Monday, May 28, 2012

The Exorcist

I did not get into running because it looked fun. I know I talk about it a lot now, and the love affair I have with it is stronger than ever, but when I started, back in 2004, it was not out of love.
My son was going to be born soon, and I knew I faced a crossroads in my life. To be blunt, parts of my life would have to change. A lot of parents face this. Thankfully, my choices were the kind I could make myself, rather than something I'd have to change out of necessity. I didn't have any nasty habits to kick. But I'd have to give up some things.
I hate to say it, but music, at least playing it, was easier. After a long career playing it, I was ready to give it up. I could keep my appreciation for it. I could keep writing about it. I could, of course, keep discovering it and listening to it and have it be a big part of my life. But I could no longer play in a band.
I had to give up late nights playing video games. I hate to say this too, but that was a little tougher. In fact I never did give them up completely. Damn you, Angry Birds. 
I also realized that my days of climbing a lot of peaks were over. That hurt. Even knowing that I wouldn't have to give them completely, and that, one day, I'd even share them with my kids, it hurt. But climbing takes a lot of time. There was one summer, an especially dry one, when I was chasing all 54 14ers, and with such a limited window to climb them, say, two months, I worked hard to get as many as I could. I was gone basically every weekend. But for some reason, there was one weekend I stayed home, and as we walked out of a movie, my wife said, "It's nice to spend a Saturday with you." 
Despite that, she didn't care because I was home the rest of the year, but she WOULD care, soon, with a baby around. 
Well, I was willing to not only limit my trips, especially after I climbed all the 14ers, but really chop down the dangerous ones as well. In fact, with a kid around, a dangerous peak didn't feel exhilarating as much any longer. At times, it just felt foolhardy.
The only problem? I'd need a challenge.
I don't know why I need something in my life like running. We introverted, type A people need goals, I guess. This isn't bragging. It's almost a vice. Everyone deals with their shit differently. Some use drugs, some use women, and some use gambling. I was lucky that it was mountains. That it was goals. Believe me, with my obsessive personality, it could have gone to some pretty dark corners.
I was searching a bit, once Jayden was born, for that something. That probably explains how I got into poker. It also probably explains how, when I was working on a story about a runner, I wandered into his intervals group to get a feel for a part of his life that meant so much to him that he was willing to risk his health to run the Bolder/Boulder despite his blood cancer. And as it turns out, I ran intervals that night with people who were a lot like me. And that may explain why I kept coming back, even after the story ran, and when someone asked me if I was in the group for good, I said yes, without really even knowing what I was getting into.
I knew and I didn't know. I knew this was what I was looking for. What I didn't know was the battle I was about to enter. It was a war I would fight within myself. I really wasn't prepared for it either.
• • • 
If there's one race that I have a love/hate relationship with, it's the Bolder/Boulder. The race always falls on Memorial Day, and really it's the race that started my relationship with running. 
It's also the race that exposed my weakness the most.
The Bolder/Boulder is not the longest race I do, but it may be the toughest every year. It's a fun race, with belly dancers and bands and people in costumes and qualified waves of only a few hundred at a time to calm the crowds of 50,000 runners and an awesome finish into CU's stadium. It's also above a mile high with relentless hills, and it's a 10K, which means you have to run hard up those hills for a long time, for six miles. In a half marathon, you have the luxury of taking it easy on the hills because you can make up the time later, but a 10K offers no such freedom if you want a good time. It's always a painful race.
But a lot of these runners do it, and so, so did I. The Bolder/Boulder, after all, represented what kept me coming back to running. Every year, I improved my time there by a minute. That was progress, in black and white, right in front of me. 
And every year, I paid for it dearly.
Years of mountaineering had prepared me for the exhaustion of running, for pushing yourself much farther than you think you can go and for the discipline of it. But it didn't prepare me for the intensity. When you run, you throw yourself into a fire. Your heart feels like it's going to explode, and you can't breathe, and yet you have to keep going or else you wreck your time and your race.
When the gun to my wave popped, I was always filled with a sense of dread. Here we go, I thought. Into the flames. And for the next 50 minutes, give or take a few, it was all I could do to stay in them.
• • •
Mile 1 always went fine. It was downhill. But by the end of Mile 1, because I hadn't learned how to run a race yet, I was a little more spent than I should have been. This is the slow death. By mile 3, it would catch up to me, probably as I was climbing one of those little bastard hills that just keep coming at you, around every corner. 
At this time, the whispers in my head started. It took me a few years to find a word for them. 
I call them the trolls.
They aren't demons. There's some good intentions behind them. Running that hard is painful, and truth be told, I'm not sure it's all that great for you. Recovering from a race takes days or weeks. Hell, after my first marathon, it took me a whole SUMMER to recover. The trolls whisper at you to slow down because they're trying to save you from the fire.
But wait, I would tell them. I can't slow down. I've worked hard for this! I've trained. I've spent hours dipping my toes in the flames. Sure, I'm waist deep now, but...
Yeah, you're over your head, actually, the trolls would answer. I'm not asking for much. Just walk a touch to get your breath back. Just dip your toes in again. 
I'd fight this fight at every race, back and forth, arguing with myself, but the Bolder Boulder was an extended fight, 12 rounds, Ali versus Frazier. To be honest, when I would run in that stadium and cross the line, I'd feel two things: Shocked that I actually PRd, given how painful it was, and pure relief that it was over. 
I never felt elation. That came later, to be sure, but the rest of that day, I honestly wondered if I would ever do it again. In fact, I thought about quitting twice after Bolder/Boulders. 
Running wasn't fun. It was something I was doing because I made some wonderful friends in it, and I needed that challenge in my life. And I was addicted to the progress. Because of who I am. I needed it.
That's why I wasn't bragging earlier. It was something I had to do, like drugs, rather than something I truly enjoyed and wanted. I also felt trapped. I'd worked so hard that quitting would mean losing all that work.
And then I read an article by Kara Goucher, who is now one of my heroes. She talked about the very thing that I battled. She talked about her battle with the trolls during her racing career. Goucher is immensely talented, the kind of runner I'll never be, a gap, in fact, that was equal to Peyton Manning and a high school quarterback. 
And yet she was struggling with the very thing I was battling. 
And not only that, she found a way to beat them.
• • • 
I won't go into the article because that's not really the point here. The point isn't how she beat them. It's that she COULD beat them. Running was a painful thing, and the mental struggles were so embedded in it, I just figured they were a part of it, sort of like the kind of hits Manning has to take from linebackers to throw a touchdown. 
In fact, Goucher's technique, to recite a word over and over that encouraged her, didn't really work for me. I used a word, "Fight," for a while, and it decayed the trolls, but it didn't banish them. 
What I did, instead, was start to question the purpose of them. If they weren't going to help me during a race, why did I keep them around? 
Why didn't I, in other words, go tell them to fuck themselves when they started cropping up? 
So that's what I started to do. I told them, whenever they would whisper in my ear, that they were no longer welcome. 
I exorcised them.
This was harder than I'm making it sound. It took years to find something that worked for me. I'll share a few things that helped me, briefly, knowing that you'll have to find your own:
• I learned to start a race slow, slower, in fact, than my goal pace. I used to start faster than my goal pace, sometimes by 30 seconds per mile, and so inevitably I'd get gassed, and a gassed body is a prime host for trolls. 
• I learned to run a race with an even effort. This doesn't mean an even pace. It means when I was running up those goddam hills of the Bolder/Boulder, my pace was slower. But my effort was the same. When I was rewarded with a downhill, I'd run faster than my goal pace because it was easier. 
• I learned to smile during a race. This really works. If you're smiling, you relax, and when you relax, the pain just isn't as bad. Try it sometime. 
• I also learned to stay positive. As cheesy as this sounds — and believe me, I'm rolling my eyes as I type this, as it sounds SO Mister Rodgers — I tell myself I can do this, good job, see that hill wasn't so bad, etc. I replace the negative trolls with, um, positive angels, I guess. 
• Truth be told, I got a lot better as a runner. So my pain tolerance increased for it, and I got to a point where I could run a long, long way without it hurting. Running is truly rewarding because it gives you back what you put into it. I can't think of anything else like this. Not even your kids. Maybe your dog. 
• I also put LOTS of heavy metal in my race mixes. The trolls, apparently, are afraid of a lot of yelling and loud guitars. Someone asked me once how I can stand to have someone yelling at me during a race. They're not yelling at me. They're yelling with me. The trolls don't stand much of a chance.
• • • 
I write this blog today, another incredibly long, rambling post, because I ran the Bolder/Boulder in 46:06. That's yet another minute PR, and that's more than four minutes faster than when I began running it seriously in 2006. That may not sound like a lot, and I suppose it isn't. But it's a lifetime in the running world. It's a lifetime for me.
But it's not the time that gets me so excited.
The trolls are just a faint whisper now, like a lost child in a deep cave. I barely heard them at all today even as I ran as hard as I ever have. 
This isn't a war that will end. I haven't conquered them completely. I'll be honest. I had a pacer today. I wonder if my trolls were silenced by his encouragement. I don't think so, but I can't say for sure. I still avoid 5Ks, because a 5K is 20 minutes of hell. And I dodged the mile run last Wednesday. I still hate the mile. It's only six minutes or less, and yet the trolls are not only a whisper in those six minutes, they are a chorus.
And when I crossed the line today, I felt relief once again, just like I always do. I even collapsed a bit. But I got up. I smiled, got a drink of water, then met my friends to laugh about our time spent in the fire.
Today's race made me realize something. I don't need the trolls any longer because the fire's been good to me. I don't want to be saved from it any longer.