Gifts of Training Half-Marathon #3

I just finished the real work of training!  12 miles yesterday, and it’s all tapering and gentle maintenance until race day, Nov. 3.  Here are a few of my favorite parts of training for Rails to Trails, Fall, 2013.

  1. Getting to know my (sort of ) new home through its trails.  After being a country runner for years, I now know some spokes out from my hub in the city where I’ve lived for two years.  Thankfully, those spokes connect me to beautiful marsh trails.  I’ve gotten to enjoy the seasonal changes on long, quiet runs, and have pushed back my fearfulness about running alone in these areas.  I’ve been too determined to put in the miles to let fear get the better of me.  As I continually run these trails, I feel more at home and more at ease.

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  1. Finding new routes!  I really enjoyed running downtown this weekend, and across the bridge that leads to French Island and on over to Minnesota.   It was fun to do my first 7.5 miles yesterday heading to downtown La Crosse, stopping in at a gas station to use the rest room, and seeing other people in their task-oriented Saturday morning while I was in my running zone.  I loved running across a bridge that I usually take in from a car window.  The views were glorious.

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  1. Renewed confidence in my body:   I trained for half-marathons twice before, and succeeded in completing them.  But after that second one, I struggled a lot with plantar fasciitis.  When I tried to train for a third, I couldn’t finish.  I did enjoy a lot of time training with my husband that time around.  We got to the 7-mile mark, but my foot forced me to stop, and he was mostly training to keep me company, so he stopped too. (Maybe I’ll rope him in next time I do this!)  Anyway, I approached the goal this time with the attitude of holding loosely to the goal, believing an injury could throw me off   Here I am, near the end of training, all in one piece.

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  1. Adding in a few runs with my son.  Running time has become our time for real conversation, as opposed to the grunts and mumbling which are no doubt familiar to many parents of 13-year-old boys.  It’s also just been fun to share our thoughts on a sport we both enjoy.

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  1. Training and sharing encouragement with my friend Sanna.  Our schedules haven’t always meshed, and our paces are sometimes different, but sharing this goal, and sometimes managing to train together, has deepened an already wonderful and treasured friendship.   I am really happy that we’ll be running the half-marathon together.  It’s also been fun enjoying a few runs with friends Christine and Jara.

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13.2 miles, here we come!

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Back in the Saddle

Hooray! This weekend’s run was as fun and easy as last week’s was miserable and hard. I’m sure luck had something to do with it, including the luck of a gorgeous sunny day. But here were my other ingredients:

Mixing up my training routine during the week: I did my shorter runs on Tuesday and Wednesday, and swam on Thursday, leaving myself two full days without running to give my body time to loosen up. I think what I hit last weekend was the maximum stiffness wall. Runners are tight in general, and I’ve never been flexible. Somehow my whole body was just unwilling to move last weekend. This weekend, a little extra rest seems to have helped.

Doing a three-part run: I ran the first four miles with one of my running buddies.  We chatted about family and work, and shared the stories of our recent lives. The four miles flew by. We circled back to our neighborhood, where she left to get on with her Saturday, and I picked up my son, who was ready to deliver on one of the 20 run-with-mom coupons he’d given me for Mother’s Day. He’s a cross-country runner, almost done with his season, and he didn’t want to push too hard before his conference on Monday. But he can, of course, literally run circles around me (and often does), so three miles at my slow slog didn’t stress him much.

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While both of this Saturday’s running buddies were charming companions, only one of them veered off the trail to do somersaults down the hill, and broke right back into running and talking. Oh, that 13-year-old energy!

So after three miles with Brad, circling back to our house once again, I hit the trail one last time for the last four miles. Buoyed by two great conversations (Brad and I talked about running and about how we incorporate new knowledge into old knowledge), I was light on my feet. A freshened up playlist on my i-pod was all I needed for company. The last four miles were a breeze.

When I came back to my neighborhood one last time, I didn’t want to go in the house. I just kept walking around and basking in the feeling of a great run, taking in the blazing colors of October leaves, which seemed brighter than ever.

Even though I’ve run two half-marathons before, every experience is different. The obstacles I faced then were mostly about fending off injuries. This time, it’s finding new trails, and trying to make myself feel safe on them, keeping myself fresh, and confronting some slightly different physical challenges. After last week, I was starting to wonder if I could actually do 13.2 miles. This week I rediscovered that inner runner, and, as my friend who’s training for the same race said, at this point in the training, you start to feel like a real runner. The race is just a few weeks away, most of my training is behind me. It all seems to have snuck up on me, but all of a sudden, I can run 11 miles, and I feel pretty confident I can do that again, and add on 2.2 more.

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Where is my inner runner?

BAAAAAD attitude for yesterday’s long run.  I was NOT a joy runner yesterday.  I ran nine miles, a repeat of last week’s length, because I was accidentally a week ahead on training.  Something just wasn’t working; I woke up tired, didn’t want to run in the first place, but being a creature of ridiculous habit of discipline about these things, and having plopped down my $85 for the upcoming, half-marathon I made myself go.

I did choose a great route, though it would have certainly helped to coordinate a run with friends.  All those solo motivational tips I wrote about last week couldn’t quite penetrate the attitude yesterday.  My mind and body were united all right, but united in rebellion against this whole running idea, and against the gloom of the day, even as I ran through one of the most beautiful spots on planet earth.

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This water fountain has always been a little oasis in my many runs in this park, and it looked especially inviting today.  I paused here for a whole bunch of gulps and a few minutes of not running, which gave me just enough juice for the last two miles.

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Today I poked around the blogosphere looking for other runners’ motivation, and it cheered me up to find some new blogs to follow, and to hear that these dips in attitude (which I didn’t experience much in my previous trainings) are kind of par for the course.  Many of the same things that get me through, the mental discipline of breaking the run up in my mind, the focus on the benefits of running, and just sheer determination, are the ingredients of many other runners’ ability to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Some people seem to be a little more motivated than I am by personal best times, and excellent race performances, whereas I’m not so much. I’m more of a zen of running kind of gal, so when I don’t have my running zen, I’m not so sure what I’m doing.

But this is where having lived through my mind’s (and body’s) ups and downs for 47 years comes in handy.  A bad run is like a bad day.  You can’t judge your larger goals and decisions (a 9-mile run, a half-marathon training) by one bad run, just like you can’t judge your life decisions by a bad day.  I still got the job done.  And in the last mile and a half, after seven and a half miles of resistance, I knew I was close enough to quit worrying about the road ahead.  I even kind of enjoyed that last little bit.

And if I couldn’t have the zen of running, I at least had the extraordinary relief of being done running, and of walking over one of my favorite bridges, one that’s packed with swallow nests in the summer, and a great place to spy egrets in October and to see majestic bluffs in three directions.  At this point, though I’d dropped my sweaty cell phone in my parked van and was wandering over the bridge cameraless, so I can’t show those egrets.  I also felt lighter, and accomplished, and very deserving of the juicy few hours I was planning for myself of curling up in the Saturday afternoon, freshly showered, and reading a novel.

Lesson learned here:  I’m probably reaching the limits of my personal motivation for doing long solo runs this time around.  It’s time to call in the reinforcements.  Next week, however much schedule maneuvering it takes, I’m going to snag myself a running body for the 10-mile challenge of the weekend.  I have several good options, including my friend who’s training for the same race.

It’s also worth noting that this week in running had its ups as well as its downs.  When the sun was out on the marsh trail near my house, my four-mile run on Tuesday seemed like a cake walk.  Nine-mile struggles aside, I am truly getting in better shape.  I think I just need the sun to come back out.  While I’m waiting, I can remember this, and know what I get to look forward to next time, when, hopefully, my inner runner will be more willing to wake up and power me through.

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In the meantime, though I know I have a very tiny band of followers here, I’d love to hear what other runners (or bikers or trail hikers or any kind of exercise enthusiasts) do when they hit those plateaus and moments of low motivation.  Please write if you have something to share!

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Psyching Myself Up for the Long Run

I have to admit, it’s not just my body that gets a little freaked out by these long runs.  My mind anticipates them with a combination of enthusiasm, anxiety, and sometimes a little questioning as to why in the heck I’m doing this, especially when I think about doing them without company.  Like any big individual goal, it can be energizing to be on track, and yet lonely at the same time.

So it’s hard to overestimate the value of a running buddy for long runs, even if it’s just part of the run.   This past week or so, for both long runs I had the pleasure of running with a friend at the beginning, four miles on Saturday, three miles this past Thursday. It was like the best energy drink imaginable.  I hardly knew I was running while chatting with these two respective friends.  When each had to say her goodbye, I was ready to settle in to the long, last leg on my own.

Once back on my own, I sometimes have to wrestle with my mind, trying not to think about how many miles lay ahead.  Long runs are really mini-journeys, and as such, they’re packed with opportunities to re-learn lessons I’m always trying to teach myself when I’m not running.

When I get tired, I remind myself that this doesn’t mean I’ll stay tired.  I’ve surprised myself again and again with a second wind.   Off the running trail, too, I find it very easy to go the worst case scenario when the going gets rough, assuming it will stay this way or get worse.  This little mini-version of the hard slog that’s part of every worthwhile project, this small reminder that things usually do get better, has been something I’ve been a little better able to incorporate into my thinking about non-athletic situations (e.g. most situations) since I started taking on these long runs.

I also let myself slow down sometimes, barely moving.  This, too, has been a revelation gained from running, one that you’d think someone in their 40s would have learned sooner.  But in my work and life, I spent most of my early adulthood going at high speed with just about every project or task,  all engines revved, until the point, late in the day, when I let myself by done with my lengthy to-do lists.  But there’s no doubt: slowing down is a great way to re-charge and invite that second wind over.

I try very hard to stay in the moment on long runs, a mindset I’ve learned not from running, but from yoga.  It’s so easy to wonder how I’ll make it, especially if I happen to be feeling tired at mile four, and I’ve got five more to go, but if I just stay in the present, I start to relax.  Music helps with all of this.  I let the music on my i-pod remind me of all the calm and happy times I have had running.  Songs like Corrine Bailey Rae’s “Put Your Records On” cue me to just settle in, enjoy the music, and put one foot in front of the other.

I also take time to notice when it’s going well, sort of mentally high-fiving myself and thanking my body for giving me this burst of energy, out of nowhere.  Those energy bursts arrive in my mind too.  When you run for nearly two hours, mostly by yourself, it’s a good time for a busy person to enjoy the company of her own mind.  My body is engaged and my mind is free.

Meanwhile,  I never stop noticing that the world I drive by is fabulously more rich when I run through it.

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The route matters a lot for a long run.  Yesterday I chose another one of my memory lanes, so to speak, a stretch of highway and a portion of a county park which were part of my life on a daily basis when I lived out of town.  I chose this route because it was easy access from my friend’s house; after she and I looped around a trail near her house, I headed out of town from there.   I also chose it because I had a pretty good idea that I would be too busy being amazed by what a beautiful spot on planet earth I live in to focus on how tiring it is to run nine miles.  Seriously even the sparkle of fresh highway asphalt in the sun was part of the magic of that little stretch of Highway 35, which is part of the national treasure of the Great River Road.

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I was treated to a vibrant spectacle of September’s yellow greens, the Midwestern harvest season, and the flowers that just keep popping out, defiant of the cold that’s coming, the best reminders I could have about living (and running) in the moment.

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Sunday Hike and Run with my Son

Unbelievably, my 13-year-old son, who tends to like to escape both physically and emotionally from everyone these days, agreed to do a hike with me this past Sunday.  Like so many kids his age, he seems to only want to talk when he’s in the car, and we’re not in the car much anymore. So we hiked together, way up the bluff, and the vista high we gained made me thankful again for what two strong legs can do for a person.  It was truly the highlight of my day, and a great way to cross-train/do my easy Sunday “run.”

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At the top of the bluff, we sat on a rock for awhile and talked about how he wishes he could play like a little kid, even though he isn’t one, a conversation which made me let out a long sigh for all fleeting childhoods, especially this one, of my youngest sweetie.

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But I was grateful he’d shared, and near the end of the trail, back down to earth so to speak, I gave him some space to climb up and down a ravine on his own, while I trotted off down this lovely path that runs along the bottom of the bluff, slow running, then walking, savoring having combined two things that make me happy in one Sunday, my son and my exercise out in nature.  I knew I’d remember this as the new week made its demands.hixon forest big trail sept 13

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Running Injuries: Potential Show-Stoppers and Powerful Teachers

I made it to eight miles!  This half-marathon training thing feels real now.  I’m continuing to stick to my training routine, made easier by September with its back-to-school embracing of rules for living, times for getting up, times for work, times for eating and sleeping, and for running.  Despite all those routines, the body sometimes rebels, because I’m also pushing it, a little further each week.

 Some parts of my body keep letting me know that running isn’t easy for them, that they might be willing to keep cooperating, but I can’t be sure, and I should listen to them and take good care of them.  Getting to the eight-mile mark feels significant in this regard, because when you’re 47, your body is willing to remind you, at this point in the push, of every wrong-doing it has endured.  Before I even ran that eight miles yesterday, my wicked planter fasciitis (heel pain, for anyone who hasn’t experienced this malady) made itself felt for the first time in a long time.  It went away, but by the end of that run, I was feeling, just in muted form, in tiny voices, some old bursitis in my hips, and some crankiness in my knees.  All of this reminds me not to take running for granted, and not to take my still-functioning body for granted. 

Over the years, one persistent injury has taught me the hard lesson of maintenance.  Caution comes naturally to me, but maintenance, not so much.  My most consistent problem as a runner has been heel pain, known medically as planter fasciitis.  Ever since I went back to running—probably too soon—after my second pregnancy, at the tender age of 30, I’ve had this problem that has sometimes managed to de-rail my running for many months at a time.  It’s the thing that kept me from completing half-marathon training last time I tried, in fall 2010, when I got the seven-mile mark and decided not to wreck my left foot by continuing. (I always remind myself, I want to be able to walk when I’m 80.)

If you’ve never had this thing, it’s hard to overstate how frustratingly tenacious it is, and how powerful.  If you’re a runner, walker, or hiker, you probably already know about this.  In his excellent book, Chi Running, Danny Dreyer writes that there are few things he would wish on his worst enemy, and planter fasciitis is one ofthem. (He also notes that when he experiences that heel pain starting, he knows how Harry Potter feels when the Death Eaters were after him. ) At its worst, the pain is present in every step you take, including walking.  In better times, you feel it only in the morning, for the first few steps, when your muscles are tight, during a running warm-up, or at about mile four or five in a long run, when the pain starts to flare up again, and you know you should quit running now because you’re only making things worse.  When things are really bad, it hurts to walk, all the time.  To add to that, as one physical therapist friend told me, once it starts, it typically lasts about a year.

I’ve had planter fasciitis off and on, and in the past several years, mostly on.  It alternates from foot to foot, with some breaks in between episodes. Over the years, I’ve consulted just about every kind of medical professional, from the GP who first told, me, at age 30, that the problem was my tight calves (which is true, and those tight muscles pull on the foot muscles, causing the pain), to the orthopedic specialist who told me it might help if I wore high heels more often (?), to the podiatrist who fitted me with orthotics, gave me a splint to sleep in at night to keep the calf muscles stretched, and even, when I got desperate, tried shooting one of my heels with cortisone. 

I’ve also gone to physical therapy and tried every trick they know, including the dreaded stretching.  (I truly hate stretching before a run.  I’m just too impatient.)  I’ve worn inserts in my running shoes and bought myself many pairs of $100 non-running shoes for walking around.  (Below is a brief history of my $100 or more shoes since about 2005; not pictured the $30 pair of Crocs I live in when I’m at home to cushion my feet.)  Really, I’ve put more energy into this ailment than any other, though I’ve also been out of running for awhile due to knee problems, with amazingly enough, resolved themselves with a little physical therapy.  Probably the longest I ever quit running was seven months, due to plantar fasciitis.   

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So, I wish I could say the answer I’ve found would work for everyone, though I can tell from reading running blogs and noting four pages of Dreyer’s book devoted to the dreaded PF, if there were an answer for everyone, we’d know about it.  But here’s what worked for me, and it took some time:  a couple of years ago I decided to pay out of pocket to see an acupuncturist.  The bad news is that, hundreds of dollars later, I still had heel pain.  The good news is, this guy taught me more about my body.  He really helped me understand that it was all about my calves and even my upper legs.  The tight bands in those muscles took the problem all the way down to my heels.  He wanted me to learn how to massage my calves, and have my husband help me with that since he could get a better angle.  We did some of that, though it is very painful to have someone else massage your calves.  It wasn’t exactly something either of us looked forward to.

So over time, we let go of that.  But at some point a runner friend told me about massage rollers for your calves, which somehow had not gotten onto my radar through physical therapy.  Knowing what I knew about my calves, I was receptive.  I spent about $30 online for something that’s kind of like long, soft rolling pin, small and easy to store near the door. 

I now use this “magic wand” before every run.  I massage all the major muscles in my calves, and a little bit of the long bands of muscles in my inner, upper legs, for good measure. 

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It’s remarkable how much looser I feel when I start running.  It only takes a few minutes to do this, and it provides a good warm-up because it’s actually hard work.  Most importantly,  I’ve truly seen the results.  I tried this thing the last time the PF started, probably about a year ago, and the dreaded pain never progressed like it always has in the past. 

For me, this was not just about finding the right product, though.  It was about recognizing the need for maintenance.  I actually use the roller at other odd times when my calves feel tight, especially after a long run.  I’ve realized that, as the acupuncturist said, history repeats itself, and if I don’t do some preventive maintenance every run, ideally even every day, I’ll just keep repeating this cycle.  As I age, I know that I can’t count on my body to behave like it did in its twenties.  I no longer see these injuries as annoying things that I just have to wait out or try a bunch of expensive treatments for.  What I mostly need to do is my maintenance.  But my injuries have also taught me this:  I need to be grateful when I can run, and hold loosely to goals like half-marathons.  Each week I can run that extra mile, I feel lucky, and grateful.  Maybe I’ll get to 13.2 this time; maybe I won’t, but I am thankful to have gotten this far.

 

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Early September

I hear my blog needs some photos, and yesterday was such a photo op kind of running day! I played hooky for a couple of hours and drove out to my friend’s farm to take a 4.5 mile run, feed her dog while my friend is away, and, as a reward for it all, pick veggies, grapes and raspberries from her garden.

Here’s the beginning of my running route on this country road up on a ridge in beautiful Wisconsin bluff country.

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And here’s some goldenrod, some of it already dying, that fleeting, late August flower that signals the end of the summer.

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Running outdoors throughout the year really keeps me in touch with the seasons. Especially when I lived in the country, I came to notice all these gradations in the foliage and the slant of the sun. I love the awareness that there’s a kernel of fall even in the warm summer weather. Running on my trail near town, I see those first red leaves on trees, or dropped onto the path, sometime in August, and it always makes me smile. I love to welcome fall, even though it’s a crazy busy season. It’s a runner’s dream season, weather that’s cool, but not cold, glorious colors, and something changing in nature every week, probably more often than that if you’re really looking.
Fall also has a lot to recommend it for a half-marathon trainee who’s also a professor. Yes, I’m busier than ever with work, but last time I did a fall training like this, I found that there was some kind of homeopathic principle at work: like meets like; the incredible intensity of the week’s workload was somehow complimented by a long, intense, anxiety-draining, happily exhausting weekend run. Four and a half mile mid-week runs serve a similar purpose. And since yesterday was meeting-free, I flexed my work hours to achieve some of that intensity in a place far from my workaday responsibilities, taking an extra long “lunch hour.”

And when I got back, this was my reward:

 

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After that, I felt really good the rest of the day.
Happy early September!

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