Monday, February 15, 2010

A Valentine's Day 10 Miler & Thoughts on Lisbon

Between Valentine’s Day cards and a late lunch, I snuck out of the house for 10 miles. I took my new Nathan water bottle out, along with my iPod and a package of Honey Stinger cherry blossom chews. About a half mile in, I realized I had strapped the water bottle to the wrong hand --- I couldn’t check my watch without pouring water all over my sneakers. My iPod headphones sent little electrical shocks into my ear canals and my lightweight fleece chafed the back of my neck. In other words, all systems down in less than 5 minutes.

It’s almost impossible to settle into a long run: In the first mile or two, you’re thinking about the weather, the traffic, your lousy playlist, and your stomach/bladder/knee/ankle/other uncooperative body part. But, if you’re a long distance runner, you know to keep running. You’ll run to get your miles in, to nod in mutual respect and understanding at the other weekend warriors, for the hilarity of re-learning how to eat and drink while running, for the feeling of a job well done, for the hills that make you call upon your mantra and make very unholy bargains with the gods. And you’ll run because you know there will be an instant – or, if you’re lucky, several ---- of euphoria and pure effortlessness. You have your reasons to run.

The 5 mile mark is always my favorite. My turnaround point came a bit outside of town and it was time to try out those cherry blossom chews. As I began heading back, I ripped open the package with my teeth and coasted along, snacking and listening to “Mo Money Mo Problems.” Or, should I say, Mo Miles No Problems? Did I mention I get a little punchy when I run? With the boost of honey (cherry blossom chews taste exactly like Starbursts…but they’re organic!), I started gliding. Just because I like a challenge, I threw in three sets of sprints between miles 6.5 and 8.5, coincidentally a very hilly patch. And it hurt so good.

As the EDP Lisbon Half Marathon draws closer, I need to remember what it’s like to run fast on tired legs. It’s to my advantage to work hard and train fast on steep hills when the Lisbon course is one of the flattest half-marathon courses in the world. Of course, you can’t train for all contingencies. I’ve never run a race in a foreign country before. I’ll probably get lost en route to the race and I don’t know how to say "finish line," "water," or "After 13.1 miles, I need a drink... and make it stiff" in Portuguese.

But, you know, I think the very unfamiliarity of Lisbon, which goes in the face of all race day wisdom to do nothing but what you know, will be the best motivation. Shortly before a 10K race, I made one last visit to the porta-potty --- and dropped my iPod shuffle in the toilet. Almost in tears, I ripped through my bag to find my old, clunky iPod classic and sprinted to the start line. I had been training aggressively for months, but the porta-potty disaster and a last minute scramble for safety pins made me jumpy. The gun went off and I wove around, not sure what pace to strike. The ancient iPod then froze up about two miles in. iPod? More like iI'mSoHatingYouRightNow. I was furious, shaking, and completely amped up... thereupon, I shaved 7 minutes off my last 10K race time and came in at about 44 minutes. How do you like them apples.

I've never heard a running coach laud the unexpected. But it's the unreal moments -- like the spontaneous sprints on Valentine's Day -- that bring me the most luck and propel me on to the finish. And that's why I keep running.

Friday, February 12, 2010

"I am feeling very Olympic today, how about you?"

8:40am: Half a bagel, plain yogurt, and strawberries. Breakfast of champions? We’ll see.

9:40am: Out the door. I’ve never driven before a race and I’m realizing why. I’m distracted, punching the buttons on the radio.

9:55am: I check in at the sprint triathlon.

10:20am: My swimming heat is up. I check out the lanes and hedge my bets. I choose a lane – she doesn’t look too menacing – and slide into the pool. The whistle goes off and I start with a strong free stroke. But the quasi-bronchitis quasi-flu that wiped me out for all of January catches up with me quickly. I currently have the lung capacity of a 90 year-old asthmatic smoker and I have to slow down. I shift into breaststroke and I’m still moving at a good clip. But my lane partner hits a flip turn and sends a tsunami wave my way. I choke on pool water and slow down a bit. She is churning the water and it seems as though she is getting exponentially faster as I get more winded. Seriously, who is this chick? Another tsunami wave, then wave after wave, come my way and I’m starting to resent her. The fifteen minutes is up. I hoist myself out of the pool. And I hear that she is the race director. I sure do know how to pick them.

10:35am: I towel off quickly and pull on a black singlet, black shorts (a race day tradition), and my sneakers. I’m digging the all-black – Kind of like the matrix, right? It’s a step up from my Boston Marathon ensemble --- I was channeling a bumblebee, with a yellow singlet and black shorts. Yea, I think about these things.

10:40am: My bike heat starts. Back on dry land where I belong. I’m on a recumbent bike, all set up with a bottle of water, and I’m pedaling hard. At first, I’m keeping the RPM in the 110s, but then I realize I can hit the 120s just fine. I’m glad to have my iPod shuffle: I have the music playing so loud that I’m probably doing permanent damage to my eardrums, but it’s keeping me focused. I’m sweating and a volunteer offers me a towel – nah, I’m good. I’m consistently in the 130s in my last five minutes and wrap up at 4.30 miles.

10:55am: My quads are whining, so I use the transition time to stretch. I’m itching to get running.

11:00am: It’s treadmill time. I kick it off at 7.5mph. My legs strike the treadmill and they feel funny after the bike. Around minute 6, I find an easy rhythm. I keep pushing the speed up. There’s something about treadmills that I’ll never get to used to. Sure, they’re great when there’s a foot of snow outside. But the treadmill speed dictates how fast you go and I like the feeling of blowing it out on the track. Nonetheless, I can’t resist the temptation of the “up” button. 8mph at the 10 minute mark, 8.3 with one minute to go. I’m breathing hard and I go for 8.5mph. I’m relieved to hit stop when the fifteen minutes is up. 1.98 miles.

1:00pm: Chocolate ice cream.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Where the Runner Meets the World

I run because I like to sweat. I run on sand, snow, treadmills, dirt trails, tracks, grass, and asphalt. I don’t sleepwalk; I sleeprun. I’m an athlete because I run. I sprint for the breathlessness; I train for the sense of purpose;. I run for the unbelievable smoothness and the clarity of movement that come after 5 or 6 miles, as the pumping of my arms and the cycling of my legs synch up, as I plunge into another 5 or 6. I can’t tell you what three centimeters or six ounces look like but I know what 26.2 miles feels like and that distance is written into the memory of my muscles and bones. I run for the destination and for the trip itself.

I travel because I get restless. I travel to know the sweet Valencian oranges, the reverberating sound of the Islamic call to prayer, the brine of Belgian mussels, the length of a New York City block. I like the authoritative smear of ink on my passport page. I like weeks of travel, months of living in a foreign country, and the weekend that gives you whiplash. I travel for the contrasts, for the grime of the Place de Clichy and for the dreamy, blue magic of a chilly January dusk in the Tuileries. I read snatches of guidebooks, plan trips that might not ever happen. Or they might. I travel to sate the need for escape and it only fuels the addiction. I carry home with me the afternoon in the Pommery champagne caves and the bumpy rickshaw ride and I travel for more of those instants.