this post is about running … and life

I ran a marathon back in March, and I felt pretty darn good about it. But since then the running has fallen off a cliff. In two months since the marathon I've run less than 100 miles … in the last month I've run less than 10 miles. Pathetic.

Just over a year ago I got back into running for the first time in 17 years. Getting back into running was a great experience, and signing up to run the Army Ten Miler, then the Richmond Half Marathon, and then the National Marathon was great motivation to keep training. By the end of it all, I went from "Couch to Marathon" in one year. It felt great. I felt great.

Yet in this whole process running never quite became an essential part of my life. Sure, it was something I did five days/week, and to an extent I became obsessed with running during this stretch. But once I achieved the goal of completing a marathon the motivation died down.

A lot.

The desire to wake up at 5am and run 14 miles diminished. Unlike other runners, my days didn't feel incomplete if I didn't go for a run. As much as I enjoyed the experience of a good run, I also enjoy many other things. Such as sleep. And time with my family. And a bedroom that didn't smell like a locker room.

But it wasn't just these various comforts that led me astray from the straight and narrow running path. Running – particularly marathon training – is an emotionally and physically draining experience. I learned in this process that I have room in my life for one additional, intense activity beyond my family and my work.

For a time that one intense activity was my marathon training. Since the marathon, however, my emotional energy has been focused on our family's move from Arlington, VA to St Paul, MN later this summer, and my transition from my current church to my new congregation. Though I am terribly excited about what lies ahead, I am also sad to say goodbye to many good people and places here in Arlington and on the East Coast. The transition is emotionally exhausting.

Nonetheless, I need to run. For my health (I've regained weight since my marathon), for my sanity (the time alone in my thoughts and non-thoughts is great therapy), for the challenge (I did enjoy watching my progress from week to week, race to race), running was and still can be such a powerful and meaningful part of my life … and an activity that keeps me grounded during a hectic time of transition (thanks, Christine, for helping me realize my need for some grounding). Perhaps not as intensely as I did in my marathon training, but I need to get back out there and make running an important part of my life again.

So the challenge for me is this: to turn running from an activity that is purely goal-oriented (run my first ever marathon) into a life-giving activity that becomes part of my day-to-day routine.

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More of my posts on running, including some that describe my "Couch to Marathon" journey, available here.

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!

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.

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.

Getting Reacquainted with Running

I haven't exercised much since 1993, the year I graduated from high school and won a state gold medal in the 4×800 meter relay.  Sure, I have purchased gym memberships and bike equipment, but I haven't used either much, except perhaps for the few months of biking I did just prior to my October 2002 wedding.  I gained weight, got warnings from doctors about borderline blood pressure and high cholesterol, and purchased larger-sized pants.  I haven't done much of anything to return to any semblance of the athlete I was in high school.

To be clear, I know that I'll never run a 4:23 mile or a 16:30 5K ever again.  And I'll never weigh in at 169 pounds, my high school weight, again (at 6' tall and a big frame, I was one of the biggest runners on my team).  And I'll never win a gold medal in anything again.  And I'm OK with that … now.  But that wasn't always the case.

You see, for me – someone who experienced significant success as a runner in high school – the past has been an amazing deterrent to my attempts to keep fit.  I think the past can do that to many men.  In recent years when I've gone out running I've felt dejected that what was so easy in the past had become so difficult, and I quickly lost patience and confidence.  The framed gold medal and photo of my relay team hanging on the wall was simultaneously a source of great pride and of great shame – Look at what I once did!  But wow, look at me now.

I think I've turned a page, however.  Since Easter my wife and I have been running again.  We started slowly, with the Couch to 5K training program.  [When I say slowly, I mean slowly – the first week of workouts consist of 60 seconds of jogging followed by 90 seconds of walking, for 20 minutes.]  We ran our first 5K on May 29, and now I'm up to running 4-5 miles on training runs three days/week.  Though when I'm running my mind and my body remember what it was like to run 17-20 years ago – and that experience surely helps me today – I'm quite happy these days with distance runs that come in at a 9:30 pace, rather than the 6:00 or faster pace I often ran on such runs in high school.

What made me commit to running now?  People, specifically my wife, a few friends, and many strangers.  It all started when a couple from church invited me to sign up for the Army Ten Miler in October, knowing that I was looking to get back into shape.  And since the race registration last year filled up in less than a week – and that's for 30,000 runners! – I didn't have much time to mull it over.  I said yes, got online, and signed me and my wife up for the run.  Then I joined the Couch to 5K page on Facebook, and was excited to post my updates on the page after each workout, and read how others were doing with the plan.  Finally, I joined DailyMile.com, a social network for runners, cyclists, and triathletes.  Sharing workouts, receiving advice and encouragement, and "meeting" other runners has been a great help for me as I've stepped up my running since May.

What does all this mean?  Like many people my age, and particularly many pastors, I am overweight and out of shape.  Getting reacquainted with a long-lost passion of mine has been a gift from God, for all kinds of reasons.  I am working on my health and investing time and energy into something I love to do, a commitment which forces me to re-evaluate my priorities, from the foods I eat to the schedule I keep to the amount of work I'm willing to take on.

But perhaps most significant for me is the way that returning to running has allowed me to reconcile who I was with who I am.  For many years I've sort of written off my former running success, so irreconcilable was the memory of my "glory days" with the weight gain and fitness failure of my 20's and 30's.  And though I am not the runner that I once was, I am a runner again … and that alone makes me happy beyond belief.  I'm on the road to health and fitness, and am excited for the 10K and Ten Mile races I'm running in August and October.

Well, there's more to say about this, but it's time to go to bed.  I have a 5:00am alarm set to wake me up for my morning run.