Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Rockin' it

The monkey bars were never my friend. I can still remember the feeling of clammy fingers slipping off the cold, thin, metal bars. Not that I didn’t enjoy climbing. There was a swing set whose bars were wider, and their peeling paint provided traction for my sweaty hands that the monkey bars didn’t have. I remember swinging sideways with each hand on one of the A-frame support beams, inching up to the top. But that was it.
By the time we had the opportunity to climb the rope to the ceiling in gym class years later, I didn’t have the strength. (Props to Mom, by the way, for telling me that vacuuming would help build that arm and core strength. Best way to get your kids to do chore, hands down.)
But now I’m ready to build that strength, learn the ropes, and rock climb. My hands haven’t changed, but that’s what they make chalk for, right?
I took a lesson at a gym in January and liked it enough to buy my own shoes and harness. I’ve tried out a couple of other gyms over the past 2 months, and while I’m not exactly a natural, I’m stoked about this new sport. After running for so much of my life, it feels amazing to use my body to move in different ways.

I’ve been doing a mix of bouldering and top-roping. Bouldering is climbing without ropes on short walls with crash pads underneath. The walls are often slanted out or overhung, like you would find on a rounded boulder. It requires a lot of planning, upper body strength, and balancing and transferring weight evenly.

Top-roping involves a rope strung between the climber, a fixed point above, and a partner (called a belayer) holding the end of the rope below. These walls are also often overhung, but they generally mimic flat rock faces. I prefer top-roping (partially because it is easier, and partially because I feel safer with the ropes), but bouldering is a great way to build strength.  
The holds are color coded to form routes with varying degrees of difficulty. There are a lot of easy routes that I have not yet been able to finish, but every time I go back, I can tell that I'm stronger and able to get farther along. 
I've been training a little at home by doing push ups, pull ups, and using a grip strengthener for fingers and forearms. I've been reading intro to rock climbing books and watching videos on technique, and I'm always excited when I have enough free time to head back to the rock gym.  The sport just keeps getting more exciting as I get better. 
I miss running more than I can say, but I'm so thankful to have found other fun ways to move about. 
Ever on!

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Not-So-Sweet Life

Almost any runner can tell you that periods when you are forced to rest are the worst. Don't mess with a girl during her taper. God help you if she's stopped because of an injury.

Well, that's been me. I've been off running - and almost all exercise for that matter - since completing my first marathon almost 5 months ago. The tendonitis in my left knee just still isn't better. For months the deep snow we had here in the northeast prevented me from even being able to step outside without irritating my knee. 

Luckily, in December, I was surprised with the most amazing distraction ever: a puppy!

Meet Pippin!
My husband came home one night holding a box with this little fluff ball curled up inside of it! So days were spent very happily playing with squeaky toys inside, but frequent housebreaking trips outside aggravated my knee constantly. 

I had imagined that I'd be able to run again by February, but that just wasn't going to happen. I told myself that I needed to keep my diet healthy since I couldn't exercise, and that's when I made a big discovery: I was seriously addicted to sugar and could not control my junk food cravings. When I ate half a tray of blondie bars the night of the Superbowl instead of one small bar like I intended, I decided that I needed to do something. By the end of that week, I had given up added sugar. I want to stop my reliance on sugar so that once in a while I can have a scoop of ice cream or a slice of cake and say "That was really sweet" and go on with my normal healthy eating and be in control of myself. I intend for it to be a permanent lifestyle change and have been holding to it for two months now.

I don't know about other people, but for me, sugar had been a necessary end to every meal, even breakfast. I would eat a healthy salad or vegetable-rich lunch at work and then follow it up with three large handfuls of M&Ms (intending for it only to be one small handful, of course.) If there weren't dessert options, I'd go as far as to eat honey or maple syrup straight up just to get a sugar fix. The idea of ever passing up dessert was unthinkable, and if many sugary items were available, I was compelled to sample a little of every one, which always adds up. Looking back on it, I can't believe I was able to quit, but I was determined to make a change, and that made all the difference. And now, I can enjoy healthier foods more fully, because things that are not sugary, or which have a little bit of fruit in them, are incredibly satisfying.

Cutting out sugary junk has been one of the best things I've ever done for my health, and I don't think that I would have been able to do it if I had been exercising, which is a bit of a silver lining.

Even though my knee is still bothering me, it has improved since the snow has melted, and I have been able to do some light exercising, which feels amazing.

I had a second MRI in March, which again showed inflammation but no injury. That is frustrating, but I am optimistic because I found that cold-therapy was actually irritating it more. I'll be going back to physical therapy, and hopefully using warmth and ultrasound treatments, I'll be able to kick the tendonitis to the curb and then work on alignment, evening muscle imbalances, and improving flexibility to get to the root of the problem.

It feels that I haven't run in forever, but a lot of good has happened in the mean time, and the not-so-sweet life has actually become quite palatable.

Stay tuned for posts about the cross-training adventures I have planned!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A Long Rest

I've stopped running entirely after the marathon to let my knee recover. It's going to be slow going, since I'm trying to avoid any activity that irritates it, and a lot of activities irritate it. It's a great opportunity to relax though, and I've been enjoying the free time and the feeling of being refreshed.

I followed up with the sports doctor on Friday, and after I explained how things were going and he flexed and moved my leg a couple of ways, he said that it's possible that there is a problem with the meniscus that the MRI did not show. He gave me a prescription to reduce inflammation and advised that I don't do any activity that causes it to hurt. I'll follow up again in a week and a half.

So far, there I've found that even light cycling on a stationary bike is irritating, and any walking must be on a very stable, even surface (even the rail bed is too uneven or rocky in places). I had hoped to keep up with strength training, but I'm being very selective about which exercises I do. For now, it's only some foot, lower leg, core, and upper body exercises, depending on how I'm feeling.

While it is incredibly frustrating not to be able to exercise right now (when I can feel how strong I am), the situation has allowed me to spend more time relaxing and becoming more mindful. I had initially tried to begin each morning by loosening up my feet with a lacrosse ball, foam rolling my legs, and practicing some light yoga. There are a number of simple yoga poses that my knee is not fond of (like Child's Pose), so most mornings now I'm just doing the loosening and rolling and then breathing deeply and just doing whatever yoga poses feel good for my core and upper body. I've been starting off by drinking tea or hot lemon water, and it's a nice way to start each day. I hope that it will become a permanent routine to preface early-morning workouts later on after I've recovered.

Yesterday I received a much-anticipated package in the mail - a new foam roller! It's the Grid X shown in the photo above. Part torture instrument, part miraculous relief, it's twice as firm as the Grid (and probably three times as firm as the average blue roller I've been using) and it's exactly what I've needed to  reach the tightness inside the depths of my calves and lower legs. All through my training I had great difficulty getting enough pressure when rolling my lower legs, and all of the time I spent seemed largely wasted. I think this new roller is exactly what I need, though. It's small, measuring in at 13" long, but that's all you need for the trouble spots. I'll still be using my old roller, but I'm glad to have this option when I need it. I highly recommend it for anyone who needs an extra firm roller.

So, that's it for now. I'll check in again with knee updates and maybe some thoughts about post-recovery goals. I'm not going to let myself get too bummed about losing fitness right now. I've seen so many people come back from injuries, that I know that I should just rest and let myself recover. Just last February my friend broke her arm, which prevented her from running until the summer (since she couldn't swing her arm without extreme pain). She was really bummed about not being able to exercise, but she picked back up when she was finally able to and ended up running her second-fastest 5k two weeks ago at a Turkey Trot. That's inspiration!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

My First Marathon, or, 2014 Stone Cat Marathon Race Report

There was never any question that I would finish. 

The fact that I didn't think about quitting says a lot about how much  you can accomplish when you set your mind to something. 

When I toed the line of the Stone Cat Trail Marathon, I was just convinced that I would finish it. Part of how I knew that was that I acknowledged and accepted that I would feel pain and fatigue, and another part was that I was seeking out an end beyond those feelings.

Words like determination and perseverance come to mind for endurance athletes, and that's really what this marathon was about, except that those words don't convey the power behind the drive. It's based in emotion and an uplifting, forward reaching feeling. When I hear "determination" and "perseverance," I think of pushing onward with your head bowed low, gritting it out, but this experience of running my first marathon was much more positive and adventurous than merely pushing my way through pain for a long time. It was a culmination of so many other experiences and the advice and support of so many people. It was an adventure in and of itself, and while I did push my way through pain for a long time, I found strength that I did not know I had, which was self-affirming and empowering.

I traveled from New Jersey to north-eastern Massachusetts for this race. The rolling and mildly technical course seemed like a good introductory marathon. The unpredictable New England weather held out, and it turned out to be a perfect day to run.

I had packed my gear the night before and had a smooth check in before the race started. The temperature was in the mid 30s at the start, and the sun had just risen when we gathered to hear the pre-race talk. I felt calm and ready. My support staff snapped a picture of me less than a minute before the start, and then I was starting the tracking app on my phone and jogging off after the group of about 200 marathoners as the race began.

In order to make the course exactly 26.2 miles, we ran a double loop around a school field before linking up to the trail. Bagpipe music played, and once I stepped onto the trail, I started to feel emotion well up. "I'm going to run 9 miles further than I've ever run before. I'm going to run a marathon today." The words ran through my head, and I was at a high risk of getting weepy.

The first 5 miles were spent negotiating the trail with other runners. Everyone had different strengths, so we kept leap-frogging each other. I wanted to pass the people who walked the technical spots and down hills, which are my strengths, but I walked behind them to conserve energy. If I took it slowly, the tendonitis in my knee might not flare up too badly. Occasionally I passed people while I hiked up hills, taking long, low strides that scooted me up surprisingly quickly.

When I reached the first aid station at mile 5.4, I felt fresh and motivated. I was doing this! One aid station down! I filled up my handheld bottle with Gatorade and continued on. I had eaten a gel a little before that, and my tummy wasn't quite so happy, but it was holding out, so I was happy about that. I ate a date hoping some "real" food might do me good.

The next aid station was at mile 8.7, and I think I added water to my bottle there, and I had another gel. I didn't stay too long. I was focused on getting to the next aid station after that, which was 5 miles away at the start/finish line and where I'd get to see my support staff.

The trail started to get quiet between the second aid station and the start/finish. I no longer had the sounds of conversations behind me to listen to, and only occasionally would someone come up from behind to pass. I saw some 50 milers taking their time and passed a spectator in a seriously creepy clown costume. I had run on a small portion of that part of the course the day before, and I kept wondering if I was going to see that familiar spot yet. I felt good and kept a pretty even pace, and when I reached the stretch of trail that I remembered, it felt reassuring and encouraging.

One of the wider, less technical, stretches of trail

The trail was very well marked with orange ribbons clipped onto tree branches with clothespins and arrow signs at the hard turns (which had reflective strips for the 50 milers who might still be running after sundown). I never got off course, although I did save a number of people ahead of me who did. At a junction of single track paths, someone ahead continued onto the unmarked one, and everyone behind followed. I looked up, checked for an orange ribbon, and shouted "Trail this way!"

Further out onto the course, there were some wider paths marked by fewer ribbons. I remember looking around, afraid that I had missed a turn. I was on course, but by not paying attention to the ground, I caught my toe on a root or stump and did a spectacular ballet leap to keep from doing a face-plant. Still upright, I scanned my whole field of vision a little more evenly from then on.

An older runner (in shorts that looked that much shorter when paired with a jacket) was running behind me to witness my near crash. Apparently he wasn't too afraid of any more stumbling, because he tucked in right behind me and drafted for a mile or so until we reached the start/finish and I scampered over to my support staff for a gear swap-out and refuel.

I replaced the knit hat with a headband and had planned on taking off the top-layer t-shirt, but the temperature hadn't warmed up as much as I thought it would. I kept it on and decided that while I was there, I'd run over to the school and use the bathroom. My tummy wasn't overly happy, so this was a good decision. I didn't want to waste too much time, but it was way better than possibly having GI issues out on the trail.

After the break, I ran back out to the course and said goodbye to the support staff before heading out for the second lap. I felt great.

At first, I thought that I was going to finish that second lap much faster than the first. Even when taking it easy, I didn't have people in front of me interrupting my rhythm. Around 16 or 17 miles, though, the tendonitis in my knee started to show itself. This didn't really daunt me, but it was painful, and I slowed down and didn't feel quite so upbeat.

The next aid station at mile 17.9 was rejuvenating. The first time around, all of the runners were still feeling fresh, but now that we all had a number of miles behind us, the volunteers stepped up the enthusiasm. One was making bacon, another generously proffered pumpkin pie, and everyone seemed upbeat and excited. I had my bottle filled with half water, half gatorade, and I sipped some Coca Cola. That was the  motivation I needed as I headed out again.

As I ran along the trail with new energy, I came up to the guy in shorts who had drafted behind me earlier. The single track emptied out onto a wider trail with a blown-down log across it, which we both crossed at the same time. I hopped up with my right leg, feeling light and strong, and at the moment I lifted my left leg to follow up, the left calf seized in a charley horse. I dropped down off the log lightly (don't ask me how) and collapsed in a very sad little heap on the damp, leaf-strewn trail watching the muscle spasm. I couldn't move it. The guy paused and asked if I was alright. I said it was a calf cramp, and he turned and continued his race. I felt slightly affronted that after being used as wind resistance earlier in the race, I could be left behind so easily. More people soon appeared on the trail, though, most of whom stopped and asked if I was ok.

I know that there was nothing that anyone really could have done, but thank you so much to everyone who stopped and offered advice, even going as far as to offer me a gel. I had gels of my own, so I had one as I waited for my calf to stop spasming   As soon as it stopped, I massaged it with my hands and then stood up on it. It felt like it was balled up in a tight knot. I elongated my leg slowly and walked carefully. It was tight, but after a few minutes of walking, I tried jogging, and I could. I was relieved and pressed on, knowing that the gel would take a little while to kick in and that I could probably get another cramp if I did anything too sudden. I got into a bit of a rhythm, and while the going was slow, I was still moving forward. I caught up to someone who had stopped and offered to help. I thanked her, and as I said that I was still in the game, I could feel the other calf on the verge of cramping. "Easy," I told myself. "Just take it easy." I had about 3 more miles until the next aid station, and I knew how important it was to play it safe until I got there and fueled up.

Those 3 miles were hard. I walked and ran alternately and told myself that once I got there, I would get some salt in me and then put on my music, and then I'd be in the home stretch.

When I finally saw the top of the white tent through the tree branches, I felt like I was stumbling upon an oasis in a desert. What a welcome sight! The aid station crew was friendly and supportive. They offered me an array of edible items, and I zeroed in on some Pringles as someone filled my bottle with Gatorade. I'm not sure how long I stayed there, but I had a lot of chips and more Coke as other runners came and went. I pulled my iPod out and got it ready for the last 5 miles and snacked on some strawberries.  When I thought I was ready, I thanked the volunteers and headed out for the final 5 miles.

The first song in the playlist shuffle was Ace of Base's "Beautiful Life." I immediately became teary-eyed and wondered if music was actually a bad idea, since it seemed to make me so emotional. It helped carry me onward, though. Some songs made me feel fierce and powerful, others lifted my spirits and made me feel happy, and others just provided a good beat. In those later miles, when my knee shot through with pain and my calf resisted with every step, music really kept me going.

The farthest distance I had run before this race was 17 miles, so at this point, every step I took was the farthest I had ever gone, and that fact may have been my biggest motivator. I didn't think about stopping, because I saw how far I had come, and, even though I had never done it before, I knew that I could finish the entire distance. I walked when I needed to and kept pushing on. Since it was a double loop, I was familiar with the course and knew how much farther I had to go.

I was still careful not to do anything too sudden that may cause another cramp. As I gingerly stepped over another log at about mile 24, a runner came up behind me asking "Did you really come all the way from NJ just for this?" She was referring to my Wildcat Ridge Romp shirt that proudly sported "NJ Trail Series" across the back. I did come all the way just for this. It may not be a big race with lots of pomp and circumstance and bling, but it didn't have to be. I enjoyed traveling to and running in a new place. After chatting a bit and wishing me well, she continued on past me, and I was alone again.

These last few miles were very solitary, and the words "no man's land" came to mind due to the pain I was feeling. Considering the WWI connotations of the phrase and the beautiful and peaceful forest I was in, it's a rather unfair description, but that's what I was thinking. Luckily, when Pharrell's "Happy" popped up on the playlist, my spirits lifted enough that I could have danced right there on the trail.

As "Happy" played, I entered the home stretch. I had finished the sections of single track and had only a mile or so of wide, even double track. 50 mile runners passed me coming and going now, as we were on the connecting trail between the school and the loop. I congratulated and smiled at everyone as they passed. I was so relieved to be finishing the second loop - imagine running the loop 4 times!

As I got closer to the school, I started to feel excited. This was it! I had done it! A new song came up on the playlist, and I decided that as soon as I stepped off the trail and onto the school fields, I would take my earbuds out. I wanted to be fully present when I stepped over that finish line.

Just before I reached the fields, a man and woman passed me as they chatted with a spectator. The woman was wearing a flower-patterned dress, which made me smile. Then I was pulling my earbuds out and taking in the fact that I was finishing my first marathon. A guy in a Stone Cat costume was running and dancing along the side of the field and gave the guy ahead of me a high five. I raised my hand for one, too, and then it was truly the home stretch.

Spectators were milling around everywhere. I looked for my crew of one, who was wearing a red jacket, and saw red jackets everywhere. Then I saw him holding up a camera. He was just past the finish line. I closed my eyes for a split second and thought again "This is it! I've done it!" When I opened them again, I couldn't place him. Then I saw him again, right through the finish line timing arch.

Approaching the finish line

I saw the time on the clock showing that I would finish in under 6 hours. I ran it in, feeling surprisingly strong and no longer feeling the pain in my knee or calf. Done! The official time was 5:41:46.

Now a marathon finisher!
I hugged my support staff and was so relieved not to be running anymore. I think he asked how I was feeling, and I said "tired and happy not to be running". The girl who had asked if I came from New Jersey had finished and was sitting down near the person handing out the finisher items (messenger bags with the Stone Cat logo and "Stone Cat Trail Races Marathon Finisher" embroidered on it) and congratulated me, also looking happy to be done. The volunteer who handed me my messenger bag offered to take my picture standing in front of the clock, and I should have accepted, but I wanted to stop the tracking app on my phone first. I had turned the brightness on the phone down very low to conserve battery life, and it worked, but I couldn't see anything on the screen in order to turn the brightness back up, and I was getting frustrated! My support staff came to my aid, and once he fixed that for me, I realized that I needed to eat. I grabbed half a burger from the aid station table before my tummy started acting up. I'm so thankful it was ok during the race!

Soon after I finished, my running buddy called to congratulate me. She and so many other people were so supportive and kept me going when I was close to deciding not to run this race, and it meant so much to have them all rooting for me. Thank you especially to Elizabeth from Mountain Peak Fitness, who helped me get strong enough to complete this race. She was with me every step of the way with training workouts, nutrition advice, and motivation. I had always thought that with flawed running mechanics, I could simply never build up the base needed to run a marathon, but she worked with me to strengthen my weaknesses and make it happen.

The course as tracked by my Wahoo app
A lot of people have asked if I'll ever do another marathon. My answer is yes - not right now, but yes. At the moment I have to let my knee heal. I would also run the Stone Cat Marathon again. It was well organized, had great aid stations, and was a scenic and runnable course. I have a lot of good memories from this race, and I really value the confidence that this experience has given me.

So now it's time to rest and recover, but I know that there will be many more adventures in store for me.  There's no question about it.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Stone Cat Trail Marathon goals

My shirt and bib from packet pick-up
Tomorrow I'll be running my first marathon.

Ok, I typed that. Did I really register the meaning though? Tomorrow I'll be running my first marathon!

I've thought about running a marathon for years. It was one of those bucket list items that I wanted to do during my life. I've read so many bloggers' experiences and seen several friends go the distance. Now that  it's my turn, I'm thinking about my expectations for the day.

When I initially signed up, I had hoped to place in the top 40% of female finishers. Right after I signed up though, tendonitis made an appearance in my knee, so instead of proceeding with the training, I took  it easy to rest the knee. I've slowly made my way with the training, so I'm ready to run this race, but not with the expectation of that finishing time.

In the scheme of things, I'm ok with letting go of the pace goal. Training for this race has led me past many boundaries and is shaping me into a different runner, mentally and physically. It's one piece in a running career that I hope will be long and eventful. (Seriously, I want to be one of those finishers in the 70+ age category someday.)
The gear is prepped. Now I just have to run!

Realistically, I think that I will be able to finish the race in under 6 hours. If it's a really good day and I feel awesome, I might be able to make it in under 5 and a half. Regardless of the time, though, I'm excited that I'm going to see myself cover the distance. The fitness I have gained in training for this is so exhilarating and empowering. I love being able to go out and hike up mountains and enjoy using my whole body to scramble up rocks and roots like an obstacle course. I love being able to hike or run through large sections of parks to see multiple views and points of interest without sacrificing an entire day. I'm so thankful for all of the natural sights I've seen while training and for the pure joy of moving. I can't wait to see what tomorrow has in store for me.

I went out for an easy jog on a small portion of the course today to loosen up my legs, and it was a nice trail. In a span of a mile, I covered rolling double track and single track, which was well packed and often covered with soft pine needles. It is muddy in some sections from recent rain, but not as muddy as trail conditions were in the spring.

The weather report is calling for sun and chilly temperatures in the morning. My race starts about 5 minutes after sunrise, so I look forward to running through crisp air under thin yellow rays with the smell of pine needles all around and the sounds of footsteps of 400 other runners pattering along the trail.

Here's to my first marathon!

Friday, October 31, 2014

As I finish training

Marathon training is complete - Now there are only 8 days and 26.2 miles until I am a marathon finisher.

Spreading Halloween cheer in the first mile
Today I ran my last long training run. I expected it to be awesome like my last long run, and I was humbled. It was tough. I thought I had my act together, but I really did not fuel the right way the night before, so I felt like I was dragging through the entire 17 mile run.  The upshot is that I know I can make it through when I feel like there isn't anything in the tank, which I suspect will be the final 6 miles or so.

Today's run felt like what I was expecting with my previous 17 miler - tired, achy, and pushing to get through. But that's not what I experienced last time, so I know that if I prepare properly, it doesn't have to be like that. And I don't expect that it will. I know to fuel properly in the days preceding the race, and I will be pumped up by the energy of the event and running with others, so I am not worried.

I wish that today's run had been more exhilarating, but it was a fresh, cool day, and as I traveled to and from the park where I ran, I was moved by the fading fall scenery. The variations between the brown stark trees high on the hills and the deep yellow leaves still clinging to trees at lower elevations were dramatic. The ridges themselves loomed up so impressively that as I drove by farms in the valley, I wanted to pull over and take a picture. And at one point, on a high hill driving north, I was shocked to see tall mountain peaks rising in layers on the horizon. I've looked at a topography map, and although they seem impossibly far away, I can only conclude that those peaks were the Catskills (which, as the crow flies, are much closer than I thought).

And so, even though it wasn't the best run of my training cycle, I changed, ate, stretched, and smiled. I'm almost there!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Just run

I'd been worried about my ability to finish the upcoming Stone Cat Trail Marathon. My left knee had been hurting for 3 months, and most of that time had been spent cycling instead of running. 26.2 was very daunting, especially when I knew that I'd have to let go of the goals I had envisioned when I first signed up for the race.

I set out for a 17-mile trail run last Sunday knowing how important it was to get some long miles in, and I intended to do them whether my knee hurt or not. I knew the route I was going to take, and I just went out and ran.

What happened out there was the restoration of my confidence. I had a rough half hour or so with cramps and nausea, during which I slowed down and walked a bit, but that did not greatly affect the rest of the run. I kept going, and my knees did not hurt. I wasn't thinking about pace and route and whether or not I'd come across any bears. I was just running, and that was so comfortable.

The farthest I had ever run thus far had been 13 miles, and the farthest I had hiked was 15. The 15-mile mark in this run was on a dirt road lined with trees that still held onto some brightly colored leaves. It was late in the afternoon, and the sun was shining through the leaves illuminating the colors. And then I did it - I crossed an imaginary line representing the farthest distance I had ever traveled, and it was an exhilarated jaunt back to the parking lot from there for a total of 17 miles in 3 hours and 23 minutes.

Feeling good after 15 miles!
After this run, I know that I will be able to finish the marathon. It may not be as comfortable as this run was, but I know that there's a rhythm that my legs will fall into, and I just have to run, and it will be good.