September 24, 2017

Beat the Blerch Half Marathon

My return to running had started to have an effect on my mental state, but now the physical test was here, ready or not.

I arrived at the start early, as I always like to do. I hate being late in general, but especially on race day, I want a nice buffer of time. Time to take care of parking, pottying, etc. Time to stretch out, wander around, take in the energy of the crowd. Time to find a little clarity and determination of mind.

As mentioned in the previous post, the event would have couches, Nutella and cake at the water stations. If that wasn't enough, you could make yourself a burritoughnut before heading out. After grabbing a warmed doughnut, you can add more treats like bacon, potato chips and/or Gummi bears and then wrap it all up in a tortilla. It sounded like a recipe for hurling at the first mile marker, so I passed.

The event included a full marathon, half marathon and a 10k. The marathoners had already taken off by the time I arrived, and the 10k runners would start after we did. Everyone ran on the same trail, so they set us out in small groups to try and avoid congestion. I queued up in the first half marathon group and just in case anyone regretted not grabbing some sugar before starting, a guy dressed up as a Blerch was throwing marshmallows into the crowd. 

Though I was pretty unprepared, and the event was a little goofy, I was going to do my best with what I brought to the start line. I was hoping to get in under two hours and would have been pretty happy with something closer to 1:55. There is certainly a big mental factor to these longer events, and I felt like I had the right frame of mind going in. No pressure, just a day on the roads with strangers as friends.

The route is almost entirely along a wooded trail. The first mile or so included a gravel path along the river before joining up with what I assume is rails to trails conversion. After a few miles, the runners spread out into their own paces and I ended up running along with a handful of people. The morning was cool and calm, and running through the woods was peaceful.

At the first water station at mile three, there were the promised couches that the volunteers were encouraging us to take a break on. As this was an out-and-back course, I would pass by this station again at mile ten and told myself if the wheels had come off by then, I would indulge in the couch break. And maybe some Nutella.

As we moved further along the path, we caught a few of the marathoners. They had set out an hour or so earlier, and had run a side trail to add on some early miles. The marathon is certainly more than twice as challenging as the half, and I am sure it was a bit discouraging to have runners passing them by so early in their day. I was glad I was only half crazy this time.

We reached the halfway point and made our way back, but not before high-fiving the volunteer at the turnaround point. I had looked at the elevation profile of the race because I always like to know what is in store for the day. A late hill is always tough, but if at least you know it is coming, it is less discouraging. The elevation profile showed that we would be climbing in the first half and descending back down on the way home. The hill out seemed relatively gradual, but once I turned around it seemed more pronounced and that really picked up my spirits (and pace).

When I was nearing the ten mile mark, things were starting to tighten up, but I hadn't fallen apart yet. I decided I was going to resist the couch temptation and just grab some water and push on. When the stop came in view, there was a long line of 10k runners waiting to come through, and we were waved away. I couldn't have made it to the couch even if I wanted to, but they also were so busy with the 10k runners that we couldn't even get a cup of water. This was the only glitch in an otherwise nicely run event.

My calves, hamstrings and glutes continued to tighten. I had intentionally not looked at my watch all day, just wanting to run on feel and see what I could do. That said, it felt like I was doing relatively well, so I kept pressing on, riding the edge of discomfort. Each step and turn in the path brought me closer to the finish, but it also used up any dribbles of gas I had left in the tank.

Rounding the last corner I could see the finish line just that final tantalizing point-one mile away. I dug in to see if I had anything left to pick it up and finish strong. I don't know that I went any faster, but the finish line photos show that at least I looked like I was tapped out ugly. I will spare you that photo.

I walked through the finish area, medal in one hand and probably more importantly a cup of water in the other. I walked until my muscles calmed down enough that it no longer felt like I was going to pull something if I moved too suddenly. I had thought a doughnut at the finish (sans bacon or gummi bears) might be a nice treat, but I was nauseous enough that only potato chips sounded good. I also passed on the finish line cake.

When I finally looked at my watch, I was surprised and very pleased to see 1:51:33 as my finish time. I had no real business running a half marathon on that day. This almost forgotten about event finally forced me (procrastinatingly late) back out on the roads. I sort of expected to go down in flames, take my medicine, recover, and then start taking this (running and my health) seriously again. It is mostly all still true, but it is very satisfying to press on to a good result. To show up late for a test and somehow half-ass my way to pull it off. Probably a metaphor for my life in there somewhere, but we will just move on to some of the free photos provided by the race.

September 20, 2017

Running circles in my mind

Mental health equipment
Where can you run to escape from yourself? 
~ "Dare You to Move" by Switchfoot
I have been struggling a bit this year. It hasn't been to the depths of depression, but there has been a lingering feeling of lowness and sadness. A few things recently have ramped up this background feeling and brought it to the forefront, but that is a story for another post. For now, I want to talk about the small things I am trying to do to push back the branches that have been closing in.

I have been pretty inactive this year, at least in comparison to previous years. When I did not get a permit to hike The Wonderland Trail, I really lost steam. This was already going to be a step-back year for biking and running, and when the big hike fell off the calendar, I let myself wallow and stagnate. And my psyche suffered.

On May 29th, I put a September 16th half marathon on the calendar to have a finish/deadline to encourage me to get back out on the roads.

 It didn't work.

I ran a mile on May 31st, ran three times in June to "prepare" for a 5k, and then didn't run a step until the end of August. I had been doing some bike riding to prepare for the RSVP, but even that was a bit half-hearted.

I had basically forgotten about the half marathon, but I needed to get back out on the road for other reasons. I needed to stop running circles in my mind, torturing myself with ruminating and over-thinking, and leave some of that crap by the side of the road. August 24th I ran two miles at lunch, and then a 5k that Saturday (which I had also forgotten about). It was of course a bit painful, as first steps always are, but I was at least moving. And being among other runners at the 5k - well, that community always feels so inclusive. Shared challenges can pull you out of your own navel gazing and drain circling.

Forgotten or not, the half marathon was still out there. Training cycles are of course typically about 16 weeks, so with three weeks to go, this was going to be cramming for finals. Fortunately the half marathon I signed up for was sort of perfect. The Beat the Blerch run is sponsored by a local guy that creates the online comic, The Oatmeal. He talks a lot about how running has saved him from his darker/lazier side, penning the book The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances. He talks about how running lets him find the void, the silence of mind where you are not constantly bombarding yourself with current stress or past failings. Running has helped me find a similar peace in the past, and I hoped I would find it again in rhythmic footfalls.

"The Blerch" is a character that Mathew Inman created that "represents all forms of gluttony, apathy, and indifference that plague my life." Along with the nice metaphor of The Blerch to represent the crap I was trying to exercise from my mind (pun sort of intended), the half marathon was an event that didn't take itself too seriously. Keeping with the theme of temptations, there would be cake, Nutella and couches at the water stops. There would also be costumed Blerches to chase you down the trail.

And I obviously had not taken the training very seriously. From August 24th to race day, I ran a total of seven times - four weekday 2 milers, and weekend runs 3, 5 and 8 miles. I missed a couple of runs due to bad air quality from the fires, and one because of work. The half marathon was also the morning after one of our four major work deadlines, so that didn't make it any easier. I obviously went in with no expectations, figuring that if the wheels came completely off, there was always cake, couches and a good story.

How it all turned out up next.