Friday, May 27, 2016

Hitting the Wall

Around mile 20 of a 26.2 mile/42 kilometer, marathon runners frequently "hit the wall." Physiologically it is a glycogen energy crash bringing the muscles to almost non-existent movement. Psychologically it is exhaustingly harrowing, making one question the wisdom of joining the race, as well as one's very sanity. Last week I ran a marathon and hit the wall twice. Running The Great Wall Marathon was one of the most amazing life experiences I have enjoyed while reveling in running. Additionally, it was the most beautiful and brutal thing I have accomplished since childbirth. 

I was seeded in wave 3 of 4 launches. Off the start line I began at a moderate pace, breathing deeply the air and realization that the moment I had trained 6 months for was at last here. This is it I thought, commence this outstanding bucket list item. Pace yourself and take it ALL in. The first 5k was a radical pitch of a corkscrew leading us straight uphill
to The Wall. Having riden up this mini mountain on bus two days prior, I decided to power step this leg for efficiency. The plan worked and I found myself passing runners straining to sprint this formidable series of straight ups. My mind was void of any time goal other than finishing prior to the 8 hour course cut off. The rule of thumb is to add your marathon time plus your 1/2 marathon time to get a ballpark Wall figure. That marathon math for me would work out to be about 6 hours and 30 minutes. Plenty of walk cushion if I needed it. I figured I would save my steady running for the outlying village portion of the race. This would still allow plenty of interaction time with the villagers in the crowds. I was thrilled to make it to the entrance.

The morning had begun so crisp and cool I felt as though I were in God's country of my home state, Michigan. The temps warmed pretty quickly. The next 4 kilometers were a series of wall towers and steps of varying size, degrees and stability. The realization of running on one of the wonders of the world flooded me with emotion and gratitude. Don't cry, no good to dehydrate 8k into this race. I kept a nice steady jog touching the side wall when needed and marveling at the view. Reaching the "goat path" brought a bottleneck and a breather as only one to two runners could descend at a time. The name is apropos as really the terrain is better suited for a mountain goat than a human. This all added to the collective joy and challenge however. At this point the half and full marathon fields were still together. 
Cautiously striding and stepping down this section was a bit harrowing as I could hear the shoes of other runners scraping and slip sliding behind me.  Steady feet, steady feet, please let us not take one another out! A quick dip in the wall brought me again to a gentle jog up another section and tower. Running back to Yin Yang square and through the canopy was a rush. 10k out we were through Huangyaguan Villiage and headed for Duanzhuang Villiage. 15k in found us entering Xiaying Villiage. So many villagers and children came out to cheer us on "Pǎo pǎo," give high fives and ask for autographs.
After the full marathon field parted ways with the half marathon field, a little girl handed me a small bouquet of lavender wildflowers. "Xiè xie," I said smiling. I tucked them in the strap of my water pack and ran on. Dongjiafen, Qingshanling, Chedaoyu villages were next and brought us through small groves of trees and roads parched and dusty, to the 30k mark. I was eager to make it back to the 34k north wall fortress to receive my wrist band indicating I was commencing my second dance with The Wall. Just a 700 meter ascent to traverse the wall west to east now. I was feeling great...until I wasn't. Waves of nausea began to wash over my constitution. I wasn't sure I could keep that half of banana and handful of Brachs jellybeans down. You are FINE! Stop being a wimp, I internally admonished myself. I began to internally monologue much more kindly when I started to encounter lithe fit fellow-runners heaving, slumped, and lying down along the route. It dawned on me this was a maniacal merging of the figurative and literal running "wall." I knew I could not stop. I slowed drastically. My 6:30 shifted to an idea that "under 7 hours would be nice." Fellow field members dropped to the left and right of me and I slogged on one step at a time. I was immensely grateful for a divine breeze that bolstered me. I needed to settle my stomach. About that time a rogue group of tourists came flouncing down towards me, the teen in front holding a bottle of Coca-Cola. If I'd had enough energy I may have followed through with my desperate thought of wrenching the bottle from his hands and drinking the remaining contents. My lack of energy kept my manners in tact, and I soldiered on up the steps. The Australian woman in front of me kept lamenting, "I think I may vomit. If I could just let a burp," over and over like a chanted prayer. She disappeared around a turn and when I finally made the turn there she was with an ice cold bottle of Coca-Cola in her hand. There was a hunched elderly lady selling browned bananas and Coke on the side of the path. The words were out before I could think, "Oh, could I please have a drink of your Coke?"
"Oh love," she replied, "let me buy you one!"
"No, no I couldn't possibly drink an entire bottle. My stomach feels like yours and just a sip will do. I won't touch my lips to the bottle..."
"Oh please love! Like I really care. Here! Take a swig!"
She handed me the bottle. I quaffed a bit of that carbonated salvation gifted to me by my Australian Coca-Cola angel. "Bless you!" I gasped. I trudged on and she sat down to drink the rest of her Coke. I began to notice members of the medical team along the remaining parts of the wall. They were massaging out cramped runners' muscles which were refusing to obey the commands of the minds and bodies to which they belonged. The medical team members were assessing whether or not each athlete was fit to continue. My knees were working on a violent coup themselves, which I squelched by step stretching as I plodded up the stairs. At long last I was off the wall and back on the last 5k to Yin Yang Square. One would think it may be a joy to finally meet a downhill portion, but it was quite an additional strain on my disgruntled knees. I alternated running and power walking to cover this last stretch. As I was coming back into the square center many half marathon finishers were there cheering us on to the finish. One gal shouted, "Just around the bend, get your run on to that finish line!" So that I did, with what energy I know not; weary and rejoicing I re-entered the square and crossed the finish line at 6 hours 57 minutes and 33 seconds simultaneously laughing and crying as I received my medal. My posse of people I had met were there waiting.
We rehydrated, we visited the massage tent, we swapped anecdotes from the course, and we cheered on the rest of the runners until the very end. I felt a bit like the flower bouquet my little friend had given me many miles ago.
The race was over. The droves of runners that did not make it to the line in time would now be extracted from the course. I stifled some surges of tears I felt swelling within me for their situation. I boarded the transport, reuniting with my bus buddies to head back to our Beijing hotel. We were joined by a group of Brazilian blokes who made our Beijing Bus the most entertaining time I have ever had (or will ever have) on a bus. 

Now a week later I find myself in post-race doldrums downward spiraling towards post-race depression. It is difficult to describe to my friends and family how life infusing and altering this experience was. I look the same (save the gimp of fatigue legs), but I have been changed. Primarily changed by the other runners I encountered and met throughout my time in China. In trying to pick up my Humpty-Dumpty pieces after coming off the wall, I came across this bit in my reading:
Randy Step of Running Fit advises, "Savor the pain, you deserve it. The couch potato lives in a body numb world not knowing the feeling of being totally awake, alive and aware." 
With new life, I am alive.
I am awake.
am aware.
I am amazed...

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Mother's Day

Brunch, roses, Hallmark cards, jewelry, all prime Mother's Day presents. My Mother's Day was spent in a way I much prefer; on the road running. Additionally it wasn't on just ANY road. It was along the coastline of DaNang, Vietnam. The forecast was broiling with temps topping out at 42 C or 102 F. Despite being advised to NOT run due to a dog bite the week prior, I ran. I ran with people scribed on my arm with Sharpie and in my heart with memories. Each mile I meditated on and offered gratitude for these people in my life. Mile 1: Tim, my husband, who despite thinking I am mental for continuing to push my body in distance running, shows up every race the epitome of organization and support. The perennial coach, this weekend found him sharing out gear with other athletes, cheers and hydration. Mile 2: Meleyna who every day amazes me at the strong young woman she is constantly becoming. I love this child more than my own breath, and stand in awe as she philosophically approaches life and people. Her humor and care rallies me to believe better for the future. Mile 3: Henry who is tough as nails on the exterior, but always tender with his mom. I love this child with every fiber, and marvel in his pragmatism and candor. His words at the finish line? "Mom I am so proud of you and happy for your finish, but I am so disappointed I have not passed this level of Geometry Dash." Hands on my knees and heaving breath I reassured him, "It's ok son, I didn't give up, and you won't either. You'll conquer it too because that's who we are; we don't give up." He nodded, gave me a knowing smile and helped me limp over to the ice bath.
Mile 4: My Mom and Dad, who despite being coined as "So STRICT" by my friends, pushed me to independence and to look beyond my own perspective and self. Miles 5 to 13.1 were a glorious glom of friends and folks who speak truth to my being.

Mile 5: Chris and Anika with whom I shared a bizarre breakfast moment pre-race. Chris the "C" of our TCK Trifecta team relay and bike leg who is my favorite Monday morning conversational partner. His wife, Anika, who ran the whole Ironman and dedicated her race efforts and garnered donations for Blue Dragon, a Hanoi organization, who rescues children from trafficking to reunite them with their parents. One of my SHE-roes! Mile 6: Ken the "K" in our TCK team and the inciter of this endeavor who braved jellyfish larvae like stinging nettles and the thrashing arms of countless other swimmers to gallantly stride the red carpet and pass our chip in record time. Gail, his wife, who along with inspiring me in the classroom daily also helped us navigate the sea of check in and relentlessly cheered us on throughout the race. 

Mile 7: Captain & Amy my friends who are the good time crew. We frequently quip and complete one another's thoughts with song lyrics or movie quotes. It is probably a good thing we weren't acquainted in our younger years as the synergistic shenanigans may not have ended so well.
Mile 8: Hill & Huber my two distance buddies from the states with whom I have swapped more nutrition, training and stories around the DRE staff room lunch table than I can count. They understand my endless push to pin down times and splits, rejoice in strong runs and commiserate in times the clock gains the upper hand. 
Mile 9 : Jen my dear friend who tracked me around Cincinnati to witness my first full marathon, capturing my feat in a blog post that still brings tears to my eyes when I read it 4 years later.
Mile 10: Charlotte & Annie the two fem phenoms with whom I was blessed to run their first races EVER with back in the old 419. There is nothing like the honor of crossing the line with someone for their first finish. Love these two to pieces.
Mile 11: Amanda & Tara my two supposed "non-running" friends--My college roommate that used to shake her head at me when I went running twice a day and who now has completed her own 1/2 marathon. My other former athlete turned friend who as a young basketball player, would groan at my coach's whistle to the wind-sprint conditioning line, and who now despite battling breathing issues, just nailed her first 1/2 marathon this spring.
Mile 12: Jill my, through better or worse life and road conditions, running partner who had carried me on her arm for the "hurtin' mile" (12) 2 weeks prior while recording a 1/2 marathon PR. My sole sister with whom I have shared more sweat, stories, and miles than anyone else on the planet. 
Mile 13 God-Divine: For any runner of a distance race, this 1.1 mile stretch can almost be hallucinogenic. Two and a half miles prior my wound had split open, the heat index was rising and my mind was waltzing with so many other people without whose influence and interaction I would not be the person or runner I am. Crossing the line of the Detroit International half came back to me as I was frantically doing the mental math of net and race time to figure if I had hit my 2 hour target when one of the people I most adore on the planet, sent me a congratulatory text with my time. I considered all the narratives tied to all the characters running in front of, behind and beside me, and I felt overwhelmed with the fortune I had to be in this race. 
Crossing the line collapsing into tears, I was greeted by a throng of my favorite people. Many of whom, sadly, I will need to bid farewell to after this school year. I find myself writing this raw with emotion. 
"Embracing challenges," the tag line of the race, could very well be the tag line of my life moving overseas. Life is like riding a raging bull or hugging an inner-tube as it bounces over the boat's wake like concrete, or like pushing ones body to run long distance. Like bull riding, tubing, or running, I laugh and smile through the tears.