Wednesday, May 16, 2012

How I came to be a runner....

I've started reading "Iron Wars" - which is the epic story of the start of the sport of triathlon and one of the most significant rivalries in the sport between Dave Scott and Mark Allen, specifically around the 1989 World Championship.

But it's so much more than that. It's an inspiring book to any endurance athlete. For us, it creates a sense of normalcy. It makes us feel like were not freaks - like there are others - lots of others that understand. Others of our own kind that thrive in the community of suffering because it makes us feel alive and present. Reading it creates a 'happy place' for me. It's like being that 'Englishman in New York' that Sting talks about. Wandering around the corner and finding a proper pub. Feeling that there are others like you. Lots of others like you.

Reading it tonight at dinner (off traveling again in yet another city - feeling a little like a cast-away) - I remembered a bit I wrote a while back that talks about the transition I made from someone that ran occasionally to stay in shape in the off season from cycling to someone that truly loves running. It's from almost 3 years ago, and a lot has happened since then - but the path has remained the same, and my love (and understanding) of running has grown as well.

Maybe it's the book. Maybe it's being away from home. Or maybe just the wine from dinner, but I'm feeling nostalgic and teary eyed about how much I love being a runner - and for that matter an endurance athlete.

So here you go!

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So this is the reflective story of how I came to be a runner.

I never intended to be a runner. Running had always just been something I’d do in the off season from cycling or to fill the gaps in time when traveling. Back then, I didn’t feel like a runner. I felt like a cyclist that stumbled in a forward direction occasionally. Remember the episode on Friends where Phoebe ran? That’s how I felt; arms flailing, clomping along, heart pounding and pain everwhere. I felt like a clod, masquerading as a runner. No structure, and in fact; I don't think I even enjoyed it. It was just something to do when I got sick of riding the bike all summer and needed to get in shape for snowboarding season. I'd start up in the fall and ramp up to three runs of about 4 miles each during the fall and winter.  I never really thought out my pace or form. I just ran. The pain of that first mile never seemed to subside.

I didn't *get* running and I looked at serious runners in the way most people probably do. They were  freaks ;-)

That was the story in Chicago when I was traveling out there. Just something to pass the time and keep from getting fat – which is the natural outcome of weekly travel if you leave your body to it’s own devices.

Then one day, I decided to try to run 6 miles. I was amazed that I completed that and felt elated. It HURT for days.  But I kept at it. Pretty soon I was running 7 miles, then 8 - every other morning.

My first goal setting was to register for the Denver half marathon in 2007. I remember the first time I ran 12 miles. Oh my god - I was hanging on like grim death on that last 2 miles. I thought - ok, I can probably make 13 miles someday. It will get easier. And it did - a little.

Sadly though, my first half marathon never happened. I had my race bib and gear all ready to go for that morning but I woke up to a steady rain and sub 40 degree temps. AND it was dark. Now - I will run in ANY twosome combination of the three ‘crap-parameters’ (rain, cold and dark) - but all three in spades is as RIGHT OUT as counting to 5 or 6 with the holy hand grenade. So I skipped it. Gasp! In cycling, I never had even DNF’d (Did Not Finish). Not once. But here was the start to my serious running, “Uhhh… .yeah…… no… not going out there…”

But I repented and soon was signed up for the full marathon the following year (2008). I got more serious and downloaded training plans, tweaking them to suite my schedule and ability. The first time I saw that the plan called for running three days in a row I was skeptical. And the first few times I tried it - man that was not a great experience. But I kept at it, and pretty soon, I was looking forward to the feeling of starting off with a little stiffness, and feeling it evaporate as my muscles warmed.

I bought new running shoes and tracked my mileage against them, replacing them at 400-500 miles. (btw - I learned that shoes wear out WAYYYY before the soles do, and new shoes do wonders for your joints). I subscribed to Runner's World and read Gallaways book on running. I read blogs and kept diligently to my training plan. I bought a GPS training watch, which gave me the freedom to explore routes and still stick to my mileage for the day. It kept me honest on my pace and I didn’t need a track to do speed-work. And, on two occasions, it helped me find the hotel again in a strange city when I wandered off course and was frantically trying to get back for a morning meeting (Mode->Navigation->Find Waypoint (hotel))

And somewhere, in all that immersion, I started to feel like a runner. Not a jogger, not a poser - a real runner. I would get into a rhythm and feel my legs just passing under me, like a little engine on autopilot. I started to watch the Kenyans with awe and tried to visualize their fluid, gazelle like movements as I ran. And ok, I still ran more like a mountain goat that snarfed some bad mushrooms, but it was a vast improvement. I watched running on TV - and it was exciting!

In the Denver Marathon last year, I made the classic rookie mistake. I went out like a shot and paid for it halfway through. My theory of going out fast, accumulate a 'buffer' of time and then coast later in the race, fell flat in the face of physiology. I've since learned that the body just doesn't work that way.

In that race, I hit the 'wall' at mile 21. People used to tell me about the ‘wall’ and I’d scoff at them with a knowing smile. Hey, I've raced bikes and bonked really hard. I've dehydrated on long rides and in the back-country. I've hiked 17 miles up to over 14,000 feet and felt the effects of altitude (headache, dizziness and disorientation).  At the top of a Mt. Evans climb on my bike, my speech was slurring and a dropped glove looked to be down in a canyon below me instead of resting next to my foot.

I've even seen Elvis on the Colorado Trail. It was on one particularly nasty climb where I was trying to put the hurt on my buddy Chris. My vision tunneled, blacking out everything outside of a paper towel sized tube in front of me. As I crested the top, the King was there, sitting on a rock, eating some peach cobbler (he was the ‘fat’ Elvis version). He smiled as I passed and I waved. It seemed normal. Now *that* is bonking.

BUT - NOTHING, and I mean NOTHING compares to the WALL in running.

It took more determination than I've ever had to muster to break through it. And once I broke through, all was good. I limped through the last miles to a 3:58:21 - beating my goal of sub-four hours. I got teary eyed at the finish line. I had run my first marathon. I hadn't quit. The mantra that kept me going was one that I had read somewhere;

"There will come a day when you can no longer do this. Today is not that day"

That year leading up to the marathon and that day literally changed my life. Or more accurately, it created a fundamental change in me and how I looked at running. It was now my friend. I belonged wading in its’ waters. I wasn't a clod or a pretender. I was a runner and had every right to call myself one.  I even put a "Marathoner" bumper sticker on my car.

The truth is, I had this right all along - we all do. Running is something we were born to do. Just watch children. They absolutely LOVE to run. They laugh and run until they fall over. They don't have GPS watches or run negative splits. They can't tell you what pace they run at and their morning ‘loop’ is around the kitchen table – like 50 times.  They just do it because it's fun. Why it took me 4 decades to rediscover that love, I'll never understand.

And people I work with are genuinely baffled when they see me running all the time. They can't understand how that could be fun. But it is. It's liberating and simple and primal. It lights up those neural pathways that used to illuminate daily when we were children. I run and feel free. I run and feel resolved. I get to leave all the tension and stress and angst on the pavement as it passes under my feet. I get back to the office and I feel like I’ve taken Percocet. I love everyone.

My absolute favorite runs are early on the weekend. I leave the house with the dog while everyone is sleeping. I get to see the sunrise. I hold the dog back from chasing the prairie dogs and the rabbits. And when I get back to the house a couple hours later, Paige and the kids are all awake and I get to walk into this home buzzing with life. We make pancakes and I feel like I could live in that moment for the rest of my life and be happy.

In May I ran the Colfax Marathon at 3:36:59. It was great to be faster, but really the time wasn't as important to me as how I felt during that race. I felt strong and I loved every mile. Don't get me wrong - it was uncomfortable at times. But the elation I felt at being able to 'manage' that discomfort, turned it from an indicator light of 'pain' to one of 'being alive'. The last few miles I put on some ‘fast’ music and was able to just open up, flying down the street with a graceful stride. People were cheering and I felt like I belonged there; in the last few miles of a marathon. In the last ½ mile, the Eddie Vedder song, Big Heart Sun came on and I was so jazzed up by it. I crossed the finish line and was greeted by Paige, all the kids. Paige’s dad had even come up to watch. How great is it to finish a marathon, leaving not one bit of angst or stress in your body, and stumble into the arms of the people that you love and adore?

And now I'm running towards Denver again this fall. Hopefully on my way to qualify for Boston. I need to run a 3:30 plus change to qualify in my age group. After than, maybe London (3:15 or better). Now I know what you’re thinking. Ah, see – you are running to an objective, to a goal. But here’s proof that it’s not about the end goal in running. I’m only running a couple marathons a year, and you only feel the elation of hitting your goal pace for maybe a day or two after the race. But the work to get there is 6 months. That’s 26 weeks of about 40-50 miles per week. That’s almost 1200 miles. 170 some hours of running. There’s got to be some joy in the process, not just the goal to keep me motivated right?

In the end, I don't think a goal diminishes the joy of running. I’m really just chasing something because it’s fun to chase things. I mentioned before that we were made to run. Well, we were also made to chase things too. Watch children again. Kids love to chase things. In fact Luke runs fastest when he’s chasing the dog around the kitchen table.

Chasing something makes it that much more fun to run.

Wish me luck!!

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Postscript: So I did qualify for and ran Boston in April of 2010. And I've continued to improve my marathon time to my most recent in December of 2012 at the California International where I ran a 3:10:51. I am now hoping to run a 3:05 or better in Chicago and someday a sub-3 hour marathon. I also continue to love running and am now starting to see triathlon as a way to get back to racing my bike as well. If I could just stop sinking to the bottom of the pool during my swim workouts :-D

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