Whidbey Island Marathon Recap

Two months ago, when I got snowed/iced out of running the half marathon I had trained for, I started looking at some spring training goals to get me through the rest of the winter. There are a number of reliably well-designed half marathons in the Pacific Northwest in April; it is one of the few months of the year here where you are more or less guaranteed mild weather conditions. I reached out to a good friend who is also an avid runner and walker and we started looking at some possibilities for a spring race. We went back and forth on schedules, pros and cons of different areas, and finally settled on Whidbey Island Marathon. Marathon, not Half-Marathon. Initially, the plan was to devise a run-walk interval approach, attempting to finish before the 6-hour cut-off. We found on a long run a few weeks before the race, however, that breaking up running with long periods of walking (for example, running three miles and walking one) expended energy in such a way that it really damaged overall stamina and energy. So we regrouped, aiming to frontload at least 16 miles of running followed by some combination of running and walking. To be honest, on marathon morning as we shuttled in the early dawn to Pass Lake, I still wasn’t quite sure how I was going to tackle the course. I had some plans sketched out, but I was also improvising.

eight

The first mile of the marathon took us across Deception Pass Bridge. If you haven’t been to Western Washington before and you ever end up here, rent a car, drive up the freeway to Burlington, and take Highway 20 through to Whidbey Island. You will not be disappointed. This bridge to the island is incredible, and the promise of this experience was enough to push us over the line to sign up for the full marathon rather than the half. It was a magical way to start, but it was also challenging in that the big ticket view was over and done with at the beginning of the race, and now more than 25 miles stretched out ahead of us. I felt slightly overwhelmed, even in the first three miles, as I came to terms with what I was doing. The night before, I enjoyed a warm, cozy, bed all to myself in an Airbnb with all of the amenities. I took a good long look at the slick road ahead, including all those hills, and dug in for a good long ride.

one

I struggle to think of a single flat mile. Most of the race could be described as “rolling hills” although there were some larger hills every 2 miles or so that forced us to walk some brief intervals from the get-go. I think the hills, in some way, helped us achieve a run/walk balance that was more natural and forgiving within the broader context of a 26 mile run. At first, I focused on getting to the 10K mark, because I knew that would be about a quarter of the way in, and I would feel much warmer than I did at the beginning. Miles 6-13 were relatively uneventful. I kept up with Nuun, and either ate a bit of trail mix or some electrolyte slop about every hour. When we got to the half marathon mark, it was both thrilling and punishing; halfway there, but also… time to run another 13.1 miles. At this point, I found it helpful to start thinking about meeting smaller goals to keep myself going.  The first objective I focused on was getting to the 16 mile marker. My friend and I had recently run 16 miles together, so I knew we could get there and might feel better if we experienced passing the mile marker. After a brief hail storm at 16, I started thinking about 18. If we could get to 18, that would only leave 8 miles, or a medium-length run on any normal day of the week.

two

Several minutes later, we reached the 18 mile marker. At this point, we were needing different things to complete the race. I was already fixated on seeing mile 20, because I wanted to get down to a 10K or less of running remaining. My friend’s IT band was irritated and she very smartly decided to ramp up her ratio of walking. My legs and hips were feeling very tired, but I was more concerned about the peripheral “wall” sensations I was starting to feel… the slow creep of hopelessness, cold extremities, and the overwhelming exhaustion of being spent. I was worried that if I did not keep running, I would not keep moving. So, we parted ways, I put in my earbud for the first time on the run, turned up some Doobie Brothers, and decided to run as much as I could to the finish.

five

When I passed Mile 20, I thought I would be home free, but the marathon had other plans to make me work harder for my relief. A huge hill before the Mile 21 marker nearly caused me to sit on the shoulder and start crying. Feeling alone and discouraged, I started thinking about all the other people who were in my heart and what they would want me to do. I took out my phone and sent my best friend, now living across the country, a picture of the hill. I reflected on the feelings of love I have, for her, for my family, for my friend a mile or so behind me on the course. I started to imagine the love I had for the other runners on the course, these other strangers who set aside their lives, their jobs, their kids and families this weekend to pile into a musty shuttle and run from one county to another. I thought about the volunteers, high school track athletes, probably, or scouts with their parents huddled in camping chairs in the rain and cold from before the light of dawn until well after lunch. So many people around me were making the choice to give something of themselves that day, and losing myself in that meditation, I felt compelled to match their generosity and finish. It seemed that I unlocked something through this introspection, as the course itself curved gently downhill for most of the final 4 miles, and I was able to run the rest with very little disturbance or struggle.

four

When I saw the finish line and the 4:45 pacer, I was overwhelmed with relief and also so incredibly proud of myself. Six years ago, I fought with every last cell of my body to get across the finish line in more than five and a half hours. On Sunday, I was able to run and finish a marathon in 4:44. I hold this as evidence of a few things. My running practice has become a much deeper part of my life in the past six years. I initially ran a marathon in 2013 as a type of capstone experience for my new (and probably temporary) running hobby. I had no idea that running would become such a central theme in my story. I also have learned, proven, and internalized that I can do hard things. From raising children to writing and defending a dissertation, I’ve strengthened my capacity for grit. I have more effective mental tools to support my persistence. The last thing is a little out there, but 4:44 has a lot of significance in my family as that is the time when we received a phone call from the hospital, many years ago, that my grandmother was hit by a car. Whether it is the trickery of my frontal lobe (most likely) or indeed a message from the spiritual realm (a stretch, perhaps), I certainly formed a new and positive association with this number, and I think my Nana would be delighted to know it.

three

Overall, Whidbey Island Marathon provided me with challenge, catharsis, and realization. The course was absolutely beautiful, and I found the quiet and low-frills/no-crowds environment of the race to be exactly what I needed to turn inward and do heart work simultaneously with foot work. Something tells me it won’t be six years before I run another marathon.

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how many miles per week?

Family members and friends often ask me about how to start running. There exists a myth that running is reserved only for those who were varsity track stars in their youth. I hope, by now, if you have been reading along, that I have done something to dispel this fiction. Running is a broadly accessible form of exercise with many entry points. It is beginner-friendly, and an extremely patient friend for life, if you’ll welcome it. Another obstacle that often thwarts the novice runner from pursuing distance goals is the time it takes to invest in a training routine.

When I am training for a half marathon race (as I am currently), I rarely have the time to aggressively increase the time I dedicate to running. If I didn’t have the obligations of family, work, and everything else, I would love nothing more than to run almost every morning. However, the reality is I have to be intentional about where and how I spend finite training time. Over the course of my running practice, I have learned that if I run for 20 miles a week, I am able to maintain a level of fitness and endurance that prepares me well for any distance up to a half marathon. On the days I am not running, I find at least one hour a day to walk briskly, usually along hilly terrain (I try to find the time for this walk even on running days). While the net weekly miles don’t fluctuate much (I might get closer to 25 when I am getting into the longest long runs prior to the race), the distribution of the miles across the week evolves as I get closer to race day.

Chopping up my 20 miles into different combinations also gives me variety during a training season. I can customize my week to accommodate a number of factors, ranging from weather to running route. For example, I am currently in the midst of a week with more medium-length runs. This gives me the opportunity to enjoy some different loops that are in the 5-6 mile range, including several exclusively on roads to get prepared for my upcoming road race. Next week, I will change back to a more traditional format with one long run, two medium runs, and one short run.

From left-to-right, a few examples of how I might distribute my weekly miles:

(8, 8, 4); (8, 5, 4, 3); (6, 5, 5, 4); (3, 3, 3, 3, 8)

The quantity of miles a runner needs to cover in a week is personal and dependent upon a number of considerations. For example, the overall training goal can shift plans significantly. If training for a marathon, my weekly mileage will go up steadily over a few months. If transitioning back to running after an illness or injury, I will tackle shorter runs with more frequency, paying close attention to what my body is communicating. During the spring and summer, I have more daylight to work with, so I might naturally increase my weekly mileage simply because there are more hours in the day to do so. The right formula is one that is:

-Sustainable

-Avoids—or better yet, prevents—injury

-Prepares the runner well for race day

-Flexible

Most importantly, if I finish a long run with the sense that I have leftover “pep” that could propel me for another couple of miles, then I know I am training wisely for my upcoming event. If I am hitting little “walls” and struggling to get through the miles, then I know I need to tinker with my approach, whether that means adding more medium runs to support good endurance, or examine my activities on cross-training days. While I may start out training for a race with a general outline or schedule, I find that these micro-assessments and adjustments in response to my levels of energy or fatigue really do make a difference in the overall completion of my goal.

so, you had a bad race

I ran my first fall race yesterday, the Bellingham Bay Marathon Half Marathon. Despite training all summer, I did not end up running a marathon. On top of that, I had a pretty cruddy run yesterday. My time was a 20 minute improvement over last year, but I struggled to run the race. My struggle was not physical—in fact, training for a marathon and then running a half marathon is a great way to go physiologically. However, I encountered many mental walls, including a general feeling of motivational malaise throughout the event.

My brief reflections as I revisit what happened yesterday:

  • This race is so familiar that it has lost all novelty. I run most every part of the route regularly. The scenery doesn’t captivate me.
  • Going from Chicago Marathon to hometown half marathon was what psychologists might refer to as a non-event. I was so focused on achieving a long-term marathon goal for so long, that yesterday’s experience was… well… a disappointment.
  • The etiquette at the start was terrible. I get grumpy when I spend the first two miles weaving because racers didn’t self-select into the appropriate place in the line-up. I was just ahead of the 2:00 pacer, and there were crowds of people running a 2:30 or so ahead of me.
  • I’m suffering under the tyranny of speed. I’ve gotten really competitive with myself, and when I knew I wasn’t going to come in at my goal time, I felt crushed. I know I am in a bad place, because a year and a half ago, I was thrilled by a 2:15 finish at the Whidbey half, and now I am kicking myself for a 2:02.

I think I need a reboot. I need to reconnect with running, and find its love and compassion again. I need a time out from speed goals.

My proposal is to run a trail half marathon next month. It’s a race I have never done before, and the sheer elevation gain will make it impossible to finish anywhere remotely close to what I am used to. It will be about endurance, the process, natural beauty, and making it through. Yesterday felt hollow. I did not feel reborn. I felt, a little less stellar than I do after a regular long run.

And why is that? Because, for me, when I start running for extrinsic rewards, for the approval of others, my soul is diminished. However, when I run from the heart, for nobody other than myself, I feel like I am flying. I transform.

This is where I am right now… figuring things out, trying to navigate how I want to approach running in the coming weeks and months. For now, I am focusing back in on the daily miles, and recovering joy from all paces.

august recap

August was a fruitful month, totaling 105 miles. This brings my 2016 mileage up to 778 miles… creeping closer to the 1,000 mile goal! I took more recovery days to walk and do different types of exercise last month, and I focused many of my shorter runs on speed work. Happy to report that there was some pay-off, as I placed first in a 25K road race last weekend! I enjoy setting new personal records, but there was a unique satisfaction of being the first woman to cross the finish line that I will carry with me in the memory bank of “triumphant runs” for a long time to come.

I have approached September, and it is time to fit in one more long run this weekend before tapering. While I am still running an early fall marathon, there’s been a change of plans. My running buddy broke her toe, and needs a few weeks to heal and recuperate. We decided to defer our race registrations for 2017. Running Chicago without my friend would not feel right to me. However, I’ve put a great deal of effort and time into training this past spring and summer, and so I decided to run my hometown marathon at the end of this month, instead.

As the marathon chapter comes to a close, I’ve been thinking about what I want to do next. While it has been invigorating and adventuresome to ramp up my speed and set new records for myself, I feel a pull back to the basics of why running fills my cup. The high of competition is ephemeral. I miss the meandering solo runs through the woods… with no particular agenda other than to traverse and appreciate nature. I am giving some thought to pursuing trail running more intentionally in 2017… perhaps doing some of the trail races and mountain runs that are so plentiful in this corner of the country. I would like to broaden my horizons and tackle some new experiences.

now

On Saturday I ran 13.1 in under two hours. I haven’t accomplished that time since February, when I ran the Birch Bay Half. Unlike my experience in February, however, I was not incapacitated by couch potato-itis the rest of the day. Instead, I came home, showered, drank some coffee, ate some lunch, and drove down to a wedding.

Comparing these two runs interested me because they are almost exactly a half of a year apart. Although it seems like Birch Bay was just a few weeks ago, many months have passed. It is a congratulatory reminder that my dedication to a running practice of regularity and frequency is not short-lived. It is also reassuring that, even during the long days of marathon training, I can still pull off a sub-2:00 half marathon.

Sometimes training foists a complicated set of expectations upon a relationship with running. The pure enjoyment of the experience of running is muddled by the formulaic necessity to achieve a certain amount of designated miles and long runs per month. The activity can seem obligatory and monotonous. A three mile run, easily accomplished most any day, is suddenly Homeric and cumbersome. The feet and legs threaten to halt to a walk, even though the lungs and heart are capable of going further. These difficult runs do crop up, and perhaps more noticeably given the increased amount of time that is dedicated to the task.

In the midst of this reality, I am grateful for the recent memory of a triumphant and beautiful long run. A run that contributed toward my perceptions of my own efficacy and esteem. This was a small but significant reminder that I have improved… that six months of nourishing my practice has made a difference. As a parent, a professional, and an athlete, I have come to cherish the following mantra: Something is better than nothing, but that something doesn’t have to be everything. While my instinctive urge is to dwell on the future, I am reminded of the gifts of meeting the present with open arms. I am also reminded of the metaphor which has carried me for many years through distance running… that of a jug filling with each drop of rainwater. Some drops are harder won than others, but the jug fills nonetheless.

 

 

welcome, august

Today marks the beginning of August, a month of turning inward and preparing for the marathon. I believe this will be the month that will be comprised of the highest intensity of training. I plan to give myself a generous, yet active, tapering before the early October marathon. August, another long month. Like July, but different somehow. I woke up today and the clean sunlight filled my room. The air was crisper than it has been, almost bereft of humidity. I could smell the bay, but very faintly. The breeze was sweet and cold. The drive along the water’s edge to work, I observed the trees flirting with the idea of changing their hues… the assorted yellowed leaves, dried from the hot sun mixed with the vibrant green ones, shyly admitting the slightest red pigment. The blackberries are ripe and juicy, the wasps are aggressively finishing the season’s business, and the fat September spiders are beginning to spin their dewy webs off the fence posts, branches, and behind the compost bin. We take our cues from nature. These are the days to stretch; to accomplish what we can in the final weeks of the long warm days. Fruit is ripening, and so do we. Running becomes a meditative prayer; the routes and distances too familiar to cause bother. The trails which were once entirely verdant and overgrown are now brittle and painted by new colors. Late summer metamorphosis.

June & July Recap

Here comes the mega update for the summer. Apologies for a stop-out in blogging, but it has been quite a busy season! I left off at the end of May, single parenting while my partner survived his first Ph.D. residency. Right after he returned, I started working on comprehensive exams for my doctorate. During the first week of my exams, I was invited to interview for a job I had applied to on a whim. I ended up accepting that job a week after my interview, while finishing my comps and dashing off to present research at a national conference. Also, somewhere in there I agreed to co-author an article for publication. Between all of the stress, transition, and travel, I was hit with a pretty bad cold. Nevertheless, I finished out June with 95 miles… and I am very proud of that!

July marked the beginning of my new position. I did not realize how much stress my old position inflicted upon me on a daily basis until I left. It was like a boulder was lifted off my chest. I started sleeping. I got my appetite back. I enjoy my family time. I come home, and I play my cello almost every evening. I have tripled what I like to consider my head and heart space for academics. Suddenly, my dissertation not only seems doable, but also indulgent. An opportunity to explore and write about something that is core to my purpose in higher education. A place to channel my deepest desires to promote broader access to education for marginalized students. And, as a qualitative researcher, this work is a platform to honor the co-inquirers who will inform my perspective with their voices.

In terms of my running practice, July has provided bountiful opportunities to balance consistency with challenge. I am currently at 95 miles for the month (652 total for the year), which is pretty good. I anticipate exceeding 100 miles. I’ve participated in two trail races, and I am keeping up with long runs. I am quite happy with where I am in marathon training; just under three months until race day in Chicago, and I am running 5-6 days a week. I am keeping my pace steady at around a 9:30 mile, even on the solo long runs. I hope that as I increase distance, I can stay below or right around 10:00/mile.

In some ways, I cannot believe that July is drawing to an end. In other ways, I am excited to finish my semester of coursework and spend the month of August taking some deep breaths, reading some new fiction, and spending the last weeks with my daughter before she becomes a full-fledged KINDERGARTEN STUDENT (what?!). I am especially ready to reap the rewards of some downtime after recently learning that I have passed my comprehensive exams with flying colors and finalizing my article submission. Achievements unlocked!

So, there’s the update. A year ago, I was sick with mono, weighed down by job-related anxiety, and feeling some aimlessness in my studies. Now, I am healthy, fit, happy, and ready to write.

Happy trails!

May Recap

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May was a great month for running. I was able to run 100 miles this month, and I am very proud of that. Over the last week, I’ve had the added challenge of accommodating runs while parenting solo (no, I don’t have a treadmill at home) and I spent a few days fighting a cold my daughter brought home (honestly, I am still dragging a bit). However, I succeeded with my mileage goal! I had some flexibility to space things out at the end of the month because I front-loaded in the beginning. I am starting to think that’s the ticket with a monthly mileage goal.

My total for the year is now up to 462. In addition to running, I have been very intentional this month about walking as much as possible. Walking helps us to recover and keep our blood circulating. It is also a wonderful stress-reliever in a completely different way from running. Most importantly, however, walking provides me with a wonderful opportunity to connect with my daughter. We spend a lot of time walking to parks and playing at playgrounds. It is nice to be able to move, talk, and enjoy our time together.

June is underway. And I’m just about four months away from the Chicago Marathon… not that I am counting down or excited or anything. One of my intentions was to become comfortable running 14-16 miles before June. I can honestly report that I am feeling really great about these distances, especially after a very even and sustainable 16 mile long run early in the month. I am ready to spend June slowly increasing the distance of my long runs. 10-12 mile distances are feeling much more like medium runs than long runs, which is great.

June will also usher in a return to racing. I have at least one race coming up during the month, and I am especially excited because it is a short one (5 miles). I plan to run the 5 miles to the race start, run the race, and then do the 5 miles home. It will be a great way to spice up a long run.

Happy Trails!

longer runs

We are midway through May. I did not sign up for any races this month, and I decided to focus on maintaining a good running practice in advance of June, when I will begin my official marathon training schedule. One of the goals I set for this time of the year (late spring) was to become comfortable running distances slightly longer than the half marathon. When training for consecutive half marathons, it is natural that the 13.1 mile distance becomes the absolute limit for length… at least the way I train for a half. When approaching life after the half marathon, I had two goals in mind:

  1. Run 14, 15, or 16 miles with comfort
  2. Maintain a steady pace throughout the distance

Yesterday, I went on a solo run for 16 miles. I did my usual out-and-back trail run, which involves mixed surfaces (some cement, some pea gravel, and some dirt), rolling hills, and a few steeper hills and switchbacks during the middle portion. I was really pleased to finish up in 2:38, an average mile time of 9:53, with a negative split. I think the best part of the run, however, was that I still had energy after I was done. I could have run a few more miles, at the same pace, which is a great feeling when looking down the path at marathon training.

I am glad yesterday’s run went well, because I will be a single parent for the next few weeks while my partner is at his Ph.D. residency. This means that I will be completing shorter, more frequent runs (probably during my lunch hour), with a little less flexibility to go for long runs. I am fortunate, however, to have my family pitching in and helping me out (it takes a village, and I am very grateful for my village). I hope to complete at least one more long run this month.

Last but not least, I have to recommend a new fuel that I was encouraged to try by my local running store. Skratch Labs fruit drops are awesome, and you should check them out. They are tart, chewy, and easy on the stomach. I also like that they do not contain caffeine (although caffeine helps me initially, I have observed that it can actually lead to a crash and intestinal cramping later in the run).

sum of the journeys

Two years ago, I started my doctorate. Like many other long-term commitments in my life, returning to school for this last credential was a leap of faith. I was naïve and had no idea what balancing a full-time career, a family, and a full load of coursework year round would look like. If somebody had given me glimpses of the future, I am sure I would have responded “I’m not ready yet.”

Here’s the thing about those crossroads, though. We never feel entirely ready. And we don’t know what we are made of until we are challenged by every aspect of the process. Reflecting on the last two years, many images flash through my mind. Hours upon hours of squinting at datasets. Thousands of pages of academese. Too many papers, responses, and annotations to keep track of. When I think about it all, I feel no regrets. I know I developed skills, I know I gained expertise, and I know there are new wrinkles in my brain that could not be caused by any other experience.

Currently, I find myself at a new crossroads; a new leap of faith. Coursework is coming to an end, and I am at the precipice of dissertating. In my typical fashion, I have been doing as much preparation work as I possibly can. I have dozens of annotations for literature review, I’ve spent the last two years thinking through my topic and design, and I am beginning to visualize how I will defend my proposal to committee.

I’ve remained very private about my identity as a doctoral student. Part of that relates to my overall preference toward privacy regarding many things in my life. The other factor, however, is that this educational journey is a gift I hold very close to my heart. It is precious to me. I find that my rituals of reading, writing, and research lend themselves to a humble manner. This is my own, and nobody else can do it for me. With that in mind, I chug along quietly.

One surprising thing I have found is that the experience of designing and executing research is a creative process. To be successful at research, I require deep periods of introspection. I am only now discussing my dissertation topic, even though I have been sitting with it for two years. Quiet reflection gives me the time I need to sort the pieces (visualize Tetris) and figure out my next steps. In my life balancing a high-stress career and my family commitments, however, there is little space afforded for reflection. For that reason, my running practice is the single greatest support in my success as a doctoral student. Without the sweat, circulation, hours in my own thoughts, I would struggle. I would struggle to find clarity and peace, I would struggle to locate new pockets of motivation, and I would struggle to mitigate the stress of living.

So, while training for a marathon parallel to writing a dissertation might seem odd to some, it was a really easy choice for me to make. Both of these tasks are exercises in self-regulation and personal integrity. At the end of the day, the only person who will be impacted by an incomplete dissertation or an unfinished marathon goal will be me. By the same token, earning my doctorate and finishing another marathon will not dramatically change my daily life. However, it is the sum of these journeys that I can recognize as valuable. The experience of pushing myself to new limits; knowing for any future life challenges that I carry these feats in my pocket.