from mile to marathon

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

Monday, November 26, 2007

back to bAsics

Two weeks before the NM Marathon Plus in September I bought a new pair of shoes. They happened to be my first Brooks, and it took me a day or two before I realized I didn't like them. It was, I thought, too late to return them, but I could buy another pair before the next marathon, and reserve this pair for hateful runs. Or something.

The next marathon came much too fast, and two weeks later came the next, and I never made time to go to the running store again. In hindsight it is unconceivable that I ran four marathons in shoes I don't care for.

Last week I bought Asics again, and they felt like home. Some life is still left in the Brooks, and I might take them out on select muddy days - I wore them during hours of rain and wind storms, and they are particularly dirty and disgusting anyhow.

By contrast the Asics look eadearing as if they might sprout wings at my ankles any time now.

I did not overly relish the prospect of a Thanksgiving 5K. Here was one day to sleep late and remain sheltered from the cold. But I know that on a day of gratitude a little race is apt and sensible, and if I would not run I would feel lazy and slacking afterward. So I signed up in my customary reluctant mood, and showed up at the start line, like last year, at the last minute. The morning was so frigid even breathing hurt. I almost died during the first uphill mile, until eventually the exertion became bearable. I did not really check my watch, and the electronic display over the finish line was broken, but I somehow felt I finished in about 30 minutes. I had forgotten I could manage that kind of pace. Shivering, exhausted, and awaited by tasks at the stove, I did not wait for results.

But I checked them out on the website today, and to my surprise I scored 28 min 48 sec. A pace of 9:16, it's nothing, I know, but for me it's breaking a record, the first PR in all my months of running. I had given up on that. Any distance I have run so far, the first race always garnered my best time, and it went downhill from there.

So many things have happened in the meantime, I cannot go beyond subdued excitement. But still, it's a PR, my only one.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

marathon of the americas, san antonio

The lit wall of the Alamo stood so compelling under bulky clouds I could not stop taking pictures. No matter how much I adjusted the settings, the darkness was too dense for a memorable shot, but I still caught a glimpse of Texas regalia. I wondered later if we owed the gun moment to these gentlemen, with their old-fashioned rifles.

Then the light waxed, and so did the crowds. Thousands converged on the spot, red numbers for the marathon, blue for the half. I kept clicking away until my boyfriend urged me to get in line, and I reluctantly handed the camera back to him. The clouds thinned, the anthem rang, and the guns went off in big Texas style. It took me minutes to reach the mat.

The morning was hot and humid, and we were all sweat-soaked in less than one mile, I could see it on our shirts. A woman in electric lime green was holding a sign. I looked up expecting a name or a cause, but it said “4:45,” and I realized she was a pacer. I never noticed one before in any of my races. If I hung out with her group, I would finish in 4h 45 minutes, not my best time, but worth a try. It took me very little to realize that keeping up with her strained me, so I let go. I fell behind.

This incident, so early in the race, was a bad sign. It meant I would probably not be able to finish under five hours. But I hadn’t set any time goals, and kept on at my own pace. We passed through uptown San Antonio – high towers, temorary shade, picturesque shops, Tex-Mex restaurants, streets lined with clapping bystanders, a marvelous thing of red brick and green rails called “The Book Building.”

At the turn of a street, a woman in a black evening gown and high-heels was waving next to a rough sign that said “runners fan.” You had to love her.

Runners wore on their backs pictures of loved ones. A stocky man was carrying the Marine Corps Veteran flag. I saw girls running in pink and girls running in fatigue colors. Certified by the purple and red ribbons fluttering from her hat, a woman beyond a certain age proclaimed she could do anything she wanted to do, even run marathons.

So we ran. We ran by the Concepcion Mission, its faraway walls a reminder of centuries past. We ran into the open space of Mission Park, along the San Antonio River, as peaceful as in the time before we enclosed it within alleys and bridges. We ran past scores of brown markers pointing left and right to the San Juan Mission, the San Jose Mission, the Espada Mission, and back, and again, and all of them at once, although we barely saw the missions themselves. Sometimes a cloud passed over the face of the sun, sometimes the wind picked up for a brief reprieve. But on the whole we ran through a big open-air sauna.

Team in Training had a powerful presence in this race. Mile 12 was theirs – the most exuberant aid station I have ever seen, the cheering, the clapping, the enthusiasm, the readiness unbelievable. The song they played went “we love the way you move,” you had to love it again.

The halfway point amounted to a beep in the middle of nowhere. The turnaround point came later, at the Espada mission, I saw the bell tower atop of trees. And then we were mired in the exposed stretch of Mission Park again. Somewhere there I shook hands with Marathon Maniac #408, who had run a 50K the day before. Here’s a man who makes good use of his weekends. Compared to him I am tame.

The mile or more around 17 and 18 was the hardest. No matter how much I summoned myself forward, it was a wearisome inching ahead, step by step, breath by breath. My face was burning, my legs were limp. Then I came upon station 12 again, this time around it was station 20. They held up a sign “What wall?”

There was no wall. I cannot say I sailed past them, it was more like crawling. But then, something inexplicable happened. The last six miles shortened into nothingness. They went by so quickly I did not have time to register it. I do not mean to say it was easy. My own breath approximated a pitiful whine, the alarm sign of running out. The next thing I knew was getting nauseous at mile 22 – I knew I was losing electrolytes. After the sweat dried off at the finish in the air-conditioned Alamodome a fine layer of salt covered all of my skin.

But somehow time went by in a hurry, even skipped forward. Since Victoria, where my boyfriend waited two hours in the pouring rain, I carry the cell phone with me. We talked after I reached mile 23, to postpone my estimated time of arrival once more. I snapped the phone shut, I ran a few more steps, and there was mile 24. Where did the distance in between go?

Next thing I know I reach the last aid station, positioned right between the Goodyear shop where we had replaced my tire and the Italian restaurant where we had pasta the day before. And they say, “at the corner over there it’s 25.5 miles, you have roughly a half mile to go.”

What happened to all those miles? What diminished mile 24? Where did mile 25 go?

All I know is I stayed with it.

All along, I stayed with it, mile by mile, minute by minute. Time subjectively flies by faster when you live in the moment, but to have the last six miles of a marathon dwindle away is uncanny, akin to a mystical experience.

I sprinted on the last stretch. I do not know if it makes sense to sprint at the end of 5.5 hour marathon. There is nothing to gain. But my soles lifted from the ground by themselves, and I sprinted. My boyfriend was annoyed they did not announce I was coming, while they seemed to mention everyone else. No one handed me a medal – for a few moments I stood lost and useless beyond the finish mat. I had to ask for one and felt awkward. Then I was dizzy again, for a few moments.

Not that any of that matters. I conquered more than a medal in this race.

My boyfriend asked me the day before if it would be all worthwhile. The aggravation, the expense, the rest of our lives put on hold, everything for the sake of this one race, even if I would not make good time. Yes, I said, they are all worthwhile, each and every marathon.

That was even before I set foot on the beautiful start line at the Alamo at dawn. That was even before my mind shortened the last six mile to a mere few steps. This was my longest run - 5 h 32 min 59 sec, and every minute of it was worthwhile. I will always remember the Alamo.

Monday, November 12, 2007

most beautiful

The tire I had replaced a few days before due to a random nail stuck in sideways blew up on me while I was driving at over 80 miles per hour on the Texas highway. When I finally came to a stop and we got out to assess the damage, the thing was in shreds.

We tried to put in the spare, but could not loosen the lugs on the damaged wheel, they must have used guns to fasten them, and all our efforts would not dislodge them. One hour and a half after we first called AAA they could not find a service order in our name. I took this to be a brief picture taking opportunity.

After two hours of catching a tan, a red pickup pulled over, and a man stepped out to the rhythm of music blaring. He was big, black, and his eyes were glazed over, a detail my boyfriend interpreted to me after the fact as "totally stoned." He should know, he grew up in Brooklyn in the seventies. In the meantime, the big man shook his head over our predicament. Leaning forward with a five-fold graceful, effortles motion, he loosened the lugs on the damn wheel.

My boyfriend and me, we are short little people.

We had left in the early afternoon on Thursday, but all the advance gained by early departure was lost in this tire affair. We crawled along with the "donut" for the next 100 miles. We had patience, but the real challenge was ahead of us, in the highway pattern of downtown San Antonio. We were in the right lane, emergency lights on, and had to take a left-hand exit, crossing four lanes, among cars that moved as fast as if we were standing still. My boyfriend was driving by that time, and I told him to just go with the flow, if he could not take the designated exit we could just get off later. The truth is, we would have hopelessly lost our way.

He handled it beautifully, but when we checked into the hotel he poured himself a glass of scotch and did not say a single word for a good 15 minutes.

Did I mention that he is a New Yorker and handled that kind of highways all his life?

Two mechanics who inspected the artifact next day shook their heads about our good fortune: "something really bad could have happened."

I inquired later what the "really bad" things were, and my boyfriend shrugged his shoulders. Skidding all over the highway, he said, or turning over. Aha. I remembered that a white car was passing me at the time, I could have skidded in its way if I had slammed the brakes. I did not because I was terrified by the sound that rose from the ground, as if the earth itself was groaning. I just took my foot of the gas pedal, and this neutrality of which I felt guilty ("there is something I should do") landed us safely on the shoulder.

Otherwise it was a cool trip.

I asked my boyfriend on the way back (a smooth 11 hour and 1 minute door to door trip) what was the best moment of San Antonio. We changed the tire, we visited the Alamo, we had dinner on the Riverwalk, with me dressed up, camera in hand, medal around my neck. He said the best part was me crossing the finish line, and my image appearing on the big screen (this is a marathon that ends indoors, in the Alamodome, wired and air-conditioned and everything). That was the moment when he could stop worrying.

But I think the most beautiful moment was the start at the Alamo at dawn.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

questioning san antonio

Oh, not the saint. The place.

Both my boyfriend and I had mixed feelings about San Antonio - the investment of time, the expenditure of money, the brutal drive of ten hours (on closer inspection more like eleven), the rest of our lives put on hold.

We debated fruitlessly a couple of times, and could decide no further than setting the matter aside to be revisited after a week or so. Ten days later we found ourselves still conflicted, but agreed upon going with wonderful simplicity. The drive is still eleven hours long, it's not going to cost any less, and the only thing we will accomplish is taking pictures of the Alamo

Besides me running my next marathon, that is.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

living the immediate moment

Marathon Maniac and all, I still do not like running. But, I have to admit, I have ceased to mind it. I am troubled by the energy it takes away from my writing, in more than one way - the time, the energy, the focus. But there are trade-offs. I learn from each race, sometimes even from each individual run.

I learned it's no good use to look forward to the moment when it's over. You have to stay with it. You have to live in the run, with the expenditure of effort, as it unfolds each step, as if it were precious in itself - minute by minute, hour by hour. The end will come, on its own, unavoidably, without superfluous anticipation. I am an advocate of living in the present moment, but I have not applied my belief to running, not until lately. If you stay with it, with the simplicity of each step, with the endurance of the advance, you get to the end much sooner than expected.

The insignificance of time passing is not a new concept for me, but to experience it in the body as miles accrue behind is a novelty. If I can keep this insight in mind during future long runs and upcoming marathons, if I can keep this belief centered in my body, I will learn more in spirit. Not about long distance running, but about the art of living.

About the quality of our lives that transcends time.