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