Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Breathe deep against the gathering gloom

You may not believe this. In fact you won't believe it. But for a long time, I really hated running.
OK. That's not really true. I actually hated racing.
I ran half marathons and eventually the marathon for several reasons - the main one being it's much more of an adventure that way - but one of the reasons, in fact perhaps the overriding reason, was I hated the pain of the shorter distances.
I only sort of liked 10Ks and honestly could not stand 5Ks.
I would do my best to avoid them when I could, and when I couldn't, when the inevitable Fourth of July or Thanksgiving race came around, I would run them with a sense of dread.
I approached the races the way you would approach a session with the Pit of Despair in the Princess Bride.  I tried to block out the pain, putting myself in another place, and hoping (praying) that the aggressive metal would help me get my grr on.
Sometimes it worked. Other times it didn't. But always it was miserable. I remember asking my wife, "Am I really supposed to suffer THAT badly during a race?"
I did find some things that helped. I bought lighter shoes just for races, got a Garmin GPS to keep me honest and started taking medication for acid reflux, so my throat doesn't catch fire every time I run hard.
All that helped some. But the bigger issue was every time the gun went off, I felt trapped, like I was a prisoner being forced to run by wardens for sport.
As crazy as that sounds, in a sense, it was true. I have competitive, badass friends - as you saw in my previous post, I just got back from helping a few of them complete the Ironman - and when I raced, I felt a responsibility to run as hard as I could to not only keep up with them but not let them down. And they were justifying those fears without even realizing what they were doing, as every time I had a bad race (a race, by the way, that still beat 80 percent of the field but one I nor they were happy with at all), they would ask what went wrong, what happened, what I could do better next time. They weren't the only ones. I run an intervals track group on Wednesdays, and the coach of that track group would rightfully wonder about my times in a race, even if, he, too, didn't mean to be critical.
It's great to have badass friends. It pushes me to be much, much better than I ever thought I'd be. But there can be some pressure there. There was an episode of The Simpsons once where Marge feels pressure to keep up with some new, well-moneyed friends from the country club, and I felt what she was feeling, from an athletic sense.
It's so ironic, too, because I've never considered myself an athlete. Dribbling down a basketball court is challenging for me. I loved softball, mostly because I can't hit a baseball. Anything I did, whether it was bench pressing 300 pounds, climbing all the 14ers in Colorado or running a 6-minute mile, was because of hard work, not any kind of athletic gifts.
Still, I was feeling good this fall. After completing a marathon with a disappointing ending, I was running well, even if my results didn't always show it, and I knew I was due for a breakthrough. I ran 1:44 in a half marathon in October, a PR, and finished fifth in another trail half marathon two weeks earlier.
I had not really run a 5K all year, and I thought I had a good race in me in Arizona. I just had to do it.
And then, during a session of intervals with some tough friends (I usually finish near the end), we ran sections of 800 meters on a new track. The new track was significant because I didn't know where the splits were. I really wasn't even sure about the finish line. I would just have to run.
So I ran.
And I hit the 800 in right around 3 minutes.
That time's significant because that's the pace I would run for a mile. In the past that would hurt. But I just ran. And when I hit that time, I wasn't too gassed. Yeah, it hurt, but I didn't have to quit. I finished four more 800s and ran those pretty well too.
It's amazing what you can do when you don't know you're not supposed to be doing it, I tweeted.
So I approached that Arizona race with a different attitude. I was limiting myself. That night, my friends were encouraging, telling me it was a flat course, in cool weather, at sea level. But rather than let that put pressure on myself, I relaxed and just told them we would see how it would work out.
When the gun went off, I chanted my word, another mental exercise that I wrote about in the last post.
And I relaxed and found people to pace off. And I didn't look at my watch. I've said all that before.
But mostly I ran for fun.
It's fun, mostly, because what I've realized is pushing yourself isn't torture. Sure, it hurts, but letting go of the pressures we put on ourselves, whether its because of what we perceive from our friends or our leaders, is freeing, and pain is only temporary.
As proof, Thursday at that annual Thanksgiving race, where it all began six years ago, it was bitter cold, and I was still stiff from Saturday's race, and my feet were numb and I was stressed from getting Thanksgiving dinner together. But I smiled before the start, and I ran, and I ran 22:10, my best time at the event ever, despite a tough, hilly first mile that left me gassed right from the start. I finished 9th out of 119 in my age group for my first top-10 finish at such a large event.
And it was fun.
Pain really is only temporary. That race hurt for a while. Then it got better.
It always does.
When you're in the fire, breathe deep, my friends. Soon enough, it'll start to cool.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Cracking the iron ceiling

I am somewhat of a technical runner. Before a race, I've got so many wires coming out of me, you might think I've just left a hospital.
Ipod. Heart-rate monitor. And most of all, my GPS Garmin.
I love the Garmin. It tells me how far I've gone, how long I've run and how fast I'm going. It tells me this if I'm in Kansas, at home in Greeley, Colo., and if, like today, I'm in Tempe, Ariz. for the Ironman.
Now, no, I'm not doing an Ironman. Believe it or not, I am not insane. I know my limitations, and the Ironman is a bit beyond that. If you're scoring at home, it's a 2.4-mile swim (and I really don't swim very well), a 112-mile bike (and not only do I not have a bike I could ride beyond 20 miles, I've never ridden more than 65 miles in one sitting) and then you run a marathon (and yes, I've run a marathon, but I was shattered for a couple weeks after and didn't do, say, a full day's worth of hard exercise before I ran it).
Still, I am out here for some very dear running partners who have inspired me just about as much as anyone in my life who CAN do all those things, and they are capable of all those things. The Ironman is a big fucking deal, and I'm out here to soothe nerves, run errands and just be there.
So I am also, however, not above a little bit of selfishness, and since I am giving up my annual Vegas trip to be here (yeah, I know, sorry), I wanted to do something for myself.
Ah. The Ironman 5K. Perfect!
Now I'm not entirely crazy about 5Ks. I'd much rather run like an 8-mile trail adventure or something like that, and I've already got a Turkey Trot to run Thursday. But whatever. So I'm leaving the condo at 6 a.m. for a two-mile run to the start. It's a perfect warm-up to the start. It's a little chilly, so I've got my arm warmers on. I've also got some metal cranking in my ears. Both do the job.
The Ironman 5K is not a huge race, not like the event itself, but it is a pretty cool little event, and we'll get to run part of the course and finish where my friends will finish later.
I have a goal of 21:30. That would be a PR, and a nice one, too, as I've only broken 22 minutes once.
Tuscon is not sea level, but it is 1,500 feet, and that, folks, ain't 5,000.
In the last couple of months, I've had what you might call a mental breakthrough. I think I've detailed my head issues here a bit, mostly with my battles with the troll, that little monster who tells you to slow down, and I've had some bad races this summer partly because of them. But I also think I've made a couple changes to the way I'm approaching races, and they're paying off.
The first is to find a word that resonates with you. When you are suffering most during training, go to that word. It's given me a serious weapon in races. Mine is "fight." I said it a lot today.
The second is to ask myself why I race. Is it to suffer? Yeah, a bit. Is it to feel good about my accomplishment later? Yeah, definitely, that's addicting. But is it mostly because you enjoy it?
I had to come to terms with that. I wasn't out there to prove anything to anybody. I was out there to enjoy myself and run as hard as I could. Knowing that relaxes me. In the past I would try to build myself up and block out the pain as much as I could. That doesn't work for me. It just makes me tense. Now I just try to embrace the pain and, yes, enjoy it.
So when the gun went off, and the 5K quickly descended into a chaotic dash to the end, as it always does, I embraced it and looked for someone to pace off. That's another little thing I've done. I've found someone to pull me along.
Only my first mile was 6:25. Holy sheet. If I was in Colorado, that would scare me. I can run that time in a mile without really thinking about it, but running that, and then finishing a 5K, is a different deal.
But I felt good.
Pretty darn good actually.
So I decided to unplug. I hardly looked at the Garmin the rest of the race.
And when I no longer worried about my time, I ran the best ever.
20:40. That's a PR of more than a minute. Now, sure, the elevation made a difference. But so did my attitude, and so did relying on myself, and not a watch, to tell me how fast to go.
The Garmin is an awesome tool. I love it. But it's a ceiling. It forced limitations on me.
I'll still use it. I just may not listen to it anymore.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

One Day In Your Life

I'm not a curmudgeon. I'm not a crank. I'm (barely) not old enough to fit those profiles.
Yet I really didn't want anyone to make a big deal out of my birthday.
It was my 39th. So, really, who cares. I'm all for blowing out my 40th. That's a big milestone and deserves a celebration for making it this far without contracting some major disease, weighing 400 pounds or being thrown in jail. But 39? Eh.
Plus I was in a bit of a funk. Sometimes I get those. Does everyone? I'm not sure. My funks get to swirl around feeling like I'm getting screwed over at work because I have (what I think) is too much work. My funks tend to muck up feelings of unworthiness. My funks tend to splatter around frustration at my running, at not getting faster.
Funks are never warranted. I don't have any more work than anyone else in our short-staffed newsroom. And I'm running fine, better than ever, in fact, and clearly, if I really do want to be faster, I either need to lose a couple pounds and run my intervals harder or just be patient because I think a breakthrough is coming.
Those feelings of unworthiness are hard to shake though, and though I could clearly point to many people in my life, feeling a bit out of touch with them only makes it worse when you think about them. It was my fault, I thought, not others, for my unexplained loneliness.
Then I curse myself for feeling like a baby, as I clearly enjoy being alone, and it goes round and round into a big, boring monologue that no one can learn from. Let's just throw in some worries about the future and maybe I needed some meds.
Funks, though, are minor. It's not like I was even remotely seriously depressed or even sad. A good run wiped those feelings away most of the time, at least for a few hours. But still. I was in a lull.
So my birthday rolled around. I got up at 4:30 a.m. to run with a good friend who I hadn't seen in months. I normally would laugh at 4:30 a.m. for just a six-mile run (yes, even me), but, hell, it was my birthday. I figured I should enjoy it as much as possible.
And one of the runners pulled out a small cake that looked like a mountain. Pretty cool.
Then I signed on to Facebook, and holy cow. I probably got close to 100 birthday wishes. Pretty cool.
When I pulled in my garage that night, my girls swarmed over my car with balloons. Then Jayden poked his head out the door. "Happy Birthday Daddy," he said. They sang to me. VERY cool.
I don't really like pick-me-ups or special things done for me. I'm not like this needy person who likes constant reassurance about my state in people's lives.
But today, as I write this, the funk is gone.
Everyone, maybe even me, needs a special day. Thank God for birthdays.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

What I'm Doing (instead of playing poker)

I had no idea how much of a time sucker poker was until I stopped playing it.
It was not a conscious decision to stop playing. I still have money in my accounts. I still watch it on TV. I played it the other night in a fun home game and didn't want to leave after several hours.
But I'll be honest: I'm tired of the game. The easy pickings seem to be gone, and even in Rush Poker, I'm stuck trying to fleece a bunch of players who are every bit as tight as me, and a good majority of them are better, even at the modest limits I play.
But this sounds like whining. That's not the point of this post.
The point is to show you what I'm doing with my time.
• Writing - I know, writing is SO 2006. No one really blogs any longer, which breaks my heart, since I loved how blogs were encouraging people to write. There are a LOT of great writers out there, especially those who never thought they would be writers at all.
I'm still determined to update this blog at least once a week. I think the writing on this space is good for me.
But I'm also doing something else. For years one of my best friends has tried to get me to do the November Novel Writing Month. Well, I had a baby, and then I had baby twins, and then all those kids sapped most of time, and I thought there was no way I could write 50,000 words (fictional, no less) in a month.
But to be honest, I also thought it was a waste of time. When you're a professional writer, as I am (can't you tell?), writing is a joy, but it's also a job, and writing should have a purpose. Why should I spend hours a night to write something that will most likely never be read by anyone?
Well, I cheated a bit. I call it the twin handicap. I had a whole weekend to myself in mid-October, which these days is something like being the silly rabbit and stumbling upon a whole barrel of Trix. So I decided to spend three hours to see if I could crank out part of a story that was haunting my brain.
Well, 5,500 words later, I knew I was in this year.
I've now got 20,000 under my belt, and yeah, it's going to be with an asterik, but I'm going to finish.
I have discovered that purpose in this as well.
It's fun.

• Reading - I've read many books, knocking down my stack of "to-dos" to almost nothing. I haven't read like that in years.
Here were three of my favorites in the last few months:
1. Lit - Mary Karr writes with lush yet blistering prose about her alcoholism. I give this book my greatest complement: It made me a better writer.

2. Born to Run - I know what you're saying if you've read this blog at all in the last year. Well, DUH. But this book is wonderfully written and fascinating. I dare to say you'd like it even if you think people like me - and the people he writes about in this book - are completely nuts. It might even make you buy a pair of running shoes. Or ditch them and run barefoot.

3. Lost Vegas - Pauly's best writing in one book, so you don't have to store your laptop on a shelf. What's not to like? I read this in three days, even with my kids demanding juice boxes in between pages. Don't worry, I did get them some. Eventually.

• Watching movies - I've worked through my NetFlix queue on a good pace, even pausing to watch seasons 1 and 2 of Breaking Bad (um, you can release season 3 like right now please kthxbye). I went on a little horror fix, watching five Zombie movies and a vampire flick that did not involve teenagers gazing into each other's eyes, and, oh, Saw VI. I believe it has scarred me for life, or at least until I watch those herky-jerky claymation Christmas specials.
Here's a couple highlights from my recent movie orgy.

1. Dead Snow - The best zombie flick was not made by Romero. This is a German film about Nazi zombies, a chainsaw and sex in an outhouse, and really, what else do you need? How about the best opening scene I've seen from a horror movie in a long time.

2. Jennifer's Body - One of my favorite writers, Diablo Cody, and one of my favorite hotties, Megan Fox, combine to make an underrated horror film.

These two are not terrific movies, but they are good horror movies, and since most horror movies just really suck (when "Paranormal Activity," a good flick, is seen as a masterpiece you know the genre needs some work), that's enough.

Halloween is over so I can return to my usual serious, thought-provoking dramas that most of the public rightfully hates.
Here's one, and it was my favorite film of this year. Yes, it's subtle and slow, but it's also wonderful. Just awesome.
3. Phoebe in Wonderland.

What are you doing besides play poker these days?