National Marathon Recap

I ran the National Marathon this weekend, my first ever marathon. It was a great experience, and I'm looking forward to running another, either this fall in the Twin Cities, or at some point next year. Next races on my calendar – a pair of ten milers in May and June.

I returned to running last April after 17 years of little to no physical activity. I was overweight and out of shape. I started running with the Couch to 5K training program, which helped me be able to run a 5K in May. Then I ran the Army Ten Miler in October, followed a few weeks later by the Richmond Half Marathon in November. And now the National Marathon. Couch to Marathon, in one year. I did it.

But this post isn't about the last 11 months. It's about Saturday. Continue reading if you want to see some runner-geek details about the race.

This was my first marathon, and though I had run several long training runs – up to 21 miles – I wasn't quite sure what to expect, especially at the end of the race. I had been consistently training in the range of an 8:40-9:00 pace, so I knew sub-4-hour marathon was possible. Still, what every experienced marathoner says to a first-timer is true: those last few miles are an absolute bear. If you look at my race log, you'll see that my pace slows around Mile 19, and I hit my first over-9:00 mile at Mile 24. Though miles 19-22 were tough, I didn't start to really hurt or question my sanity until Mile 23. For me, the last three miles were the worst.

Though overall I felt very good, I ran a far-from-perfect race. I went out a bit too fast – 13 miles @ 1:52 – and ran out of gas near the end. The energy of the crowd of runners, and the great spectators cheering us on, got the best of me. It was lots of fun, but I went out faster than I ought to have.

Another reason for my fade during the last three miles, I think, was that I was out of fuel. I ate an entire bag of Chomps – think high-energy gummy bears – from just prior to the gun to the Half mark, but then ate nothing on the second half. In retrospect, I wish I had eaten some more Chomps from Miles 13-18, as that might have helped me somewhat at the end of the race (during which I was suffering from some wooziness).

My time was also affected, even if only somewhat, by my wide swings on most of the turns during the first half of the race. I avoided the crush of runners trying to cut the corners as tight as possible and kept my stride open, but I also added .5 miles to my run by doing that.

I stopped to use the bathroom near Mile 6 – I was overly hydrated, perhaps? That stop cost me about 90 seconds. Rather than stand in the long lines at the nasty port-a-potties, I stopped at a Caribou Coffee. However, later in the race I learned that experienced marathoners of both genders know how to find discreet spots along the course, even in an urban marathon, to find relief.

In addition to drinking from my own hydration belt (large bottle of water, small 5oz bottle of Gatorade) I hit my first water station at about Mile 9, and then drank water and/or Powerade at nearly every station after the Half mark. I never got thirsty on the run.

When I began to hit a wall at Mile 23, I knew my time was good enough that I was going to get my goal of sub-4:00. So, despite the pain and mental anguish, some of the pressure was off. Sure, I would have preferred to run negative splits, but with only 3-4 miles to go, I knew that I was able to finish at a slower pace and still get my goal of a sub-4-hour marathon. I was glad to be in the position of being able to simply focus on finishing rather than trying to maintain or pick up my pace on the last few miles.

Finally, I wish I had known the approach to the finish line. As I was crossing the bridge toward RFK Stadium, I knew I was getting close, but I didn't know exactly where the finish line was (the finish was on an uphill along a curve, and there were no large signs or balloons or anything rising over the crowds and trees, so it was hard to see the finish line area from the course). I remember going up the road around the north side of the stadium, where spectators were starting to line up, and asking one of the spectators, "Where the heck is the finish line?" I wish I had known the last mile better. It wouldn't have changed my time significantly, of course, but it would have made the last mile mentally much easier.

Overall it was a great experience, and I'm looking forward to more road races this season, including another marathon in the fall, if everything works out.

I'll get into the more personal side of running – the journey over the past year, and its emotional and physical ups and downs – in a future post. But suffice it to say that is has been an amazing year, and I owe so much to my dear wife Jessicah – who ran a great half marathon on Saturday – for encouraging me and putting up with me over the past year. We did it babe! Thanks so much for your love and support!

Faith, Flesh, and Blood

I've been feeling quite carnal recently.

Don't worry. This blogpost is not rated NC-17.

For nearly eleven months now I've been running, and I've found that engaging in something deeply physical – that pursuing an activity that tests my flesh as well as my will – is profoundly transforming. Indeed, exercising the body has fed me emotionally and spiritually. It has nourished my whole being.

Of course, we are whole beings. Our emotions are connected with our bodies, our bodies with our souls, our souls with our minds, our minds with our passions, our passions with our bodies. We are whole beings, not a sum of distinct parts assembled like a LEGO creation or a Mr. Potatohead toy. This is why these words from C.S. Lewis are so rediculous:

You don't have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body. (source unknown)

If we rearrange the syntax a little bit, this quote sounds like something that Yoda would say:

Have a soul you do not. Soul you are. Body you have.

And while Yoda might be a great Jedi Knight (but not a great warrior, for we all know that "wars make not one great"), I'm not taking my cues on theological anthropology from a muppet.

For Christians, the ultimate reality of God comes to us in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh, God incarnate who comes to us as a real human being. The early Christians rejected docetism, the heresy that taught that Jesus only seemed to be human, but in reality he was not human at all, but only divine. But in fact, the church teaches that Jesus came as one of us to save all of us, taking on our nature to redeem it.

Moreover, if the pinnacle of our existence is supposedly spiritual – trumping the flesh and blood for things cerebral and ethereal – then what are we to do with all those references to carnality in the Bible? What about that rich feast of fatty foods and wine that is promised in the time to come? What about the sensual celebration of love we find in Song of Songs? The prodigal son comes home and is welcomed with a grand feast. Jesus is raised from the dead and eats fish. Paul writes of the promise of the flesh and blood resurrection for all. We eat real bread and drink real wine, not to have a spiritual communion, but a true communion with Christ and with all who share in this sacred meal.

In addition to the blessed carnal reality of human existence, a prioritization of the spiritual over the tangible places nature beneath the spiritual whims of human beings and denies creation's inherent goodness. All of nature gives praise to God, yet an overemphasis on the spiritual journey of humans denies the God-blessed nature of nature. In fact, some Christians who adhere to an overly spiritualized understanding of the Chrisitan life (and afterlife) have little concern for care of nature, since the ultimate reality is spiritual and the ultimate goal is heaven, anyway, and not earth.

(I recently updated an old a post concerning the return of Christ and the resurrection of the dead, something that directly relates to the flesh-and-blood nature of our faith.)

Back to running.

Or playing guitar and singing. I was talking with a friend who was very thankful for the spiritual rejuvenation that has taken place as he has picked up his guitar and begun to write music for the first time in many years. For him, strumming the guitar strings, feeling the frets under his fingers, and singing – a deeply physical, sensual experience – has heightened his faith and drawn him closer to God. It was not through ignoring the physical, but rather through embracing it as a means of spirituality, that my friend has grown in faith.

Enough said. The pinnacle of human nature is not found in celebrating the fleshly nature, but neither is it in denying it for some supposedly disembodied spiritual realm. The physical and the spiritual are utterly connected and cannot be divorced. Thanks be to God.

Having Serious Doubts About 26.2

"Just go home," I told myself , about one mile into yesterday afternoon's sixteen mile run.  "Turn around.  You can get your long run in later in the week."  I was weary after a lock-in with nine youth from church on the night before, and a morning service project with those same youth pulling invasive English Ivy out from a hillside at a local nature center.

And so as I struggled up and down over the rolling hills of the first four miles of my workout yesterday I tried to talk myself out of the run, until finally my legs and breathing fell into a steady rhythm as the route plateued and then headed downhill toward the Potomac River, where a wonderfully flat three mile stretch of a canal tow-path awaited me.

In the final few miles my doubts returned.  "Stop here, call Jessicah, get a ride home," I told myself as I ran past a grocery store.  And again, at a split in the path where I could have made a quicker route home – but would have falled short of the sixteen mile goal – I once again tried to psych myself out.  "Go right, head home, be done."  My knee began to ache.  Finding the strength to stride over curbs and onto sidewalks became a serious challenge.

Nonetheless, I stuck to the plan and finished the run strong, despite the wicked hills that I faced after about mile ten.  In fact, this was my best long run to date – I hit every mile under 9:00, and my half marathon split was much faster than my time at the Richmond Half Marathon two months ago.

Yet when I got home I was worthless.  My body was extremely achey, and despite stretching, my muscles siezed up, making it very hard for me to move.  I couldn't eat much, I was thirsty for hours, and I was exhausted.  I fell asleep about 90 minutes after my run, woke up a few hours later, and then went to sleep for the evening.

Ever since running the Richmond Half Marathon in November, I have been eager to run a marathon.  I chose the National Marathon on March 26, because it would give the motivation to train during the winter. Furthermore, I loved the idea that I could go Couch-to-26.2 in one year.

(I began running last April, after 17 years of inactivity.  At the start, I couldn't run for two minutes without getting winded, but thanks to the Couch-to-5K program I got to the point where I could run a full 3 miles.  I wrote about my return to running in a blogpost last June, Getting Reacquainted with Running).

But I'll admit that I'm having doubts.  I got my butt kicked on – and especially after – yesterday's run, even as I put in one of my best workouts to date.  About 20 hours after my run, I still feel like garbage.  Do I really want to keep doing this to myself?  Perhaps I should dial it back and run the half marathon instead?  Or, should I be preparing for and recovering from my long runs differently, so that I'm not in such horrible shape a day later?

I'd greatly appreciate any advice that my running friends can share.  I'm not sure if I'm simply being plagued by fickle doubts – as I was on yesterday's run – or if I indeed need to dial it down and get more mileage and fitness before I try to conquer the 26.2. 

I know I can run a marathon, but simultaneously, I'm not sure if I can … right now, anyway.

Why I Love to Run

I've sat down with my computer several times in recent days to write a post about my new love of, and obsession with, running.  While words often come to me quickly, I've had a hard time writing about running, and each of those draft blogposts have ended up in the pixel dustbin.  My new discipline is not terribly profound, and I haven't much insightful to say about it.  I'm a pastor, but I find myself uninspired to write spiritual or theological words about my almost-daily, pre-dawn routine of running solo.  I just love running for how it makes me feel, and I'm not sure that Jesus or metaphysics or great insights are to be drawn to or from it – or, at least, I'm not sure that I'm the person to draw such insights.

[Well, I've tried to be thoughtful and theological about my running in a few past posts, including Making Meaning on a Sunday Morning, about skipping church to run the Army Ten Miler, and The Kingdom of God is Like a 10K Race, a parable about running that I imagined coming from the mouth of Jesus.]

I just love running, plain and simple.

My running obsession was fueled this week by a few post-run weigh-ins that measured my mass at 216 pounds – far less than the 235-240 pounds I was carrying around just a few months ago.  At 6 feet tall, I still have a ways to go, but I'm making progress.  Even at my 18 year-old fitest, I was one of the heavier (yet one of the faster) runners on my track team at 169 pounds.  I'd be thrilled to get down to 200 pounds these days.  But I've already made some good progress.  My belt buckle is joining forces with new belt holes to keep my oversized pants up, and the number of chins on my face is reducing.  It's a great change.

Besides looking better – if I do say so myself – I feel better, too.  I can run up the stairs without getting winded.  I feel better at the end of the day these days than I did at the end of a day several months ago.  I have more energy, even as I expend much more energy.

But I'm enjoying the workouts themselves, and not just the results of those workouts.  I find running alone for an hour or two to be wonderfully freeing.  Just me and my thoughts, and the world around me.  Some people say they get bored on their long runs.  Not me.  I run through wonderful parks and across streets, alongside an interstate and, increasingly, nearby national monuments.  I see people and observe wildlife.  I notice poorly shoveled sidewalks and spy planets peeking out of the dark morning sky.  I watch the sun rise, and I hear Metro trains rattle into town.  I work on sermons and think back to long lost friends.  I replay discussions and make plans for Sunday School.  I listen to my body and worry if I dressed appropriately for the weather.

I also love the physical challenge.  Though I don't often press too hard or push myself to the limits, I like trying to improve my pace, run longer distances, and pile up miles day after day, week after week.  In the I-climbed-the-mountain-because-it-was-there category, I like the challenge of training for a marathon simply because the 26.2 miles are there, taunting me to run them.  I get my butt kicked by long training runs … and then the next week I tack another mile on to my long run, just to stick it to the run from the week before.

I love to run, simply for the space, the adrenelin, the fitness, and the feel-good it gives me.  Not the deepest words I've ever posted on this blog, but perhaps the better things in life aren't always honest or deep … simply great experiences that causes one to give thanks to God.

Oops.  There I went, drawing God into this after all.  But somehow, even if my eyes aren't entirely open to seeing it in theological clarity, I think He was there the whole time.

"Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith." – Hebrews 12:1-2

Running on the Dreadmill

I have really enjoyed my return to running.  In the past two months I have run in the Army Ten Miler and in the Richmond Half Marathon.  I'm no speed demon, but I run and I finish, and with that I am quite pleased.  In my post-half-marathon runner's high, and as motivation to keep running during the cold, dark winter months, I signed up for the National Marathon on March 26.  Morning runs are now part of my routine several days per week, and I look forward to my runs as one of my favorite parts of the day.

However, here in Washington DC we are having an unusually cold start to the winter, and my willingness to run in the predawn darkness when the temperature hovers around 20° is being tested (my friends from colder climates are probably laughing at me right now!).  I have a flexible schedule and live next door to my office, so I've been known to adjust my work schedule so that I can run in the middle of the day, when the temperature soars to a balmy 35°.

Of course, the other option is to go to the nearby gym and use the dreadmill, ahem, the treadmill.  The treadmill is that dreadfull device that, though located in a climate controlled environment where the temperature is approximately 68°, provides you with a running experience like no other.  There is no wind on your face, and you don't actually go anywhere. There is no scenery passing by, no puddles to jump, no birds or squirrels crossing your path, no trail alongside a rushing creek.  The sounds you hear are of grunts dropping weights, friends chit-chatting, and the bad radio station the gym manager has decided to play that day.  As someone who enjoys the many facets of outdoor running, the treadmill is just dreadfull.

Screen shot 2010-12-08 at 7.00.48 AMAnd then there is the pace.  When we run outdoors, we run at a pace that is influenced my multiple factors, both physiological and environmental.  For amateurs like me – and perhaps for more elite runners, too? – pace is not perfectly consistent.  At right is a chart showing my pace over a recent 8 mile run.  While I ran a fairly consistent pace for the 8 miles – my splits ranged from 8:40 to 9:00 – as you can see, my pace within those miles varied to some degree.  What created those pace spikes and drops?  Street crossings, uphills and downhills, fiddling with my hat and gloves, playing with my stride, getting warmed up, accomodating that little kink in my ankle that pops up from time to time … any number of factors contribute to pace variations.

You don't get that kind of variation when running on a treadmill.  The pace is established by the machine, which runs a consistent pace without variation.  Surely you can program the treadmill to simulate a course or a workout, with various hill simulations or pace increases or decreases, but it doesn't allow your legs and body to run with the natural pace variation it might otherwise want or need to.  You either run the machine's pace, or you get flung off the machine.  Take your choice.

I know that I might succumb to the treadmill soon enough, especially if the unusually cold temperatures remain.  My gym is open 24-hours, and there is only so much schedule-juggling that I can do to accomodate my preference to run when the temperature peaks higher than 25°.  And I might yet learn to run in the predawn darkness with temps in the teens or single digits.   But I'm preparing for what might be the inevitable – and dreadful – decision to get on the treadmill and run.  Wish me luck.

UPDATE: A helpful article from Active.com, Treadmill Training for Winter Fitness.

Making Meaning on a Sunday Morning

I skipped church on Sunday morning.  It felt strange, for sure.  I'm a pastor, after all.  I usually work on Sundays, preaching a sermon, presiding at the altar, teaching a class, leading children in prayer.  I'm someone who finds great meaning and power in the Word and Sacraments and the fellowship of the Christian community.

But my Sunday apart from my routine of spiritual fellowship and leadership was not devoid of 09ArmyTenMilerStart meaning.  Quite the contrary.  I took off this Sunday to run in the Army Ten Miler, the largest ten mile race in the country (30,000 registrants; 21K+ finishers).  When I first committed to running this race, it was meant to be a capstone to a six-month return to fitness.  Yet, after an injury that kept me from training for two months, the race became less a capstone to my return to fitness than it was a gut-check as I struggled to stick to one of my exercise goals despite the set-back.

Truth be told, I had no business running the race. I hadn't run more than five miles over the past month, and when I tried for six miles on a recent training run, I crashed and burned with just under a mile to go.  But I ran the race anyway.  It had enough meaning to me that I ran.

And indeed, many among the gathered collection of humanity at the Army Ten Miler were running with meaning.  Sure, there were many people like me who made completing the Army Ten Miler a fitness goal, and many others who had goals of finishing in a certain amount of time.  Particularly in an age of rising health care costs and ever-increasing indicators telling us that we're unhealthy, such goals can be very powerful and motivating.

But people were also running as members of teams.  Over 700 teams competed in the race, from teams comprised of members of military units, to teams of staffers from military contractors, to at least one church team that I saw, to college teams, and so forth.  Their team camaraderie and dedication was fun to watch.

Most significantly, however, were those who were running in honor of soldiers serving overseas, and those running in memory of soldiers killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Where my wife and I were running – in the back 1/3 of the pack – perhaps as many as 1 in 10 of the runners wore shirts revealing a deep and personal connection to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: shirts printed with the picture of a soldier killed in action; shirts printed with the picture of a friend or spouse serving overseas; shirts showing that the runner had served in a certain unit at a certain base overseas.  And then, of course, there were the soldiers in wheelchairs, having lost a leg or two in battle.  This race was for many a memorial event, honoring and remembering those who have served and those who continue to serve.

The Army Ten Miler was an amazing, meaningful experience.  Quite different, to be sure, than my usual routine of Sunday morning worship and fellowship.  It's like comparing apples and oranges – both fruit, both good for you, but nonetheless quite different.

It has become clear that fewer and fewer people are making meaning on Sunday mornings by gathering for worship and fellowship, or are making meaning during the week by meeting for Bible study or prayer groups.  But just because the church no longer has the lion's share of the meaning-making market doesn't mean that people are not making meaning.  It is soooooo easy for us in the church to suggest that folks who are outside of the church are leading hapless lives devoid of meaning and purpose (a sentiment I've heard stated more than once).  On the contrary!  Beyond the hallowed walls and stained glass windows of the church large throngs of people are deeply involved in groups and communities and activities which shape their identity and give them meaning.

In an era of church decline our call, perhaps, ought to be to put our ear to the ground and listen to what it is that gives people meaning and purpose, and to believe that God is doing something beyond our walls.  This is not to suggest that churches should abandon the riches of our tradition and faith for ten mile runs, or that God is at work in every activity that gives someone meaning.  Not at all!  But it is a call to take seriously how people today are making meaning, and to consider the experiences of those who do not sit in our pews as worthy of our attention and respect.

Doctor’s Orders: No Running for Four Weeks

Earlier this spring I returned to running for the first time in 17 years (thanks to the wonderful Couch-to-5K running plan). I began losing weight and feeling better about myself, but most importantly I just really enjoyed running. After a little while my days felt incomplete without a run, and during the day my mind would often wander to thinking about my next run. I can't overstate what my return to running has meant to me. I even blogged about the joy of getting reacquainted with running. It's been an amazing, life-giving experience.

Thus I can't overstate how disappointed I am that, on doctor's orders, I've been shut down for four weeks.  No running, he said.  Get on your bike instead.

But I'm a runner. Not a biker.

You see, by early August I was getting comfortable running 7+ miles twice/week. My last long run was an 8-miler to the Washington Monument on August 9.  After a day of rest, I went for a short 4-miler on August 11, but didn't even last 2 miles.  I felt a shooting pain in my left shin, and a throbbing pain in my right. After feeling this horrible pain on another run following several days of rest, I went to the doctor, who told me to stop running for two weeks.  Two weeks came and went, and I went out for two short runs – 1.5 miles – on Monday and Tuesday of this week.  While I felt better, the sharp pain persisted in my left shin.  And so I called the doctor back, and that's when he gave me the four-week extension to my running moratorium.

I went to the running store last week, before the call to my doctor, and in hopeful anticipation of a cautious return to running this week. The guy at the store looked at my shoes – purchased in May at another running store – and said, "they're shot." "But they have less than 200 miles on them," I said. He then told me that they had a 180 lb limit (I weigh, ahem, a bit more than that), and that he himself had prematurely blown through a few pairs of this brand.  So while I don't want to blame my current predicament entirely on a poor choice of shoes, there's part of me that wants to find the guy who sold me those shoes and have a word or two with him.

Well, I bought new running shoes, the pair I wore on my two short runs earlier this week. They feel great, and hopefully I'll be running with them in a month or so.

So my hopes and plans to run the Army Ten Miler in October and the Richmond Half Marahon in November are shot.  For even if my shins feel great after four weeks, there is no way that I could get my body ready for the Ten Miler in less than a month, or for the Half Marathon in about five or six weeks.  These goals are now out of reach. For this year, anyway.

So today or tomorrow I'll take my bike to the shop, get it tuned up, and pretend to be the kind of person who likes bicycling. And tomorrow I'll go to the gym for a training session to learn how to use the machines properly, and pretend to be the kind of person who likes the gym. Let me be clear: I'm not the kind of guy who really likes cycling or the gym. Bikes and gyms don't come close to matching the simplicity and purity of running. Cycling is complicated – special shoes, helmet, gloves, and a bicycle with hundreds of parts, riding on busy roads or crowded paths where you've got to dodge pedestrians, runners, and cars, stop for cross traffic, and so forth. The gym is equally compliclated – what machines to use, how to use them, what is the proper weight? – not to mention the stale, sweaty air inside.  Running is so much more straight forward – strap on your shoes and run according to some plan. Running is the only kind of fitness I've ever really liked or enjoyed. Running is so meaningful for me (see that blogpost I referenced earlier). Shifting gears is going to be hard.

Well, this is the test, isn't it, to see if I'm so dedicated to this running thing (and to my general fitness) that I'll do anything – even ride a bike and do gym workouts – to get my body ready for an eventual return to running? I hope and pray that I can do this. I may even come to like it. But like it or not, it's my only option.