosh!)

Screw it. I'm sitting down.

Finally got myself together. Number's a little askew, but here we go...
My kids and their friends cheering me on. Yay!
Immediately half the race passed me on the bike. I am the slowest biker in the world. Even when I used to seriously train for triathlons, my biking sucked. Some sort of brain body disconnect. I don’t think I have the ass for it, really. Any advice is greatly appreciated. I was biking so hard I could barely breathe and people were passing me like I was standing still. Huffety huffety huff huff.
Oh, and plus, I really had to pee. I must have swallowed a quart of salt water and it urgently needed to exit my body. The idea of getting off the bike was terrible. All that time lost already on this godforsaken bike. Getting off, peeing, and getting back on was unthinkable. So I did what Lance Armstrong would do. Why not? I waited for a woodsy stretch of road, checked to make sure there was no one coming up behind me (minor miracle that there wasn’t), kind of hung my butt off the back of the seat, yanked my shorts over to the side, and tried to pee. Except I couldn’t go. The pee wouldn’t release. Go, go, go, I kept telling myself. Go! Dammit, go! And then, finally, I went. All over the seat, my shorts, legs, everything. Aw, jeeeez.
Better on the bike than on the run, I told myself, and biked on, no one else the wiser.

Here I come back from my dismal bike leg. (Just don't think about all that you know what under there....)
Of course I didn’t practice any bike/run transitions (known as BRICKS in the triathlon world), so my legs felt simultaneously weighty and rubbery the minute I started to run. Kind of like running on two lardy Jello sticks, you know. The first mile was brutal. And then I kind of loosened up and picked up the pace. But not too much. As soon as I tried to go any faster than the minimally quick pace I was maintaining, I immediately started coughing like an asthmatic. I dearly wanted to catch the woman in front of me, and my legs were game, and I had been steadily gaining on her for the whole run, but I just couldn’t crank it into that next gear. My lungs would not allow it. I would have landed splat on the sidewalk, quivering, gasping and blue.

Chi Running paying off.
Again, my fabulous cheering section.

Bringing it home.

But still, the run was pretty good. I had gone as hard as I could for the whole race, and I finished totally exhausted, hugging my kids and smiling. The next day I was more tired than I can remember being in a long time. Funny what an hour and a half of hard, steady exertion can do to a person. Maybe I’ll do another triathlon this summer. I absolutely loved it.
But I’ll have to do a little more biking first…..
0.5 mile swim (which I now hear was actually 1000 meters: 14:11 (1st woman, 3rd overall)
14 mile bike: 48:00 (90th overall, please)
5K run: 21:53 (42nd overall)
Time: 1:24:53 (45th / 169 overall, 7th woman, 2nd 40-49 age group (bling!))

And thank you to the Mystic YMCA, all the volunteers, all the people out cheering, and my darling husband Brian for taking these photos.

Just love these guys. I'm so glad they were there. (And they want to race next year!)

Saturday, May 26, 2012

So I guess you could sort of say I've started running again

After my last post whining my way through long injury, making dire deals to run less, run smarter, run better when(ever) I was able to run again, I have started running again more or less, though many fewer miles and hours than I used to, and I am very happy about it. I am running smarter (I think), definitely less, and I'm enjoying it. I'm trying to keep it to 3 times per week, although as I often find myself in the company of children, when a live adult calls and asks me to go for a run I rarely turn them down even if it makes four or even five runs in a week. I don't do well in sit-down-and-chat situations, so running is basically my social life. I can talk and run all day long. Sitting and talking starts to make my head buzz after 20 minutes. I don't know why.

Right now I'm trying to do a tempo run and track run and a long run every week. I am mostly following Bill Pierce's marathon training program in Run Less, Run Faster. I did my first track workout this morning, 3 miles with a quarter mile jog in between, 7:45, 7:30 and 7:15. Not really smoking fast considering I ran a 22-minute 5K just last October, but this will do as a good jumping off place for the rest of the summer.

My foot and knee are still sore, but screw 'em, I'm still running. They aren't getting any worse, and each week they do get better. They no longer hurt just walking around. They hurt when I first start running, then calm down. I am sitting here right now with my feet in an ice bath and my knee wrapped in an ice pack, and so goes my day. Every day. I'm seeing a chiropractor on Friday afternoons, my old friend Bobby, who is happy to do whatever I want him to. We are experimenting with the Graston technique and ART (active release technique). It seems to be working. I had to miss one week and I totally felt a difference, in the reverse direction. So....

I don't have any races on the horizon. I'm hoping to be back to the ultras by fall, but we'll see. No reason to rush, I guess.

My life these days revolves more around swimming. I swim most mornings for 90 minutes, anywhere from 4500 - 5500 yards. I am now a regular among the 5 a.m. swimmers, a group I used to fear mightily. They are lovely people. I have a waterproof workout book with more than 100 workouts. I am happy as a clam. It would be cool if I could find a serious masters swim group (the master's group at the Y where I swim is remedial at best: I need more). I watch my daughter's team in the evenings, listen to the coach, and try to incorporate some of her wisdom into my workouts.

As I mentioned in my last post, I am signed up to swim a 6 mile open water swim race in Vermont in July. I have been out in the open water a couple of times this year. I have to do a 4-mile swim (honor system) before I'm allowed to compete in the 6 miler. Maybe next weekend....

My friend Muireann is renting a house on Mason's Island here in Mystic, so I have done a couple of open water swims from her dock. The water is cold, but the wetsuit keeps me warm. I'm hoping to race without a wetsuit, so I'm going to have to toughen up and take the darn thing off one of these fine days.

Little head; little me

I sort of look like a sharpei here. The ever loosening skin of middle age.

Half an hour in cold water. Not too bad.

And on a totally separate note, I have started reading David Foster Wallace's book The Infinite Jest. Jonathan Franzen, in his book of essays Farther Away, cites this as his friend Dave's best book. And it is indeed a wonder. It's whip smart, somewhat difficult to follow, and dead on in so many ways. He talks a lot about competitive tennis, but much of what he says is easily transferred to running (or, for that matter, swimming). Anyone read it? I'm only about a quarter of the way through. I'm taking bets on whether I finish it.

"The true opponent, the enfolding boundary, is the player himself. Always and only the self out there, on the court, to be met,  fought, brought to the table to hammer out terms. The competing boy on the net's other side: he is not the foe: he is more the partner in the dance. He is what is the word excuse or occasion for meeting the self. As you are his occasion. Tennis's beauty's infinite roots are self-competitive. You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: grow as a serious (player), with ambitions. You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place. It's tragic and sad and chaotic and lovely. All life is the same, as citizens of the human State: the animating limits are within, to be killed and mourned, over and over again."
DFW, The Infinite Jest, p. 84

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Patience: A rambling love story

I woke up on a recent Thursday morning with the old creeping ache deep in my shoulder sending tendrils down the long boneshaft of my arm and I knew I’d done it again. What is the matter with me?

Is it because I made that joke, months ago now, surely long forgotten by the demon who controls these things? I had just come home from a long swim. I could no longer run (my drug of choice) because I’d wrecked my left foot and right knee months before, overused into long injury. I hadn’t raced since October; it was now January. I told my husband (who else to tell?) how many yards I’d swum that morning between 5 and 6:30 a.m., well before the kids get up, well before he has to leave for work. I’d swum 4300 yards, much of it butterfly and backstroke (breaststroke hurts the knee). I felt somewhat strong, felt my life unexpectedly knitting together from the raveled fragments of my “I-can’t-run” alter ego, a fierce and fiery thing that lives in the pit of my stomach, must be fed often and well.

“Great,” my everloving husband replied to my boastful compilation of yardage. “You’ll swim your way to a shoulder injury next.”

“OH, give me a shoulder injury, please!” I said, blithely ignoring the cursed voice down in the pit, the one now secretly tumbling to life, moaning down there, “AHHhhhhhhh.”

“At least with a shoulder injury I could run,” I said.

But that was so long ago. That was before I became somewhat addicted to swimming, had made temporary peace with the not-running thing, had in fact signed up for a 6-mile open water swim race now looming just three months away. Can’t run. Can’t swim.

What’s to become of me?

There are people, many people, indeed most people based on the live responses I’ve been getting, who would revel in this idea of enforced rest. A vacation! Put your feet up! Read a book! Not for me.

But why?

That’s the million dollar question. People blessed with the gift of insight may well have answered this question for themselves long ago. I see them out there sweating up and down the roads day after day, running, biking. What’s chasing them? Who? Do they know? They must know.

These thoughts come up only when I’m injured, out of the game. There is a pattern, a somewhat inherent logic. I see it now. I’m 45 years old and I finally see the pattern. Run, run more, run too much, injure, repeat. But how I got here and why I stay here, that I cannot figure out.

I don’t think much about running at all when I’m actually running. Out there on the road or trail, I think about everything else. It’s a little mental vacation. I sit back and watch my thoughts go by. It’s the only time I really do that, and I think it’s a bigger part of my life than I realize.

When I’m not running, I’m obsessed. All I think about is running. When will I run again? How far? Which route? Hills? Speed? With whom? Alone? Mostly I run alone, but I love my running friends. They get me like no one else does. All of this makes perfect sense to them.

Most days, uninjured days, let’s for the sake of argument call them normal days, I get up at 3:45 a.m., having gone to bed around 10 the night before. Sometimes I sleep right through, but here in this perimenopausal stage of life there’s no guarantee of that. Sleep is no longer automatic. Nothing is. I make coffee in my French press, half or quarter caffeinated depending on the sleep situation. I fill the press about a third full of boiling water from the kettle, heat about a third cup of soymilk in the microwave, and then combine. I add a bit of honey or brown sugar or Agave nectar, maybe even white sugar if it’s all we have. None of this is precise. It’s drug making, not hard science. I know hard science because I failed at it. But I make one hell of a cup of coffee.

Then I sit in a chair, precisely the same chair every morning, eat a Vann’s Gluten Free Waffle, and try to write for an hour. It’s the only time of day I can actually think. Facebook and email beckon like the devils they are, and I do my best to resist. Often Facebook and email win. But when they don’t and I actually get something written, which is rare enough, I feel like I’ve done the right thing.

And then I run, or more recently, swim. I go for about an hour and a half. Hard. On weekends I run for hours. I start early and run all morning. The races I sign up for usually top out at 50 miles, but I have done 100. There is no methodology to this training system. There are no schedules, no particular goals, no cycles, no easy weeks, and very few days off. I have no data. I don’t know how far I run in a week, how far I swim (that 4300 yard figure I mentioned earlier was guessing), how many calories I burn, how much total elevation I gain, none of that. I don’t keep track. I usually do weights or a second run or spin class later in the evening during the kids’ swim practice at the Y.

I have the great gift of an hour and an half most evenings to do whatever I want and I choose to do a second run or lift weights or spin class. I choose one of these three every time. Why? Why do I wonder why my body isn’t holding up? Why does this baffle me so much?

I guess I actually don’t see the pattern. Not really. Maybe in retrospect. There is, it seems, a running sized hole in my head.

But these days right now are not “normal” days. I am injured. I am not in constant, tormenting pain, but I don’t want to get there. So I have stopped running. I am taking a month or two off. (I AM TAKING A MONTH OR TWO OFF.) And because my shoulder is sore because I signed up for this swim race and then immediately went out and swam 5 miles out of the clear blue sky, without any sort of proper build up, and then did not rest but continued to swim for the rest of the week as if nothing untoward had happened, I am no longer swimming either. Not for at least a week. Lucky for me, I have Lyme’s disease concurrent with all of this. So perhaps this week or two off will not kill me.

There is the question of time, of course. If I can’t run and can’t swim, temporarily let’s keep in mind, what do I do with this huge swath of suddenly open time? Sleep? Nah. I’ll sleep when I’m dead, right. Read? All the bearded Russians at long fucking last? Doestoevsky? Chekov? I loved listening to Tolstoy on my long runs last winter, back when I was running way too much, but couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Magic Mountain?

I chose Magic Mountain. This was back in January. I was just coming off a long Virginia Woolf binge and I thought Hesse might be the antidote. Sort of the opposite of Virginia Woolf. I had pertussis at the time, so I bundled up in my Patagonia down jacket, thrillingly purchased during last fall’s half off sale, and sat myself in a plastic Adirondack chair on the deck we built last summer to read Herman Hesse’s classic tale of not-much-going-on-in-the-tuberculosis-sanitorium-high-in-the-Alps. It seemed so appropriate. I’d started the book at least twice before, but never gotten past the first third. This time I made it half way before giving up, derailed by Haruki Murakami and Cheryl Strayed. I read 1000 pages of 1Q84 in less than three weeks, and then zoomed through Wild in under three days. I want to hike the PCT! I want to go to Japan!

I am invincible!

I am not invincible. Clearly. But why do I fail to grasp that again and again. Is it a failure to properly grow up? To acknowledge one’s age? Why do I even need to feel invincible? Why does anyone? Outside of all the ridiculously arduous and long events and races I sign up for (which fill up fast, by the way, indicating that I am not alone here), what in god’s name do I think I’m training for? The Trueheart Badass Motherfucker Award?

I have always said that I would have made an exceptional pioneer. Outside all day in all weathers chopping wood and chasing down chickens, a passel of well behaved, oh so helpful children chipping in, trailing behind. A twenty-five mile trip to the general store? Laughable. I’d be back before sundown. On foot no less. In fifteen inches of snow.

Or maybe not. I’d have been dead at 23 without modern medicine. Felled by a burst appendix. Mine was gangrene by the time they took it out. I’d had stomach pains for years. Badass Motherfucker, I’m telling you.

But I’m not a pioneer, obviously. I live in an era of high luxury. We all do. You have to make a conscious effort to get outside these days. Everyday life includes almost no exercise, though here at our house we do chop and burn wood. I’ll say that for us. But again, this is a choice. There’s plenty of oil in the furnace to heat the house. At least for now.

I was adopted at the age of 10 weeks into a largely sedentary family. I swam on teams and was running 10K’s by the age of 11. No one understood any of this, but they did their damdest to support me. My father, bless him, drove my friend Joanne and me hither and yon to adult road races he’d found for us in the paper. He’d follow the course as best he could, often through the busy streets of Boston, on an old upright bike he’d salvaged from the town dump. Not much for cheering, he’d clap for us as we trotted by. “You look great,” he’d say, barely audible, his voice lumpy and breaking. I know there must have been tears in his eyes. Other people screamed louder, encouraged by children on the course, but they didn’t know us. “Go, boys!” they’d scream at the top of their lungs.

“We’re girls!”

My own daughter has some of this, as do her brothers, but not as much. At the age of ten she swims for two hours every night with the teenagers on her swim team and will not be talked out of even one night off. I cannot tell you how happy and relieved this makes me. Perhaps it’s all genetic, simple as that. I have been programmed in my DNA to want to get up at 3:45 to run or swim or whatever I choose to do to wear myself out on any given day. I’m not really fighting demons; I’m doing what I am supposed to do, channeling thousands of generations of hunter-gatherers, people on the move, survivors.

But my original question stands. Why do I always seem to take it too far? Why do I beat myself up over and over until I’m injured? Sabotaged? And then why do I get so frustrated when I can’t run? What’ so wrong with taking a goddamn rest?

Again, I rarely ask these questions when all cylinders are firing. I simply go about my business, hard wired evidently to the endorphin rush. It’s only when the system breaks down that the more considering, philosophical part of my brain takes over.

There are the obvious answers. Lead most among so many endurance junkies are body image issues. Let’s say it plainly: I don’t want to get fat. But nobody does. I cannot imagine anyone in this society at this particular time in history actually setting out to get fat. It just happens. It’s incredibly easy to do. And yet, I have never been and likely will never be, bony and thin. No one would ever come up to me on the street and offer me a sandwich. No one could reasonably call me too thin. “Too thin,” short of unnatural starvation, is not my body type. Fit, yes. Skinny, no. I have a glacial, diabolically slow metabolism. I will always be average size. Size 8, or sometimes with these new deflated sizes, size 6. Big boned, say what you will. I am not terribly thin. If that’s the goal, it ain’t working.

So, there must be something more going on here.

I simply like to run, to swim, to wear myself out. Could it be as simple as that? I don’t know. I like to do a lot of things and I don’t knock myself out making time for them, don’t miss them like crazy when they’re gone. Do I? I like to read, write, cook, work in the garden. But given the choice I’d run before any of these things. Running falls behind parenting on my list. Just about everything does. My kids are at lovely ages, 7, 9 and 11. We spend our days together, viscerally attached (we homeschool). They come sit on my bed in the evenings when I’m trying to read, trying to get some sleep, just to chat. I watch their faces as they tell me stuff and I am totally absorbed. It’s like I’m enchanted by these beautiful faces and all the unexpected things they’re telling me.

Okay, I’ll take my children over running. My husband, too. Toss him in the mix. My friends. But which friends? Do I have to choose? I choose not to choose.

That said, running makes me a better parent, better spouse, better friend. I’m sure of that. Especially when the kids were little and so much more demanding of time and attention. I’m and introvert, for chrissake. I need a little space. Recharge the battery, so to speak. But how much recharging does a person really need? An hour a day? Two? Three?

I have almost forgotten what it’s like to run for hours, it’s been so long. Running for hours today would mean undoing months of not-running. Months of so called healing. I can manage five miles a couple of days a week right now, and I have to make that feel like enough. This too is a challenge. Recovery is long and slow requiring the kind of patience I wish I had. And it’s so easy to misstep. The aches and pains sneak up on you mid-run, a little at a time, like a frog put in cold water set slowly to boil. The little twinges you ignore. The steady strain you explain away. (It’s the healing process! I’m releasing all the bad stuff!) And by the time you finally turn for home you don’t even notice that you’re limping a little bit, that you’ve gone and done it again and it will be another two weeks before you run again, all that time and patience undone in a single afternoon. It’s enough to freaking kill a person.

You find yourself saying things like, “If I could just run 5 miles every day, nothing more, I’d be satisfied.” But it isn’t true! That’s just the voice of desperation talking. You’re greedy, plain and simple. 5 miles a day simply ain’t gonna cut it. No one trains to run 50 or 100 miles on 5 miles a day. Insane to even consider it.

So I’m working on patience. I’m training myself to be patient, which is in itself an excellent exercise. It’s all I can do. It has to be enough.

(Ah, so easy to end like that. So tidy. If only life were this true.)

Friday, March 9, 2012

As I continue to evolve.....

Or perhaps the word is de-volve. According to Danny Dreyer's Chi Running book, I am supposed to be trying to recapture the joyful and effortless manner in which I ran as a child. I was a child well before the era of omnipresent video technology, so I'll just have to take Danny's word for it that the younger, lither, more innocent version of me did indeed run with perfect posture and perfect lean, striking lightly on the earth with perfect midfoot strides.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

I am now at the point in my heel-to-midfoot/forefoot stride transition that heel striking finally feels awkward and wrong. And it makes a certain amount of sense. Every time you hit with your heel it's like putting on the brakes. Very jarring to the body. After a couple of months of running 12-16 minute miles, actively trying to make the switch, I think the new muscles are starting to fire and the old muscles are quieting down. My knee and foot pain are fading. I just have to be careful not to do too much too soon. It's so tempting to go out and run for three hours just because I can. For the first time in my life, I am trying (trying!) to be smart about running. I'm down to like a 10-minute mile.

I have spent a small fortune on running books. Of course I have and love Danny Dreyer's Chi Running, as well as Danny Abshire's Natural Running and Dr. Nicolas Romanov's Pose Method of Running. I order them, I get excited, they come in the mail, I leaf through them for a few days, and then they sit on the kitchen table for weeks languishing unread, collecting glops of ketchup and syrup until they are stuck permanently to the fickle tablecloth of old New Yorkers and Running Times and Utne Readers and math workbooks.

Chi Running

Pose Running

I don't think any of these running gurus would watch me run and call me one of their own. I'd love to take a class with one of these guys and really have them look at my stride. It's hard to coach yourself. I'm sure I'm doing lots of stuff "wrong." I kind of pick and choose details from all of these books and add them slapdash into my catalogue of things to think about while I'm running. I have lots of Ah-Ha! moments as I'm trolling along (ie, don't lift your knees, lift your ankles, stuff like that). There's no question, this is a slow transition. A long strange trip indeed.

I get so little time to read, and I'm right in the middle of Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain as well as everything ever written by Julie Hecht (strange bedfellows there), these poor running books simply cannot compete. Chi Running is the only one I have actually read cover to cover, and plan to re-read now that I have been practicing this method for a while. This was an excellent book to get me started.

I think the Pose Running book will be next. Flipping through, I see that he has lots of exercises aimed at hips and hamstrings. I have hamstrings for the first time in my life, and they are definitely my weak link. As soon as my hamstrings get tired of lifting my foot straight up behind me (rather than out in front of me), I'm toast. I can handle the strain for 2 hours tops. I need to get started on Dr. Romanov's exercises.


It feels so good to be running again. It really is a gift. My husband Brian and I had our annual weekend trip to New York last month in which we walked all around the city eating out of diners and grocery stores for two days. I had a heavenly run early Sunday morning up the Hudson River and into Riverside Park, and back through Upper West Side. I really did feel like I was gliding along, slipping effortlessly past the super-wealthy dog walkers and uber-stylish churchgoers. With my new upright posture and nifty little hamstrings, I almost fit right in.

I'm still swimming more than I'm running. Swimming has been good to me this winter. I am now on friendly terms with all of the 5 a.m. swimmers. Early morning people are funny. We all park in the same spot every morning, take the same locker, then beeline to the same lane day after day. A young upstart newcomer beat me to Lane 5 yesterday morning and I admit I was shaken. Isn't it obvious from looking at me that I am the Lane 5 swimmer?! Things are different in Lane 3. It feels too close to the lifeguard. As soon as that girl left Lane 5, I scooted right over. I'll have to keep my eye on her from now on.

I made the difficult but necessary decision to drop out of both spring/summer races I had signed up for back in December. The VT 100 was first to go, as it became increasingly obvious that there was no way I'd be up to any kind of training mileage by mid-March. And then a month later I dropped out of the Wapack 50, which is a strenuous race run in May. I need to take the time to rebuild and regroup. I'm hoping to run some shorter trail races this summer, especially the Grand Tree series, and maybe hit a few of small, local ultras in the fall. The new Ghost Run in October especially beckons: nice folks, multi-distance, cheap, and you do not have to sign up months ahead of time.

Here's hoping!!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

It's all about the Chi

I'm about a week into my ChiRunning adventure and I'm liking it very much. It seems to be all I talk about these days: posture, mid-foot strike, swivel hips. I'm preaching the gospel of Chi! (Actually, I'm just thrilled to be running again on a regular, if painfully slow, basis.) After 45 years of running on my heels, I feel sort of reborn. A mid-life re-birth of running.

The basic idea of ChiRunning, meticulously detailed in Danny Dreyer's book and oft repeated by yours truly in and around Mystic, CT is this: stand up straight with a long neck and neutral pelvis (held in check by your lower abdominals), lean slightly from your ankles keeping your "column" nice and straight (huge challenge for me), let your feet and legs relax (again, almost foreign) and break your fall with a soft midfoot stride. The idea is to let gravity do the work. The midfoot stride eliminates the "braking" process of the heel strike. You simply lift your foot and put it back down a little further down the road. Effortless! Simple!

The book has ten lessons to work through before you start adding distance or speed. A major tenant of the ChiRunning philosophy (not a cult, not a cult) is the idea of Gradual Progress. Because of my injuries, Gradual Progress is just what I need. Because of my obsessive running personality, Gradual Progress is difficult for me to embrace. You see the problem. I'm working on it.

I have spent almost a week on Lesson 1: Posture. My posture is terrible. I'm well on my way to becoming a bent over old lady. So this is good for me. Holding myself up straight takes a tremendous amount of concentration. It's borderline frightening how many times each minute I have to remind myself to pull my pelvis straight and lengthen my neck. And as soon as I do that, I start to heel strike again, then I forget to relax my lower legs, and by the time I've fixed my feet, my butt is sticking out well behind me. Pull the pelvis back in. Woops! the feet. Long neck. Heel strike. No!! Midfoot. Butt back under.......etc, etc.

After 45 minutes of this at something like a 12 minute pace, I'm exhausted.

But I am making progress. Each run feel a little teeny bit more natural. My foot and knee don't hurt at all while I'm "running." Every once in a while, for very small intervals, I get that effortless feeling, like my legs are just along for the ride, that Danny Dreyer promises me will in time become more of the norm. Though even he admits that he still has to think about this stuff while he's running.

It's a practice. Like yoga or something. Almost a meditation. I like it.

There's one exercise in the book you can do with a friend. Stand in your regular, everyday posture and have a friend pull down on your shoulders from behind. If your everyday posture is anything like mine, you'll slump like a ragdoll. Then get into proper ChiRunning posture (long neck, straight pelvis, neutral feet), and when your friend tries to pull you down you'll stand solid as a statue. It really works! I have been doing it to people at the gym, Other Mothers at birthday parties, friends and family. It's all I can do not to stop people in the grocery store and teach them how to stand properly.

I like how all of this fits into my everyday life. I practice my posture all day long. I run in place a little bit to try to figure out the ins and outs of the "lean," which still somewhat eludes me. I try to walk like a supermodel to get the swivel hips part of the run down. (Your supposed to swing your hips from the middle of your back to alleviate pressure on your hip flexors). I'm quite a sight to see, you can imagine.

I still can't tell if this is just a chapter in my running life, or if this will define the rest of my career. For now, it doesn't matter. I'm outside again, sort of running pain free, and I'm excited about it. Can't ask for anything more than that.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

I feel like a prancing doofus

Brian's outside in his socks watching me run circles in the street until he's too dizzy to do it anymore.

"Back straight!"

"Back straight!"

"You're sticking your neck out too far."

"Back straight!"

"Look down."

It's my very first time Chi running and there's way too much to think about. But it's kind of fun. I'm running poker slow, mincing really, keeping my neck straight, hitting the ground with my mid-foot, peeling my feet up from the heel and kicking them out behind me, relaxing my ankles, woo hoo! Bye, bye Brian, there's no stopping now, I'm taking her for a spin around the block!

I have been reading Danny Dreyer's book ChiRunning for a couple of days. The number of people recommending this book to me reached a critical mass last month, so I interlibrary loaned it, and it finally came in. Looks like this one's a keeper. I've ordered my own copy from Amazon, should come tomorrow.

Brian is a good guy to help me with my Chi Running. He more or less runs this way naturally. He's a physics guy. Why fight gravity? Especially if you spend half your waking life thinking about it. The idea is to make your body a straight line, lean forward slightly, and fall into your stride. Makes a certain amount of sense. Especially if you're married to Brian.

So I'm giving it a whirl. As I (what do I call this?) trot, skimp, measle-weasle my way around the block I start to see people I know. Neighbors. My neck is high and straight, my feet slap the road, and my chest is way out in front of me. It's right about here that I start to feel like a prancing doofus.

But no one notices.

"Hi, Pam! Beautiful afternoon. Good to see you running!"

They all say stuff like that. I stop to chat with one neighbor who is thinking about getting a rescue dog. "Don't let me slow you down," she says.

Are you freaking kidding me? Any slower I'd be drilling through the pavement.

The thing is, when I run like this, nothing hurts. My foot feels fine. My knee feels fine. When I start to slump back into my old neanderthal running posture, the knee starts to hurt. For the first time this winter I am somewhat grateful for the bum knee. It's keeping me honest. It's letting the chi flow free!

Starting tomorrow I am going to begin with Lesson 1 and work my way through Chapter 5 of the book, "How to Learn Chi Running." DD very helpfully lays out a simple and gradual plan to get you running like a Chi master. It doesn't matter how long it takes. He is very kind.

I like this book because there's very little fluff. The text is useful and dense. He really breaks it down for you, and gives incredibly helpful analogies and body feel tests. I don't, as I do with so many sketchily written running books, feel the urge to hurl it across the room. It's well written, concise, and totally helpful. I don't find myself skipping paragraphs or chapters. I'm right with him.

Tomorrow I'll try ChiRunning for an hour. If I can concentrate for that long......

Saturday, February 4, 2012

90 mins of quiet

It's 5:45 on a Saturday night, but it feels more like 10. I swam for an hour and a half this morning, a lifetime ago. I spent the day at my kids' swim meet, in a hot, crowded, echoey pool ushering 8-year old girls to their many and varied events. I have been loudly upbeat and encouraging all day. I have smiled and high-fived and accepted several soaking wet hugs. It was a great meet.

But I have to turn around and do it all over again tomorrow. We have to be on the road to New Haven by 6:30 a.m., the three kids and me.

I must run. I will not get through tomorrow's meet with sanity intact if I don't have something besides Game Night and sleep to break up the relentless swim meets. So Brian plays games with the kids (Dominion -- our family fave) and I head out for a headlamp run.

O, glorious night. I love running in the dark.

My right knee (tendinitis) and my left foot (plantar fasciitis) are still a bit wonky. I have Super Feet insoles in my Kinvaras for a little arch support (goddamn high arches), and a Chopat strap on my knee. I have stretched (never stretch). I may as well be 80, bionic, but I'm heeble-hobblin' out the door.

I am not comfortable running in the woods by myself at night, so this is a road run. I'm lucky to have a gorgeous stretch of road, River Road along the Mystic River, easily accessible from the house. A mile and a half to River Road, 6 miles out and back, a mile and a half home. That's the plan.

The River is lovely. I'm used to running this route early in the morning with the sun coming up across the water. This is different. Darker. The highway is much louder in the distance. There are even a few cars on River Road. You rarely get a car at 5 in the morning.

I stop to stretch my foot against a telephone pole. It hurts a little. My knee feels pretty good. Being injured is surreal. Things hurt; they don't hurt; they hurt again. There's no rhyme or reason. Run through it. Stop. Keep running. Walk a bit. Stretch. Run. Ignore. Run.

You never know if you're getting better or fucking everything up. Run through it. Rest. Cross train. Run. Whatever.

My brain is all over the place. One minute I'm all healed up running the Vermont 100 this summer. The next I'm writing to the race director relinquishing my spot. Forget Vermont. Get healthy. This could be a building year. I'll run the Grand Tree series, short trail races. No, I'll be fine. I'll PR Vermont. Freaking Vermont.

I want to run fast. Back in October I ran a 5K in 21:02. That's less than a 7 minute mile. 6:48 or something like that. Are those days over forever? I'm barely holding a 10 minute mile here.

Maybe I could find a cool open water swimming event. Swim around Key West. I know a couple of people going down to do that. 6 miles around Key West. Who's in? Who's paying?? Maybe swim the Hudson River. Oil slick swimming. I'm swimming like a maniac these days. It's exhausting. But good exhausting.

The river is smooth, wide and very black. I hear but cannot see flocks of geese. Clearly they see me. Honk, honk. Good evening!

Home, ice, compression pants (Gretchen!). It's an oatmeal for dinner kind of a night. Some nights are like that.

Monday, January 16, 2012

So ... what else have you been doing, Pam?

That's a good question. With absolutely no running in my life for almost two months, what have I been doing with myself? I feel like I have been through Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' five stages of grieving in miniature.

1. Denial. Well, of course. Deep, long seated denial was what got me into this mess in the first place. "Oh, my foot feels okay. My knee is basically sound. Those little twinges will go away." Don't I read other people's blogs all the time, and don't those blogs all say stuff like this?: "It felt like every bone in my left leg was shattered from hip to toe, and then five miles into the race I threw up a couple of times which seemed to loosen everything up and I went on to win that race and every other race I ever entered for the rest of my life." I was pretty sure something along those lines was going to happen to me.

2. Anger. I'm not sure I ever got angry in the sense of throwing things around the room and screaming at people. Let's just say I went through a period of annoyance. I was annoyed at myself for allowing these little injuries to build up ("If I'd just taken a week off after that last 50K I'd be running today," etc). That annoyance has now solidified into resolve. I will net get myself into this injury boat again. I will not. (I say this every time. We'll see....)

3. Bargaining. OK, foot, if I promise to swim for a week then you will let me start running next week. Back out there, foot. You and me. Pounding the pavement just like we were always meant to do (ad infinitum....)

4. Depression. This got kind of bad just before Christmas. This is all I'm going to say about that: I'm better now. Way better. Praise be.

5. Acceptance. This might be where I am right now. Not in the sense that I accept that I am getting older and I will always be injured and I will always miss running. More in the sense that I am getting older and I need to change the way I run. Run less, incorporate more cross training and strength training, not get carried away by big miles, and take days off. I may need constant reminders on this. In fact, I'll definitely need constant reminders.

Thanks to Meghan and Gretchen and TahoeRunGirl for the words of kindness on my last post. It feels so good to be understood. I'll look up Chi Running. A local running friend just mentioned that book last week. Time to act.

Lacking running, lo these weeks and months, other things in my life have kind of taken a step forward. Like I said in my last post, I have been swimming. Quite a bit. (Hello upper body strength!) I was cruising through a 400 yd backstroke Saturday morning when our local Gym Guy (every gym has one of there guys -- he's about 50, always at the gym, always flirting with the young lifeguards and desk people) jumped in to share my lane. "Hi, GG," I said. "Hey, Pam. Pam! Wow! You have a beautiful backstroke. Very smooth. When I jumped in here I thought you were one of the new college lifeguards they just hired." I kind of pulled a face and he laughed. He put up both hands and said, "That's all I'm going to say."

So. You take your affirmation where you can get it.

My usual physical therapist got deployed to Afganistan for 9 months (godspeed, Bill) so I have started with a new PT named Rick. I like him. He is working more specifically with my posture and quad strength. Myokinematic Posture Re-Positioning. We are doing lots of hip and glute exercises (my glutes are not "engaged"), and I'm starting to feel a difference in the way I walk and the way I kick in the pool. Buns of steel for summer!

I'd like to say I have been writing more with my free time, but I'm probably writing less. Swimming takes more time than running. To swim for 90 or 100 minutes I have to leave the house at 4:50 (it's 4:27 right now) in order to be back by 7:00 when my husband leaves for work. But I have been thinking about writing quite a bit. I'm delving into fiction, which, after 7 years of writing a weekly personal essay column, is quite a switch. It's almost like I have to give myself permission to make stuff up. And it's crazy the stuff that comes out. Crazy!

I'm reading Virginia Woolf: the novels, the biographies, the diaries. What a life! I recently had a bit of a Helene Hanff moment. I found a great deal on a gently used set of The Complete Diaries online. The day they arrived in the mail, individually wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, was a monumental day for me. I carefully unwrapped the first volume and turned to my daughter Nell with a huge smile on my face: "Nell! Don't you want to unwrap one? Share the joy!!??"

"Um, Mom..... I don't think that's possible."

Well, now. I think Nell is developing her father's sense of humor.

And we're having a great homeschooling year. My kids are at the perfect homeschooling ages: almost 7, 9 and 10. We're hopping around through the Middle Ages, the American Revolution, Helen Keller, fractions, Charlotte's Web, all the good stuff. It's cool to go through all of this again as an adult. You forget how much you've forgotten. You know?

I'm happy and hesitant to say that I am slowly dipping my toes back into the Big Lake. I have started running again. Just a little. I actually started last week, but then got derailed by a huge upper respitory infection (it's always something). The antibiotics have kicked in. I'm swimming this morning and back out on the roads tomorrow.

Wish me luck!