Sunday, April 13, 2014

Blanche Was Right. Always Depend On the Kindness Of Strangers.

There are lots of people in my life who motivate and inspire me.  There is my amazing cousin Matthew, who has autism and still graduated from high school. There is my gym buddy Mindi who has run every NYC Marathon (that hasn’t been canceled) since 2007 and whose pace is right in line with mine – and she is 20 years older than me.  And let’s not forget my best friend Heather in New Hampshire who never wimps out on a run even when it’s like negative 100 degrees outside (trust me, there have been many cold mornings when I thought about staying in bed and thought that if Heather was getting her run in, then I should, too).  Today I encountered a new source of motivation: complete strangers.

Today was the More/Fitness Half Marathon in Central Park.  It is an all-women’s race (or as my friend Stephanie describes it: “all chicks, no d--ks").  It was definitely a lot different lining up in our corrals today than it is for co-ed races.  First, every single person seemed to be wearing some shade of pink or purple (purple sneakers and purple Road ID for me.  My daughter Olivia wouldn’t let me be caught dead wearing pink).  Second, from the moment I stepped over the starting line pretty much all I could hear was chatter and gossip, reminiscent from my high school days including the fact that I was listening furtively from the sides rather than being popular enough to actually partake.

This race is 2+ loops of Central Park.  It starts on West 63rd Street, runs south down the west side and north on the east side.  To me, this is the harder way to circumnavigate the park, as we end up with the longer side of the Harlem Hills to climb and pretty much the entire west side of the park is something we need to climb rather than descend.  I was nervous as I was lined up for this race; yes, I’m always nervous, but I just didn’t feel ready.   Central Park is very hilly, so my training plan of “avoid hills as much as possible” was probably not the best strategy.

I look around, and suddenly I feel less nervous.  In fact, I’m kind of excited.  I see women of all ages, shapes, sizes and apparent abilities.  And some may look nervous, but they all look ready to take on this race. 

Before any more dread can build up in me, the race starts and off we go.  The first mile of any run is always my least favorite.  I’m not warmed up, I’m not breathing right, I don’t have a good pace.  Today is no exception.  The first mile ends as some hills begin, and I don’t have time to decide if the second mile is going to be better or worse than the first.

Mile 3 brings us to the Harlem Hills for the first time.  I think they should be called the “Harlem Hells”, because the only thing missing from them to feel like hell is Lucifer himself.  They are pure torture.  The hill is long and twisty, so every time you think it’s going to end, you go around a corner and see more of it stretched out in front of you.  I’m really not enjoying this.  But then I look over to my left and I see a woman who had to be in her 70s.  She’s quiet, head down, and is concentrating on what she’s doing.  But she’s not gasping in exasperation or swearing (not out loud, anyway).  She’s taking care of the task at hand.  I quickly hope that I am still doing half marathons when I am in my 70s and I also put my head down and take care of this hill.  I stop gasping in exasperation, keep my swear words to myself and somehow get to the top.

The race continues on and the torture continues.  We’re now on the west side of the park, which is all uphill.  As we hit mile 5 I start having my doubts of if I can do this.  I’m not sure.  But then something happens shortly after mile 6.    Remember, I said that this course is a little over 2 laps of the park.  So as I get to mile 6 and am starting my second lap, I start hearing my favorite sound of this half marathon course.  Whistles start blaring, and I know exactly what it is.  The lead runner is coming through and is about to lap us.  People on bikes are ahead of her and they’re clearing the roadway.  We all smush over to the left as Deanna Kastor literally flies by.  That woman is a gazelle trapped in a human’s body.  It is amazing. What’s more amazing, though, is the reception she gets.  We all cheer for her as she flies by, and suddenly my spirits are lifted and all I want to do is finish the race just like she’s about to do.  Of course, I have to run another entire lap of the park first, but I’m going to do it.

Getting lapped by the lead woman keeps me motivated until about mile 8, but then I lose steam again.  My legs are sore and my knee and one toe hurt.  I’ve learned the difference between true injury and simple pain.  I know that I’m just in pain, so I keep going but I am really having a hard time.  This time I look around for some motivation and I find it in no time.  Over my left shoulder I spy 3 women.  With even a quick glance I can tell that the one in the middle is hurting as much as I am and is possibly more miserable than I am feeling at that moment.  As I turn to look ahead again, I hear their conversation.  The one who is struggling is saying things like “I can’t do this.  I can’t!”  Her friends speak calmly and steadily: “Yes, you can.  We’re on the second loop.  You know you can because you already did it.”  I can hear in the first woman’s voice that she’s almost crying: “No, I can’t run anymore.”  One of the friends says, “OK, let’s walk to that second lamppost.  Then we’ll run again.” 

They slow down to a walk and so I get too far ahead to hear their conversation, but I’m about to cry, too.  It’s not because I’m hurting (though that may have come out with the same tears).  I’m admiring the power of friendship.  One woman is struggling, her two friends are getting her through the rough spots.  She can’t see her own capability right now, so they’re showing it to her.  She wants to quit and it’s the very last thing her partners will let her do.  That woman is going to finish the race, and she’s going to forever remember that her friends encouraged her when they were likely pretty tired themselves.

It’s enough for me to make it up that damned hill on the north end of the park again. I usually like to go slow up the hills and then fly down the other side.  Now I accomplished the slow ascent, but I just can’t sprint down.  Every step is hurting muscles and joints that just aren’t trained well enough for this course.  I know that my time is going to be lousy but I am encouraged by the women who were helping their friend so I just move forward as best I can.

At mile 10 I try to convince myself that I only have a 5K left, and 5Ks are easy.  But then I admit that they’re not easy when you have to do a 5K after running 10 freaking miles and I get stuck in my own head again.  I can’t do this.  Now, I know I’m going to finish, but I can’t run anymore.  I think about walking for just a minute, but I know that if I stop running that I won’t start up again.  So I make a deal with myself that if I run to mile 11 I can walk the last 2.1 miles if I want to.

I make it to mile 11 and I start to think about what I want to do.  Run, or walk?  Do I want a mediocre time or a completely crappy time?  And before I can decide, what ends up being my favorite part of the race happens.  Again over my left shoulder I hear something.  I take a quick glance and see 3 women again. Different women this time.  One has a pink cap, and one has a yellow one.  The third woman is in between them.  The women in the hats cheer for their friend, saying things like, “That’s it.  Pump your arms.  You are on fire!  You go, girl!”  The girl in the middle blows past them and me.  I loved the exchange so much that I decide to butt in. I turn back to the two women in the hats and say, “I wish you guys were my friends.  That was awesome!”  They look a little confused, and then one figures it out and says, “Oh, we don’t know her.  She just looked like she needed some help.”  I smile and say, “That’s even better.”

I couldn’t believe it.  Over 11 miles in of a really hard course, and 2 women are encouraging total strangers.  It is amazing.  I’m not walking now.  No way.  I decide that partly because I really want to put in my best effort and mostly because I want to keep up with these women. 

The race continues and they keep going.  They look for someone who is hurting (at which point they have several of us to choose from) and yell out something that makes everyone smile: “You look great!  You’ll finish strong!  You’ve done so much already, there’s just a little left!”  At one point I slow down a bit and they just look at me and say, “Come on, let’s finish this!”  Yes, let’s finish this.
Finisher Medal!  Pretending I'm not in pain.

We make one last turn and can see the finish line in front of us.  I am a few steps ahead of them.  About 20 feet before the finish line I slow down just enough to let them pass me; I am honored to let them go and finish a step behind them.  It’s the least I can do.

The race is over and we get our medals.  I walk over to get some water and I see a pink hat and a yellow hat standing next to each other.  Now, I NEVER talk to strangers.  Hell, I rarely talk to people that I know.  But this time breaking out of my introversion is easy. I go right up to them and say, “Hey, thanks.  You two were awesome.  I really appreciated your help.”  They smile and look a little confused.  They didn’t really realize what a difference they made.  Finally one of them says, “No problem.  That’s what this is all about, right?”

Right.  Thanks ladies.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Best Laid Plans...

I love to plan things out.  I like to know what to expect and figure out what I’m going to do before it even happens.  I want to kmow where the obstacles are and how to get around them even if I never crash into them.  So that’s why I’m so surprised at my plan for today’s race.  I have no idea what I want to do.

Today is the Scotland Run 10K with New York Road Runners.  This will be my second race of the season and also my second qualifier of the 9 that I need to gain entry into the 2015 NY Marathon.  Lots of runners take the themes of these very seriously, so all around me are guys dressed in kilts, shivering at the breeze they’re not used to getting up their legs on this cold day. 

As I giggle a little to myself at the site of so many men – let’s call it what it is – in drag, I think a bit about this race.  I have run this race several years in a row, so I know it well.  Last year I ran it with my friend Stephanie, and it was awful.  No, Stephanie is great.  She wasn’t the problem.  Last year I was running on a broken foot that had been MRI’d (hey, if BTW and LOL are words, than so is MRI’d) but not yet diagnosed and this was the most painful run I have ever done.  Today I was standing on two perfectly functional feet, but I was still feeling very unsure.  I didn’t think I was going to get injured again, but I just didn’t have a plan.  Did I want to try to make this my best 10K ever (which is called a PR and is a perfectly normal word to any runner)?  Did I want to go easy and just get through the race?

Before I could hash out an intelligent scheme, the crowd started to move and I was swept across the start line.  I started my watch and I just began running.  Usually I’m out to beat my own time, so I dart in and out of people in order to pass them.  But I didn’t have a plan, so I just ran.  If someone was slower than me, I passed them.  If they were faster, I didn’t fight to keep up.  I ran.  Lately I’ve been in the 10 minute mile range, so I did some math and figured I’d be done in 1 hour and 2 minutes.

At mile 1 my watch beeped to tell me my pace, and I was surprised.  It said “9:39”, quite a bit faster than I felt like I was running.  It was in the high 30s that day and I had started the race with numb feet, so I thought maybe I just couldn’t really feel how fast I was going.  I felt awful, but I always do for the first mile, so I just kept going.

I ran some more, and kept doing what I was doing.  Running.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Well, that’s not exactly true.  Right now I have a monster of a cold that has made breathing out of my nose or hearing out of my ears practically impossible for the last couple days.  And did you ever realize that to swallow, you need to close your mouth?  And have you ever tried swallowing in a middle of a race when you’re breathing hard but your nose is stuffed and useless, so every time you try to swallow you have to close your mouth and you feel like you’re choking?  Yeah, so I was concentrating on that.

I kept running (and trying to swallow and breathe without choking), and suddenly my watch beeped again.  Mile 2 was complete, this time in 9:16.  Huh.  So with no plan at all and a mild respiratory problem, I ran this mile even faster.  Interesting.

The race continued on.  Mile 3 was over the Harlem Hills, so for that one I figured I was going to slow down.  Nope.  9:02.  Was my watch tracking someone else?  The only reason why I knew that it wasn’t (other than that it was on my wrist) was that I felt like hell. I don’t know if was from the cold, or running faster than I’ve been training, but it was horrible.  I thought about stopping twice, but my damned bag was back at the start, and I had to get back there anyway.  So, I trudged on.

Scotland Run, 2011
Mile 4 was more my style at a pace of 9:59.  But when I finished mile 5 in 9 minutes and 34 seconds, it dawned on me that I was doing well and might actually be able to PR (which remember in my world is a word).  So, I planned on going faster for mile 6, and actually didn’t with a time of 9:44, but I had stayed under my 10 minute pace this entire time.

With 0.2 miles left, my brain wanted to run faster and my legs agreed, but my respiratory system was staging a mutiny, so I made staying conscious a priority over moving fast.  I kept going, and finally saw the finish line.  Normally I start to sprint once I can see it, but I couldn’t really breathe and I didn’t think that sprinting was going to help my situation. 

I crossed the finish line and stopped my watch at 1:00:33.  At first I was annoyed that I wasn’t a mere 34 seconds faster, but it’s hard to be mad at yourself for missing a goal that you don’t create until after the race is over.

NY Road Runners stores results forever, so I looked back.  I’ve run 14 10Ks in my career.  This was my 4th best time of all of them.  It wasn’t a PR, but for a girl without a plan it all worked out pretty well (once I could breathe normally again and swallow without choking myself).  Maybe sometimes the best plans are the ones we don’t have.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Truly Amazing Workout

Hi.  I’m glad you’re here this week.  I’m glad because I really want you to read about my workout.  It will absolutely amaze you.  Ready, here’s what I did today: NOTHING.

Yup, you’re reading the Former Fat Girl blog.  And, yup, you read the above paragraph correctly.  Don’t worry, you don’t need reading glasses (well, unless you are wearing reading glasses right now.  Then you either need them or you get a kick out of giving yourself a stabbing headache). I did not work out today.

Resistance band workout, years ago
It wasn’t intentional.  In fact, my plan was to do my resistance band work for about an hour, and then to ride my bike on its trainer while watching a very grueling and evil biking workout video that leaves the rider in a pool of their own sweat and sometimes even tears.

But here’s what happened.  On Friday I tried kettle bells.  I found a 30 minute routine on a training app I have on my phone, and used modern technology to beat the crap out of myself.  The gist of this workout is that you do squats for 30 minutes straight while doing things with the kettle bell like lifting it above your head, around your head, pressing it with one arm, pressing it with two arms, etc.  The operative phrase in that last sentence is “squats for 30 minutes straight”. I can describe how that feels in one word: “Ow.”

And was that the end of my work out on Friday?  Of course not.  After that I swam ¾ of a mile, the longest swim I’ve done in over a year.  OK, but then I stopped, right?  Well, that was it for Friday.  I usually do two different things in each work out, but yesterday I only did one.  Was that the beginning of my lack of movement today?  Not really.  I only did one thing, but that thing was a 12 mile run.  And that 12 mile run was in weather that was colder and crappier than I had anticipated.  And cold, crappy weather simply makes a 12 mile run really difficult.

By the end of my run yesterday, my quads hurt so much that I kept looking down to see if someone had set fire to my legs. Twice I had forgotten something that was on a different floor of my house than I was, and each time I almost cried just at the thought of having to go up and down stairs (which I did one at a time like a 2 year old).  At one point I dropped something and I think I died a little bit inside when I had to bend down to reach it.

This morning my legs felt a little better (read: I went downstairs like an adult, but now more like a 95 year old with severe arthritis) so down to the basement I hobbled, ready to do start with my resistance bands before hopping on my bike.  I actually even started.  I set out the mat I used for core work I do on the floor and picked my station of choice on Pandora and got the music going (and no, I am not now, nor will I ever tell you what I listen to on Pandora).  I set my timer and got started. I did one exercise for a few minutes, and when that was done, I did 50 squats.  And then I stopped.  My brain and I had a conversation:


Brain: “No more squats.”
Me: “We have another set.”
Brain: “No, we don’t.”
Me: “Fine.  Let’s skip the squats but do all the other stuff with the bands and then ride to the workout video.”
Brain: “No.”
Me: “Umm, what if we do the bands, and then ride while watching an episode of ‘Desperate Housewives’?”
Brain: “Still no.”
Me: “Stop with the resistance bands and just ride?”
Brain: ….

When my brain started giving me the cold shoulder, I knew what was about to happen.  I was about to stop a workout 6 minutes into it.  And that’s how it happened.  I went back upstairs, and my workout didn’t exist today. 

Different band workout, also years ago
Wait a minute.  This is the Former Fat Girl blog, right?  The blog that tries to get people motivated and maybe even a little inspired?  The blog that tries to teach you that you can do anything you want if you put the work in?  Yup, it is.  So why am I writing a whole story (while wearing reading glasses because I need them, not because I am trying to give myself a stabbing headache) about not working out?  Because every now and then I can’t get to my workout either.  I’m too tired, too sore, or just plain not into it.  But that is today.  Tomorrow is a new day.  I have another double workout planned, this time a 3 mile run followed by a spin class taught by a 20-something who thinks that exceptionally loud punk rock head banging music is what we want to ride to at 6:45 on a Monday morning (and now you know one station on Pandora that I do not listen to).

I know I will do this work out.  I haven’t quit forever, I just took an impromptu day off.  Tomorrow is back to business as usual, with double workouts and funny stories.  And next week I’ll be so glad if you’re here because I really want you to read all about it.