Monday, February 17, 2014

Fatass run + bigass snowfall = badass runner

In case you didn’t hear, I won an award recently. (If you did hear, keep your smart alec remarks to yourself.) My running club awarded me Female Ultra Runner of the Year, and as little as five years ago I’d have told you I had about as much chance winning an ultramarathon running award as I had of winning a Nobel Prize in astrophysics. Here’s the thing, though: proud as I am of this award—and I am damn proud of it, to the point where I have to restrain myself from starting every conversation with a reference to it—I know I didn’t win it because I’m a great runner. Running does not come easily or naturally to me. I have the advantage of a distance runner’s build, but that’s about it. Beyond that I’m a thoroughly average runner. I’m not particularly fast or strong, I’ve had my share of injuries, and you know those people who can hold animated conversations while they run—and imagine somehow they can hold them with you, despite the fact that you’re clearly gasping for breath and rewarding their lengthy soliloquys with grunts of “uh”? Those people? Yeah, I’m not one of them, at any distance or pace.

I got the award because, as my award presenter and running buddy put it, ultra running is about being able to deal with obstacles. Not necessarily triumphing over them in glorious, victorious fashion, mind you, but simply dealing with them.
I was reminded of this on Saturday when I did the Fat Ass run held in the next county over. A Fat Ass is basically a run that isn’t timed, doesn’t recognize winners, doesn’t charge anything, and has no set distance but only suggested ones ranging from zero to ultra. Fat Ass runs are meant to take place in the dead of winter, the idea being that this is the time to get off your fat ass and burn off all the crap you ate over the holidays. The Fat Ass on Saturday took place at a 7-mile loop around a lake. Generally the idea is to run anywhere between one and four loops, and on a day with good weather a handful of people will run all four, a large group will run 2-3, and a few people pressed for time or concerned about an injury or illness will do a single loop.

I am sure you caught the key words in that last sentence: good weather. I am sure they made you chuckle, the way it would be if I’d said “rainbow unicorn” or something equally preposterous. There has been no good weather for months. It does not seem like there will ever be good weather again. This is the black rhino’s revenge: if it had to be extinct, so too with sunshine and warmth.
To be fair, it could have been a lot worse. Do you find yourself saying that a lot these days? I do,  and not because I’m an optimist—see “rainbow unicorn”—but because it’s true. It could have been like it is today, snow becoming thundersnow  becoming freezing rain becoming rain becoming I don’t even want to know what else. On Saturday there was very little wind and the temperatures were reasonable, at least for a winter when breaking into the double-digits at all is reason to rejoice. There wasn’t even any snow, at least not falling. It was all on the ground, in the form of a good half-foot of powder. The powder wouldn’t pack or melt, and the seven-mile run felt like a seven-mile trudge through wet cement.

This is a poor description. I can’t even begin to tell you how tough this run was. On clear roads in good weather, I can run seven miles in less than an hour. On a trail, of course, I’m a lot slower—everyone is—but generally not 100% slower. It took me just under two hours to do the loop, and there was no way in a very frozen hell I was going to do more than that. When I went back to the lodge where the runners were hanging out after their run, drinking beer and eating Lee’s Fried Chicken and huddling by the wood-burning stove, I felt dejected and ashamed to have to tell them I only managed a single loop. They laughed, not at me, but at the word “only.” I glanced at the sign-up sheet and discovered that only two hardy souls had done two loops; everyone else—and that was a large group of elses—had done far less than that. And my two hours? Par for the course.
In other words, I was average again. I rejoiced, and loaded my plate with chicken tenders.

In the car on the way home, the BF and I were still shaking our heads at how ridiculous that whole ordeal had been. Ultra running, we agreed, is a constant cycle of feeling like a badass for doing impossibly amazing things and feeling utterly humiliated for realizing, again and again, that you ain’t all that. This was a hard, hard run. I am still sore; my piriformis is angry and wants to kick me in the butt for putting it through that torture (except that it is my butt, so I’m not sure how that would work). Yeah, I did it, sure, but I’m not exactly gonna brag about it.
Oh, who am I kidding. I’m bragging. I have dealt with another obstacle. I won’t get an award for it, but sometimes just getting through the damn thing is sufficient. I’ll take it. Tomorrow there will be a brand new obstacle in the form of today’s nasty weather lingering on every road and trail. In other words, just an average day in the life of an average runner.


Sunday, February 9, 2014

Take down the Picasso; I need room for my plaque

Let’s be honest: we like awards. While there are certainly people out there who shrug every time they get another trophy, medal, or first-place prize, these people are annoying. They are not like the rest of us, not part of the masses of ordinary shlubs who polish their trophies, display their medals in a showcase, and happen to mention (several times) whenever they get that first-place prize—even if there’s only one trophy or medal, one single instance of coming in first. If you genuinely don’t care about winning, coming in first, being considered a success by others, good for you. Now go away; I don’t want to talk to you.

That said, award-winning days are rare, even for people who see them regularly. More of your life is going to be spent doing something other than winning. That’s really the key, isn’t it: doing something. Awards are nice, but if you do what you do because you want to be recognized for it, you’re making life so much more difficult than it already is. We should do things because we genuinely enjoy them, not because we want to be given awards for it—right?
Well, sort of.

I bring all this up because my running club just awarded me Female Ultra Runner of the Year for 2013. If you’ve been following my various blogs, you probably have a good idea of what this means to me. I have never been athletic. I only became a serious runner in my late 30s, a marathoner and ultramarathoner in my 40s. Last year I spent nearly two weeks in the hospital with a leg the size of a totem pole, only without the artistically carved faces. Man, what a great tattoo that would have been. To win an award for running—and not just for running, but for running ultras—is beyond anything I could ever have imagined or dreamed. I always dreamed of getting my first novel published, and when it finally happened last year I felt hugely satisfied. But even though I beat long odds and had just about given up on this happening, I wasn’t particularly shocked about it. That I, the girl who failed just about every Presidential Fitness Test in high school, should several decades later win an award for an athletic endeavor—one that even very few truly athletic people take on—is so unfathomably weird, if I hadn’t been there through those hours and hours (and hours) of ultra running, I wouldn’t have believed it.
And now, having achieved this honor, I will let you in on a little secret: I do not always enjoy running. In fact, this winter, there have been times I hated it. You know the litany: the cold, the wind, the ice, the snow. Fingers frozen, hair frozen, snot frozen. Glasses frosted over, obscuring vision. Running on slippery, uneven surfaces when you can’t see is not nearly as much fun as it sounds (and if it doesn’t sound fun to you, trust me, it’s even less fun than that). Fear of falling is not a phobia. Phobias are irrational, their objects secondary in importance to the need for control. It is quite rational to fear falling, especially when several acquaintances of mine have done so and broken bones as a result. These were not elderly, frail acquaintances. They were fit and healthy, and they still went down. If you somehow avoid slipping on the ice and falling, don’t worry; you’ll still be plenty sore from giving your muscles a twisty workout as you negotiate the slushy path ahead.

This all happened the morning before the awards ceremony, by the way. I went on a 14-mile run with a group of folks training for an April marathon. April weather can be treacherous, but it’s unlikely to feature temps in the teens and piles of powder. How well this run prepped those folks for their marathon is thus debatable, but they did it nonetheless, and I tagged along, not as training for the April marathon but as an attempt to get in at least semi-reasonable shape for a 60K ultra in March. I may have a lot less time to get ready, but at least the weather for my run is likely to be just as winter-wonderland-lousy as it is now.
The run was equal parts satisfying and frustrating, and the extreme highs and lows don’t cancel each other out so much as intensify their contrast.  I felt great! And terrible! I wanted to keep going! I wanted to stop! I wanted a cheeseburger! Hmm, I kind of still want a cheeseburger. Well, at least that much is consistent.

Later that same day I received my award. The award had nothing to do with the run that morning except in the sense that it took a lot of similar great-and-awful morning runs to get to the point where I could run three ultras in four months after two weeks in the hospital. I won’t lie, won’t put on a display of modesty, won’t say “I don’t deserve this” even if it may very well be true. To hell with all that: I am absolutely bursting with pride.
And yet, not much has changed. I really like awards, like being successful, like winning. But that’s not why I live my life the way I do.

I tell my writing students this: You have to like writing more than you like being published, otherwise most of your life is going to be a waste. Getting my book published last year was a dream come true. But I’m still writing, and it’s still the same sometimes satisfying frequently frustrating process as always. Ditto running. Ditto a lot of things. The wedding is not the most important day of your life; every day after the wedding is. Today is the day after the ceremony. And guess what I did? Yep. I went for another run.