Sunday, March 30, 2014

in praise of random strangers

I'm part of a big Facebook runners' group that I have always enjoyed reading and following. Running is a community. It's an activity, but it's a community. Lots of people talk about community, but as far as I have ever known, runners live it more than anyone as a whole (individual exceptions aside). This weekend I had a big PR at the same time I was struggling with personal trauma. It was a bittersweet moment in some ways, and yet one that I enjoyed totally. Perhaps I enjoyed it more because I knew what I had fought to run that race.

Yesterday, I posted about the PR on the runner’s group, and today I posted a picture from the race. The professional shots captured the moment well. I looked strong, fit, and confident. And I wanted someone to know it. 

Even as I type this my Facebook is blowing up with notifications on both posts. Tonight some random stranger said “Proud of you.”

Proud of me.

Random stranger is proud of me.

Because random stranger is a runner. He knows what it takes to run, to fight, to overcome.

The majority of my personal friends didn’t really respond to my race pictures or statuses. A few old standbys did. Most just go “Oh, Suz, she’s a runner.” As if I run races every day, PR each time, overcome things that no one knows about. These moments are special to me. See, in some ways they are what I have.

I have talked about this before too. I don’t have family. I have a few close friends. I have many causal friends. I have many acquaintances. But few people expect much out of me in an achievement sense. No one really has set expectations for me in my life. Growing up, even. I ran wild, did what I wanted. And if no one has expectations for you, no one needs to be proud of you or cheer for you.

One reason I love races is the random strangers. They yell for you, they hold signs for you, they put their hands out so you can high five it like you are a celebrity. Other runners in races say “good job!” as they fly by.

My first half marathon was run at a pretty slow 14 minutes a mile. I could have done a bit faster at that time, but I didn’t know it. I was afraid I wouldn’t have it in me, and I wanted to finish, and that was it. As I coasted around the Fargo neighborhoods and around mile 13 into the Fargodome, people were standing on the other side of the barriers cheering for a 14 minute a mile runner. I feel chocked up writing this even now. No one cared how good I was at it, but that I did it.

Sometimes I think the best community there is can be found on the streets, on the internet, a community of runners who love you anyway. Not because you are fast or slow, hit the wall or win the race. They know the runner’s heart and the runner’s spirit, and so they are there. 

A few times, very few, friends have come to my races. Those few times were very special to me. You see, I want people there. I know running is a boring sport to watch. I want people who love me not to care it's boring but to care I am running. I think we all do. And it's true, I will run anyway. I run for me. I am a runner. I am proud of me. I cheer for myself. But it sure is special when others do it for you. And sometimes it's those random strangers who make you feel like family.

As I end this entry, 78 runners from the group like my picture, and 3 of my personal friends do—the same picture. Let’s say there are three times as many people in the runner’s group as on my FB friends’ list (pretty closely). You see why I love random strangers. Sometimes that’s where I feel most like I have a support group.

Lest I omit the random friends—there is a small group of people who cheer me on too, who know me personally, and I love and appreciate that so much. That’s not to disdain that joy. Real friends always mean more if they exist. But this weekend, it’s been the strangers I praise because they have made me feel like I won a race yesterday.

Because I did. 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

taking it to the pavement

Today’s race was not unlike our local Spirit of Survival race for me. That day, I arrived in the dark on a Sunday morning, broken in my own spirit, not ready for a race, but I knew I had to keep running. It was October 6. I ran a quarter marathon so I didn’t have a PR  for that yet, but I knew whether I did well, PR or not. I did. For me in that season of my running, I did well, and two weeks later I PRed my half marathon in Kansas City, running in just about double the time of the quarter. It reminded me I could keep running through anything.

Nothing has been that bad again.  May it never be! But this week was hard on so many levels. The last two days running were strained, slow. I was worried for real. I haven’t run 12 minute miles in ages and suddenly I was. I was lethargic. The stress in my heart, the pain from three different things occurring at once—spiritual, relational and internal—created a perfect storm in my heart. But I ran anyway. And I guess I took it out on the pavement.

The truth is, I ran this race because I have a friend who challenges me to time goals. I never make them! He doesn’t pressure me or anything, but I keep wanting to make them. After my excellent race in KC a couple weeks ago, I was sure I could pull off the 10K time goal, so I registered. I didn’t tell him or anyone else that, but that was why. It’s not often people expect much out of me, honestly, I mean like having goals for me. With running, people assume it’s easy for me and I just do it.


I work my butt off. It’s hard. It’s work. I will never be a speedster. I work harder than some fast runners to just be middle of the pack. So having some goals is nice. That’s why I registered. I knew I could do it.

Then I was sure I couldn’t. Everything hurt. I ran a great double Wednesday but my Thursday and Friday I was slacking in ways I had not. I almost didn’t race. But I know better than to let pain keep me from the roads. If you have read this blog from the start you know that’s how I stopped running. I got hurt in the worst way, and slowly my enthusiasm died. I had no energy to run. I gave up one day when some idiot face in a truck made a comment to me. “Speed it up,” he said. Maybe joking. But I was running at 6 a.m. and it was all I could do to get my butt up to go. I was in a terrible place in my life. His comment took me over the edge. I stopped running regularly after that. I always remember that and the months before it and I vowed to never let what’s happening personally—whether pain or just business and stress or travel—keep me from running. So I didn’t cancel my race.

It was a good race. It was well-done and organized. And best of all it was a reminder to me of what the running community is. It was an out-and-back so that meant that the winning runners passed those of us who were slower as they made the turnaround first. So many smiles, “good job” comments, and just overall support. Runners are the most wonderful people I know. It’s what endeared me to the lifestyle in Kansas City. Today those encouragements from strangers reminded me again why I love what I do. I do it alone 99% of the time, but then on days like today, I remember I am in a company of amazing people. They have similar spirits. They push on in pain. They run early or late. They make time, not excuses. They work hard when no one is watching. And they know we all do, so they encourage when the rubber soles meet the road. I have written many times about how the closest to community I have seen is the running community. After Boston, what I saw had me in tears for days. We were one. “Boston stands as one,” the signs said. We did. We were Boston. Runners are one.

Today I needed that. Today I needed to see those people. I needed to remember there is something I am a part of because I choose to be. Sometimes you choose to be part of something but you can’t be. You want to go to Harvard but they don’t admit you, for example. You want to be in “that” crowd, but they don’t want you or you don’t perform well enough. But in running, all you have to do is run. And you are one of them. And they you.

The race was not too challenging, though the last mile had a pretty intense north wind, which was probably to my advantage as an Oklahoman. I know winds. And hills. I used it.

I knew mile 5-6 had a downhill, since we'd run up it in mile 1 and I saved energy to gain time. I ran that downhill stretch at just over 8 minutes a mile, dropping my last mile of a 10K to under 10. I know how to run downhills (which takes skill) as well as uphills. For the last mile of a race that long, that’s a big deal.  As I flew down that hill, fast but controlled, knowing I had about half a mile of wind in my face after that, I was stunned to find runners making a wall and walking. Who would walk on a downhill? All the runners around me had been running pretty strong, so  I was baffled. Then I realized. We were passing 5Kers who were still walking to the finish. So I shot by, knees high, posture strong, knowing my final time would depend on how I controlled that chance to make up any lost time. And I did it.

The last half mile was hard. It was slightly sloped up, not a hill in the slightest, but enough to feel it. And the north wind was in my face. Not strong like I sometimes face in OK, but gusty and cold. Very gusty. I just wanted it to go away and leave me alone, but I ran as hard as I could. What had happened on the downhill was I gained so much speed that even in that last part, I was faster than I had been. I always run hard into wind. I think it’s a challenge to me. Like hills. I hate them but I push at them hard. They will not take me out.

As I ran to the finish line, I saw that clock. My friend had challenged me to 1:05:59 or less. He knows my usual pace and he’s a math guy so his numbers are really well in my Zone of Proximal Development. I haven’t hit one yet, but after KC I knew I could. I wasn’t letting today keep me from it. I would run hard. If I didn’t PR or didn’t make his goal, it was okay if I ran my best.

The clock had barely turned to 1:03 as I crossed the finish line. I hope a photographer got the smile on my face when my eyes saw that number and I flew. I finished in tears. I had done it. After the second hardest week in a year, I still had a spirit of survival in me. I was a running rock star. I believed in myself again.

And that’s why I run of course.

This race I had the best race number I have ever had: 77. I am into numbers, of course. And so there was that. But what’s funny is my pace. A recurring number for me the last several months has been 10:10. It’s one of those numbers I see often on clocks or even on my Garmin when I look at my pace. Today the chip time numbers show that for 6.2 miles I ran a 10:10 pace.


On a side note, I was trying to figure out how this great race made any money. It was well done, chip timed, good water stops (still carried my own since I have been burned by that and need to drink when I run hard). Entry fees for regular registration were $15. That is dirt cheap--even for the 5K but especially the 10K. Then of course there were t-shirts. Not tech shirts, but decent around the house ones. And then our race number entitled us to a dozen free bagels. And somehow they made money for Down syndrome in the process. Class act, Boopa's Bagel Shop. I'll be back. 

I looked up my 10K history. I am about to do a bib number display anyway, and one suggestion I saw a while back was to write your race name and time on the back of the bib, so you would remember. I have not done that, but I am starting now. So I needed to look them up anyway. I have only done 4 10Ks since returning to running. Here are those results:

1. May 4, 2013, Fort Worth. 1:16:27
2. Nov. 28, 2013, Fort Worth. 1:12:55 (The one with bronchitis!)
3. Jan. 18, 2014, Wichita Falls. 1:06:24 (Female master's winner).
4. Today, March 29, 2014, Fort Worth. 1:03:06

13 minutes and 21 seconds in less than 11 months.

Today was my 152nd day in a row of running without a rest day.

Until the next run.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

a running miracle

Every day when I wake up I check my Timehop app. My friend Jolie turned me on to it and I love it because I am such a date person. Precision matters to me. Timehop shows you all the social networking and pictures from as many years as you have been posting. Today I had posts from 1-5 years ago. But one of them left me in happy tears. I knew what today was. March 9, 2013 was my first race after I had been running regularly and training. It is a race I actually get to do next weekend, so it will be special. Here is what I wrote a year ago today, followed by my comments:

A few days before winter, I ran a 5K after getting asthma medicine and began running every day. Through cold and snow, through learning to breathe, through hills and elevation. Every day I ran. I put my cover photo up a while back that says “A strong spring is earned in the winter." Today, a few days before spring, was my first race since a few days before winter. I don't have the genetics to be fast, but I have the discipline to train. That‘s why at the 5K mark, I realized I had PRed, and then I came in a full minute under what I had hoped I might do. Was I fast? Maybe to the walkers :-) But I beat myself--and that was the only person I was racing. I found my strong. I earned my strong spring, and I‘m ready to go back out tomorrow and run some more.
Indeed, that race marked an amazing and successful year for me. I kind of laugh at my time in that race now because I have run almost 10 minutes faster in training runs—and it was only a 4-miler. And that’s the point. I think that’s what I started crying as I read it and saw the pictures where I was positively beaming.

Running works. Many times in my life I have made efforts towards things that have failed. It’s discouraging to work hard at something and see no fruit. Currently in my personal life I am working hard at something that has some fruit, but not enough. It’s frustrating and even despairing at times. Running yields results. Period.

I have the same picture on my FB cover shot this year. I put it up when ice storm after ice storm came. I ran in colder weather this year in southwest OK than I did last year in one of the top 20 cold metro areas of the US. Go figure. I ran in snow and ice and winds. Winds are new to me, but I do it. I did it. I ran. Runners run. That’s my mantra. And so as I am preparing for what is the first unofficial spring race this year and see that post from last year, I remember. It worked. I kept working and it worked for me. Running has transformed my life.

On the outside I look obsessed because I plan my life around running. Running has been my best friend and closest love for the longest time. I began running in a response to losing all I knew and had held on to for years. Running is what got me through and gets me through. We all plan our lives around what we love most. In my case I have people I love who also get priority, but I had no people then. I had my run. It’s not obsession as much as it is love. I don’t know how to explain that. But to me it would be dumb to not do something that is a formula for joy and love and wonder. Every run, even on the same course, is different. Every run reminds me of something, teaches me something. Every run brings me joy. Every. Single. One. So you may think I am obsessed, but I think I have a secret you don’t!

Today was the Asics LA Marathon, which I watched online. I love watching marathons, seeing the elite runners compete and how they endure, seeing those who would be a model for me, though physically it is impossible I would ever achieve their level of athleticism. I cry when I watch marathons. I cry when I watch the winner fight and come out ahead. I cry for the human spirit that wins every time, that reminds me what I can do if I persist.

Most people I know now did not know me “when.” They did not see the morbidly obese child who lied almost daily to get out of PE class. I actually went to a hardware store in 8th grade and bought Plaster of Paris and made a cast for my wrist because I knew that a cast on my wrist would be a reason to get out of PE; who asks for a doctor’s note when you have a cast? The majority of people in my life now only know me as a runner. They didn’t know me when I smoked 1.5-2 packs of cigarettes a day. They don’t know who I was before this or what an amazing feat I have accomplished. They don’t know the level of hate I had for my body—the same body I now declare is amazing.

Running is positive to me. Always. I don’t like it when people comment about hating running. Really, find another sport if you hate it! I don’t like the stress that surrounds it or negative obsessions. I never have. I feel like running is my friend, as much as any friend is. It is always good. If I don’t PR, who cares? I still ran. I am grateful every day that I can run. I take none of it for granted because I know there was a time I couldn’t run. I was too fat and out of shape and stricken with asthma. I was laughed at by kids and beat up in school. I dropped out of school most years after 3rd grade (that is not a typo) mostly because of PE.

I am a miracle and I know it every time I run. Running is one of the great loves of my life. Today, I went out to run 6 miles and came home with a spontaneous 9.33 miles. A 15K run just because I felt like it. That, my friends, is a miracle.

I have posted this on my personal Facebook page before, but it seems like today it is a good illustration of why every run is a miracle and joy. This is what I looked like when I was 15:

And this is me today:

Any questions?

Monday, March 3, 2014

for the love of the run

I'll stop running when it stops being fun. Today I ran on snow and ice, again. And I loved it. I was soaring down the highway like a character in a movie, beaming with joy. I turned on back roads covered only with ice because I could, because my ice grippers made running on ice just as easy. Coming up around a bend of solid ice, I glowed with joy. For these five miles, all that mattered was the run.

Some call me determined; some say I am committed; some say I am crazy. The truth is, I love it and it's not hard to do what you love. When I taught school I learned quickly that the best teachers were the ones who loved it. Good teachers know that retirement should not come at a certain age but when the love of teaching is over. So it is with running.

Every run is not wonderful. Some days they whole thing is miserable. Just like when you teach 8th grade and parents yell at you and kids fail tests and talk back and your assignment bombs. But you don't call in sick the next day. Because you love it. Even though the day was bad and the parent was wrong and the kid was a brat, you love the school, the feel of the place, the excitement of the buses coming in and the middle school fashions. You love the kids, even when they are toots. And so you keep coming to work and most days are worth all the work you put into it.
Today as I ran, I thought about that. Not all runners enjoy running uphill on a sheet of ice. I felt like the most powerful person alive. Because I love the run. I love what it is and what it does and that even on bad days it makes the good days better.
Taken mid-run today

Am I determined? Am I committed? Am I faithful? Yep. I am. But the truth underlying it all is that I am in love with the run. The reason I plan my life around my runs isn't because I am obsessed; it's because I am in love. 
Open highway today

Winter sky caught mid-run (and filtered for dramatic effect)

My happy place