Sunday, November 15, 2015

On changing the world: don't overthink it

With the news of the Paris attacks still overwhelming my brain Saturday, I spent lunchtime in downtown Dallas' Tent City where homeless men and women live under bridges. A friend had asked me to come, and a bunch of us were serving chili cheese dogs. The group I was working with was a religious one, and while I do have a faith of my own, I prefer to serve my chili cheese dogs unadorned. But sometimes we overthink this stuff: it was cold outside, and people were getting food. For the men and women I talked with--the ones eating the dogs--it was a win.

When the massive thing happens, the overwhelming tragedy, many of us want to help in some way while also feeling paralyzed at the enormity of it all. I remember this feeling after the Ceaucescu revolution in Romania in the late 80s. That was when I left my job as a journalist to become a foreign aid worker--and ultimately discovered just how little one person can accomplish in the face of overwhelming need.

Because the suffering in the world IS overwhelming, and our efforts are so small and so imperfect. We worry about our motives and about our ability to do something meaningful. We even worry we might do the wrong thing, be in the way. But you see, that's not a reason--it will never be a reason--to do nothing. Romania, the Twin Towers, Katrina, Paris, Kenya... If you want to be a person, you can't let that feeling of being overwhelmed win. You go out and you do something, however small. You tip the balance of suffering in the world a tiny, tiny bit.

The people of Paris are opening their doors to one another today. They're not huddling in their homes discussing the state of the world--they're going out and giving blood. You can't fix Paris. I can't fix Paris. But there's plenty of suffering to go around, plenty of need.

Find a food bank or a blood bank. Start a recurring donation to that fantastic French organization Médecins Sans Frontières (you may know them as Doctors Without Borders) or some other nonprofit that goes where you can't. When we feel overwhelmed by suffering, we find something to do, something to give, right where we are. That's how we don't let the bad guys win.

So go through your closet and find the clothes you can donate. Or go through your cupboard and do the same for a food bank. Find a group feeding the homeless and go out for even a couple of hours. Grab some blankets and head down to Dawson Street because it's cold out there right now. Don't wait to do something significant because paralysis will set in. Do something small, and then do it again when you can. Don't overthink it.

Monday, November 9, 2015

We go on...

Women over 45 take off on one of the many many swim waves. 
Water is churning all around me; the lake is a washing machine. Winds are gusting at 10-12 mph in the wrong direction, but that's nothing compared to the tsunami created by my fellow athletes who are jostling for position, swimming over one another, punching their way through the chaos to gain an advantage.

I'm about 100 yards into the 1.2 mile swim, and I've already been kicked in the head, pummeled in the chest, and have swallowed a good bit of Walter E. Long Lake. I went out too fast, but I don't realize that yet. I only know I'm straining to breathe and beginning to panic. I lift my head to look up, take a couple of breast strokes so I can see where I'm going and get my bearings, but that only exhausts me more.

The washing machine.
What to do, what to do? I flip over on my back and stroke blindly on. The wet suit is constricting my chest, and I can feel tears welling up inside my goggles. This isn't helping, and my mind is going crazy. I'll never make the distance, never make the swim cut-off. I might even drown! What the hell was I thinking, lining up with all those ripped athletes on the shore? As if I deserve to be one of them! Negative thoughts, negative thoughts. I try to push them down, shut them out, but they are so loud. I keep stroking, keep moving, because I don't know what else to do.

Eventually, I come to a raft--it's a miracle. I don't remember hearing that it would be out here, but Ironman rules say you can stop and rest with a kayak or a paddleboard as long as you don't make forward progress while holding on. I figure the raft is the same deal, so I make the decision to stop, see if I can get my heart rate and my breathing under control. I am just a few minutes into the Austin Half Ironman. I have at least 70 more miles to go, and I'm completely coming apart.

Sunrise before the swim start.
I have a choice now. Some swimmers have been pulled from the water. It's rough out here, and all I have to do is wave at a kayak or a paddleboard, and this scary ordeal can be over for me. Or I can face down my fears and go on--I can do what I came here to do. As my heart rate slows and my panic begins to die down just a little, I remember a phrase of my good friend Chuck's: "My race, my pace." I realize I went out far too fast with the speedsters, and I need to slow it down, control the flow of this long swim, this even longer day. I make a deal with myself: I will go on, calmly, steadily--until and unless I am no longer able.

I strike out into the maelstrom again. "My race, my pace," I tell myself over and over as my freestyle stroke finally finds its rhythm. Buoy after buoy passes to my right, slowly, steadily. I turn and head across the back side of the lake, receive a couple more punches in the head and stomach, a few more kicks. First one leg cramps, and then the other, and they pretty much take it in turns from then on. They are like wooden stumps, kicking behind me. I tense my ankles, and it seems to help. Someone swims over the top of me, and I swallow more water, but I go on: "My race, my pace." I'm not trying to beat the other athletes, after all. I'm only trying to beat the clock, make all the cut-off times, earn my medal. "My race, my pace. My race, my pace." I don't think about the miles ahead. I don't focus on the chaos all around me.  Stroke... breathe... stroke... breathe...

And it's then that the second miracle happens. I notice the temperature of the water--just right--and the flow of it over my body. I am movement and breath. I am here, in this moment, and everything is just as it should be. The fear is still swimming alongside me, my calves are still screaming, and my chatterbox brain is still running the numbers and worrying about the time cut-off, but underneath it all is something else, something sweet and unexpected but utterly recognizable... Yes, that's joy!

There's a hawk circling overhead, and I can see the shore in the distance as I flow round the next turn-buoy. I'm doing this. Stroke... breathe... stroke... breathe... I am alive, and anything is possible.
Bike transition.

I am out of the 1.2 mile swim in 50 minutes, 54 seconds, and headed up the sandy incline. I pull down the zipper of my wetsuit and flop onto my back where the peelers are standing ready to pull it off me. I manage to hang onto my tri shorts, they hand me back my suit, and I head up the hill toward T1 to get my bike. Ken is there at the barrier, yelling encouragement. Only 69.2 miles left to go...

At T1, I eat a potato, suck down chia and fruit puree and a mouthful of water, slip on my cycling shirt, socks, shoes, helmet, and race belt. I'm being slow and methodical, allowing my heart rate to come down again. I spray suncreen wildly around my body (missing huge chunks, it later transpires!), stuff my wetsuit, goggles, and cap in my bag, grab my bike, and run up to the mount line where my awesome friends, Jennifer and Rocky, are volunteering. I smile at them happily. They scream and yell and wave crazily at me. And I'm off--56 miles of lonely rolling hills ahead.

Off on the ride.
I have food in the back pockets of my cycle shirt and a couple of bottles of water on the bike, but I'm pretty new at all this. I confess I have the left turn signals down, but I don't really like to take my right hand off my bike--ever. I'm not an expert at leaning down for my bottle either, let alone reaching behind me for the ginger waffles in ziplock bags tucked into my shirt. I know I need to eat something on the bike though, or I'll be running on empty far too soon. I give myself five miles to find my rhythm before attempting to fuel. I know I can't put it off too long.

Zoomers on TT bikes with pixie helmets are screaming past me on my left, and I'm hugging the shoulder as best I can so I don't get a blocking penalty, but the roads are beat up from the recent floods, and the course is hazardous, hilly, and just plain hard. I see people falling victim to flats, collisions, and exhaustion, and I hear several experienced Ironmen complaining it's one of the worst courses they've ever seen. I think to myself, "It is what it is." And I go on.

The winds are against us most of the way, and the hills are truly something else. Ambulances and EMTs are doing a brisk business, and there are lots of burst tires due to rough terrain. But somehow I get lucky: no flats, no crashes, and four honey stinger waffles scarfed down over the course of the race. I even manage to take a bottle of gatorade from a volunteer while peddling past. Still though, I know I haven't eaten nearly the amount recommended, nowhere close to the kind of calories I'm burning, and I'm going to pay for that on the run. But my stomach is constricted from all the leaning forward, and there's no place to put any more. I feel a little sick and not a little sore. My quads and shoulders are talking to me pretty loudly by mile 30--the elevation changes are no joke and the winds make the rare flats feel like hills too.

But the winds are also the reason my friend the hawk is back with me, riding the thermals overhead as he escorts me along the route. Either side of me are acres of cacti and mini-lakes left over from the recent floods. The sky is just perfect. It is a beautiful, blustery day, and I am here. I am alive. I go on.

On the run.
By the end of the ride,  I'm hot and tired. I've been working out already for more than five hours, undertrained thanks to sickness and injury and on very little sleep. The thought that I must now run a half marathon just makes me want to weep. So I stop thinking. I head into transition, rack my bike, strip off my cycle shirt and put on the Union Jack vest I always wear to race. I change my socks, put on my battered running shoes and visor, suck down more chia seeds, and I'm off again. 57.2 miles down--only 13.1 ahead. Only. There are three loops. I'm just going to run them one at a time. "My race, my pace."

The wind has died down, and the sun has come out. One foot. Then another foot. Left, right, left, right: "My race, my pace." I can do this! Running is what I do these days, after all. Running is who I am.  I survived the swim, and I survived the bike. I'm not going to give up now.

The amazing Rocky Grabow!
Lots of athletic-looking people are walking. It feels like an invitation. They look so much fitter than me, so if they're not running... I make a bargain with myself. I can walk all the aid stations, and on each of the hills, I will pick a landmark halfway up, and I may walk after that point if I must. My nutrition up to this point has been pretty clean. I haven't sucked down any artificial crap. I've stuck with real food, and it's worked for me, but my body is really really tired now, so I decide to go with crappy but expedient. At each aid station, I suck down a cup of coke, pour a cup of ice down my bra (don't knock it till you've tried it!) and throw a couple of cups of water over my head. I'm losing power, and I know it, but I go on, powered by high fructose corn syrup and determination.


Twice on each loop, I see Rocky and Ken, waving signs, yelling encouragement, urging me forward. They're both wearing DRC "Straight Outta White Rock" shirts, and Rocky is also wearing a purple wig and tutu. She bounces around and around as I make each turn. Ken yells out, "You've got this. You are FIERCE!" And I go on.

When I hit the third loop, I know it's almost over. I am going to make the time cut off with more than half an hour to spare. I run and I run and I run and I run, and I'm weeping.

I can hear people cheering, I can see the arena, and suddenly there it is: the finish line. I punch the air as I cross it--for the victory picture, you know!--but I am still weeping, and I am not the only one. As I meet the eyes of athlete after athlete, I see the same expression, and I know it now for what it is. Our tears are made of joy and of relief, of course, but also of something deeper--the knowledge that we are strong, that we can face down our demons, that we have the power to choose hope over fear, over and over again. We go on. 

ENDNOTE: Kudos to everyone who made it through the washing machine and everything that followed. According to analysis, 2015 was a particularly tough year at Austin Ironman 70.3. Of the 2088 athletes who signed up, 7.1% did not finish--compared to 3.3, 3, and 2.6 the previous years. 

Friday, September 4, 2015

To my Favorite Firstborn on her 21st Brthday

Darling Joy,

Allow me to begin with a little cheese on this day of days. Indulge me because, as I've gotten older, I've found some of the cheesey things to hold within them a certain truthiness that cannot be denied.

The day you were born, everything about my life changed. Until then, I guess I knew the theory about love, but I didn’t understand how fierce and strong and unbreakable it was—is. I have been crazy about you your whole life, will be crazy about you forever. There is nothing you could do that would ever change that.

The Bible says “Love is as strong as death,” but the Good Book’s wrong on that one. Love is stronger. From the moment I saw you do that somersault on the sonogram and left the hospital singing “Wild Thing!” I have been your biggest fan. I will always be, and I will always love you. It’s an immutable law of science—like gravity or relativity, only stronger and without all the weird mathy stuff you love but I don’t understand. I guess neither of us gets any points for that—it just is.

But points are nice, dammit, so let’s talk about some of the things you do get points for. After all, you ARE “da man,” and you deserve the finest bagels and muffins in all the land! I’m going to miss some stuff and leave some stuff out or this letter would go on forever, but I did want to mention a few things that I admire terribly.


The day you were born, my friend Julie told me nervously, “She looks like she’s failing me for an exam!” She was onto something. You came into this world with a determined look upon your face, and I’ve been watching different iterations of that look play across your features for 21 years now. When you decide on a course of action, your question is not, “Shall I?” but “How shall I?” I admire that so much. 

You are a woman of fierce conviction—and you follow through. Whether it’s your commitment to vegetarianism or to Middle East peace, you look for what you believe is right, and that’s your guiding star. You have an inner moral compass that’s made of iron. Some people spend a whole life trying to find that thing—and counting the cost of committing to it once they do. You? It’s your center, the place you move from, choose from, work and love from. It knocks my socks off to see that, know that—and scares me a little sometimes, truth be told.


Speaking of socks, your kindness has always blown me away. Remember that time in primary school when you came home barefoot? There was some kid who didn’t have socks, and it was just the logical thing to you to hand yours over. You didn’t even think to mention it until I asked you where yours had gone. Your heart is enormous. I guess that’s why you have given so much of your time and energy to community organizing and working for peace. Your strong beliefs come from that center of compassion in you. You want justice, and equality, and opportunity for others, and you don’t just talk about it; you work hard for it—harder than anyone I know.


Everyone gets scared sometimes, even you, but you have never let fear drive you because you know that other things are more important. You boldly go where your heart and fierce conviction lead you. That costs you sometimes--and scares you sometimes or you wouldn’t be human--but you go anyway. And that right there? That’s what makes you a woman to be reckoned with. As Eddie Izzard would say, “The Force is really rather strong with you!”


OK, I guess we’re back to the things you don’t get many points for. Thank you for making me laugh so hard and so often through the years. You get points for that—so many points. But your crazy intelligence? That’s like the fact that you are gorgeous and enjoy stuff I don’t understand. I think you were just born that way, so... No points for that. 


There’s no need to be embarrassed though. We can’t all be ordinary. Some government program paid you good money that summer you were 19, for example, to parallel program on the supercomputer in Illinois to try to speed up the analysis of Dark Matter? Yeah, right. That sounds like something from one of those programs with aliens and people in phone boxes that whizz about the space-time continuum. I thought that stuff was just on the telly. “No, mum, it’s really a thing,” you told me—and got the fat check to prove it. 

Don’t you know that, as a Millenial, you were supposed to spend your summers asleep and then get a degree in something improbable before spending your days eating Ramen and texting and binge-watching Netflix? Instead, you have fancy job offers before you even start your senior year of college. You might not be doing this stuff right is all I’m saying…


When I look back at your first 21 years, and then forward into a future I can’t even imagine, I’m more than a little awed. I can’t wait to see your story unfold. Of course, there will be days when you don’t feel like adulting, and that’s OK. That’s why Ben and Jerry and Amazon Prime are a thing. But there will be other days, so many of those—because of who you are. Those will be the days when you laugh and days when you cry, the days when everything unfolds just as it should, and the days you just can’t understand why. 

But there are so many days out there for you which are going to be nothing but adventure. Go forth, my brave, my beautiful one, and take the ineffable by the tail. If anyone can eff it after all, my money’s on you!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Grow Your Own Grit!

New Orleans Marathon: 1/25/2015
New Orleans was my third marathon, and like every race that went before, it taught me a few things.

  1. Vaseline in all the right places will finally get you a chafe-free race.
  2. If the water in your bottle gets hot, it's a sure sign that you aren't drinking enough.
  3. Don't eat mussels paired with Malbec the night before a big run: they're not pretty when they pay the return visit.
  4. No matter how well you prepare, those last few miles are going to hurt. When all else fails, your inner commandant will get you there. 

I'm sure you've heard it many times before, but the marathon really is all about mental toughness. It's a mind game, and your inner toddler is going to fight you those last few miles, every step. Sure, smart training and a strong body will get you to mile 17--maybe even mile 20--but only grit will get you to the finish. So how do you train for that?

After the race: 4:28:40
I read an article just the other day about the need for mental toughness, but honestly, it didn't offer me much help. It told me what qualities I needed, not how to grow my own. So here's my take on growing your own grit:

   •   You grow your own grit every time you make a hard decision that's right but not necessarily in your own interest.
   •   You grow your own grit every time you suck something up and choose not to whine when life's not fair.
   •   You grow your own grit when you walk through the hard places in your life, when you feel like it's all too much and too far, but you keep plodding on anyway--doesn't matter how slowly or how many tears you shed on the way.

I've asked this question before, and I'm still asking it today: Do marathons train us for life, or does life train us for marathons? My jury's out; I don't know. I can say this though. I've been a runner less than a year and a half, but I've got 48 years of growing my own grit to contribute to the task, and I'm bringing all of them. The real training to be a runner started a very long time ago.

Under the bell at the Crow Collection of Asian Art
My hero Thich Nhat Hanh says red traffic lights don't have to be irritants--they can be mindfulness bells, bringing us back to the present moment. If a traffic light is like the small zen bell I keep on my bookshelf, then the marathon distance is the bloody great dome they store at the Crow. You can't run those final miles anywhere but the present moment. I swear that's why they take so much from you--and give so much back.

So next time life dumps a stinking, steaming pile of something undeserved and smelly on your doorstep, remind yourself you're in training for those last few miles, the ones that only grit will get you through. You have 26.2 reasons to be grateful for this challenge (I'm preaching to myself here!), so square your shoulders, pick up a shovel, and sing...

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
-- Jelaluddin Rumi,
    translation by Coleman Barks

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

What was taken and what was not

I'm making lists this evening. My car was broken into today as I was running round the lake. The police require a comprehensive run-down of what was taken. I'm trying to have a good attitude, so I thought I'd balance it with a couple of lists of what was not.

What was taken

Purse--including my driver's licence, bank and credit cards, favorite lipstick, wallet.

Sports bag--including swimsuit, goggles, yoga pants, favorite "Will Run for Wine" shirt (dammit!), expensive sports bra (double dammit!), new, gifted to myself for the season, yummy toiletries for post-swim showers.

GPS system--anyone who knows me well knows I don't know where they are any more. It was great while it lasted. So very sorry...


What was not taken

My new glasses--found buried under the shattered window on my passenger seat but still intact. So grateful. Apparently that extra $20 for the scratch-resistant lenses is not a scam.

Leftovers from yesterday's trip to Cosmic Cafe--my favorite firstborn found them in the footwell this evening and devoured them gleefully after driving me all round town to help me take care of business.

Bike rack--totally accessible, totally untouched.

What can never be taken

My beautiful friends, who bombarded me with messages as soon as they heard. Could they drive me somewhere? Bring me pho? Search the crime scene for discarded items? Bring me a new purse, a margarita? Cash, cuddles, Cabernet?

My beautiful run today, and the year and a half of training that made it so easy to loop the lake on a windswept sunshiney day.

Our crazy, messed-up, complicated, beautiful whirled. It takes all sorts. Thanks for being a part of it. x

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Day of Reckoning: Counting the Years and Logging the Miles

Today, my younger daughter, Lizzy, left for college in West Texas. A casual smile and a wave, a shouted "I love you" out the window of my car as she sped off down the street with her sister, and she was gone. It's 18 years and change since she first showed up in my life, all giggles and mischief. How do you even begin to figure all the moments and milestones between then and now? The afternoon she crawled headfirst, fearless, into the ocean; the time she climbed the wall at her granny's and fell into the lavender patch; the day she saw her first rainbow, threw back her head and laughed for pure joy, explaining, "I didn't know they were real; I thought they were just in books!"  I'm playing the theme song from Rent as I write this because today is a day of reckoning, a time for counting the years, and logging the miles--for measuring in love.

Speaking of measuring, you might be interested to know that it's exactly 356.7 miles from my living room sofa to Lizzy's dorm room at Texas Tech--hell, yes, I counted! It may not seem too far to her sister, Joy, who traveled decidedly further afield to college in Minnesota, but anyone who's driven from Dallas to West Texas knows there are times when you think that journey's never going to end. You drive for hours through some of the flattest, dullest landscape ever seen outside of Holland, and the boring view is surpassed only by the dearth of decent eateries on the way. You begin to understand why people go crazy out there and why cow-tipping is a thing.

My older daughter, Joy, made her first trek to college two years ago, and the drive to Northfield, Minnesota, took two whole days. Don't get me started on the passive aggression of the Iowa cornfields, the way they suck you in with all their pretty and then go on and on and on, staring you down, moodily, from both sides of the highway until you begin to believe you've entered some bizarre, corn-filled alternate universe and may never get out again! If you've driven through them, you already know. If you haven't, there's really no way to fully explain. Six hours? Two days? Eighteen years? It's all relative. When you're in the middle of the journey, it seems like it might never end. And when it's over... Well, that's another thing.

Which brings me back, of course, to running because today is also my Runniversary--it's exactly a year since I staggered sweatily down to the end of my road on Day 1 of Couch-2-5K, wondering whether I might die on the way. In the 365 days since then, I've run an astonishing 1,110 miles, and it's quite comforting to me on this day of endings and beginnings, of counting and logging the data, to note that that's significantly further than the 356.7 miles my daughters drove to Lubbock today or the 903.9 miles between my front door and my older daughter's dorm room in Northfield, Minnesota.

I've done the math and figured out I can run to them if I need to, so I think we're gonna be OK.

Monday, April 28, 2014

First Marathon Race Report: in which I discover my Inner Commandant

Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon: April 27, 2014

I’ve had a couple of hours of sleep, and it’ll have to do. I wasn’t expecting much anyway. I’ve been a weird/wired mix of a little kid waiting for Christmas and a dental patient waiting for the drill for days now. I’m hopped up on carbs and equal measures of fear and excitement. I’m so ready for this—and so not! What the hell am I doing here? Eight months ago, when I started Couch25K, I could barely run to the end of my road. What makes me think I can suddenly run a marathon? I chow down distractedly on a handful of chocolate-covered coffee beans and a banana and swallow a mug of hotel coffee. That should do it!

We’re getting on the DRC Party Bus and headed downtown to check our race bags and line up. Everyone’s
anxiously watching phone apps for news of the weather. This is “Tornado Alley,” after all, and there’s a big storm brewing. There are porta-potties everywhere when we get near the starting line, and I need all of them! I lose my DRC friends somewhere between the bag check and the loos but figure I’ll find them again at the race. I don’t. From this point on, I’m pretty much on my own.

The race has been postponed… and postponed… and postponed again. I’m wet and hungry and depressed and tired. We had all fine-tuned our nutrition and our repeated visits to the porta-potties for an exact 6:30 start. Runners obsess about such things—what goes in, what comes out, and when. No one here cares about getting wet, but there is a dangerous storm system overhead. The race directors have to make a tough call to ensure our safety, and things are looking dicey out there.

More than 26,000 runners are huddled in doorways, parking garages, and buildings across the city in varying degrees of optimism and despair, waiting for more news. I find myself in the hall of a local Methodist church that opened its doors and started serving pancakes and coffee. I can’t be bothered to stand in line, and someone in the street gave me a cinnamon roll anyway. I don’t much like sugary pastries, but I’m grateful for the carbs because I’m still hoping to be able to run, and my breakfast has long since drained away with much of my energy and hope. . . I share half of my roll with some guy who can’t stop staring at it: he gives half of that to the guy next to him—the girl opposite me splits a sausage and gives half to me. It’s a modern day loaves and fishes scenario in this church, but this crowd just wants to run.

Eventually, I wander into the sanctuary. There are hundreds of runners filling the pews, and some of them may well be praying. Behind the cross on the altar, a big screen is blaring out Fox News weather reports. Could life get any weirder? They are talking about the possible need to cancel. 8:00am was the last window of opportunity, they say. The city roads need to open again at 1:30pm, and lots of the marathoners won’t make it round by then. Plus, the day’s going to get very hot and humid. If the storm doesn’t get us, the traffic or heat will. I am about to lose it. All the planning, all the work, all these runners with nowhere to run…

And then suddenly the race is back on. They’ve pushed the window just a little further out, and we’re pouring out of churches and parking garages back onto the course. I think someone is singing the Star-Spangled Banner. The mood is wild; we’re elated. I line up near some firemen, and I realize I’m crying. This is really happening. We’re going to run… I’M going to run…

The press of people is huge, but there isn’t any rudeness or shoving that I can tell. The patience and grace of these people is helping me get a grip. I catch the eye of someone I think I might know, smile through my tears… And we’re off!

Holy crap, this is happening!!!

Crowds are cheering, feet are pounding, and everything’s moving very fast. It’s so easy to get caught up in the wave of speed, but I have 26.2 long miles ahead of me, and I need to hang onto some drive for the hours ahead. I need discipline like I’ve never needed it before. I check my watch religiously, every few seconds, to make sure I’m not getting carried away. It’s a rookie mistake to take off like a rat from a trap on the adrenaline high. I read on a running website recently that in those first few miles you should feel like you’re “just poking along.” That phrase is resonating with me now. That’s what I’m doing. It’s effort, but it’s far from all-out effort. All that training at differing speeds has given me a real feel for what might work, and I’m hanging onto it tight in the face of a killer desire to just take off as fast as I can move.

I run the first mile in 11:07 minutes, according to my Garmin, and then I reassess. Right now, this pace seems nicely doable. I’ll stick with it for a while. I run miles 2 through 4, from Bricktown through the State Capitol Complex, at 11:08, 11:01, and 11:09. I’ve decided the Garmin is the boss of me for the duration of the race. I read an article recently which suggested our bodies lie about what they can do and shut down early to protect themselves. We’ll be having none of that malarkey here today! Whenever I see my pace fall off, I tell my body she can never get these minutes back if she loses them. So, step it up!

Perhaps I should pause at this point and say I was kind of hoping I would find an inner serenity out on the course, a runners’ version of Zen enlightenment, an inner Dalai Llama, if you will. I was waiting for the appearance of this sweet fuzzy encourager who would say inspiring things like some of the posters held up by the crowds: “You are so awesome!” “You’ve got this!” “You’re an inspiration!” It turns out, what I have is a harsh task master who takes no prisoners and snorts at failure, who has much more in keeping with those other posters out on the road: “If it was easy, everyone would do it, so suck it up!” and “One in every 100 runners poops their pants. Are you that one?” Oh dear… Out on the course this day, I have discovered my inner Commandant, and this is a character not to be messed with! It tells my body whenever she starts to whimper, “You are a machine! Your job is just to do this, so DO IT! DO IT TILL IT’S DONE!”

Somewhere around those miles where I’m settling in with my inner Bossy Boots and my body is giving up the
reins, I see a DRC sign and yell out. My friend Jennifer comes running after me, holding up her other sign which reads, “GO SCARLETT. THE BRITISH ARE COMING!” I am so happy to see a face I recognize, and I kick it up a notch. C’mon, body, move it!!!

Mile 5, I run at 10:59, and this is where I admit that all that wise counsel that I should let go of my time goals for my first marathon has fallen on interested but decidedly ambivalent ears. I got injured in the last few weeks, and though I’m getting back on form thanks to excellent physiotherapy, I’m not where I was, so I’m not looking for a 4:40 finish anymore--but I do have a secret need to beat the five hour clock. If I can stick close either side to the 11-minute mile mark, I can probably manage it even with a visit to the loo! I need to time it right though. In the first few miles, there are long lines at every porta-potty stop. There’s no way I’m standing in a line watching the seconds tick away. I decide to wait till the Half Marathoners peel away on a separate route, little knowing that’s not till around mile 10.

Miles 6, 7, 8, and 9, I run in tightly disciplined splits: 11:03, 11:04, 11:05, 11:03. It looks like calm assurance—who would know there is a war going on inside? From time to time, my body mentions that her feet are sore, and wet, and that she’s not sure I’m doing the math right, that maybe we should slow it down. I tell her it’s well known bodies tell lies. I tell her she’s a machine, that sometime this will all be over, but now is not that time; she’ll be sorry if she doesn’t give it everything she has!

We hit the infamous Gorilla Hill around mile 7: it’s steep and seemingly endless. I power up, armed with the insider knowledge from my friend Jennifer that at the top will be people dressed like bananas. What she didn’t warn me was the banana-people are handing out actual bananas to runners, who are chowing down and trampling the skins! Who orchestrates a road for marathoners that’s covered in banana peel? I pick my way through, laughing at the craziness, and run on.

I thought I’d be settling in and listening to my music by this time, almost two hours into the race and with another three to go, but I’m not. The internal argument is taking all my concentration. When the Half Marathoners peel off and the crowd of runners thins significantly, I spend a precious minute and twenty seconds (Hell, yes, I counted—runners love data!) in a smelly loo. It costs me dearly. Mile 10 registers 12:23 on the Garmin. My inner Commandant is not amused!

Mile 11, I’m back to 11:10, but it’s rough going. I’ve been chewing the healthy nutty-datey snacks I’m lugging round with me because I’ve been warned that by the time I realize I need energy, it’ll be too late. It’s getting harder to chew, and I’m starting to worry my body’s right after all; I picked a too aggressive pace. The race delay means we’re running right through the heat of the day. The sun’s beating down, and the air is thick with humidity; the medical tents at regular intervals along the route are keeping busy. My body mentions she might need to sit down in one. My inner Commandant ignores her. That body is such a liar!

Mile 12 and 13, I’m heading towards the lake at 11:25 and 11:38. Dammit, I’m slowing down. My feet feel like lead, and I have a sudden certainty that the store sold me mismatched shoes—the right one is definitely too small. I love water. If only I can get to the lake, there’ll be a breeze… But damn, if you’ve ever read the Pilgrim’s Progress, you’ve heard of the Slough of Despond, and that’s what that lake is to me today--and to many others. This is the only place the route loops, so you can see runners slogging back from where you’re going. It feels pointless and like you’re heading the wrong way only to turn around. I’ve always hated U-turns, and this one is the absolute worst. The air coming off the water is hard, and hot, and thick with humidity and misery. I’m overheated and overwrought and not even halfway home. Mile 14 is the turn at the lake, and I somehow beat my way back to 11:22, but by mile 15 I’m in trouble. My right leg has cramped, and it feels like I’m running on a stump. I’ve been warned, just on the bus coming down here, that stopping to uncramp is a mistake. If I try it, I’ll never get moving again. I can see a medical tent and some helpful looking people. I lurch past them at a halting 12:11, aware I have a couple of hours more of this with no hope of relief. I’m distraught, but I’m in it for the long haul. Doggedness is my superpower.

Somewhere around mile 16, my miracle shows up. Through the fog in my head, I start to hear my name, and through my misted-up sunglasses, I see Douglas running at my side. He’s holding a book (he’s running and reading?) and has pockets full of stuff. He tells me later he had been calling a while and had real trouble getting through to me. I wasn’t very coherent apparently. He lets me know he has painkillers; do I need them? I’m confused and refuse, but he asks again. I figure out a couple of ibuprofen might be a good idea and eventually ask for four. He runs beside me till he finds a water tent when he gives me both at once. I chug them down and run on, leaving him and his book in the dust, but I hang onto the water bottle. I’m so happy to have seen him, but I know if I stop, I’ll never start again.

Someone has handed me a sachet of gu, an energy gel. I’ve never tried one. I prefer the natural gunk I’ve been hauling round unable to chew. I feel a little like I did when, in labor with my first child, I gave up on the idea of a drug-free childbirth around hour 20 and took the shot—a chemical-dependent failure. Nevertheless, I tear the top off and suck it down slowly between miles 17 (12:51) and 18 (13:12). The gu is like sugary glue and tastes like hell, but I’m starting to feel clearer. I couldn’t have swallowed it without my magical bottle of water. There have been plenty of water stops along the way, but I’m bad at drinking out of paper cups while running, and I daren’t stop. The water bottle feels miraculous as I sip and run.

My right leg is still cramped, and it occurs to me, vaguely, that it might snap off with the constant pounding. I alter my gait to try to stretch it a bit. My body, which has been moodily silent for a while, mentions that legs are not really designed for this kind of treatment. Also, it thinks its right foot is probably bleeding and has a huge lump on the side which might burst at any moment. And, of course,  that’s when the chest pain kicks in. 

Apparently, in addition to an inner Commandant, I have an inner hypochondriac. For a while, I wonder whether this tight band around me is the beginning of a heart attack—and then I realize that it’s just the bottom of my sports bra feeling too tight. I shake off the fear and remind myself it’s well known bodies lie—she was just trying to get in another medical tent, dammit! I remind her she’s just a machine, so she better keep doing what machines do.

I get someone to fill up my miraculous water bottle at the next station, and then I start work on a second gu which tastes even nastier than the last. At some point, someone hands me a big cup of something, and I take a giant swallow. Holy hell; it’s beer! Much as I want it, I throw it away. I can’t afford the dehydration or the distraction right now.

Mile 19, and something has changed. I’m still running on stumps, but I can feel an energy lift and I move through it in 11:18. And then I feel it coming back to me: hope, the thing with feathers. All this time, even at my worst, I’ve been running the data in my head, and as far as I can tell, a sub-5 marathon is still in sight. I power up a hill and kick mile 20 in 10:22. Am I making a mistake? Kicking it into gear too soon? I don’t think so... Mile 21: 11:06. Mile 22: 10:48. Mile 23: 10:55. Oh my God: I’m going to make it! I’m going to finish, and in a time that won’t make me ashamed. Mile 24: 11:13. Mile 25: 10:39. Mile 26: 10:31. And then I can see the finish. It’s slow and it’s fast all at the same time, and my vision has narrowed to a tunnel. I can’t feel my right leg anymore, but it can’t have fallen off or I’d over-balance, so keep moving, keep running, you’re almost, almost there…

As I cross the finish, still on my feet, still—miraculously—running, I’m vaguely aware that there’s a discrepancy between my Garmin and the race chip timer. It’s only in that last final burn that I realize I’m not quite going to make sub-5 officially. According to my Garmin, I’ve run 26.6 miles in five hours and one minute exactly. 

According to the chip timer, it’s 26.2 in five hours 42 seconds. At this point, it doesn't matter. Sub-5, not sub-5, who the hell cares? I ran a marathon, dammit, a MARATHON, and I left every bit of me out on the road. I slow down and start staggering, hear Douglas yelling through the fence, and make it to him in time for a hug before I collapse on a delicious pile of ice. There’s another marathon in Dallas in December: I can beat the five-hour then.


Footnote: This was a wonderfully well-organized race with awesome crowds who did everything they could to cheer on the runners, from handing out strips of fresh-cooked bacon to dancing in the streets to playing music. The water stops were fabulous. The organization was great, and the hospitality of the people of Oklahoma City was warm and welcoming. 

Dallas Runners Club, it should also be noted, is the awesomest of all the awesomes, and I feel fortunate, lucky, blessed to count myself a member of this amazing group of people. When I joined, just a few short months ago, I felt intimidated to be among "real" runners. That only lasted until the first time I got to talk to the first one of them. I'm so glad to have found this wonderful, supportive community. Thank you for being!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

A dedication

I'm dedicating this race to the three most beautiful women I have ever known.

Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon route
Miles one through eight, I'm running for you, Lizzy. You have amazed me every single day of your astonishing, courageous life--and I'm pretty sure you're just getting started! You climbed walls before you could walk, crawled headfirst into the ocean as an adventuresome toddler, earned your own riding lessons when I told you I couldn't afford them, and then went on to earn your associates degree in time for your eighteenth birthday. You have never taken the easy or expected path. You are headed for the Honors Program at Texas Tech and have impressed a local scholarship foundation so much that they're putting you through college debt-free. School has only ever been your day-job though. You have given hundreds of hours of time to help riders with disabilities at Equest, and now you're rocking your new job as a swimming instructor in the evenings. And, of course, you want to become a doctor so you can work for Médecins Sans Frontières and help people in crisis around the world. Look at you go! It's never been enough for you to follow where others have gone before. You plow your own furrow, and it seems like you're always looking for the next mountaintop. I see that determined look in your eye, and I know the world better watch out! Miles one through eight, Lizzy: you're going to get me started because I'm going to need your tremendous courage as I stare down the barrel of all the miles and miles to come.
And you, lovely Joy, miles nine through sixteen are for you. The first time I saw you on a hospital scan, you did a somersault. Wild thing, you made my heart sing, and I've been expecting the unexpected from you ever since. Double-majoring in Computer Science and International Affairs, zooming between college in Minnesota and regular trips to Washington and New York as you work for Middle East peace, stalk congressmen in the Capitol, and hang out with geeks and banking bods in your "spare" time, you are the quintessential biter-off of more than can be chewed--but then you always chew it anyway. You earned a huge grant for college with your academic awesomeness and have landed a fabulous paid internship doing something geeky with algorithms that I will never understand. Whether you're directing hilarious Shakespeare spoofs, community organizing, or grading your professors' papers (lucky them!), you work with integrity and steadfast determination for the causes that you care about--and it's that persistence I'm going to need after the initial adrenaline has worn off and worn out. Doggedness, an unswerving faith for what you believe in and a stubborn refusal to say "I can't," is the superpower of yours I'm channeling to get me through the middle miles. When I'm tired, and it feels like it's all too much and it's all too far, I'm remembering you.

And those final miles, mum, that last long ten: I'm running all of those for you. No one I've ever known, no one I've ever heard of, has taught me more about what the tough do when the going gets hard. You are the absolute overcomer, and your whole life is a lesson in faithfulness. I have watched you year after difficult year, decade after decade, walking the path of kindness and determination in the face of impossible odds. If I can run through a thunderstorm when every muscle in my body is screaming at me to slow down, sit down, give up, it's because you taught me how it's done. I never knew a woman with more dignity and strength, more derring do, or more grace, compassion, and love. You are my quiet hero, the one who keeps on keeping on when nobody's watching. I'm going to run all the way to the finish line in Oklahoma to honor you.

With all my love to the three most incredible women I have ever known,

Your daughter/
Your mum/
Scarlett xxox

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
1 Corinthians 13:13

Friday, April 25, 2014

Fundraising for Doctors Without Borders

Two days to the marathon--and yes, my bags are packed already! Please consider supporting my running fundraiser for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) by sponsoring a few miles. Donations made at the link below go directly to MSF which takes teams of doctors to countries in crisis around the world. This, incidentally, is the organization my daughter Lizzy wants to work for after she qualifies. I'm at 30% of my fundraising goal--can you help me get closer? Thanks to all the awesome, generous donors so far. I promise this is the final nag before the race. Click this link to make a secure, tax-deductible donation:
Support Scarlett's Fundraiser for MSF

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Countdown to the marathon...

Tuesday, April 1 (26 days to Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon)

April Fool! My left leg is being an ass--it's an anatomical miracle, but not a particularly happy one. I've been "recovering" from what is probably an overuse injury in my thigh (gracilis, iliopsoas, piriformis, for those who need detail) for the last three or four weeks. To be more accurate, I've spent a couple of weeks in denial and a couple attempting to cooperate with recovery. I'm slower and weaker than I was a month ago, and it's completely frustrating. Two weeks ago, I ran 20 miles. Today, I set out to run 10 miles after work but only made it to seven with a combination of slow running and walking. I'm telling myself not to panic.

March 15: 20 miles done.

I'm walking/running a tricky tightrope between not getting enough rest to recover and getting too much and losing fitness. I keep declaring I will run this damn thing, but I confess to some tearful moments when I'm not sure I believe me. Some of my friends can't fathom why I'm still heading toward my goal. The runners understand, but I get that it looks crazy to others. All I can say is running has become a part of me over the last seven months. It's a relationship, and it's given me way more than I've given it. I've failed enough at relationships in the past to try something other than throwing in the towel this time around. Running and I are going through a rough patch; that's all. I'm confident we'll find a way to work through it, fall back in love again. Some of the excitement and shiny romance is admittedly a little worn of late, but these things go in waves, right? I'm holding out for the next one.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

33 Days

My first Half-Marathon,
The Duel in Wichita Falls,
January 2014. Time: 2:17. Pace: 10:31.

It's 33 days to the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon, and the truth is I'm struggling. I got a little behind on my mileage a few weeks ago and then pushed too hard to catch up. I made the classic error of trying to squeeze in all the missed runs rather than calmly picking up where I left off. The result? A not insignificant amount of pain and more familiarity with the biology of the human thigh than I ever planned to have.

It's 33 days to the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon, and I'm working through injury. So far, I've tried denial, Googling, foam rolling, and a sports massage. Of the four, the sports massage has been the most effective but caused the most bruises. As one of my pace leaders only half-joked, "Never go see your gynecologist within a couple of weeks of a sports massage--he'll ask you whether you're in an abusive relationship!" Don't be fooled by the word "massage" in there: any resemblance to a gentle rub with soothing oils is a linguistic deception. The only thing to which I can compare the experience is childbirth--but without the pain killers and cups of tea.

It's 33 days to the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon, and I've trained too hard and come too far to turn back now. The hard-headed Yorkshire lass inside me who tells me to "grit yer teeth and run through the pain" has not been serving me too well as a sports therapist, so I'm dialing down and easing more gently back into my miles until the old iliopsoas stops screaming. Meanwhile, I'm reminding myself of how I built to my first Half Marathon not too many months ago--lots of long, slow, easy hours at sunrise and sunset, nights at the lake when nothing moved but wind on water, indeterminate wildlife in the bushes--and me. Running is easy really. It's just like life: you put down one foot, and then the other, and then another, and then another... And then you just keep doing that forever--or until the finish line, whichever comes first!

It's 33 days to the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon, and I've got this. Distance running, I've learned, is only a little about the iliopsoas and the road--it's mostly in the mind, and they don't make expensive shoes for that. You see, I'm not planning on running 26.2 miles really. I'm running five, and then five more, and then five more, and then five more... and then just to the next tree, the next bend in the road, the end of the song... And then, of course, the one after that...

It's 33 days to the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon, and I'll see you at the finish line.

I run for Doctors Without Borders: click here to view the fundraising page and see the list of awesome donors. And thanks!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Boxing Day Bash--you're invited!

It's almost time for our annual Boxing Day Bash. If you're reading, you're invited. Great company, yummy food and mulled wine, laughter, music, maybe stories and poetry, maybe dancing--it turns out differently every year, but it's always lovely.

Boxing Day is traditionally the day, back in the old country, when the lords of the manor would serve the people who spent all year serving them. It's a national holiday in England, but hardly anyone remembers why. For me, it's a time to celebrate my wonderful friends!

If you can bring one thing, bring your lovely self--and a friend or partner, of course. Two things? Add something for the table. Three things? Bring something canned for the North Texas Food Bank.

Boxing Day is December 26, 8 till late, but come and go as you please. Thank you for being part of my whirled. (Pic right, with daughter Joy. Lizzy misses Boxing Day this year because she's in England visiting her gran.)

Sunday, December 1, 2013

"Scarlett is not good at PE"

"Scarlett is not good at PE."

So read the damning indictment on a high school report way back when, as my mother, still laughing, reminded me on Skype just the other day. (The English never really bought into that whole positive reinforcement for the kiddos and give 'em all a trophy American thing.) And yes, I was that girl, the one the teams fought over NOT picking and then banished to an esoteric corner of the playing field known as "Left Wing" where I paced miserably in the rain for an hour or more, twice a week, hoping for as little action as possible and generally getting it.

You see, I have a natural reaction when a ball comes flying towards me: I duck. It has always seemed the sensible course to take. Ditto people with rounders bats and hockey sticks. So high school PE was a miserable time for me before I learned to skip class and head down the woods behind the playing fields to think existential thoughts and smoke soggy Woodbines bought from the sweetshop on the corner for 5p a go.

I had not been prepared for the horrors of phys. ed. at Holmfirth High School by my mentors at Nabb where the formidable Miss Bland (who was anything but) had us run about barefoot in our knickers and vests in the school hall twice a week while she praised us from behind her lorgnettes in what I now recognize as execrable French. During a five-minute freestyle session at the beginning of each class, students would show off their individual prowess--climbing ropes, juggling, balancing on their hands, running fast around the room... It was at this time that I perfected the one physically impressive feat of my childhood: standing on one leg motionless. I believe that year's report read: "Scarlett is quite good at standing on one leg!"

All of which is just to say that this running thing I've fallen into lately has taken me by complete surprise. I began training in August, completed my first 5K in October, and two weeks ago, at the age of 47, won my first ever trophy.

I think I mentioned in an earlier post that I began with health and fitness goals in mind, but I've pretty much already left those dreams in the dust. Now I run because it feels a part of who I am. I run before dawn and after dark. I run in the sun and in the rain. When the thermometer shows temps below freezing, I put on a hat and run. On the good days--and there are so many!--I run for the sheer joy of it. Yes, that's me with the maniac grin, rounding the corner by the boathouse, feeling like I'm flying and caring less and less how it looks. On the hard days--and, of course, there are a few--I tell myself, "You come from a family of dogged people. Anyone can put one foot in front of the other, and then another, and then another..." The sense of accomplishment that comes from the hard runs spills over into other, more complicated parts of my life. "You can do this because you could do that," goes my internal monologue. And it helps.

Yesterday, I ran 10 miles straight--it doesn't even sound to my own ears like it can possibly be true, but there it is. My marathon training plan called for 9.4 miles, but it was so close to 10 that when my app. intoned, "You have reached your goal," I answered back, "Like hell I have!" and sped up. At the disapproving 10-mile alert, I careened off the trail into the grass and flopped onto my back to the amusement of several passers by out for a stroll at the lake.

In the month of November, I ran a total of 93.67 miles, so at this point, I would like to add an addendum to those long-ago school reports. Let the record now show:

"Scarlett is not bad at running."

Please consider a donation to my Doctors Without Borders fundraiser: