Saturday, December 3, 2011

Winter Marathoning

Last weekend I ran the Seattle Marathon on the first Sunday of Advent. And had I thought about it, it would have given me a clue. I certainly spent the day in longing.

Something about the trails this summer and fall has majorly shifted my mental. I keep inadvertently searching out ways to run that are, for me, more free and true. I love the push of a 5k, but that thrust exists within a box of expectations and there is little room to deviate from those expectations without disappointment-- and, because your head can be just that crazy, despair-- It does feel great. I caught the running bug in college when I PRed every weekend. It was the greatest feeling to know I could break those mental (and definitely physical as well) barriers. And admittedly, if I were a better athlete, more sleekly built or just faster, I would probably have stuck with it. The worry, the doubt, the extremely hard work, the intensity of an effort and the gratification of reaching a pace goal.

but somewhere along the line I got a distance bug as well. I wanted to go farther than I could imagine and I began to think about a marathon. My first marathon taught me that- for me- 26 miles is far too long to be in a pace box. So many do it, and I am truly amazed by them. They start with a goal, a focus and a mantra. They know how they'll feel and approximately what time they'll reach each leg of the race. And while I'm sure I could do this, it would take an enormous amount of time and effort and more than one transformation. At first, I think maybe I thought I would. But then I stumbled upon trails, and I'll never forget that first run.

There was over a foot of snow as soon as I turned up the path. 14 minutes later, we moved from the snowy road to the snow-laden single track trails up the mountain. On the path a spray-painted number 1 glistened on the snow. 1 mile down in over 14 minutes. And that's when the box shattered. I laughed, I slipped, I forgot about my pace, and all those expectations lay lifeless and powdered in the snow, dissolved by the raw joy churning through my bloodstream. The snow, the striking evergreens framing the horizon, the twisting uphill, our pink faces, clouds of breath exhaled all around us, huge grins on everyone's face. Is this for real? I remember thinking. Are we really going to try and finish this thing? And three hours later, I finished the slowest half marathon I've ever run. And I was hooked.

On August 6, five months and three trail races later (a 10, a 13, and a 20) I found myself at Grand Ridge attempting my first 50k. By now there were faces I recognized at the start with me, and I was offered advice and encouragement. I had two liters of water slung on my back, a ton of food stuffed in my pack, and not an ounce of panic (something that has plagued me since the first marathon) in my system. I truly just enjoyed the day. The course was set up as two half marathons out-and-backs and a five mile loop at the end. Unfortunately, each one of these legs begins with a monstrous climb. The first one was tough, but I finished in 3:05. I chatted with a friend, found a bathroom, ate and drank and then started up the mountain again. The second way out was lonely and extremely difficult. I walked a lot. On the way back I was mentally and physically bankrupt I slowed to a crawl. I crashed without the right sort of food and was afraid to eat more, but desperately needed it. Alone for hours at a time, I started seeing things in the trees. When I finished the marathon course at 7:44 (second half mar had taken me over 4:30!) I called it a day, and had no regrets. I had gone as long as I could.

The following week in an explanation of why I called it quits, I told my boss that after 20 miles I had started seeing figures running along side me in the trees. She grinned mysteriously and answered: How lucky for you that you could finally see them after all that time. :D

Two months later, Patrick and I drove four hours to Chelan so I could try it again. I won't go into it here, this post is already long enough... but I ate over 700 cal, I never panicked; I even pushed, I had the time of my life. The course was breath-taking, and when those swimming figures began to emerge from the trees once fatigue set in, I grinned and thought about what my boss had said. So many things you can't have at just any moment, but can only experience in the long, long run. How lucky.
Then I finished in 7:04, all 31 miles. And all this with only cross-training. (see last post)

So the marathon. I had forgotten what it feels like to shuffle for so long, using more or less the same motion the entire time and landing again and again- hard- on your heels. But now I remember. I remember the mental anguish, the panic (my throat closed this time at mile 24- how cruel), the demoralizing notion of pace. I think marathons are wonderful, and I think everyone should try and run them if that is what you want, but on that cold, sunny morning (if your luck is better than mine that is!) you won't see me at that particular start line. Minutes after I finished on Sunday I was on the phone with Patrick. What happened? he asked. It just felt less adventurous and more like a hamster wheel, I answered, in tears. And that's the best way I know how to put it even now.

I could tell you about and show you diagrams of the muscle groups you use when you change your pace and direction, and the ones you use on flat pavement; or tell you about joint health and the perfect stride. I could bring in a picture of the views of the marathon and contrast them with those of Lake Chelan, or try and convince you all just to try it. But, I won't. For now I simply will take all these things I have had the luck to learn and try to make the best of them. There is a lesson in the good race, there is virtue in the races that crush you to a pulp, but you finish anyway. And there is hope in what is to come this year.

Which brings us full circle. Happy Advent, and Happy birthday to my amazing sister, Erin. :)

1 comment:

  1. Pea, I don't know what it is, but your posts almost always bring tears. I know your story is personal to me, but I think it goes beyond that. I suspect that you have figured out how to turn emotion into words on a page.

    Don't ever stop writing. You are overflowing with inspiration.