Friday, March 24, 2017

Road to Ironman: Fail Better!

August 21 2016 I attempted my first Ironman along with four great friends from Texas. A grueling challenge designed to test the mettle of even the very fittest athletes, Ironman involves a 2.4 mile open water swim followed by a 112-mile bike ride and then a 26.2-mile run. A 50-year old English prof. who could barely run to the end of her road three years before, I had trained for months for this event and battled through injuries, fear, and self-doubt to get to the beach of Lake Coeur d’Alene where the course began that perfect August morning. I never made it to the finish line.

According to Ironman’s official race results, I finished the 2.4-mile swim in 1:41:37, well under the 2 hour 20 minute cut-off required to continue with the event. That was a victory in itself since I had spent much of the spring and summer battling panic in the open water. I had dropped out of two swim events within just hundreds of meters of the start and had to work hard to fight an anxiety that was, at times, almost overwhelming.


Many people who first try open water swimming events are familiar with that feeling of panic. It can be multiplied when you are surrounded by athletes battling through the water beside you, kicking indiscriminately--and even unceremoniously swimming over the top of you! In the weeks leading up to Ironman Coeur d’Alene, my greatest fear was that I would never make it as far as the bike start, that panic would defeat me when I had barely begun. Most people work on this common problem by swimming frequently in open water. I tried that, even stopping to swim in lakes up and down the country as I made the road trip from Texas to Minnesota and back for my daughter’s college graduation that summer. It seemed though, for me, that more was not going to mean better.

July 7, 2012, swimming across Lake Texoma.
No goggles, no swimhat, no discernible style.
Just a pair of sunglasses and a lot of enthusiasm.
That’s because the open water was never the real root of the problem. After all, I had swum from Texas to Oklahoma for a lark years before while a friend kayaked beside me. I drank a beer on the shores of the neighboring state before swimming back to Texas again. My stroke was slow and clumsy, but I neither knew nor cared. I was just enjoying the day. Anyone who’s known me for any length of time knows I’m the first to leap into rivers, lakes, and oceans simply because I love the water. I’ve been doing it for decades. What, then, had changed? I had never been a great swimmer, could not even do a proper basic crawl, but it didn’t matter because I had no goals and no time limits back then. Suddenly, though, with the pressure of this big event, the water stopped being my friend. Everything about it became work and worry.

Lots of people had well-meaning suggestions about what I should do to get the better of my problem, but for the most part, I fixed it by swimming hard enough to run out of breath in the safety of a pool, and then slowing down (instead of stopping) to get my heart rate and my breathing back under control. I was fighting the anxiety by showing it I could come back from panic and still go on, that out-of-control breathing didn’t mean the end. It was a strategy of sorts. Let’s be honest though; I didn’t know for sure it was going to work.


That’s why that Ironman swim was such a magical event. Lake Coeur d’Alene is nothing like the murky waters we swim in in Texas. It’s crisp and cool and so clear you can see all the way to the bottom. I didn’t just make it through the swim as I’d been hoping; I relished it, loved every moment, was actually sorry, rather than relieved, when it was all over. I was barely even thrown off my stroke when some passing dude kicked me in the Adam’s Apple—not the only injury I received from enthusiastic athletes that morning.

Of course, the bike was another story. With an elevation gain of more than 7,000 feet over 112 miles, it's an understatement to say that IM Coeur d'Alene does not have one of the easiest bike courses on the Ironman circuit. But I had trained with friends all through the heat of the Texas summer, and I don’t think it was my legs that ultimately let me down. Ironman is such a long endurance event that keeping up nutrition and fluids so your body can work hard is key. I probably didn’t eat enough, and I definitely didn’t drink enough, to make it through. According to my faithful Garmin, it was around mile 76 of the 112-mile ride that I became so hot and confused on a particularly grueling hill that lying down for a nap in the road seemed like an excellent idea. I tried to explain to the nice policeman who pulled me to safety on the side of the road that if he’d just let me sit in his air-conditioned car for five minutes to cool down, I’d be perfectly able to go on. He wasn’t having any of it, and the paramedics who eventually arrived were equally unreasonable. All I wanted was some ice. Instead, I got a free ride back to the start and a saline drip. My race, I was told, was over.

Fear of failing

Of the five friends who traveled from Texas to Coeur d’Alene for that event, only one of us was an experienced Ironman, and she was also the only one of us who made it to the finish that day. Some people might call that a failure. I like to think of it as a start. It’s not surprising that if you have big goals, you don’t always achieve them on your first try, and I don’t think there’s any shame in that. So many people are afraid to have a go at things for fear of failing, but what if failing is just a step along the way? And what if you miss out on what could be some of the greatest experiences of your life because of that fear? If you never fail at anything, I’d like to gently suggest that maybe your dreams aren’t big enough. Just a thought…

Samuel Beckett had this to say about trying and failing: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

So this summer I'm going to try again to reach that elusive finish line at the end of a grueling 140.6-mile course. Ironman Santa Rosa 2017 here I come. I'm planning and training for success, but with goals this big there are no guarantees. I can, however, promise this: if I do fail, I’ll fail better.

As promised, I tried again--and I failed better. At Santa Rosa, I made it to the end of the bike course before being pulled out of the race. I had missed the time cut-off to start the run--but no paramedics were involved. Score! 

Guess what I'm doing now? Spoiler alert: it involves training for a big athletic event I've tried a couple of times already. Failure is just a rest stop along the way. See you at the finish line--eventually!

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Dancing with Trees: my first trail ultra

As I stand in the early morning dark at Isle du Bois, listening to the sound of fellow runners getting ready to race, I'm not sure what to expect of the day. The people around me sound pretty confident as they chat and joke about the miles and miles ahead, stomping their feet and jumping up and down to keep warm. I am seriously under-trained but armed with hope and determination. Is it going to be enough? I only know if it's possible for my body to do this, then I will make it happen.

I had signed up for this 52K (32-mile) endurance run several months earlier. It was to be my first trail race and my first ultra all in one. The furthest I'd raced before this was a marathon, but it had been a while since I completed my last 26.2 in Oklahoma in the spring, and that event had been on nice clean roads, not rocky wooded inclines and uneven paths snarled with tree roots, mud, and sand.

My race plans in the summer had been derailed by a lingering Achilles injury followed by an annoying bout of pneumonia and then a series of colds. By the end of it all, I was on regular inhalers and my training base was decimated. One evening, in tears after yet another failed attempt to keep up with the marathon group I was supposed to be co-pacing with my friend Rocky, I admitted to myself and her that I just didn't have it any more. The season had felt like a series of losses as I had fallen behind on run after run and backed out of event after event. It was time to face facts: I needed to fix myself before I could help train others again, so I returned to running alone and set about rebuilding my fitness one slow mile at a time.

I've always enjoyed running by myself--it's how I started--so it was no great hardship to return to solitary sunrises and sunsets once I finally forgave myself for not being there for my running group. I made slow but significant gains and managed to knock out a Half Ironman by November, but that was no guarantee that I could handle a trail ultra--an unforgiving day-long run on rough terrain. Although it was a serious endurance challenge, only 13.1 miles of the 70.3 Half Ironman were spent on my feet--the rest was swimming and biking. I knew I hadn't run enough miles or done enough trail-specific training for what I was about to attempt at Isle du Bois, and as a coach, I would never advise someone else to try running that distance in that condition. I could have canceled my plans or dropped to a shorter run, but there's something I rather like about testing my limits. And who, I asked myself, wouldn't want to spend a day scampering through trees, whatever the final outcome?

The first 14 miles turned out to be a lot of fun. Trail runners are a motley crew but extremely friendly and way more relaxed than the average marathoner. I enjoyed chatting with a variety of interesting people as we picked our way between the rocks and roots in those first three hours. My legs were still fresh, and the weather was perfect--cold and dry.

The route was a five-mile loop followed by three nine-mile loops, and the trail was pretty technical, with lots of climbs and drops, loose rocks and roots, some muddy bogs, and the occasional patch of sand. The trail system itself is not the easiest to navigate for someone as geographically dyslexic as I, but by the time I was heading back out on the nine-miler for the second time, I had become familiar with the system of ribbons hanging from branches to indicate which way to go, so I was pretty relaxed when runners who chose shorter distances left the trail while the rest of the crowd thinned out until we finally lost sight of one another among the trees.

Trail running takes a lot of concentration for me. There's no zoning out like I can often get away with on roads. I have to pay careful attention to stay on route, and the path beneath my feet has a way of holding me in the present moment: whenever my mind begins to wander, a nagging root or rock will trip me and wake me up. The earth is an efficient teacher, and after three falls, I was fast learning to stick with the here and now.

My mantra, borrowed from Born to Run, was "Easy, Light, Smooth," and it was a helpful one. With more training, it might also have been sustainable, but after five or six hours of faithful service, my ankles started to complain pretty loudly and simply wouldn't let me move fast without stumbling on the uneven terrain as they became too tired and too weak for precision placing (something I intend to fix before next time). I began to stress about making the time cut-off (nine hours), but I had determined in advance that I would do all I could to enjoy this day, regardless of the outcome, so I turned off my Garmin and quit running numbers in my head.

My only indicators of distance were now the aid stations: three on each loop. As the day wore on and my body started to hurt more, the thought of them took on a dream-like quality. I would tell myself, "Don't think of how far you've come or how far you have still to go. You're just running to the next aid station--and then the one after that."

Aid stations on trails are a special kind of joy for exhausted runners; they are a riot of colorful and unexpected food and drink. I would emerge from an hour or more alone in the woods to see the familiar canopy at last, sheltering a Smörgåsbord of goodies and a group of friendly, helpful volunteers. These extraordinarily wonderful human beings had stood all day in the cold, waiting for the sound of running feet, and while I was still some distance away, I would hear the call: "Runner coming!" By the time I reached them, they were standing to attention, eager to fill my drink bottles, offer encouragement, and bring whatever I needed to keep me going just a few more miles.

"Try it!" one guy said to me, offering me an orange slice dipped in salt. "It's just like a margarita!" And it was. Also on offer were boiled potatoes, cookies, PB&J sandwiches, pretzels, chips, bananas, jelly beans, and coke. I can't eat real food during a marathon without sparking stomach issues, but on the trails, it turns out I can behave like a human dustbin with no negative consequences at all. Only at the very last aid station (mile 29.5) was I unable to stuff down the salty potatoes and fruit I had come to long for, instead relying on two cups of coke to power my legs to the finish in a time of eight hours, 18 minutes.

So much about trail running, I have discovered, is magical. Despite the growing discomfort in my body as the hours--and the miles--ticked slowly by at Isle du Bois, the most perfect part was finding myself alone in the woods, drinking in the sights and sounds. I'm running, but my senses are hyperaware as I pay attention to the terrain but also experience the incredible world around me with a heightened clarity. A deer darts across my path. Two hawks flirt with each other overhead. There are so many shades of brown among the undergrowth, so many shapes of rock upon the ground. And I am alone but not alone. I am dancing with the trees.

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