Moment of truth

I’ve been training more or less continuously since last July, and fatigue caught up with at the end of February and into March. But the last week or so, I’ve started feeling stronger, and I knew today’s long run would be the moment of truth. My family is running the Capitol 10K next Sunday, and I’m doing the Austin 10/20 the following week, so today was really my chance to gauge my progress.

Of course the universe conspired against me–it was drizzly, and the coaches sent us on my least favorite the route I completely and utterly detest with the fire of a thousand suns. So yeah. While I didn’t exactly smile and embrace the challenge, I cursed the coaches accepted their choice and set out before sunrise.

The route isn’t complicated or hilly or dangerous. There are only a few turns. Wide sidewalks along well-traveled roads with good visibility. The first (and last) two miles are a regular part of our training runs. But the middle–and longest–chunk of this route is three miles down a four-lane road. Three miles doesn’t sound so intimidating or difficult, but for some reason, this one is mentally tough for me. Rogue calls it the Big Snake, but really, it’s more like a Dead Snake as it’s one looooong stretch that seems never-ending and might kill me. (I know a dead snake can’t kill me, but go with the analogy, ‘kay?) In fact, I drive this stretch to get to Rogue from my house–even in the car it seems to take forever.

worth it

Spoiler–this was true on both counts.

All in all, it was an uneventful run. I mean, there were the usual drivers blocking crosswalks, polite greetings from other runners and walkers, and runners listening to music without headphones. But I suffered no mishaps (although one jackass got awfully close to me in the crosswalk) and I just plodded along at an easy, slow pace. I followed my half-marathon race-day strategy of running a mile, walking a minute, which helps me break down the huge task into manageable bits. And two things happened.

One, even at this pace, I was only five minutes slower (by my Garmin, not actual clock time–I stopped twice at the water coolers and at a couple of long traffic signals) than my 10-mile race PR from last October. And two, I did a pretty good job with the negative splits. Those middle miles were a bit slower than my first, but my last mile was a full minute-per-mile faster than my first and second miles. I’ve never been able to do that above, oh, about five miles, so while my muscles were sore, I’m pleased to see that the damn Snake didn’t completely drain me of my will to live.

It was not easy–and honestly I’m kind of glad for that–but it was manageable. And I feel pretty confident about my upcoming races.

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Polar Express

I planned to run an easy five miles this evening, along the path that goes through the complex where my son had lacrosse practice. But you know what they say about the best-laid plans, right?

As B went off to practice, I left my insulated Polar water bottle by the front tire of my car. This is Central Texas–I always have access to water when I run. The running path goes off in both directions from the parking lot, so I can run a mile or so, then stop for water, then go off in the other direction without having to carry water with me. I park in an end space, so it’s easy to swing by and take a quick drink as I pass through.

I headed up the westbound path, past the ROTC kids and over the bridge that does weird things to my sense of balance. The first mile is always the hardest for me, and today was no different. I felt really slow, but I looked at my Garmin and was shocked. One, that it was pretty fast, and two, that I wasn’t dying at that pace. So I just kept it going, figuring I’d see what I could make of it. I hit the turnaround, eventually going back through the parking lot and out the eastbound path. I forgot to stop for water because I was distracted by the pace I was maintaining. I felt good–no fatigue, no lead-legs. It wasn’t hot, but at this speed, I started getting thirsty. As I made the turnaround at 1.5 miles, I told myself, “Just run to the water.”

I charged up the creek bank and headed toward the parking lot. As my car came into view, I could tell that my water bottle was not where I had left it.  Like I said, I’d parked in an end spot and could see the entire passenger side of my car. No large white Polar bottle.

Nada.

Nada.

What the  hell? Who would take someone’s water bottle? It clearly wasn’t an abandoned Dasani bottle or whatever. It was an insulated Polar bottle, filled with ice and water, and left an inch from my front tire. I paced around a while, astonished. Another lacrosse mom walked by–she had extra water in her car and shared some with me. I thanked her, then bitched and moaned in my head on Facebook, irate that I’d had a great run going and it got screwed up by a jackass water thief.

Then I decided it was unproductive to stomp around the parking lot. The damn thing wasn’t going to magically reappear by my tire, so I might as well channel this energy into something useful. I restarted my iPod and my Garmin and took off down the western path to the sounds of Journey urging me not to stop believin’. Turns out it was kind of a blistering pace, at least for me. If my first mile was surprising, my third mile blew my mind. I started to think I could (unofficially) beat my 5K PR time from last September, so I poured it on the last half-mile. I ended up smashing that PR. Yeah, I know it was only a training run and not a race, but I’m still going to let Garmin assign it a PR. 😉

Out of breath and with no water, I wandered back to the bleachers near B’s practice field. He still had 30 minutes of practice left, but I was not excited about running a couple more miles without hydration. Besides, I kind of didn’t want to mess up my pretty 3.1 PR time on my Garmin. 😉 So I just walked around the various fields, looking for a stray Polar bottle. It’s a huge complex–big enough for multiple baseball, soccer, and lacrosse teams to play simultaneously. And this is Central Texas–kids parents are good about bringing water. But I saw nothing resembling mine. Until I walked over to the bleachers at the next lacrosse field. I picked up a familiar-looking bottle and heard ice rattling. I asked if someone had brought this one from home, and one of the moms said no, someone had found it in the parking lot and brought it to the fields in case it belonged to one of the lacrosse boys.

Okay. Um. I have several unanswered questions here. Who was going to drink out of a random water bottle? Why would someone assume an iced water bottle next to a stranger’s car had been accidentally left behind by a teammate? And why would it be a parent’s first instinct to pick it up and take it, just in case? I’m guessing these are the same parents who carry their kids’ gear for them too? Never in a million years would I pick up a bottle in a parking lot and take it with me. If my kid forgot his, well first of all he wouldn’t drink from one I’d just found, and two he’d have to deal with the consequences–while carrying his own stuff, I might add. The whole thing left me shaking my head.

But I got it back. And when I was pissed off, it fueled the last leg of the fastest 3.1 miles of my life. I shall call it the Polar Express.

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Not that I drank out of it after I rescued it…

Discovery

My last few long runs have been tough. I’ve fought that lead-leg sensation over and over, so last week I tried to figure out what could be causing me to feel like I’m wearing invisible ankle weights.

At first, I attributed it to exhaustion. I’ve had a lot going on–work, home, training, stress. But catching up on sleep and kicking back over spring break didn’t help much. So then I looked at my eating habits, wondering if nutrition could be a factor. And guess what? While I try to eat salads for lunch (and have been mostly successful) I scrounge for dinner. And my snack situation? Protein bars and cheese sticks.

Then I remembered last summer. Training in 100+ temperatures means hydration hydration hydration, so I added Nuun tablets to my regimen. And because I tend to think if one is good, two is better, I included them the day before a training run as well. Which coincided with several sluggish and slow long runs. Cutting back–and reducing that sodium intake–righted the ship, more or less.

So last week I cut back on the cheese sticks. I love my cheese sticks for a quick snack, but again I never eat just one. And salty they are, so avoid them, I did. Saturday’s run? Better. Sunday’s three-miler around the ‘hood? It was slow, but I ran the whole thing, including the slight hills that I often convince myself to walk. While I wasn’t exactly gazelle-like, I certainly felt less clunky.

Tonight’s track workout sealed the deal. The warmup out to the track, I felt sluggish but avoided the temptation to walk up the hilly section. The first series (two laps at half-marathon pace, 1/2 lap jog, 3/4 lap at 10K pace, 3/4 lap jog) I was okay but not killing it or anything. But somewhere in the second series, it all just clicked. My pace dropped, my stride evened out, and I just felt stronger. Looking at my Garmin data now, I see that every mile (I ended up with 4.5 total) was faster than the previous one, and my last mile was a full minute faster than my first mile. I gotta say, I’m pretty pleased with that.

Saturday’s long run will be the real test.

Looks like walking, feels like running

Whew. What a week!

My blog got a Liebster Award, a professional article I wrote generated a lot of positive attention, last night at a charity event I chatted with Vince Young and Quan Cosby, and the bluebonnets are out. But still, this time of year is rough for me. Working full-time (both as a teacher and extracurricular sponsor) while my husband travels for his job, getting the kid to school and lacrosse practice, keeping up with my own training… it takes its toll on me. I’m exhausted by the end of the week, and the lack of sleep just makes things worse.

Plus I’m still fighting to break out of my running funk, although last week’s trail run helped a lot. Tuesday’s track workout went pretty well too, except that I felt like I had weights strapped on my ankles–things just aren’t clicking quite right, and I haven’t figured out what’s going on there. My running gait looks like Elaine Benes trying to dance, or at least that’s how it feels to me.

But I am plodding along, trying to get my act together. Thursday evening I ran three miles at the park where my son had lacrosse practice, and this morning I ran five miles along the Brushy Creek Regional Trail. Yeah, my training schedule called for 12-14 miles, but the way things are going, my coach and I thought perhaps I should take a different approach this week.

So I ditched the alarm and slept in. And instead of running for distance, I decided to run for 90 minutes–45 minutes out, 45 minutes back. I drove out to the YMCA, where the trail ends, and I figured I’d run down to Brushy Creek Sports Park and back. That’s roughly three miles each way; adding a loop around the sports park would get me pretty close to 45 minutes.

Last night’s charity event was largely outdoors, and while it felt a little chilly after the sun went down, it was still a beautiful evening. This morning I was surprised to get out of my car to drizzly 50-degree temperatures. But I warmed up pretty quickly–although my electric, fluorescent, highlighter-yellow shirt was short-sleeved, I think it was bright enough to have actual warming qualities. So off I went, over the river bridge and through the woods.

I really love running this trail. It has hills, it has flats, it’s scenic, and it’s wide enough to accommodate runners, walkers, and cyclists. Assuming you’re not the Jackass Family who walked four-wide, blocking traffic in both directions, or the high school girls who ran on the left side of the path. But most everyone is considerate, and probably 2/3 of people I pass wave, smile, or nod as we pass. I feel like part of a secret club when they do that.

The other thing I loved about this trail today? IMG_4961Bluebonnets. You know it’s springtime in Texas when the bluebonnets appear along highways, hillsides, and trails. It’s my favorite time of year–no longer winter, not yet hellishly hot. These little blue flowers are harbingers of perfect running weather, that month or so between using the heater and turning on the air conditioner. And despite the continuing drought, quite a few hardy souls have sprung up in the usual places.

I made my way along the trail. I still felt like I had invisible weights strapped to my ankles, but they might have been an ounce or two lighter than on my last run. Maybe. I took it slowly, I ignored my Garmin, and before long I had arrived at the sports park. There were a couple of kids’ flag football games going on, which meant a zillion minivans and SUVs crowded the parking lot. Drivers jockeyed for the closest spots, often choosing to park in the grass or in the median rather than park in the almost-empty lot a few dozen feet further away. Can’t have those kids walking extra-far before a sporting event, I guess.

I looped around the park and headed back the way I’d come. My gait was still awkward, and at times I struggled to find a consistent rhythm. But other times, I loped along, zoning out instead of thinking about each funky step. It wasn’t one of those perfect runs where everything gels just right, but it wasn’t horrid either. I could have gone further, although I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have run faster.

By the time I got back to my car, I’d only been out for 1:15, not the 1:30 I had intended. But I’d felt better than my last long run two weeks ago, so I thought perhaps I should quit while I was ahead, and build on this one next Saturday. Baby steps.

Liebster award

Huge thank you to Emma from Gaining Pace for passing on the Liebster Award to me. As I understand it, bloggers recommend other blogs (generally those with smaller followings) as a way to share blogs they like with a larger audience. I’m honored to be included!image

One component, at least in some versions of the Liebster award, is the airing of grievances listing of 11 random facts about me. So here goes:

  1. My left pinkie finger is significantly shorter than my right. Both are useless for typing.
  2. It takes me hours to write my blog posts because I obsess over every sentence. I started this post on Thursday at lunchtime. Gah.
  3. I’m useless in the kitchen. My appliances have to be dusted, but I suck at housework too.
  4. Every car I’ve ever owned has been a stick shift.
  5. When my family moved from Virginia to Texas, we fulfilled every Texas stereotype by immediately buying a horse. But no, I didn’t ride it to school.
  6. Seventeen years as a middle school teacher and I am an expert at tossing out The Glare. And then I crack up.
  7. I’m wordy.
  8. I have too many pet peeves to list here. But most of them involve grammar and driving.
  9. I can speak in front of seventh-graders all day long, but Parent Night makes me nervous.
  10. I can remember song lyrics from 1986 but can’t remember why I came into this room.
  11. I don’t understand why people don’t love Peeps. Stale ones are the best.

My answers to the questions asked by Gaining Pace:

  1. What is your proudest moment and why? I have a few, for different reasons. I teach 7th grade English, and one professional accomplishment–earning National Board Certification–was the result of more than a year of hard work. And finishing my first half-marathon in November told me that I could put my mind and body toward a goal and achieve it. It was harder than childbirth–and I got a medal. 😉
  2. What would you never do and why? Skydive. I don’t even like those rides at Six Flags where you drop straight down for 10 stories, or whatever. There’s no way I’m gonna jump out of a plane that’s gonna land in a minute.
  3. Why do you (or don’t you) run? Right now, my vision is very short-term. I run to train for a May 19 half marathon, my third race at that distance. But beyond that, I guess I’ve stuck with it for fitness reasons, and because I have a blast at races (or at least AFTER races). And I want to set a good example for my kid.
  4. What makes you want to read someone else’s blog? I was an English major–I’m a sucker for a funny writing voice and clever use of language. I’m not talking perfect Queen’s English, necessarily, but something well-written, articulate, and/or full of self-deprecating humor will get my attention. Pictures help too.
  5. What is your simple pleasure? Driving with the sunroof open and the radio blasting.
  6. What would you want with you if you were stranded on a desert island? Ignoring the obvious sanitation requirements for a second, I’d start with wi-fi. Fizzy lime water. My iPad and Kindle. Sunscreen. My pillow. Did I mention wi-fi???
  7. If you could only eat one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be, and why? Something with cheese, like enchiladas del mar. I love cheese. Cheese mixed with seafood is nirvana. I went to Switzerland years ago, and I was surrounded by cheese, chocolate, and bread. The whole village of Gruyere smells like cheese. If I lived there, I’d weigh 5069696 pounds.
  8. What song would make you get up and dance? “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey. Although I once was part of a flash mob that performed to “Thriller” so clearly I am not limited to one song.
  9. What is the worst job you have ever done? I worked retail in college. It was hard.
  10. Where would you love to go on holiday, and why? I love to travel! I want to see Australia, and parts of Asia, and the South Pacific, and and and London is my favorite city on earth, so I always want to go there again.
  11. To which charity did you last donate, and why? Capital Food Bank of Austin. They provide such an important service–no one can do anything if they’re hungry.

Five blogs I enjoy and wish to nominate to carry the Liebster torch:

Go read them!

Annnnnd my questions for y’all:

  1. Obviously I follow lots of blogs about running, as that’s something you all have in common. What else is important in your life?
  2. What is your favorite distance, and why?
  3. Do you listen to anything while you run? Music, podcasts, nature, the voices in your head?
  4. What would be the title of your autobiography?
  5. If you could give advice to your 18-year old self, what would you say?
  6. What’s one gadget you can’t live without, and why?
  7. And what’s an old-school, analog, throwback thing you still love to do or use?
  8. Describe your favorite meal at a favorite restaurant.
  9. When’s the last time you did something outside your comfort zone? How’d it go?
  10. What’s your favorite thing about where you live? Least favorite?
  11. Tell me about some good news you got recently.

Based on my half-assed thorough efforts at Googling researching the rules of this award, I think I’ve covered everything. Thanks again to Emma from Gaining Pace for nominating me! Go read her blog, and the ones she recommended as well!

Two roads diverged in a wood

Until now, when I thought “trail run,” I thought of the Austin hike and bike trail, a 10-ish mile loop along the lake downtown. That trail is flat and wide, made of smooth gravel, and always crowded with runners, walkers, cyclists, dogs, and strollers. It’s a beautiful place, an absolute jewel in the middle of Austin.

But yesterday morning I went to Walnut Creek Park because Rogue hosted a 10K course preview for the first race in their trail series. I wanted something different, and well, this was different.

It was dark when I got out of the car, and I wondered why this thing started at 7am. I’m used to early events, especially May – October, but the first weekend after the time change, it probably should have started more like 7:30, after it got a little lighter. Some folks wore headlamps and helped illuminate the trail as we began, but not surprisingly the people who were prepared with lights also were fast trail runners, and soon they were gone.

I knew I’d be slow, and I was okay going at it alone. Besides, as the trail narrowed, I was glad I didn’t have to worry about crowds while trying not to bust my ass negotiating the unfamiliar rocky terrain.

Can you spot the place I got turned around and had to backtrack?

Can you spot the place I went the wrong way and had to backtrack?

I learned a few things on this trail.

One, I learned how to read trail markers. Rogue had put out red and white striped flags at every turn, and I learned that if I saw one on the right, before an intersection, to turn right and look for another one and that’d be the way to go.

This worked most of the time, but since this course is called The Maze, sometimes the trail intersected itself and it was difficult to figure out the way. Once I followed another runner (who followed another) and we got down the hill before realizing it was the wrong way. We trudged back up the hill and carried on.

Well, I say I learned how to read markers, but I missed one. Toward the end, I was following both the red and white flags and the park’s markers pointing to the parking lot. At about 5.3 miles, these two things diverged. I’d gotten confused by the overlapping markers before, and following the parking signs had been the right thing, so again I followed the sign instead of the marker. But when I emerged near the starting point, my Garmin only read 5.5 miles. Oops.

Yes, this is the middle of North Austin.

Not the steepest climb of the day.

I also learned that running a trail is more difficult than street running. Well, not so much learned, since I expected it to be tougher, but confirmed. All this uphill, downhill, around hairpin turns and switchbacks, over rocks and through creeks used muscles I’d forgotten I had. Six miles doesn’t sound like a lot to someone training for 13.1, but six miles of trail running is a different animal, even at my snail’s pace. Those muscles reminded me of their existence the rest of the day.

I came out there to learn something else, too. I needed to know if I still cared about doing this–putting in the time and the early mornings and the effort required to improve for the next race, and the next one. I recognize that part of my running funk stems from the way I get caught up in how far I’ve gone, how long it’s taken me, how many miles I still have left, and whether I can keep putting one foot in front of the other until I get there.

Yep, still the middle of North Austin.

Yep, still the middle of North Austin.

But on a trail run like this, all my attention went to where each footstep landed and whether I followed the red and white striped flags. I only knew how far I’d gone when my Garmin pinged at each mile. Otherwise I focused on not twisting an ankle or falling down a hill out there in the middle of a 300-acre city park.

It was difficult. My shoes and socks and pants were covered in trail dust. My water bottle was empty. It took me forever–a handful of expert trail runners ran the course, then ran it a second time, passing me before I’d done it once. But I had done it, and I’d had fun. Did I get my mojo back? No way to tell just yet. But it felt good, so it’s a start.

Funk (which is one letter away from the word I really want to use)

I’ve fallen into a running funk and I can’t get up.

I haven’t had a good long Saturday run since February 16, when I ran ten miles. Since then, my Saturdays have looked like this:

  • February 23: traveling with 60 eighth graders, no long run plus several missed weekday runs as well
  • March 2: no long run because we were running a 5K on Sunday (which had its own problems, asthma-wise)
  • March 9: miserable 10-miler to start my Spring Break

Things have been crazy at work, busy at home, and I’ve been burning the candle at both ends for a while now. I told myself if I could keep it together until Spring Break, I could catch up on sleep and sort of reset everything. Yeah, no. I woke up Saturday morning with a sore throat, but forged ahead with my run anyway, hardhead that I am. Over the rest of the weekend it never really got better, unless better means improving from “I swallowed razor blades” to “Must have eaten broken glass for lunch.” I went to the doctor on Monday and, lo and behold, he gave me antibiotics for strep. Even with meds, it was Wednesday before I felt almost normal. I missed my Tuesday training, so Wednesday afternoon I figured I’d try my usual three-mile neighborhood loop. Yeah, that was a big fail too. I couldn’t find a consistent rhythm or pace, I felt sluggish, nothing was clicking, and once again, it sucked. Just like the last mile, and the ones before that.

So here I am on Friday night, contemplating yet another Saturday morning long run. The schedule says 12 miles, but the thought of attempting that, after the way things have gone recently, makes me want to hide under my bed. I know I should cut myself some slack for having been sick, but then again slacking off–even though I had valid reasons–got me where I am now. And if I’m being really honest with myself, my confidence is shaken too. I’ve had one good long run and a couple of positive Tuesday track workouts in the last month. I’m dreading going out there tomorrow for yet another miserable attempt at mileage.

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I’m thinking of going to a 10K trail run instead of my usual location. That might be a fun change of pace–something different that could hit the reset switch for me. But most Rogues are really fast and I’m not, so I’ll pretty much be on my own out there. Which is no different from what I’ve been doing. I’m trying to think positively, to tell myself to suck it up and just go, but I’m a little gun-shy, you know? I wish it were as simple as pushing a med-alert panic button.

What do you do when you’ve had a couple of awful runs in a row and it turns into a sneaky hate spiral running funk? How do you get your confidence back?