Sunday, November 23, 2014

Taking Directions From The Cheshire Cat



Remember the story of “Alice In Wonderland”?  In my favorite part, Alice is walking through the woods when she comes across the Cheshire Cat, and Alice strikes up a conversation with him:

“Can you tell me, please, which way I ought to go?” asked Alice.
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where – ” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“—as long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “as long as you walk far enough.”

This is kind of how I’ve been feeling lately.  I worked so hard for months to train for the marathon.  I ate right, ran a million miles a week, cross-trained, got as much sleep as I could.  I planned vacations around my training schedule (and here’s a hint: for vacation visit your best friend who is also a runner, and you’ll find it’s really easy to get your runs in.  You may even get to run with her dog, too, which is just a lot of fun).  But now the race is over.  I ran through what felt like a tornado for over 5 hours, missed the podium by a mere 41,000 or so places, and proudly wore my finisher medal as I limped the few blocks to my car (that Wil already had running and warmed up, God bless him, though he didn’t get my telepathic message to pick up a hot chocolate for me and have that waiting, too) and went home to the comforts of an enormous meal and a hot bath.  But, now it’s over, and I feel like I’m walking through the woods without any direction, and without an invisible cat to help me out.

I think a lot of runners feel this way after a big race.  You’re so focused on this goal you’ve set for yourself, that it’s all you do or think about for months, but then when you’re done you have no idea of what to do with all your free time (or how to eat a lot less and to end your love affair with pasta).  So now what?

Well, I think I have the answer: make a new goal.  It doesn’t have to be as adventurous as a marathon, but it has to be something.  And that something has to be kind of concrete.  Have you ever had a goal to “lose weight,” “start running,” or “be more organized”?  Well, those goals are nice to think about, but they’re not likely to happen.  If you want to be Alice and just get “somewhere”, then yes, the cat is right.  Just keep walking, and you’ll eventually get there, but wouldn’t it be better to have an endpoint and a map to get there?  When you get in your car and turn on your GPS (which I pretty much have to do every time I drive somewhere; I swear, I have the sense of direction of a chair), do you just hit start, or do you have to tell it where you want to go first?  Right.  You give it the destination, it gives you the route and you follow it until you get to where you’re going (occasionally getting confused when it tells you to take a left into a concrete wall or when it says “Recalculating” while you’re in the middle of a bridge that you've been driving over for several minutes).  The best way to achieve something is to think about what you want, then figure out how to do it.  Only then can you start working on your project.

I have a few goals set up for next year: an Olympic distance triathlon in September, 3 or 4 shorter triathlons in the spring and summer, a few half marathons and some 10Ks.  Oh, and of course the NYC Marathon in November 2015.  Some of those are too far off to start working on right now, so for the moment my goal is to keep up my fitness, keep down my weight, and start my training plan for my first half marathon next year (which will either be in mid-March if I make it into the NYC Half Marathon by lottery, or mid-April if I don’t) with a good running and fitness base.  I’ve set up training schedules that I’ll follow as much as weather and life will allow, and food-wise I know I have to keep doing what I’m already doing (minus the pre-marathon love affair with pasta).

I don’t want to just keep walking and end up somewhere.  I want to keep following the paths I’ve been on, and get to more and more destinations.  Granted, it would be a lot more fun if I had a cat to talk to along the way.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

What Does It Take To Admit You're Successful?



At Weight Watchers, they have these things called “Bravos”.  They’re little green stickers shaped like stars with the word “BRAVO” in white across the middle.  Your meeting leader gives them to you if you let him/her know of some kind of a behavior change that you’ve made for the better (for example, being stressed at work and going for a walk at lunch, rather than being stressed at work and walking to McDonald’s for lunch where you order and eat three different items that all start with “Mc”).  I know the BRAVOs sound corny, and maybe a little ridiculous, but you’d be surprised at how good they are at making you realize that you’re making changes for the better and sticking with them (no pun intended).  Because, really, losing weight isn’t about dieting.  It’s about changing the behaviors that made you unhealthy in the first place.

At any rate, why on earth is a grown women rattling on about star shaped stickers?  Well, a week ago Friday was my first meeting after the marathon.  My leader Maggie asked if anyone had anything they wanted to brag about, and I shot my hand up like that nerdy kid in school who was dying to give the answer to the teacher’s math question (that was also me, by the way).  When Maggie called on me, I said that I had just run the NYC Marathon.  I gave a brief story about it, and talked about the wind and how it was by far the hardest physical thing I have ever done.  Then I explained that I’ve done marathons before (five now, but who’s counting?), but the reason why this is a behavior change is that the old Fat Girl I used to be would have quickly given up on anything that was so difficult.  I would never have pushed through, because I never believed I would succeed.

The meeting attendants clapped, and Maggie gave me a chain of Bravo stickers, estimating that there were about 26, one for each full mile of the marathon.  Then others raised their hands to discuss their Bravo-worthy achievements and the meeting continued.  At one point, Maggie tried pointing out a similarity between me and another member, and she something like “and Alison is a runner --” and I cut her off.  I said, “Uh, no.  I’m not a runner.”  Maggie finished her point with the other woman and then then turned to me and asked, “Alison, you just finished a marathon (again, my fifth, but who’s counting? :-), and you don’t consider yourself a runner?"  I had a one word answer: “No.”  Maggie’s next question to me was, “What will it take for you to tell yourself that you’re a runner?”  I came up with the intellectual answer of: “I guess I just need to believe it and accept it.”  That was apparently the right answer because Maggie left me alone and continued on with the meeting.

For the last week or so, I’ve been thinking about that meeting.  Yes, I know I’m a runner, but I’m always too scared to admit it to myself.  Why? Well, the reasoning is kind of weird.  I guess I keep thinking that if I tell myself that I’m a runner, an athlete, or a person who lives a healthy lifestyle that it will all just go away.  Somehow, I think that if I tell myself that I am no longer Fat Girl that she will coming banging down my door with a large meat lover’s pizza and then make me eat the whole thing and wash it down with a 2 liter bottle of Coke.

I’ve been thinking about something else all week, too.  I’ve been thinking about that last marathon.  Every now and then, I play different parts in my head: looking at all the spectators who cheered us on by name, hearing that roar of the crowd that met us when we turned onto First Avenue from the Queensboro Bridge and how that felt, my sister whispering encouraging words in my ear at mile 11 when I was already feeling beaten.  I thought about turning onto Central Park South and knowing that it was almost over and I was actually going to make it.  Mostly I thought about after I crossed the finish line, and while I was being herded out of the park thinking about the enormity of what I had just accomplished.

Flash forward to today, where a funny thing happened.  It started innocently enough.  I have a black running turtleneck with a big hole in it and a new black turtleneck sans hole that I had just bought to replace the other one.  Every evening I pack the next day’s work clothes into my gym bag and then don’t see them again until I am getting dressed at the gym after my workout and shower the next morning, so I didn’t want to accidentally grab the black turtleneck with the gaping hole in it and be stuck having to wear my coat at work all day to cover it (I’m talking very large hole in the back.  Don’t ask; just keep reading).  I went to put the ripped turtleneck in my running clothes drawer and realized it was overflowing with a mix of summer stuff I wasn’t going to need for several months (sigh), and winter stuff that I had been pulling out of the pile stored in my closet one freezing day at a time.  I shifted my workout drawer from summer to winter (again, sigh), and then decided to take care of the other clothes in my dresser.  I took a pile of summer stuff to my closet, and as I climbed the step ladder that is permanently in there (and where is your 6’4” husband when you need him?), my eye fell on some clothes in the back of my closet.  These were clothes that hadn’t been worn in years.  They’ve been hanging in my closet for so long that they have actually collected dust on the shoulders.  They are my fat clothes.

Yes, that’s right.  I’ve been at my goal weight for close to 5-1/2 years, and I still have enough clothes to dress a baseball team’s worth of women who are 5 feet tall and 70 pounds overweight.  I turned away from that part of my closet, climbed the step ladder and put away the pile I was holding.  Each time I went back in my closet to exchange seasons, I’d look at the fat clothes and then look away again, like the way you used to look at the person in high school that you were absolutely in love with but who didn’t know you existed (admit it; you had that person.  We all did).

When I was done with the piles, I left my closet and was about to leave my room.  But, I didn’t.  I thought about last week’s Weight Watchers meeting.  I thought about Maggie asking me what it was going to take for me to admit that I was successful. I thought about the answer that got Maggie off my back but that I couldn’t actually accomplish:  I needed to just believe in myself and admit it.

You clearly know what happened, or I wouldn’t be writing about this.  Yes, I turned back around, went back to my closet and packed up all of my fat clothes.  There are women out there who are trying to get back on their feet and get jobs, but they don’t have the proper clothes to wear to work or even to an interview.  And I have a small wardrobe of clothes that don’t fit anymore and are never going to again.

I kept one item (actually, two. The first is a dress that frankly I always loved and still cannot part with.  And to everyone who knows me and whose heart just stopped for a second, yes I really do own dresses, and yes, I actually have one that I loved and wore frequently).  The second is a pair of pants that I have never worn.  I bought them years ago.  When I bought them they were snug but I loved them and told myself that in a month or so I’d fit into them (with no plan on how I was going to do that).  I put them aside, and several weeks later I put them on to pin and then take to the tailor to get hemmed (and all of you tall girls have no idea how much money you have saved in your lifetime being able to buy clothes that didn’t need to be shortened).  But, they were way too tight.  I could barely get them up and certainly couldn’t close them.  I remember taking them off and how disgusted I was with myself.  I had put them back in my closet, never to be worn.
 
I still won’t ever wear those pants.  They’re too big now (and still too long.  Why hem pants you’re never going to wear?), but I want to keep them as a symbol of where I was and where I am now.  I think that will be my favorite part of the story when I talk about it at Weight Watchers next week and get a new Bravo sticker.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Wind, Hills And Four Extra Seconds



The best way to train for a marathon is to run in all kinds of conditions: rain, heat, humidity, cold.  The obvious reason is that you never know what you’re going to get on race day, so by training in everything you’re more likely to be prepared.  And since training for a marathon takes about 5 months, odds are that you’ll find Mother Nature in every one of her moods.  So, for five months I trained in everything: ridiculous heat, 90% humidity, sunny days, cold days.  Yup, I trained for every kind of condition – except for gale force winds.

The 2014 NYC Marathon was last Sunday, and as you may have heard, it was windy.  I mean, really, really windy.  Weather stations reported constant wind of about 10 – 15 miles per hour, with gusts up to 40 miles per hour.  And the big problem is that those 40 mile per hour wind gusts were happening about every other minute.  Now, if you’re watching the marathon on TV, those winds aren’t much of a problem.  If you happen to be standing at the base of the on-ramp of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, it’s a different story. 

My running partner Rita and I were corralled together with several thousand other folks waiting for the fourth and final wave of the NYC Marathon to start. We were shivering, even though each of us was wearing an extra layer that we’d normally toss just before the race got started.  This year, though, we weren’t tossing anything.  In fact, I had lost one of my gloves and was so cold that I did the runner equivalent of dumpster diving by picking up a discarded wrong handed glove off the ground and putting it on backwards after giving the briefest of thoughts  of transmittable diseases.  At one point I turned to Rita and said, “we should do a big group hug just to stay warm,” and then next thing I knew two women standing behind us grabbed us and we had a nice big hug with two women I will never see again.  That’s how cold it was.

Finally the cannon fired to start our wave of the race, and off we went into the wind.  The race is so big that it has 4 different starting waves, and three different starting groups for each wave.  Two groups run over the top of the bridge, and one runs on the lower deck.  The other two times I’ve run the marathon I was in the lower deck starting group, so I’d never run on the top.  This was a bad year to get switched.

Not only did we have to start off by dealing with a rather steep on-ramp, be we had to run up it in these brutal winds that seemed to be going in every direction all at once.  Running hats were getting blown off people’s heads, and people who started off wearing ponchos (they’re good to keep you warm, and you don’t care when you toss them) looked like large sails.  A couple of times the wind knocked me sideways.  At one point Rita and I tried to discard one of our extra sweatshirts, and the moment I let go of it a wind gust grabbed it, blew it the width of the bridge and right out over the water.  No joke.

Finally we fought our way over the bridge and spilled out into Brooklyn.  The crowds there were amazing.  People had come out in this typhoon and were jumping, screaming and cheering us on.  It took my mind off of the wind for a bit and I tried to get into the moment.  Usually at about mile 2 on any run I start to feel really good and just get into it.  Not this time, though.  I felt awful.

Rita and I had decided to start running together, and agreed that it would be OK to split up if we felt it wasn’t working.  By mile 3 I had to ask Rita to slow down a bit.  She happily complied, but I felt bad.  I was not having a good race, and I didn’t want to take her down with me.  At mile 5 I told her that I thought we had to split up.  She had a great pace, but I just couldn’t keep up with it.  So, we did the rest of the race on our own.

At about mile 8 I realized that Brooklyn was one gradual but long hill.  I had trained a lot on big hills, but didn’t think to run for about 6 miles on road sloping up, and my hamstrings and butt were telling me how ill prepared I was for this.  Add the wind on, and I just didn’t think I’d be able to continue.  Honestly.  I’m not writing this so that this story looks like a big triumph at the end.  Before I hit double digit mileage, all I wanted to do was give up.  But I didn’t, and my reasoning was probably absurd but it worked.  The week before the race I had sent an email and posted on Facebook how people could track me during the marathon.  Several people told me they’d be tracking me including my entire new team I had at work.  So every time I thought about just stepping off the course, I thought about how everyone would see me hit mile 8, and then my progress would just stop.  And I couldn’t face that.  So I kept going.

At mile 11 I perked up a little because I knew my first group of fans was coming up.  My sister, sister-in-law and niece were waiting for me along Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, and I was not going to look defeated when I got to them.  They saw me from a block away (I have no idea how they did that), and they were jumping and screaming like all the other spectators, but this time they were screaming for me.  I hugged the three of them, and when I hugged my sister I pulled her in and whispered into her ear: “This is so hard this year.”  My sister is a woman of few words, but when she does use them they are always the right ones.  She held onto me for an extra second and said, “That’s OK.  You can still do this.”  She was right.  This was hard, but it wasn’t impossible.  I finally let go, thanked them for standing in the cold and took off towards bridge #2 and Queens.

The energy pump I got from my family wore off before mile 13.  I was arguing with myself about whether or not I could just run/walk (read: walk a lot and run very little) for the rest of the race, but finally I decided that I wasn’t going to allow myself to walk for at least the first half.  Unfortunately, the halfway point is on the Pulaski Bridge which takes us from Brooklyn to Queens, so I found myself charging up another steep and windy on-ramp.  Ugh, this just sucked.

As we headed into Queens, I started feeling even worse.  I wasn’t having any more problems physically.  The issue was that I knew that the Queensboro Bridge was coming up.  I have two nicknames for that Bridge: “The Evil Queen – sboro” and “The Queensboro [bad word; starts with “B”, rhymes with “itch”].  Simply put, that bridge is my arch nemesis.  She’s a big bully, and every year she beats me up and takes my lunch money. 

This year I spent the two or so miles in Queens thinking about how tough that bridge is on a normal day, and I just didn’t want to do it this year.  Again, I thought about quitting and didn’t even worry about what my friends and new team at work would think of me when they tried to track my progress and saw that there was none.  But then I remembered my own fail-safe that I had built into this marathon: I was running without anything to get me home: no phone, no Metrocard, not one dime.  I’d checked all that stuff with my bag so that the only way I could get to where I was supposed to meet my husband Wil after the finish was by my own feet.  Damn it.

When we got to the bridge, I didn’t even try to fight the bully.  I decided that I was going to walk up the long steep ramp and kill my own time in the process, but at least I’d have enough strength and will to keep going for the rest of the race.  I was handing over the lunch money without having her beat me up first.

I have to admit: it worked.  I was slow going up, but I was able to run on the flat part, even with the wind knocking me sideways again.  But I got to the end and ran down the very steep off ramp, which is usually just as difficult as the on ramp.  I did it. Harrumph.

Running off that [same bad word with the “b” and the “itch”] and onto First Avenue in Manhattan is an experience like no other.  Spectators aren’t allowed on the bridge, and runners all want to die, so it’s very quiet and kind of gets to you.  But First Avenue is like Mardi Gras in New Orleans on steroids.  It is loud, and it is amazing.  It puts any energy back into you that the bully of a bridge took away.

Normally I love when we run up First Avenue.  The crowds are overwhelming and I know I have two sets of family waiting for me.  This year, though, First Avenue was a 3 mile long wind tunnel.  It was almost impossible. At one point the wind knocked me sideways again, and I bumped into a very big guy running next to me.  I said a quick, “Oh, sorry!” and he smiled and replied, “You are at a real disadvantage today.”  Hah, for the first time in my life those 70 pounds I had lost had put me at a disadvantage.  I kind of liked that.

I continued fighting my way through the wind up First Avenue.  At 91st Street my mom and kids were waiting for me.  I hugged them and my mom said, “This is tough this year!”  Yup.  I continued on, but by 115th Street I was done yet again.  This was too hard, and I really thought I was going to cry.  But I knew I was going to see my husband soon and I had to get it together before he saw me.  So, I settled back into my run.

I had been taking my gel chews every 5 miles, but each time they gave me a nasty side stitch, so I decided to abandon them.  Then at mile 19 I felt myself hitting The Wall.  Usually I just slow down, but this year I felt like I had suddenly been hit with a bad case of the flu.  Everything hurt and I was exhausted.  Fortunately, this was not my first tea party and I knew my sure fire cure for The Wall: Skittles.  I had stolen a pack of Skittles from my kids’ Halloween candy (trust me; they won’t be missed), and had brought them with me.  As I ate them I thought they were the most delicious things in the world (so if you’ve ever eaten Skittles, you realize how very delusional I was at that point).  But they worked.  I felt better and kept going.

At 125th Street I saw my husband Wil waiting for me.  He meets me at 125th and First Avenue, and as I jog into the Bronx and back out, he walks over to 125th and Fifth Avenue to see me again.  When he saw me he was yelling out some encouraging words, but I wasn’t listening.  For some reason, I suddenly wanted salt, so all I said back was “pretzels!  Bring pretzels to Fifth Ave”.  He vowed to find some, told me how great I was doing (liar), and gently shoved me north towards the Bronx.

I walked up the ramp of the Willis Avenue Bridge (lesson learned), and then across and down the other side.  The Skittles had kicked in and I felt like I was flying.  Right at the off-ramp, the song “Timber” by Pitbull and Ke$ha was playing on a loudspeaker, and I almost started to laugh.  I heard the line “It’s going down.  I’m yelling ‘Timber’!” and finally I felt that good running feeling that I had been looking for back at mile 2 when it would have been a lot more beneficial.  All I can say is may God bless and protect the inventor of Skittles.

The bridge back into Manhattan really isn’t too bad, so I ran over it and got to Fifth Avenue.  The wind seemed even worse, but I was more accepting of it.  At 125th Street I saw Wil standing with an open bag of pretzels.  I stuck my hand (the one that was wearing the unknown owner’s glove whose disease status was unknown) into the bag and grabbed a handful.  As I was grabbing them Wil said, “I have gummy bears, too.”  I met Wil in 1995, and in the 19 years I have known him, that is the most wonderful thing he has ever said to me.  I grabbed a handful of those, too (with the hand that had been wearing my own glove and at least had DNA on it that I was familiar with), gave Wil an extra kiss and ran down Fifth Avenue with my hands full of a runner’s feast.

I woofed down the pretzels and got two cups of water at the next rest stop.  At mile 22 I ate the gummy bears (at that moment not as tasty as the Skittles but equally effective) and was thrilled not to have to eat the gel chews and get the subsequent side stitch that was paired with it.  Then I looked at my watch and realized that my time was pretty good.  I wanted to step it up, but when my brain told my legs to speed up, my legs replied with a whole bunch of bad words that I can’t put down here, so I just kept doing the best I could.

Just after mile 24 we turn into Central Park at 90th Street.  I run in Central Park about once a week, and this is the exact part of it that I run on.  Feeling like I was on my home turf, I gained a little kick in my step.  I knew that this part of the park was almost all downhill, and silently gave thanks for gravity as I sped up a little and made it through the park.  At last we exited at 59th Street and turned west onto Central Park South.  This is the point where I usually start having very mixed emotions.  This is where I know what I’m about to accomplish and I feel the amazing weight of that.  I also usually get sad, though, because I don’t want it to end.  Well, not this year.  All I wanted was to be done.  Columbus Circle felt like a million miles away, but finally we got there and turned back into the park.

Soon after we re-entered the park we hit mile 26.   At last.  I fought the urge to break into a sprint and tried to keep my pace for a minute or two.  In years’ past they’ve had signs up every 100 meters for the last half mile that say, “800 meters to go, 700 meters to go”, etc.  This year, though, most mile markers had to be removed because of the wind (or had been removed by the wind), so they weren’t there.  The GPS on my watch stopped working at mile 22.36, so I had no idea how close I was to the finish line (and my birthday is February 28th if you’re thinking of getting me a new watch for my since mine totally sucks).  Once I could see it, though, I took off into a sprint, or as well as one can sprint after running about 26.1 miles.

Finally, I crossed the finish line.  I tossed my hands up in the air, and this time I did start to cry.  Just a little and they were happy tears.  I did it.  That was the hardest marathon I ever hope to have to do, but I did it.  

After I got my medal, I remembered that my time near the end had been better than I expected (the GPS on my watch gave out, but the stopwatch was running fine).  I had stopped my watch when I crossed the finish line, but hadn’t looked down to see how I had done.

Last year I had my best marathon time ever, at 5:22:37.  This time I looked down and was happy and sad at the same time.  My time this year was 5:22:41, four seconds slower than my personal best.  I was annoyed I had missed it, but thrilled at how well I had done in a race that was so bad.

The 2014 NYC Marathon is done, and I finished it.  I ran through side stitches, up hills and in wind so strong I kept waiting for Dorothy’s house to land on me.  Like I said, it was horrible.  So, am I running it again next year?  Of course I am.  Just this time I’m going to do some training runs in the wind.


Sunday, October 26, 2014

Lucky Me



I am one of the luckiest people on Earth.  Nope, I didn’t win the lottery or find a bag of gold buried under a floor board in my house.  I am lucky because I am currently sick as a dog.

Yeah, you don’t get it.  Hold on, though, you will.  In last week’s blog I complained about a bad cold that I had.  Well, that cold has blossomed into full on bronchitis.  For the last two days I have been laying around doing nothing but feeling like 10 pounds of – poop – in a 5 pound bag.  Yesterday was supposed to be my last long run before the NY Marathon next Sunday, 8 miles.   I didn’t even put on running clothes.  Today I’m not coughing as much, but I have so little energy that after I finish this blog I’m going to need a 2 hour nap.

OK, so where am I lucky?  Well, I said it already.  I’m sick this week, and the marathon is next week.  My doctor gave me 10 days of antibiotics that are taken in 5 (that by the way have made me constantly nauseous), so they will beat up all the bad germs in plenty of time for me to toe the line next Sunday.  No, I didn’t do my last long run, but I got in all the rest of my training, and I did it without any injury more severe that a corn and a few blisters.  I actually made it through a training season without use of durable medical equipment!

NY Marathon, 2013
No, this timing isn’t great, but it’s a whole lot better than if I got sick next week.  And while I’ve been lying around in my nauseated stupor, I’ve thought about that.  What if I had gotten diagnosed with bronchitis next Friday – 2 days before the marathon – instead of this past Friday – 9 days before the marathon?  Would I have tried (and probably failed) to run it, or would I have given up on 5 months of training because my ears are too stuffed to hear anything and I feel like I’m coughing up a lung?  Well, fortunately I don’t have to answer that which is good, because I really don’t know what the answer would have been.

My amazing husband Wil has stepped up to the plate this weekend and done everything for the house and kids so I can lie on the couch like a dead fish.  I’ve eaten enough chicken soup to make my grandmother proud.  When I went to my doctor, she told me to get plenty of rest for the next week, which I interpreted as “whatever you do, Ali, do NOT clean your house” so I’m resting in a living room that needs to be vacuumed, but at least I’m resting.

I probably won’t blog next week, because next Sunday afternoon I again plan on lying on the couch like a dead fish, but that time with a finisher’s medal around my neck.  For now I’m going to take that two hour nap, and if I find any energy I might look for gold buried under one of the floor boards in my house.