Monday, October 25, 2010

What I'm Up Against

People often describe the Boston Marathon as the Olympics for amateurs. I can't remember where I first heard that, but it's apt. Only about 10% of female marathon finishers and 10.7% of male ones qualify, according to another blogging runner's estimate.

To qualify, you have to run a marathon within the 18 months ahead of your target Boston date and beat the time standard established by the marathon's parent organization, the Boston Athletic Association, for your age group on the date of your target Boston (you get all that???). If I want to qualify for my current age group, 35 to 39 years old, I must meet or beat 3 hours 45 minutes. To qualify for the next oldest age group, 40 to 44, I must meet or beat 3 hours 50 minutes. In both cases, that's around a full 30 minutes, or about a minute a mile, faster than my best time set five years ago in New York. And according to one calculator, my recent half-marathon time predicts a 4 hour 19 minute marathon. Obviously *that* won't cut the mustard!

As if all that's not tough enough, there has been much publicity lately, some of it in my old employer, the Wall Street Journal, about the women's qualifying standards being too lenient compared to those for men. So it may get tougher before all's said and done.

And that's just the objective stuff!

The subjective stuff--personal issues of mine--could fill a book, a long and whiney book that I hope never to write. I'll just summarize it here, and expect to return to some of it in later posts (hopefully with "I came, I saw, I conquered" stories).

1. I am lazy and self-indulgent! I like running, but it's safe to say that I like sleeping more, while eating (especially counterproductive food like Reeses Peanut Butter Cups) goes neck-and-neck with running in every "how I like to spend my time" contest. Luckily, wanting and needing lots of sleep is good for a marathoner. The food thing...not so much, but I'll address that in another post down the road.

2. I have other more immediate responsibilities. I have two small children who, I'm happy to say, no longer cry when I leave for a run and actually root for my running, but also do inconvenient things like get sick, interfering with training schedules and that key 8 hours of nightly sleep. I also have a job where--get this!--I'm expected to show up at certain times and stay for a certain amount of time (30 hours a week, to quantify). I realize having both children I love and a job I like and that requires no overtime makes me extremely lucky. But those things do mean I can't always go spend three hours running when that's what needs to be done for my goal.

3. I lack grit. This probably goes along with being lazy, and it's true of lots of areas of my life. What does this mean? In the case of running, it means there has been many a race where I gave in to the negative voices in my head ("your legs are dead; slow down;" "the headache is setting in; you didn't drink enough water; it's over now;" "these hills are huge") rather than doing what the elites do: call upon some inner strength to power them past the tough times. Grit is something I know I *must* develop if I am to succeed in getting past all the other stuff above, the objective and the subjective things. And while I find many comparisons between running and life cheesy, I do think that developing some grit will serve me well in other times and places (see above about sick children and lack of sleep!).

So that's what I'm up against.

Next post: what I've got going for me. Fortunately it's not nothing. :^)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

End of the Introduction (I Promise)

Pregnancy threw me for a loop. My original plan was to run through it until it was no longer helpful or comfortable. In the earliest weeks, I did just that, sticking with a relay team I had joined (my leg was 10K) and doing short runs on other days. Though I got out of breath quickly and slowed considerably, running helped me with nausea and kept my spirits level. But when I found I had two babies in there, I did what no pregnant woman should do: I checked out every book and visited every Web site I could find. One particularly scary book said that I needed to stop the running, because twins are "high-risk," and gain at least 50 pounds. I didn't run again until the spring of 2007 and, to a pound, I gained that recommendation. My twins were born by C-section, small and early but healthy, in December 2006.

All that worry about exercise now seems foolish to me. Of course I can't say how things would have been had I continued to run, and if staying sedentary helped my babies, it was the right thing to do. But my gut feeling now is that they would have been healthy anyway, and my mental health post-partum would certainly have been better had I kept on running.

Water under the bridge. The fact was, I was back to beginner status.
So I ran and walked, ran and walked, gradually increasing the running portions and decreasing the walking. In September 2007, I ran my first post-baby race, a 5K, in 29:09, nearly 7 minutes slower than my height-of-NYC-prep PR of 22:34. I did what I could, despite fragmented sleep, babies-becoming-toddlers and a pesky 10 to 15 pounds of weight that I couldn't shake. My best race was the 2009 Bolder Boulder 10K, completed in 53:24. But last year, my kids' first in pre-school, brought lots of illness, more lost sleep and difficulty sticking to a training schedule. My 2010 Bolder Boulder time last May was 2 minutes slower than the prior year. And I failed to break 2 hours in my last race, the Boulder Half-Marathon (chip time was 2:04:44).

What else can I do but aim higher? Plenty of people improve their running (often by quite a bit!) while also raising children, maintaining a healthy marriage and holding down a job. My kids are now almost four. My husband is supportive. I think there's room for marathon training in my life. What I need is a plan.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Introduction Part 2

I'll never forget the summer and fall leading up to the January marathon, my first. I would rise in the dark pre-dawn hours and drive to Houston's Memorial Park. Each Saturday I ran further than I'd ever run before. I specifically remember the 11-miler, which brought my first emergency trip to the Port-o-John, and the 20-miler, which we did in four five-or-so mile loops and were later told was more like 22 miles. I remember drinking water out of gas station hoses, and I remember the pea-soup thick humidity soaking my cotton shirts by the end of each run. I remember running into Eric, who I'd gone to college with, and how he became my first running partner since my days running with Dad. We'd meet up mid-week to do the "hill" workout (such as it was in hill-free Houston). On Saturdays he was with a faster group than I was, but we always hung out together afterward to stretch.

Marathon Day itself dawned chilly and rainy, the 24-degree temperature unusual for Houston even in January. I wore a garbage bag for the first half of the race, and lined up some friends to meet me with dry shoes and socks at around mile 16. My dad was there too. I was already pretty tired, and I remember my friend with the shoes saying, "Just hold onto your dad. We'll get your shoes and socks on you." The last six miles were a sodden slog, but I crossed the finish line in 5 hours 26 seconds. I had no clothing to change into, so it didn't take long for me to start shivering violently. Some friends drove me home and got me into a hot shower. For a week I had to go downstairs backwards. The next year, I helped pace Eric at the end of his second marathon, but I didn't run another one myself for 8 and a half years.

I didn't stop running, though. Running carried me through many other adventures. I moved to New York and, after an unhappy breakup and weight gain, joined the New York Road Runners and ran a race every month. I met my husband by asking him on the dance floor at a wedding if he was a runner. I joined the Peace Corps and ran in Far East Russia. I moved back to the states, this time to Colorado, got married to the runner from the dance floor, got used to running in the altitude slowly and decided to try the marathon again. I entered the lottery for the NYC Marathon, which I had watched but never ran while I lived there, and surprisingly was chosen. The resulting training season was even more memorable than my first. I used a Jeff Galloway run/walk plan. Galloway calls for *very* long slow runs on alternate weekends, so I actually entered and ran one marathon to train for the goal marathon (and despite run/walking, I beat my Houston time by 12 minutes in that training race). Two weeks later I ran three legs totaling 20 miles for a team in a 24-hour mountain relay. The Galloway plan also calls for lots of 5Ks as speed tests. As my training progressed, I began to place in my age group in some of them.

The weather for my day in New York--the 2005 running of the race--was the opposite of that in Houston. It was warm, in the 70s, and slightly muggy. I knew I wouldn't be able to make my goal of finishing under four hours. I joined the 4 hour 15 minute pace group and finished in 4 hours 14 minutes, a 40-minute PR. After we crossed the finish line, the pace group leader, a steady woman whose rhythm never faltered, asked me what my next goal was. I told her we now planned to have a baby. Though already I was thinking of Boston, I didn't tell her that.

Five months later, I was pregnant with twins.


Not saying your goals out loud is safe. It's a way to keep from really committing to them, so that if you fail, no one but you knows or cares. Stating a goal aloud or in writing, however, makes a commitment to achieving it real. That's one reason I got married when my husband and I could have gone on living together: stating a commitment in front of a group of people you love and whose opinions you value sets it in stone (at least that's how it works for me).

This blog is my public commitment to the intimidating-and-perhaps-impossible goal of someday qualifying for the Boston Marathon.

I took up running because I thought I wanted to go to the Naval Academy, where my grandfather went, and everyone told me you needed to be athletic to go there. I wasn't athletic. I remember hiding under the bench during soccer practice so I wouldn't have to be goalie, or halfback (too much running), or whatever. I limped through one lap on the track and dreaded the annual physical fitness tests in PE at school (in fact, I hated PE altogether). Adolescence, and too many Dairy Queen Peanut Buster parfaits, made me chubby. But I thought the Naval Academy was cool. And I thought my friend Angela, whose entire family ran, was cool. Angela was skinny and athletic. I thought maybe running could make me that too.

So with my dad, I started heading out to the MKT, a former railroad track converted into a miles-long trail. Starting when I was about 12 until I graduated from high school, he and I knocked out two flat miles every other evening. I didn't get faster (a brief flirtation with the high school cross country team was a flat failure for me), and I changed my mind about the Naval Academy somewhere along the line, but the running and a 4-inch growth spurt did help make me skinnier and I kept running, often with my bulky Sony Walkman playing the tape of Paul Simon's Graceland in one sweaty palm. Once I got to college, I ramped it up to 3 miles at a time (that was the distance of the dirt loop around campus), and the summer after college let myself be talked into my first-ever race, the Advil Mini-Marathon 10K in Central Park, NY. I enjoyed the crowd of that all-female race, but after I moved to Houston that fall I stuck to my easy three-mile loops. And that's where I was, when one day in 1996 a co-worker told me that if you could run three miles, you could run a marathon.

Even after I started to run, I had always written marathons off as the province of crazy people (like Angela's older brother, who ran one when he was 12, the same age I was still downing Dairy Queen on a weekly basis). My officemate, though fit, wasn't crazy. He had joined a training group that organized its members by ability and gave them a plan for all their workouts. The group assembled itself early every Saturday morning for the really long runs, so you had a crowd of fellow sufferers to run these with. I had thought running groups were only for the Angelas of the world, fast talented people seeking to compete. The idea of a non-competitive group really grabbed me. The next year I joined up and began training for my first marathon. I was 23 years old.

To be continued......