Running Read Review: Jen A. Miller’s “Running: A Love Story”

RunningALoveStoryDistance running is a physically tiring, limits testing and mentally challenging endeavor that forces its participants to reach beyond their comfort zones and endure. As Jen A. Miller’s Running: A Love Story affirms, running is also a sport whose lessons are measured by far more than just podium placements or finish times.

Every mile has a story, and in Running: A Love Story, Miller takes readers along on a ten year journey that is rife with personal and professional upheaval and disappointment. It is a story of a young woman stuck in a cycle of pain brought about by a series of relationships that were destructive and unhealthy. She also offers also a tale of how she dealt with navigating the economic turmoil brought about by the Great Recession, and details her maturing parental relationships. Throughout, running is the glue that holds Miller’s memoir together as she opens a window into that period in one’s life when we learn the raft of interpersonal lessons for which experience is the only teacher.

To conclude that Miller’s life during these ten years was filled with drama would be an obvious understatement. Alfred Hitchcock once noted, “What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out.” One shouldn’t underestimate the difficulty in slicing out those dull bits in a way that leaves a narrative that is true, engaging and textured. Throughout Miller’s memoir, the sport of running serves as an important purpose as the lace that keeps her story tight and moving forward, just as it was the lace that kept her moving forward to overcome an array of obstacles.

Running serves as an important stabilizer in Miller’s life at a time when the drama around her is anything but. Her adept use of the sport to make her story compelling for strangers, like us, is fitting. Runners know the sport can give us just as much understanding as we give it in sweat. This creates a bond of understanding between Miller and her readers. Because of this familiar bond, It really doesn’t matter the degree to which our personal or professional challenges are akin to hers, as we can relate.

In artfully weaving together her personal and running experiences, Miller’s background as a freelance journalist who has written extensively about the sport comes through. She is seemingly able to anticipate and satisfy the curiosities of running enthusiasts. Running readers want to know about her training plans, intricate details of the races discussed, as well as those memorable encounters while on the road that only other runners can fully appreciate.

Though perhaps even more important than the personal growth associated with Miller’s miles, Running reminds the reader to reflect on how the sport has changed the way we too cope with whatever wrenches life throws our way. Throughout the pages, I couldn’t help but pause to reflect on my own continuing running love story. In that respect, her story invites a more active and thoughtful reading experience than one might ordinarily find when picking a book off the shelf.

Often, running reads seem to fall into one of two categories. There are those that are focused entirely on the sport’s mechanics or its athletes, and others that only touch on running in a mere glancing, superficial way. With Running: A Love Story, Miller bridges this gulf by embracing a third approach that brings the sport’s unique ability to empower to the forefront.

Running Read Review Results (on a scale of 1 to 5 runners):
Screen Shot 2016-03-06 at 11.06.09 AM

Advertisements

Marathoning in the Rain

Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 3.29.54 PMGene Kelly may have romanticized singing in the rain as glorious, but as I recently found out, marathoning in the rain just isn’t quite the same. And based on the photographic evidence from this year’s New Jersey Marathon, the cool, wet weather didn’t fill me with a happy refrain or put a smile on my face either.

After finishing the New Jersey Marathon last year, I left the Garden State quite impressed. The flat course, which weaves through a handful of small towns on the Jersey Shore and finishes on the Boardwalk, has the friendly, low-key vibe one might expect from a oceanside weekend destination. With race organizers providing convenient day of travel, its logistically readymade for New Yorkers wanting a marathon getaway- just board a 5 AM charter bus to the start, run the race, and take one of the hourly New Jersey transit trains back to Manhattan.

Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 3.30.40 PMFalling approximately ten weeks after my LA Marathon racecation, I thought extending my marathon readiness would be rather simple. I’d begin with a reverse taper, run a couple 20-milers, and then enjoy a traditional taper. In a perfect world, I thought I might be able to break my standing marathon PR that I’d set on this course in 2015. Alas, the words “perfect world” should rarely, if ever, be used in the same sentence as “marathon.”

Work, life, as well as succumbing to the dreaded office cold and cough the weekend of my planned peak long run, all contributed to a less than optimal training period. In the intervening weeks between LA and New Jersey, I only logged 170 miles and completed just a single 20-miler. As race day neared, I knew I’d be testing all reasonable bounds of preparedness.

As the first Sunday in May neared, the weather forecast was rather unwavering in its call for rain. The only question seemed to be when the predicted showers would arrive and how long they’d last. At least this year I wouldn’t have to worry about becoming sun burned!

Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 3.31.03 PMA little after 6:00 a.m,, the chartered buses pulled into the Monmouth Park parking lot. Inside the racetrack, the only wagers being placed seemed to be on when the rain would begin. Ahead of the 7:30 a.m. start I had plenty of time to collect my bib and mentally prepare for the morning ahead. Outside on the track, a few trainers were on the track exercising their horses. The working animals were simply majestic. I was transfixed, and only wished my stride could be half as efficient and effortless as the thoroughbreds before me. While I could’ve watched the training session for hours, this day’s call to post would be for runners, and that time was nearing.

As if right on cue, midway through the short walk outside to the baggage trucks the rain began to fall. The drops continued as waited in the corrals, and, with varying intensities, persisted for the next 26.2 miles.

For much of the first 12 miles the course remains mostly inland, weaving through mostly residential streets, as well as a commercial stretch of, what I presume to be, downtown Long Branch. While the crowds were more sparse this year, the rain had certainly not dampened their spirits. Racing in the rain certainly had to be more fun than just standing in the rain!

Between miles 11 and 12, the course splits, where marathoners head south and those running the half head toward their boardwalk finish. For a fleeting moment, I looked wistfully at those who were nearing their final mile. I felt like a wet dog.

Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 3.30.23 PMThe number of runners had dwindled since turning southward. Under last year’s blue skies I had found this portion of the course rather peaceful. I’d enjoyed hearing the sound of my own feet hitting the pavement. This year’s slosh of feet against wet pavement and the accompanying puddles just weren’t as rhythmically appealing.

As I neared the 18 mile mark, I felt remarkably strong, all things considered. Because the first half of the course weaves through so many residential streets, properly running the tangents is an impossibility- at least for me. But while I knew my Garmin splits wouldn’t match the official course mileage, I was surprisingly on track to PR if I could maintain my pace. But in marathoning, “ifs” are about as valuable as a nugget of fools gold.

Shortly after mile 19 the course heads back northward, including some jaunts along the Atlantic Ocean boardwalk. Here, the rain was complemented with a steady breeze coming off the water, providing a natural chilling effect.

While my clothes, socks and shoes had been soaked for miles, when it was time for my next energy gel I realized the wind and rain were also taking their toll on the dexterity of my fingers- I couldn’t get the darn GU packet open. My fingers looked like they had soaked in a bath for too long, and had become utterly useless. I tried ripping the gel packet with my teeth. For a minute I thought I might have inflicted some dental trauma, but eventually I was able to get the packet opened just enough to squeeze out some gooey energy. In relief, I looked up and out at the grey skies only to notice that the salt water was mixing with the rain to form heavy white droplets along the bill of my hat. There they hung until the weight of the salt finally gave way to the breezy gusts, causing them to blow away one by one. I resorted to counting the falling drops as a way to distract myself from the cold and wet unpleasantness.

Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 3.30.09 PMThrough 22 miles my Garmin showed that I had managed a pretty steady pace, hovering between the 8:40 – 8:50 mark. By mile 23, however, I was beginning slow, with the pace inching up to around 9:00. At the 22 mile point it seemed that despite the conditions and having undertrained, I could very well PR. That soon changed, however.

The mental fortitude I’d maintained thus far seemed to drift away around mile 23. I was overcome with annoyance and misery. I lost the urge to fight for a time goal. My pace dropped to 9:25, then 9:29. The time it took to muster through the last full mile was the same as the final .2, 9:15. I didn’t bother to kick. I was cold, wet and ready for a towel, dry clothes and a bed.

I finished the 2016 New Jersey Marathon in 3:54:01, just a minute and eleven seconds off my standing PR of 3:52:50. And I’m ok with that. Candidly, I didn’t think my physical training was sufficient to come that close, so in many respects I surpassed my own expectations. Most important, with each marathon I learn a little more about the distance, and even more about myself. It’s been said that training should be as much mental as it is physical. That was laid bare during the final miles in New Jersey. It’s a lesson that though I admittedly haven’t paid enough attention to, will definitely become an more central focus throughout my next training cycle.

Racing the Friendly Roads

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 7.20.11 PMIn year’s past, I’ve spent the winter months counting the days until the mid-March NYC Half.  After all, the 13.1 mile trek from Central Park to Wall Street is as energetic as it is iconic.  But with a February marathon already under my belt, and another marathon on the horizon, this year’s event seemed to sneak up.

New York is such a special place for a runner.  Very few cities can offer such marquee races attracting participants from around the world. It’s been fun to see how much this event has evolved since my first outing in 2013. As I stood in line at one of the two designated security entrances at the Southeastern edge of Central Park awaiting my turn to be cleared so I could enter the start area, I thought back to my first NYC Half outing.

Then, before the bombings in Boston, there had been no lines. I’d arrived extra early, sipped a hot chocolate inside a nearby Starbucks, before casually making my way towards the baggage check area and then on toward my coral. There had been just one wave, and with a long, steady stream of more than 15,000 runners, I crossed the starting mats 25 minutes after the professionals has begun their trek.

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 7.20.54 PMFour years later, about the only familiarity at the start was the sound of the hovering helicopter, providing aerial shots for those watching on television at home. Sure, the air was just as crisp, and after the fact realized I’d actually worn the same black Under Armor long sleeved top, but that’s where most of the similarities ended. The course had since been modified to allow a larger field and United Airlines had staked its claim to the race as the title sponsor.

The hoopla surrounding this popular half marathon had continued to grow, now attracting more than 20,000 runners, though I had to admit my interest had not kept pace. But while it, at least for now, no longer held the pinnacle position on my winter or spring racing calendar, it was still a fun and challenging 13.1 mile trek.

In year’s past, the field had been corralled by an honor system of self predicted finish times that each individual would input at the time of registration. In my experience, the exuberant, and often unrealistic, optimism of some inevitably led to a slow start, when coupled with the unavoidable congestion. This year, the system was modified. Those with NYRR race histories were sorted according to their prior performances, or a distance equivalency metric. As a result, my October outing had moved me up to the first wave, a first for me in this event.

The first 10K of the NYC Half course snakes in, out, and back into Central Park until finally releasing runners to the friendly city streets for the trek to Wall Street. Adopting a “leave no hill behind” approach in the course design, the first portion presents the most challenging miles of the day, elevation-wise. More than the beginning of the morning’s journey, crossing the start meant a respite from the near freezing temperatures, as my body would finally begin to warm.

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 7.20.27 PMThe most recent half marathon I’d actually raced was October’s Grete’s Great Gallop, occurring towards the end of a focused 16-week marathon training buildup. On paper, the NYC Half course should be more favorable for faster times. But, if topography were the most determinative factor to a runner’s performance, I’d of never realized the result I had in October. For a distance runner, there are always many factors at play any time one toes the line, both physical and mental. That’s one of the reasons I truly love this sport—with so many factors to contend with on any given day, each race allows an opportunity to grow, that is, if you let it.

During the almost immediate ascent up Cat Hill, the first, I was struck by how relatively clear the path around me was- the gridlock so common at the start of such a big race was missing. I wondered if the aerial photographer in the helicopter had somehow been swapped for a traffic reporter who had radioed to the ground to successfully keep a steady a flow.

From the start, spasms of self doubt pulsed my synapses, disrupting my mental and physical rhythm. Was my pace too fast? What pace is realistic for me with my current fitness? How close to my October finish time could I come? What does the Garmin show? How does my effort feel? From the start, these thoughts consumed me in Central Park, through Times Square, down the West Side Highway and all the way to the finish. After 13.1 miles of overthinking, I was completely mentally fatigued.

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 7.24.10 PMThe next day, I came across an impeccably timed Runners World article reported on some new research findings that delved into what I should have been concentrating on during my race. The article summarized, “Monitor your body for signs that you’re running at an effort you can sustain to the finish. But do so only periodically. For much of the race, focus on running with as good form as possible, because doing so will could help you to run faster at the same effort level. And if there’s a pack running at your speed, tuck in. Let the pack take your mind off of pacing so that you can allot your mental energy to keeping your body relaxed and running efficiently.”

Non-runners often assume the most daunting aspect of distance running rests in an athletes physical fitness, but it’s actually one’s mental focus that everything else springs. It’s also the aspect that is difficult to train for, making the expression, “there’s no teacher like experience,” a truism when it comes to racing. Finishing in 1:49:33 didn’t make this year’s NYC Half my fastest, though it also wasn’t my slowest. It was just ok. But if the experience allows me to become a better racer and to avoid similar mental fatigue in the future, then its lasting teachings may ultimately make it far more than “just ok” in the long run.

Running Read Review: Tom Foreman’s “My Year of Running Dangerously”

Screen Shot 2016-03-06 at 11.15.04 AMSince November, Tom Foreman’s My Year of Running Dangerously had occupied a prime corner of my coffee table just waiting to be read, a glaring reminder of a hectic few months. However, once I finally cracked the cover open, it barely closed until the last page had been turned.

A Tony Award-winning Broadway musical once famously questioned how to measure a year, or five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes. In Foreman’s case, that year, or “four half marathons, three full marathons, one 55-mile ultramarathon, and 2,000 training miles,” was not merely measured in steps, but by his self-described quest to stop just getting through his days as he started getting into them. His journey is both relatable and inspiring.

Adept storytelling entails much more than recounting miles, whether they occur while training or during a race, requiring an ability to separate the signal from the noise in an effort to draw out what’s important while holding a reader’s attention. Foreman’s journalism pedigree showed throughout, as I was impressed with the seemingly effortless narrative.

Most marathon training plans adopt a telling arc. A base-building phase lays the proper foundation for a deliberate increase in long run mileage, speed workouts are  interspersed, ultimately leading to a tapering decline of miles before race day. I’m not sure if it was intentional, but Foreman’s story arc was fittingly similar.

Motivated by his oldest daughter to tackle a marathon together, her first, the tale began building a base of reader interest. Throughout several half and full marathons, where Foreman’s fitness was undeniably established and the reader was left wanting more, his mileage and storyline both began a recognizable climb toward an even higher goal, the Stone Mill 50 ultramarathon. Throughout the story, Foreman intermittently takes readers back to his younger days as a runner. Just as speed work helps make a distance runner’s muscles well-rounded, these short detours from the present provide the reader with a fuller perspective from which to appreciate Foreman’s journey.

As a relatively new road runner currently living in New York City, I’ve always been awed by trail running. I imagine these very different terrains to be akin to how a gymnast might view the balance beam and the uneven parallel bars in their varying degrees of difficulty and the associated potential for disaster. So when Foreman detailed his distance leap from the roads to a trail, I found myself torn between savoring the linguistic journey and a desire to scribble notes. As Foreman’s 50-miler nears, readers can appreciate the familiar self-doubts during his taper, before living vicariously through every conceivable race day emotion.

Finishing a marathon or ultramarathon is an emotionally cathartic experience. Finding just the right words to describe the experience, the life lessons learned and the rationale for the adventure in the aftermath can be challenging. But Foreman’s ability to so eloquently answer why he put himself through the tremendous challenge just the day after his 55-mile odyssey was, as his youngest daughter observed, “beautiful.”

But as compelling as his culminating reflections are, it is perhaps the admissions of his oldest daughter, who took the year’s first running step with Foreman, that provide the most ubiquitous take away. Congratulating Foreman on his ultra finish, she confessed never having expected to actually make it to the first start line that began Foreman’s year. Instead, conceding visions of giving up during the the early days of training. When pressed as to why she’d ultimately followed through, she offered, “I guess I just forgot to quit.” A candid sentiment with which each of us would be well served to remember, whether or not our running shoes are laced.

Throughout My Year of Running Dangerously, I appreciated Foreman’s gift of bringing introspective meaning to his miles in a way that was just as universal as it was personal. For those looking for a running-themed story with an enduring life lesson, this book would make for an ideal rest day read.

Running Read Review Results (on a scale of 1 to 5 runners):
Screen Shot 2016-03-06 at 11.06.09 AM

A Marathon Sightseeing Tour of Los Angeles

With warnings that a polar vortex would plunge the east coast into a President’s Day weekend cold spell, I was comfortably certain that my quick escape to Southern California would yield a polar opposite forecast. That surety gave way to reality, as even the most experienced marathoners struggled during Saturday’s Olympic Trials, the warmest on record. To successfully complete my Sunday trek to Santa Monica, it was obvious this marathon mortal would need to adopt a cautiously conservative approach.

My most recent marathon, New York City this past November, tested me in ways I hadn’t expected. I was still scarred by those final miles, where a failure to adapt my hydration and pacing strategy to  the conditions had dealt a crushing blow to my confidence. These memories, still vivid and raw, coupled with a shorter, 12-week training regimen had led me to eschew setting any time goals. Instead, I aimed to focus on adapting to the warmer conditions while reclaiming my mental fortitude.

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 9.13.26 PMIt was just a short shuttle bus ride from downtown LA to the starting line at Dodger Stadium. The pre-dawn air was comfortably chilly, and I savored the cool temperature that I knew would rise steadily once the horizon gave way to a beaming sun. I made may way into the stadium, which served as a temporary staging ground. Though I’d seen countless views of Dodger Stadium on television, this was my first time inside the historic stadium. I marveled at how cool it was to be  able to freely meandering around. As a first time visitor to Los Angeles, I couldn’t wait to see so many of the city’s landmarks that I’d only admired previously on screen. In my mind, the TMZ tour bus didn’t have anything on today’s stadium to the sea course.

Soon enough, it was time to check my baggage and head to the corrals adjacent to the stadium, just beyond the walls of the outfield. As the skies began to give way to the day’s light, my anticipation was building.

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 9.12.52 PMFor many events, great care is given to the actual start to tie into a city theme. In New York, it’s the firing of a howitzer cannon, followed by a rendition of Sinatra’s New York, New York. New Jersey’s start occurs outside a horse track, so a call to post bugle is apropos. In LA, the signal to start was given by the wailing of a siren, which I found reminiscent of a slow speed car chase. I doubt that’s the association they were going for, but I found it fitting, nonetheless.

After clearing the start line, the course almost immediately began an uphill climb, followed by a sustained downhill. Throughout, I focused on controlling my pace as I headed toward the next landmark on the day’s sightseeing itinerary, the Chinatown Dragon Gate. As I passed under, I longed to capture these sights for posterity. For the first of many times this day, I wished the Google Glass had made it to market. Just two miles in, I already knew it was going to be a thrilling day.

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 9.11.09 PMFrom Chinatown, we headed toward some familiar downtown roads. As wound our way toward Grant Park, the meet-up site of Friday’s Ryan Hall shakeout run, the crowds were mostly sparse, but those who did gather were evidently deeply concerned about our collective future. As runners, its not uncommon to be conscious about our soles. If our soles are too worn, injuries can arise. Conversely, if our soles aren’t broken in, and blisters can confound. But whether peering over an overpass, under a tree on the left or alongside a building on the right, a remarkable number of spectators were resolutely holding signs scribbled with dire warnings- for our souls. I had no idea marathoners were such a sinful group, but apparently we were in immediate need of repentance. Indeed, the eclectic spirit of the City of Angels was alive and well.

Whether training over the Queensboro, Brooklyn, Manhattan, or even the Triboro bridge, or routinely climbing the Cat or Harlem hills, inclines are part and parcel of New York City running. That said, the ridiculously steep multi-block (I lost count) climb through the downtown portion of the course was no joke. Focusing on effort, I felt my pace increasing, commensurate with the grade. My mind drifted as I eavesdropped on two locals behind me commiserating about their most recent marathon experience. As they regaled each other with war stories over the difficulties of New York’s bridges, I took a deep breath and pushed forward. After all, I was a New York runner. This, like those bridges, was merely breakfast.

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 9.12.09 PMFinally heading out of downtown I looked forward to arriving in Los Feliz, which, according to the official race program, was where I’d be able to see the Hollywood sign for the first time. Alas, the sign was nowhere to be seen. There were so many landmarks along this course, that their associated mile markers were a blur. Los Feliz remained elusive.

As the day’s temperature continued to rise, I had just settled in to a comfortable pace when otherwise ordinary streets gave way to a lush greenery and a picturesque fountain. In my Los Feliz haste, I’d somehow forgotten that I’d first pass Echo Park.

When it comes to leisure reading, I’ve always been a fan of mystery and legal thrillers. LA-based writer Michael Connelly is one of my go-to authors, and one of his first books I read was titled, Echo Park. I had envisioned Echo Park as a crime-ridden dumping ground for bodies. As I ran by, I realized that presumption was misplaced. The park looked absolutely stunning. I realized if I’d likely fallen into the same trap as longtime Law and Order viewers, who probably think analogously of New York’s Central Park.

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 9.11.56 PMNearing the 7 mile mark, I maintained my position alongside the lefthand side of the course. Hydration would be key today, and I wanted to make sure I was always inline to easily grab a cup of fluid from a volunteer’s outstretched hands. Having learned my lesson from last fall’s New York outing, once I’d secured a cup I’d take more than a quick gulp. Today, I’d gulp and continue on, before finally draining the liquid gold.

I may not remember the exact time or milage moment, but I will never forget looking up and to my right and seeing those nine white letters standing upright along the hill in all their glorious wonder: Hollywood. As quintessential as the Empire State Building, it was the single sight I’d been visualizing for weeks in all its glory! From that point on, smile lines would be permanently etched on my face. I was running in the moment, and having the time of my life doing so.

For much of the course, spectator masses would appear in pockets. But whether the roadside was thinly or densely populated, their support was buoyant. Makeshift aid stations appeared as storeowners unloaded pallets of bottled water, while residents poured bottled water in cups. Tubs of orange slices were handed out by various running clubs, while members of various community organizations armed with spray bottles spritzed momentary relief from the heat. It’s one thing to prepare a homemade sign to encourage an individual marathoner. But the the forethought and genuine care of these most meaningful gestures of encouragement were quite another. I was both appreciative and awestruck.

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 9.11.40 PMWith its namesake sign serving as a beacon, I was ready to make my way into Hollywood. Running down Hollywood Boulevard, just beyond the spectators lining the side of the street, I began to make out etchings in the sidewalk. Their star shapes were instantly recognizable, and I could feel my pace quicken with excitement. I consciously eased up, determined to fully take in the atmosphere. Off to the right, was a stage, were a couple, one clad in running clothes, beginning to take their marriage vows. I’d remembered reading that on this Valentine’s Day, a makeshift chapel was available to couples ready to tie the knot. The effort was a publicity stunt designed to promote the upcoming release of the sequel to “A Big Fat Greek Wedding.” Of course, this was Hollywood, after all.

Continuing on, there was the Dolby Theater. Where were the American Idol contestants, I wondered. Had I missed the famed Chinese Theater? Nope. There it is. I’m not sure I’d ever had so much fun running. When I usually take that dreaded gander at my race photos, I’m normally wearing a focused expression. On this day, however, I have photographic proof of my miles-long cheek to cheek grin. The elation was as demonstrably obvious outward as it was felt inward.

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 9.10.50 PMI was on such a high that I didn’t notice leaving Hollywood and entering West Hollywood. But as I made my way through West Hollywood, I did notice the rising temperature. The fluid stations stretched a good distance, and I began taking both gatorade and water. By mile 14, I faced my first bout of discomfort. Prior to the shakeout run, Ryan Hall had provided attendees with his anecdote for when difficulty seeped in: gratitude. So rather than turning up the volume of my music, I did the opposite. I turned it down and started thinking about how thankful I was. My appreciation to be running this race. My gratitude for the ability to run. My thankfulness to the support of my family’s encouragement. In no time, I was back on track.

By around mile 17, the loud Hollywood sign gave way to a more understated, yet iconic brown and yellow sign. I was entering Beverly. Hills, that is. Swimming pools, movie stars. Though with my bright orange singlet and shorts, I was feeling more like Jed Clampett than Carlton Banks. As I turned the corner onto Rodeo Drive, I couldn’t help but notice that one spectator sign that is a marathon mainstay was conspicuously absent: run like you stole something. I guess they figured this wasn’t the street to plant that sort of idea.

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 9.12.52 PMAs Beverly Hills turned into Brentwood, the miles were accumulating. The sun was also in full force.  So far, my hydration approach was working, but I wasn’t ready to let my guard down yet. While I have always abided by the admonition to never try anything new on race day, I decided to make an exception.

After downing a cup of gatorade at the 18 mile fluid station, I grabbed a water. I took a quick gulp, then brought the cup over my head and poured the remaining liquid onto the back of my neck. As the water rushed down my back I instantly felt a jolt of alertness. The pour not only had a cooling effect, but also a rejuvenating impact. Where I had begun to feel a bit sluggish, I was now feeling fresh. It’s not a novel trick, I’d seen others do it countless times. Why hadn’t I? I did the same at mile 19. And mile 20. and mile 21. Like watering a blooming plant, each pour had an invigorating result.

Passing the 20 mile mark, the fabled point where the marathon begins, the elevation began to climb again. I again channeled my thoughts, focusing on gratitude. Yes, my legs were tired, but I wasn’t dehydrated. And mentally, thanks to Hall’s tips, I was in fine shape. I remained in the present and continued on, putting one foot in front of the other.

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 9.10.17 PMIn the later stages of a marathon, a mantra can be a helpful tool to push through the final miles. “Pain is temporary, pride is forever.” “I got this.” I’ve successfully used each of those before. On this day, I turned to Sir Isaac Newton for inspiration, “What goes up must come down.” Knowing that by mile 23 the course would yield a much deserved downhill, I adopted Newton’s scientific observations for solace during the challenging late terrain.

Once I finally began the course’s final descent, I was euphoric. I honestly felt the best I had in the closing miles of any marathon to date. As the elevation lowered, fog enveloped the sun and the temperature seemed to drop with each step.  As excitement and gravity took over, Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 9.09.39 PMI let my legs take control. When the terrain eventually leveled out the air was thick with a soupy fog. I’m sure the sea was around, somewhere, I just couldn’t see it. I wasn’t sure how much longer till the finish, but I knew it was drawing nearer. Then, just ahead and seemingly out of nowhere, it appeared.

3:58:21. Not my fastest marathon, but not my slowest. But I’d managed the heat, maintained my mental wits, paced well, hydrated properly, finished strong, and most importantly, savored the sights of LA. I could not have asked for better, and I was elated.

Oscar winner John Huston may not have been speaking about the LA Marathon when he observed, “Hollywood has always been a cage…a cage to catch our dreams,” but he might as well have. Coupled with the Olympic Trials, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to exceed the high expectations set by this runcation.

A Gold Medal Runcation

The combination of the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials and the LA Marathon, both slated for the President’s Day holiday weekend, made choosing the date and destination for my first runcation an easy decision. With Southern California set to become the temporary epicenter of the distance running world, I had high hopes for an inspiring February getaway.

2016-02-20 22.26.37I landed in Los Angeles on Friday afternoon and couldn’t help but channel my inner Miley Cyrus, “I hopped off the plane at LAX with fresh legs and my blue Brooks. Welcome to the land of Meb, Desi, whoa, am I gonna see them? Jumped in the van, here I am for the first time.”

There had been a number of “official race” hotel options to choose from, but since this was to be a runcation, I opted to support the only brand that employs its own running concierge, Westin. It was perfectly situated downtown, only a short walk to the expo at the Convention Center. After picking up my bib and a some official Sketchers Performance gear (very reasonably priced), I quickly moved through the expansive vendor area- the day’s travels were taking their toll.

I’d signed up for a Fitbit-sponsored shakeout run with Ryan Hall, but leaving the expo I was having second, third and fourth thoughts about attending. Back at the hotel I decided to put on my running clothes, and only after tying my shoes committed myself to following through. I rationalized that It was a good opportunity to run a bit of the city, and this was a runcation, after all.

2016-02-20 22.11.34It probably shouldn’t be a surprise, but along the short sunset walk over to the run I began feeling rejuvenated. The meet-up at Grand Park, just across from the LA County Building, had already attracted a good sized crowd by the time I arrived shortly after 6 p.m. Amid the mass of glowing runners, thanks to the free neon lighted bracelets provided. I couldn’t help but marvel at what a beautiful evening it was. Was it really the middle of February?!

Soon the guest of honor arrived, and more than a hundred shorts-clad runners gathered around some tables where Hall jumped up on a chair to provide us with some last minute marathon advice, focused mostly on nutrition and the mental aspects inherent to the distance. Since recently announcing his retirement, he said he’d begun weight lifting. It certainly showed, as he’d noticeably packed on considerable muscle mass.

It was a nice 3 mile shakeout run at an easy pace, with enough just effort to work up a modest sweat with the temperature still hovering in the mid-60s. The mostly flat terrain interrupted by a challenging hill toward the end served its intended purpose of waking up the legs a bit ahead of Sunday’s race.

2016-02-13 11.01.35As Angelenos headed to happy hour to conclude their work weeks, many cheered and offered high fives as we ran by. While we were warned to be cautious of uneven the sidewalks, the most obvious obstacle didn’t have anything to do
with the city’s infrastructure. Rather, it was the numerous makeshift homeless camps. I don’t think I crossed paths with as many homeless persons in the more than 1,000 miles I ran in New York last year as I did in those few miles in downtown LA. It was a poignant reminder of the unique perspective that running a city offers.

After a truly satisfying shakeout run, it was time to head back to my hotel. While Olympic hopefuls were surely preparing to dream of punching their ticket to Rio the next day, I had my own winning visions of inhaling a big, arb-filled pancake breakfast before cheering them on.

2016-02-20 22.29.35An hour before nearly 400 of the fastest U.S. marathoners would toe the line at the Olympic Trials, downtown LA’s Figueroa Street was eerily empty. A few who would be running Sunday’s LA Marathon were taking advantage of the barren roads for one last shakeout run. With anticipation building, I headed toward the start area to fully immerse myself in the festive atmosphere.

When I had stopped by the Brooks booth at the expo, exhibit ambassadors were inviting trials-goers to cheer on the athletes at the company’s cheer zone. Brooks is, after all, my shoe brand of choice, so I was excited to join their crowd. With bleachers, food trucks and television screens tuned into the race, they really set the bar high for brand support.

2016-02-20 22.28.45Inside the Brooks cheer zone, I nestled myself up next to the fence that separated the area from the sidewalk. I imagine it was akin to standing backstage of the Grammy’s if one was an avid singer. Here, everyone seemed to have an equally close connection to the sport of running. Just an arms length away was Desi Linden’s father anxiously awaiting his daughter’s start. Hansons-Brooks Distance Project Coach Keith Hanson was there with his son, admitting that he was more nervous than Desi. A number of elite athlete coaches stopped to catch-up with others, sharing anecdotes about their athlete’s training progress. Ryan Hall bounded down the sidewalk to get in position to offer encouragement to his wife, Sara. If Eugene, Oregon was TrackTown, U.S.A., today this was MarathonTown, U.S.A.

2016-02-20 22.24.06After watching much of the race from inside the Brooks cheer zone, I noticed some open space along the adjacent sidewalk, so I staked out a position alongside the “800M to go” signage. I was struck at how many spectators were there with a purpose, to cheer on their competing loved ones- nephews,cousins and the like. As the temperatures rose and many runners were visibly wearing, this family support was also making a visible impact – responding to the sound of a familiar voice, strides adjusted, parched lips curled and tightened faces momentarily relaxed.

2016-02-20 22.22.49If there was any doubt as to what a special sport this is, one needs only look to the back of the pack for inspiration. Granted, there’s something oxymoronic about referring to the back of the pack at the Olympic trials. Nonetheless, the crowd was acutely aware of the struggling runner at the back of the men’s race, and they responded with cheers of encouragement fitting for a frontrunner. As Kathrine Switzer once observed, “If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.” On this day, the Road to Rio was certainly paved in spirit.

Less than 24 hours since arriving in Los Angeles, my runcation had already exceeded all expectations. But the hard part was yet to come. Soaked in both perspiration and inspiration, it was time to make final preparations for my own marathon journey.

2015: Going Farther and Longer

run-1310777-640x480

With 26.8 inches of snow piling up outside, this weekend’s blizzard provided a nice, quiet weekend to finally reflect on the year gone by. It marked my third full year of running, and as I tallied up the numbers I couldn’t help but think how my love for the sport continues to grow and evolve.

Two marathons, one ultra marathon and more than 1,400 miles later, I’d run farther and longer than I could’ve ever imagined just a few short years ago. I spent far more days last year training for those longer distances, like the marathon, than not. And after taking more social rainchecks than I’d care to admit in order to knock out those weekend long runs, it was satisfying to see how the miles (and effort) stacked up:

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 9.05.10 PM

Over the course of the past year I also bettered my race times, particularly in the half marathon distance, but I know I haven’t cracked my potential yet, especially at the 26.2 distance. I’ve always posited that there is a lagging relationship between the pounding miles, improved fitness and PRs. This year, I look forward to putting that theory to the test, as I again strive to go far and long, but hopefully just a little bit more quickly.

Photo credit:freeimages.com