Thursday, May 26, 2016

The nearly perfect run

I generally know if a run is going to be good within about a minute of starting out.  This morning’s plan was Murphy Hill.  I didn’t do a specific speed workout yesterday for my short 5 miler, so I thought getting a brutal hill in would be this week’s speed focus.  I also had this feel that today might be my best ever Murphy Hill climb.

The temperature was perfect.  Truly perfect – low 50’s, gentle breeze, sun not up enough to be hot – just up enough to turn the sky into a sunrise portrait of pale blues, purples and wispy clouds, with some haze here and there.  I have been waiting all year for running weather like this, putting in my dues during those 5 degree dark days.   I was wearing my relatively new shoes, and it was the second time I’ve used my newest insert experiment (Berry Superfeet) in them, and I was pleased that the feet felt supported, cushioned and that nothing hurt. 

In fact, nothing hurt anywhere.  This has actually been happening more and more often as I continue to improve my base.  When I just go out there and put in the miles at the pace my body wants to go (rather than the pace my brain wants to go), often everything feels good, easy, smooth and natural.

I am starting to accept (or trying to accept) that if I go at the pace my body wants to go, I will almost invariably be disappointed with the time it takes to do my first mile.  That first mile is a bit hilly, and although at one point in time when I tried to do every run as fast as I could take it, I would manage it in 9:30, it pretty typically takes me 10+ these days, as I allow that first mile to be a warmup.  Today was 10:25.  Tiny little voice in my brain whispering disappointment but I waved it away, happy with how limber and strong my legs felt, and reveling in the astounding beauty of the morning.

The next mile was 9:52, which eased the voices in my brain a bit.  Still feeling good.  Mile 3 was 10:10 – that one is a bit hilly too, so all in all, the voices were not overly loud about pace, and they let me focus on feel. 

Murphy Hill starts right after mile 3 – it is a 600 foot (or so) climb, in the space of 1.6 miles.  Sort of a series of steep rollers.  It is my favorite “go to” hill.  The first mile of the climb has been known to take me 13 minutes.  The way I’ve been approaching hills has been “take the hill at the same effort as the rest of your run – not the same pace”.  Lately this has been just a constant focus on “how does my body feel RIGHT NOW, and what adjustment do I need to make”?  Generally by doing that I have a strong climb. 

Today’s climb was perfect.  Every step felt right, and, more importantly, every step felt strong.  I could feel my glutes, which I’ve been working on, propelling me up the hill.  I was thrilled when I saw that first Murphy Hill mile took me 11:18.  Killing it, and feeling great.  One of the best things about today’s climb is that it was strong and steady and it felt awesome.  Sometimes it is just killer hard – my breathing is rough, and it requires extraordinary mental fortitude to just keep taking the little steps up the hill.  That’s good training in itself – but I love it when I feel fantastic. 

The last section of the hill gets pretty steep and just requires little quick steps, as slow as necessary to get to the top.  That section usually feels pretty rough.  Today – well, today it felt just fine!

I got to the top and stopped for just a moment to let cars pass and to enjoy the view.  And started on the down.

Although it would seem that the down would usually be great, that isn’t always the case.  I’m not a strong downhill runner – I think I tend to brake a bit, and I’m never quite sure what my stride should be.  My approach lately has been to try to lengthen my stride, relax, and let gravity do its thing without me getting in the way.  Today it felt kind of like flying.  My first full downhill mile clocked in a 9:17 and my next one was pretty close to that.  As I concluded the real downhill portion, I caught a glimpse out of the corner of my eye of brown.  I quickly registered it as a doe and her very very new, tiny, spotted fawn, nestled down beside her, to the left of me in a meadow.  I stopped and reached for my phone to take a picture – but alas, the fawn was gone and the doe started wander away.  Damn.  I really would have liked that picture.  But at least I had the gift of seeing that perfect moment.

As I started to run again, I was thinking to myself “there is nothing about this run that isn’t perfect”.  About a mile later, I spotted another doe and fawn together in a meadow and realized again how grateful I was for this perfect run.

It wasn’t until I was about 3/10 of a mile away from home that anything happened to mar the beauty.  There, off to the side of the road, I saw another beautiful spring animal baby – a fox – lying lifeless, killed by one of those awful road monsters who so often seem like they are aiming their headlights and tires at me.  My heart broke just a little bit, and I finished the run on a more somber note.

So, not a perfect run after all. 


Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The first step is admitting you have a problem...

My husband informed me that the closest thing to exercise addiction is opiate addiction.

He should know.  He is a pharmacist.

So here is this thing about running.  It has gotten under my skin in a way that no other endurance efforts have.  I’ve been training for, well, probably about 8 years now – ever since the Army 10-miler in October of 2008.  It started out with just running.  A couple of years into running, I started to bike with some friends, and a future triathlete was born.  I did my first triathlon – NYC – in 2012… and promptly signed up for another one 2 weeks later.  Signed up for my first 70.3 (half Ironman distance) in 2013 – training all winter and flying out to the West Coast for that one, throwing in a few shorter ones in the mix that year.  2014 was Ironman year.  I got used to training a LOT.  Up to something like 16-20 hour per week at the culmination of that training.   I always assumed that I’d just keep trying to better myself as a triathlete, perhaps another Ironman where I could improve my somewhat dismal run performance.  But then, last year, in 2015, after spending all winter training for and doing pretty well at Florida 70.3, I set my sights on a 50 mile ultramarathon.  And, somewhere in the journey, I stopped being a triathlete and started becoming a runner.

I’ve been trying to analyze what has been so compelling for me about running versus a more balanced training program like triathlon.  Also, I wanted to explore, here, that delicate balance between a positive addiction and a negative addiction.  It is all intertwined.

So it is a fact that I am addicted to exercise – running, at the moment.  Addicted in the true sense of the word.  I know this because, well, I get addicted to things.  Smoking – I was a 2 pack a day smoker from age 16 when I started until age 30 when I tearfully quit.  Drinking – that career was shorter but more eventful.  Drank – lots – from age 16 until 22.  Eating?  Well, there are some weird relationships with food is all I have to say about that one.  In this post, anyway.  Enter exercise.

So – in many, many ways, exercise (running) saves me and gives me tremendous joy.  It has certainly carried me through one of the saddest and most difficult periods of my life.  I have met wonderful people.  I have experienced stunningly beautiful race venues.  I have learned that I have a competitive streak I never knew I had.  I have transitioned from being a reluctant, back of the pack athlete who only took up running so as to avoid a huge weight gain when I quit smoking, to a motivated racer with a vigilant training schedule.  To someone who now will often place in the top third of racers – sometimes top quarter (heck, last 2 ultra races, 3rd woman and 2nd woman in respectively). 

So what’s the issue?

Well – going back to “the first step is admitting you have a problem” – the issue is maintaining balance.  When do addictions become problematic?  When they start controlling YOU – rather than you controlling them.  When they negatively affect your relationships.  When you feel like you are at their mercy.  When it stops being fun, and starts being something else entirely – like a job you didn’t even realize you ever applied for. 

So – me, and running.  It is a constant quest for balance - to try to achieve the positive benefits of the running community, of pushing myself and seeing what I’m capable of – of achieving that perfect Zen of being absolutely at one with my body, in touch with every aspect of how I’m feeling as I hit mile 35 feeling GREAT…  but not sinking down into being a slave to something that is supposed to be fun and bring me joy.

It’s a tough balance – because in order to be successful as an endurance athlete, there is a constant component of pushing yourself when sometimes you don’t want to.  Your brain will, with some regularity, need to push you to do things outside of what you might “feel like” at the moment.  Call it will power – but without that, there is truly no way to maintain the kind of training schedule one needs to maintain to train for a 50 or 100 miler – or Ironman.  So what does it mean to not be a slave?

For me, lately, it’s mean really looking at my goals and identifying where I TRULY want to spend my training time.  For example, ever since last spring, when I essentially stopped being a triathlete and started running 5 days a week, I’ve tried to maintain at least 1 swim and 1 bike workout (in addition to the 50-75 miles of running) just for when I decided to go back to triathlon.  In order to keep at least 1 rest day in the mix, this invariably meant at least 1 evening workout (run in the morning, come home and bike).   And the number of times I did NOT want to come home and hop on that bike was, well, about every week.  And yet I keep doing it. 

Strength training.  Somewhere last fall I started trying to do this 3 times a week instead of 1.  I definitely saw the benefits to how I felt and performed.  But, the stress of trying to get to the gym a couple of times a week… well, that started adding to the feeling of this all being a job instead of a hobby I love.

So lately – I’ve been letting some of that go.  Saying “I’m going to go home from work and do whatever the hell I want.  Screw biking”.  Or, rather than go to the gym (which is really the stressful part – adding in that extra time commitment – not the training itself), try to do some strength exercises at home in between other activities. 

Letting these extra things go has freed me up to enjoy the running part more.  From a balance perspective, having a hobby where I can do all of my training in the morning works better than one where I’m regularly coming home and telling my husband “I’ll see you in an hour – I’m hopping on my bike”.  And then spending a not very enjoyable hour on my bike.

So – those hours out there in the morning before work, running along in the dark (and now the light) – those are mine.  I’m doing them (generally) because I want to. 

So what has running given me that biking and swimming do not?  It has put me more in touch with my body.  With running, I know EXACTLY how I’m feeling at every point of the journey.  And as I’ve extended my weekly mileage, I’ve also regularly started running at a pace that makes me feel good rather than one where I’m always laboring.  There is a rhythm and spirituality to a great run.  There is me, moving through my environment, through rain, snow, cold, heat, hills, flats, trails, roots, rocks.  There is, too, a chemical component.  The feeling of euphoria after a really tough speed workout where I just push myself to the max is like a jolt of drug straight to the brain.  It’s a high worth chasing after.  Or the feeling after a 26.2, 31, 36, 50 mile race.  Or a 50 mile slow run training weekend.  Somehow after those efforts, despite any lingering stiffness or achiness, there is contentment unlike anything else.

The first step is admitting you have a problem.  But oh, what a problem to have!!!