You don’t need the race

24 01 2010

As runners (and ultrarunners), so much of our focus goes to preparation for some kind of race as an ending goal.  Racing can be extremely fun.  We get to socialize with our fellow runners (my “tribe”, I call them!), run in a supportive environment, and get an official finishing time.  Also, a lot of times, we receive some kind of “schwag” – you know, the T-shirt and all kinds of goodies.  I have some running buddies who rate the races they do based on the extra perks, in fact.

I’ve run numerous races in my life, mainly the shorter distances when I was younger and running on the high school varsity cross-country team.  Now, I exclusively focus on ultra distance races.  I haven’t done that many in comparison to some people I know; there are a lot of ultrarunners who sign up for a race nearly every weekend.

Over the past few years, as I’ve dealt with stepping up to the ultra distances, I’ve had to deal with injury frequently.  This often interferes with racing plans, particularly if I’ve scheduled a race out of state and paid not only the racing fees, but also for the flight, hotel accommodations, and a rental vehicle.  More than once, I’ve had to bail out – at the last second – of a race due to an injury.  Last year, I had made all of the arrangements to go to the FANS 24 hour race in Minneapolis…and then I injured my peroneal tendon rather severely.

How did I deal with it?  Predictably, I got pretty damn depressed, less so about the money I lost and more about just not being able to “race.”

More recently, right before the OTHTC High Desert 50K this past December, I did something mysterious to my hip (I don’t have this one completely figured out yet, but I will soon!) which caused an omnipresent aching pain that still hasn’t completely gone away.  A few days before the race, my poor husband got to listen to me crying over the phone about how I wasn’t going to be able to “race” and how depressed I was, yet again.  I ended up just going to the desert anyhow – and ran a PR – but that was only after I had a bit of an attitude shift with the whole thing.

Why do we NEED a race?  I mean seriously – if we’re not one of the elite front runners, and we don’t rely on this to make a living, what is there really to prove?  Don’t we just love running itself?  Isn’t that why we do this?  I know for me that running is pretty spiritual.  My favorite days usually involve going for some kind of twenty plus mile adventure in the mountains, often with good friends.  Back in December, I started thinking about my favorite runs ever.  Not many of those took place at an organized event, although I have wonderful memories of different races I’ve run over the years.

Don’t get me wrong.  I still have “race goals” – this year’s is to finally FINISH a 100-miler – but I’m putting less emphasis psychologically on these events.  It’s easy to slip into the mentality that only one’s race performance counts; instead, I’m trying harder to appreciate the enjoyment of the training along the way.

I have this crazy long-term idea about running across the US someday, probably in a few years when I can finally afford to quit my full-time job as a tenured professor of music.  My husband is on the edge of getting a full-time, tenure track position himself, and once he does, it’s back to the freelance world for me, which really suits my personality MUCH better than having a single day gig, which I personally find stifling.  I love “journeys” of all kinds – things like road trips, backpacking, long hikes.  So, lately, I’ve been incorporating the idea of the journey into my running and I’ve been finding that I enjoy these runs infinitely more than races.  They’re unpredictable – weird things tend to happen along the way, and you never know who you might run into.  Furthermore, I just love the idea that “adventure begins the moment you step outside your front door.”  That’s a Dean Karnazes quote (for you avid ultrarunners out there, don’t flame me for quoting that).  Whether or not you’re a DK fan, there’s something to learn from that idea.  Adventure can begin anywhere, as long as you’re open to the idea of it.

I’ve done several road “journey” runs recently.  One was an ill-fated intended 29 mile run when I was visiting my family over the holidays in Florida.  It seemed like the race was slated to fail from its inception.  I was planning to run from my family’s front door in Ft. Myers across the causeway to Sanibel Island, all the way to the Ding Darling Nature Reserve on the island (cool place!).  However, once I got to Florida, I found out that pedestrians weren’t allowed on the bridge, so I made arrangements for my mother to meet me right before the entrance to drive me across.  But then, the night before the run, I got some major stomach upset and ended up spending most of the morning of the run in the bathroom.  I took a dose of Imodium to try and help – and it did for the first 12 miles or so.  But ultimately, it caused even more problems.  This run will forever go down in my mind as the one run where I was witnessed to by a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses at a gas station and then, ummm, pooped my pants several miles later in front of a retirement community called “Siesta Bay.”  (Oh dear Lord, who names those places?)  I have to say, though, despite the gastric issues, it was a fun run and certainly makes for an interesting story.  I’ve never experienced an attempted religious conversion on the run before – that’s would take too much space to describe here in this blog entry!

Yesterday, I went on my favorite journey run to date.  I left my home in the North Park area of San Diego at 4:30 am, literally running out my front door.  My goal was to run 34-35 miles from my house to my friend’s home up in San Marcos, just to make it in time for lunch.  It’s a long way.  The drive itself takes about 40 minutes!  My friend and I don’t get to see each other that often, partly because she has a baby at home, and partly because of the driving distance.

supplies all ready for my 35 mile excursion!

Yesterday’s run was one of these days where everything just seemed to go “right.”  The start of the run, through my neighborhood, happened at such an interesting time.  Everything was quiet.  I live in an extremely noisy area, and one frequented by prostitutes among all other types of vagrants, so it’s incredibly rare to be on the streets and not see or hear another soul around.  Nothing around but the small circle of light from my headlamp…nice.

I ran through Mission Valley, an area where there’s basically nothing but a ton of strip malls and shopping areas.  Lots of neon, and again, no one around.  Then it was up a steep ascent on Ulric Street to Linda Vista Road, and north on Genesee Ave. through Linda Vista and Clairemont.  The best time of day to pass through these really urban areas is before sunrise – no traffic, no vying for the best spot in the parking lots, and the strip malls aren’t open for business yet.

I made it to the University City area around daybreak.  There was a lovely sunrise that I could admire between the executive high-rise buildings.  After that, I ran around the campus of UCSD, my alma mater, and went through some really cool eucalyptus groves…literally “cool.”  It was chilly, as I was getting closer to the ocean, and pretty foggy!  The fog leant a bit of a mysterious quality to the thick groves of trees, and for a while, I almost forgot I was on the road.

After several steep uphills, Genesee Ave. meets up with Torrey Pines Rd.  The road flattens out on top, and I passed by the golf course where the San Diego Open will be taking place this week.  I’m not a golf fan, so I wouldn’t have known this except for running by the course yesterday!  Past the golf course, I was treated to an exceptional descent down Torrey Pines Rd, alongside of the famous cliffs (gorgeous).  And then, the ocean came into view.  It was a spectacular sight, worthy of a soundtrack, especially after running 16 miles through urban terrain.

that awesome moment where I could finally see the ocean off in the distance...

I stopped for a bathroom break at Torrey Pines State Beach, and then headed up the coast via the Pacific Coast Highway.  The road passes through all of the cool little coast towns of Del Mar, Solana Beach, Cardiff, and Encinitas.  By this time, the sun was up and I was able to ditch my jacket, skull cap, and headlamp.  It was pretty funny seeing all of the people out for their morning workouts.  Occasionally, someone, always a man, would get competitive, huffing and puffing to pass me (let’s be honest, I’m slow, so that’s not exactly a huge accomplishment).  It made me laugh, as “competitive ego guy with something to prove” would have no idea that I had been running for over twenty miles and several hours already!

beach view from Torrey Pines

There were two hilarious episodes during the PCH stretch; these are the funny things that I love about running these point-to-point routes.  Obviously, I couldn’t carry enough fluids in my hydration pack to accommodate a 35 mile run, so I had to stop at some point to refill.  I stopped at a CVS in Solana Beach, somewhere around mile 22 or so.  I headed into the store, all stinky and sweaty and salt-encrusted from over four hours of solid running, and picked up two one-liter jugs of water, plus a smaller bottle I could then use as a hand-held.  I also got a bag of Lay’s potato chips, as I was starving, and I had already eaten all of my chips and saltines that I had brought with me.  The cashier at the counter gave me a really weird look, especially when I said I didn’t need a bag.

“Why?” he asked.  (Does it really matter, I thought to myself…)

“I’m just going to drink all of that right now and store it in my extra hump, you know, like a camel,” I answered, not really wanting to explain what I was doing and how my hydration pack worked.

“Well, the chips are in a bag,” he quipped.

“Yeah, and I’m eating those now.”

“But it’s only 8:45!”

“I’m aware of that.  I’m hungry.  Don’t ask.”

And out the door I went.  He kept staring at me through the glass door as I sat down on the front step of the store and filled up my pack, mixed up more Vitalyte, and stuffed my face full of chips.  I guess you don’t see many hungry and thirsty ultrarunners at CVS in Solana Beach at 8:45 in the morning on a Saturday.

The other funny incident was up in Cardiff, near the state beach area.  I was passing a bar called The Kraken (I can’t help but want to over-pronounce that word like the actors do in “Clash of the Titans.”  That’s SO one of my favorite movies!)  On the other side of the road, next to me, there was a car coming out of a restaurant parking lot.  The car skidded to a halt right in front of me, and the passenger rolled down his window.  He projectile vomited RIGHT AT ME.  I had to jump to get out of the way.  I guess he must have passed out after spending a late night at The Krrrrracken (!) or something, and had too many eggs for breakfast (well, it sure looked like egg yolks on the sidewalk).

I finally turned inland at Leucadia Blvd.  I called my husband, who was planning to meet me at my friend’s house later, as I was running across PCH and up the hill toward the 5 freeway.

“You’re running while you’re talking on your cell?”  He started laughing.

“Well, yeah.  I just wanted you to know that I’m OK and I’m about 7 or 8 miles from Linda’s place.  So I’ll be there in about an hour and a half – there are some climbs coming up, so it’ll take a while.”

“OK.  Let me let you go so you can run.  This is kind of weird.”  He was still laughing when he hung up the phone.

Then I called my friend.  She had the same reaction as Jason.

The route up Leucadia Blvd was really nice.  I passed by Encinitas Ranch golf course (quite pretty, although like I said, I’m not a golf person), and a bunch of idyllic housing developments set into the green hills.  We had had a major rainstorm the several days prior to this run, so there were still epic looking clouds scattered around in the clear, bright blue of the sky.  I have to say, though, a 600 foot ascent starting at the 30 mile mark wasn’t too fun.  I kept running, instead of walking the whole thing as I would have done in the past, although I did curse quite a bit because every time it seemed I got to the top, the damn hill just kept going.  F-ing hill.

And finally, I arrived at my friend’s street.  I called her house.

“Linda…” I moaned, sounding like I was really in pain.  “I pooped my pants and I’m lost.  Can you come find me?  And can you bring some wet naps?”

“What?  Are you OK?  Where are you?”  She sounded really concerned.

I started laughing hysterically.  “Sorry.  Just kidding!  I just turned onto your block.  Be there in a minute.”

is this the kind of sweaty freak you want to see ringing your doorbell?

My friend was pretty shocked that I looked relatively normal after running 35 miles from my house to hers, and that I was completely coherent and still cracking jokes.  I think it hits home for people exactly how far you’ve run when they drive the same distance regularly and think that it’s a long way.  Numbers are just that – numbers – and they’re hard to relate to.  “I did a 25 mile run today on trail.  Isn’t that cool?”  Sure, I’ll get in return.  But the person probably won’t “get it” in the same way until they’ve covered that route in a car or something like that.

I ended up having a lovely afternoon with my friend, her husband, my husband, and our godson.  And I think I ate an entire bag of chips, along with three cookies, an enormous sandwich, a bunch of soy jerky, a bottle of kombucha, and several cans of ginger ale.  My lunch cost $21…and I ate every bit.  Oh yeah, and I was hungry again about three hours later.

It was a great time.  I need to do this sort of thing, a creative journey run, more often.  Talk about cheap entertainment…well, except for the food budget afterward.  I’d rather have these kinds of memories over a technical race t-shirt.

It’s not about the race – it’s about enjoying the journey.


This is what it means to run

18 01 2010

Yesterday, I went with a good friend to a running store to purchase his very first pair of running shoes – he’s planning on beginning to run in hopes of doing his first triathlon sometime this year.  The experience made me reminisce about my first days running over twenty years ago as I thought about good advice to give him on “sticking with it.”  As a result, while I was on a short training run early this morning, I came up with the following list of what it has meant over the years – for me – to be a runner.  Here goes…

This is what it means to run:
…getting excited about a weather forecast that predicts 30 mph headwinds and driving rain, and thinking…“that sounds awesome…can’t wait…”
…while training, analyzing each footfall…”was that a midfoot strike, a heel strike, or a forefoot strike?”…and comparing the relative merits of each
…admiring the graceful arc of a well-blown snot rocket as it soars through the air unobstructed
…worrying about whether or not a city ordinance prohibits spitting in a public park…how stupid is that rule?…
…passing up going clubbing with friends on a Friday night for going to bed at 8:00 pm
…the wake-up alarm rings before above-mentioned friends get home for the night
…saving those worn-out, muddy shoes because they were the ones that brought home that first fifty mile finish
…every pair of socks in the drawer started out white, but now each is a nasty, muddy, dirty brown/gray color
…getting insulted when someone mentions bleaching said socks…doesn’t that silly person know that bleach will ruin the socks’ wicking properties?…
…eating six meals a day when training at higher mileages and still feeling hungry for a late-night snack
…actually knowing what maltodextrin is and that is seems to cause some personal stomach upset
…keeping an endless supply of wet-naps in the backpack to “shower” after a run commute
…hanging onto little salt packets and putting those in the backpack, just in case
…evaluating the merit of a haircut depending on how well it fits under a running cap
…meeting up with friends for lunch who live 35 miles away and leaving the house at 4 am because the run there will take at least seven hours (there will be many traffic light stops!)
…passing up a gig on the night of a 100K race and saying, “well, if it was only a marathon, the gig would be doable, but a gig on the evening of a 100K might be a little bit much…”
…on a single run, thinking first that “the bird is my brother” and ten minutes later “someone shoot me and put me out of my misery”
…going shoe shopping with a friend who buys a pair of Nike Air Pegasus and actually getting misty, thinking, “That was my first pair back in ’89.”
…with nostalgia, remembering the taste of a malt-nut Powerbar back in 1992 along with that feeling of a rock in the stomach while running a fast 5K cross-country race
…not recognizing friends unless they are wearing their typical running attire
…not really knowing what these friends do for a living, what their political views are, or even how many kids they have, but knowing that they are the type “you can trust with your life” on the trail
…being grateful for every breath and every step that is injury-free

This is what it means to be a runner.