Monday, November 1, 2010

(Re) Learning Old Tricks

My 10th half-marathon was not only a dismal event but a huge cosmic butt-kick. Yet another reminder that in running, as in life, there are few short-cuts.

If my three decades of running have taught me anything it's that I am constantly re-learning the basics. The kindergarten rules that new runners need to keep in mind are not just for newbies.  They're also for seasoned runners like me who think they know it all and can just coast on that knowledge.

This was the third time in four years that I participated in the hilly Run Like Hell Half-Marathon in downtown Portland. Leading up to last year's race I used a 14-week training program that helped me achieve a solid performance of 1:46. I intended to use this same program this year.

Key word being "intended." I kept meaning to do all of the workouts but life seemed to get in the way.  Or that's what I told myself.  Instead of incorporating runs of up to seven miles at my projected half-marathon pace, I found myself cutting those down to three or four. Sometimes I just didn't have it in me.  Other times I had my mind on something besides the run.

My daughter's wedding took place three weeks before the race but not in our neck of the woods.  Carol was married in South Carolina, a daunting 3,000 miles away.  This meant travel by airplane, a grave insult to my lower back. Not to mention the stress of the event, albeit a happy one.

When I lined up with 1,100 other folks last Sunday morning it was rainy and windy.  Yet another excuse to cling to. But three miles into the race at the point where I usually begin to feel the groove, it wasn't happening.  I felt stiff and locked. Later I would tell my massage therapist that it felt as though someone had welded a metal plate the size of a mass paperback into my lower back.  My top and bottom halves were moving but my hips felt frozen.

I finished in 1:52:48, a full six and a half minutes slower than last year. A full 30 seconds per mile off last year's pace.  The next day my back and hips were killing me.  My legs? They barely registered the effort.

It would be easy to point to Mother-of-the Bride stress, nasty weather and poor training as the culprits. But when I looked back over my training log, there was one big hole in it - over a period of two months I had almost completely ignored my core work and stretching.

No push-ups in over seven weeks. Some crunches from time to time but not a plank in sight.  And stretching? Forget about it.

New runners are taught to start slowly and increase both mileage and speed with caution.  They are advised to stretch after each run and pay attention to any ache or pain that doesn't fade away.  And to place core strengthening hand in hand with a running program, thereby decreasing the chance of injury.

One week after the race I am back on the floor.  Gently prodding my stiff back and hips into pigeon pose. Making sure I stretch after every single run, even the recovery ones, and on my off days I'm focusing once again on core exercises.

Relearning what I've known for several decades as a runner but lost sight of in a matter of months.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Follow THIS Mother

Cleopatra: A LifeIf you get a chance this week-end, pop over to the Run Like a Mother blog for a familiar face. 

I feel like I'm on the running equivalent of "Oprah!"

My next post will be a one-week-after-the-race entry, detailing the good, the bad, and the very ugly of last Sunday's half-marathon.  "Ugly" is where my head's been since then so I needed to pause and refresh. 

I'll also blog on the books I've been enjoying lately.  Right now I'm enthralled with the latest by Stacy Schiff, "Cleopatra."

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Brush with Greatness

As many of you know, yesterday I had a brush with greatness.

After a six-mile run I threw on a jacket, grabbed a bag of books to sell and headed down to Powell's Bookstore.  (The mecca for any book lover, this store takes up an entire city block with new and used books. They also purchase books allowing customers to sell for trade or dollars.)

It was 9:30 AM as I entered the bookstore just as a tiny woman and younger gal came out.  Said tiny woman turned out to be Joan Benoit Samuelson, Olympic gold medalist and renowned marathoner.

One of my personal heroes.

So. Did I greet her and try to engage her in conversation? Ask her, "What brings you to Portland?" Or, as a solid book geek, inquire about the books in her bag?

Nope. I squealed like a star-struck school girl, "Oh. My. God." and just stood there.

This seemed to unnerve her and bemuse her companion, who I assume was her daughter.  As Samuelson stared at me and then began to beat a hasty retreat I managed to stutter, "Uh, great job in, uh, Chicago."

And off she went. Probably never to be seen by these eyes again.

As my loving, yet up front husband opined, "E, you blew it."

Perhaps, but I like to think I've had other closer and more intimate brushes with greatness.  Yes, I passed a heady five seconds with a 53-year-old woman who just ran a 2:47:50 at the Chicago Marathon.

I also watched my good friend, Sarah, of Run Like a Mother fame, BQ for the first time in a steady rain with a time of 3:59:54 at this year's Portland Marathon.  And from afar I cheered the new that Shelly, a California runner and blogger, tore through the Long Beach Marathon with a sizzling 3:46:29 at age 49.

Those feats are great moments in themselves.  And ones that can be savored and enjoyed not only by the women who experienced them but by others who care about them.  And are inspired by them.

Last but certainly not least is the moment of greatness you see in the picture that accompanies this post: The wedding of my daughter, Carol, that took place two weeks ago in South Carolina.

I look at this young woman and I am amazed by her character and her beauty.

There is no greater brush with greatness than that of a proud mother standing next to the child she adores and admires.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Pacing the Racer

For the first time in a while I won't be running a fall marathon.

My lovely daughter, Carol, is getting married in early October so most of my attention is focused on that exciting event.  Later on I'll be running my 10th half-marathon, the aptly named Run-Like-Hell Half Marathon.

And for the fourth time in my life I'll be pacing someone for part of a marathon.  Which got me to thinking about what makes a good pacer.

Some runners thrive on pace groups, where you start and (hopefully) finish the race with other runners all striving for a certain time goal.  Others like me prefer either running by their lonesome or meeting new people along the way.

A solid number of my marathoning friends enjoy having someone jump in with them towards the end of the race.  When a buddy joins you it can be invigorating, especially if you are feeling rough.  And, let's face it - around the 20-mile mark most marathoners are struggling both physically and mentally.

The question is - what works best for runners at that stage of the game? Obviously it differs from one person to another but are there some solid winning moves that assure the pacer helps the racer?

My first experience pacing a marathoner came five years before I tackled the event myself.  After meeting up with the runner at the 21-mile mark I began doing what she asked me to do.  I jabbered.

The thought was that my mindless chatter would distract her from the pain and discomfort of those final five miles.  Only several days after the fact she revealed: "Ellison, you could have told me you were flying to Sweden the next day for a sex change and it wouldn't have registered..."

Good to know. Flash-forward six years when I offered to help my best friend, Monica, navigate the final miles of the Newport, Oregon marathon.  The goal was to secure her BQ (Boston Qualifying Time) on a fairly dull out and back course.

I wound up jumping in with her at mile 19 after realizing she was looking rough.  At that point she was on track to BQ but was slipping in part due to having blasted through the first two miles of the race in less than 16 minutes.  We really hadn't discussed what methods I should employ so I confess to winging it.

First I tried the Drill Sergeant method: "Come on! You can do this! Pick those feet up and move it!!!"

This earned me nothing. Next came the wheedling and pleading. "Just do it for me.  Think about Boston! I know you can do this, honey!"

Lastly I confess I resorted to shame tactics.  "You're not going to let so-and-so get to Boston before you, are you?"

Fortunately Monica had enough energy left at this point to send me a silent middle-finger message.  Which I processed and used to shut off my mouth.

From there we limped into the finish.  I cried because I felt I had let Monica down.  She wisely chalked it up to a lesson learned and began looking ahead.  (And, yes, she qualified a year later in Eugene, OR with a solid 3:38!)

My latest pacing adventure came at the 2009 Portland Marathon when I offered myself up to Jill Parker who was in town from Colorado.  We had dinner the night before so Jill could give me some pointers on pacing her to yet another BQ.

I immediately failed to meet one requirement which was to provide Jill with a small peanut butter and honey sandwich at some point.  The problem was I was doing a 10-mile training run before pacing Jill with seven of those miles at my half-marathon pace.  I told Jill cramming even half a sandwich in my fanny hydration pack probably wasn't ideal.

Jill and I met up shortly before the 21-mile mark.  This time I took my cues from her and my knowledge of the course.  This meant trying to restrain her on a downhill stretch, knowing that a hill was on the other side of it.  It meant telling her a couple of funny stories but all the while offering phrases such as "Good and steady....You're doing it...Great job, Jill!"

Just before mile 25 I turned Jill over to Sarah of Run Like A Mother fame. Who, as life would have it, has asked me to run her in the last 10k or so of this year's Portland Marathon.

Sarah and I have known each other for over six years so I'm hopeful that I will be able to pick up the correct signals and propel her towards Beantown.  This will entail calling her "Champy" several times and, if necessary, humming songs from an obscure British rock group that only she and my husband are familiar with.

What works best for you, as the racer striving for a great marathon? And/or do you have any winning moves as a pacer that make you the go-to person for all your racing pals?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

In the Belly of the (Sweaty) Beast

Early Tuesday morning I woke up in a panic.  I could have sworn something was crawling down my face and neck.

Turns out it was a couple of things.  Sweat droplets to be exact.  Big fat ones.

My first reaction was quick and without censor, the way most thoughts at 2 AM are: thank God I'm not running today.

Running during menopause poses its own set of challenges.  For me, the main one is trying to get a full night's sleep in preparation for a hard morning workout.  Lately, it's been like chasing the impossible dream.

I've had night sweats on and off for about two and a half years.  And their daylight companion, the ever-popular hot flash.  But up until four months ago neither was much of a problem.  Then in early May, some one or some thing flipped the heat switch to the "on" position.

These days I'm apt to be seen strolling around the house with my t-shirt up around my neck, a look I won't be taking on the road thanks to another new development: the meno-pot.

For decades my stomach was either flat or concave.  Now no matter what I weigh or how many crunches and planks I spit out, there's some extra junk in the front.  In menopause circles it's referred to as the meno-pot.  I like to call it the Boomer Belly.

So now my days are spent yanking my shirt up and down like a defiant toddler.  What's especially tricky is handling a hot flash while running.  The first time this occurred I thought I was coming down with the flu.  I felt dizzy and flushed, the way you do before the thermometer under your tongue flashes an over-100 degree reading.

But what has really interfered with my training is saying farewell to a good night's sleep.  I've always been someone who relished her eight-nine hours of solid shut-eye.  These days I'm lucky to get by with three hours of straight sleep before the sweat cycle begins.  From that point on I wake up on average every 90 minutes, often literally dripping.

If my morning workout is a particularly demanding one - say a tempo run or hill repeats - it's tough to pull off after a night of tossing and sloshing.  What I find works is to convince myself I actually slept well and just pray that saying so makes it true.  That and a good afternoon nap.

Which brings me to wonder how I would have coped if I still worked outside the home.  Back in the day when I was a sales rep for a major soft drink company, how could I have made it through a nine-hour workday after a lousy night's sleep? Especially given that I always scheduled my runs before arriving at the office.

It's doubtful I would have been able to cut it without a nap.  And that's near impossible to do when you're working full-time. 

How do so many of my fellow Old Gal runners do it? I would love to hear from you.

In the meantime, I take my hat - and my shirt - off to you.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Guerrilla Angels

Ever had one of those days? When it would be so easy to convince yourself to swap the running togs draped over the bedroom chair for jeans and a t-shirt? When the whole idea of running just does not appeal?

I had one of those today and, man, was it tough to get out the door.  Last night the Old Guy and I had a wonderful dinner with friends.  Wine and brownies were consumed; two delectables that tend to bite this Old Gal in the rear when it comes to a good night's sleep.  They combined with the Demon of Night Sweats to turn seven hours of shut-eye into an all night tousle with the sheets.

Today's training plan called for nine miles including hill repeats.  And, naturally, it was drizzling outside.  By the time I got to the bottom of the first hill, my mind and body were dead set against me.  The legs felt like sacks of cement and that little inner voice was mumbling phrases such as, "You're not getting paid to do this, you know...." and "Wouldn't it be nice to quit at five miles and call it a day?"

The good news is I completed all seven of the hill repeats.  The bad news is after the last one I promptly headed for home.  Maybe eight miles was enough.  Heck, maybe even seven was sufficient.

And then she appeared.  I like to think of her and her kind as Guerrilla Angels.  They emerge out of no where when we least expect them and when we need them the most.  Typically, they are total strangers.

Today's GA had wild dreadlocks and two gold front teeth.  I've seen her from time to time along my route and we've always exchanged greetings.  But today this middle-aged woman planted herself in my path and bellowed, "Baby! Do you run every day?"

To which I replied, "No, only five days a week. I'm an Old Gal."

This earned me a fist in the air and, "Well, honey, you go, girl!"

It's amazing what words can accomplish.  I'm fairly certain this Angel has never trained for a race.  Or agonized over splits and speed work.

But, boy, her words lit a fire under this runner.  I kept moving until all nine miles were behind me.  By the time I got back to the house my sense of accomplishment was through the roof.

So I hope that somewhere in Northeast Portland, my Guerrilla Angel is having an excellent and blessed day. She certainly gave me one.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

H2C versus BOC

Hood to Coast versus Butt on Couch?   

First, a big shout-out to all my buddies who are running the annual Hood to Coast Relay! You know who you are and you know that Old Gal will never join you.

I like sleeping in my bed. At night and every night. Even as a Young Gal it's doubtful I would have willingly snuggled into the corner of a van for 30 winks in the name of teamwork.  These days, thanks to the joys of menopause (night sweats in particular), I crave any and all the sleep I can get.  Still, I salute my running friends who do this relay each and every year, giving it their all.

My less than perky behind will be on the couch.  And, as usual, there will be books nearby.  With that in mind, here is a list of my favorites this month.

Best in Show:  This has to go to Gail Caldwell's lovely memoir, "Let's Take the Long Way Home." Yes, it's about the death of her dear friend, the writer Carolyn Knapp, but it's not all a downer.  The writing along, elegiac and precise, is worth the price of admission.  Warning: if you're a dog lover, double your Kleenex ration.

Best Small Book:  Only have a limited amount of time as fall approaches? Pick up "The Typist" by Michael Knight.  At only 185 pages, it's what's known in some circles as a "quiet" book.  Lovely and simple, it's the story of one man's seemingly placid army service in Japan during the last days of World War II.  This is the first novel of Knight's that I have read but it won't be the last.

Best Writing:  Forgive me, Colm Toibin.  It took me over a year to read your latest amazing novel, "Brooklyn." Yes, I was saving it for who knows what special occasion having savored "The Master" several years ago.  Colm, your ability to describe an era and place - in this case mid-20th century Ireland and Brooklyn, NY - is breath-taking.  Every time I looked up from the pages I felt a moment of disorientation.  And finishing it was like leaving a beloved village.

Best Easy Reading:  If you're in the mood for some escape of the Deep South variety, turn to Beth Hoffman's "Saving CeeCee Honeycutt."  I have to thank my good friend, Ed, for nudging me into reading what I thought would be a light and frothy novel.  True, the story of 12-year-old CeeCee and her rescue by several Southern characters is entertaining and easy on the brain but Hoffman, who has a beautiful website, spins a delightful yarn. 

It's just right for a lazy day off from running, spent reading in the sun.

And if you're a reader who craves thoughtful musings on running, reading and writing on a regular basis please be sure to check out my new friend Shelly's amazing blog.  Like me, be sure to sign up for all of her posts!