Sunday, November 14, 2010

Boot to Booyah!!

I look back on last year, and most of it was one disappointment after another. The season had started with the Go St. Louis Half Marathon in April, only for my IT band to be injured which hindered my running for the remainder of the year. The pain persisted for months when it moved from my left knee up to my hip, and running even moderately for more than 30 minutes invited the very real possibility of crawling back home in agony.

Then late last year an easy run with a friend in early October produced a stress fracture on my right foot's 3rd metatarsal. Man! It hurt just to walk, and I was "boot-bound" for nearly 10 weeks, no running whatsoever. Seriously?! said my heart. Time to re-look at everything, said my head.

Which is precisely what I did: I changed my running shoes, raised my bike saddle a bit, swam my brains out, and began incorporating yoga consistently – the P90X stuff, hardly meditative. I couldn't even get through the first 20 minutes at first, and this by far revealed the most about my weaknesses that were likely the root causes of my injuries. Patience and persistence paid off in the months that followed. Yoga made the biggest difference, as holding many of the poses couldn't help but result in increased leg, hip, and core strength. The hip healed and so did the foot, and I gratefully laced up my running shoes for the first time in months for an easy run in January this year.

I ran pain free and was thrilled to be back in the saddle; however, I didn't fully appreciate the coming "harvest" from the sowing I had been doing the last 6 months. It started with a 5K race in the city a few weeks later where I blew away a 10 year old personal best by over 2 minutes, a huge margin for a 5K, and on the same course no less. I had a hard time believing the 9-to-10-minute-per-mile girl was solidly in the 8's, and on the nearer side of 7-something even!

This year's triathlon season was more of the same, knocking down one record after another, despite a brutally hot summer. From May through November I biked at least once a week at Babler State Park (where the hills are long and top out at 16% grade), and ran the gut busting hills at Innsbrook Resort as often as I could after open water swimming with friends. Not all my races were blowout finish times, but it was clear the days of sub-par running and biking were behind me.

After a banner tri season, I turned my attention to the monkey that's been on my back for 10 years – the half marathon and finishing it in under 2 hours. To me this is an important goal, especially when looking at it as part and parcel of the Half-Ironman event, where the run is 13.1 miles, half the distance of a full marathon. In nearly every Half-Ironman I've done, the negativity and self criticism has set in immediately on the run, mostly because I haven't gotten under the 2-hour mark in a standalone half marathon event, and the thought of slogging through a run after burning my legs on a 56-mile ride repeatedly put me in a very negative mental state; the run was "over" in my mind before I had even begun.

The only way to break through the glass ceiling was to face it head on. If there was ever a time I was going to reach this goal, it had to be now. So my coach put me out on the track late this summer, where every two weeks I would run a challenging (read "lung busting" :)) set of intervals that were designed to make me think about pace, form, and mechanics. The track does not lie; I worked my butt off and got a firsthand look at what my real capabilities were.

I signed up for the St. Louis Half Marathon just 2 weeks before the race. The course is not flat and not easy. There are 2 punishing hills at Miles 5 and 7, plus nearly the entire last 3 miles are climbs of up to 12% grade. I ran the race course 4 weeks prior to the event and while I nailed my goal pace within the training run, it was still an extremely hard effort. I wasn't entirely confident I could hold the same pace the entire distance. Would the self criticism in the pit of suffering return to do battle again?

My coach said to me "Embrace the pain." And a great quote from Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own also rang true: "Of course it's hard; it's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great." Up until now the voice of self criticism had drowned out the fact that suffering is expected. Suffering doesn't mean I haven't trained enough or that I don't have it in me to tough it out. It's a subtle but important difference in the mind.

Fast forward to race day, November 7th. The weather was beautiful: 45F, sunny and breezy. I had slept 9 hours each night the last 2 nights – plenty rested; I had my race belt with 3 gels - 1 extra in case I lost one; I knew exactly where the aid stations were; I knew the course and warmed up well; I had eaten my familiar prerace meal of oatmeal, yogurt, small bagel with PB, and a little coffee; and finally, although I was a bit nervous, deep down a quiet confidence spoke to me: it's a done deal :).

The gun went off and so did we. The first mile was nearly all uphill! But honestly it was a perfect way to really get the blood going and get down to business. I ran conservatively at first, just like the plan, and when I passed Mile 1 I was spot on. Mile 2 was another bit of climbing but downhill on the backside. By Mile 3 I was cruising and feeling good. I looked at my watch and was running sub-9:00 pace. Okay, sparky, back it off a bit; there are some hills coming, and you're gonna have to dig. Mile 4 was thankfully flat. I didn't look at my watch again until Mile 6 and my time was 52 minutes – good grief! That itself was a personal best. Just hold this pace and it's in the bag! At Mile 10 the bottoms of my feet began to feel a bit numb, and I took some GU and hydrated at the aid station. At every water/Gatorade stop I slowed down just enough to grab the cup, thank the volunteer, drink it down, and push on. I was working hard but felt great.

The last 3 miles of this course are nearly all uphill, what the organizers call the "signature" of the course, where the real separation of the pack happens. I was ready and had left some juice in the legs for just this reason. At Mile 11 I let 'er rip straight up a 12% grade hill, glad I wasn't wearing my heart rate monitor :). I crossed Mile 12 at 1:48 and couldn't help but smile. Going home girl! Warrior! At Mile 13 there was one more short climb (gahh!! :)), and I emptied out the legs.

"Congratulations – you are a member of the Sub-2-Hour Club!" shouted the announcer as I triumphantly sailed across the Finish line at 1:58. Tears of joy streamed down my face as I hugged Steve and bawled my eyes out. It had been an arduous hard road to this moment, but it was surely worth it.

Sitting here writing this, it's occurred to me that had I not been plagued with injuries last year, I might not have scrutinized everything in my training. I certainly wouldn't have taken the opportunity to make some much needed changes that today have brought rewards and satisfaction I couldn't begin to imagine this time last year. I've come to more humbly appreciate that in every trial there is a great opportunity for real growth and improvement. I pray that we as a culture recover the lost art of patience and perseverance and take trials for what they are – an invitation to blessing. It's what made our nation great.

Romans 5:3-5 (English Standard Version) 3More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.