Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Boilermaker: 5 lessons I learned while running uphill

Boilermaker is a hot and grueling 9.3 mile race in Utica NY that has been going on every July since 1978. Runners that have done the Boilermaker wear the success of completing it like a badge of honor. The first four miles are all uphill with the 4th being the most intense. It is a 300 foot climb. There are only short breaks before a long steady hill near the end of the race.

I decided to test my running race wings on this race for some reason. It was my very first long race, and my first 15K. I'm not sure why I chose this particular one other than it was advertised as having racing's biggest post race party! Shallow, right? Apparently I'm motivated by free beer :) Anyway, I learned a lot at the race and I thought I would share a few of those things.

1. It is impossible to prepare for everything in life even when you try really hard. Sometimes life has other plans you just can't control.

My running partner and I are planners. And we planned well! We actually joked about how complimentary we are to each other. What I didn't think of she did and vice versa! We had trained on hills. We had run together. We had everything from all our secret tricks and foods to an extra set of pins for our bibs! All that was left was to go drive the race route the night before and we would be totally prepared. 

We could only find a cartoon like map of the course but we set out determined anyway. Somehow we managed to find the start line. We found mile one. Ok. This wasn't so awful. Slow gradual incline. Mile 2. Harder and long but do-able. Mile 3. Challenging. I was starting to worry. I had never run a hill for this long right out of the gate. Mile 4. Steep. Really steep. How steep though? Where does this hill peak? Where is mile 5? We lost the course. There were no more signs indicating the rest of the route. 

I felt a huge wave of anxiety wash over me. I like to see what's coming. I like knowing. I like being prepared. I hate surprises. How fast should I go up the easier hills so I have enough energy for the huge hill? What about the last hill after the huge one? 

Questions swirled in my mind. I would have to wait and see. You just can't prepare for everything.

2. The whole really is the sum of its parts. 

I am just as much made up of the seemingly meaningless moments as the ones I hold close. Both have the same potential to add value to my life based on what I pay attention to.

In the moments when you are digging deep to make it through you draw from the strangest of thoughts and experiences. Running uphill yet again mile 6-8, after a 300 climb the first 4 miles, I found myself hitting the wall. I felt like I was barely moving forward. I wanted to walk. I passed so many people way more fit than I was walking. But all I could think about was this random interaction I had with a total stranger, a veteran Boilermaker runner at our hotel, at 6am that morning.

"So how bad are the hills, really?" I asked her. She was clearly a serious runner, totally fit in her spandex and compression socks and shorts.

She smiled and said, "Put your knees in the hill and take small steps."

Then she waited a minute and added, "And whatever you do don't walk. You don't get bragging rights if you walk."

So here I was at the wall and this lady pops in my head as I want nothing more than to walk. So what do I do? I curse her in my head for a good half mile of the slow agonizing ascend but I keep running. When I tire of this the leader of my running group makes a cameo in my head. 

"Get in your positive bubble. Smile. If you get negative, count. You can't count and have negative thoughts at the same time."

Sure enough she is right. I count multiple times to 60 as if I had just discovered some major breakthrough. If I do this 10 times it will be the end of this mile if I'm running a 10 minute mile!

After the 3rd round I forget why it was I was counting. 

3. Sometimes if you just open your eyes and look, you can find just what you need right in the moment

I'm on the last hill ready to collapse. I'm in unknown territory. I'm on the part of the route we were unable to drive the night before. I'm having a really hard time negotiating my way through all the runners. I've managed to pick out a young aggressive guy who was just a little faster than me and I started following behind his path as he weaved through people like an art. I have to push myself to keep his pace but it's worth it as I am not slowing down and speeding up as much to navigate people.

After a half mile of this I lose him and I'm back on my own. The top of the hill is finally in sight but my stamina is no where to be found. I want to quit. The lead singer of a reggae band is playing at the top of the hill. He catches my eye and we are staring at each other as I fight hard with every step up. I don't look away and neither does he. I'm drenched, like I need to wring my clothes out drenched. I'm visibly struggling. I imagine I look like a drowned rat at this point. We hold eye contact and he holds out his hand for me to slap his as I run by when I finally make it to the top. I can still hear his voice in the microphone, "Come on now. You got this. Whoo eeey" He could have been talking to any number of us gasping and struggling up that hill. But in that moment he was talking to me. It was just what I needed. And I crested the top of the hill.

4. The view from the top is beautiful but it only lasts a few moments. The real beauty is on the way there.

The view at the peak of the largest hill was amazing. And when I reached it I felt a huge sense of accomplishment. But it only lasted a few moments and I was starting the downhill descent. The peaks and the valleys came and went and were all part of the road to the finish line. After the race was over I realized that as great of a place as the peak is, if you love what you are doing to get there then it's all good. The real value is in the journey. What you learn on the way makes all the peaks that much more special and meaningful when you reach them.

5. Finish lines are two sided. On the back of every finish line is a new starting line

When I hit mile 8 I couldn't wait to see the finish line. In hindsight I think I mentally peaked too soon. If I focus too early on being done, I torture myself until I get there. I had done a pretty good job of staying in the mile I was in up until that point. Here was where I mentally almost lost it. I was exhausted and I kept anticipating the end being around the corner. And it wasn't. And it still wasn't. That was the longest mile of my life. I passed a guy that had collapsed on the ground unconscious. I slowed down to see if he needed help just as EMS came so I kept going. The image stuck with me and I felt so bad for that guy. He was so close to the finish line. It was a stark reminder of the fine line between pushing yourself far enough and pushing yourself too far. Running forces you to find that line. You learn to make nice with your body and know it's limits whether you want to or not.

It wasn't until I hit around mile 9 that I finally thought I saw the finish line in the distance. My eyes were on fire and burning from the sweat dripping from my face and hair. I wanted to cry. The last 3 tenths of the mile was congested and packed with runners. The road was almost like a chute slightly downhill to the finish line. Suddenly it dawned on me that I was actually going to finish this thing. I felt this burst of energy come from some place deep inside of me. The far left hand lane up against the yellow fencing was narrow but all clear of runners. If I took a chance and ran it I would be tight against the fence and crowd. I could easily trip. I figured it must be risky or more runners would be doing it. I surprised myself when I took a deep breathe and just started sprinting along the side by them. I was flying by the faces of thousands of total strangers clapping and cheering as I passed by them so close we could have brushed shoulders. It was a feeling I have never experienced before.

My right foot was the first to cross the line and I think before my left foot could hit the ground tears started filling my eyes. I had done it. I had finished. My parents would be proud of me. I was proud of me.

I stopped running right after I crossed to try to catch my breathe. My mind was bursting and I stopped and turned around for a minute to look up and see the finish line again. I was soaked. My eyes were stinging. The muscles in my legs were on fire. And yet the next thought to pop in my head on the other side of the finish line was, imagine how it will feel to meet your dream and cross the finish line of a marathon?

On the back of every finish line is a new starting line.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Never underestimate your short run

I'm gearing up for my first big long distance race this weekend, The Boilermaker. I'm told it's 9.3 miles of heat, water hoses & music on the streets along the way. I'm excited to experience what it will be like to run with 17,000 other long distance runners. 17,000 other people who get why you run without you having to say a word.

I ran a short 3 miles today. I got out later than I had planned. The heat was grueling. I literally felt like I was going to throw up when I was done. The girls were playing at the park while I ran the loop & when they saw me at the end their eyes were as big as saucers. Liv said I looked like I had just gotten done swimming. The heat worries me for the race but it will start earlier so I'm hoping we will beat the really intense heat.

The muscles in my body felt really stiff & tired while I was running today. I started trying to figure out why. I had a lot going on in my mind but I had also put in a ton of miles the past week, 30 to be exact. I'm not sure if it was the heaviness of my mind exhausting my body or vice versa.

In any case today was a short unexpected intense run.  I found myself employing mental strategies like counting just to rid my brain of the negativity it was focused on. I run 13 miles for God's sake. Come on already. What's 3 miles? What is my problem?

I decided that now that I run so far I sometimes underestimate my short runs. I shouldn't do that. Lesson. A short run can really smack you awake. A short intense run can sneak up on you like someone you really thought you knew & in the end realize you didn't know at all. Never underestimate your short runs.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Crossing the 13.1 line

I saw my shadow on my long run this morning. It intrigued me for some odd reason so I snapped a picture of it. I also saw a red fox. It literally leaped out of a bush on the road in front of me, ran toward me and stopped. I stopped too and we had eye to eye contact for a good 3-5 seconds until he darted back into the bushes.

The fox really scared me. It was just starting to get light out and it seemed like the perfect excuse to turn around. In my mind it was surely a sign that today was not the day to attempt my goal distance of 13.1 miles. There were other reasons not to attempt it too. It's hard to run when you feel out of sync.

I didn't turn around. I kept running and I finished. Training my brain to go the distance is proving harder than training my body to go the distance. True for running. True for life.

It's weird. I don't feel as good as I had expected to after meeting such a big goal. I'm not sure why. I expected hitting 13.1 to feel incredible. Maybe I'm just not in a place to celebrate today? Or maybe I got a glimpse of how long the rest of the journey really will be?

I feel like moving past 13.1 is crossing an imaginary line. I'm crossing the line into the unfamiliar. I'm crossing into the second half of the marathon and that scares me. The first 13.1 miles was hard. It was hard on my body & some of the lessons were hard on my heart. The next 13. 1 miles will probably be more so. It's so unknown. I've never pushed myself this hard or spent this much time alone with myself. Or my shadow.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Journey in the Second Half

How do you like my new look? Is it me? True to most things in my life... wait til you hear the back story on how and why I ended up on blogspot!

The irony of this story is that I was finally being a responsible, good blogger and I was backing up my wordpress blog before updating it. I had been avoiding this task for a long time because I was afraid I might screw something up. Crazy, right? Turns out not so much.

Yep ironically while attempting to save everything on my blog I lost everything on my blog. Sounds strange but true. What is it they say? The best laid intentions or something like that? That could be the theme of my life.

So I installed a back up plug in and received a fatal error and I could no longer access anything on the blog. I couldn't even sign in as the administrator. I immediately contacted my web host who replied that there wasn't much that could be done and they were actually thinking of disabling the blog feature all together. Hmm, I thought to myself. Information I could have used prior to paying up front for a year of web hosting WITH a blog.

But for once I didn't freak out. Yet. I took a breathe and decided that this may be just what I needed. I feel like a different person these days so a fresh new look might be just what the doctor ordered. I had been putting it off because of the whole "comfort zone" thing. I was comfortable. I didn't feel like learning a whole new system. Computer savvy, I am not. And learning all things computer related was a very slow, pain staking process for me. But now I had no choice really. I started researching new blogging platforms. And then I started looking in my files and emails for some of the saved blog entries. The blog entries that weren't there. Gone. Not saved. No where to be found. Are you kidding me?

Some of my most memorable and heart felt entries were just completely gone. I started remembering the titles like, Looking Inside. The entry I wrote after meeting my mom on a run. The Bikini, the entry I wrote when I finally found my bravery in the dressing room at TJ Maxx. It was a landmark day. I put on a bikini and I left my shame in the dressing room that day.

My positive attitude was dwindling the more I remembered all the missing pieces. It was a tug of war in my brain. There was a side of me that said, they aren't gone. The experiences make up who you are. They are still inside you. And the other part of me remained steadfast and profoundly sad, feeling like I had somehow lost a piece of myself and my journey the past 2 years.

I kind of sat with that for awhile. I didn't like the place I was in but rather than catastrophize things I sat with the sadness and the not knowing. It was a lot like running in that I did all that I could and now I had to stay in the moment and let it go. After a short teary few minutes, I decided I would pack up the kiddos on this rainy Friday afternoon and take them to McDonald's for a little lunch treat. The old me would never have done that. The old me would have wallowed and beat myself up for hours. I would have went over the problem a million times in my head. I would have tried to elicit help from a million people, trusting anyone other than myself, to fix the problem. Not today.

Today I sent a final assertive email to the host. I honestly explained how important my blog entries were to me and why, without shame or embarrassment. I owned my mistake. I should have backed them up. I put it out there, sent the email, and let it go.

And as I was sitting in McDonald's laughing with my girls I received an unexpected email from her saying the programmer was able to save the content. I should have it tonight.

It felt great to know I would have it back. And I am unbelievably grateful for that. But I am also grateful that for one of the first times in my life, in my heart I knew that no matter how it turned out I would have been okay. It was a culminating moment of many lessons over the past 2 years, lessons I blogged about the past year. The new part was the knowing that all will be well. Go or stay. Right or wrong. Accepting things as they are. With parents or without parents. Perfectly imperfect. One step closer. I would continue forward on the journey in the second half. Thanks for coming along with me.