We beat the Blerch!

If there was any run in which the Blerch was gonna get me, this would be the one.

It was a tough week at my house. We lost Shadow on Tuesday, and all week the weather matched our moods–grey and rainy. This weekend M and B are up at the ranch (they put flowers and a marker on Shadow’s grave) so I am on my own. Our house feels empty without her, but we are slowly adjusting to our new normal. To that end, I’m glad I’d signed up to participate in the Beat the Blerch virtual race this weekend.

The race kit came a week or so ago, and wow, it was one big envelope of happiness.

Envelope of happiness, I tell you.

Envelope of happiness, I tell you.

The stress ball lives on my desk and the magnet is on my fridge at school, and the other day one of my students saw it and gasped in recognition. “Respect,” he said with a nod. That made me happy.

We decided to run the 10K today (S and I are slowly coming back from injuries, and we felt 13.1 would be unwise) and we wore our matching Blerch shirts. We both even showed up in our green Rogue socks! We skipped the race numbers but brought the medals for later, and at 6:30 we headed out. The 95% humidity felt like swamp water, but at least the sun wasn’t frying us. It’s the little things, I guess.

Today’s route was a new one–lots of turns, but at least we only had to go 3.1 miles, then head back. I like the variety of a new route,  but I was not awake enough to follow a complex route for double-digits. I mean, c’mon. It even threw me that the water cooler was set up on the other side of the street this morning.

The most important thing I noticed during the first mile? No pain. Not even a twinge or a maybe or a phantom ache. I felt like I’d returned to my normal running gait again–no favoring an injured left side, no right side compensation. Noticing that something doesn’t hurt is almost as surprising as noticing that it does. My knee has given me problems since mid-July, and it felt weird to identify that absence of pain. But weird in a good way!

The second mile, I started feeling the swamp water humidity. We passed two guys (in running gear) sitting in a driveway, apparently recovering from their run. We said hi, and when they asked how far we were going, I said, “Just six.” I thought later, why did I feel like I needed to qualify that six with just? I guess because even though I don’t look like an athlete, I know I am capable of running longer distances and don’t want to look like a slacker to other runners? I’m sure there’s a psychological answer in there somewhere.

Somehow I lost track of how far I had to go, because I looked at my watch and saw that we’d run 2.5 and I thought, “Ugh, still a mile and a half to go before we turn around.” It took me half a mile to realize my mistake. D’oh!

Just past the water stop at mile 2.5, we encountered a house with its sprinklers running. Nevermind the fact that this area received 5+ inches of rain this week–I was grateful and I ran through them like a child on summer vacation. And conveniently, my watch hit 3.1 miles right in front of another house with its sprinklers on. I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t run through those too.

We plodded our way back, slowly and sweatily. Around 4.5 miles, a friend came up behind us. We’d seen her earlier, so she knew we had the matching green shirt thing going on. She told us that as she ran behind us, she kept seeing green figures ahead. But then she realized they were the green trash cans sitting at the curbs of the houses. That made us laugh.

The last mile, we picked up the pace a little–according to my Garmin data, our last 1.2 miles were our fastest. It was truly a Long SLOW Run, but hey, we completed it. And then we got medals.

We beat the Blerch!

We beat the Blerch!

All things considered, it was a positive end to a truly awful week.

———————————————————-

Do you pronounce it BlerCH or BlerCK?

Thank you for all your kind words and condolences about my dog. I’m sorry it was a tear-jerker post but I’m grateful so many people got to read about Miss Shadow. 

A Dog’s Life

I know this is a running blog, and I’ve never run with my dog–she was already elderly when I started running. But yesterday, Shadow crossed the Rainbow Bridge and we lost a family member.

Shadow came to live with us in July of 1997. She was about seven months old and had been living at the Austin Humane Society for a couple of months. We were told she’d been left in someone’s car as a joke, and the car owner had brought her to the shelter. The Saturday we met her was bittersweet–we sill mourned the loss of Jessie, a dog I’d had since ninth grade and had lost suddenly two months before, but our dog-less house felt empty and were ready to bring home a new dog.

We applied to adopt Shadow, but they told us two other people had applied first. They said that if the other applicants didn’t return for her by Tuesday, she’d be ours. It seemed like a long shot. On the way home, I spoke a silent plea to Jessie, asking for her blessing and her help. It sounds corny, but I felt like I needed her to know we weren’t replacing her.

When we got home, M left again, accompanying a friend to look at a car about two hours away. He hadn’t been gone half an hour when the phone rang. It was the Humane Society. Both applicants ahead of us in line had called to release their applications. Shadow was ours.

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First day home

She was a high-energy puppy. I guess that blue heeler lineage contributed to her exuberance. She loved to race around the (fenced) back yard at top speed, chasing tennis balls. Turns out she was kind of a loose cannon though–once she got out the front door and took off at that same top speed down the street. Another time she slipped her leash and ran toward a busy highway. So from then on, we kept her on a tight leash (pun intended) unless she was in a confined area.

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She loved to wade, not swim. But she had to stay on a leash.

She was about six years old when B came along.

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B was about a week old.

I remember thinking he wouldn’t really get a chance to know her–she’d probably be gone before he was old enough to form lasting childhood memories of her. Spoiler alert: I could not have been more wrong.

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A boy and his dog.

She loved to sneak into his room and climb up on his bed. And what dog doesn’t quickly figure out that under the high chair is THE place to be?

When she was about eight, the vet told us her kidneys didn’t look so hot, and she might not live to be very old. Spoiler alert: he could not have been more wrong.

In recent years, she’d slowed down. No more racing around the back yard chasing tennis balls, no more furious barking at the UPS driver. But her eyes were bright, her ears perky, and she still followed us around the house. She lost a lot of weight, her back legs didn’t work very well, and she fell down periodically, but she didn’t complain.

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Hanging out at the lake

Two years ago, she developed an abscess in one of her molars. Her face swelled up and she had to have emergency surgery. This was tough on a 15-year old dog, but she was nothing if not stubborn, and she pulled through just fine.

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Home from surgery!

In May of this year, she got a urinary tract infection and she refused food and water. We thought it was the end. But once she finished her antibiotics, she bounced back. At least as much as a 17.5-year old dog can bounce.

But her world shrank to the family room. She couldn’t jump up the one step between that room and the rest of the house, so we moved her bed and food. She was mobile enough to wander around the room, but not strong enough to push herself up off the tile when she slipped. We tried to keep her on the rug, but every so often we had to rescue her from under the bar chairs because she’d get stuck and her feet just slid around on the tile.

Over the last few weeks, her nights and days flipped. She slept like a stone all day, then wandered the family room at night. Nothing like being woken up at two in the morning by a howling dog who’d trapped herself under some furniture.

Last week, she started whining during the night, but not because she’d gotten stuck. She was uncomfortable in some way that we couldn’t figure out or comfort. She was okay during the day, but nighttime was a nightmare. The vet prescribed some medications that could help her sleep and calm her anxiety. One of them was a controlled substance and caused some amusement when I went to fill it at the local grocery store pharmacy. “Yes, it really IS for my dog!” But unfortunately, neither medication had any effect on her. It was like having a newborn again.

Monday night she started crying at about 9PM and did. not. stop. I spent half the night with her, M the other half. At about 5AM, almost time for us to get up, she quieted and went to sleep.

We knew we couldn’t let her go on like this. At almost eighteen years old, she didn’t have much more time left. She weighed no more than about 20 pounds, she was stressed, and the look in her eyes told me she was ready.

B opted to stay home, so he said his goodbyes in the driveway. As we pulled away, I saw heartbreak and grief on his young face. He’d known her his whole life. He indeed did get to know his dog well after all.

Taking her to the vet yesterday was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. They were extremely kind and compassionate, reassuring us this was the right decision. But it still hurt, and even writing about it now brings tears to my eyes again.

But a friend posted this to my Facebook page yesterday, and I think it helps.

Sorry for making you cry.

And my friend Jenn said something really profound:

One thing that has stuck out to me recently about pets is the idea that however long they are with you like Shadow for 17 years, that’s a long time and a big part of your life but you were her whole entire life, and I know you guys gave her a damn good one .

We were her whole entire life. And it was a damn good one. Rest in peace, sweet girl. We will see you at the Rainbow Bridge.

Swim-bike-run: PRs and sportsmanship

Back in June, B competed in his first youth triathlon. He wasn’t the only tri newbie, but a bunch of the kids were clearly pros. I say that figuratively, but judging from their equipment, some may have been actual professionals. So he was at quite a disadvantage that day.

Since then, he’s improved his situation a bit. He now has a better bike–bigger frame, more gears, much more efficient for road racing. And the last couple of weeks he’s been going to a swimming strokes and conditioning class after school, and he’s made huge strides in his form and overall racing skills. So when a friend of ours mentioned that she was helping to organize a new youth triathlon in the area, he was excited to sign up and test his skills.

Naturally, this weekend a freak cold front moved into Austin on Saturday morning. It was perfect for my seven-mile run, but less so for an event involving swimming. Still, it wasn’t too chilly when we arrived at the park just before 7:00 this morning.

From the start, we knew this was more our style. Yes, I had to show his USAT card, and yes they followed all the rules. But the whole vibe was so much more laid-back and friendly. And it was much smaller–maybe 30 kids total. They were broken into five waves of 6-7 kids each, so each kid got his/her own lane for the swim. B’s wave was third, and he finished right in the middle–fourth out of seven.

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He appeared to finish the rest of the race roughly in the middle of the pack, and I estimated his overall time at about 15-20 minutes faster than his first race. He collected his medal and snack, and we stood near the finish cheering on the rest of the kids as they came in.

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When the final finisher came around the last corner, something amazing happened. About a dozen kids joined her and ran with her to the finish line.

It’s funny. I have been thinking about the upcoming Army Ten-Miler and how I’m not sure I’m capable of even approaching my (somewhat ambitious) goal time. But I keep reminding myself that race is about something bigger than PRs. I mean, I have all my limbs and the ability to run ten miles, unlike some of the participants. In the end all I really care about is soaking up the sights and sounds of the day and enjoying the experience for what it is. Today was like that too, but on a smaller scale. Watching these kids, some of them completing their first triathlon, not only finish with a proud grin but then go back and support the final finisher reminded me that there’s more to racing than time and equipment and speed. It’s also about sportsmanship and community.

So when B won a Road ID door prize and told the race director that he already had a Road ID and could he please give it to someone else, I had to wipe away tears for the second time in about fifteen minutes.

If I forget my Garmin, do my seven miles still count??

It was a rough week.

Tuesday I  had to stay at work for more than 14 hours–work a full day, then host parents at Back-to-School Night in the evening. We have ten minutes per class period to share a year’s worth of curriculum and expectations, and I always feel a little manic. This year I only have a couple of repeat families so for most of my parents, this 10-minute whirlwind is their first impression of me. I felt a little off my game, but later I received a couple of compliments so I guess I hid it well enough.

Thursday I met up with my new fall/winter Rogue group at Brushy Creek Park where it was 100* at 6pm. Because I’d missed Tuesday, this was my first day with the group. And my first real training run since my knee problem surfaced in July. I told my coach I was a little nervous about signing up for the Tuesday/Thursday option (not just Tuesdays) because I don’t want to overwork my knee. On the other hand, I have a 10-miler in a month and several big fall and winter goal races. He suggested I run Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday with the group and cross-train instead of running the other days, at least at first. And I think that’s a good idea. So Thursday night, in the blazing sun, we ran for 30 minutes. Most of it was shady, but the return trip across the dam was pretty miserable. But nothing hurt, so I’ll call it a successful start.

Thursday night my elderly dog (who is almost 18 years old) had some kind of discomfort overnight, whining and crying all night. One or the other of us got up every hour or two with her–it was like having a newborn again. Her whole life she’s never complained, so I owe her as much peace and comfort as I can give her for whatever time she has left. But man I was a zombie at work on Friday, and I did not look forward to an early alarm this morning. After dinner I texted S and asked if she still wanted to go at 6:30, or if 7 would be okay. Thankfully she agreed on the later time–I know 30 minutes isn’t much, but I need all the help I can get right now since both days this weekend require early starts and I’m already running a sleep deficit.

Last night I went to bed ridiculously early, and I think the dog had an easier night but still woke us up a few times. I managed to wake up before my alarm, which is always better than having the damn thing jolt me out of the wrong stage of sleep, and I staggered around looking for my stuff.

On the way to Rogue, my car informed me that the promised cool front had indeed arrived.

I'd forgotten what cool weather felt like.

It’s been a while since the temperature started with a five.

When I got to Rogue, I realized I’d forgotten my Garmin. I usually collect all my gear in one place the night before, but I’d been so tired, obviously I forgot. And this morning I was kicking myself for it. I know some people recommend running tech-free now and then, but I’m kind of a nerd about collecting the data. D’oh.

S and I had some discussion about distance. We’re both coming off injuries and don’t want to do anything to jeopardize recovery, but we had already run a combined 11.7 miles last weekend (Zilker Relays and Frozen Hot Chocolate) and knew we could do better than the 3-5 most people were running today. Plus we are both participating in the Beat the Blerch virtual race next weekend–it’s a 10K/half/full but our goal is to complete the half.

My race kit came in the mail the other day–so much awesome!  

So we thought maybe we’d run seven today and 6.2 next Saturday–combined it’s a half marathon, but we also meet the 10K requirement on the actual day of the race. Either way, we would be legit.

Once we decided our distance, we headed out. I felt naked without my Garmin–I kept looking at my bare wrist like it could tell me something. Fortunately S had hers, so I knew when we were done I could take a picture of it for my own data-geekiness needs.

It has been a loooong time since the temperature started with a five, so we took advantage. After Thursday’s workout on the surface of the sun, today’s cool breeze and slight drizzle provided a welcome change. We kept a steady (albeit slow) pace to the water stop at the first mile, then the second. We took a water break at mile 2.5, then sort of ran-walked the next mile before turning around. We took it easy on the hills (again, trying not to provoke an injury recurrence) but ran the rest of it. Since I didn’t have my Garmin I was just running by feel–I know we were slow, but for once I didn’t feel like I was going to keel over and die from heat exhaustion.

The last half-mile, I finally felt good. I had a smooth cadence going on, nothing hurt, and things just clicked. It’s been a while since I felt that way, especially at the end of a long run, so I savored it. It’s only the middle of September, so this is not a permanent temperature change. But it was perfectly timed to help me feel some optimism after a summer of setbacks.

So I guess that answers the age-old philosophical question. Yes, my Garmin-less seven miles still count.

 

Frozen Hot Chocolate 10K: misery loves company

I’d heard about these hot chocolate races all around the country, but a few months ago when they announced an Austin 5K/10K race the first weekend in September, I was skeptical. Aren’t these winter events? I know winter in Central Texas is kind of a moving target, but there’s really no scenario in which September qualifies. But then I realized they planned to give out frozen chocolate. I was still not convinced this idea would turn out well, especially since even the best ice cream doesn’t hold up under triple digits, but several of my running friends persuaded me to sign up for the 10K with them. And being a sucker for a medal, I did. Even though the Zilker Relays were the night before. Even though I’d have to leave my house at the crack of dawn to drive 30-some miles out to the Circuit of the Americas Formula One track. Even though running in the scorching sun is not high on my list of things to do.

Friday night after the relay I didn’t get home until around 11pm. So I did not particularly enjoy the early alarm.

I’d been to the track once before, and I remembered the line of cars snaking down the two-lane road and and out of the complex. Thus at 6am, three-fourths of Friday night’s relay team, sleepy to the point of unfinished sentences and prolonged yawns, climbed into my car and headed out.

We missed the exit the first time, but made it in reasonably easily. There was plenty of parking, so with that out of the way, my next task was to exchange my race shirt. Again, I’d ordered what I thought was an appropriate size, but like Zilker, they’d used tiny-people sizing. My companions left their stuff at gear check, but since the whole enterprise appeared to be in the parking lot itself (we could hear motorcycles racing around the track inside the gates), I just dropped mine off in the car as we made our way to the starting area. Which was not actually inside the racetrack like we had been led to believe. In hindsight, I can tell you this was a huge red flag.

The 5K was set to start about half an hour before the 10K, which sounded illogical to me since we had twice as far to go. And then they announced a delay. The 5Kers finally took off about ten minutes later than scheduled, and once they were gone we milled around the starting area for a while. We’d met up with some other Rogue friends–some of us were assigned Corral C and others Corral D. Considering the small crowd, corrals seemed wholly unnecessary (and only served to delay us further, the temperature climbing each minute we waited) but we reorganized ourselves based on corral assignments–R joined us while her friends moved up to Corral C, so we became a quartet again.

At 8:20, it was finally our turn. Once we were underway, the course made a right turn out of the parking lot and followed a paved road around the outside of the track. We plodded along slowly, a stark contrast to the high-pitched whine of the motorcycles. The road was a bit hilly, but not unmanageable.

Until the first mile marker. We made a left turn, and suddenly the paved road stopped, turning into a rocky caliche track. Not gravel–rocks. We started walking, unwilling to sacrifice our ambitious fall running goals for this race that was quickly losing its luster in our eyes.

I didn’t take a picture of the actual road, but this is pretty much what it looked like. The site where I found this picture calls it limestone road base.

The next 1.25 miles, we hobbled along this unpaved disaster. How had we gone from “Enjoy the sights and sounds of an incredible course through CoTA” to rocky unpaved trail on the road to nowhere while (an ever-increasing distance away) the track itself held motorcycle time trials sans spectators? Not exactly what we were expecting from the race description.

Finally about 2.25 miles into it, the dirt road spit us back out onto asphalt. The sun blazed overhead as we plodded along an out-and-back segment on the asphalt road. Much cursing ensued. Around 3.5 miles, we turned left, climbed a hill, and encountered yet another rocky road, and not the chocolate kind either. It looped around what appeared to be additional F1 parking for the folks who didn’t spring for the closer (paved) lots, and the far reaches of it backed up to residential back yards, complete with trailer homes and barking dogs. More cursing. At one point, we behaved like people stranded on a desert island, visualizing what beverage we’d make later. Liquor played a prominent role in our oasis fantasies.

Wheres the symbol for "unpaved road"? And I sure as hell didnt see a Chocolate Station at mile 5.5.

Wheres the symbol for “unpaved road”? And I sure as hell didnt see a Chocolate Station at mile 5.5.

The description implied the course ran inside the facility in the middle of glitz and glitter of F1. The reality was that the first half of the race took place on what can only be described as the west-side road leading to the Back 40 and then the Back 40 itself, while the second half we ran outside eight-foot fences surrounding the far eastern side of the property. At no point did we run “an incredible course through CoTA.”

The website also promised “Cooling Stations and decadent Chocolate Stations.” There were two misters along the 10K course, and the water/Gatorade stop volunteers were fantastic. But chocolate stations, plural? Not a one.

That word "unimaginable race day experience" does not mean what you think it means.

That word “unimaginable race day experience” does not mean what you think it means.

It’s funny how each of us took turns, alternating between loud bitching and quiet encouragement. For much of the middle part of the race, my vocabulary consisted of pretty much just one word. S played optimist, getting us to run to the next light pole, the next water stop, whatever. She pointed out a patch of sunflowers while P and I scowled. But then when P struggled up a hill because of her ankle, I cheered her on. Other times, she did the same for me. We were pissed off, hot, and miserable, but we still looked out for each other. I can’t imagine how hellish this experience would have been without my friends.

Finally we escaped the unpaved road … just in time for more hills. After picking our way along an unstable surface for half the race, and with the sun beating down on us, we moved slowly. At one point it felt like we were walking in place. But eventually, finally, mercifully we reached the top, and the end was in sight. We passed a few people as we ran down one last hill, then across the finish line. S and R finished together, and P and I crossed the line a minute or so later.

After we slogged through what R called an “unfun” race, did the frozen hot chocolate hit the spot? Well, I think on an ordinary day, I would have enjoyed it. But I was hot and pissed off and there was nowhere to sit (and virtually no shade) so I kept getting chocolate on myself and they didn’t give out napkins.

The ray of sunshine on the medal represented the brutal sun, not our psychological demeanor.

The ray of sunshine on the medal represented the brutal sun, not our psychological demeanor.

The medal was nice, but not the one they originally advertised either–it was supposed to have a Longhorn symbol on the front, but I heard they got busted by the UT copyright department.

Socialalerts.com still shows this image on their event page. Race organizers quietly changed the medal sometime after promotional materials went out.

This was my slowest 10K by nearly 30 minutes. I can live with that, especially since I raced five miles the night before and I’ve been dealing with an injury. But even someone who wasn’t there can guess that a personal worst by that much time probably means some other factors played a role. And since the results page shows about 50 people finished after us, clearly we weren’t the only ones struggling this day.

What made it so awful? Half the course was rocky unpaved road that made it dangerous for some people to run. I saw one woman trip and fall on the uneven surface. And it was hot. There’s a reason Austin hosts its distance races in January and February. Anyone putting on a 10K in September should start it before 8:20am. And even the promise of frozen chocolate couldn’t combat the heat and the ridiculous course. A race with a $60 entry fee shouldn’t surprise runners with three miles of off-road running and shouldn’t mislead participants about what to expect on the course–everyone I talked to had thought this was a road race in and on the track itself, not through the parking lots and on unpaved rocky trails outside the facility’s fences.

It turns out, I was right to be skeptical and I won’t be doing this one again. Ever.

Zilker Relays: Team Injured Turtles

When we signed up for the Zilker Relays back in July, it sounded like a great idea. But by the time the race rolled around, we had become a collection of varied and unusual injuries. I developed this knee thing, S had a foot problem, P sprained her ankle, and in perhaps an attempt to one-up the rest of us, exactly one month before the race, A was hospitalized with a pulmonary embolism. But her doctor cleared her to run, and Friday night we headed downtown to Zilker Park.

The first thing we did was exchange t-shirts. The last few races, shirts ran really small, so I’d ordered a women’s XL. Y’all, it looked like it was made for a child. I put it on and it was obscene. Do they think all runners are tiny? Or did they accidentally use the Asian sizing?

No really, it's a thing

No really, it’s a thing

But I got a properly-sized shirt (a Men’s L, which appears to fit more like a M) and stashed our stuff at the Rogue tent. They’d ordered special singlets for us (also on the smallish side) and I heard more than 270 of the runners were Rogues. We milled around for a while, chatting with people we knew. And it struck me again that I am Someone who Knows People At Races.

Before the race got underway, we took a team photo.

Photo credit: Rogue Running

And then we lined up. We’d registered as a Just for Fun team, so we were in a later corral. S and I were the least injured, so we decided S would run the first leg and I would run the second. P would be third, then all of us would run-walk the last leg with A to support her–and make sure she wasn’t out on the course alone.

Starting area

Starting area

The first wave took off. S and I both hoped to finish our 2.5-mile legs in under 30 minutes. Considering we’re both dealing with injury and haven’t run a whole lot the last two months, this was a reasonable goal. The course was basically two out-and-back segments, with the start/transition/finish area in the middle. So once I saw her come back through on her way to the second out-and-back, I knew I needed to start paying attention.

But as I stood there with other second-leg runners, the skies clouded over, the wind picked up, and it began to rain. I shoved my headphones into my pocket (my phone was already in a ziplock bag) and handed my sunglasses to A, who played sherpa until it was her turn to run. As Texans deprived of precipitation, we just laughed and danced in the rain–who doesn’t love cooler temperatures for a race?

By the time S came through the transition area, it had become a full-fledged downpour. And I didn’t care.

Photo credit: Austin American-Statesman Fit City

I started off too fast–so many cheering people at the starting line!–but I settled down a quarter-mile or so into it. My Garmin had shut off, I guess due to the rain, but I got it started again. Water sluiced along the street. At the first turnaround, I walked through it so I wouldn’t slip. On the way back, I had to navigate a new lake that had formed in the road since I’d come through the first time–it covered the road from curb to curb, ankle-deep and murky. I didn’t care about getting my feet wet–that ship had sailed–but I had no idea what the road was like under the water. Fortunately I got through with no mishap.

Coming through the transition area again, I heard more cheering from the spectators (including one of my honor society students) and felt pretty good. No knee pain, just the strain of pushing myself past my lack of training. It was still raining, although not quite as monsoon-y as it had been. Several times, the cyclist escorting the race leader passed me–I think all four of their runners were done before I’d finished my leg.

On the final stretch, I saw SO many familiar faces cheering for me, plus friends on the course as well–it was pretty cool. But still, I was glad to pass the baton (a Nuun tube) to P for her leg. A had grabbed Nuun bottles for all of us, and even though it was a funky flavor, I drank some of it anyway. I paced around a bit until the post-race queasiness had passed, and then I rejoined my team and cheered on the runners. My Garmin had lost about a quarter-mile, but when I finally looked at the race clock, I saw that it still read under an hour so I knew I’d made it right around my 30-minute goal.

By now the rain had stopped. It was just wet and humid. P came through, headed out for the second out-and-back, so S and I got ready to run again. Most of the teams had finished by this point–just a few fourth-leg runners remained in the transition area. We were pretty sure we’d end up finishing last, but we didn’t really care. Finish-and-not-die had taken on a whole new meaning after A’s diagnosis a few weeks ago–we were just happy to be out there together.

P passed off the Nuun tube to A and peeled off. I could tell her ankle hurt, and she needed a breather. A took off, practically leaving S and me in the dust. For someone who planned only to run-walk, she looked pretty strong! The puddles had receded and the road was clearer, but as we made the turnaround and headed back, we encountered people who were walking down the middle of the road, headed toward their cars. They were done and going home, and we were still out there. We started calling ourselves Team Womp Womp like the sad trombone sound.

As we ran through the transition area on our way out for the final segment, P rejoined us. We had solidly taken control of last place–that last mile, a motorcycle cop kept driving up behind us. For the final quarter-mile a guy in a golf cart followed us, his headlights illuminating the now dark stretch of road. I was feeling the extra effort of running two legs–which clearly I had underestimated when we decided to do the last leg together. The spectators were gone, but we finished strong, all four of us as a team.

They advertised this race as walker-friendly and family-friendly, but from where I stood it looked like most of the teams were pretty hard-core. We finished in (what I think is a respectable) 2:01 and they closed up shop behind us. But considering all that the four of us have been through, injury- and health-wise recently, it felt like an accomplishment all the same.

And whether you run a 50-minute ten-mile relay or a two-hour one, the post-race tacos still taste just as good.

Photo credit: Austin American-Statesman Fit City

So that’s what a good run feels like

My last strong, pain-free, non-sucky solo run was probably back in early June. Since then, it’s either been hot, humid, injury-plagued, or all of the above. Yes, I’ve had a couple of runs where my knee felt okay and one or two that weren’t too hot or humid, but even when everything sort of cooperated, I haven’t felt strong.

But yesterday reminded me that such a thing may once again be possible.

After I got home from work, the wind picked up, temperature dropped, dark clouds blew in, and it began to rain. In typical Texas meteorological fashion it was over in a matter of minutes, but the cooler air remained. So naturally I headed out for a short run.

The first half-mile, I felt good. No knee pain, strong pace–stronger than I’d run in two months. Lately even when nothing hurts, I’ve felt like my gait was off, my strides weren’t smooth. But this day, everything clicked into place. I kept waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop.

About two miles in, the sun came out again. Steam rose from the asphalt. I hyper-focused on my knee, wondering if the next step would be the one where it hurt. But it wasn’t. Neither was the next, or the next.

After almost three miles, I rounded the corner toward my driveway and sped up. It was my best run in months. As these things go, it’s not Rocky reaching the top of the steps or anything. But worthy of a puppy high five? Definitely.

 

 

Forward progress

In college football, sometimes an offensive player moves the ball forward and gains a few yards, but then the defense pushes him backwards. The rules give the offensive player credit for the gained yards–forward progress–rather than spotting the ball further back.

I think, on the opening Saturday of the 2014 college football season, this is a decent analogy for my running these days.

I’ve made some progress–a few pain-free five-mile runs, which is an improvement over the way things went in July. A couple of times, though, something road-blocked me and caused me to take a few steps back. This really messes with my head, so I have to work on acknowledging the improvements and not letting those backward shoves get me down, because in the end, I get credit for forward progress.

Last Saturday, B and I headed out for a bike ride. I was frustrated about my knee but still wanted to get some exercise, so I figured we’d meander through our neighborhood and the adjacent one for an hour. But 1.5 miles into it, the derailleur hanger on my bike snapped in half. The chain dropped off the gears, everything locked up, and I skidded to a stop. The street had recently been covered with a layer of gravel, which I think saved me from launching into the air. But it was nevertheless a catastrophic mechanical failure.

News flash: it won't work like that.

News flash: it won’t work like that.

There was nothing to do but walk home. About halfway, a kindly neighbor offered help or a ride, but I was so annoyed with the whole situation, I was determined to walk it so I politely declined. B rode alongside me–he didn’t want to leave me to walk alone, even though his bike was perfectly functional. But I wasn’t great company. I just let him chatter on about his Minecraft world and sulked silently.

That evening, B went to a sleepover at a friend’s house, so I decided to go out to Brushy Creek trail and try to run. I figured if the run was a bust, I could still walk. I managed a sloooooow five miles–it was about 7pm and almost 100* when I started–and I can’t decide if this is my typical “the August heat is making me slow” situation, or if I’ve lost endurance due to this knee problem. Probably a little bit of both. But at least my knee didn’t hurt.

Sunday I rode B’s bike (yes, our bikes are about the same size these days…) for ten miles, and Monday I went to core class. Everything felt pretty good, and I never tried to run two days in a row. But Tuesday evening when I went out to run the neighborhood loop, I only made it a quarter-mile before bailing for home because it hurt again. Back to the sports doctor on Wednesday, then another bike ride. Thursday I tried again, and I felt okay. It was more of a three-mile run-walk, really, but I can live with that because it represents forward progress.

This week was a busy one–school started Monday, and for the first time, B attends the school where I teach. It’s been fun watching him navigate middle school and hear about his classes. He loves his teachers and his enthusiasm is infectious–I really enjoyed my new classes as well. But by Friday night, I was exhausted. I decided I’d sleep in, then try to run when I got up. And that worked pretty well.

Overcast sky and thick humidity greeted me when I left the house. I cut through to the adjacent neighborhood and headed to the middle school track 1.25 miles away. There and back, plus ten laps on the track, gets me five miles. At first I was skeptical about the knee. It twinged a few times–I guess that’s the best way to describe it–but it was minor.

My strategy is to run two laps, take a water break, repeat. But somehow I miscounted. About halfway through I had to stop and shake something annoying out of my shoe, and I guess I lost track of laps. Because when I thought I had one more left, my watch said I’d run 3.75 miles, which is my stopping point. Hm. That felt kind of nice!

I ran the 1.25 miles back to my house, my ponytail dripping and my stomach growling. But my knee felt okay. It’s not 100%, and I feel like my gait is all wonky, but today I ran (not ran-walked) five miles without significant pain.

Forward progress.

 

Run, interrupted

It seemed like my knee was healing.

I took it slowly, running short distances with rest days in between. I ran five pain-free miles last Saturday. I felt like I was gonna be okay.

And then Tuesday happened.

I went back to work Tuesday morning. Alarm clock, rush hour traffic, hours and hours of faculty meetings. I came home mentally exhausted and looked forward to running. Nothing too strenuous, just some easy run-walk intervals that would help me burn off my brain fry.

Except that by the end of three miles, my knee hurt.

I have an icing routine–I shove one of those freezer ice packs inside my neoprene knee brace thing. It holds the ice pack in place along the IT band while leaving me hands-free. After an hour or so, I noticed that the skin felt weird, like it had gotten freezer burn. I took the ice pack out and saw that the side of my knee was covered in snowflakey white gel. Apparently the ice pack had leaked, trapping the gel between the pack and my skin. I wiped it off and tossed the ice pack, but throughout the evening the weird freezer burn feeling intensified.

I don't know what's in this thing, but from here on out I'm going to DIY route with water and alcohol. YUCK.

I don’t know what’s in this thing, but from here on out I’m going the DIY route with water and alcohol. YUCK.

By the morning, my skin looked like a relief map of the Americas. Blotchy, red welts–hot to the touch–covered an area the size of my hand. Holy crap–the ice pack gel had given me a chemical burn!

Each day the blotches shrank, but they got darker too. Three days later, it now resembles a port wine stain birthmark, or perhaps a henna tattoo applied by a toddler. Like a bad sunburn, it’s still hot to the touch, it hurts when anything brushes against it, and it makes sitting cross-legged almost impossible.

But you know what? I could totally live with that. I would absolutely trade a henna tattoo in the shape of Brazil for another pain-free run.

I rode my bike 10 miles on Wednesday, I took Thursday and Friday as rest days, and I hoped to be able to run five or six miles this morning. But when I got home Friday evening, I ran a little test jog from my driveway to the street corner, and guess what? My knee still hurt.

So I turned off my alarm and caught up on my sleep instead. Maybe later today I’ll take another bike ride, and I’ll try to run tomorrow.

But I’m beyond frustrated. I’ve done everything I’m supposed to–foam roll, rest, cross train, ice, then gradually return to running. And it seemed to work. So why am I back at Square One?

Reflection

This morning, as we rode our bikes 13.5 miles along the trail and back, I thought about how I wanted to be out there, and how different that was from the old me. Younger Me would not have voluntarily exerted herself by bike-riding the day after running five miles–and would not have considered five miles a relatively short run. Not in a million years with a million dollars riding on it.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have never really considered myself an athlete. Yeah, I rode my bike and roller-skated endlessly with neighborhood friends, but I was a tiny kid uninterested in the effort required to play soccer or kickball or whatever other options girls had in the 1970s. During the summers, I competed on a diving team, and I was pretty good at it–I didn’t have to be strong, didn’t need endurance, and my small size actually helped me zing myself off the diving board.

I think I was eight here.

I think I was eight here.

After sixth grade, we moved to Texas, and we almost immediately fulfilled every Texan stereotype (and every little girl’s dream) by buying a couple of horses. But our house wasn’t in a traditional neighborhood–we had two acres, and only two other kids close to my age lived nearby. Unlike in Northern Virginia, pools were limited to neighborhood residents, and my neighborhood didn’t have one. We didn’t have sidewalks either, and there was no nearby school or playground I could bike to. Once school started, I made some friends, but many of them lived miles away or across a busy highway. I spent most summers lazing around, unaccustomed to the Texas heat. My exercise was limited to riding my horse. Not a bad gig, but really, the horse did most of the work.

The summer I turned 14

Me and Rocky

I wasn’t completely sedentary though. We built a pool, and swimming and maintaining it kept me busy. I took dance classes a couple of days a week, both privately and in school P.E. classes. I worked part-time for a weekly newspaper–everything from office stuff to writing and photography. But I wasn’t athletic. And when something went wonky with my knee around ninth grade, it conveniently got me out of any kind of running at school. So I spent most of my downtime watching MTV or reading. Back then if you told me that my friend D would become an Ironman triathlete 20-some years later, I would have believed it in a heartbeat. But if you suggested I might run six (and counting) half marathons, pretty much everyone–including me–would have thought you were mad.

My first two years in college, I lived on campus, so my trek to my classes wasn’t very long. I often took the stairs in my dorm, but my degree didn’t require any P.E. classes and I didn’t really have make time to be active. My last two years, I rode the shuttle from my apartment to school, then walked to class. But I worked around 30-32 hours a week on top of going to school full-time, and I didn’t make much effort for fitness. My clothes fit ok, but I couldn’t have run very far to save my life.

I started teaching in the mid 1990s, and I considered being on my feet all day sufficient exercise. I worked nine- or ten-hour days and often brought work home on top of that. We had a brief fling with a local gym, but we were too busy and too tired. In 2000, I had knee surgery, which gave me more excuses. Not good ones, but ones I took anyway.

Then B was born. I lost weight, then gained some, then lost some over the course of several years. Most pictures from this era have B standing in front of me.

2007

2007

Finally, in 2011, I decided to focus on becoming more healthy, and I downloaded the Couch to 5K app. At first I could barely run the one-minute segments. But eventually I ran a mile, then two, then three without stopping. Between the teenage knee problem and general laziness, I don’t know that I had ever run that far. So I entered my first 5K.

Chuy's 5K, 2011

2011 Chuy’s 5K finishers

And the rest, as the saying goes, is history. After three and a half years, running has finally become a habit. I feel lazy when I don’t run–or can’t run–and I find ways to fit exercise into my busy days even when I travel or am recovering from an injury. I’ve gotten up before the crack of dawn to run, I’ve run after dark. I’ve run when it’s over 100 degrees, and I’ve run when it’s below freezing. The day I dragged myself out of my warm bed to run 12 miles of hills when the wind chill was in the teens, people called me hard core. Me. The girl who knew every MTV video by heart. The girl who was always too tired or too busy or had too many excuses. The girl who started running at age 40 and has completed nine races this year–six of them 10K or longer–with at least seven more on the calendar for the fall.

Will run for bling, apparently

Will run for bling, apparently

I sometimes feel inadequate compared to other friends who run, and when it comes up in conversation, I always offer the caveat that yes I run, but I’m slow. Most people respond with things like “But you’re out there, and that’s what counts,” or “You’re doing way better than someone just sitting at home.” But I don’t just want to be better than the person doing nothing. I want more than that, and despite the not insignificant effort I’ve put in since joining my first half-marathon training group, I’m still not where I want to be. I work hard, and I want to see my finishing times drop into a more respectable area. So while I am in the best shape of my adult life, I’m frustrated that after almost four years I’m not thinner/faster/stronger too.

But as I rode 13.5 miles this morning, I thought about how good it felt to be riding with my family, to think of 13 miles as no big deal, to have my legs moving. I powered up the last incline toward the truck, and M said, “Way to finish strong.” I guess this is the new me. And I kind of like her.

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