from mile to marathon

The journey of a thousand leagues begins from beneath your feet.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

lack of strategy

I have run eleven miles several times now. Once I did twelve, which wiped me out for the day. Once I even did close to 13, in my own sweet time. That wiped me out too – no surprise here. It took 10-15 minutes to recover my humanity after I finished the four rounds around Academy. I did it so it’s my body, and not only my heart, that knows I can do it.

Let’s call this experience – instead of prop for my insecurity. I am still clueless as to what strategy I need to employ when I run “the race ahead.” The first time I ran ten miles on my outdoor track I switched over to walking each time I felt I could not do otherwise. I use this euphemism to spare everybody a detailed account of muscle soreness, pressured lungs, or mind ready to burst. This method translated into frequent stretches of walking.

The second time I slowed down willfully every mile or so. Let’s call it organized breaks. It kept me subjectively fresh, but my time didn’t improve. Now I can do three miles without walking. But my time didn’t improve in a significant way.

During weeks of “long runs,” the pattern repeated itself. I still do not know what I will do when I run the half-marathon four days from now. They have water stops every two miles. Given that we are talking about the high-altitude desert of New Mexico, water intake is crucial, rainy season or not. And I know you cannot really swallow while running. Perhaps I’ll slow down for the time span it takes to take a few sips. I am insanely worried about what this is going to do to my absolute racing time.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

the race ahead

Once I signed up for the semi-marathon on September 3rd – five days from now, when I write this – my focus shifted automatically to the length of a semi-marathon, 13.1 miles, instead of its double. I did the given 5K each morning, with one day off a week, a day reserved for cross-training, and a Saturday or Sunday for the “big run” of ten miles or more.

The day off posed no complications, he, he. Cross-training meant swimming or running in the pool of the apartment complex, but given the rainiest summer New Mexico has experienced in years it usually ended up being another day off. Cool enough, since all the books say that runners of my age should not over-train. A questionable relief…

The “big run” each week-end became the stronghold of my training, and inevitably it was aiming at a semi-marathon. Eleven miles, after the ten I had barely mastered, eleven miles again, twelve miles scheduled for the near future, eleven miles again, twelve miles next week, maybe, and so on…

I started worrying about this. I used to think in terms of 26 miles. Now I was geared for 13. This focus had the cold edge of a limitation in vision. It reeked of an upcoming plateau. My initial brazen projection of 26 miles in 26 weeks (the end of September) looked suddenly ludicrous.

No use in blaming myself. I did what I could do. I have come so far injury-free, without help from anybody. I try to remind myself of that. I have built a base. I will run a half marathon in five days from now. It’s good.

Monday, August 28, 2006

getting used to it

Ten miles outside are grueling, the last round of 3-miles-plus more than the others. Not that the first two are easy. One side of the perimeter, the longest, goes uphill, and to begin with I could not put it behind me without walking from time to time. The second round is always the best. The limbs are warm and still willing, the morning still cool, and advancing is imbued with exhilaration at the sheer conquest of space. Sometimes I even look forward to it.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

mens sana in corpore sano

Whether this perception was justified or not, in the beginning I thought of most people on the outdoor track around Academy as running for health reasons. For the sake of their cardiovascular system, to lose weight, to stay in shape, fit, active. A few, I supposed, were serious about being athletes, training for a race or another, their running imbued with competitiveness and passion.

That most were there for health was an automatic assessment, and I questioned it. Perhaps it stemmed from me feeling out of place among them. As health was not my primary concern, it had to be theirs. Or some other twisted reaction along similar lines.

My considerations of weight loss, not that I don’t entertain them, refer to the esthetic. I am not apprehensive about the state of my blood vessels, I am vain.

If health reasons are involved in my own running, they pertain to mental health. I am running for my sanity. I had the same brief exchange about running with more than one person. When I say I don’t feel well if I don’t run, they infer the sensation is physical. No, it’s mental. My body begs me to stay home each morning and sleep late and forego the pounding. But I have to run. If I don’t, I get depressed.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

my outdoor track

In spite or because of my relative failure to run outside, lacking the predictability and predictions of the treadmill, I made up my mind to step away from the fitness center and run my week-end ‘big run’ au plain air – I wonder if the Impressionists painters, when they first stepped out of their studios, experienced the same trepidation.

I chose the perimeter around Albuquerque Academy in the NE heights, more precisely the block outlined by Academy, Wyoming, San Antonio, and Ventura, which I estimated to measure 3.3 miles (later someone told me it's only 3.2). A parking lot in one corner allowed me to stop every round and have a few sips of water from the bottle stashed away in my car.

I took off a just a few minutes after 6:15 am, the official starting time of the semi-marathon race in September. After a mile and a half, the sun rose over the mountains, bathing everything in apricot hues. I did a round, three miles plus, my usual output. I did another round, six miles or more altogether. My legs were heavy and overdue, as if they belonged to a different person carrying on three feet behind me. I walked from time to time. I did the third round, exhausted but exhilarated by being on my third round.

Lots of people were doing the rounds at Academy – young people and old, walking or running, white, black or tan people, sporting underwear tops or turquoise running outfits, wafting the smell of sweat or Chanel # 5, alone or with companions, pushing strollers or pulled by dogs, people absorbed by their loneliness or wired for sound – people with wires sticking out of their ears, pockets, waists, and armbands. People ready to smile and people with no use for friendliness. Even people on cell phones, oblivious to the rest of us.

There is a world out there, exercising. I felt a bit like an impostor.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

catching the virus?

By the end of May, a thought started creeping up on me at random times, an insidious, disconcerting, disturbing leitmotif, like the edge of an obsession: that I am not doing enough. I would run in the morning, and sense vaguely that I could do better during an evening repeat. My mind would circle back to more running, to cross-training, to a further push, to increased mileage, to upping and improving... sometime further during the day...

Not that I meant to really do it. Not that I actually entertained the thought. I already had enough to deal with as it were. It's just that I was encountering this constant feeling that I am not doing enough. As if I were contaminated by the drive to run...

Monday, August 21, 2006

my body, myself

You would think that after three months of running, or at least of steadily increasing my mileage from zero to 25 miles per week, my body and I would gain a new appreciation of each other, since I took better care of it, and it enabled me to pursue whatever I hoped to achieve through running. Your would think that I’d had developed a new relationship with my body.

I hadn’t. It was, after all, still the same chubby body. Well, not exactly chubby, but not slim either. Toward the end of May I had run, over the last three months, a cumulated 225 miles or so, and I had not lost one single pound. 225 miles might not seem that much to runner (there are people who do 100 in a week), but it was 225 more than I had run in the three months before that. It had to count for some calorie consumption. But it didn’t. And I had not started to load up on chocolate and ice-cream and caramel mochas.

Then, I was hurting all the time. To a certain degree the pain was reassuring – it meant I was pushing myself, I was progressing, I was alive. I also meant I was doing something for my body, giving it the opportunity to exercise, the passion of motion. The idea was uplifting. The pain wasn’t. Presumably it would go away some day, but it didn’t. I was straining to increase mileage, straining to improve speed, straining up a higher incline. Each time I conquered the number ahead, and the body got used to the exertion, I had to push further, and the body never got a respite.

One night, while watching Cinderella Man on DVD and leisurely stretching my hamstrings, I was struck by the elegant way all the tendons and ligaments and muscles and nerves of my legs fit together. We study anatomy, but have no idea how nature could ever have devised such a perfect mechanism. I was grateful that moment that it was Running that looked me up and chose me, and not Boxing – I was grateful I was not besotted suddenly by a sport that could smash my parts to pulp.

I was exerting effort, and I would restrict smoking, I would eat right, I would pay attention to skin and joints, for the simple reason that I needed to keep the mechanism intact in order to run. I could envision a time where the simple fact of running would prompt me to love myself more.

Saturday, August 19, 2006


One morning, at 6 am, the treadmills were taken. I could not wait, since I would use up the time allotted for running, and then I had to stretch, shower, make breakfast, dress, water the plants, drive to the office. I barely manage to get there on time as it is.

I ran outside instead. Or, more precisely, I tried.

The inside perimeter of the apartment complex measures one mile. I planned to run around three times, which would get me close to the usual 5K.

I only went around once. I had cramps in my legs after two minutes. I could not breath. I barely finished that one mile, and I walked half of the time.

I was horrified. I was depressed all day. Life was pointless, I was useless, this kind of thing. I was back to not being able to run one mile. It was my first setback in three months, my first since I started, and I had forgotten about setbacks. That they could happen to me too.

Next day I tried again. One mile, outside. It was better, but it was not good. I was depressed again. Horrified. It took me all day to conclude the root of my problem was twofold: (1) incline – the alleys around the units are steep, and (2) inability to gauge speed without the treadmill. I had gone off too fast.

I had to somehow deal with the problem. It was like having to start all over again. Did I say I was horrified?

Friday, August 18, 2006

nine miles

So I reached a ceiling I couldn’t break through if I kept smoking. It’s funny that I pictured the movement as upward instead of horizontal. After all, I run on the ground. I do not run straight up in the air.

Anyhow, all that is material is the barrier of smoke in my lungs. Ashes, coal, destruction.

I ran nine miles a couple of days after - sometime in May. Nine miles on the treadmill. A friend told me since she would have died of boredom. It wasn’t boring, actually. It was not exciting either. It was non-descript.

Nine miles is so little. Just a little bit more than a quarter marathon. Seven miles felt exactly the same way. A little bit over a quarter marathon. I guessed I’d feel different at 11 or 12 miles. That’s almost a half a marathon. A milestone.

It’s amazing how exacting we can be when splitting hairs. And how blind we can be when looking at essentials.

I decided then I will run a half-marathon on September 3rd. I was not nervous at all. It was simple and right.

I was at work, and could not think of anybody to tell, but I emailed Robert, and asked if he would be at the finish line to cheer me on. He said yes.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

the issue of smoking

Taking notes for this entry took me a few consecutive days of struggle in the first half of May. My first run of the week was a scheduled 5K, a walk in the park compared to my latest 8-mile achievement. It should have been easy, but it wasn’t.

I ran too soon after dinner, and my tummy felt full, although I had taken care to restrict my intake. At least when it came to food. Perhaps I had had one cocktail too many. On top of all this I sensed, for the first time, that my running body did not agree with my smoking. I felt it in the cells of my lungs, in the strain of my muscles, in the disturbing uproar of all molecules. Not in some moral precept of the brain.

I hit a barrier that day. It was finite and certain and related to oxygen, and I recognized it instantly without ever having encountered it before. It was instantly familiar, like all the beacons of self-destructiveness. I knew it so well as if it were written in print: SMOKERS NOT ALLOWED BEYOND THIS POINT.

Some part of me loathed myself and my acquiescence to a disgustingly smelling habit. Part of me though registered the milestone with a jolt of intellectual satisfaction. I had expected it. I had been anxious about it.
When I started running it was hard to distinguish whether running was harder on the lungs or on the muscles. Then for weeks I could not feel I was smoking. That was bound to take an end.

So now the illusion just ended.

Monday, August 14, 2006

a bunch of people from Albuquerque

I had put the first eight miles behind me when Bill Strickland answered my emails. He was friendly and greeted my intent to build one of his schools in Albuquerque. His staff contacted me afterwards, and suggested I bring over to Pittsburgh a group of people from our city, for us to understand what they are doing in their school and discuss how feasible a project in Albuquerque is.

It sounded, on the surface, simple enough. But…

Here I was, an immigrant, new to a city proud of its three-century old traditions, a claim the vast majority of American cities can not make. Here I was, knowing only a handful of people, mostly writers and wannabe writers, not politicians or money makers. Here I was, a lonely gringo (but not an Anglo even), supposed to break the barrier that divides me from the movers and shakers. I had to find a bunch of people, passionate about education and at the same time influential, connected, and powerful. I had to find them and persuade them to make an opening in their busy schedule to go with me to Pittsburgh, to view the palace of knowledge Bill Strickland opened for kids ready to drop out of conventional schools. Here I was, supposed to move mountains.

I viewed it as a test. I faced a dictatorial regime and machine gun fire in my country, and then the uncertainty of moving on my own to a new continent, but I had never been so scared in my life.

I am scared to even put this online.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

open up

I ran my first full eight miles on a Saturday morning. I paced myself. I survived. I delivered the last mile and a half at the steady pace of 5 miles/hour, praying to the gods to keep me on the treadmill. They did. When I left the fitness center, I passed the outdoor pool. The morning was lovely, and I felt like plunging into the cool water, and then just lying in the sun and reading. But I had to stretch, shower, and meet the full day ahead of me. Writers meeting, writing, preparing food for the hummingbird feeder, and in the evening making dinner and then a show at the Hispanic Cultural Center – the dance duo Morena Amoora. I walked by slowly, the turquoise water reflected in my eyes.

I changed my wake-up time during the week to 5 am, and started running in the morning.

More importantly, I made my peace with running, or at least I decided to make my peace with it. I would let the impulse propel me forward, instead of questioning it. I would acquiesce, open up, give myself to it.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

the issue of age

A day or so after seeing speed in perspective I had dinner with a group of people at the High Noon restaurant in Old Town. Nobody at the table except Robert knew I had started running. A friend of mine mentioned casually that her mother had run the New York marathon at 65.

Here I go, thinking that starting at 41 is a big deal. My effort felt insignificant again.

Saturday, August 05, 2006


After you run, you can delete the data pertaining to your running session (mileage, calories burnt, etc.) from the display of the treadmill. One night my predecessor didn’t press the reset button, and I got insight into the specifics of his run. Or hers. 7.25 miles in 1 h 05 minutes. That translated into about 7 miles/hour, and the best I could deliver, with great strain, was 5 miles/hour.

I had no clear image of how I would get beyond that, and I felt suddenly small. My effort seemed insignificant. I pushed myself a lot, that day and the next, but pushing myself meant maintaining 5 miles/hour.

The marathon was a long way off.

Friday, August 04, 2006


By the beginning of May I was ready for more changes. I was still running in the evening. I was still running exclusively on the treadmill, missing the free air I had never tried, and loathing myself for my reluctance to break free from the fitness center. The books I looked into still scared me with their grim outline of the future – strength building, speed work, strides. And they still confused me – according to all exercise schedules I was pushing myself too hard.

How else am I going to run a marathon? I have to push myself, as lazy as I am.

I started to skip at least a day a week in my workout, so my legs would not be cramped up all the time. It felt like a setback, at first. As per Marathon for Dummies, I bought a braided nylon rope from Lowe’s (feeling like the Boston strangler), and started stretching after each run. That was somehow amusing, at least for a while. The author swears you feel so much better next day. I did. Only a little bit. My calves were better. The rest of me was still hobbling around as if I were 80.

And I bought running gear. Socks with shock absorbing soles, shorts and top with moisture-wicking properties, all this technically sounding stuff, one expects them to be metal and wires, not just some piece of cloth at an exorbitant price. But I have to admit it felt good to run in them. They were feather-light and moved with the body. The simple act of purchasing them produced a flutter in my stomach, because it felt like commitment. What was I getting myself into?

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

finite time

It wasn't any fun to run seven miles while I was having my period, but I am in my forties and won’t object to having a period.

Everything hurt, but the pain installed its headquarters somewhere between buttocks and thighs, where it bored through the flesh and made me want to simply keel over.

Then I did seven miles once again, and once more, and the pain extended its headquarters to the front of my thighs, where it felt like a metal blade wedged between muscles. My calves were swollen round the clock. I walked funny. Between work, running, writing, and sleep, I found no time for anything else. There was a definite cap on the day, as if time was an elastic band stretched to capacity.

Before running, lifetimes ago, I used to give up on sleep when I was in this situation, but that is not an option anymore. Since I could not afford to renounce work, running, writing, and sleep, I decided to take another look at time. Perhaps I could lengthen it somehow, by more intensity, better organizing, or other creative tricks of the mind.

I ended up instating naturally, without much thinking, a schedule I had anticipated, albeit with some reluctance: I stopped running each and every day the highest mileage I had achieved so far. Instead I ran a few miles each day, two or three, at most four, and reserved the big run for the week-end. I stopped using the substitute term of “miling.” I was running by now. It was running a bit the way a turtle runs, but to me it was running all right.