Monday, January 21, 2013

Five Thousand Words on Five Thousand Meters

When I was 14, I ran a 10k race with my friend John. It was the Devil Mountain Run circa 1982, a very popular race up in the Bay Area, lotta people--aging hippies mostly--dressed in short shorts and headbands and Sauconys. As John and I waded through the mass of humanity prior to the start, I grabbed at his shirt. “Why we behind all these people?” I asked. “Why don’t we start up front?” He waited a beat before asking, “Why? Do you think you’re going to win?”

His question seemed ludicrous to me.  I suppose I didn’t think I was going to win, but I certainly never thought about anything other than wanting to win, TRYING to win. Why else was I out there?  For fun? Don’t make me laugh. It’s a race. It’s not…bleh…exercise. Is it?

*

Anyways…all I have to say is….

Jerks.  We used to just get drunk and gamble together and then you all had to go get all "fit" and "healthy" and start talking about PRs instead of Pai Gows.

Fine. I ran a 5k this weekend. I hate you all.

*

Now, I am not a complete newbie when it comes to running, racing being one of the many indulgences I entertained in the brief windows between soccer seasons. The first, when I was 10 years old, was an AAU cross-country competition. I saw a newspaper ad, pestered my Mom into taking me. The race was two days away. Not a problem. I was plenty fit from soccer. So we went. I finished 10th, posting a mile-and-a-half time of 8:51.

Pretty quick, right? I was a full minute behind the winner, but left another 30 or so kids weeping in their tube socks. The upshot of finishing 10th was that I advanced to the next round. It turns out the AAU meet I attended was a sectional qualifier for the National Junior Olympics. I was on to the regionals.

I finished 13th there, despite the fact that I fell down. My time was slower, though I do not remember exactly what it was. Falling down certainly didn’t help my cause and the course was much tougher, multiple changes-of-elevation, part of it on a hillside trail, a hillside made muddy by frequent rains where I took a mis-step and slid 15-feet down, before scrambling up and back into the race. Regardless, 13th qualified me for the National Seminfinals. In Vegas!

Which is where my racing career ended for a time. We did not go to Vegas. My parents, who already spent money they did not always have to send me to socccer tournaments all over the continent (including Vegas) put down their collective feet, while also trying to assuage my competitive fire (inferno?) by correctly stating that 13th at the regionals didn’t exactly make me a favorite going forward.

*

Emet went back to work right after Thanksgiving. A difficult time for her, but also for me, because I had been skating since May 10th. I no longer had to get up at an ungodly hour to walk the dog every morning. Since Emet was home, she took both baby and dog on long sojourns and also to the dog park, where she joined something of a daily coffee klatch with other perople without jobs.

With her return to the classroom, the task—care of Reggie, The Dog Who Must Be Walked—returned to me. At 5:30 a.m. Every day.

I decided to compound my new misery by doing some running in the morning, ostensibly to get Reggie his required exercise, but also because…well…I didn’t really artuclate it at the time, but walking him bored me. I needed some motivation to get out of bed. In the dead of winter. And all that rabble about running must have permeated my brain. “Hey! I have an idea!”

Fuckers.

*

I ran track in junior high, both for my school and for the club sponsored by the local Catholic Church. I ran the mile, though I filled in in the 880 (screw you, metric system!) on occasion. The entire distance running contingent at junior high was made up of guys on my soccer team. Five of us (although only four got to race in meets), all of whom could go under six minutes.

Before that first season began, our coach showed us all the “school records” and the one for the mile seemed well within reach. I took that opportunity to mention, perhaps a little brashly and loudly, that I was going to break that record. Which I did. In the first race. Except I finished second behind one of my teammates, Steve, who now held the new record.

I didn’t feel particularly bad about that.

Hahahahahaha. Totally lying. I was furious. And then I went to school the next day and saw "Way to break the record, fag" written on my locker.

Apparently someone didn’t like my braggadocio. I know who that person was (not Steve), but hey, technically I did break the record I said I was gonna break. Just that it wasn’t the record any more.

Nor was it the record after the next race, which I won, out-sprinting Steve in the last 220 (yards, bitches!) and beating him by a couple feet. 5:29.4. Will never forget that number or the race. When we came around the last bend, we were flying, as fast as we could possibly go at that point, and we were stride for stride and the effort, the sheer will, pushed our inertia wide and down there at the finish line, 80 or so yards away, they had to stretch the tape out. And Steve and I watched them do it, pull the string from the first couple lanes all the way to the outside lane and that was the goal, that was where we were headed and I can’t even say when I edged ahead, because all I was looking at was the tape.

One of the defining moments of my youth. I am not joking when I tell you that race repaired at least two fractured relationships, which is a long story(ies) best reserved for never.

Anyways, when I was 12, I could run a mile in 5:29.4. Which became something of a frustration for me as I started this particular journey.

*

I looked over the Couch to 5k schedule and scoffed. Heh. I’m an athlete. Sure, I’m out of shape, but this heart and these lungs have been built up over a lifetime. They are not the vital body organs of a sloth. So, naturally, I started off at Week 3. And cut the walking time.

Reggie didn’t quite know what to make of this strange new ritual. No more stopping at every smell and tree? Thankfully, he caught on quickly, after a few days of jumping at me and playing tug o' war with the leash. 

I found I no longer dreaded 5:30 a.m. I hopped out of bed and got to it. I also did this on the non-running days, when we "briskly" walked for 30 minutes, while, at the same time, thinking “I could probably run today and feel fine,” but I resisted, owing to my last two attempts at Operation Return to Fitness, when I’d over-extended myself in the first weeks and then couldn’t continue due to soreness, strains, defeatism and humiliation.

It was going well for a couple of weeks. Legs felt heavy but not sore, wind was solid most days. I felt refreshed and energetic and remembered to stretch after the workout. It was going so well I bought a long-sleeve shirt to run in.

That’s when you know I’m getting serious, when I start with the wardrobe.

*

It was the summer before my freshman year when I asked my parents if I could run a 10k. My mom was a little concerned, what with soccer season coming up and the fact that I’d never run that far. “You have to prove to me you can make it, first,” she said.

"Fine, let’s go."

We mapped a 6.2 mile trek in the car, using the back roads near our house and off I went. I finished the trail twice, running it in consecutive weeks (this is probably not how one trains for a 10k, I’m guessing) and then signed up for the race.

I went out too fast, adrenaline pumping, blood on fire (inferno?), nearly died during the fourth mile, shuffled for a while, but finished strong. I do not remember enjoying it. Of course, I didn’t win. In fact, an older guy (I was 14, so when I say “older” that means he was anywhere from 25 to 50, but I’m guessing mid-30s) jumped in front of me, nearly toppling us both, right at the finish line chute, I assume because he didn’t want to lose to a 10-year-old (I was still very small for my age, so he probably thought I was 10) and it PISSED ME OFF. If I’d known he was gaining, I’d have put a hip in his way.

The thing about it is, I did not have a good time. I didn’t like running. To my mind, running was punishment. At the start of the soccer season, we had “Hell Week.” All conditioning—running—all the time. When we screwed around at practice, we had to run "Grand Tours," which were full laps up and down hills around huge Kellman Fields. Punishment. Bad connotations. And so that 10k was the point where running and I parted ways as a source of fun or pride or anything. Like Jerry Seinfeld, “I choose not to run!”

*

It was a few days before Christmas where I felt I was going to face the first real test of the program: doing two miles without walking. Well, let me take that somewhat back. I knew I could run two miles. I just wasn’t entirely sure I could run it quickly. I was pushing myself at a pretty good pace previously, but that was always knowing that I had a 3-to-5 minute walk coming to me.

Not this day.

It was 32 degrees when Reggie and I stepped out of the house that day. It was the first time in his entire dog-life he hesitated prior to a "walk." He sniffed the air, raised his eyebrows at me and looked up, "You sure about this, man?"

Heck yeah.

I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about my time, but I did take solace in the fact I ran the second mile as fast as I ran the first.

I wasn’t cold once I got going, except for my hands, so I made a mental note to get some running gloves (a mental note I passed on to AJ just in time for Christmas).

*

Seriously, you shoulda seen me. My family fed my new obsession at Christmas. Black racing tights. Bright red Nike half-zip Dri-Fit running jacket. Gloves! No more walking. We dress like a runner now.

I was a little more than three weeks out from the race and…well…I had to admit a couple things to myself.

1. I look pretty awesome in racing tights
2. I was going to hate my race time

I wasn’t going to be over 10 minutes per mile (roughly the pace the Couch to 5K plan advocates). Or at least I hadn’t been at any point during training. But there was no real time to work on speed. Maybe if I’d started a month earlier. No time for  intervals (training term!) or the like. I was just going to be able to get my lungs, heart and legs ready to carry me over 3.1.

I suppose that was the idea, but I guess I didn’t feel like I was “accomplishing” anything. I felt like I was training for something, which is different, and it held all manner of positive factors, discipline being Number One, but did I feel pride? I don’t think so. It’s something else and darned if I can put my finger on it right now.

*

It was cold and dark outside when Reggie and I hit the trail a couple days before the New Year. My suburban hamlet is lousy with running/walking/biking/horse trails and the one a block up from my house is popular. My neighborhood is hilly, but the trail is more flat, so I go back and forth. It’s not the most exciting scenery in the world, though as dawn creeps during Mile Two, I notice the leaves have changed color to golden red. It’s like fall, deep in the recesses of winter. They won’t last long that color, not when the rain starts after the turn of the year. That’s when the San Bernardino mountain range, hard to the north of where I’m running, will get dusted with snow and the wind that careens down their slopes will pick up the chill and give Reggie and I more incentive to get back into the warmth of the house.

On this particular day, I scared the crap out of three ladies speed-walking on the trail. It’s still dark and they’re talking loudly to each other and don’t hear us approach from behind, try as I might to make myself known with thunderous man-strides. They recover from their fright and let us by, cooing when they notice Reggie, whom I have to drag behind me me for 100 yards or so as he looks back at them flirting and wondering if he’d have gotten a scruff scratch had I let him stop to say "hello."

Even though he knows we don’t stop any more.

We hit the main street running perpendicular to the trail and turn around, moving across the street to keep Reg from gawking at the loud ladies who I now see are running and…hey…we are the same, we are legion, we are "Runners." I thrust a fist of solidarity at them as we pass.

The trail going east has a slight, if steady incline and I drop my pace. I no longer feel the cold; my hands are warmed by my fresh new gloves and Reggie is keeping good time, has yet to dart in front of me because of some far off rabbit sniffing at scrub on the hillside or a daring coyote slipping into the open field between tracts hoping to find a field mouse or an outdoor cat. I’m not listening to music. I decided not to when I started. Not sure why, but I prefer it this way. Something about trying to be one with my breath, void of distractions, concentrating on stride, letting peaceful thoughts into my quiet head, centering my motherfucking chi.

I run across the second main street, which is much quieter, and I think about what it all means and it’s strange because I’m not yet sure if I’m enjoying this. I’m feeling challenged and fight to keep my form, but it’s not actually fun. Perhaps when I reach a certain level when the run is longer--more of a journey, not just back and forth on the same trail--it will make more sense in that aspect. Yet, I look forward to doing it. I much prefer the mornings when we run to the ones when we recover and walk. I’m perusing running websites for clothes and gear. And, afterward, when Reggie and I are back in the house and it’s too too warm because the heat is on and I stretch and groan and peel off the layers and get into the shower, I can’t help but enjoy it then, because I’ve done it. I’ve finished the day’s task, the one I may or may not have had anxiety dreams about at 2 a.m. I’m gassed, but also cleansed, and it feels like I’ve taken the lead on the day. 

And yet, the physical act of running, the pleasure I would like to find in the endeavor itself, remains lacking.

*

The first time I woke up not wanting to run was New Year’s Day. I ascribed this to the previous night’s activities. Only AJ and I made it to midnight and of the two of us, I was the only one drinking Templeton Rye when the ball dropped, so raising my head from the pillow was a difficult chore. At the same time, there was never a question in my mind that I would get up (eventually…c’mon….just give me a few more minutes) and tackle that day’s miles.

Which is a victory in and of itself. And when I decided on a new route just to change things up and sweated out a few ounces of small batch whiskey, I decided to get cute and tackle a hill at about the two-mile mark and dadgum it if I didn’t surmount that hill and—after a brief period of slowed pace on flat ground—finished strong with Reggie behind me having to be hustled along (it can skew your time when you are dragging 40 lbs. of mutt behind you).

That run felt like a victory for discipline and only added to my buzz for the Rose Bowl, which was won by my beloved Stanford Cardinal in a flurry of defense (them) and bloody marys (me).

*

That New Year’s week, I decided to further tweak the program upon which I’d embarked. As I’ve said, I felt a little silly doing the program, just because I don't live an idle life. I'm active and though I wouldn’t have said I was "in shape," when I began this, I could’ve pulled useful shifts in a soccer match if called upon and not done great disservice to my body or to the beautiful game. What I wanted was to feel more challenged, so I went ahead and sped up my "sensible" pace and that was fine, but what I really wanted to do was get the distance under my belt earlier, a couple weeks before the gun goes off. So I passed over the week of 2.75-mile runs and went  straight from 2.5 miles to 3 miles. So I can maybe go to 3.5 or 4 miles before the race. Maybe not. We race in 16 days.

Oh, did I mentioned I signed up to race?

*

I will be tackling the Ontario Mills 5k/10k, sponsored by The Christian Okoye Foundation. That’s right, baby. The Nigerian Nightmare! Proceeds go to children’s sports programs in the area, which is really the only thing to recommend this particular race (that and it was scheduled on the weekend after I finished the program and it’s five miles from my house) because the course is flat and boring, as in, it’s two laps around the parking lot of the outlet mall. Not any nature or sights to see. “Hey cool! There’s the Bed, Bath and Beyond!”

Still, The Nigerian Nightmare!

*

As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve been writing this as it happened, journaling, if you will, with the grand idea that the final paragraphs will include the race and my feeling of triumph and accomplishment and the awed hugs of my wife and kids, but most importantly—I thought—my time, which would be impressive despite it all, or a mild disappointment (likely scenario) or neither one of those things. And what I’ve come to realize is that the race doesn’t matter in the larger implications of the undertaking.

Nope, not about the race at all (even though I am looking forward to it and my family is excited to go and support me). We are, after all, talking about a mere 3.1 miles. This is not Hannibal giddyuping a bunch of elephants over the Alps. If hard-pressed before doing the training, say for $100, I could have probably jogged my way for 3.1 miles without stopping as long as time wasn’t a factor. No, it’s no great accomplishment. It is, however, a sign-post. It’s the thing that got me to the starting line. And it is most definitely not the finish.

I got into pretty good shape a few years ago, right before the time I met Emet (who was undoubtedly impressed by my slender, yet powerful, physique). But I didn’t make those workouts a lifestyle choice. It was a finite program that I finished and just sort of stopped doing (because it was boring and because I then pulled a quad playing soccer). It ended and so did I and it did not leave the lasting import of a change, a change in attitude and lifestyle.

I’m kind of hoping that’s what this is. I have an eight-month-old son, you know, and at 45, one begins to question mortality on a larger scale. I’d like to have another 40 years to hang out with my wife and boys and not just as a presence but a participant. And that’s what has be amped and excited. Not the race.

*

I’ve said countless times, even to a few of you cultists/runners, that you’d never ensnare me. That I love competition above all. That I’ll happily and readily enter into a contest of will or strength or skill for the opportunity to compete and win. But exercise? Not my bag, baby.

And even now, as mentioned earlier, I don’t know what it is that has me inspired to get out of bed on those running days. I like the fact that I have more energy (never a bad thing with an 8-month-old in the house). I like sweating when it’s cold outside. I like the way I look in this gray Nike shirt (I didn’t tell you I bought a gray Nike half-zip Dri-Fit racing jacket? I did). I like saying "Good morning" to others I see on the trail. I like bonding with my dog. Let me extrapolate on that a little. Is this silly or common thing? I love having Reggie with me. He was feeling a little under the weather last week (eating raw bratwurst off the kitchen counter will do that to you) and when I went to bed, I had him listed as doubtful. But the alarm went off and there he was, paws on the bed, tongue in my face, tail slapping the air. And I was happy! Happy he was good to go. But back to the point, what is the thing? I don’t know. And if you think I’m building up to some big reveal, where I have my Road to Damascus moment, I’m not. I’m truly bewildered.

*

I have begun to train like a race horse. The race is eight days away. I have the distance under my belt. More, even. I’ve taken a couple long (four mile) leisurely jogs. I’ve run the 5k distance at a targeted pace for each mile, trying to go progressively faster. I’m obsessed with my statistics--no surprise to anyone who knows me--at the end, animatedly relaying them to Emet.

Oddly, I don’t care what my race time is going to be. I’d like it to be under 26 minutes. That doesn’t seem unreasonable.

But I don’t really give that much of a shit.

Not like I will next time.

I think I’m getting the competition part of this now.

*

Have I ever shown you my pinkie? The one on my right hand? It’s deformed ("like an injured bird," I once wrote, hackily), thick to the first knuckle, skinny and slightly bent from there. I broke it playing basketball in college. To be precise, I broke it in warmups for a fraternity intramural game reaching up for a rebound and it went wrong and snapped.

I taped it to my ring finger and played the game.

This is not an isolated incident. I walked around for three months with a broken bone in my wrist because I didn’t want to get it casted until after soccer season was over. About a year ago, I injured my right elbow (probably repetitive stress syndrome from hitting 400 balls a week at the range). I just put a brace on it and take some Advil before I play golf.

I have zero issues with pain. I think this may be the thing. Because when I get that stitch in my side, or my legs start to get a little heavy or I’m heaving a bit while trying to snag a full breath, I get mad. I fight it. I push through. I finish the run with as much speed as I can muster.

And that is what fires me up. That’s what makes me throw in a Darryl Sutter Fist Pump at the end of the run. That’s "the thing." Or one of the the things.

I like that it hurts. I finished my third-to-last run before the race today. I “sprinted” the last quarter-mile, by which I mean I ran as fast as I could. My stomach muscles were barking. It was awesome.

*

In retrospect, it probably wasn't the greatest idea I've ever had to play 32 holes of golf three days before the race, especially after I ran that very same morning. My right hammy is barking (the one I use to drive my hips forward on downswing) and my right achilles has seen better moments. Damn it.

I was feeling pretty good after the morning run, too. I took a page from the horseman's notebook and decided to run a "tightener" for my last training before the race, somewhat akin to a horse going a quick four furlongs the week before taking to the track and going six.

You know, when I write that down, it makes much less sense than it did in my head.

Regardless, I wanted to do two miles, relatively quickly, at a faster pace than I'd be able to do 3.1 anyway. I managed it, coming home in 15:33, which was quicker than I'd intended. but also would have made me puff out my chest if wasn't bend over at the waist gasping and trying to get enough saliva in my mouth to spit.

Now it's a day later and I'm hoping the tweaks I've done to my body will ease in the next 48 hours. I don't want any excuses. I'm starting to fire myself up and, though the time really doesn't matter. Crap, I say that, and, let's be honest, it's a defense mechanism for the feeling that I'm so.....so......so.......slow, like an-elderly-man-driving-a-car-in-the-rain-slow, like a hobbled-snail slow, like a homeless-person-at-an-ATM slow. Of course the time matters, but it matters in a way where I want to finish just a little bit faster than my estimate/plan. I'm trying not to let it matter in the grand scheme of things (SO SLOW) and remember that it's only been a couple months.

*

When I crossed the finish line, I didn't really feel it. When I saw Emet and AJ and Caleb, I didn't really feel it. After I stretched and cooled down a little, I felt it.

Pride.

Race day was a beautiful one, sunny and blue and clear and quiet and I hardly needed the cap or race shirt, but I wore them anyway because, in my mind's eye, that is what I saw when I raced. Two laps around the mall.

I had a plan, of course. First two miles at and 8:20 pace and the rest at 8:00 or faster, if I could manage it. I knew the biggest issue would be reining in the adrenaline at the start, not chasing after the hotshots or being embarrassed by the 12-year-olds leaving me in the dust. Just sticking with the pace. It worked, sort of. Based on my app, I did run the first mile in a reasonable 8:14, but the chart also shows that I was up and down like an EKG around that median number. Not exactly smooth and simple.

But I was enjoying it. I really was. Again, I wasn't listening to music. It was just me and the rhythm of my breath and strides and as folks pulled away in front of me and fell behind me, it was almost like I was alone and I thought about all those mornings and my dog and it brought a smile to my face. In truth, I felt like I was hardly running at all. I was simply enjoying the moment.

I was much more consistent during the second mile, which I ran in 8:31. I passed Emet and the boys during that one and was so happy to see them there, cheering for me, even if AJ did scream out, "You're losing to Colby!"

I had no idea who the hell Colby was (AJ's soccer teammate, who beat me by about 45 seconds) and I didn't care. I had my pace going and I had another quarter-mile to go before I had to pick it up for the last 1.1 (actually, the course was officially marked at 3.13 miles). I felt I had plenty of energy, but that I still had to restrain myself, lest I come limping home. I wanted to be going my quickest at the end, at the finish line.

I quickly started picking up runners in the third mile. One woman didn't like it, at least that was my assumption, since she grunted and tried to stay with me when I hit her hip. Even faced with direct competition, I stuck with my gait, trying to be as smooth as possible. I wove my way through a throng of walkers. I dusted a couple high schoolers. And then I could see the finish line and I knew I was going to make it and I strode out a little further and checked my pace and time and yes, I was going to make it.

*

I broke my goal by more than 21 seconds, coming in at 25:38.7. It's the fastest I've run at any point during the program and whether that has to do with adrenaline or running at 8 a.m. as opposed to 5:30 a.m. or not having to sometimes keep a four-legged running companion on pace, I didn't care. The pride came to me and it came in a rush and it was two-fold. One, I made it. Two, I don't always get to win. Sometimes I plan for things and they don't come together or I fall short of a task. Not this time. The race was a tangible success. Eight weeks of work and a single goal, which I didn't just achieve, but achieved beyond what I'd hoped.

Which is the way I felt, too. I felt so much better about it than I imagined I would, a feeling which came upon me surprisingly. And I just.....

I was so grateful that I got to experience it.

*

So, Running Boy, what now? Well, I don’t think I’ll be joining any of you in your marathons. I salute you all for having that as a goal, but I can't see myself being intrigued enough to do that much running. Halfs? I would guess no, but I won't rule it out entirely.

What I want to do in the immediate aftermath is to get some other type of fitness work into the routine, add a couple days a week of strength training, a session of flexibility training/yoga and two or three days of running. I'll have to mix and match and figure it out and see how my body responds, which is the biggest part of it. I've put this body through a lot of things over the last 45 years, both good and bad, and I need it to be functional for 40 more so I can grow old with the people I love.

One last anecdote from the journey (wrap it up already, will ya?). On that day I played 32 holes of golf, I took a break after the first 18 and had a couple wonderful IPAs and a burger in the clubhouse and when I finished them, I had an overwhelming urge to smoke a cigarette. Now, I've been quit long enough to be over the physical cravings, but I swear this was a physical craving and I sat there shaking and trying to fight it off with my brain, when I thought, "Wait, there's no way I can smoke, not with the race coming up."

And it went away. Like poof.

*

So, the journey continues and we'll see what's in store. I am still kind of figuring when we're going to race again. Am I hooked? We'll see. I did do an easy 3.5 miles this morning with Reggie, and when I say "easy," I mean "hungover," thanks to the 49ers and the 38--approximately--Racer 5 IPAs I had yesterday. That's a good sign, right? Yes, it is, so....

On your marks.

5 Comments:

At 12:44 PM, Blogger Michael M. said...

Reggie totally made me laugh. I have a 70# boxer who drags me around for our daily-ish run, except when he decides he wants to meet & greet his adoring fans.

Great post. Consider a half-marathon. Easier to train for, same day recovery, good goal and sense of accomplishment.

 
At 12:51 PM, Blogger DrChako said...

Each stride is a punch in the puss of middle age. Who the hell needs joy.

That said, there's no high like a runner's high.

-DrC

 
At 3:36 PM, Blogger Dan England said...

I have pride, too, after reading this, in me, my friends and you.

 
At 4:45 PM, Blogger Otis said...

This entire post made me happy.

 
At 8:44 PM, Blogger Shane Nickerson said...

I was going to skim it, but then I got sucked in. Inspiring stuff, man.

 

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