This past Saturday I ran the Black Cat 10 miler in Salem, Massachusetts. How do I begin to describe such a bittersweet day?
I could tell you how I ran an official time of 1:10:58 (7:05 splits) and that I finished in 5th place for women and third in my age group. Or I could tell you the story of how my glute/hamstring in my right leg cramped up at mile 4 and I had no choice to stop- yes, STOP midrace to stretch!!! Don’t kid yourself, I was panicking!! Or maybe I could delve into the delightful tale of how I managed to refocus in spite of strong discomfort and pick off 7 runners (two of whom were women) over the final four miles. It was an incredibly well-organized event for hundreds of runners held on a very fair course (rolling hills) on a beautiful day. With so many moving parts happening in my life and training this race meant so many different things to me.
I could tell you the nitty gritty of all of these things, but I’m going to start somewhere completely different.
One night a few weeks ago Lillian was in the bathtub and out of the blue I asked, “What would it be like if mommy didn’t run?” My first 60 mile week of training for Boston, I was feeling particularly guilty for having to drop her off 10 minutes earlier at school the next day so that I could fit in my entire run the following morning. Without hesitation Lillian looked up at me with a puzzled look and replied, “But mommy, running is a part of you.” I smiled the most bittersweet smile and hugged her right then and there in the tub. She gets it. Lillian has come to accept running as a part of my identity, a part of what makes me her mom. In so many ways it is beautiful and poetic because I don’t have to convince her or beg her to understand, she just does. Even though I’ve been running for less than 10% of my life, I’ve been running for over 75% of hers. Her viewpoint is a true reflection of who I am today: a runner.
Why do I bring all of this up in the first place? Because in so many ways I’ve recently been struggling to figure out who I am, what I want to do with my life careerwise and at the very core- what will make me happy. The separation. Being alone. Re-envisioning what my future will hold. It’s all been incredibly overwhelming. On more than one occasions I have demanded that yoda coach Beth tell me the secret to happiness. Each time she gives me the same answer: Learn to accept your past and present and most importantly love yourself. But what does acceptance even look like? How do you know if you accept your past and present? Love yourself? How will you know?
I’m honestly still trying to answer these questions. I think- maybe- training for Boston (and running the Black Cat 10 miler) has been part of the process in finding the answer. Often I have wondered if training for Boston was the wrong decision, stupid and silly altogether. Some mornings I woke up focused and ready to train. I’d hit my splits, nail my HR and be on my merry way. But other mornings I ran angry, emotional and overtired. I longed to just “run” and not be attached to a pace or a plan. I have been getting all of my runs in, but my strength training has been intermittent and my nutrition has only been so-so. I know I can do better. Yet in my mind I have continued to ask myself, “Why? Why do I even do this if my daughter isn’t able to be at the finish line?” In the vast majority of my previous races Lillian has waited for me at the finish. But no more. Now I will likely race on weekends that she is with her father so that I can maximize my one-on-one time when I’m with her. That’s right- no more smiling Lilly at the finish. Sigh.
If my daughter can’t be there then WHY run? Why race? Why trek 60 minutes to the north shore on a Saturday morning to get to a race where I don’t know a single soul? Even though it has taken me some time to figure it all out, Lilly instantly knew the answer…
Because it’s a part of me. Running makes me feel complete and happy. I am a runner, and in so many ways, the Lone Runner.
So on Saturday morning I awoke in my dark apartment at 5:30 am, faced my fears and drove the sixty minutes to the north shore to run a race with hundreds of strangers. I arrived at the Hawthorne Hotel (registration site) at 7 am sharp and was pleasantly surprised with how incredibly organized the event was in spite of the fact that there were so many racers in a relatively small hotel space. Even though I didn’t know a soul I did just fine. I wasn’t really there to make friends. I was there to make peace with the quiet in my mind, who I am and who I will become. I was there to embrace the simplicity of being a runner.
At 8 am I lined up with the rest of the racers and propelled into motion at the race director’s command. I started the race with plans to maintain a 6:55-7:05 pace range and if I felt good I would drop the pace in the final few miles. I didn’t focus on the women or other racers who passes me from the get-go. In fact, like the little running nerd I am I told myself to “Channel Desi and run your own race. Don’t worry about others’ pace. Besides, most people go out too fast.” Instead I found myself a pacer who was consistently running 7-7:02 splits and I tucked in behind him for the early miles and allowed his presence to tug me along.
The early miles ticked off rather effortlessly (7:01, 6:56, 7:01, 6:54) but by mile three I felt a tightness growing in my right hamstring. Every runner has minor aches and pains that come and go during a training cycle and this tightness on my right side, well that’s mine. The problem is that it won’t seem to go away. I can tick away the easy training miles just fine, but add in a run with intensity (speed) and the whole right side tightens up and I feel like I can’t fully bring my right knee high enough when propelling forward or bring my right foot high enough on the kickback. The tightness grows and grows and then my entire stride just feels off. So for the first time ever in a race I actually had to stop and stretch. It wasn’t that I was tired or couldn’t go the distance, but more that my body wasn’t able to perform to the intensity when called upon it. I made sure to time my stretch so that it wasn’t longer than 15 seconds and propelled myself back into the race feeling one thousand times better.
I reunited with my pacer for a few of the middle miles (7:03, 7:00, 7:06) until he suddenly dropped back. Alone again, I ran. I ran under the warm sun and with no one to my left or right. The pack had thinned so much so that there was only one girl in pink ahead of me and beyond her I could just barely make out two men. Mile six had a significant downhill portion that led into a gradual uphill ascent; it was here where I decided to acknowledge the other runners around myself and try my hand at racing and picking people off. Well what do you know? I was able to overtake Miss Pink with relative ease while pushing uphill. Wahoo! Honestly- my mind wasn’t panicked or fearful about my time or the tightness my leg. In fact, I felt strong on the road, focused and very much in a racing mindset. All of my thoughts were positive and geared towards moving this machine of a body forward. Regardless of all of the stress in my life at this moment during this race I felt utterly at ease. This hobby. This sport. It has become a part of me now- through and through. I know I need to let go of the mommy guilt and other worries and regrets and just accept the past and the present and just run. Whether or not I train or race- I must run.
Do you know that point in a run where you’re no longer running, and you start to feel yourself gliding over the surface over the earth? Somehow everything seems to come together within your mind and body and everything operates fully in sync. Sure, you’re pushing hard and you’re talking to yourself with a focused, stern voice, “Keep moving forward. Three more miles. Push. Push. Two more miles. Two. Catch girl in black. Catch her. Push. You can breathe at the finish. Push.” Welcome to my final three miles (7:06, 7:12, 7:07): peaceful and positive.
I crossed the finish line with a final time of 1:10:58 (7:05 splits average). I chatted with a few of the other finishers, completed a cooldown run and then was on my merry way. There weren’t any family or friends to chat with about the race and yes- in a ways that was sad. But I needed to do this alone. Sometimes we need to do things alone just to know that we can. To know that we are strong enough. Would I do it again? Maybe. I don’t know. But I know now that not only can I survive being alone, but I can be at peace with it and maybe one day even happy. I’ll get there one day and there is no doubt in my mind that running will take me there. The Black Cat 10 miler was the first step in the right direction to making peace with this new life of mine.
Oh and my right leg? Yup- I can’t ignore that any longer. It’s physical therapy for this runner to figure out what on Earth is going on with this appendage of mine!! Here’s hoping I don’t have to amputate ;).
Much love from me to you.
Never stop running,