Dem Bones, or the Anatomy of a Writer/Runner

Posted on November 8, 2013. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Courtesy of the Jersey Shore Running Club

Courtesy of the Jersey Shore Running Club

Mrs. Morgan, my eighth grade music teacher, loved to sing songs that required us to move.  Tap a foot, sway, snap our fingers, something, anything to keep us from standing still.  I love music, but not necessarily that music. The sad part is, I remember most of the songs, particularly the anatomy song, “Dem Bones.”  Everyone knows it, even if they don’t know they do:

The foot bone connected to the leg bone.

The leg bone connected to the knee bone.

Etc., etc.

Yeah, that song.

Turns out, they missed a link, the one that connects the runner to…well, to everything else:  thought, creativity, productivity, organizational skills, and, for me, the ability to write.  No running, no writing.  It’s that simple.

Now I know this to be true—I do my best writing in my head during a run, starting around mile 3—but I sometimes forget the connection.  Until it’s lost. Like during my recent 5 weeks of not running.  No running, no writing.  Lord knows I tried.  I sat in front of my computer staring at a blank screen, and simply cried. I can’t do it, I thought. It’s just too hard. Maybe I’m fooling myself and am not really a writer after all.

But then the miraculous happened—again—the week I started running.  Day 2, mile 3, and I’m rounding the little hill in the middle of a cul-de-sac where I usually slow down to count deer, and it occurs to me that I’m not running slower, I’m running faster.  And I’m not looking for deer, I’m not looking for anything. My eyes are turned inward, and I’ve been writing, in my head, for the last mile. Not just half-baked thoughts but complete sentences, full paragraphs, developed ideas unfurling with the dawn.  And I smile, relieved, and think thank God, thank you God, the connection is reestablished. Apparently laces are the missing link.

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May I Have a Word?

Posted on November 1, 2013. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Thoreau

It’s noon on a Monday and I’m standing in my kitchen wearing the same t-shirt I slept in (one of the perks of working from home).  I’ve just hung up the phone with Carrie and my head hangs in shame. I’ve been listening to myself explain to her that I can’t seem to find the motivation to run.  I can’t do it. It’s just too hard.

It’s been 5 weeks since I’ve run.  Carrie and I are only weeks out from the San Antonio Rock n Roll half marathon, her first. I promised I would run it with her, train for it with her, because your first half is a big deal.  Every half is a big deal.  But smack dab in the middle of a 10-mile run, I landed wrong on my foot.  I tried to go on a little farther, but couldn’t. Carrie walked the 5 miles back to the car with me while I hobbled along feeling terrible about ruining her run.  She’s done awesome with her training since then. I’ve done none.

I think about my mom. Her words ring in my head:  “Because I said I would.”  This was her reply to me in junior high when I asked why she was going to do something she was clearly too overwhelmed to do.  Because she said she would.  Because your word is that significant. It’s what you are.

Although it’s noon on Monday and I’ve never run at noon, I lace up my shoes and go.  I run 4 miles.  Just like that.  On Wednesday, I run 6.  Friday, 8. This week, a repeat, with a 10-miler on Friday. I am astonished I can pick up almost where I left off.  Bodies are amazing.  Minds more so.  I am especially astonished at what I’ve talked myself out of. I wonder how many of those weeks spent telling myself that I can’t do it, it’s just too hard, were to protect something other than my foot.

So now I give my word to myself:  It’s not too hard. I can do it after all.

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No Sweat

Posted on October 4, 2013. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

The-Atlas-Statue-At-Rockefeller-Center

I’ve always associated endurance and perseverance with sweat. Atlas holding up the heavens with his shoulders. Sisyphus forever pushing a boulder up a mountain.

As runners, we know perseverance, endurance.  We train to keep going, to run a little farther, a little faster, a little longer, to see if we can’t improve our form, our distance, our time.  We persist through heat, rain, humidity, cold, snow, up big hills and across wide expanses of open terrain, under stars and moon and sun.  A sweaty endeavor indeed.  When we reach our goal, we have physical proof that we have persevered. We have endured.

Running develops these traits in us, as many runners will tell you, and they extend into so many areas of our lives. The past couple of weeks I’ve learned a new application of perseverance, one that is not so sweaty.

Stillness. To wait and do what at first seems like nothing.  And nothing is a difficult thing to do. For all that running teaches us to endure, it should also teach us to endure not-running, not taking time but giving it, to accomplish those things that can only be achieved in stillness.

For me, the not-running started with a sprained ankle two weeks ago, but the lesson in persevering through stillness didn’t occur to me until much later.  Runners lament not-running while non-runners look on quizzically. They don’t quite understand the stomach-churning anxiety that accompanies it.  I don’t always either, to be honest. It’s just running, after all, and although I am a runner, I am so much more.  Still.  When a part of my identity is suspended indefinitely, it’s disquieting, to say the least.

But, I have found, if I’m quiet and let it be, if I can persevere through the stillness and simply wait, I improve in a different way:  I develop an internal patience and peace.  And, given time, I can say, no sweat.

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Tri Dog

Posted on August 16, 2013. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Queequeg cropped

Nearly two weeks ago, the morning before the Tour de Jalapeno, my dog Queequeg went tearing out the door at 4:15 am after some small animal that’d been lurking in our backyard for weeks.  She came back on 3 legs, dragging one behind her.

A torn ACL, it turns out, requiring extensive surgery to repair both it and her knee.

She spent more than a week laying around and staring at me with sad eyes, her leg swollen and bruised and ugly.  She wasn’t at all interested in toys or food or playing with my other dog, Smaug, from whom she is usually inseparable.

But then one morning as Smaug and I were leaving the house for a walk, there she was, tottering on 3 legs in front of us, wagging her tail slowly, nudging my hand and sticking her nose in the door crack.  She wanted to walk too.

I think I know how she felt.  Habit and instinct and whatever sense of fun dogs have was kicking in. A morning walk is what we do, what we’ve done her whole life.  No sooner had she started to feel even a bit better her first impulse was to be outside and run.  A dog after my own heart.

Queequeg’s stitches came out yesterday, and the doctor gave her the all-clear.  He suggested I take her to the pool for a few days, make her swim, rehab her leg.  Looks like we’re going to have to drag ourselves out of bed earlier than usual for a while, sneak to the pool before the neighbors are up and about. Somehow I think they’d frown on a Chihuahua using the neighborhood pool, even on doctor’s orders.

I hope Queequeg likes swimming as much as I do.  Soon enough, she can walk to her heart’s content. Maybe next week I’ll get her a bike.  Before you know it, she’ll be a bona fide tri dog.

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In a Minute There Is Time

Posted on July 12, 2013. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

disturb the universe

One of the interesting things about having read so much literature is that snippets of poetry pop into my head at what seem like weird times.  I’ll be sweating in my car and Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” trickles into mind:

Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink.

Or maybe I’ll be in a public bathroom and get a whiff of that lovely orange-scented “fragrance” and lines from Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” waft by:

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late

Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been haunted by Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” one of my all time favorite poems:

In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

These lines fall upon me at what seem like odd times.  When I’m running. Biking. Staring at my training log tacked on the side of my fridge.

On Thursday morning I figured out what it is that’s been getting me, why Prufrock haunts me.  I stood staring again at my log. Just over 4 weeks until the Olympic distance tri I was sure I would enter.  Thursday.  I was supposed to swim. Instead, I drew a line through the day.  I looked over my plan.  Three more swim days Xed out.  Two strength-training days.

My upper body isn’t doing what it’s designed to do.  It’s supposed to be strong.  Lift things.  Move other, heavier things.  Like me. Through the water.  Nearly 3 months since a shoulder injury caused me to stop doing “normal” activities, I am still unable to resume them fully.  (I somehow suspect that when my doctor said go ahead and resume normal activities, his idea of “normal” was a bit different from mine.)

No Olympic distance tri for me, it seems. Not yet, anyway.

By Thursday afternoon I revised my goals. Lofty ones, maybe, but why not dream big?  San Antonio RnR half marathon in November—to qualify for the Houston marathon in January.  And, if I’m going to dream even bigger, why not see if in Houston I can qualify for Boston?

Who knows if I’ll qualify for anything, but it can’t hurt to aim high.  If I can’t swim, I might as well run.

At least that’s my plan.  For the minute.

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I Can Tri

Posted on June 21, 2013. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Image courtesy of Triathlon Gifts & Merchandise

On Saturday I am participating in the Gator Bait sprint tri.  My training log for this race has been posted on my fridge since early March. I included in my plan vacation time, other days I knew I’d need off. I included races I intended to run between then and now, extra weeks of training to focus on running.

Usually by now, the week going into a race, I’m a bit anxious. My mind is completely focused on the race. I’m visualizing the entire morning—from waking up before the alarm to getting ready, getting there, fidgeting at the start line, going the distance, and crossing the finish line with the hope of setting a PR.  I’ve checked my gear a million times. Put on my lucky necklace.

This time, however, it’s different.  I feel relaxed, at peace.  Although the race is certainly on my mind and I’m preparing, I’m not obsessing as usual.

I race and train for several reasons:

  1. It feels good.
  2. I’m a better writer when I run.
  3. Training promotes self-discipline.
  4. I enjoy the sense of accomplishment.
  5. My confidence increases when I push myself to do things I think I cannot do.
  6. If I can reach an unreachable goal here, in this area of my life, why can’t I do it anywhere?

For the most part, I’ve enjoyed the training more than the races I’ve entered.  I get a supreme satisfaction when my training log progresses from empty to full, when there’s the least bit of improvement in my running, biking, or swimming.  I even enjoy it when I stop eating cookies and my body gradually changes.

Training is transformative.  Race day is not the culmination of training; it is the by-product.  It’s a goal I shoot for, but not the end in itself.  It’s one step on the road to becoming something more, something better; one more reminder of capability, as well as potential.  It’s a measure of ability in the moment.

If we are lucky, there will be another race.

Going into this race, I already know what’s next for me.  Two races–bigger races.  Two goals I have never been able to meet before.  One I have been too afraid to try.

That doesn’t mean I won’t enjoy the moment on race day tomorrow.  On the contrary, I think I am finally in a place where I can enjoy the race itself.

My training plan didn’t pan out as I expected.  I took a lot of time away from training to recover from illness, a car accident I am still feeling.  During this forced hiatus, I was surprised to find how often I’ve taken for granted my body, my ability to do the things I love.

So I’m approaching Saturday’s race with a new excitement, a peaceful satisfaction.  The joy I feel in doing this tri—not having been able to do anything for weeks—is that I can.

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You Can Always Go Home

Posted on June 7, 2013. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Norman the Bike Riding Dog

Sundays are bike + run days.  I ride for time or distance, then follow it with a run, adjust to the jarring transition from legs churning like a windmill to legs thick and heavy like sacks of water balloons tight and full and ready to pop.

My sprint tri is in two weeks.  Even though I fell way behind in my training, spent three weeks doing nothing, then two more unable to swim or strength train, I’m getting less anxious.  It feels good to be back on my training schedule. I simply do what I can, as hard as I can, each day.

On Sunday I rode my long route for the first time since last summer.  I debated taking this route until the final minute, when the last option to turn whizzed by.  I hadn’t even driven down this road in weeks, so I didn’t know what shape it was in. For a long time, the westbound lane was under construction, the shoulder ripped to shreds.

If the road gets too bad, I thought as I headed east, I can always turn around and go home.

Biking for me is different from running.  My head gets lazy when I bike.  My thoughts drift off and leave my body to fend for itself.  As a result, my legs sometimes forget that I can pull the pedals up as hard as I can push them down, and I slow down.  I have to remind myself frequently what proper biking technique should feel like.

So on Sunday, I’m dawdling down the road, coasting up and down the hills like I’m on some pleasant carnival ride, scanning the pavement for smushed walking sticks (they grow to the size of hot dogs in Texas—apparently everything is bigger here), and I forget to pay attention to the westbound lane.  Ten miles out at the bottom of a hill I realize I have no idea if I can get home.

For a moment, I panic.  It’s later in the morning than I usually ride, and there is more traffic.  The last thing I want to do is ride a narrow shoulder into traffic for the ten miles home.

Isn’t that life, I think.  We get so focused on traveling in one direction that we forget to plan for correction, just in case.  And before we know it, we’re so far gone that we fear we can never go back the same way again, that maybe we can’t go home.

But here’s the thing.  With experience, you learn that you can.  Sometimes you adapt, sometimes you simply get lucky.  Sometimes the ride is smooth, other times you have to get off and walk in another direction.  There is always, however, a way, and if you have faith, you’ll find it.

I got lucky and made it home, bike and tires intact. But I found one more thing I forgot to take into account.  I live on the fringe of Texas Hill Country, where the ripple effect of the land tapers off into rolling waves, and the road I traveled was more roller-coaster-like than I remembered. Even though it’s been a few days, my legs can’t seem to forget.

This Sunday, I think I’ll take the same route.  Keep my head in the ride this time, give my quads a break.  I know what to expect of the road, at least ten miles out.  But this time I think I’ll go farther, see what’s over that hill.

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(Just Like) Starting Over

Posted on May 17, 2013. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Starting over

I’ve never been crazy about John Lennon’s music outside of the Beatles.  One song in particular (not coincidentally, the title of this post) drives me batty.  This is the song that wormed its way from out of nowhere and into my brain on Monday morning.

After 3 weeks of inactivity, I’ve been eager to jump back into my training schedule. I have a sprint tri coming up in a few weeks, and I’m a bit anxious that I’ve had so much down time.  I figured I’d ease back into training this week by starting small.

Monday:              Run 2.5 miles

I didn’t expect it to feel like a stroll through the garden, but I also didn’t expect to have to consciously remind myself how to run.  I had to coach myself through the first mile.

Keep your chin up. Relax your shoulders. Use your arms to propel you. Lean from your ankles, not your waist.  Point your right toe out more and take a longer step with your left. No, you’re not spontaneously combusting.  Those are your lungs.

Here’s the good news.  I only planned to run 2 miles, but at my intended stopping point I was at 2.37.  The voice that pushes me just a little farther piped up:  2.37?  Well that’s a crazy, uneven number. Go to 2.5.

So I did.

Tuesday:              Run 3 miles

Since I felt good by the end of Monday’s run, I thought I’d go out for a 4 miler, my usual weekday run.  I was surprised to find that the first half mile hurt even worse than the day before.  By the end of mile 1, I knew it was not a 4-mile day.  I was happy to get in 3.

Wednesday:      Swim 30 minutes

Nearly a month since I’d been in a pool.  I was nervous.  I stalled for an extra half hour before I left my house.  Made the bed.  Fiddled with some papers, yesterday’s mail.

I decided to do a few warm-up laps with the kickboard. Remind myself what an arrow feels like; to kick from my hips, not my knees.  I stretched out, face down, and pushed the kickboard out in front of me.  Pain spiked my shoulder.  My doctor gave me the go-ahead to swim and weight lift just the day before, so I ignored the pain, kept going.

I managed 20 laps—ecstatic at the end.  Ice packs are my friend.

Thursday:            Run 4 miles

Within just a few dozen yards, I was in my Running Head Zone (RHZ)—minus John Lennon.  My body only intruded a couple of times—upon approaching mile 1.5 when I realized where I was and thought maybe I should turn around, make it a 3-miler.  By the time I got there I forgot and kept going.  But the last 1/3 mile was all body.  Fortunately, my working parts are working, muscles and joints intact.  My lungs protested.

Friday:                  Rest day

I have to admit, I’m struggling with this. Fridays are rest days; on weekends I push myself hard.  But I feel like I haven’t done enough to warrant a rest.

Nevertheless, I’m sticking with it, especially after my doctor’s scolding on Thursday (When you feel pain, you have to stop! Oh.) and my still-throbbing shoulder.

My friend Stephanie, who happens to be a running coach, tells me that when people train year round, their bodies need a two week break at some point to rejuvenate.  Two weeks seem like a long time to me.  Three seem like eternity.

Fortunately, we have muscle memory and it doesn’t take long for our bodies to remember what they’re supposed to do.  Even better, we have the RHZ, the space that obliterates pain and discomfort, allowing our bodies the liberty to move.

Tomorrow will undoubtedly be a better day.  Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to get in 6 before my lungs implode.  And at least I’ve left John Lennon behind.

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(Temporarily) Unstoppable

Posted on May 3, 2013. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

train

“With an unmanned, half-mile-long freight train barreling toward a city, a veteran engineer and a young conductor race against the clock to prevent a catastrophe.”

When Unstoppable came out in 2010, I wondered how anyone could squeeze an hour and a half out of a story about a runaway train.  I skipped the movie and promptly forgot it.

Until this week.  It seems to be cable’s movie-of-the-week and I can’t get away from it. Believe me, I’ve tried.  It finally caught up with me one brain-dead night, and I decided to give it a shot.

Half an hour was all I could stand.  And that’s 30 minutes of my life I will never get back.

Still, this week seems to be a fitting time for Unstoppable.  My training has derailed.

No swimming or weight training until further notice.  Doctor’s orders. Which is fine, considering my shoulder doesn’t want to move too much anyway.

I didn’t bother to ask him about biking or running. I figured I’d do it anyway, so why ask?

The thing is, I just don’t feel like doing it.

Between healing and then coming down with some kind of virus, it’s been 10 days since I’ve done much more than walk my dogs.  Although I’ve walked them a lot (one now hides at the sight of her leash), my energy level won’t move into overdrive.

Ever have those days when your head really wants you to be out there doing something, but your body refuses?  Each morning, I set my alarm, planning to get up and run.  Each morning, I shut it completely off thinking maybe I’ll bike later (I don’t) or run tomorrow (I haven’t).

I catch myself instead staring wistfully at my training log as I mark another X through an unachievable workout, distraught by the momentum of nothingness that seems to be building.

I am hoping this lag in training is not unstoppable.  I’m not quite sure what to do to get back on the right track.  If I know my body, it will start one morning on its own, without telling me.

(Sort of like the jack-in-the-box you had when you were a kid, and you kept cranking and cranking and thought you were getting nowhere and then Pop! goes the weasel, and you jumped about a mile out of your skin.  Stupid toy, scaring kids to death like that.)

I just hope it doesn’t take catastrophic explosions, the destruction of small towns, or Denzel Washington to get me re-railed.

Well, maybe Denzel Washington.

Any suggestions?

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Two Weeks to PR

Posted on February 1, 2013. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Athlete Running Through Finish Line

I did it.  I finished my 10 mile run last Sunday 4:30 faster than my 10 mile run the week before.  Not only am I completely thrilled with the fact that I beat myself, but I am now confident that I will PR at the Austin half in two weeks.

The last time I ran the Austin half, in 2010, I PRed.  My goal was to finish in under 2 hours.  I finished in 2:01:50-something.  I know.  I’ve been trying to block out the disappointment ever since. At least I’ve succeeded in kind of forgetting the tenth of a second part.

This time, I’m sure I can do it.  Running has never felt so good, and I’ve never trained better. This time, there are two major differences.

My attitude.

I didn’t take up running until my early 30s, and it has probably saved my life on more than one occasion. Training for a race–having a goal, a plan, a block of time every day to disappear into and call my own–has sustained me through marital problems and divorce, death, illness, and countless lows that in a previous life would probably have resulted in self-destructive activities.

Running became such an integral part of my identity that for a long time I approached it with a certain rigidity.  If I had a plan I’d follow it, come hell or high water.  But in the past couple of years, I have learned to let go of the plan.  This time around, my plan is tacked on my refrigerator, just as with any past race, but rather than stress about sticking exactly to it, I do what I can when I can. Give it my best, and leave the rest up to God. I’m finding that in running, just like in life, I get a much better outcome when I let go.

My strength.

It’s not that strength training never appealed to me, it’s that it never occurred to me. I was like most women I see at the gym even now:  My idea of a workout was strictly cardio.  Thanks to my sister, I have developed a love of strength training along with the understanding that if I want to run long and hard and fast, I need the musculature to support me.  A strong core holds the body upright and prevents hip, back, and knee injuries.  A strong upper body decreases tension on the spine when I’m slogging my shoulders and head along on those long runs.  And strong legs?  A no-brainer.  I want quads that look like braided bread not because I find them sexy, but because I need to make it up some pretty steep hills.  The stronger I get, the faster I get, and the more I enjoy running.

I’m not worried that I’ve jinxed myself by stating publicly that I believe I will PR in Austin.  Even if I don’t (but I will), I know I will be proud of my run and the fact that I’m there, giving it the best I’ve got.  Isn’t that what life’s all about?

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