Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A second shot at "once in a lifetime"

What's the best way to start a Monday? 

With an e-mail from the Boston Athletic Association confirming that my application for the 2012 Boston Marathon has been accepted!  As soon as I opened my e-mail today and saw the word "registration" in my inbox, my heart leaped.  I was hoping to receive the e-mail this week...I didn't think I would receive it this soon.  My face went hot as I rushed to click the e-mail to open it.  It was the news I wanted to hear: 

"Jessica Wilson,
This is to notify you that your entry into the 116th Boston Marathon on Monday, April 16, 2012 has been accepted, provided that the information you submitted is accurate."

I remember the first time I received this e-mail.  It was October, 2010, and I waited nearly a week after applying for the 2011 Boston Marathon for confirmation that I made the cut.  I was so excited when I got the news that I re-read the e-mail two and three times just to make sure I was reading it right.  Even today, as a Boston Marathon alumni, my sceptical side still prompted me to re-read the e-mail two and three times - just to make sure I was reading correctly.  Just to make sure I was really "in". 

Life is fueled by our aspirations to make our dreams come true.  We are motivated by a voice in our heart that guides us like a compass towards moments in life filled with satisfaction, success and a supreme contentment with our human condition.  Some dreams are very personal, and some resonate with other like minded people.  Some are tiny...and some are mighty.  Sometimes we are inspired to share our dreams, and sometimes we hold them in our hearts like secrets - never meant to be known to another living soul.  Some we don't achieve.  Yes, some will slip through our fingers, leaving us to tell the tale of "the one that got away".  You can't win all the time.  But some we actually realize, and they shine like stars above the mountaintops of our imaginations - reminding us that dreams can come true if we only try.

And if we're really lucky, we might just get the chance to live a dream twice. 

See you in Boston in 2012.

Friday, September 16, 2011

My road to Boston 2012 begins....or does it?

Today was the day I have been waiting for since April 18, 2011.

On April 18, 2011, I ran the Boston Marathon for the first time, and it changed my life.  Never before had I anticipated so much from an event (except for maybe my wedding day), nor had I ever demanded so much of myself at any other time in my life.  For four months, I dedicated my heart, soul and body to making the most of my (possibly one and only) opportunity to run in the shadow of nearly every great runner in the modern world - to run the Boston Marathon.  Not only did I demand a lot from myself, but I delivered on my promises and dedication to myself by running my way to another Boston qualifying time of 3:38:49.

Two for two.  Two marathons run....two Boston qualifying times.  Any runner would be satisfied, but satisfaction can culminate in disappointment come registration day.  Simply running a Boston qualifier (aka: "BQ") doesn't mean you'll cross the hallowed roads from Hopkinton to Boylston Street on Patriot's Day.  No, it doesn't.  The marathon has been called "every man's Everest", and let me tell you: people want to climb!  Boston is now as difficult to get in to as it is to qualify for. 

On October 18, 2010, the Boston Marathon sold out in less than eight hours.  Runners who were unable to register in spite of their superior qualifying times were up in arms - forcing the Boston Athletic Association to change the registration process to a more "performance based" tiered system.  The system is simple: faster runners get the first crack at registration, leaving "barely there" hopefuls to hope there would be spaces left after the fleet feet had their opportunity to claim their place.  Luckily, I ran my BQ in a time fast enough to allow me an opportunity to "pre-register" - but not until two other groups of faster runners had their first crack at the registration process.  My time makes me "the slowest of the fastest", but today it might just have been enough to get in.  My registration form was submitted and a confirmation number was assigned: 2011829.  It has a nice ring to it doesn't it?

Ah - not so fast.  We're not at a happy ending yet.  If only this confirmation number meant I was registered.  As much as it is a great start and an excellent indication that my application will be accepted, the BAA has the final word.  Each application is reviewed manually - qualifying times are confirmed and details are vetted for accuracy.  Only when that magical e-mail arrives in your inbox indicating that your application has been confirmed can you breathe a sigh of relief knowing you are "in". 

So, my road to the 2012 Boston Marathon may have begun today, or it may not.  As soon as the stress to get registration submitted ends, the stress of waiting for the confirmation begins.  I'm not sure how easy it will be to perform daily routine tasks with fingers and toes crossed, but I'm sure I'll make it work for the next few weeks....while I wait for that magical e-mail...while I wait for history to repeat in the most appealing way...while I wait to be "in".

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Videolog: The thrills and spills of trail running in Vibram Five Fingers.

Ryan Hall may take two weeks off after a marathon, but when you're foolish/crazy/stupid enough to sign up for another race just six weeks after a marathon, you have to dig your heels in and get back to training relatively quickly.

Not only do I have another race on the horizon, but the upcoming race is another milestone in my running career.  I have my first "ultra marathon" on May 28.  An ultra marathon is any distance longer than a marathon, and they generally begin at 50kms and increase in distance from there.  I have been wanting to enter the "ultra" world since last year, and when a friend recommended the Sulpher Springs Trail Run, I couldn't resist the temptation to make this my first ultra marathon.

Although I don't plan to run this 50km trail race with the same intensity as I run marathons, I want it to be a performance I can be proud of.  So, I set out this weekend to get some trail experience under my belt, and to test my Vibram Five Fingers "Bikila" running shoes to see if I could wear them during the trail race. 

Check out my videolog to see how it went. 

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Life after the Boston Marathon: my running Nirvana

It's now been 12 days since my Boston Marathon experience, and I'm settling into life as a Boston Marathon alumni.  The first three days after the marathon found me barely able to walk let alone run.  What they say about the hills in the Boston Marathon is definitely true: the downhills are worse than the uphills, and they definitely left their mark on my quads and my hamstrings.  I'm normally extremely flexible; in fact my physiotherapist remarked that I'm almost too flexible to run efficiently.  Yet two weeks later, I still don't have 100% of my flexibility back.  Yeah...the hills were killer.

Accomplishment begets accomplishment

Every new running accomplishment has changed me in some way.  My very first road race was a St. Patrick's day 5k.  It was hard as hell to complete, but completing it opened a door to a new world for me.  I couldn't imagine then how it would change my life.  Nine years later, I'm a marathon runner, and my desire to see how else running will shape me continues to burn in my heart. 

Running into the finish line at my first marathon.

Running my first marathon was a defining moment in my life.  There are very few times in my life when I have been THAT proud of myself.  After conquering the marathon, I expected more of myself - I ran with a confidence that I held in my heart like a religion.  I didn't think it could possibly get better than that.  I had reached running Nirvana. 

Then I ran the Boston Marathon...

What is better than running Nirvana?  Life after Boston is my world beyond running Nirvana.  Since the Boston Marathon, I run with a sense of pride that I never realized I could feel.   It's a light that shines from the place in a runner's soul that still holds the memory of the first time they ran and REALLY enjoyed it.  You know - the time when running no longer felt like a challenge; when everything came together and you felt that "click"...and for the first time, you understood why people loved to run.

Since Boston, I run with a new spring in my step.  Every challenge I meet while running, be it a tough hill or my tired calves, I counter with reminding myself: "you conquered Boston"; and the challenge dissolves in a rush of pride and confidence.  I'm not sure I can ever top this feeling, but I'm determined to try.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The day after my Boston Mararthon "what goes up, must come down"

April 19: 7:00am.  After a night of strange dreams and restless body, I'm awake an hour before the alarm.  I went to bed thinking 7.5 hours of sleep would be enough to put my body right...but I guess it feels 6.5 will do.  Go figure.

As I step out of the hotel bed that I've FINALLY gotten used to sleeping in, I stumble slightly as my feet try and balance my rigid body.  My legs are stiff: my quads are sore and the upper part of my hamstrings (just below where they connect into my glutes) are destroyed.  I struggle to keep my balance as I hobble towards the bathroom.  If my legs could talk, they would be screaming at me in protest.  Lowering myself onto the toilet was as painful as the entire last mile of the marathon.  Damn this hurts!  I turn my head to the left and find that the pain is not limited to my legs: the kink in my neck from yesterday morning persists.  It's getting a little easier to look over my left shoulder, but sleep did not fix the problem.

Dear body: you're not the boss of me!  As I crawl back into bed intent on catching a few more zzzzz's, my mind plays over the events of yesterday.  It feels like it was all a dream - or at least it does from the neck up.  Did I really run the Boston Marathon yesterday?  Did I really survive the freezing cold wind in the Athlete's Village?  Did I really run the most famous marathon route in the world?  Did I really spend the last three kilometers averaging a sub-5:00 pace?  My heart races as I recall the events of the day before. 

What goes up...must come down.

I'm not sure if other runners experience this, but I sometimes experience an emotional crash after a big race.  It's kinda like crashing off of a sugar high.  So many people sent me warm messages telling me to enjoy my success, but I couldn't ignore a niggling worry that I felt in my heart after the initial thrill of the moment wore off.

I have yet to come to terms with the roll running plays in my life.  It gives me confidence.  It shapes my body.  It sharpens my wit.  It keeps me sane.  But as an existential thinker I'm always looking at how things plug into the big picture.  Yes, it keeps me confident, fit, sane and more; but these are all personal benefits.  Does that make "runner Jessica" selfish?  If I spend 15 hours/week training to be a better runner, is that 15 hours spent on a selfish pursuit?  Could that time have been better spent helping others?

Maybe it's just that race day leaves a bit of an empty cavern in a runner's mind - a cavern that was, for the previous 12 - 16 weeks filled with thoughts about training, nutrition, strategy and sometimes worry.  Then comes race day, and it all comes together - all of the thoughts about training, nutrition and strategy are extinguished in a puff of triumphant smoke as you barrel across the finish line - leaving space for other thoughts to rush in.  In my case, it's questions that rush in...

April 19: 2:00pm.  As I drive out of Boston, the negative thoughts begin to dissipate like rain clouds being burnt up by the radiantly warm sun.  Heading West on the I-90, I pass the exits for the various towns that a Boston Marathon runner passes through on the way from Hopkinton to Boylston Street in Boston.  Newton, Wellesley, Natick, Framingham.  Each name brings me to the edge of happy tears as I recall my 42 km journey.  I felt proud again.

Life is a complex marathon in itself, and we can look at the journey of running the way we look at the journey of life.  Sometimes it can mean things to others, but sometimes you have to run it just for you. 

It's a great feeling when you can strike a balance between the two.  Although Boston was mostly a personal experience, I'm comforted with the idea that maybe my marathon journey was a positive experience for others.  If one runner learned something from my mistakes during the course of my training...if one spectator felt special because I "low fived" their outstretched hand as I ran along the race route...if one person dares to dream of their own proverbial "Boston Marathon" while witnessing me live mine, then I'm a success.  My biggest wish is that my Boston Marathon journey meant something to others.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Chasing the dream - 1 day till Boston - "Ready or not"

"Twas the night before Boston and all through the house..." 

...well, all through the hotel room; and yes, I'm stirring!  I woke up this morning - the final morning before the big day - with only one thing remaining on the list of activities to complete before my dream becomes a reality: the official Boston Marathon pasta dinner.  After a quick visit to the marathon expo to exchange a jacket I had bought on Saturday, I found myself with an entire afternoon to kill before the pasta dinner at 6:30.  Ugh...  All I could do was think about the marathon tomorrow, and I knew that if I thought long enough, then that "thinking" would turn into "worrying".

I consulted my Boston tourist map to see what I could do to distract myself for the afternoon.  Not one to settle for small adventures, I decided to forgo the inner city sights for something a little further away....like Cape Cod.  A big day on the horizon deserved a big distraction, and I knew the long drive was the perfect way to get my mind off of tomorrow while also (more importantly) keeping me off my feet.  Cape Cod it was!

Cape Cod refers to a long stretch of land that jetties out into the sea from the coastal region just South of the Boston area.  It's not a single town or beach - it's an entire area.  Hmmmmmm...  Not knowing where exactly tourists go in Cape Cod, I figured I'd go as far as I could, and I headed for Providence at the far end of the jetty of land. 

The drive was longer than I anticipated.  After an hour of driving I realized I was not going to make it all the way to Providence, and decided a change of plans would be necessary.  I took another look at the map and made a guess at where I should get off the highway.  With the exit for "Orleans" approaching, I decided that sounded "nautical" enough, and made my exit hoping I would find myself in quintessential Cape Cod.

Cape Cod reminded me a lot of Prince Edward Island - only a little more modern.  The area was dotted with painted wood-sided homes and quaint "country kitchen" style.  Then it hit me: I must have some fish and chips while in Cape Cod!  I drove to downtown Orleans.  It reminded me a lot of the lakeside "beach towns" in Ontario, with subtle differences.  After driving up and down the main drag, I decided "Sir Crickets Fish & Chips" was my best option for an authentic Cape Cod food experience.  Mmmmmm....good choice.  I ordered the local Flounder and chips and tucked in.  The Flounder was tender and the chips were crisp.  I gobbled furiously and headed out for one final Cape Cod experience: a visit to the beach.

If you had placed me on that beach in Orleans and not told me where I was, I would have sworn I was in Summerside PEI.  The short wooden boardwalk lead me over rustic dunes painted with patches of grass.  The wind whipped furiously in from the sea bringing small barrel waves over the water as it blew.  I was surprised at how many people were there on the chilly Sunday afternoon - there were about 25 cars in the parking lot.  I inhaled and filled my lungs with moist sea air as I watched the waves crash and roll along the shore.  It was perfect - a completely relaxing distraction from the excitement of the marathon events. 

With a pasta dinner at 6:30, I couldn't linger long.  I was soon back in my car and barreling back to Boston.  Massachusetts drivers are speedy!  I was happily cruising along with the fast moving traffic and back in Boston with time to spare.  I got changed and made my way to the subway to join the thousands of runners for "the last supper".  I exited the subway, headed towards the government buildings and joined the queue for dinner.  It wasn't long before I was talking to another fellow runner.  Arnold was there with his friend and granddaughter.  A New York resident, Arnold has run the New York Marathon 31 times, and Boston six times.  It's not often I meet other runners of African descent.  There are about as many black marathon runners as there are black snowboarders, and we always notice each other at running events the same way we notice each other on the snowy ski slopes - with big smiles. 

Arnold invited me to join his party for dinner and I heartily accepted.  We got our food and made our way to find a table.  The dinner was a busy place, so we joined a table where two other women were sitting.  They were Texas residents and Boston Marathon alumni themselves.  The dinner couldn't have worked out better for me as I listened to Arnold and the Texan women talk about the Boston experience.  I learned about the challenges of the "Athlete's Village" and that I was facing a few hours of sitting in the cold before the marathon began.  They told me about their strategies for dealing with these cold hours before the race, and I made plans to pack extra warm gear with me to survive the chilly outdoor wait before the marathon began at 10:20am.

With a belly full of pasta and a new strategy for surviving race day, I headed back to the hotel.  Everything was falling into place.  As I laid out my clothes for the morning, I thought about how very person I met was helping me navigate the Boston Marathon experience.  Sometimes I'm amazed at how things unravel.  I'm so grateful for the people who have come into my life, if only for a fleeting moment, to help me find my way.  If you dare to dream and risk to adventure, life often clears a path for you in ways you never imagined.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Chasing the dream - 2 days till Boston - "the mother of all marathon expos"

Saturday in Boston was a big day with big plans.  I had two very important steps on my marathon journey today:
1. go to runner's expo and pick up my bib
2. buy the official Boston Marathon jacket

I'm not sure what was the bigger incentive to get to the marathon expo early today: getting my bib or getting my official jacket.  As winter slowly recedes in Toronto, I have seen more and more Boston Marathon alumni break out their official Boston Marathon jackets for chilly spring runs.  The jacket is a coveted possession in the running world.  Donning it assumes the wearer has gone through the rigour of training, qualifying and then ultimately running the Boston Marathon.  Wearing it outside of the Boston Marathon is as good as wearing your bib and medal.  It tells the world what kind of a runner you are: dedicated, passionate and most of all: fast.

I set out Saturday morning eager to get to the expo - it was the only thing that mattered that day.  I decided I would take the subway down to Boylston Street.  That would give me an opportunity to test the subway and see how easy/hard it would be to get downtown on marathon day.  While on the subway, I met another fellow "marathon loner" - an older gentleman named Walt.  A seasoned marathoner, he had run Boston a number of times.  As we rode down to the expo, we talked about marathons we enjoyed, and the pros and cons of going to marathons alone.  We soon found the expo and went our separate ways in search of our bibs.

The "number pick-up" area was grand.  With 25,000 runners, Boston is the biggest race I've ever been to.  Yes, New York and London are bigger, but I haven't stroked those ones off my "marathon to-do" list yet.  The tables with the boxes of bibs stretched for about 150 meters, and each box was manned by super-friendly volunteers - all who seemed to know how important this step in the marathon journey is to the runners.  Camera flashes filled the room as family and friends took photos of the runners getting the first
glimpse at their actual Boston Marathon bibs.  Smiling faces could be seen in every direction you looked - mine was one of them.
As I picked up my own bib, a swelling wave of emotion took over me.  I think I was smiling so wide that you could see my molars tucked back inside my mouth.  Noticing that I was alone, one of the volunteers offered to take my picture of me with my bib.  I was gushing with pride and holding back the tears. 

But there was no time to sit and cry - my Boston Marathon jacket awaits!  I went into the next hall and picked up my green race bag with my long sleeve technical t-shirt and hurried off to the expo to find my jacket.  The massive Adidas booth was immediately inside the front doors of the expo....and I could see that it was absolutely jammed with people before I even walked in.  The only thing I could compare the Adidas booth to was the subway at rush hour.  People moving and pushing in every direction - trying to find their beloved Boston Marathon memorabilia before their size was all gone.  Yes, the stock was moving that quickly.  It was only the Saturday and sizes were already disappearing.  Feeling the urgency of the moment, I flagged an employee and asked him to direct me to the official jackets.  He navigated through the sea of people at led me to the racks of jackets.  I was really hoping they would be the official Boston Marathon colours (yellow and blue), but they were Boston's beloved green on a black and white jacket.  OK...I'll take two.

With jackets, shorts, a tank top and some mugs in hand, I made my way to the checkout.  After waiting in the longest line I have ever seen, I paid my money and escaped the madness of the Adidas booth.  Phew!  The rest of the expo was fairly standard - nothing runners haven't seen before...except for maybe Ryan Hall!  Ryan Hall, the American men's marathon record holder, was there selling autographed copies of his book.  I took my place in the queue and enjoyed a brief "hello" with one of the great runners of our generation.  He's a soft spoken guy with a modesty that transcends words and the patience of
angels.  He gave me a smile, shook my hand and wished me luck before posing for a photo. 

I spent several hours at the booth before making my exit with sore feet and what felt like a million bags in tow.  I knew I needed to get off my feet, but not before passing by to take a peek at the infamous Boston Marathon finish line.  I walked down Boylston Street taking in the ambiance.  It was Mecca for runners - everywhere you looked you saw people carrying their green Boston Marathon bags with their bibs and gear inside.  We were all drawn to the finish line like moths to the flame - craving a closer look at the finish line so many runners dream of crossing. 

I've met a number of wonderful Bostonians during my stay here - one of which I met at the finish line.  Arlenn is a former Montreal who has been living in Boston since the 80's.  She saw me photographing myself and offered to help me capture the moment by taking my picture.  We spent a little time talking about Canada/USA culture, life and other things.  With an open heart, she gave me her phone numbers and offered to be available if I needed help while in the city.  What a kind soul - I'll never forget the generosity of her actions and her spirit. 

Exhausted from a full day in downtown Boston, I took the subway back home - green bag proudly slung over my shoulder indicating that I soon would join the collective of runners who have had the opportunity to run the Boston Marathon.  I felt like a star.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Chasing the dream - 3 days till Boston "an emotional day"

It was a beautifully sunny, yet slightly crisp day in Boston today.  I slept like a log last night - thanks to the half a bottle of white wine I polished off before bed.  The solid sleep was a welcome surprise since I don't usually sleep well in hotels.  I'm doing surprisingly well on the sleep front considering I'm not in my own bed.  This just might work...

There were two key items on my "to-do" list today:
1. get my final training run in.
2. drive the race route today.

I put a big, fat check mark beside each one of these activities today; however, driving the race route took WAY longer than I thought it would.  I've deducted that Boston has a bit of a traffic problem - but that's a whole other blog post all together.

After breakfast, I set out for Hopkinton - that's where the Boston Marathon begins.  Hopkinton is a quaint little town West of Boston - far enough out of town that I had to pass through two toll booths to get there.  To travel from Boston to Hopkinton and back will cost you nearly $6 in tolls, so perhaps I'll just deduct that amount from the entry fee of the marathon as a "cost savings".  Yes, there are many benefits to running - they just keep adding up.

After spending some "personal time" at the start line, I hopped in my car and began the drive along the historic, and epic, marathon route.  As I set out on highway 135, I was flooded with emotions.  It wasn't long before I was chocking back tears while scouting the first few kilometers towards Boston.  I decided to turn around and record the moment...

After a full day of driving the marathon route, I got changed and set out for my last training run before the marathon.  I have been on a training schedule since January.  For 12 weeks, every run has been a strategic piece of the marathon. - an event that, at times, seemed so far away that I might never make it to the event without first crumbling under the pressure of training fatigue.  But today, the final training run was upon me.  I drove downtown, parked near Boston Commons, and set out for my final, leisurely 7km run from there.

Downtown Boston is a joy to run in.  The city is as historic as New York, but with its own unique flavour.  I soon found a paved trail along the water's edge were dozens of other runners were clocking their daily miles.  As I ran East, the sun warmed my back while it crept towards the horizon.  My shadow kept pace in front of me - providing a monochromatic mirror of my striding legs and pumping arms.  Oh how I've missed running; I was divinely happy.  On the way back I ran to Copley Square.  This is where the finish line is, and where my Boston dreams will come to an end in just three days.  The sense of belonging was warm in my belly and I knew I wanted to find my way back here again someday.

But that's another dream.  Let's put this one to bed first - and in three days, I will.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Chasing the dream - 4 days till Boston - "Hello Boston!"

Today was a day I have been looking forward to for a long time: the day I leave for Boston.  It`s still four days until the marathon, but I wanted to get away sooner than later so that I could separate myself from the stress of everyday life and get into the right frame of mind for the race: Boston frame of mind.

Yesterday was a non-stop day.  I FINALLY finished packing at 12:30 AM (yes...after midnight) and laid my head down for a few hours sleep before hitting the road for M.A.  I set out later than I had planned.  The sun was already beginning to turn the sky a dark azure as I hurtled down the DVP towards the Queenston/Lewiston border.  I was on the road after only four hours sleep, but still nearly an hour later than I wanted to set out. 

The drive through New York State was agonizing.  The I-90 is not as long as the I-95, but isn't as pretty as the I-95.  When I made it to the Boston Turnpike, I started to feel emotional.  Seeing the word "Boston" on the sign made it all immediately real.  Yes...I was going to Boston.  Not just for a vacation, but because I will be joining a select group of runners who were either talented enough, lucky enough or both - to be participating in the Boston Marathon this year.  There were a few moments during the drive where I began to well up in tears as I thought about the big day soon to come. 

By the time I reached Boston, I had been travelling for nine long hours, and was itching to get out of my car.  I located the hotel, sorted out my room, and made the first order of business finding a place to take my bike for a spin.  One of the benefits of driving to Boston is being able to bring whatever fits in my car rather than whatever fits into a suitcase.  I brought my foam roller, a suitcase full of food and my beloved bike "Trixie". 

The counter staff at the hotel told me a nice place to partake of a ride or run is an area of town called Jamaica Plains. 

Jamaica Plains is in the South West end of Boston.  It's very beautiful, but like most places in Boston: is very trafficated.  I consider myself very brave on the bike, but I was very cautious today.  Once I got my half hour in, I was ready to put Trixie back in the car and drive as far away from the honking cars as I could.

So now, I put a very long, but meaningful day to an end.  As hard as it is to believe, I'm in BOSTON!  Tomorrow I will set out to explore the marathon course and Boston Commons - where the marathon finish line will be located.  I'm a little sad to be alone here in Boston, but am comforted by the many words of support that my friends and family are extending through Facebook and Twitter.  Boston may not be everyone's dream, but "living a dream" is something everyone can identify with.

4 more sleeps....

Monday, April 11, 2011

Chasing the dream - 7 days till Boston - "Life gets in the way"

Stardate: April 11, 2011.
Location: cross-legged on the living room carpet. (my favourite place to sit)
Captain's log: 7 days till the Boston Marathon.

I haven't been as diligent with my blog as I planned to be.  When the new year turned over and I got down to the nitty gritty of marathon training, I had the best intentions to document, document, document so that I would be able to look back and remember this personal journey in years to come. 

It's down to the final week - final days, really.  I've barely managed to scrape together one blog post per week over the last few months, and I'm trying to rectify that now in the final days.  But what can you do when life gets in the way?  There are so many unexpected twists and turns during the course of marathon training.  Injuries, personal commitments, your professional life, your everyday life: there are so many things that can prevent us from being the runner we have the potential to be. 

The truth is, this is a common theme in most of our lives, whether we run or not.

How many of you have thought, "I would be more successful in my career if 'this and that' didn't need my attention."  Or, "I think I would be a great cook/knitter/tennis player if my job/social commitments/family didn't take so much of my day. 

We're all trying to realize our potential and balance the many things we have on our plate.  The challenge (and joy) of running is that you only get out of it what you put into it.  Unlike a final exam, there's no way you can cheat your running.  You can't go online and plagiarize a run.  There are no Cole's Notes to help get you to the finish line with less work.  Missed training is missed training, so when life gets in the way, running performance invariably suffers.

I have tried really hard to keep the Boston Marathon the main focus in my life - to not let life steal away the time I wanted to spend drinking in the entire experience from the early days of training to the event itself.  I have been moderately successful in this endeavour, but in these final weeks of the journey, life has been busy and Boston has had to take a bit of a back seat.  There are things we can do to try and balance our priorities, such as:
  • Be as flexible as possible: try to "move" workouts around to suit your schedule.
  • Some is better than none: if you can't do the full workout, don't write it all off all together.  Get a short one in instead.
  • Make new plans: This is not the last race you'll ever run. Maybe you can't nail this event, but maybe you can do better with the next.

Running teaches us so many lessons that can also be applied to the rest of our lives.  The perspective we learn as runners can help us have a healthier perspective on our lives as a whole.  After all, life is not a 100 meter dash.  It's a marathon itself.  So really, life isn't getting "in the way" - it's actually the feature event.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Chasing the dream - 8 days till Boston - "the dreaded taper..."

Only one week and one day remain until the 115th Boston Marathon.  It's been a roller coaster of a week since my last post.  My heart is full of many emotions: excitement, fear, doubt and even disbelief that a moment that I've been working towards for nearly three years is a mere eight days away. 

I decided to make this week's post a videolog.  Have a listen to hear about the outcome of my bone scan and about some of the challenges with tapering.  

7 more sleeps until I stand at the start line....and if all of the stars align: cross the finish line.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Chasing the dream - 2 weeks till Boston - "Never give up"

Today marks two important events in my Boston Marathon journey:

1. I received my Boston Marathon welcome kit in the mail - very exciting.
2. I've finally made it to the taper - even more exciting.

 It's been a hard fought three months of training. I've battled through ITBS (Illiotibial Band Syndrome), I've battled through "the plods" (the heavy legs that one gets as a result of over-training), and now I'm in the midst of the biggest battle yet in my Boston journey: a mysterious groin injury.
Yes, the groin pain is STILL a mystery.  I went to see my physiotherapist last Monday, and she put me through another round of stress tests to see if my pelvis was the root of the problem.  I passed all of the stress tests once again, indicating that I don't have a fracture....yet.  It's also highly likely that it's not a tendon issue either.  With the mystery still in tact, the recommendation to cease running is also...still in tact. 

It's been another long week of cross training on bikes and elliptical trainers.  I have never looked forward to anything less than my elliptical workouts.  I've never been a fan of the treadmill, and I only run on the treadmill when an injury is preventing me from running outdoors; but now I look longingly at the treadmill from my unhappy roost on the elliptical.  I'd give anything to be able to run on that treadmill now.

Married to the Marathon

This recent bout of injury has been a bitter pill to swallow.  I'm haunted by an angry feeling that follows me around like a little raincloud, and sometimes the discontent overtakes me in fits of tears.  I'm torn between happiness that the dream is still alive, and my frustration to have this one, important dream hijacked by an injury. 

I've dreamed about Boston the way many women dream about their wedding day: I wanted it to be perfect.  Just like a bride, I dreamed that April 18th would be "my day"; only instead of dancing in a white dress I would be running in a pair of Mizunos.  And instead of walking down an aisle, I would be following in the footsteps of the greatest runners in the world along one of the most infamous marathon courses in the history of running.  But now I'm full of worry that I'll never make it to the "alter", and that the months of planning for the big day will culminate in a tragic end.

My physiotherapist, being stumped by my groin pain, recommended I seek a bone scan to understand if the source of the pain is stress to my pelvic bone.  I managed to get a bone scan booked for tomorrow.  The results often take a week to come back, which means I won't have the results of the bone scan until a day or two before leaving for Boston.  It's too late to alter the course of my final weeks of training, but will hopefully the bone scan will give me some insight into the nature of my injury so that I can run Boston accordingly.  If it truly is a weakness in my bone, I will be running Boston very carefully. 

Not exactly what I had in mind; but then, how often do dreams turn out exactly the way you imagined?  At this point, I don't care about the white dress.  All I want is to actually make it to the alter and enjoy the ceremony - preferably without pain or injury. That would be enough.  That would still be a dream come true. 

I'm not giving up.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Chasing the dream - 3 weeks till Boston - "A change of strategy"

A change of strategy

Another week has clicked by, and clicked by quickly.  I can't believe I'm down to three weeks until race day.  The last week has been a challenging one, and I don't know if I would still be hanging in there if I was training for any other race than Boston.

Who am I kidding...of course I would. 

The danger of a potential stress fracture continues to cast a shadow on my Boston Marathon dreams.  This last week has been a week of marathon training....without actual running.  I don't understand how people can think that running is hard because I can barely think of anything harder than enduring an hour on the elliptical.  Elliptical, spin class, and cycling have been my means of keeping my fitness high without the impact that running exacts on my body. 

The many weeks of intense training have left me emotionally spent and walking a fine line between well-trained and over-trained.  My physiotherapist lent me an old, but great book written by 9-times Comrades trail race winner Bruce Fordyce called "Run the Comrades".  In it, Bruce outlines what to do and what to expect when training for The Comrades in South Africa.  He comments about the negative impacts of training including the moodiness that comes with spending many hours each week preparing for a race.  He calls his moody faze "the Fordyce prima donna syndrome".  I've been experiencing my own "prima donna" syndrome, and not being able to run is amplifying the grumpiness I feel.  I crave the open road - not the elliptical.  I want to feel the wind on my face - not the staleness of the gym air.  It's all I can do to remain focused and keep my heart rate in a place where the elliptical is helping my training - not wasting my time.

A new challenge - a new plan

The plan for the week was to lay off the running in hopes that a week of rest (well, not rest...just not running) would give my pelvis a chance to rest and recover from the strain of my training regiment.  Then,test my pelvis with a the regularly scheduled weekend long run.  My long run this week was Hamilton's "Around the Bay 30k" road race.  It was a race I've been wanting to run for a few years now, and although I finally got to run the course, it was no race for me.  The goal for "Around the Bay" was to run it carefully and see if I could fend off the pain for the entire 30kms.

I felt good this morning - I felt like it was going to be a good day, and that the week of rest would put me back onto my regular training plan.  It was crisp this morning, so layers were in order.  As I stood at the start line bundled in four layers on my torso and two layers on my legs, I looked more like I was going snowboarding than running a race.  After training outside all winter, I'm used to the layers, and I can run comfortably under layer upon layer upon layer.  The race started out well - I felt confident and I was inspired by the thousands of runners who surrounded me on Hamilton's streets.  My friend Sam and I ran swiftly through the throngs of runners - keeping an average 5:10/km pace.  The sun was shinning and everything felt perfect as we devoured the course, km after km.  Then, my worst fears came true.

The pain was back.

Shortly after the 20km mark, the pain in my groin begin to creep up.  It wasn't the worst pain I had ever felt, but it was a sign that the injury had not yet healed.  My heart began to sink.  As much as I wanted to keep running, the words of my physiotherapist, and threat of a fractured pelvis, encouraged me to swallow my pride and walk all of the remaining downhills to in an effort to keep the pain from escalating into a bigger problem.

I finished the race in 2:45 with an angry ITB and niggling discomfort in my groin.  The finishing time was much slower than my capability, but I was content with it because I knew Around the Bay wasn't the most important event in my running schedule.  I sacrificed Around the Bay for the sake of the Boston Marathon - an easy trade to be sure.  I'm sad that I felt the pain, but am still hopeful that Boston will be better.  I'm one week closer to living the dream.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Chasing the dream - 4 weeks till Boston - "Run with caution"

The countdown continues.  Today marks four weeks until the 115th Boston Marathon - four weeks until I will be running one of the most prestigious marathons in the world.  Four weeks is a psychologically significant point in the training schedule for me.  It means my preparation time is now mere weeks instead of months, and only two of those four weeks can be used for building on strength and speed before the taper begins.  Runners are tempted to push hard to include challenging workouts into the final weeks before the taper, which prompts a reminder to add another very important, and often overlooked, element to the training schedule: caution.

Curb your enthusiasm!

It's easy to get swept up in the excitement (and anxiety) of race preparations.  We stress over whether we're doing enough to be ready for the big day, and we forget to think about whether we're doing too much.  As the weeks dwindle away, the need to BE CAREFUL becomes more and more important.  Why?  Because as the days remaining until race day diminish, so too does the window of time available to heal an injury.  Many injuries that involve torn muscles can take 6 to 8 weeks of rest to recover; and injuries that involve a stress fractured bone can take 8 to 12 weeks of rest - sometimes more.

Experienced runners will tell you that ramping up distance too aggressively is a dangerous thing to do, and can result in an injury. I was well aware of the risk associated with adding distance too quickly, however, I didn't make the  connection between "distance" and "elevation" (hills), and how increasing elevation too aggressively can have an equally damaging outcome as increasing distance too aggressively.  I learned that today.

I've been experiencing some pain in my groin over the last few weeks.  I thought nothing of it, assuming that this was just another "training pain" stemming from muscle fatigue.  On Friday, the groin pain worsened during my evening run, and I sensed that the pain could be more than simple muscle fatigue.

I went to my physiotherapist this morning to have the groin pain assessed.  As my physiotherapist tested my adductors and abductors for strength and pain, I explained my recent training regiment with her.  Her assessment is what she called a "pre-fracture" in my pelvis.  A "pre-fracture" is her way of describing what happens to the bone before it actually fractures.  It seems the increase in downhill running, which is very high impact running, has stressed my pelvis and left it in a more delicate state.

Luckily I seem to have caught the problem before it progressed into a full blown injury, but it has certainly planted a fear in my heart.  My lesson this week: moderation is important for ALL aspects of your training.  From distance to hills to weights: it's imperative to give the body time to ramp-up.  Training too little should not worry runners as much as training too much.  You can always make it to the start line under-prepared, but you likely won't even see the start line if you over-prepare and end up with an injury.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Chasing the dream - 5 weeks till Boston

When I opened my blog today to see that my last Boston Marathon post was three weeks ago, my first reaction was, "did I lose a post somewhere in cyberspace?".  Then I yawned....and that explained what happened to my last post: it got sucked into the same vortex that the rest of my life gets sucked into when I'm clocking big miles.

Dealing with training related fatigue

Wow, I can't believe it's now five weeks until the Boston Marathon.  The only thing that makes it completely believable is the feeling that seems to hang over my head almost every day - like a dark cloud with a really bright silver lining.  The side effect of a 6-day per week training schedule is fatigue, and the side effects of fatigue are anxiety and doubt.  If I hadn't been through the entire marathon training cycle before, then I would likely be wanting off the marathon train right about now.

If you are currently (or planning to) train for a marathon, don't be surprised if anxiety and doubt creep up on your shortly after fatigue settles in.  This is where a sense of discipline trumps one's love for running as the foundation of marathon success.  Two of my five runs last week were only completed (and started) because I talked myself out of the desire to chill in my PJ's instead of lacing up my running shoes. 

As I mentioned before: if I wasn't familiar with this process, I might be feeling hopeless right now; but I know that the fatigue is normal - not only because the same thing happened to me last year when I was running high mileage, but also because I've heard and read similar stories from other distance runners.  As I slogged through the 30 km hilly distance on Sunday, I searched my mind and soul for anything that could inspire me to keep going in spite of the deep spiritual and emotional fatigue I was feeling.  Fending off negative thoughts is an important key to finishing and *enjoying* long runs.  If you can master your mind, you can master distances that you never believed you were capable of. 

As I sifted through the usual motivational thoughts, I finally stumbled upon the one thought that has resurrected me from more than one tough spot over the last year.  The magic motivator was not to think about a sports hero or a reward that I would enjoy when I finally got through the challenging moment.  It was faith.  You don't have to be religious to benefit from the feeling of faith - I certainly am not.  The faith that fueled me was a faith in the plan - faith that if I stuck to my training and put in the work, then my dedication and faith would be rewarded with a great marathon day. 

Have faith in your plan

Training my first marathon taught me more about running than the previous three years of training for shorter distances all put together.  Shorter distances were not "scary" enough to frighten me into a solid training regime.  Most of the time I simply ran according to how I felt.  If I felt like running a long distance, then I did.  If I felt like running fast, then I did.  I wasn't running poorly, but then I wasn't excelling either. 

When I trained for my first marathon, I followed a very strategic plan.  I learned words like "tempo", "fartlek" and "LSD" (long slow distance).  I learned about "negative splits" and that going slow was as important as going fast.  I pushed hard - so hard that on the day of my final long run before beginning my taper, I succumbed to the fatigue and welled up in tears part way through the rainy 33km distance.  The combination of fatigue and worry over the marathon just two short weeks away resulted in a mid-run breakdown.

I managed to stop crying long enough to get myself home, but the waterworks resumed shortly after I walked through my door.  I felt so burnt out, and I couldn't figure out how I was going to run a marathon feeling the way I did.  The next two weeks were tough - but for different reasons.  I worried about tapering.  I worried about losing the strength and speed I had worked so hard to develop during the months prior to the taper.  I fought the desire to keep running long distances and focused on resting my body - hoping that the marathon success formula would work for me. 

When marathon day came around, I made it to the start line with nothing but my four months of training under my belt, and the faith that it was all going to come together in a successful race.  And come together it did.  As the miles and minutes passed, I was surprised at how strong I felt.  When I crossed the half marathon mark, I felt fantastic.  Then I crossed the 30 km mark - still feeling fantastic.  I decided to throw caution to the wind and I ran faster than I had planned.  Mile after mile, I amazed myself, and I crossed the finish line feeling tired but not broken.  My first marathon was everything I dreamed it would be.

Strategy for success

Spring is here, and many runners are preparing for the plethora of races that fill the fair weather months.  If you're working towards a distance you've never run before - perhaps your pursuing your first marathon - my message to you is: make a plan and have faith in it.  Do your research on tried and tested training plans and follow them knowing that you will get OUT of running exactly what you put IN to running.  Do the work, respect your taper, and believe that sticking to your plan through all of the highs and lows, will pay off in a great race.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Get the iron in to get the lead out!

Fatigue has been an ongoing challenge during my training journey.  I've been ramping up my total weekly kilometers more agressively than recommended, and it has left me feeling like the tank is low more days than not. 

I am lucky to have the world's greatest physiotherapist helping me in my training journey.  She is a sub-3:00 marathoner, and brings more to the table than the average physiotherapist.  She knows running...and knows runners.  I see her once ever week or two so that she can work on my problematic Illiotibial Band .  As I lay on the physio table - writhing in the most pain I expect I'll ever experience outside of childbirth - I tell her about my running concerns.

When I told my PT about my fatigue, she provided two pieces of advice.  The first was to put my current state of affairs into perspective.  I'm running more and that means my body is going to need more sleep.  The second was to have my feratin levels checked as the endurance athlete's body will use more iron than a sedentary person, and my daily iron supplement may not be doing it for me. 

Sometimes I forget that the heavy mileage takes a heavy toll on my body.  As I increase the miles, my body becomes a veritable "sponge" - soaking up more and more energy and nutrition, and leaving me with energy and nutritional deficits.  These deficits can leave a runner in an emotional and physical lurch resulting in low moods and injuries that can plague both personal and professional life.  The key is to figure out how to fine tune one's sleep and nutrition to suit the stage of training the runner is in.

Wednesday was "hill play" day for me.  I had 200 meter hill sprints on deck, and I knew after the very first hill sprint that my iron levels were in need of a boost.  When I got home from a disasterous set of hill sprints, I immediately took a second dose of iron.  That night I had one of the most restless sleeps ever in recent months.  The extra iron gave me restless legs and a busy mind which barely let me sink into REM sleep for more than a few hours. 

The good news is: my 15 km run the next day was fabulous!!  I felt like I was flying and finished the run strong and happy.

The lesson I learned: yes, my single iron supplement may not always be doing it for me.  Getting iron in will definitely help runners get the lead out and pull off more powerful runs. Female runners especially need to be cognisent of how their feeling - fatigue could be more than just a lack of pillow time.  However, doubling your iron intake may not be a smart strategy.  Doubling my iron intake put me into an iron surplus that impacted my sleep.  I plan to purchase an iron supplement that's less potent than my usual iron supplement so that I can increase my iron in smaller increments - allowing me to achieve that "fine tuning" required for optimal performance.

Chasing the dream - 8 weeks till Boston

The day I qualified for Boston
Nearly a year ago, I achieved two big goals: one being the completion of my first marathon, and the second being the dream and goal of so many runners: to qualify for the Boston Marathon. 

Any endurance athlete will tell you that your greatest ally and most dangerous enemy is your own mind.  The key to running long is a combination of a strong body, a focused mind and a burning desire to want to achieve the goal - a desire that must burn brighter than the fear and pain that comes with pushing your body further and further...and further.  I don't think I've ever wanted anything more in my life than to run the Boston Marathon.  Boston is the fire that burns brighter than all of my doubts and struggles to balance my professional life, my personal life and my running life. 

Long run days happen once a week, and they can be a real emotional roller coaster ride.  I've been struggling with Iliotibial Band Syndrome since September of last year, and the persistence of tendon pain resulted in a delayed start to my marathon training for Boston.  If it weren't for Boston, I likely wouldn't have started increasing distance at all as pushing a stressed IT Band is a dangerous game.  If a runner pushes a strained IT band too hard, the risk could result in the runner being plunged right back into the depths of IT Band Syndrome once again with weeks more rest and no long runs for weeks - even months.  For the last seven weeks, I've pushed my body hard to make up for lost time, and to get back on track to completing a strong marathon in Boston.  It's been a tough time - full or physical pain and mental struggle. 

Today brings me to the "8 week to go" mark in my training.  8 weeks to go means 6 more weeks of heavy training and then the even MORE emotional roller coaster that comes with the two week taper.  I had a really strong run today that left me feeling more positive than ever about my Boston Marathon.  However, the exertion of laying down a great training run has left me emotionally spent - as it often does. 

If only it were as easy to apply the dedication and discipline I have for running to other parts of my life.  Some people see running as a hard thing to do....I see it as the easiest part of my week.  For that, I feel both happy and sad.  Regardless, I'll keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep chasing the dream.