Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Run for Peace 10k images.

As I crossed the line and someone said: "You know, you didn't really run a 10k."

Me and the other poor fool who didn't really run a 10k, but who nonetheless finished ahead of everyone else who really didn't run a 10k, either.

Receiving my award which was a 2-night stay in a waterfront hotel in Berkeley.

Polite smiles.

Followed by the following exchange: 
Man: So I hope you have someone to use those rooms with you?
Me: Why, are you interested? 

Man: totally embarrassed. Me? What? No... I mean....
Me: Ha, ha. ha. 

[Internal dialogue: Man this rocks. This totally rocks.]

Yeah, it still rocks. Go me. 

Olympic Trials, come what may. I'm running no matter what.

Monday, September 27, 2010

On building Castles in the Air.

Thoreau once wrote dreaming is like building castles in the air. Dreams are ethereal, yet solid things. The challenge, then, is finding the way to connect the clouds with the ground. The method? I'm working on that as you read....


Well, friends: here it is Monday night and for the first time in weeks, I'm not panicking about getting work done. In fact, I completed all my course work done for this week and then some and it's still light out. I would go for a run, but the temperature outside is well into the high nineties, at least and I'm trying to keep some recent ankle pain under wraps. And so: here I am, blogging with ice on my ankle. At last. I apologize for my absence.

This week has been a good one in terms of training. I did a ten-mile tempo and averaged 6:41 pace. Though far from the required pace I'll need to sustain in December at CIM, the effort represents a HUGE leap in my fitness level. The last time I did a ten-mile tempo, my average pace was around 7-minute miles. Though I need to run 6:18s (not 6:40s), I'm nonetheless getting there. And that makes me happy. This effort was followed by a medium-long run of 13.5 miles at 6:54 pace which felt, while not exactly easy, easier than the tempo effort I did before. I have two-mile repeats tomorrow, of which I have optimistic expectations.

And how is this balance between maniacal running and writing? Well-- I won't lie. It's been tough. I've been crying on the phone to Steve more than once. I miss him. I miss certain aspects of my Tahoe life (mostly, the absolute lack of accountability to keep up a steady reading/responding/writing routine) but being here forces all of that to happen each and every day. There are some parts of the program that certainly make me grumble: the two evenings that last until 9pm are a definite thorn in my side as well as the many moments I'd like to say something in class but cannot due to the gift of gab many of my fellow MFA'rs possess (and I do not.) But these are, in the grand scheme of things, small complaints.

I have to admit, however, I am looking forward to next semester. I've been told many times the workload is lighter and the possibility of my obtaining a part time job might actually be a viable option. I'll also have CIM "out of the way"-- and though I full intend on trying to qualify in another (fall) marathon if I fail to do so this December, it will nonetheless be a relief to have a race over with that I've been worrying about since last January.

I also really (oddly) want to compete in a 10k race on a track. I don't know where this fixation on the 10k distance comes from, but I'd like to see what I can do if I focus on a shorter, faster race. Maybe I could surprise myself? That would be lovely. I wonder at my lack of the opposite compulsion: I (oddly) have no interest in running anything longer than a marathon (or at least, not yet.) Maybe this points to a degree of laziness on my part (though I would still like, eventually, to do an Ironman.) Like my love of chocolate and red wine, these are best enjoyed in moderation; so too, it might be (for me) with running. 5k (and one square of the dark aphrodisiac) is too little; while 30 miles and the entire bar/bottle are waaaay too much.

In any case, I love where I'm at. Each day I honestly feel as though I learn something new: some element of craft, a key component of training or some silent and little-observed personal quirk. I'm so grateful for this opportunity to be here, in this moment, in this place, at this precise moment.

If any of you ever have to choose between normality and experiencing something completely new and foreign, I say: go for it. Adventures are precious in their ability to open our eyes to the very things that have been before our eyes but that we-- oddly-- could neither see nor fully appreciate.

In closing, I offer words from a recent (re)reading of Thoreau's Walden which speaks, I believe, to this very topic:

"I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws will be expanded..... and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them" (253).

Sunday, September 19, 2010

VICTORY: at last

The start of the 10k Run for Peace in 2009. I'll update the photograph as soon as I can to include ME. :)

I ran a 10k race today; my first since February. I had mixed expectations for myself: on the one hand, I just wanted to beat my old (unremarkable) PR of 40 minutes because the owner of a running shoe store in Reno told me repeatedly I never would. Yet, I also wanted to run at a pace that would mean I’m fit enough to run a 2:46 marathon. Well, as is often the case in life, I am not exactly where I want to be, which is both a good and a bad thing.

The race was held in Berkley at a park next to the marina. I can only describe this as a novel experience for me: running mere feet away from the sea water of the bay. San Francisco glistened on the hills to my right, Berkley to my left. The morning was overcast and cool, yet the humidity (well, relative humidity. Pretty much anyplace feels humid for a Nevadan) was palpable, heavy, but not unpleasant. The course consisted of two loops around a jetty of sorts (a distance of 5k) followed by what was supposed to be a 5k out and back that wound inland on dirt paths. It was completely flat, a fact I discovered during my warm-up, which made me unusually giddy.

“Just beat 40 minutes,” I repeated to myself like a mantra, yet deep down in my gut I knew I wanted to do more than squeak by that temporal distinction: I wanted to blow it out of the water.

I ended up warming up with a guy named Ethan, a 40-something married man who runs with a local running group called the “Aggies.” He’d just run a 10k on a track the week before and was looking to come across the line in “39:30. I’d be happy with that.” I decided I’d do my best to stick to Ethan’s pace, even though he admitted a tendency to “go out too fast. But when I slow down from going too fast, I usually still end up keeping a respectable pace I can hang onto.”

I admit: it was so nice to go to a race for a change....and to go as a runner. I’ve missed the camaraderie of fellow runners who train more or less as seriously as I do. I love the exchange of horror stories (“I’ll never eat THAT again”) and the “I remember when I forgot to wear underwear” sort of tales of past glories and mishaps. I miss the identity I wonder sometimes if I still have. (I constantly question myself” am I a runner? Am I an athlete?) when I’m not, from time to time, in situations like local races such as this one.

Sponsored by the City of Berkeley, this was a race to raise money for the UNA, (United Nations Association) with an emphasis on raising money to feed those going hungry in poverty and disaster-afflicted areas of the world, such as Pakistan which was recently and horribly flooded. Though one sometimes wonders how much of your race entry actually trickles its way to the people in need, I’d rather give $20 and my effort in running any distance to that sort of thing than to ignore those sorts of problems entirely. Yet, I digress from the subject at hand: the 10k I ran today.

It was old-fashioned, I have to say. No timing chips, no starting gun. Just an older man in a faded UNA sweatshirt who yelled “runners, on your marks, set, GO!.” And go we did; or five of us did. Four men and yours truly strode to the head of the pack and heard nothing from the other 100 runners for the duration of the race. One man rushed to the very front and maintained that distance from us; Ethan and another, younger guy were five feet in front of me; the other man dropped off soon after the start and so I was the fourth runner by the first mile of the race.

One lap around the jetty maintained this configuration. On the second lap, I passed Ethan and the other guy, becoming the second person in the race. I felt, at this point, fantastic, as though it was effortless to run at what my Garmin posited were six-flat minute miles with an occasional 5:59 thrown in for good measure.

Trouble started (unbeknownst to me) at mile 3.5, an important juncture in the race. As I mentioned previously, those in the 10k race were supposed to do an additional out and back for their second 5k; yet, a well-intentioned UNA volunteer thought one dirt path looked just as suitable for the race as another and so directed us the WRONG WAY. Of course, I had no clue about this and kept running, telling myself to remain in control, to breathe, to sustain a consistent rhythm in my foot-falls. The unnamed man who ran next to Ethan passed me, moving me to the third runner and I set my goal of maintaining my pace, regardless of what he did. I was surprised Ethan didn’t follow him. In fact, Ethan later told me after the race had ended: “I kept trying to catch you, but you kept speeding up. It was frustrating!”

But what can I say? I was excited. I kept looking at my watch and the finish line which drew closer. By the time I’d returned to the pavement, my watch read 30 minutes. I chanted to myself “OHMYGODOHMYGOD”, believing (in my excited state) that not only was I going to blow the ceiling off that 40-minute mark, I was going to make it cry like the pathetic girl it was. 40 minutes? Who said I’d never break 40 minutes? Well check it, bro. I just did the distance in 31:26 because that’s what my Garmin said when I passed the line. Of course, I’d only been looking at the time (and occasionally glancing at the pace.) When I focused on the distance, my heart pooped its pants out of sadness.

5.2 miles.

“You didn’t run a 10k,” was the first thing the volunteer at the finish line said to me. And, you know, I just sort of nodded. No victory for me.

I hate to admit it, but I wandered off and cried a little. I mean, I’ve been working hard and I really, really wanted
to prove to myself that I have made improvements since last February and believed, for a second, my efforts were all for nought.
I called my coach who was digging post holes for a fence around his condo in Reno. I was afraid of informing him of the mix-up: I didn’t want him to get angry with me. Again. But oddly, he wasn’t. He said: “Well now you know you can run a 10k race in under 40 minutes.”

And you know, he’s right. I DO know that. Though my race was a mile short, there’s no way I would have run it in over 40 minutes.
Whether I would have run it in 37:30 or 38 is debatable, perhaps, but sub-40 was guaranteed by my pace and the fact that throughout I felt euphoric, like I still had plenty of high-octane gas in the tank, like I was floating over the earth, not running. Plus, I was smiling the entire time because it was just so goddamn fantastic.

Upon further reflection, I can’t help but marvel at what I did today. I know in the grand scheme of world-class athletes my time doesn’t merit a blink of an eye, but you know, for me it’s a huge accomplishment. I have always doubted my ability to run six-flat pace for anything more than a single mile: and here I did it for slightly more than five. Of all those that participated, only TWO RUNNERS were able to complete the course faster than I did: both were men, both YOUNGER than I am. The next woman who finished after me was at least five minutes behind me.

Most importantly, however, for my efforts the race committee awarded me two free nights at the Doubletree Hotel in Berkeley. It might not sound that great, but Steve had only just told me he couldn’t come down to see me because of the cost of not only gas, but lodging. In other words, because I won, I get to see Steve again which is perhaps the best prize of all.

And so I say: bring it, San Jose (where I’ll run a half marathon on October 3rd.) I’m getting fitter, stronger and there’s nothing that can stop me. Trials or Bust, baby. That’s my new motto; that’s where I’m going no matter what setbacks I’ve had or where I’ve been before.

Race Stats:

Distance: 5.2 miles
Time: 31:26
Pace (average): 6:03
Place (gender): 1
Place overall: 3
Blisters: 0
Prize: Priceless

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Running and writing; brief reflections on my third week

I had class last night until 7. It was our nonfiction workshop seminar, which I’m both loving and hating. It is my favorite class, actually; the one that allows me to think constantly about this thing called writing, how to do it and how one must bend words like a metallurgist casts a perfect steel in order to create a sword, like I try to cast now and then a rapier wit. And yet, there are those days (or, more accurately) moments when I don’t like it so much, when I really, really despise the snippety comments from the girl sitting (ha! accidently just typed “shitting”. She might have been doing that, too) next to me when I offer another writer advice and she says: “What you just said is in another piece this person wrote” as though I am supposed to know that. Those moments, though, are few and far between-- thank heavens.

Afterward, I attended the first of many Wednesday night readings. Last night, it was author Joshua Braff, once a Saint Mary’s MFA student and now a twice-published novelist. I enjoyed the reading a lot-- the only thing I didn’t enjoy, however, was the fact that I didn’t get home until well after 9 o’clock and I had a speed workout this morning early on the track. I suppose under normal circumstances, a three-hour seminar class and a reading immediately afterward would normally not be so much of a big deal: but I started to feel the constraints I’ve placed on myself when, after the questions were asked and the crowd began to disperse, I was not in the throng which headed toward the nearest watering whole to discuss the work over a cold one.

I couldn’t go out and drink: there was just no way. I had a speed session today (which, considering the sort of week I’ve had) went OK. I have pages to read and pages to write; I have a team to coach and functions I need to show up for. And somehow in all that I have to find time to bathe and eat-- funny, I know, but those two things are often left by the wayside.

I’ve never been fond of the image of the solitary runner; or of the person who separates themselves away from the crowd. Or rather, that’s been my tendency most of my life and recently I’ve found a sort of pleasure in being around people, some of the time. Last night, though, as they all wandered off together I knew I would be missing out on a bonding experience and probably some interesting comments. I knew others might see me as being “stuck up” or “too good” to spend my time with them. But it is neither of those things that really bother me (I know they are simply not the case), but the notion that despite my efforts to the contrary, I am the solitary runner; I am away from the crowd. Perhaps that is my personality and I should stop trying to change that.

But the track was beautiful this morning. I ran at Miramonte High School, which is roughly a mile from my house. The track is placed up on a hill and overlooks the treed neighborhood around it. The fog had just begun to lift from the coastal range, casting the dawn in rosy pinks across a pale blue. An East Indian woman walked with the aid of a cane around the periphery of the track and settled on a bench used by football players on the infield as I finished my 2-mile warmup. She started Eastward, watching the shifting hues, motionless. There was something so beautiful, yet so solitary, about her I wish I could pin it down-- whatever it was I saw, that struck me.

Today I did 2 x 1600, 2 x 800, 4 x 400. It felt like an easy workout, actually, though I admit my mind wasn’t present when I ran that first mile repeat (which I was able to run under my goal pace for the marathon, so whatever.)

High school kids in PE class arrived for class on the field as I was finishing up my workout. There were a few shouts of “run faster!” but they were, for the most part, silent. Only one-- a kid I think was called Daniel-- ran next to me as I was cooling down. I said to him: “You should have paced me through my 400s!” because it was sort of odd, having him run next to me like that, not saying anything. But then he sprinted ahead of me to the end of the curve, turned and said: “I beat you! I beat you!” Funny.

And now I’m back to writing and preparing for class. I’ll double today, after I’ve gone to class and and read at least another fifty pages. Perhaps it is not a bad thing to be always alone, always in pursuit in dreams that matter to me, even if they matter to not a single other person in the world. I guess I just have to accept that, just like I have to swallow my pride from time to time when my personality comes face to face with another I don’t appreciate whether in the form of a peer or a random high school boy.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Breathe... reflect.

I ran today with the team again. I warmed up with them all as a big group and then, with a wave, ran alongside our top runner. I didn't hear any grumblings, but perhaps I will in days to come. After a full night's sleep, some tea and a book I'm quite enjoying, I think I have to learn to stand my ground on those handful of ideas, notions and ethics I find essential.

I train with the team to make them better; to make me better. I believe that is how success is won: by hard work and being surrounded by other talented people who also work hard. I will explain my position to anyone who asks, but I don't think it's healthy to doubt the essence of what one believes to be true.

I will also really try to work on not doubting so much. The Trials is a BIG deal; as is the MFA. It's a hard thing not to focus on the probability of failure in both and all the little details that will, it seem, lead up to it. Yet, there are so many reasons I may not fail: I'm strong, I'm determined and I work hard. I have to put faith in those parts of my life-- I have to believe in me.

And so, I ran 14.5 miles today, not feeling great but I still managed a 7:30 pace. I remember a mere month ago, I would not have been able to do this. I'm getting better; I'm improving. The team I coach is getting better, too. Perhaps in a strange way it is not differences which separate us, but a slight shift in perspective. Maybe they do want me to make them better, but see me doing it in another way than simply running with them. I have to be more understanding of that, I think; just as I would hope they will understand my perspective as well.

And so, I'm off to the library today to do my first bout of research for a presentation I have on writer Jon Krakauer this week. And then, I will read more fellow-essays and attempt to write my own.

Which, really, is what this is all about. Trying: hoping. And learning to enjoy the journey even when a few minor obstacles arise now and then.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Grrr... frustration!

The girls as they head to the start line of their first race. Perhaps I'm frustrated because I haven't raced in so long. Or maybe it's because I hate being told to slow down.

I never thought I’d be in this position: writing, running and loving (that), yet so so SO frustrated. Perhaps you might be wondering: If everything is so great, then why the pouty, sad face? Well, like most things in life, nothing is hardly ever what it seems to be.

I mean: I love my new MFA-life. My classes are great: each is filled with interesting people from all over the country who have nothing at all in common with me (well, aside from the writing, of course.) We talk about literature in some; we discuss our own writing in others. I mean, what is there NOT to like about that? And I had a great two-week cycle, with a grand finale of a 16-mile run in 1:56. OK, so it’s not ideally great because I didn’t run it as fast as my “projected” marathon pace-- not even at the end-- but I didn’t slow down (the second part of the run was faster) and this time represents a net 4-minute improvement since I did this run two weeks ago. So, YIPPIE, right?

Well, sort of. See, the problem resides with my coaching position at the University. I signed on (as a volunteer, no less) so that I could WORK WITH the athletes. While a graduate student at the University of Nevada, Reno, I was able to do this: I trained with the cross country team; I ran intervals with them as well as easy miles. They pushed me in the shorter, more “sprint-like” distances (think: mile and below); while I led the pack in longer distances sometimes. Other times, they pushed me then, too. :) Regardless, we made each other better by working together in training. (Oddly, sort of like a writing workshop: your writing improves not only because of feedback from others, but also because you read other writers’ works, think about them and absorb other view points and notions that might have otherwise never occurred to you.)

OK, so here I am, trying to do the same thing when the athletes complain to the head coach that they don’t like when I run with them because-- get this-- I only run with the #1 girl. It’s not so much favoritism as much as: she runs at MY pace. The others on the team barely break an 8-minute per mile pace and use running time as chat time. And so, because I’m not necessarily vocal (I’d rather lead by example than by harsh words), I choose to run with the lead girl, to push her (and let her push me) because that’s how people get better. Or, that’s how we’ll get better.

Yet, I was “spoken to” this week about my attitude and tendencies; and though it wasn’t a big deal (I wasn’t fired or anything) I have this nagging “WTF” reaction that just won’t go away. I mean, I have sacrificed of my own training many times to attend their practices, not to mention every Saturday to go to their meets (which means I miss out on not only early-morning tea/writing time, but my favorite longish Saturday run when I don’t have to be anywhere after.)

And so, here’s where I expose my weakness even though it hurts: I’m thinking of throwing in the towel as far as coaching goes. I’ve always believed in sticking with things until the bitter end, but I am truly frustrated. I have sacrificed a lot of things to be here, working toward an advanced writing degree and training for the Olympic Trials. It’s one thing to be criticized over a deed wrongly done (or spoken); it’s quite another to be told to “hold back” because you just aren’t as lazy as the rest of the pack.

And, though I tell myself to “Believe” over and over, I know it’s going to take a lot of hard work to get me qualified for the trials. I’m NOT talented; I can’t run 8-minute pace in the majority of my workouts and churn out a 2:46 marathon come December. Or, to clarify: I can’t sacrifice quality training and think I will not be harmed by its omission.

I ran an easy 4 miles today after the long bus ride from Sac and back to shake out my legs from the 20 total miles I did yesterday (I ran a double-day after the 16-miler and did some strides as well.) The whole time I was running in the hazy dusk light, however, I couldn’t help but wonder: is there a right time to let go of an obligation if it only drags you down? Or, is it better to stick with things until the death-rattle of its final breath?

I would never, ever give up on myself; so why am I willing to consider leaving this team? (Funny: after I typed that, I had about 10 immediate reasons which came to mind.) What scares me the most, I think, is what my coach said to me the other day on the phone. He said: “Ever since you’ve been coaching, you doubt yourself. You doubt what you know to be true about training. You doubt what you know about YOU. You can’t do that, not for a race, and not in life.”