from mile to marathon

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

Thursday, October 31, 2013

two days from now

I started to pack. More than half of my luggage is running gear. Don't know - again - if it's too little or too much. I have taken all these running shirts, just in case I need to change, and even a little ultra-light jacket (Marmot), which I bought in the children section because it was less than half the price of the totally similar Patagonia adult version. This might seem extravagant, but apparently I have a tendency to become hypothermic while running - already happened twice. Twelve hours on a mountain in Wisconsin warrant some precaution.

But I do not worry about the weather, or about anything else - not having put in enough mileage, not having recovered enough, getting sick, fueling options, elevation gain, trail technique, mile 40, cut-off time. For one, it is too late for worry, I cannot do much about what I have not done, or undo what I did.

And then, I find no reason to be concerned. This is my 23rd race of marathon distance or longer but it reminds me eerily of how I felt before my first marathon, with its exhilaration of will, and the serene certainty of being in the right place at the right time. I even remembered how I started the race report of that first magical Shiprock run: "If I had any apprehension, it was just enough to respect the distance." You have to respect the distance, because the body is mortal and the flesh is weak. But otherwise, everything is simple and natural and in right order. This is what I am supposed to do.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

this week was easy

I did 12 miles on Saturday, a last sweet trail run on Sunday, a couple of short jogs, and a leisurely bike ride. I plan for a last swim tomorrow, and then there is only the race. This week is... easy.

Training was really difficult only twice. The week after the Portland marathon, when I went back to work, volunteered at the balloon fiesta, and trained as usual, was kind of gruesome. On Saturday of that week I had planned for 15 miles but dropped to 12 when I started to feel uncoordinated, as if the limbs where not joined in the right places. The moment I actually gave in was when I remembered that at the fiesta I had already put in six hours of "time on my feet" for that day, from 4:30 to 10:30 AM, and I was probably doing more damage than good by keeping on running.

The other hard instance was the biggest run I put in before Portland, 21 miles that took me almost five hours, as long as the marathon race. That was the day after the car accident, and I had a headache and was a bit woozy. In hindsight I must have had some whiplash effect, but I didn't realize that at the time, since I was... well, woozy.

Otherwise, training for this 50-miler was pretty cool.

Friday, October 25, 2013

duke city

The day before the Duke City marathon I had a match in Colorado. We left Colorado Springs sometime mid-afternoon, after the match was over, and took turns driving, so I got some sleep in the car. There was no pasta dinner or other meaningful carb loading, just some fast food on the road. We made it back in time for a good sleep, and in the morning I had half of the banana we had picked up in a gas station and two shortbread cookies from the Starbucks where we had bought black coffee to stay awake the night before. We drove to the start line minutes before the start, right up to the roadblock, where I jumped out of the car, and lined up just in time for that particular frisson of anticipation that comes at the start of the race, when you feel excited and humble and fortunate and alive - you are going to run a marathon.

This is the 30th year for Duke City, and I have read in the local newspaper about someone who has run this marathon every one of these 30 years. I don't think I would like that - part of the charm of a new marathon is the novelty of the course. Nevertheless this was the third time I did Duke City - knowing the layout and the dynamics made for a stress-less start, not to mention how convenient the whole race was as a training run.

I spotted a walker very soon after we took off. I am not familiar with the technical aspects of speed-walking, but he didn't seem to be doing that. He just walked very fast. I asked him about his projected time (5.5 hours), and decided to take him as a guide. His would be an even pace, and if I stayed behind him at least during the first half I would hold back at the beginning, as I am supposed to do in the 50-miler and didn't do last year.

I learned something very precious by staying behind him - holding back means running much slower than I thought. I must have been about to pass him at least twenty times; each time I realized that I was mindlessly pushing forward, although it didn't feel like pushing. It was simply that I could go much faster than I was going, and I would have been unable to achieve the same restraint on my own.

Those early hours of patience paid off, since during the last miles I was still fresh, with none of that peculiar rigid movement that you see toward the end of a long marathon, when the limbs look disjointed and runners advance by willpower alone. I also came as close as you can come to a negative split without being sure of having achieved it: I ran the first half of the race in the same amount of time as the second, at least when it comes to minutes. If the seconds count, then it can be either way. I thought Portland was a smooth race at an even pace. Duke City was even smoother.

I wore the Portland finisher shirt, to a great extent because it is a glamorous piece of running gear - in Portland we saw runners, until late at night, wearing their shirt all over town, and the airport next day was full of them. Maybe also because it commemorated the Boston marathon, and I had been in Boston when they bombed it. I knew Portland would be a nice marathon to run when I signed up, but it must have a mystique I am not aware of, not even after I ran it - I was surprised at how many runners during Duke City noticed the shirt, cheered me on, waived, or went into stories about how they ran Portland in prior years, and how cool the Portland race is, and how great are their shirts.

That was okay, until it started to bother me that no one noticed the "Free Leonard Peltier" sign I wore over the shirt, which must have been much more conspicuous than the stretch of fabric, Portland-issued or not.

The finish was literally around the corner, and Central Avenue, closed to traffic, was deserted. I was running alone, right in the middle of the street, as if Route 66 belonged to me. Suddenly, the muscles lost their tightness, the pain and the fatigue vanished, and I felt free to sprint, as if a great vise had just opened to set me loose.

A man stretching on the side of the road resumed his run. I had already passed him when he said, "Cool shirt."

I raised my hand in acknowledgement, tired of hearing about Portland.

"Cool sign," he added.

I turned around and ran backwards for a while. "You are the only one in the whole race who mentioned it."

He nodded. "Are you native?"

I know I am not, but I thought about it for a moment. Would it make a difference if I were? Would I be more likely, more justified, more motivated to run for Leonard Peltier if my skin would be a shade darker? If I would have grown up on a reservation, instead of a dictatorship? "Does it matter?" I asked.

What he said at the very end surprised me: "America is ignorant." I didn't know what to respond to that, and I was already turning around and running forward once more. What came to mind was prosecutorial misconduct - how widespread it is, and how little the public knows about it, and how what happened to Leonard Peltier is not so rare after all. I wasn't really aware of it either, not until I started looking things up because of Leonard Peltier.

Then I took off. I reached the finish line in seconds, or so it seemed. Slow as I am, I have finished strong almost every time, putting everything I had left in that last stretch, for no compelling reason. This time, too, that ending sprint required focus, but it was still one of my most elegant finishes, almost effortless, as close to nonchalant I ever came. When I received the medal - a lovely thing in turquoise and teal, an inspired choice of colors - I wasn't even breathing hard.

Not a luxury, but a necessity. 26 miles, after all, is the halfway point.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

by the numbers (with comments)

Number of days until the race: 16

Highest weekly mileage so far: 47 (if we count Monday-Sunday; I actually put 58 miles in one stretch of 7 days, the most I ever did)

Longest "time on my feet" so far: 4h 51min 27sec (this was the Portland marathon - of course technically I was on my feet longer then that, walking to and from the race and just standing around)

Days my fundraising page has been up: 48

Number of people who have donated: 18 (I had hoped for more)

Average donation: $35.55 (I had expected much less)

Number of people who implied they are not financially able to donate and in the next sentence asked me if I want to go out for dinner: 1 (why would someone who doesn't care what I might think about this want my company for dinner?)

Number of people who said they wouldn't support this cause but they consider supporting me: 2 (one decided against it; not sure about the other one)

Money raised so far $640

Percent to goal: 12.8%

Number of days Leonard Peltier has spent in prison: 13767

Number of letters I have sent to President Obama asking him to free Leonard Peltier: 57 (one of the better ones made it past the gatekeepers to the Department of Justice and I got a response from the Office of Pardon Attorneys that said Mr. Peltier's reduction of sentence has been found unwarranted in 2009 and he is eligible to submit another application "should he care to do so" - made it sound as if the reason clemency is not actively considered is that Leonard Peltier is behind with his paperwork)

Thursday, October 10, 2013


The Portland race is an ambitious and happy marathon, eager to overcome the complicated logistics of a downtown run and to make its participants feel special. Marathons are common now; Portland still approaches this race as if it were an extraordinary thing. Maybe that is not bad at all, a reminder of how 26.2 used to be a magical number before I started to look at it as "the halfway point."

The start occurred in waves. I didn't feel the usual elation. Instead I had the opportunity to push away unwanted thoughts of insufficiency that came out of nowhere: how I had not studied the course enough; how I hadn't figured out the best way to fuel; how I hadn't come up with a definite race strategy; how I didn't have new and shining gear (I had managed new running shoes, but just happened to wear the top in which I ran my first marathon six years ago); how I wasn't fast enough; how I felt less of a runner than those around me. All the garbage.

Then the pace of the crowd picked up, we crossed the mat, and I was free to run. It still amazes me, that I can do this - run. That I can wake up way too early morning after morning to train - I, who love lingering between sleep and waking and like to have coffee in bed. That I can engage in an activity that reminds us painfully that we have a body, from the literal pain in the muscles to the urge to urinate at street corners to the impulse to throw up when the body had enough and wants to come out of the body - I, who mind that nature gave us bodies in the first place. That I can stay with it for hours, in rain and in heat - I, the indoor type, who loves books, and art, and to shut off the world. It still amazes me, that I got here. Running the Portland marathon.

My strategy, if it can be called that, was to take it easy the first six miles and then go for a negative split, running the second half of the race faster than the first. Running the first six miles slow had worked for me in South Dakota; the negative split I had only managed once, in San Francisco. The 4:40 pacer passed me very early in the race. I was tempted to follow only for a second. He was going too fast; I didn't feel like speeding up.

The feeling didn't change after six miles, so I kept going at the same even pace - I ran almost the whole race in the same cadence, smooth and steady, without variation.

Somewhere around mile seven I finally peeled off all the extra layers, the "Free Leonard Peltier" sign now visible on my back. I am still considering whether it would be more useful to wear it in front. Only one person acknowledged it, a girl who moved in next to me and asked, "Who is Leonard Peltier?" She was tall, slim, blonde, with flawless skin, and Leonard Peltier must have already been in prison for two decades by the time she was born. I gave her a ten-second pitch (imprisoned for 37 years after a tainted trial, the government doesn't let him go). She seemed bewildered, only for a moment. Then she asked: "In what country?"

Yeah. That is the point. Not in the country I come from, where arbitrary imprisonment was random and rampant. Not in some dictatorship on a different continent. But here, "in the land of the free and the home of the brave."

"Here," I said. She seemed shocked, only for a moment again. One could watch her processing this. We talked for a little while. She would write to Obama, she said when she moved ahead.

I don't know if she will, of course. But if the race had a highpoint, this was probably it.

For a long time, for the duration of ten or twelve miles or more, I ran with the insane conviction that I can run a marathon on any day.

Before it returns to downtown, the course of the Portland marathon meanders along the Willamette River; it offers stretches of unexpected beauty and entertainment of all sorts, from drumming groups to vocal singers to instrumental players to belly dancers to makeshift pirates to cheerleading squads to red dragons at the entry of Chinatown to the band that set up on an overpass, so the music seemed to come from the sky... Just kidding - music on the course is always enlivening. In one place some mischief-maker set off firecrackers; in a marathon that started by remembering Boston, the explosion freaked out several runners, and remained (as far as I know) a one-time incident.

In honor of Boston, the colors of this year's Portland marathon were gold and blue - the medal, the bib number, the finisher shirts.

I was disappointed and a bit sad that all my solid training over the summer, tempo runs included, didn't make me faster. It is true that I didn't actively strive to make this my speediest marathon ever; I had just hoped that my pace will be inherently better, by virtue of having worked harder before the race. Not that it really mattered. I knew I would finish in five hours, give or take, and as a training run for 50 miles with a 12 hour cut-off time this was good enough. I never hit the wall. Then, right before the 25-mile marker, I was beset by the sudden urge to make this a sub-5 marathon. I sprinted.

This was not only belated, but also a shot in the dark, since I had not checked the time when I crossed the mat at the start, so I didn't actually know how fast I had to be, or if I still had a chance for five hours. Nevertheless I ran that last mile so hard I thought I would break. Somehow I made it to the finish before falling apart. Two days later, reading the results on the internet, I found out that I hadn't managed a negative split - the second half of the race took me roughly three minutes longer than the first. But I ran under five hours with minutes to spare.

The Portland marathon ends in a long chute fenced off from spectators, long enough to make you feel lonely by the time you have negotiated its full length. Only in Berlin have I seen this setup before, and it made some people unhappy - moms who couldn't see their teenage daughters coming in after their first marathon. I talked myself into having chocolate milk for recovery. They gave me the medal, the finisher shirt, the cedar seedling - and also the customary foil blanket, the rose, this and that, so much stuff I started dropping things.

Our room was not ready when we got back to the hotel, so I put on something dry (the finisher shirt came in handy) and we walked out again. We bought a sandwich and cold drinks from a deli and sat in the sun next to a fountain. I didn't eat, but I watched toddlers take off their shoes and waddle into the water, and it occurred to me to do the same. The water was ice-cold. The kids didn't seem to care. This was the perfect recovery bath - about the best thing I could have done for my legs was to sit in it. I thought the adults would mind though.

The most remarkable thing about this marathon was that a few hours later, after I had showered, gotten rid of a tummy-ache, and tried to sleep for a while, I stepped out of the hotel door, dressed in clean running clothes, and ran for another hour. Someone told me the marathon was over. I knew that. I am not a fanatic, not more so than the ordinary Marathon Maniac. It's just that I am training for an ultra, and I didn't think I had enough mileage for the week. My feet were so tender, it hurt to even put socks on, but it wasn't that hard, running those extra four to five miles. Hard was shaking off the comfortable idea that I had already done enough, making up my mind, getting going.

It's the mindset that counts. And in November, on that mountain in Wisconsin, this is the mindset I am going to need.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

training run

I knew, as soon as I made up my mind to do this 50, that I would run a couple of marathons as training runs. Given that I loath the training and only like the races, it was an unavoidable solution to the need to accrue more mileage. I also knew one of those training runs would be Duke City. I searched for a second one by date - I needed a race two weeks before Duke City, that is October 6th.

I aimed at Arizona, within driving distance, but the one I had in mind was sold out. October is a marathon-prone month with plenty of options, so I just kept looking. What caught my eye was Portland.

I heard a lot about the Portland marathon before I even ran my first, years ago - how it is both prestigious and walker-friendly, how the course is so very cool, how they give you two technical shirts and a rose at the finish and even a little tree seedling to grow and remember. I had put the race somewhere on my wish-list, not very high up, mainly because it's during the first weekend in October, when the balloon fiesta is going on, and I always volunteer at the fiesta.

This time I had already scheduled the balloon fiesta work for the second October weekend, so Portland looked suddenly attractive. Except that flying somewhere just to run in a circle is way too expensive. Then I figured out that I could get the plane tickets with mileage points, and Portland looked feasible too. I signed up among the last 100 people to do so before the race sold out, a bit of an impulse decision. Later it occurred to me it would have served me better to look for a trail marathon.

I kept my expectations low. Whenever I have made an extra effort to get to a marathon (Victoria and Berlin come to mind), the race was either brutal or anticlimactic.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

like a prayer

I am confused as to how this works, training for an ultra. Not sure again if I am undertrained (not enough mileage) or over-trained (not enough recovery). This has happened before (I was both at once), but then we were talking marathons. With double that distance it's a bit more critical to get it right.

Still haven't wrapped my mind around what the Ironman from Nashville said - it's not about mileage, it's about time on your feet and intensity. Which translates to mileage.

I read something similar once. Ultras are not about speed, and not even about distance - they are about time on your feet. Cool enough, but not really eye-opening either. Let's say I spend 12 hours on my feet in the kitchen, preparing a splendid dinner. Food may turn out to be fabulous, but this is not a moveable feast - at the end of the day I am still in the kitchen.

An ultra is not really about time, at least not about time alone. Maybe it is about movement.

Movement. That actually sounds good. Movement is action. It's something you can do. I can't get Leonard Peltier out of prison, but I can run a race for him.

I will do this race like a prayer. I am going to sing it like a song.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

with time

You would think in time it won't take that much effort. You run more often, you work harder, you are in better shape. You expect there will be a point when it will get easier.

But it doesn't. You still get sore, it's still hard on your lungs, you still hate getting up while it's still night.

Okay, so the casual 5K, that you would do just to loosen up the muscles, seems less daunting. Okay, so sometimes you manage a good run that doesn't take it all out of you.

Aside from that, on the whole, it doesn't take less effort.

You just get more used to it.