Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Will run for bread

K and I spent a week in Colorado, mostly Denver, and I can tell you that what the mile-high city lacks in oxygen it makes up for in cannabis purveyors. I swear weed shops were more prevalent than Starbucks. That said, coffee is still cheaper, so I stuck with caffeine for my mild feel-good buzz.

We were there vacationing with K’s kids, and one of the items on our group agenda was a marathon relay. This was risky given that only one of the five of us lives at high altitude while the rest of us reside barely my own height above sea level, and it takes a while to get used to even sitting perfectly still at 5000 feet, much less running there. We hoped that our being in the mountains a good six days ahead of the relay would help us adjust. We also each adamantly insisted that we were running “just for fun” and “didn’t care about our pace or time.” In other words, we were full of crap. K and his kids were all runners back in high school and/or college, good ones at that. They all have busy lives, though, and haven’t been able to keep up the kind of rigorous running regimen they’d need to continue the blistering paces they’d come to expect. Apparently you don’t have the experience of being a seriously competitive runner and then afterward ever think of running as something you do “just for fun” without gut-wrenching recollection of your glory days.

I say “apparently” because I was not a runner at all in my youth, didn’t start until middle age. For me, this race meant something else. Roughly this time last year I’d DNF’d a disastrous attempt at a Boston Qualifying marathon. After that I took a break from Big Running Goals for a while, but after turning 50 in December, I felt the need to get back into it. I’ve got a big ultramarathon goal ahead of me in the fall, and this race felt like the first semi-official training step toward that goal. I’ve never stopped enjoying running itself, but racing is different. Racing means being disciplined. It means getting up early even though you’ve never been a morning person, and being very careful what you eat the night before a long run even though you are really craving that super spicy curry you love so much, gastrointestinal distress be damned. Racing means making yourself run even when the weather is terrible—and (thanks, global climate change!) the weather is some variation of terrible almost all the time. In other words, racing can mean that running is no longer something you do for fun. I needed it to be.

A great many of the runners I know believe in the mantra of “embrace the suck.” By this they mean that if you’re going to run, you need to make pain your friend. When it feels like your lungs are full of burning embers and your legs are in flames and your heart is about to go Alien on you and burst right out of your chest—I’m not selling you non-runners on this, am I—you have to say “yippee!” and push yourself even harder. Believe it or not, a lot of runners are very successful at doing this. I’m not one of them. Lifelong clinical depression has meant that I’m very good at feeling bad. You’d think that would mean I’m a pro at embracing the suck, but instead what it has meant is that in order for me to run, I have to enjoy it. For me, what’s pleasurable about running—whether it’s the excitement from the endorphin rush or the peaceful calm that comes from being on a path in the woods away from the noise and nonsense of regular life—has to supersede what’s painful about it.

The logistics of the marathon relay were already working against this supersession. Figuring out how we were going to get everyone to and from the various relay exchanges proved to be a massive nightmare. Denver traffic makes you understand why pot is legal: you got to do something to keep the endless hours of road rage in check. Ditto parking in Denver, trying to take public transportation in Denver, and trying to get a Lyft in Denver when there are road closures around the biggest street in town. As a result, we studied the map, packed everything from bus schedules to extra clothing to toilet paper, and set our alarms the night before the race to an hour even the most annoyingly chipper morning person you know would balk at.

One of K’s daughters had been feeling ill all week, so I volunteered to run two of the five relay legs, for a total of 9.6 miles. “Long runs” in terms of training for a marathon or ultra generally start at 10-12 miles, meaning that this should not have been a daunting distance. And yet, even after a decade of such races, I will never call any distance “just” that many miles. A half marathon is not “just” 13.1 miles, even though many runners of that distance will say it is because they know so many other runners doing twice that the very same day. Similarly, 9.6 miles is 9.6 miles, and I wanted them to be good ones.

K and his daughter T unsurprisingly set blistering paces for legs 1 and 2 respectively, so at the point where I got the baton I was running alongside some crazy fast people—at least for a second or two, anyway, after which they blazed past me. I let them go. I let them go quite happily. I’ll tell you a secret: I was thrilled that I got to run two of the relay legs, because it meant that whatever pace I eked out would be considered a victory since I ran more miles than anyone else. This was the first step toward making this race enjoyable: rationalizing the suck.

I will say that this was one of the quietest marathons I’ve ever run. Denverites are very active people, all about their mountain bikes and their 14-ers, yet they surprisingly do not seem exceptionally keen on running. The race we did is Denver’s only marathon, and it was neither a big race nor a sold-out one—nor one that anyone seemed to care about other than the runners. Huge stretches of my 9.6 miles went by unspectated, and in fact for several miles I was the most active person cheering. The race is mainly an out-and-back along Colfax Avenue, so while I was running out, the front runners were running back, affording me ample opportunity to bellow “GOOD JOB, RUNNER!” and “YOU GOT THIS!” over and over. There were some startled looks and some eye aversion, but a few of the fasties smiled and thanked me. A few of the runners on my side of Colfax quickened their pace. I like to think I encouraged them in this though likely they simply wanted to get away from the weird lady with the flaming skull and “RUN OR DIE” on her shirt.

At some point I realized that yelling at people, however motivating, was making me slightly out of breath. Oh right, the altitude. I shut up and ran. And, as it turned out, I had fun. Yes, it was cold, I had slowed our team’s average pace down by over a minute, and the funny signs and cheering spectators were so few and far between I might as well have been running on my own rather than racing. But I felt good. I was breathing. My legs were moving me forward. That was a victory.

One of the few spectator signs I did see (besides the ubiquitous “worst parade ever,” which probably needs to be retired along with “I only run if something’s chasing me”) made me grin. “PAIN is just the French word for BREAD.” I don’t love pain, and I can’t simplistically pretend that pain is a good thing that pushes me to excel. But I do love a good crusty baguette, just as much as I love a good, satisfying run. Even if I can’t embrace the suck, there’s still much to be enjoyed.

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