A Goal to Step Back

Earlier this year, I set a goal to take some risks with my running.  I wanted to step outside my comfort zone and challenge myself in new ways.  Running both Hyner and Worlds End definitely accomplished that goal, and I had a blast with both races.  I then set my sights on a series of fall ultras, starting with Labor Pain, a race that I first ran last year.  Last September, I completed 40 miles at Labor Pain.  This year, I decided that 50 was the number I was shooting for.  I didn’t share this goal with a lot of people, as it sounded too presumptuous, but it’s been on my mind for months.  All of that changed a bit this past week, and for the first time that I can remember, I’m voluntarily stepping back from a goal that I set.  Let me attempt to explain why.

I’m a stubborn person.  I inherited it from both of my parents, and I like to think of my stubbornness as one of the driving forces behind my success in sports and in life.  Perseverance can take you a long way, and I’ve used it to my advantage over the years.  As a result, I hate to back down from a challenge.  Once I’ve decided to take something on, I almost always see it through.  To quit or give up would be a form of failure in my mind, and that’s not something I’m good at accepting.

I can’t recall ever choosing to lower my race expectations before.  Sure, this past spring I transferred from the 50K to the 25K for Dirty German, but that was to give me the best chance of being rested going into Worlds End, which was my “A” race for the season.  Even so, I agonized over that choice for days before making the wise decision to dial it back a bit.  The thought of making a similar choice for Labor Pain was not an easy one.  It was my trip to Rhode Island last week that decided it for me.

My mom grew up in Rhode Island, and we spent a week there every summer when I was growing up.  After my children were born, I started taking them up for our own Rhode Island visit each summer.  Part of the reason was to spend time with my aunt and cousin, but I also wanted to share some of my favorite childhood memories with my children.  I grew up in Maryland, and now that my father has died and my mother has moved to Florida, I often feel like I don’t really have a home to return to.  Returning to Rhode Island each summer gives me that cherished feeling of returning home.

One day during our visit last week, I woke up early to go for my morning run, only to discover that both of my children were already awake as well.  At home, my husband is always willing to entertain them while I run, but with him home working and the rest of the household asleep, I didn’t have many options.  I instructed the kids to read quietly in their room until I returned, then raced out the door and tried to squeeze in my mileage as quickly as possible.  I was less than a mile in before I started to feel guilty.  Here we were on vacation, and my children were sitting around waiting for me while I tried to fit in my run.  I’m a firm believer that it’s important for parents to make time for their own activities, but I am also aware that vacations always feel too short.  I didn’t want to waste precious time during our trip away from my kids when we could be spending that time making memories together.

I turned around after a mile, ran back to the house, and instructed both kids to grab their shoes and a sweatshirt.  We then went back outside together, where we took a short half-mile run to one of the nearby bay beaches.  We spent the next 45 minutes wandering the beach, looking for sea glass.  It was barely 6 o’clock in the morning, and we had the entire beach to ourselves.  It felt almost forbidden, to be out engaging in a cherished activity while most of the world slept.  The next morning, the children were again awake before I could get out for my run, so we made another sea glassing trip.

When we returned home to Pennsylvania the next day, I realized that this is what I want to think of when I look back on this summer – I want to remember those stolen moments with my family.  My children are 7-years-old, and I am all too aware that I don’t have a lot of summers left with them.  Before I can blink, they are going to be entering their preteen years, where time spent with Mom will be considerably less appealing.  I want to make sure that we build as many memories as we can right now, while we still have the chance.

I haven’t given up on any of my fall races, and I still hope to conquer 50 miles within the next year or two.  I’m still going to train hard this summer.  But if I’m short on time or opportunity, and I have to make the choice between a run and my children, my kids are going to win out this summer.  They’ve taught me that sometimes it’s best to take a step back and reset your priorities to make sure you are focusing on that which matters the most.

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Searching for sea glass at 6am.  Just us, the waves, and the seagulls.  

 

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Hiking at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge

Last summer, the husband and I traveled to Maine for our 10th anniversary.  We spent the week hiking in Acadia National Park and I loved every minute of it.  When we returned home, I resolved to get the kids out for hikes more often.  We did actually manage to do a couple of local trips over the past school year, but with the start of summer, I decided we were going to make it more of a priority.

Yesterday, the kids and I hit up the blue trail at Ridley Creek State Park.  Unfortunately we forgot the camera at home, but we had a great time.  Four miles of hilly, shaded hiking was a perfect way to officially kick off summer.  When we got home, we made a list of all of the places where we hoped to hike this summer.  So far we have 20 spots on our list.  I hate to have a list without anything checked off, so we added Ridley Creek, and Haverford Reserve, where we hiked 3 miles last week.  That means that we just have 18 more spots to hit in the next 10 weeks.

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Mike had the morning off, so in an attempt to check another spot off the list, we took the kids to John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge.  The main entrance to the refuge is just off 95, but I thought that we could make life a bit easier by just parking at the western entrance off 420.  From looking at the map online, I reasoned that it would take us about 2.5 miles to reach the Environmental Education Center, giving us a 5 mile hike overall.  That would be the kids’ longest distance, but knowing that the terrain would be flat, it seemed entirely reasonable.

First lesson of the day – don’t make assumptions on distance based on the scale of the map.  Second lesson – always carry more water than you think you’ll need.  On the bright side, even though we were headed out shortly after 8am, we lathered on the sunscreen and wore hats.  The trail was actually more shaded than I had expected, but since I was way off on the scale, we ended up hiking 6.5 miles and we didn’t even reach the Environmental Center.

I was really impressed by the Refuge.  Yes, there are a couple of spots where you are right along the highway, and those sections are noisy and far from tranquil.  For most of the hike, however, it was easy to forget that we were right next to a major city.  We did see and hear many airplanes overhead, but I’ve had that happen in much more remote locations, so that noise didn’t bother me at all.  The birds did their best to drown out all of the other sounds, as did the soothing noise of the wind whistling through the reeds, and the scents coming from the marsh helped us all feel as if we were at the beach.

The kids were thrilled that there was so much to see on this hike.  Granted, they tend to get excited when we find a lot of fungi and fallen leaves, so they are easily amused, but this hike really brought us a wide variety of wildlife.  We were constantly surrounded by birds.  I’m far from an ornithologist, but I was able to identify robins, swallows, doves, goldfinches, ducks and a red-winged blackbird.  We also saw a beautiful blue heron in the marsh.  Within minutes, I was regretting my decision to leave my telephoto lens at home.

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Along with the birds, the kids were excited to find many small fish in the water and numerous turtles that were sunning themselves on logs.  My daughter, who currently has an intense love for rabbits, was thrilled to count no less than 6 bunnies along the way.  Our find of the day might have been the snapping turtle that was just hanging out along the side of the trail.  We made sure to keep our distance while carefully observing him.

I would definitely recommend a return trip to John Heinz.  In fact, we are already looking forward to going back and parking at the Education Center so that we can make sure we make it all the way around the main loop.  While we were there, the trails were mainly empty, but had just enough activity from other visitors to keep me from feeling uncomfortable.  The large variety of wildlife was fascinating, and the numerous trees provided frequent shady breaks from the hot sun.  What a great find!

Remembering My Father

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It would be hard to find a man who loved sports more than my dad.  Sports have been a part of my life since my earliest memories, and my dad was a big driving force behind that.  I spent endless summer nights cheering on the Orioles from the seats at Camden Yards.  We rooted for the Washington Redskins, and later the Baltimore Ravens.  My dad has always been a Notre Dame football fan, back to the days when he served in the Army in Japan and my grandfather would mail him the newspaper write-ups on the games.  Life pretty much stopped whenever the Olympics were on, as we watched pretty much every event that was broadcast.  Figure skating, tennis, skiing, track & field – If it was on TV, we were watching it, and cheering for our favorite athletes.

My dad also encouraged our participation in sports.  I can remember family bike rides on weekend mornings when I was really young, snacking on trail mix as I relaxed in the seat on the back of my parent’s bikes.  I played youth soccer, and even spent one brief season playing basketball, before I discovered my love of gymnastics.  My sister followed me into the sport, and for the next 15 years our lives revolved around endless practices and competitions.  Gymnastics wasn’t a sport that my dad really knew, but he supported it wholeheartedly.  I can’t recall he or my mom ever missing a competition.  He celebrated my successes, comforted me when I failed, and nursed my many minor injuries along the way.

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My Mom & Dad with me at Division III Nationals during my senior year in college.

When I made the unlikely transition from gymnastics to distance running, my father was once again by my side.  My first real race was the 2013 Baltimore Half Marathon.  It’s funny to think back on it now, but at the time, I found the distance incredibly intimidating.  I even ran a 14-mile training run prior to the race, just to assure myself that I could make it the full distance.  On race day, my mom & dad were out on the course, cheering me on.  My dad even snapped several photos of us along the way.  For the next few years, my dad made it to as many of my races as he could.  He waited for me at the finish of my first marathon, even after it took me more than an hour longer than we expected due to poor training.  I went back and ran the Baltimore Team Relay every October, and my dad was always along the course, cheering for my teammates and I.  He appreciated all forms of athletic achievement, and I could always feel his pride in the effort and hard work that I put into my running.

In 2008, my father passed away unexpectedly, and my world dimmed.  My twins were days old, still in the NICU, and in all of the chaos and confusion and the heartbreak, I don’t think I fully processed the loss of my dad.  I was just trying to make it through, to survive.  As the months passed, I slowly came to terms with the new normal in my life.  There were days when I barely thought of my dad, and life went on as usual.  There were days when I would experience a crushing sense of grief, and I couldn’t stop the tears.  Eight years later, I still experience those moments at times.

I often think of my dad when I’m running.  Partly it’s just because I have more time to think when I’m out on a run.  I think, however, that it’s also because athletics were something that we shared.  My mom loves sports, and she’s incredibly knowledgeable as well, but sports were the connection I shared with my dad.  Running has become such an intense passion of mine in recent years, one that I think few people truly understand.  My dad would have.  I drove home with my husband after Worlds End, and I felt so amazed that I had actually succeeded on that course, and all I could think was, “I wish my dad had been here to see it.”

I know that everyone has their own beliefs about death, and what comes after.  I grew up believing in Heaven, and to this day, I believe that my dad and my other family members are there, and that they keep an eye on those of us still moving through life.  I even believe that my dad is still cheering for me, in his own way.  My father spent much of his life working for CSX, a transportation company.  In the years that have followed his death, I have found myself passed by CSX trains on many of my runs.  You may scoff, but even in the vast majority of my races, I will hear a train and look up to see the navy & gold CSX locomotive chugging by.  It never ceases to bring a smile to my face, and it always reminds me that while my dad may not be physically there on the sidelines, he’s still with me, cheering me on.

Thank you, Dad.  I love you.

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Latest Color Run Wrap Up

Over the years, The Color Run has become one of our family traditions.  It started back in 2012, when I talked my friend Jen into trying it out with me.

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Jen & I had such a blast that in 2013, I returned with the full family in tow.  The kids were just 4 years old at the time, and the 3 miles felt really long to them.  It took a lot of cajoling, encouraging, and occasional carrying to get them through the course.  They had a blast, however, and a tradition was born.

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We ran the race as a family once again in 2014 & 2015, and last Sunday we returned to the start line for the latest edition of colorful fun.

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This year’s race had some improvements from last year, along with the inevitable challenges.

The improvements?

  • The start at Citizen’s Bank Park was really easy to get to.  Last year it took us over 45 minutes to crawl the last 2 miles to the parking lots.  This year we cruised in without a problem, and we were able to leave after the race just as easily.  We also greatly appreciated the free parking at the stadium.
  • The lure of the ballpark.  Much to our surprise, shortly after starting the race the course took a right turn into Citizen’s Bank Park.  We ran around the concourse, enjoying the cool shade, before marching down the steps and stepping out onto the dirt warning track around the field.  It was a great experience to be able to run around the ballpark, especially since live video was streaming on the Jumbotron of all of the participants.
  • The increased number of color zones.  The race traditionally had four color zones to run through.  This year’s raced ended up with six.  What a nice surprise, and a great way to keep the kids moving forward.

The challenges?

  • The race start was poorly organized.  As long as I’ve run it, The Color Run has sent runners off in 5-minute waves to spread out the runners on the course.  In the past, we’ve approached the start and waited anywhere from 10-20 minutes before crossing the line.  This year was awful.  We stood in the blazing sun, barely moving, for 45 minutes.  After so long in the middle of the crowd, my claustrophobia started to kick in, and I had to sit down with the kids to keep from getting anxious.  By the time we finally crossed the line, we were feeling pretty aggravated.
  • The weather.  Race day dawned humid and blazing hot.  The temperatures when we arrived at the start were in the low 80s and they continued to climb.  There was also a strong wind.  While we appreciated the occasional cooling effect of the gusts, it wreaked havoc with the actual color powder, along with all of the inflatable decorations.  By the time we reached many of the zones, all of the markings were down on the ground.  Much of the color that was thrown was immediately blown away, rather than landing on participants.  In the end, we ended up much less colorful than in years past, and I have to believe that the uncooperative weather was to blame for this one.

The verdict?

We had fun, as we always do, but I’m not sure if we’ll be back.  After running this race so many times, it’s starting to feel a bit redundant.  In addition, the steep registration fee ($40/person) is definitely a deterrent.  I’ve signed up for ultra races that were only slightly more than the cost of this one, and now that the kids are much better runners, there are a lot of other options out there that are much cheaper.  Maybe it’s my transition to trails that are to blame.  After so much time spent racing on such beautiful courses, it’s hard to get excited about running around a couple of parking lots.  Anyone want to start a trail series of The Color Run?  I’d be happy to help with the planning of that one.

 

 

Why Spectating Rocks

I ran another race today.  Unlike most of my races this year, there was nothing about this one that initially stands out.  The distance was short for me.  My time was nothing special.  The course was one I’ve run before and is not noteworthy for any spectacular views.  What made this race special were the people.

I initially signed up for this race last winter as a way to motivate my friend and running partner, Jen.  She had such a rough winter health-wise that she went several months without running at all.  There were days when she couldn’t get out of bed.  She needed a goal to work towards, but she was scared of taking a risk and failing.  Enter the 1/2 Sauer, 1/2 Kraut Half Marathon.  Having run this race together last year, I knew the course would be a good balance of the roads that she is comfortable on in a more natural setting that I love.  Plus, the race has a generous refund policy, so we knew that if training didn’t go well, we always had the option of opting out the month before.  Fortunately, Jen’s determination and hard work got her back into running shape and we made it to the start line without any issues.

Fate helped us out and made today extra special, as it marked a milestone moment for Jen & I in our running journey this year.  Back in late December, I convinced her to sign up for the Run the Year Challenge with me.  We committed to running a combined 2,016 miles together in the next calendar year.  We started slowly in January but have been picking up the pace ever since, and on Friday we realized that we were at 998 combined miles heading into the weekend.  It was so awesome to be able to reach the Mile 1 sign in the race and realize that we had hit our 1,000 mile mark together.

I was worried that a bad toe would hold me back and prevent me from sticking with Jen throughout the course, but my foot cooperated and we managed to run every mile together.  We even felt good enough at the end to push one another on to a strong finish.  I’ve run so many races with this woman over the years, but every single one of them is special.  After crossing the finish and grabbing a few bites of food, Jen raced off to some family activities while I dropped my medal and race bib at the car.  I then returned to the finish line to await two more friends.

While Jen and I were conservative and stuck to the half marathon, there were about 150 runners who were bravely taking on the full 26.2, including two friends from my running club.  I cheered them through the halfway point, and then hopped back onto the course to keep them company while wracking up a few more miles myself.  I had originally planned to spend the second part of the day completely on the trails, but a closed path forced me to include some more paved trails in my loop, which turned out to be a fortunate coincidence.  It was nice to be able to run with the girls, checking in on how their race was going.  It can be difficult to run the same course a second time, especially on a hot day, and I was hoping that a bit of company might distract them and make the miles pass a little faster.  Unfortunately, we reached the mile 2 mark rather quickly, at which point I peeled off to explore some of the technical trails on my own.

After some time spent exploring, I eventually made my way back onto the paved path for the final two miles of my run, which happened to be the end of the full marathon course as well.  At this point, the field was really spread out, and I only encountered a couple of runners along the way.  The great thing about a small race field is that you feel like you get to know your fellow competitors a bit, even if only for a brief moment in time.  I enjoyed cheering on the runners that I saw, offering words of encouragement to get them through the final few hot & humid miles.  I peeled off the course just before the finish line, made a quick trip back to my car to change and grab a snack, and then found a shady spot to park myself near the race finish.  That’s when the fun really began.

I spent the next hour cheering in the marathoners that had survived the tough course conditions.  This race was small enough that there were very few spectators left at the end.  For most of the time, it was just me and two other men who sat cheering the runners.  It was awesome to watch so many people approach the finish.  I am usually too concerned with my own race to have much energy to give to the other racers.  It felt great to be able to sit and support these people who had worked so hard to make it through the course.  I once read that the noted ultra runner, Scott Jurek, was known for sitting at the finish line for hours after he crossed to cheer on his fellow competitors.  My brief stint at the finish today helped me to understand why he did that.  It was clear on many of the runners’ faces that it felt good to them to have someone there to acknowledge their hard work.  It was equally gratifying for me.

Today’s race was all about connections.  From the deep bond that I continue to share with Jen, to the snippets of conversations that I had with other runners, spectators, and race volunteers, I was reminded that the connections that we make in life are what bring joy to our days.  In my future races, I hope to devote more time to seeking out these connections.  The world is full of interesting people and it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to cross paths with so many of them.

Why I Hate Rest Days

I recently bought a new shirt with the slogan, “Rest day is my favorite.”  When I first saw it, I immediately thought, “I want that shirt!”  When it arrived two weeks later, I found myself wondering why I was so excited for it.  Don’t get me wrong – the shirt is soft, and comfy, and an awesome shade of light blue.  I’m sure I’ll wear it all the time.  And yet, it’s basically a lie.  Rest days aren’t my favorite.  In fact, they are pretty much my least favorite day of the week.

It wasn’t always this way.  When I first start running, every run was a chore.  I had to drag myself out the door, and I was always so much happier once my run was over.  I used to look forward to rest days – a chance to do nothing without feeling guilty, because I was “supposed” to rest.  Yet somehow, that changed over the years.

You see, the more that I’ve run, the more I’ve come to love it.  And when you truly love something, having the opportunity to do it is a privilege.  This is even more true now that I try to log the bulk of my mileage on the trails.  My runs are often the highlight of my week.  Which means that the days that I don’t run are usually a low point for me.

Last weekend, I was moving quickly through my house as I got ready for a long run.  I turned away from the kitchen table and promptly kicked my foot solidly into the base of our rolling computer chair.  I am embarrassed to say that the pain was so great in the moment that I uttered a long stream of obscenities.  After getting myself back up off the ground, I tenderly flexed my foot and realized that my one toe was not moving as it should.  Glancing down, I realized that it had started to swell immediately.  My early years as a competitive gymnast allowed me to become well acquainted with injuries – I broke several toes over the years and my suspicions were telling me that my injury-free run was at an end.  Always the stubborn one, I put my running shoes on anyway and headed out to the trails to meet my friends.

Other than a few extremely painful downhill steps, my run went better than I expected.  I managed to make it 11 miles and actually felt stronger as I went along.  When I finished, I removed my shoes and slid into my flip flops, as is my custom after all warm weather runs.  I checked my toe and found that it was already turning a vivid shade of purple.  Never a good sign.  I somehow justified two more days of running, but after returning to work on Tuesday, and spending the entire day on my feet, I realized that running injured and working just weren’t going together.  I did the smart thing and skipped my runs yesterday and today.  My toe feels a bit better and is far less bruised.  I, however, am miserable.

I’m sure that admitting this sounds crazy to a non-runner, but I feel awful when I don’t run.  On a normal training week, I run Saturday & Sunday and Tuesday – Thursday.  Monday and Friday are my rest days, when I usually do a short yoga workout.  I’m always more irritable on my rest days.  I should enjoy the chance to sleep in and the more leisurely pace to my mornings, but I rarely do.  Instead, I feel restless, cranky, and unsettled.  When those rest days come back to back, like they have this week, I’m downright unpleasant to be around.

I know that my rest days are an important part of my training plan.  Sticking to them so consistently is probably one of the biggest reasons why I’ve managed to make it through the past few years with so few setbacks.  But I don’t like them.  I grudgingly accept them.  I just don’t feel like myself when I don’t get out for a run.  Which is why rest days will never really be my favorite.  And why tomorrow, I’ll be setting my alarm a bit early so I can get in a short run before heading about the rest of my day.