Transcending Pain

It’s funny to think that my major spring races are over, with every running blog post and tweet proclaiming upcoming spring races. I’m doing a few shorter races, but the 2 Us (Uwharrie 20 and Umstead marathon) are behind me.


As my friends complete their spring races, one topic that we keep revisiting over coffee and on long runs is our mental ability to push through pain to achieve our goals. My husband and Running Coach Extraordinaire, Andrew, calls this the ability to suffer. He defines it more concretely than I do, but our thinking is similar:

My running buddy Danny and I have discussed this at length. Clearly, he can do it. He’s doing the Umstead 100 this weekend, his first 100 miler. He’s not one of those super-intense people who over-analyzes their training, either. He has put in the time and hard work to get to the starting line, to be sure, but he’s had fun doing it. He wins.

How do you assess your capacity for pain? And, is it something you can learn? I don’t really know. I’ll be watching my running bud this weekend as I pace his last 25 miles and taking notes. I’m anticipating some tough moments, though I have no doubt that he’ll make it to the finish.

Quite honestly, I’m not sure I’ve given myself the opportunity to suffer. As I consider longer distance races, I think that this may be what drives me more than anything. While speed is eventually limited by physical factors, the longer distance tests your ability to push through the inevitable ebb and flow of pain. It’s that mental challenge that entices me.

These thoughts whirl through my mind as I contemplate doing my first 50K trail race in 2012—possibly at the end of June, otherwise this fall. Do I have what it takes to go the distance and transcend pain?


Pushing the PR

Several of my running buddies have worked toward personal records (PRs) in races over the last few weeks. These are friends I run with each week, so I have seen them flying around the track and gutting out tough tempo runs, striving for a new PR at their next race. It’s been inspiring to see them working so hard to achieve their goals.

There’s nothing like a time goal to bring focus to your training. But, it can be disappointing to work so hard and fall short (sometimes just short) on race day. As one friend noted with refreshing frankness, “I either need to get over this time goal I have or find a way to push through the discomfort to get there. It is 100% mental.”

Although I’ve worked hard to improve my speed over the past year, it wasn’t a primary focus for me this spring. As I shaved minutes off my half marathon PR last fall, I could see where I was headed—the margins were getting smaller and smaller. Now a PR in the half rests on a minute or less. That amounts to a walk versus run through an aid station, an untied shoelace, a high-five from a kid along the race course. In short, a ridiculous expectation for the casual runner. Right?

Oh, but it is addictive. I knew I could achieve my first goal—break my 1:51 PR—but as soon as I did that, I needed to see if I could clear 1:45. And I think I can do it (12 seconds, precioussss!), but I needed to set it aside for a while. I could not do race after race, each focused on relentless pursuit of seconds off my half marathon time. I’d like to claim that this is due to my healthy, holistic perspective on running. Instead, I’ll blame my short attention span.

I think there’s still room for me to break 1:45. But at some point I won’t be able to pull down my time, no matter my training or mental focus. To achieve these smaller margins, everything must be 100% on race day. It’s thrilling when you can pull it off. But I don’t want to hang my definition of “success” for every race on a time goal that, at the end of the day, is arbitrary.

After two half marathons this fall, I walked away from the distance, happy with what I had achieved and still intrigued by the idea that I can return to this goal. I turned my focus to trails and longer distances, mostly without a time expectation. Doing races with friends, hitting the trails, relay or adventure races, trying a new race, encouraging friends in pursuit of their individual goals—these are the things that keep me running.

Growing from a tough and tearful DNF

Spirits were high in our household on Wednesday—our boys, Stephen and Simon, were representing their school at the county-wide First in Fitness meet in the mile run. Of course, Andrew and I were thrilled.

We arrived at SE Raleigh High School amidst an atmosphere of anticipation. Kids wore matching t-shirts for their school, the national anthem was sung, and each school cheered when their name was called. After opening ceremonies, Andrew and I shepherded the mile runners, one boy and one girl from 2nd through 5th grades, down to the track.

Stephen was here last year and hid his nervousness behind his usual brashness and bluster. Simon (and the other 2nd graders) was quiet. He was cognizant of the big honor of representing his grade in the mile run. His friend and 2nd grade female counterpart, Ruby, openly admitted she was nervous. She told me that she wished she’d been chosen for any event BUT the mile run. I smiled and told her just to do her best.

2nd graders went first. I high-fived Ruby, left her with her mom and dad, and went over to watch the boys (2 of them mine), who start at the same time but halfway around the track. The PE teacher in charge had military precision. “Now boys, are you going to go out as hard as you can?” “NO!” they answered. “Good, you’re smart.” Three minutes go by. “Are you going to go out as hard as you can?” “NO!” “Excellent, you’re thinking.” They are ready to go.Image

The signal was given and, contrary to their coaching, the kids tore off like they were being pursued by wild beasts. By the first turn, some were already spent. Simon ran by and my heart sank. He was running way too hard and looked pained. By lap 2, he was breathless and clutching a stitch in his side, and on the back stretch of the third lap, he stopped and dissolved into tears.

Andrew headed across the field to Simon while I looked for Ruby, who had started near the front of the pack. By lap 2, she was way out in front, but she was running a relaxed pace. The smile on her face got wider and wider with every lap. By lap 4 she was a good 100 yards in front of the next girl, and she finished, beaming, in first place.

Simon was crushed. The thought of facing his peers and telling them he hadn’t finished weighed heavily. He knew he’d let down his team. We told him we were proud of him for being chosen to run. We told him that we knew how disappointed he was. We assured him that he’d do better next time. We did not tell him he did a good job. He knew he had not done a good job. False praise offers little comfort.

I’d like to say he handled defeat like a good sport. He did not. He’s eight. He sobbed. The fact that the 3rd grade boy also DNF’d seemed to help more than anything. He did perk up a bit when he received his participant’s ribbon, but he was clearly jealous of Ruby’s bright blue first place and only barely choked out a “good job.” Fortunately, she was too thrilled to notice. Head low, eyes downcast, he headed back to re-join the rest of the Underwood team. When I joined him 30 minutes later, though, his spirits had improved markedly, and the excitement of hearing about all the events, good and bad, seemed to put his disappointment in own race into perspective.

Next morning, Simon came downstairs, chin up, head high, wearing his First in Fitness team shirt, ready to go to school. I didn’t say anything, but I was so proud of him at that moment.

Sometimes the growing you see in your children has nothing to do with height.

Umstead Marathon Race Report, part 2 (the chart clearly wasn’t enough)

I emerged from my pre-race taper funk with excitement about the Umstead marathon. Although my training focus had been for Uwharrie 20, I felt that my post-Uwharrie training had been solid and I was in good shape. Not peak shape, but solid shape.

My friend Danny and I met at Caribou for the traditional pre-race caffeine. There’s nothing like a hometown race that starts at 9 am; it was almost like sleeping in! We bantered with a barista, dropped off a cooler with emergency snacks near the Ebenezer Church bridge, drove to the race start, parked, and checked in. Soon a familiar face in a neon yellow jacket arrived; our friend Steve had parked at the Visitor’s Center to do his long run that day and thought he’d overlap us for a bit here and there. That is what he told us; neither of us had any idea he would end up running 22 miles and see us both to the finish line. I’m not sure that was really his plan either, but that’s how it happened.

TANGENTIAL ASIDE: This is the rockin’-est thing by far about our group running program, Runnerpeeps. Sometimes it’s not about running at all—it’s about the incredible community of people and the friendships forged along the way.

I was driven by my desire to better my 2009 time and the knowledge that I could score a hand-carved wooden bat plaque if I was a top-15 finisher. I also knew that the flattest part of the course is the first 2 miles. And, I did not want to get stuck behind people on the single-track part of the course (~7 miles of it over the first 9 miles), which is my absolute favorite part.

CLARIFICATION: These are all lame excuses for why I went out too fast when I promised myself I’d run no faster than 9 minute miles.

Danny ran with me for the first mile before announcing he was dialing it back. I pressed him a few times, but he would not budge. Drat. He’s smart. I knew we had different race goals (he’s doing the Umstead 100 in less than a month), but I’d hoped we’d run together for a little while. Steve ran with me a bit, told me to take it easy on the trails (pretty sure my response was a beaming grin) and sent me off on a short stretch on Company Mill.

TRAILS, WONDERFUL TRAILS: Oh, how I love the trails at Umstead. Sycamore is my favorite, but I love doubling up to run both Sycamore and Company Mill in a figure 8 loop that’s just short of 12 miles. I wasted energy passing a few people because I just wanted to cut loose. It would have been a swell strategy on a 10 mile run. Plus, I could not let someone with bright white shoes outrun me on trails, especially when she was trying to avoid puddles and mud. This was difficult in those conditions, and if you are a klutz like me, you’ve already miscalculated and stomped through plenty mud and water. This is actually an advantage, as it then frees me up to run through everything, which saves time and energy (it did, unfortunately, contribute to a giant blister). Steve told me after I hopped off Company Mill that she was a 3:30 marathoner and what the heck was I thinking?! Sure enough, she took my lunch money shortly after mile 19.

PLANTS (I HAD TO GO THERE AT SOME POINT): I saw clumps of these beauties along Sycamore. Not only did I not take this picture during the race, but I also refrained from pointing out the bluets, aka Quaker Ladies (Houstonia purpurea) to fellow runners. For me, this kind of restraint is remarkable.Up and then down to the aid station, where I saw my friend Sandra, then back to Graylin and down the back side of Sycamore. At this point the skies opened and it started pouring. Parts of Sycamore were not well-designed for erosion and the water funneled right down the middle of the trail, like a miniature whitewater rapid with loose rocks, mud, and roots. It was totally wicked.

Steve ran with me down part of Reedy Creek Road before sending me on my way down the Corkscrew. I felt great and the rain was mostly over. I didn’t really think ahead of time about what I might like to eat and grabbed an Oreo when I hit the Trinity aid station. Took a bite and decided that was not what I wanted at all, so I carried it just past the Ebenezer Church bridge and placed it carefully on top of Danny’s cooler. The fun part of Turkey Creek during the race is that you get to cheer on the leaders coming back. And the cool thing about that is that they often cheer you back and encourage everyone as they fly by.

OMINOUS FORESHADOWING: At this point, I’d eaten a half a squished pb & j and 2 shot blocks, plus some Gatorade and Nuun. I felt good and ran pretty hard up N Turkey Creek, hitting the halfway mark just under 2 hours, but my legs felt oddly tired at the top of Graylin, where it gets flat again. There I saw my friends Nancy and Kathleen, gave them a wave, and continued down to the aid station. I downed a Clif Shot as I came back out on Graylin, high-fived Danny with my now-sticky hand, waved at Nancy and Kathleen again, took a deep breath and turned left to head back down N Turkey Creek.

N Turkey Creek, round 2, was also pretty fun, as it was again a chance to see and cheer on other runners. I had heard from a few people that I was between 8th-11th female, but there were several women close behind me and every time I got to where I could see the front of the race, I couldn’t seem to count past 8, though there were definitely several more women in front of me.

EARLY WARNING SIGN: When you can’t count past 8, inventory your body and try to figure out why your brain isn’t working too well. I don’t claim to be a math genius but I can usually make it to 10 on my own.

I was still running, but suddenly, I could not hold my pace. I think that’s called a bonk, or maybe a wall. I hit the Ebenezer Church bridge and probably should have stopped and eaten Danny’s snacks. I didn’t figure I needed anything since I had just eaten a Clif Shot, and I wasn’t that far from the Trinity aid station. All I had to do (famous last words) was head up S Turkey Creek a couple miles to the aid station.

As I crossed the bridge and started unhappily walking up the first hill on South Turkey Creek, Steve was there waiting. I was surprised to see him, figuring he’d finished up his run long ago and headed home. He greeted me with a warm and friendly “what took you so long? I nearly froze to death sitting here waiting for you.” The bark from my curmudgeonly English pal could not have come at a better moment; he might as well have been handing out free kittens and Uwharrie cookies.

The next section to the aid station was a misery of cramping quads, calves and toes. I hung on and tried to suffer quietly. Up until then I had been sub-10 minute miles; here I couldn’t hold an 11 minute pace and was passed by 4-5 women. I was discouraged, especially because this was exactly the same place where I crashed and burned in 2009.

Steph Jeffries, powered by Fritos™

The Trinity aid station seemed like miles away but it finally came into view as Steve peeled off to grab some water and meet me on the other side. I decided not to try a new kind of gel (Honey Stinger) on a moderately unhappy stomach. Instead, I ate two cups of Fritos, half a banana, and threw down 2 cups of Gatorade with a water chaser.

The cramps vanished almost instantly and I was on my way to mile 20 and the Corkscrew. I couldn’t catch any of the women who passed me but I was able to hold a stronger pace on that very long hill.

Soon, I was heading down the dreaded Cedar Ridge Trail, almost a mile and a half of loose rocks and quad-busting descent, followed by a turnaround at the creek and a slog back up the hill. The cramps returned with a vengeance. As I passed mile marker 24 coming up the hill, I started wondering if I had 2.2 miles to go or 3.2 miles to go. Was I starting mile 24, or had I already run 24?

They say that the last 10K of a marathon is a mental game and clearly, I was losing.

Fortunately, my friend Audrey picked me up right about that time, and soon afterward I saw Danny. Audrey made me laugh, lied and said that I looked good, hauled me up that blasted road, grabbed me some Fritos and handed me off to Steve, who ran with me the last 2.2 miles (I did finally figure it out. Fingers may have been counted.). He started handing me Fritos one by one and singing the Batman theme song for entertainment. At the time this seemed totally random to me, but of course, 2012 was the Year of the Bat.

I was able to run Cemetery Hill this time, the last big hill, very slowly. This was one of my goals, as I’d had to walk it in 2009. When I reached the top, I stretched out my legs and picked up the pace just a bit. Not fast enough to catch anyone, but enough to have a pretty strong finish. Andrew and the boys were there waiting for me, and Danny and Steve came in together a few minutes later. Go Peeps!

So happy to see Andrew at the finish line. Andrew is wearing his “coach face,” wanting to know how I feel, how did it go, etc. I’m thinking about cookies.

LESSON LEARNED FROM THE BLOGOSPHERE: During miles 19-20, I felt so discouraged about feeling bad. Everyone else I saw looked great to me. It helped to read that everyone had their tough moments on the course. It’s been fun to read all the recaps of the race.

WHERE DID ALL THOSE CRAMPS COME FROM? I honestly have no idea. I have never cramped like that before. I thought I was pretty well hydrated, and I ate a ton. My legs started cramping just before mile 19, disappeared abruptly after loading up with food at the Trinity aid station, then returned with a vengence at mile 21. After the race when I was trying to put on a shirt, my whole upper body seized up with cramps—shoulders, arms and chest. My face was crusty with salt. I need to figure this out. Ideas?!

BREAKFAST: steel-cut oatmeal with walnuts and milk, 2 cups of coffee.

RACE FOOD: half a banana, half a pb&j, half an Oreo cookie, another half of a banana, 1 Cliff Shot Mocha (with caffeine), 3 Cliff margarita shot blocks (3x salt), 3 cups of Fritos, ~4 cups of Gatorade, 12 oz of Nuun, and 24-30 oz of water. Isn’t that a lot?!

Me and my peeps!

Umstead Trail Marathon (when a [table] says 1000 words)

I might write a real report still, as there are some stories which should be told…

Saturday was my 3rd marathon. I did Umstead in 2009 as my first marathon and wanted to try it again. My running buddy Danny signed up to do it as well, as training for his upcoming Umstead 100. It is a tough course with lots of hills. Check it out:

The course, atmosphere, and volunteers are awesome for this race. My friend Sandra was at the second aid station handing out lots of water and encouragement. I love the course, especially the first part with all the single-track on my favorite trails! Plus, Uwharrie 20 was perfectly timed as my last 20 mile training run 4 weeks ahead of Umstead. Given the number of bloggers who did both, I was not the first person with this idea.

The chart below pacing pretty much sums up my race; I beat my 2009 time by ~7 minutes, which I’m very happy about, especially considering they replaced the downhill on Powerline Hill with the back side of Sycamore, adding  just under 2 miles of single-track. And, I was the 13th overall female, which scored me a truly awesome carved wooden bat plaque! I had hoped to have better pacing and you can see I started struggling around mile 19 with fatigue and cramps–which was the same place I fell apart in 2009. So that part of it was disappointing. But I had a great time and did run more of the last 10K than I did in 2009.
Huge thanks to my friend Steve, who dragged me through the toughest parts, for which I am eternally grateful, and Audrey, who found and dragged my carcass off the Cedar Ridge Trail at mile 24. I know Danny ran with Steve and Amy as well. Nancy was at the Turkey Creek/Graylin intersection with cheers, and Andrew was waiting at the finish. Thanks, y’all.
Mile # Single mile split Average pace Notes
1 8:51 8:51 Whoo hoo! This will be fun!
2 8:27 8:39 Don’t want those roadies slowing me down on the single-track.
3 9:07 8:49 Gosh, I just LOVE single-track!
4 9:27 8:58 Exit Company Mill; hop on Graylin. Hi Steve!
5 9:48 9:09 Here we go on Sycamore! I love this trail. I must pass this woman wearing white shoes. [later, she will take my lunch money]
6 9:30 9:12 What hill? Heading to aid station while eating some PB & J.
7 9:27 9:08 Blowing through rocks and mud going down Sycamore now!
8 9:13 9:07 It’s like running through a mini whitewater rapid. Rocks, mud and water. Love it!
9 9:01 9:06 Sort of flat-ish here on Reedy Creek.
10 9:11 9:12 Flying down the Corkscrew!
11 8:55 9:10 Downhill on S. Turkey Creek.
12 8:48 9:05 More downhill on S. Turkey Creek (there’s Danny’s cooler!).
13 9:46 9:09 Under 2 hrs. at the half! On N. Turkey Creek now.
14 9:18 9:08 Up and down on N. Turkey Creek.
15 9:52 9:12 Feeling a bit tired on Graylin…that’s strange; it’s flat. Hi Nancy!!!
16 9:58 9:15 Think I better finish this gel before I hit Turkey Creek again. Hey Danny!
17 9:17 9:17 Caffeine RULES!
18 9:14 9:16 Back across the Ebenezer Church bridge. Just have to do South Turkey Creek one more time. I got this.
19 11:00 9:22 Oh dear, I don’t feel too good. 4-5 women pass me. Bummer. Are those cramps? Please send Fritos.
20 11:24 9:27 >SOB!<  WHERE ARE THE FRITOS STEVE???
21 9:39 9:28 Post-aid station: 2 cups Gatorade + 2 cups Fritos + 1/2 banana + 1 cup water. YEAH! Ready for the Corkscrew!
22 10:08 9:30 Powering up the Corkscrew and heading down Cedar Ridge. Gravity rules!
23 11:06 9:33 ITB is hurting. Quads are cramping. I am whining. It ain’t pretty, folks.
24 11:18 9:37 Get me out of here, Audrey! I think my cramps have cramps.
25 11:16 9:43 I am technically running Graveyard Hill. Stop laughing. This is as close as I can get to running right now.
26 9:32 9:41 Steve gets out his invisible rope. I’m going to make it!
26.2 2:00 9:41 Whoo hoo! I won a bat! Lucky number 13!

And that's a wrap! 13th place female and 7 minutes off my PR!

Reflections on running, while not running. Or, “How I Embraced the Taper”

My taper began at the track last week.  I arrived intending to run 6 x 800s, not too fast, which for me might look like 3:40s. Instead, I ran just under 3:30s. I was pretty consistent, but not feeling good. My legs felt tired and things hurt. I finished the 5th 800 and abruptly announced to Jeff that my taper had officially begun. Go directly to taper. Do not pass Go or collect $200.

Maybe I’ve really arrived as a runner, because I read about the taper blues and I seemed to have every symptom last week. I felt aches and pains I’ve never felt before. I was crabby. I felt tired, more tired than I’d been even during my peak training weeks. I longed to run quite desperately. It was pathetic.

My funk turned around last weekend, when I headed to Winston-Salem with Ann and two other quilting friends for an awesome sewing retreat. Despite my propensity to relentlessly deep-dive into whatever I’m working on at the moment (this time I cut and sewed 77 quilt blocks), Ann and I found the nearby Salem Creek Greenway and headed out and back for an easy 7 miles. It’s always fun exploring a new place, particularly with your best girlfriend. It’s an adventure. Add the possibility of getting lost or ending up in a sketchy place and you have that perfect edge that brings everything into focus.

Ann was my first real running partner when I started running as an adult, and we have covered many miles together, including our first half marathon. We don’t get to run together as often these days, so it was a real treat to spend some one-on-one time with her on a run.

We reached a flooded portion of the greenway before we reached Salem Lake and turned around. Our conversation turned to our evolution as runners. When we were younger, the training was just a time-consuming, sometimes annoying necessity to prevent dying in some race we’d signed up for on a crazy whim. Now that we’ve hit 40, we both appreciate the journey, anticipating race day as a celebration of the practice and hard effort of training.

I’m sure I’ll have some great memories from the upcoming Umstead marathon this Saturday, but I already have many favorite moments saved during the journey to get here. Thanks for a great run, Ann.

I think it was Kristin Armstrong who said it: We don’t have to run. We *get* to run.Image