Yesterday, my Facebook memories reminded me about the time I read an internet comment where someone thought the 26.2 (marathon runner) bumper sticker on someone else’s car stood for a Psalm verse. In the spirit of this person’s confusion, I Googled the Psalm verses corresponding to various race distances. The hilariously apt results:
26.2 (marathon): Test me, O LORD, and try me, examine my heart and my mind. So far, not a test I have accepted.
13.1 (half marathon): How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? I would say this a very accurate description of what mile 9 feels like.
6.2 (10k): Be merciful to me, LORD, for I am faint; O LORD, heal me, for my bones are in agony. Those middle distance races will do that to you.
3.1 (5k): O LORD, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me! Sounds like starting line chaos to me!
But seriously, these all need to be made into T-shirts, if they don’t already exist.
Even though I’ve now lived in Chicago for a few years, it still blows my mind that major national and international events happen here with some frequency. Events that show up in major newspapers and get covered extensively on national and international news. Except now they are close enough to where I live that I can sometimes actually see them in person without a whole lot of logistical challenge. Oh, the Chicago Marathon will be happening this weekend? Cool. Let’s just hop on the L and head over to Lakeview to catch a glimpse of some OLYMPIC MEDALISTS AND RECORD-HOLDERS PASSING THROUGH TOWN, NO BIGGIE!
Truly, you know you are a running geek when you wake up before dawn in an attempt to catch the world-class runners at miles 8-9 of a marathon. I have watched races before, usually to cheer on friends who are running at mere mortal pace, but have never been there early enough to see the true elites. Truth be told, I was so excited for this that I actually woke up a few minutes before my alarm clock, which basically never happens except maybe Christmas morning.
While the weather was a little hotter than ideal for running, it was perfect for spectating. We got to Lakeview around 7:30, which fortunately gave us a few minutes before the action happened, unless you count “action” as being “watching unsuspecting cars accidentally turn onto the course (after first driving the wrong way down a one-way street!!!) and get yelled at by the police and course marshals.” Which in that case we did have a little bit!
Soon enough, though, we saw the lead police cars and motorcycles, with the first pack of wheelchair racers close behind in formation. So many people think races are boring to watch, but I guarantee these people have never seen a live, major marathon. Seeing the first group of athletes barreling down the street, for every division (wheelchair, men, women, and then the masses), was nothing short of humbling and inspiring.
As a rec runner, it is mind-boggling to see the elites in the flesh, running as fast as they are and making it look so effortless. Their biomechanics, and strides are nearly flawless. No hip wobble whatsoever, no extraneous bobbing or arm motions, beautiful efficiency and economy. They looked like they were out on a casual Sunday long run, barely breaking a sweat, except then you realized they were nearly keeping pace with the lead car, i.e., an actual car (with a digital time display mounted to the back) that was doing more than just idling along.
Gradually, more and more runners started filling the course. Behind the elites were the sub-3:00 folks, and what surprised me most was just how big a contrast there was in terms of number of people on the course between sub-3:00 and 3:00. When the 3:00 pace group appeared, it was almost visually like the start of another race all at once.
And the crowd of runners just kept coming from there, never noticeably thinning out the entire time we stayed, which we did until we saw some of the 4:30-ers, then decided to call it a wrap.
By the time I got home, all I wanted to do was go on a run, inspired by seeing so many fantastic runners of all shapes, sizes, and speeds in today’s Chicago Marathon. I’m not quite ready to take on the distance just yet, but after today, I will admit the siren song of the marathon is calling me just a bit more loudly and insistently than before. Someday I will do it, and maybe even in Chicago. But no matter what, it will be far, far behind the lead car!
I still remember my very first 5-mile run. It was summer 2010, and I was just finishing up a 10-week stint at the Brevard Music Festival in North Carolina. I had gone to Brevard as a rising senior in my college’s music program with the intent of getting myself ready for auditions the following year. By the end of my junior year, though, I had started seriously doubting whether a performance career was really, truly what I wanted for my life. Perhaps going to a summer music intensive in the midst of such an earth-shattering epiphany wasn’t the most logical course of action, but I had already gotten scholarships and grants to cover the cost, paid my deposit, and figured that regardless of what path I took after graduation, going to Brevard would be a good learning experience, both for music lessons and life lessons. Besides, it would be a change of scenery, and that alone would probably do me some good as I figured out what exactly I wanted to do next.
Though my daily schedule was packed with lessons, rehearsals, and personal practice, I carved out time on most days to run around the beautiful campus with its tree-lined paths, sparkling lakes, and rolling hills. Generally I kept my runs to 2-4 miles, but I looked forward to them as a calming ritual of sorts. When the uncertainty of my life direction seemed almost unbearable at times, running kept me grounded and in the present moment. I loved the steady rhythm of it, focusing on timing my breathing with my footfalls, and just being outside, enjoying the sunshine and the scenery of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I even made a few friends at the camp who sometimes ran with me, including a run two of us did one night at about 10 p.m. under a perfectly clear, starry sky…which I highly recommend trying if you ever get the chance!
The day I did my 5-mile run that summer was the day before I was scheduled to head back home. As the sun set on my final day at camp, I decided I was going to go for it. That elusive 5-mile run was happening, and nothing could stop me. Surely if I could finish that run, I would be able to finish the upcoming year of my degree program and sort out my life direction. With my reserves of determination filled to the brim, I set off towards town, slowly but steadily, savoring the scenery and soaking it all in. At the 2.5-mile mark, I turned around and headed back, buoyed by the conviction that I was definitely going to make it, and just as dusk descended, I triumphantly returned to camp. I had averaged something like a 12 minute/mile pace, but by golly I had finished, and my friends celebrated with me at a picnic table outside the rec building. 5 miles! I had really done it! And sure enough, much like I got through that run, I got through my senior year and figured out next steps, the cumulation of which have gotten me to where I am now.
I couldn’t help but think of that run tonight as I went for a 5-mile tempo run after work. These days, 5 miles hardly feels like the monumental challenge it did 7 years ago, at least in terms of distance alone, though adding the element of speed certainly kicks the difficulty level up a notch. As the sun ducked behind the buildings and the cool dusk set in, it took me back to that night in the mountains of North Carolina, my determination to hold my speed now mirroring the determination it had taken just to finish back then. When I got back home and looked at my stopwatch app, it showed that I had managed to hold a 9:23 pace for the duration of my run. Sub 10-minute pace for 5 miles…I could hardly believe my eyes; it was the first time I’d ever cracked the 10 minute/mile pace for anything over 3 miles. This was a feat I could have only dreamed of that summer at Brevard, but I’d finally done it.
Obviously, I am by no means the fastest runner out there. I never will be, but I’ve long since accepted that, and besides, that has never been my goal. The beauty of running, to me at least, is how the sport grows with you over time, how you only really ever compete against yourself, and how you get to celebrate whatever milestones are meaningful to you. Tonight, I took a moment to savor the fact that I had dropped over 12 minutes from my very first 5-mile time as well as the progress I’ve made both in running and in life since that summer at Brevard. While it’s always good to be looking ahead and striving to improve, sometimes, it’s just as necessary to look back and see for the sake of perspective just how far you’ve actually come.
This year, I really seem to have had a knack for picking some really hot race days. Yesterday’s Chicago Half Marathon was no exception. When I signed up, I was expecting, oh, I don’t know, late September in Chicago? You know, 60-70 degrees, breezy, low humidity, maybe some rain if we got unlucky?
No. What we got instead was (in the mind of a Northerner) what can only be described as Hell with a blast of Satan’s steamy breath. When I saw the forecast earlier in the week, I had to do a double take. Low of 70?! High of 87?! 80 percent humidity in the morning?! Are you freaking kidding me?!?!? Never mind trying to PR, from that point on it was about survival. As if it weren’t clear enough on the face of it, the race organizers blasted out an email on Thursday essentially telling us to start hydrating yesterday, and “prepare [our minds] for the possibility of adjusting [our] goals and outcome expectations for race day.” No kidding!
Alas, there is no changing the weather, and one has to play the hand they are dealt on race day. With that, I spent Thursday, Friday, and Saturday chowing down on carbs and chugging water like I was about to cross the Sahara (“Lynx imitates a camel,” one of my friends ribbed me upon hearing of my prep rituals). Because the race takes place on the total opposite side of town from where I live, I made the trek down to the South Side the night before, where I stayed with a friend. There, I continued Carbapalooza 2017, and hoped to get a slightly better night’s sleep than I would have if I had needed to catch a 4 a.m. shuttle to the race.
Naturally, when my alarm went off just after 5 a.m. on race day, I awoke in a total panic from a dream that I was late to the race and didn’t make it to my starting corral in time. Desperate to avoid that scenario in real life, I quickly rinsed off in a cold shower in a last-ditch effort to pre-cool, prepped a bagel with peanut butter and frozen banana slices, filled up the water bottles on my hydration belt (one with water, one with Gatorade), and downed my remaining Gatorade and some water before throwing on my running clothes and heading out the door.
Outside, it hadn’t yet gotten uncomfortably hot. The sky in the east glowed a dim orange in anticipation of sunrise, and I followed a crowd of fellow runners about half a mile towards the starting line while noshing on my bagel. Once I got there, I had just enough time to stop at gear check before sprinting over to my corral way, way in the back of the pack (yeah, slow runners!) before the 6:45 a.m. corral closing time. I get why they needed us in place when they did, though being that far back, it was kind of annoying to have to wait around as long as we did in close quarters as the temperature started to climb. Just as I thought about getting cranky, though, my mom texted me. “Good luck today! Love you!” Aww. At least I knew she would be cheering for me from afar, and I looked forward to seeing my friends who I knew were coming down to cheer me on around miles 2 and 12.
Finally, the race officially started and my group gradually moved up to the starting line. I cranked up my Spotify playlist made especially for the occasion, and I was off! The first 3 miles sailed by. I jammed to my tunes, a mix of 80s classic rock and some contemporary pop/rock, felt good about my pace, and got even more pumped when I passed my friends waving their signs. Maybe this won’t be so bad! I thought. Then in a nod to one of my favorite comics by The Oatmeal, “The Dos and Do Nots of Running Your First Marathon,” There’s only like 10 miles to go! I totally got this! Ha! “Only”…
After making the turn onto Lake Shore Drive, I still felt pretty solid. Since I had my own water and Gatorade with me, I didn’t have to stop at the first few aid stations, which definitely helped me keep things moving along, even if a little on the slower side of my usual pace. For the most part, it felt like a typical weekend long run, with the exception of running in the middle of what is typically one of Chicago’s busiest roads. At this point, I decided my strategy would be to run steady to mile 8, which was just before the turnaround to head back south, then mentally break the last few miles into a 5k + 2 extra miles. That would get me through what I assumed would be the worst of it, based on my previous half marathon experience where miles 7-9 felt like an endless slog through no-man’s land.
I hit the 8 mile mark still feeling good, even though by that point I had stopped at a few aid stations just to grab cups of water to dump over my head in the hopes of cooling off as much as possible. Gotta hand it to the volunteers…they killed it given the weather. Even by the time we slower folks got there, they still had plenty of Gatorade, water, and even the occasional cups of ice or garden hoses, both of which provided a glorious respite from the beating sun.
But speaking of the beating sun, the real struggle began for me after the turnaround between miles 8 and 9. Facing south, the sun was now angled almost right in our faces. I was SO glad I had decided to wear sunglasses that morning…it was almost dizzyingly bright even with them on. By now, the mercury had also risen into the 80s, the humidity hadn’t really dissipated, and since we were on Lake Shore Drive, we had very little shade save for shadows cast by the occasional trees in the median. The last few miles became all about survival. I didn’t care how slow I had to take it, I just wanted to make it to the finish line without fainting, puking, or otherwise requiring medical assistance. To that end, I stopped at every single aid station on the final stretch for water, ice, and whatever other means they had for cooling us off. A few times I wanted desperately to walk, but I knew if I gave in, it would be that much harder to pick up the pace again. Plus, when I hit mile 11, I felt I had enough left in me to gut out the last couple of miles, even if I had to shuffle-jog them. It also helped that I knew my “cheering section” was going to be near mile 12, and seeing them (and their fantastic signs!) definitely gave me a much-needed boost going into the final stretch.
At last, we turned the corner off of Lake Shore Drive and I could see the finish line in the distance. Normally I like to kick it up a notch for the final stretch and end strong, but this time when I tried, I just ended up doing an awkward hobble-run, so I let it go and cruised as comfortably as I could to the end, raising my arms in a victory pose as I crossed the line. Sweet relief! All I wanted to do was sit and get some fluid and salt in whatever form. I stopped to get my finishers medal before grabbing a bottle of Gatorade Endurance, a bottle of water, and a bag of chips, then I shuffled with the crowd of runners into the post-race party area, where I sank onto the grass at the first possible opportunity. I had made it! Slower than I had wanted to by a long shot, but I was alive, had managed to stay reasonably cool, and hadn’t even had to walk! It was a feat deserving of Chicago deep-dish pizza, and that, dear readers, is exactly where my friends and I headed for a post-race victory bash.
Hey everyone, checking back in. I know it’s been a little while. I haven’t written much recently as the last few weeks have been a little rough over here. My kitty has been having some pretty serious health issues as of late, which has involved numerous trips to the vet, starting meds (including both pills and subcutaneous injections), and making some tough calls regarding how to proceed in what is a frustratingly ambiguous situation. It probably goes without saying that this has been quite stressful logistically and emotionally, but the good news is that for now she is doing better, even though we aren’t out of the woods just yet.
To the best of my ability, though, I have been maintaining my sanity by keeping up the running routine. I’m still shooting for a fall half marathon (woohoo Chicago Half Marathon!), my first since my one and only back in 2011, so I’ve officially embarked on training for that using the FIRST half marathon training plan. So far, I am a huge fan. For me, 3 days a week is the perfect amount of running, at least with each run serving this specific a purpose (one interval, one tempo, one long run). From my perspective too I think the key with the FIRST plan is that it leaves you with plenty of time to cross-train and strength-train, along with one or two rest days, which frankly I find almost as essential as actually spending time logging miles. Even just spending one or two days a week on the bike and lifting some weights makes a huge difference for me in terms of improving speed and endurance and avoiding overuse injuries. Case in point: Although it seemed like a lot for being so early on in training, I did the first 10-mile long run about a week ago without much trouble at all. It was actually my first double-digit mileage run in over 6 years, and even though I was slower than I wanted to be, I had no lingering aches and pains afterwards. So, major win.
I think most of my sluggishness right now is due to the fact that with my stress levels being as high as they are, I’ve completely lost my appetite and the time/energy that I usually put into meal and snack prep. Obviously this is somewhat problematic since a huge part of running well is fueling well, and given that my go-to stress food is microwave nachos and not much else, I’ve…not exactly been doing an exemplary job on the nutrition front. I’m trying to be gentle and patient with myself while still making sure I eat SOMETHING with actual nutrients (and ideally some fiber) in it every day, though of course that’s easier said than done. It’s not a perfect solution or an ideal long term solution, but for now I’ve found meal replacement shakes (namely chocolate Ensure Plus and/or Slim Fast) to be helpful in closing the gap. That, plus bottles of Naked Juice Protein Zone, which are good if you don’t mind the grittiness of the protein powder they use. Again, more of a temporary measure than a permanent solution, but hopefully not one that will be necessary much longer…fingers crossed that life calms down again soon.
Anyway that is pretty much the latest around here. Aiming for a recipe sometime later this week if all goes well…stay tuned!
Being between race training plans is always sort of an odd time. Ever since I finished my most recent 5K in mid-June, I haven’t been following any kind of structured schedule with running. I’ve been aiming to get in a couple runs per week, but that’s about it. After the Swarthmore race, I ended up having some non-running related projects come up, plus a couple of pleasantly distracting visits from dear friends where catching up took priority over squeezing in a few miles, so overall, I’ve been happy to take a short break.
Besides allowing me the time to focus on other life priorities, I also really enjoy periodic running breaks because I almost always find I come back from them feeling well-rested and stronger. In my most extreme case, I actually dropped about 2 minutes from my previous 5K time after not running for about a year. Yet even for short breaks like this past week, I still find that my running noticeably improves afterwards.
Case in point: Recently I’ve noticed that part of what slows me down is actually my arm movement, so I’ve consciously been working on that, especially towards the end of a run when I might be getting tired. I have a huge tendency in running (and really in day-to-day life in general) to hike up my shoulders when I get tense and/or fatigued, which of course is a complete waste of energy. Along with that, if my upper body is tense, my arm swing constricts and/or my arms start crossing over the midline, and either way, it slows down my stride considerably…I really noticed this at the end of the 8K last week. If I’m able to keep my shoulders relaxed and my arm swing natural, I can easily maintain a much faster pace than if I don’t.
Fast forward to today. Got home from work and decided to do a quick 3-3.5 miles, no watch, no pressure. Although the temperature still hovered in the 80s, I felt great the entire time. A cool breeze blew in from the lake, and the few times my arms and shoulders felt like they were creeping up, I quickly adjusted. My stride felt smooth and easy nearly the entire time. It’s like something clicked for me during my days off, and now I feel ready to build the intensity back up again.
This upcoming week, I start training in earnest for my next big race, the Chicago Half Marathon in late September. I’ll possibly have a few shorter races between then and now (including a new state if all goes well!), but will mostly be focusing on getting ready to tackle 13.1 miles for the second time. I’m excited to be getting out of training limbo and into a more structured regimen again, and after having a couple of weeks to relax, I feel ready, both physically and mentally, for the challenge ahead.
I suppose you could say my love for running and my love for food go hand-in-hand. I started getting into cooking right around the time I started running in my early 20s. Sure, takeout Chinese food and midnight pizzas were delicious, and I had no qualms about indulging on a fairly regular basis, especially during half-marathon training! For my day-to-day life as a runner, though, I felt infinitely more energetic if I ate mostly homemade, veggie-based food. I was by no means a master chef when I first started, but got surprisingly far on assorted combinations of rice/various grains, beans/legumes, leafy green veggies, and cheese.
Then and now, I almost exclusively cook vegetarian meals at home, partially in an effort to be more environmentally friendly, but also because I am completely squicked out by the texture of raw meat. That’s not to say I never eat meat; I do occasionally (mostly if someone else makes it for me), but it’s not a huge part of my diet at all. Hooray, flexitarianism!
Summer has always been a little challenging for me in the kitchen, though. Most of my go-to recipes are soups and stews, and who wants to stand over a hot stove in the middle of July? Salads are a good option, but as a runner, they sometimes don’t feel substantial enough and I end up hungry again an hour later. As a result, at this time of year, I’m constantly on the lookout for creative ideas for filling, protein-packed, mostly cold dishes to try. Lo and behold, a friend recently sent along this New York Times Cooking recipe for a kale tabbouleh, and it has quickly earned a top slot in my summer meal rotation. It’s relatively simple, it will fill you up, and there are a LOT of possible variations. My adjusted version of the NYT recipe with my own added commentary (in parentheses):
1 cup fine bulgur, dry (you can also substitute quinoa…both are good cold)
3tablespoons lemon juice
1shallot, finely chopped (red onion would work as a substitute, too)
2teaspoons ground cumin
~1 teaspoon fine salt (adjust depending on your taste)
½cup extra-virgin olive oil
1bunch kale (~5 cups), stems removed, leaves chopped (or torn) into 1-2 in. pieces
2large ripe tomatoes, diced, ~2 cups (you can sub sun-dried tomatoes for a slightly different flavor)
½cup torn mint leaves
½cup diced radish*
1 can garbanzo beans, drained, or ~1 cup dried garbanzo beans, cooked and drained*
6-8 oz. feta cheese*
*=Optional additions, do as many or as few as you want
Prep veggies. Cook bulgur (and garbanzo beans, if desired) according to package instructions.
In a small bowl, whisk together lemon juice, shallot, cumin and salt. Whisk in olive oil.
In a large bowl, toss together kale, tomatoes, mint and radish. Once the bulgur (and optional garbanzo beans) are cooked, stir those in. You can let the hot ingredients cool first, but I like how they help tenderize the kale if they are thrown in right off the stove. Toss in dressing. If you want to add feta, toss it in just before serving.
Enjoy, and be sure to leave your favorite variations in the comments!