Friday, June 27, 2014

Lesson 1: you say pasta, we say carbs

The question runners are asked over and over again is why. Why do we do it? Why do we do something that the majority of human beings consider to be anything from unpleasant to painful to downright torturous? Well, actually, let me clarify that: the question runners ask themselves over and over again is why. Non-runners tend not to ask this question, even if they do wonder about the answer, because they know that if they ask it, they are certain to get an answer—and the answer will go on and on, and will involve a lot of boring running terms, and will be embarrassing in its gushy sincerity and overwrought emotion. The runner will talk about the way running makes them feel, the way it empowers them, the blah blah blah oh never mind sorry I asked hey look is that a bucket of fried chicken over there I think I’ll go eat all of it and not refer to it as “post-long-run protein.”

I can’t help it, though. I’m still asking myself that question, and perhaps never more so than right now, given that I’ve begun to train for a potential Boston Qualifying marathon. Have I mentioned lately how much I dislike running fast? So far, two weeks into my training, I haven’t DLL’d yet (see previous post), but I got darned close one recent warm afternoon. My BLAT—bacon lettuce avocado and tomato—almost ended up going “splat” on the path before me. I felt nauseous, I was sweating rivers, I gasped like a landed fish and I had only gone 6 miles. A marathon is a wee bit farther than that. In other words, there are downright torturous times ahead.

It’s endlessly tempting to use running as a metaphor for other aspects of life. Why we keep running even when it’s painful becomes a stand-in for difficult questions about how we keep going even when life sucks. That metaphor doesn’t always work, though, because sometimes life isn’t even remotely like running. Take my job, for example. I teach ESL as a private tutor, and lately business has been booming. I have students from all over the globe, all different ages and backgrounds, everyone from a lightbulb engineer from Taiwan to a chemical fertilizer expert from Brazil. Last week my boss told me I had another gig: two sisters from Italy who wanted to improve their grammar and conversational skills. The sisters are 15 and 17 years old, and their uncle is the head of a department at the nearby university. As such, he is in a position to bring the private school where I work a lot of new business—if likes what the school does. My boss tells me all of this with many a significant look and emphatic word to indicate in no uncertain terms that the pressure is most definitely on.

I used to be a teenage girl once, you know. I forget that sometimes—on purpose, mostly, as those were years I have no desire to recall. You’d think, having been one, I wouldn’t be intimidated by one, or even two, but as soon as I got this assignment I could feel my distance runner’s normally low blood pressure go soaring. Ask the BF; he’ll tell you how I paced the floors, popped the Tums, pulled hair, bit nails, sweated and fretted and otherwise freaked the hell out about how the hell I was going to do this. To appease them, I’d need to be entertaining, but to appease their mother and uncle, they’d have to actually learn something. You’d be surprised how few things accomplish both. Playing Apples-to-Apples: fun, but would they really learn vocabulary words that way? Learning how to use the subjunctive: useful, but if I were an Italian teenager, would I really want to do this on my summer vacation? (See what I did there? Would they?)

On it went, until at one point I flung away all of my potential lesson plan materials and collapsed onto the sofa with a melodramatic sigh. “Got it all figured out?” the BF asked carefully.

“No, and I don’t care. I don’t care anymore.”

“Yes you do. Of course you care. That’s why you’re a good teacher.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t want to be a good teacher any more. It’s too damned exhausting.”

The BF wisely did not respond to this, and in the silence I had a minor “ah-ha” moment. Of course I want to be a good teacher. I want to be a good teacher because it’s my job. I am a good teacher, I like to believe, but being good at something tends not to be a self-perpetuating state but rather something requiring constant work to maintain. It is exhausting, but often you simply don’t have the option to stop. I stop, I have no job. I stop, and a major part of my life is rendered null and void. So I keep going.

Does this sound like running to you? You fell right into my metaphor-baited trap. Sure, working to do something well is exhausting, whether it’s running a marathon or teaching conjunctive adverbs, but the similarities end there. Running is something of an antidote to the exhausting circumstances of life. My attempt to BQ this fall matters to exactly no one on the planet—not even me, when you get right down to it. If I fail to BQ, I will be massively disappointed, no doubt about it. But I can live with it. If I succeed in achieving the BQ, this will not precipitate world peace in our time. But I’ll be pretty pleased. How many things in life allow a person that kind of experience? I have to be a good teacher. I don’t have to be a particularly good runner—in fact, I may not be one, now or ever—yet I’ll still keep doing it and enjoying it, at least so long as I don’t lose my lunch in the process.



Friday, June 20, 2014

Swallow your pride (don't worry, it'll return)

I set three main running goals for this year: finish a 50-mile ultra, run a sub-7 mile, and qualify for Boston. So far I’m oh-for-one—one failed attempt at the 50. At this point, just about halfway through the calendar year, I may be on course for a few other, inadvertent goals. I’ve already achieved my first DNF in that failed 50 attempt; now, as I begin speedwork for the mile and, most of all, the BQ attempt, I may get my first DLL—Did Lose Lunch.

The truth is I do not like running fast. No, I do not. There was a time I used to run fast—nothing Olympian, of course, but I’d regularly win my age group in local races, and my times for 5Ks, 10Ks, and such were quite respectable. That was before I became a distance-and-trails junkie. Nowadays I would rather run a 30-mile trail race than a 3-mile road race, odd as that may sound, because my strategy for the 30 is to relax, take it easy, take breaks, and eat and drink a lot. What’s not to like about that? I know 3 miles will be a much shorter ordeal, but that much shorter ordeal will really, really suck the whole damn way. I don’t get that runner’s high when I do shorter distances, and while a 30-miler is almost certainly going to have at least a few rough patches (sometimes more than just a few—is 14 miles considered a “patch”?), I’ll feel at least a little victorious when I finish because I did, in fact, finish 30 miles. Three miles? Pff. Do that standing on my head—and probably would enjoy it more, as it would mean I’m not trying to run it fast.

For the last couple years of my running life, I’ve focused on solely on distance. That is about to change. In order to qualify for the Boston Marathon, I need to focus on speed. I can already do the distance, but I can’t do it at more than an average-ish pace. Average doesn’t BQ. Enter speedwork.

I’ve done speed training before, but not with any real seriousness. Well, I have to shave a good 30 seconds off my PR marathon pace by November, so it’s time to get serious. The BF, who has qualified for Boston multiple times, has figured out a training program for me, and on Tuesday he and I went out to a nearby park to start the program. Speedwork optimally takes place on a track, but, mindful of recent injuries, we decided to start on trails. Even though trails would be a lot slower and harder to run fast, they are a hell of a lot easier on the legs. “What’s more,” I noted eagerly, “once we switch to roads it’ll seem like a breeze!”

That might be true in theory, but I did make one mistake in that assumption, and that was in believing that anything about speed training would be considered “a breeze.” For my first session, the BF’s plan was to do some fairly easy intervals: 12 minutes at a relaxed pace, then 2 minutes at an 8 minute/mile pace, 2 at 10 pace, 2 at 9, then back to 8, 10, 9, repeated, for an hour total of running. The idea is to get control of your pace and get your body familiar with how the different speeds feel. An 8 minute pace is not really all that fast, not even for me, and his plan seemed quite reasonable.

And with that sentence, you know it ended up feeling like anything but reasonable.

This could easily have been a disastrous move for our relationship; I might end up cursing him for pushing me too hard and he might end up cursing me for whining too much, but in fact, at least for our first session, that proved not to be the case. That’s the good news. The bad news is this proved not to be the case because I make it my life’s mission to make sure that nobody causes me more misery than I cause myself. I’m quite good at making myself miserable; I hate running fast yet there I was. But I took it on myself, and any suffering—and oh there most definitely was suffering—was brought on by me and no one else. The BF’s first-day plan was reasonable, and I believed that the whole way through—even when it started to suck, which was approximately the second we started the first interval.

When I actually got up to and maintained the required speed for the faster intervals, it took so much energy out of me that the slower intervals were practically crawls. After a while I made a few modifications, which is a euphemistic way of saying I cheated a bit. I ran all the downhills as fast as possible, I tried to do the flat sections at a pace that wouldn’t kill me, and for the uphills—well, there I simply tried to keep moving forward, pace be damned. In other words, I reverted back to being a trail ultra runner. I might add that this was June, meaning warm and humid, and there were hills on that trail, as well as the other usual trail challenges (roots and rocks and buzzy bitey insects). All of that added to the challenge, but I fully admit the real reason it didn’t go well is simply because I Don’t Like To Run Fast. I am, in fact, currently incapable of running fast, because I’ve avoided doing so for years. And so once again, there I was, starting to run as though for the first time. If running teaches you nothing else, it most definitely teaches you humility.

It didn’t go well and it wasn’t terribly enjoyable. In other words, pretty much what I expected, and if nothing else there’s a weird sort of satisfaction in that. As for the DLL? Nausea yes, puking no. Some runners will tell you if you didn’t puke, you didn’t run fast enough. Well, it’s only Week 1. There will be plenty of opportunities to go for my goals, both the ones I plan and the ones that just sort of come up along the way.



Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Camp town races all day long

So I ran another ultra this past weekend, but that’s not what I’m going to write about. Instead I’m going to write about camping. You know, that thing people do when they get tired of the monotony of walls, when offices seem like cattle pens, when they realize that everything they eat comes in shiny packages and the food goes through just as much processing as those packages. Camping, one thinks excitedly—yes! Back to basics, a thin shield between you and the elements your only shelter, and only such foods as can be minimally prepared for your meals. A simpler life, a return to the tranquility of the natural world, a more peaceful existence.

Yeah, I know. I don’t believe that either. Camping is frequently a thing that seems lovely in theory and hideous in practice. Camping is bugs and dirt and dirty bugs. It’s burning your food because you’re afraid to eat it undercooked, and burning yourself because you were in such a hurry to eat your burnt hotdog that you grabbed the metal skewer with your bare hands. It’s lying on the cold hard ground and feeling every damn grain of dirt beneath you and smacking the side of your head all night because that mosquito in your tent wants to take up permanent residence in your ear. It’s spending a lot of money on fancy gear so that you can “rough it” in the wilderness and realizing that you just spent a bundle to do the same crap you already do at home—only, like, outside.

No, I don’t entirely believe that either. Camping as an activity does tend to polarize a lot of people; some folks love it and can’t wait for summer (or, if they’re truly hard core, don’t have to wait for summer because they go year ‘round) while others say the word “camp” as though it is always preceded by the word “concentration.” I’m somewhere in the middle. I’m drawn to the idea of camping for a number of reasons—nostalgia being one, as camping was something I frequently did as a child with my family. But I’m also quite cognizant of the fact that nostalgia is often illusory. I remember clamoring each summer for our parents to bring out the tent and the sleeping bags and the portable stove and head out to the beach (this was Hawaii; you can camp right on the beach, and please don’t ask me why I ever left the islands because I’m not sure I know any more), but I’m also certain I likely fussed and whined a lot once we finally got there. Similarly, I was very excited at the prospect of camping up in Wisconsin for the 100-mile trail relay I would be part of last weekend, but in the back of my mind I also knew I’d probably have to reign in the inevitable desire to be a fussy, whiney 8-year-old again when the tent leaked, when the sun and birds woke us up far too early, when the bugs made a buffet out of my limbs and head. Stupid nature.

The BF and I plus a dozen or so of our running buddies set out Friday with our gear, most of us arriving at the campgrounds late afternoon and promptly serving as high tea for the mosquitoes. The most effective torture method ever invented could not even begin to approach the sheer agony that is the whine of a mosquito in your ear. And you thought World Cup vuvuzelas were bad. We bathed in bug spray, deciding that the potential for cancer in the future was a distant secondary concern compared to the certainty of being driven mad with itching, then set up our tents. My tent is a backpacker's version; it folds up to the size of a collapsable umbrella, but it's basically a canvas coffin. Luckily the BF has a tent that could house a three-ring circus, so it was likely to serve just fine for us and the dog—who, we hoped, would be a little less cranky about camping that I had been in the past. Once the tents were up, the bedrolls and sleeping bags assembled, and the gear all stowed, we put wood in the firepit and prepared for an idyllic evening of brats and beer and a lot of laughs.

And it actually was quite nice. Fire—who isn’t captivated by it? Not the bugs, thank goodness. It had been a very warm day and I was already sweaty but I hovered near the pit and bathed in the smoke. Soon the sweat, smoke, and bug spray would be augmented with sunscreen and spilled electrolyte drink, and there would be more layers of crud on my body than on the neck of a near-empty ketchup bottle. Did I mention we had chosen the “rustic” campsites? This meant that each campsite was magnificently secluded with trees, unlike those big open camp fields with no privacy; it also meant there were only pit toilets, a water fountain instead of sinks, and—this is key—no showers. Some of our running buddies with foresight seemed a bit uneasy with this; they would be running anywhere from 19 to 31 miles the next day, and the idea of doing that, going to bed, getting up, and functioning the whole next day without scouring off the filth did not please them. On the other hand, I and a few others scoffed. Surely we could go one weekend without the obsessive need to pretend that life isn’t inherently dirty. We don’t need no stinkin’ showers; we can just be our stinkin’ selves a little bit longer than usual. A little stench never hurt anyone.

True, but a lot of stench is another story, as is a massive lack of sleep. Basically we got up at 5am Saturday and stayed up for over 24 hours to run and cheer on other runners. By the time the last runners came in we were all outrageously filthy and beyond exhausted, but instead of hot showers and comfy beds, we wiped down with Wet-Naps and crawled into buggy tents. Even the dog, who loves the outdoors, seemed out-of-sorts, barking at people when normally she’d be making puppy eyes and looking all sweet and belly-rub-worthy. “Rustic,” I’ve learned, is one of those words like “cozy,” a thinly veiled euphemism. A real estate ad calling a house “cozy” means you can touch all four walls standing in one place; likewise a “rustic” camping experience means all outdoors is one big Port-a-Potty because you’ll be damned if you’re going to walk all the way to the pit toilets after having run 31 miles, over hills and meadows, in searing sun and cold rain, through daylight and twilight.

And what, ultimately, can I say about the running portion of the weekend? I could say “Yeah, I ran badly, but…” and tack on some inspirational schlock, but I’m not going to do that. I ran badly. It’s a thing that happens. Or even simpler: I ran. It’s a thing to do.

An experience like camping takes you so far out of your ordinary life that you really do feel a letdown when you return to the world of showers and beds. Kinda like—and here it comes at last, the Big Flashing Metaphor—running. You can be utterly miserable, which I was for a good four hours of my seven-and-a-half hour run on Saturday; you can wish it were over and you were dead and you can wonder why, why, why, WHY you are doing this horrible thing. And once that horrible thing is finally, finally, finally, finally over, you can decide you’ll never do this again, ever, but the thing is, you might not decide any such thing and instead declare “next time I’ll do this better, I’ll be more prepared, I’ll train smarter, and it’ll be great. Yeah! I can hardly wait!”

You know as well as I do why people are like this. If we got irrevocably discouraged at the slightest setback, we’d never learn anything, we’d never do anything, we’d turn into inert blobs of boringness. We keep going because that’s the only way to be successful. And boy do we love success stories; we love hearing about people who triumph over adversity to become the greatest, the fastest, the strongest, the best. But I tend to be drawn to a different kind of success story. It’s the story of someone who gets through some stuff by running but doesn’t become the best and now has to figure out how to get through that. If you’re good at something, it’s obvious why you do it. If you aren’t particularly good at it, and it’s a struggle, often a painful one, but you still find yourself coming back again and again for more, then there must be something you’ve found that’s keeping you going. You keep trying, even if you don’t ever seem to be getting anywhere, because that’s living. And at least this is an activity that keeps you living, keeps reminding you that you are in fact very much alive and continuing as such, dirt, sweat, bugbites and all.