Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Oh! The Places I'll Go! Oh! The Things I'll Hear!

Cute, isn’t he?  I stopped to snap his portrait during my long run last week.

That’s right – I stopped.  In the middle of a long run.  To take a picture of a lizard.  Know what’s even crazier?  I stopped a few more times.  Too.  Was I tired?  Out of shape?  Not feeling the run?  Nope, nope and nope. 

What I was was r e l a x e d.  I wasn’t worried about what my average pace would look like on Facebook.  I had no particular time or distance goal in mind.  I was just out to enjoy a good run in a great place – my favorite nature park.

I just love how the paths curve around through here, inspiring a sense of never quite knowing what might be around the next bend.  The signs advising one not to molest the alligators help with that.

I’m between big races now and not in active training for anything in particular.  Which is a big departure from where I’ve been for the past year.  I’ve chosen to embrace it and make my long runs, especially, about quality time.  Location is part of that; I want to vary my routes, change up the scenery, try some new places over the coming months. 

I’ve also decided to dump my Shuffle. 

Once upon a time, I’d pull a matte disc of black vinyl from its paper sheath, taking a moment to enjoy a particularly lovely album cover or especially intriguing liner notes.  Carefully placing the needle at the record’s shiny outside edge, I’d sit back and take in the sounds of an entire album, listening to each song in the order intended by its artist. 

Those days are long gone now.  I forfeited my turntable and massive collection of vinyl many years ago, when replacement needles became impossible to find and entertainment furniture no longer offered adequate space to open a record player’s lid.  I have plenty of CD’s, but rarely have time to listen to them; what busy single parent does?  My iPhone’s Music app is chock-full of new and old music; mostly singles, but a few tried-and-true full albums can be found, wedged between LMFAO, Britney and Psy (don’t judge – it’s got a great beat and I can dance to it. RIP Dick Clark.) 

It hit me during a post-Princess run… I was listening to one of my running playlists, customarily shuffling its little heart out to keep me on my toes.  The Police’s “Synchronicity I” came on, an old favorite, and as it wound down, I found my brain expecting to hear the next song form the album.  It came as something of a shock when, not “Walking in Your Footsteps,” but “Gold Digger” (again – don’t judge) began.  I didn’t quite stop in my tracks, but I did stumble a bit (could’ve been a root, not the Kanye, I s’pose…).  It felt so… wrong!  I resolved then and there to spend some quality time listening to full albums again, in order and with the Shuffle switched firmly to the “off” position.

And what time do I have to indulge in an hour or two of album listening these days?  Long runs.  An hour or more of pure, uninterrupted me-time.  And, with no particular training pace to maintain, I’m free to listen to any format, any speed, any genre of my choosing.  Yippee!

I began my Running Album Adventure this past weekend – the same weekend that I stopped to take some photos.  Album of choice?  Zeppelin, Houses of the Holy.   An oldie-but-goodie – kinda like me! ;)

So how was it?  Pretty freaking awesome.  Really.  Generally, I find disco-ball-twirling-lights pop and dance music to be my best bet for running, simply because it’s simple music; easy to find and keep the beat with what is nearly always an outrageously exaggerated bass rhythm.  (And I use the term “bass” lightly here, as I challenge anyone to find an actual stringed instrument in use in any of those songs.  Not that I’m a music snob.  Okay, I am a music snob.  Deal with it.)  So, running to Zeppelin was, in a way, far more challenging – what to tune into, Jimmy’s guitar licks?  Robert’s throaty vocals?  John Paul’s  complex bass line?  Bonzo’s incomparable percussion work?  Don’t even talk to me about the full orchestral segments.

Yes.  All of the above.  I found myself mentally picking apart the pieces and putting them back together, dissecting the sounds that comprise the whole of each song, but hearing them work together, blending, blasting, piercing and weaving through the musical fabric like a needle through a tapestry.  And the really neat thing is that I found my body begin to do the same – each breath, step, arm pump working in isolation and as part of the full mechanical process of forward movement.  Taking it a step further, I wasn’t moving in isolation, either; I was as tuned in to the environment around me as I was to my own inner workings and to the music.   Hence, the photo stops.

I was, in fact, so tuned in that I tuned out – it took several full minutes before I realized that the album had ended, there was nothing but my own footfalls and breathing to be heard, and I was half a mile away from my car.  I tried queuing up another album, but it didn’t feel right; Houses of the Holy had been the right music for the right day and I chose silence for the rest of my run.

So was it that particular album or artist that made the run so great?  Could it be that simply hearing an album in entirety, rather than a random shuffle of differing tunes, made for a smoothness of mind and body?  Or am I reading far too much metaphysical malarkey into it all? 

I don’t know.  But I do know that it was an incredibly happy experience, one from which I gained much inner peace and energy.  So I’m totally doing it again.  And again.  I’ve got a few albums lined up for the coming weeks – Live in Swing City (Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orhcestra), Space Wrangler (Widespread Panic), The Yes Album (Yes), Four Seasons (Vivaldi),  Tron: Legacy (Daft Punk) and, for sure, Synchronicity (The Police). 

Yes, I have very eclectic taste.  Which means I’m open to suggestions – tell me, what are some of your favorite albums?  What should I try next?!

Oh the places you’ll go! 
You'll be on your way up!
You'll be seeing great sights!
You'll join the high fliers
who soar to high heights.

-                - Dr. Seuss

Eagle Lake Park on a spectacular spring day!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Calm After the Storm: Eagle Lake Classic Race Recap

Forgive me, but the beginning of this race recap is also a bit of a bash on the Princess Half-Marathon.  See, the Princess Half wasn’t all love and light and was, in fact, a source of more than a little drama and tension. 

Leading up to the race, there was rampant concern and intrigue in the Disney running community about corral placement, training plans, costume choices and runDisney’s 16-minute-mile minimum pace requirement.  In the weeks immediately preceding the race, concern frequently turned to outrage as corrals placements were released, verifying that some fast runners were “stuck” in far back corrals, while slower runners were placed in earlier corrals.  Some slower runners and walkers became fearful, worrying that they might not be able to keep up with their assigned corrals. 

During the Princess Half weekend’s festivities, I heard too many negative comments to count – in lines at the Expo, in park restrooms, overheard at dining establishments – about crowds, corrals, and other runners.  Race day brought more of the same.

And, sadly, perhaps the worst of it has come post-race.  Lengthy discussions about who “deserves” a medal.  About whether or not merely finishing is sufficient if one did not maintain the minimum pace.  About runDisney’s ever-increasing participant cap and its effect on course congestion.  About what a “real” runner is, looks like, strives for. 

Let me be clear: I was not immune to all of it.  I added my voice to a number of online and in-person discussions and, yes, I made some negative comments of my own.  I’m not proud of this.  By the time I actually ran the race, though, I’d really had enough of it.  I felt like all of the negativity took away from an event intended to bring people together.  I’ve felt the race and its accompanying drama like an albatross around my neck.  I’ve been making an effort to mentally separate my individual race experience from the nonsense and I’ve been making an even bigger effort to separate myself from the nonsense altogether.  Because, in the end, I want my running to be about more than races.  

The Eagle Lake Classic could not have come at a better time.

Two weeks after the Princess Half and less than a week after I’d been hobbled by bronchitis, I wasn’t even sure I could run some of a 5K, let alone set a new personal record (PR), let alone come away with a joyful race experience.  I’d have been happy just to finish and spend some time in a favorite park.

The mood before the race was relaxed and friendly.  There’d been some confusion in the days prior about packet pick-up, but everything ran smoothly on race day.  After securing my bib (and awesome swag bag – too many useful giveaways to count!), I set out for about a mile warm-up, knowing that it always takes me about that long to find my groove and release pent-up tension in my muscles.  As I jogged through the park, I encountered other runners doing the same and we all smiled and said “Good morning!” as we passed.

Getting into position for the start, I recognized a fellow mom from my son’s school and we chatted briefly about the race and others coming up.  In no time, we began moving forward and the race quietly started.  Throughout the race, I was impressed with the number of other racers and volunteers who took a few seconds to say “Good job!”, “Keep it up!”, or “Looking good!” as I passed or was passed, and I did the same in return.  My lungs were in bad shape and weren’t able to run as much as the rest of me could handle, but the encouragement kept my head held high right through the finish.

By the last half-mile, I knew that I was very, very close to hitting a new PR.  I wanted to repeat my finishing kick at the Princess Half and dug deep to sprint that last half-mile, but my lungs just couldn’t keep up.  I managed a fast quarter-mile, took a walk break to recover my breath, and did my best to sprint the finish line… clock time and iSmoothRun had me within half a minute of my previous PR, achieved at last year’s running of the same race.  I wouldn’t know my final chip time for another day, but I was more than happy to be so close!

But, really, the best part of the race came after the finish.  I walked some to cool down and sip water, then found an open spot at a picnic table and sat down to eat a snack and nerd-out on my race stats.  But the woman next to me was telling some other folks at the table that it had been her first race and I offered my congratulations to her.  At that, I was drawn into further discussion with the fine folks at our table, talking about other races, gear, injuries, training… Not once was there mention or debate over other runners’ performance.  When I said something that sounded entirely too apologetic about needing to take walk breaks, I was quickly reminded that there is no shame in walking; didn’t’ we all learn to walk before we ran?  When overall and age group winners were announced, we applauded politely, though we didn’t know any of them.  And when I took my leave to head home to Leo, we thanked each other for the nice conversation and encouraged one another to keep it up, that we’d look for each other in future races.

The 2013 Eagle Lake Classic was the perfect counterbalance to my Princess Half experiences.  Though it didn’t start with fireworks, though the only on-course “entertainment” came from a couple corny jokes made by the amazing volunteers, though I walked away with  a  sample-sized toothpaste instead of a shiny medal, Eagle Lake embodied everything I love about running: communion with nature, people who want to help others succeed, and positive energy.  I think there’s a place for both types of racing, but I think I prefer the low-key experience of a small, local race to the mega-watt excitement of Disney racing.  I’m so glad I live in a place where I can do both regularly.

And oh, about that PR?  Yes, I actually coughed up (pun intended) a new one!  Shaved 14 seconds off last year’s time.  Imagine what I could do with fully functional airways! :)

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Race Recap: 2013 Princess Half-Marathon

A little background…

I started writing this recap a few days ago and it read as a trip report, detailing where I went, what I did and with whom.  But I struggled with my pen.  Keyboard.  Whatever.  The tone and direction felt stiff at best, disingenuous at worst.

I’ve had a lot of time to think about what went into this race (13.1 miles’ worth, to be exact-ish) and in the end, the value of it, the meaningfulness I took away, had precious little to do with the what and where of it all.  For me, the poignancy of my first half-marathon is solidly attached to the people with whom I did it, and the new found understanding of my own self that resulted from it.

The “people” of it is a small group of women who came together years ago through our mutual love of Walt Disney World.  Over the years, we’ve forged deep-rooted friendships that have picked us up, dusted us off, pushed us forward, and lifted us up in laughter.  We’ve called each other on it when our behavior has been less than Magical; we’ve rallied for our sisters when one of us has faced inordinate difficulty; and we’ve created a bubble of camaraderie that offers shelter from whatever storms come our way.  And, within that precious group, nine of us went through nearly a year of frustration, excitement, pain and elation as we trained for the Princess Half and/or Royal Family 5K.  All of this, mind you, online… we ladies are scattered about the country – even the world, with one of us in the UK! 

So the Princess Half was both the culmination of our individual training journeys and the coming together of our virtual support team.  I can’t honestly say which was more important to me, running my own race, or celebrating my friends’ accomplishments.  I don’t think I could have one without the other.  It was vitally important to me that my friends know how critical their support and encouragement was to my own success, and that they knew how much their own achievements meant to me.  I don’t know how well I accomplished that; I am, indeed, far more fruitful with the written word than the spoken.

But that was my mindset going into our race weekend.  I reveled in our shared hilarity as we dined and toured the Walt Disney World parks together in the days before the race.  I cheered with all my might for those of us who raced the Royal Family 5K the day before the half-marathon.  I silently berated my body when inadequate sleep and a blood sugar crash hobbled me and I spent half a day in our room, trying to feel better enough to rejoin them all.  I sometimes took words the wrong way and worried that my own words weren’t coming across properly.  I got tired.  I worried about the race.  I cried for no apparent reason.  By the time race morning came around, I may have shared more in common with Zelda Fitzgerald than Deena Kastor.

Race Day

1:50 a.m.  What an insane time to be getting up.  But I did – showered, prepared some oatmeal to go, threw back a little coffee, and was off.

“We’re on a bus at 3 o’clock in the morning! Wearing tiaras! Woo hoo!”

We arrived at the pre-race staging area with plenty of time to check bags, relax, eat and spend some quality time in the Race Retreat.  For an extra handful of cash, runDisney makes available a Race Retreat tent, in which Retreaters can sit, grab breakfast, stretch and use their own set of porta-potties and bag check stations.  All of that was nice, but I purchased entrance to Race Retreat for one reason only: to have a warm place to wait before the race.  See, I’d been at WDW that frightful morning of the 2010 WDW Half-Marathon when it snowed.  SNOWED!  Okay, as a former Western New Yorker, I’ll admit that it was something closer to sleet than big, fluffy flakes, but still… SNOW!  In FLORIDA!!!  My $100 admission to Race Retreat was an insurance policy: chances were good that, by shelling out that cash, it wouldn’t be cold enough to need it.  But if it was, then I’d have some shelter.  Either way, I’d win.

Needless to say, it wasn’t cold in 2013.  In fact, we were given warnings like this all race weekend:

I know they were necessary, but they made this Florida girl laugh a little: it was in the high 60s and near 100% humidity on race morning and I couldn’t have been happier – perfect conditions for me!  So long as the forecasted rain held off… and I insured that by wrapping my phone/GPS/camera in cling wrap, rendering it unusable as a camera.  You’re welcome, Princesses.

So, yeah, Race Retreat was totally unnecessary as a means of shelter, but it wound up being a nice spot to eat breakfast, grab some extra water, and spend some time on my foam roller before checking my bag with no wait. 

It really felt like we’d just gotten there when the first announcements came for Corrals A through D to start our walk to the starting corrals.  But which corral?  I’d been debating that question for weeks prior.  Ostensibly, runDisney requires proof of one having finished a race of 10K or longer in order to qualify for placement in the earliest corrals.  I had no such proof.  We have few 10K races near me, to start, and I skipped the one for which I’d registered in order to let my stupid ITBS continue healing. And yet… I’d somehow been placed in corral C of a spread of A through H.  I knew I’d be slower than most folks in C simply because I planned to play it very conservatively in the beginning, taking lots of time to walk and stretch that ding-danged IT Band before doing very much running.  Two ladies from our group were in D, and I was tempted to move back to hang with them, but their bus had been held up in traffic.  I took it as a sign and joined friends Tracy and Debbie in C, after big hugs to Chanin and Jodi as they headed up to A.  Rockstars, those ladies are.

I absolutely made the right call.  Within minutes of entering the C corral, I got word from another member of our group, Mary: she’d arrived and wanted to start in C, too, though she’d been placed in B.  With hugs and good wishes to Tracy and Debbie, I salmoned my way upstream, to the far back of the corral, to wait for Mary.  She and I decided to hang out back there and ease into the race with the seven-minute buffer between our start and that of D.  Before we knew it, a flash of fireworks lit the sky and the wheelchairs and elites had started, then A, then B… we were next!  And… we had to pee!

Seriously.  Could we have made it to the first on-course porta-potties?  Certainly.  But that would’ve taken time off our pace.  There was a bank of potties directly across from the starting corral, and a little opening in the barricades... we took off, sprinted to the nearest Green Towers of Ick, took care of business and sprinted back into our corral just before our own fireworks went off.  I felt like I’d already won a race.

The Course, Part 1

I loved starting in the back of our corral and I’d absolutely do it again! We had plenty of room to move before the inevitable bottlenecks formed further along the course, and we ended up being directly under where the fireworks went off for corral D’s start.  It was like our own private pyrotechnics show!  Very fun; very cool.

As was Mary – very, VERY fun.  I’d warned her earlier: I’m an anti-social runner.  I’m not unpleasant, but I prefer to run alone.  I’m not chatty.  I savor the solitude of my long training runs, where I’m not Mom, or worker, or daughter, or even friend – I’m just a body in motion as I cover those double-digit miles.  So I was genuinely surprised to find that I really enjoyed having Mary’s company over the first four or so miles of the race.  My walking pace was a little faster than hers; her running pace was a little faster than mine.  It worked out well, I think, keeping us both at a conservative pace without fear of falling way behind.  And I know, based on my Tower of Terror 10-Miler experience, that I’d never have bothered stopping for some pictures, had it not been for Mary.  Not that I could’ve gotten pictures on my own, anyway.  The no-rain guarantee cling wrap, remember?  By the time we reached the toll plaza for Magic Kingdom parking, it felt like the race was flying by.

Ta-da, Mile 3(ish)!

We knew that we had friends Tracy E., Kristi and Chris somewhere along the course cheering for us, but I had no idea where to find them.  Up until that point, it had been dark and there really weren’t many spectators.  But making our way through the Ticket and Transportation Center parking lot, cheers and applause filled the air and I tried hard to keep an eye out for our pals… sure enough, they were there, cheering us on!  I can’t even remember if we stopped; I don’t think so, but knowing they were there picked us up more than a bit!

As we entered the Magic Kingdom shortly after Mile 5, the sun was up (though not really out – it remained overcast throughout the race, which helped keep the heat down) and I really soaked in the feeling of running down Main Street USA.

Look at us, just hanging out in front of a castle, in the middle of a half-marathon!

Through all of my training, my wall had always come between miles four and six, like clockwork.  But, between having fun with Mary and the distractions of the Magic Kingdom, I never hit that wall at all.  Or I did and never noticed.  But then, that’s not really a wall at all.  (With due apologies to Dr. Seuss.)  I had, however, trained my bladder to expect a restroom break around mile 5.5, right as we went through Frontierland – home of the Happiest Restroom on Earth.  Mary didn’t need to stop, so with a high-five and best wishes, she ran on while I sidetracked to an actual, air conditioned restroom.  No mid-course porta-potty for this Princess!  I’m not gonna lie; I stayed in there longer than necessary.  Washed my hands – with soap! – adjusted my Team Sparkle skirt and iFitness belt, refilled my water bottle with Nuun and splashed some cool water on my face.  It was worth the extra few minutes on my time to emerge feeling completely refreshed and ready to tackle the second half of the race.

The Course, Part 2

It’s weird – I really feel like I ran two races that day: one to mile 6, as we left the Magic Kingdom, and one from mile 7 through the finish.  Mary had stopped for pictures and ended up right behind me as we exited the Magic Kingdom and we ran together for a short while, but I looked over my shoulder for her a little before mile 7 and didn’t see her.  We’d all agreed to run our own races, so I sent her a mental wish for strong legs and a good second half and kept going.

I’ve become used to a massive second wind around the 7 to 9 mile point of my long training runs.  I don’t know what happens, but I always find myself turning inward at that point, becoming simultaneously more tuned in to the rhythm of my body and highly aware of what’s going on around me.  The feeling is entirely familiar: back in my younger days as a ballet dancer, I found that same sensation after long hours of classes and rehearsals.  There would come a point at which muscle memory took over the mechanics, freeing my soul to feel and express the music.  When it happens with running, I feel a surge of strength coupled with a deep relaxation and, I imagine, it’s the same idea: I stop thinking about running and just run.  As I rounded a corner near the Grand Floridian Resort, I sensed no pain, felt stronger than ever, and knew, without a doubt, that I’d finish the race, even if I had to walk most of the final miles.

Timing is everything they say. 

As I came around that corner, feeling so good on the inside, I spied our ace chEAR Squad in time to make my way over to them for hugs.  I can’t remember just what they said, something about me looking strong or energetic, but whatever it was hit me like a lightning bolt.  Some part of me recognized that my outside matched what I was feeling inside and – BOOM! – my conservative race strategy flew out the window like dirty dishwater.

Mary, with our super-amazing cheerers, Kristi, Tracy and Chris (he’s aaaaaalllll focus here…)

It was exactly what I needed at exactly the right time.  According to iSmoothRun, I dropped my pace every mile from 8 on.  Between mile 8 and the finish, I dropped a total of three and a half minutes off of my mile split times.  My body knew what to do and required no further input from my brain, which went into strategic mode and, though I can’t begin to tell you what kinds of photo opps or entertainment was along the course over that period, I began seeing every other runner in front of me in extreme clarity.  I found myself anticipating other runners’ moves before they made them and using that information to slow down, speed up, take a small step left or right, find an opening and tear through it like Seabiscuit hot on the heels of War Admiral.  Using my advantage of knowing the WDW roadways well as a driver, I moved to the inside of the final cloverleaf overpass, passing dozens of other runners as I climbed swiftly up the far inside on the grass, where the steep angle leveled off to a space just wide enough on which to run.

The faster and harder I went, the stronger I felt.  The more people I passed, the more determined I was to pass more of them.  Fearing a burnout right before the finish, I forced myself at mile 12 to ease back, eat a few more Honey Stinger chews, which I’d been alternating with bites of a Clif bar every 30 minutes for fuel, and take a deep breath before letting loose.  I’m both proud of and humbled by what my body did for me that day.  Feeling a 13-mile-wide smile spread across my face, I flew through Epcot and sprinted across the Finish line, feeling the power of a year of training and the support of my running group course through my veins.

The Aftermath

I had no real goals, going into my first half-marathon.  I was sure I’d finish, barring any debilitating injury, and didn’t want to set myself up for potential disappointment by going in with any particular finish time in mind.  I hoped to finish without knee pain – I’d managed my final 12-mile training run without incurring any ITBS nastiness – but wasn’t at all sure that was realistic.  I finished with an official chip time of 3:23:13, while iSmoothRun reported a 3:08:11 finish with pauses for my stops for pictures, potties, etc.  I’m completely satisfied with both times.  Fast?  No.  But that makes my time easily beatable in future races, right?!  And I just love that I finished with only enough gas left in my tank to get back to Race Retreat for a big plate of food and a chocolate milk.

Beyond my own performance, I am thrilled to report that every one of our group crossed that Finish line.   I was exhausted, but determined to stick around until each one of us was accounted for.  I’m so glad I did!  To see us all with our medals, and to hear the quick run-throughs of each of our race experiences, filled me with a pride so much larger than what I held for myself.  Despite our many differences, we all worked hard, persevered and achieved something I’m not sure any of us had previously dreamed possible.

Mel, T, Jodi, Mary, Z, Chanin – you are ALL rockstars in my book! LY/MI!

The rest of our trip was a blur of celebration.  We iced down, stretched, showered, ate, got dressed and dragged our tired bodies through the Magic Kingdom the afternoon of our race, and indulged in a celebration dinner at ‘Ohana. 

“’Ohana means ‘family’… And ‘family’ means no one gets left behind – or forgotten.” 

I am SOOOOOOOO proud of you all!!!

# # #

So, the question I’ve been asked repeatedly: will I do the Princess Half again?  Maybe not.  I really, truly enjoyed the experience and I’m so glad I ran this as my first 13.1 distance race.  Given the uncertainty about how my leg would hold up, the congested, bottlenecked, impossible-to-run-fast course was a perfect fit for me.  And the woman-centric theme was an ideal fit for our group of Mother Runners and Best Running Friends.  But it feels very much like a one-and-done event for me.  While I’m genuinely glad I took the time for a few pictures along the course, I absolutely relished ignoring everything that makes a Disney race “Disney” in the second half, too. 

I started this running journey thinking that I needed the theme and entertainment of a Disney race to make me excited enough to run 13.1 miles.  As it turns out, I’m more than excited enough all on my own.  Perhaps the single greatest reward I received after a year of training is having learned this: I love to run.  And I don’t need flashing lights, photo opps, or the promise of a big, sparkly medal to make me want to do it again.

Though a super-cute race shirt doesn’t hurt. 

I am all registered for the 2013 Tower of Terror 10-Miler, so I'm not discounting all future Disney races.  I want my shot at race redemption. ;)  But I'm just as enthusiastic about doing some smaller, cheaper races to support my local running community, too.

I suppose I'm officially a Runner now.