The Race

February 2nd, 2007

“We, the great and small, stand on a star and blaze a trail of desire…” — Carly Simon

I woke up race day before the alarm even rang, and it was set for 5 am. Just a little race day anticipation! I stretched in bed for a few minutes, knowing that I keep my alarm clock time at least 10 minutes ahead of real time, so I had a little margin. Then it was time to go upstairs and make the coffee. The team was sharing a house at the beach for the race, plus our special guests, coach Judy Heller and Official Team Waterboy Sam. Somehow, I’d just totally lucked out on the coffee situation; I was the only coffee drinker in the whole house, so I didn’t have to plan any complicated coffeemaker-sharing schemes. Coffee in hand, I moved on to the next item: warm my feet with a heating pad. Some of my teammates were up and about, others I didn’t see for awhile — its a three story house, most of the bedrooms were upstairs from the living room. I knew Annmarie was up, because she gets up at 5 everyday anyway. (I shake my head in amazement just writing this.) After coffee and heating pad, it was time for some gentle yoga. I have a travel yoga mat that is much lighter than the full ones and folds into a square for luggage, so I spread this out and stepped through my routine. Teammates appeared at various points in my routine, getting ready, stretching, using a massage stick one last time, even applying temporary tattoos with the Wonders of Walking logo (a local walking club in Portland). At 6:15, they headed out, leaving me and Sam and all of the drinks and gels to follow. I went downstairs to dress. I’d laid everything out the night before, but found that I’d pinned one of my numbers through both sides of my tshirt, so I laughed and tried again, thinking, even on race day, I’m still the absent-minded professor underneath. I carefully prepped my right foot: gel wedge into shoe, elastic arch support, toe separator, then sock. It didn’t feel quite real, that this was really it, after training for so long. But leaving time came; we loaded everyone’s stuff into the trunk and headed for Chula Vista. Mercifully, Sam drove — possibly with a thought to his own safety. ;) We arrived at 7am — one hour to go. I’d told Sam “I must be there at the start area at 7am” so he pulled up at 7 precisely, let me out, and headed off to park the car. Nice trick, that!

Prep time was pretty surreal — everywhere I looked, and next to me on line for the porta potty, are these Giants of Racewalking. And they’re being nice to *me*!!! I feel a little like the Little Green Sprout, but I step through a light warmup and try to stay focused. There’s some confusion about the aid table setup, Sam says they’re bringing another table but I’m nervous that the race is about to start and we have nothing available for the team. I suggest we set a few things up in an available spot, just in case the new table never shows, and put one of our bags there to claim it. Just then the call for athletes to approach the start area is made, so I hurry over and look around to check for my teammates. Here we go!

I start out next to Annmarie, since we both had discussed wanting to start out easy and our paces are close enough that it should work. Dora and Sandy are a bit further behind once we get going; I know Sandy’s pace is a bit slower than mine, but I try not to get too much ahead of Dora, who seems to keep to her intended paces while racing like a machine. Me, I’m always in danger of too fast, too eager, too hungry. At a 50k, if I give into that side of me early, I’ll be toast. We pass the aid tables, and I see Sam but don’t really register what he’s doing. Its a 2k loop course on a road, with a ninety degree turn in the middle, and just before the turnaround there are metal plates across the road, with some carpets on top to ease our footing. I do a pretty poor job of keeping form over these, but with 25 laps in the race, I figure I’ll have some practice time. Luckily the rules don’t actually limit how inefficient you’re allowed to be! Its metal plate, metal plate, turn around the cones, metal plate, metal plate. I laugh to myself when I see a judge right there. Gee, how did they know?? :) I’m really going to have to figure this metal plate thing out. Annmarie’s moving right along; before long she pulls out ahead, leaving me between her and Dora, with the returning champ, Heidi Hauch, in the lead. I will myself not to hurry.

Doesn’t take long for me to get a caution for bent knee, then a red card. As I see the board I think sarcastically “and leading the team in the red card competition, its KAREN”. Come on, girl, get it together, you’ve walked so many miles these past few months its ridiculous, YOU CAN DO THIS. Racewalks go by a three strikes rule — 3 red cards means your race is over, you are DQ’d and must stop. My count is 1.

My mental approach for the race is to group it into sets of 5 laps. Sets 1 and 2 are the “first third” — stay in control; 3 and 4 are the “second third” — stay focused, okay to get a bit faster; 5 is the “last third” — everyone has said the tough part of a 50k starts at 40-42 k, so I’ll push if I can, but know it won’t be pretty. Based on recent practices, there’s a good chance I’ll be in pain by the end of the first third, because after a shoe change to fix my plantar fasciitis, my posterior tib tendinitis has acted up in the other ankle. I raised the issue of pain with my doctor a few weeks before the race, and he offered me some options, including a cortisone shot right into the tendon, and a prescription for codeine that I could leave on the water table with my Gleukos, but I’ve decided to go it with just an ibuprofen before the race. As I finish each lap, I repeat in my head my progress — “lap 2 of 5, halfway home, lap 4 of 5, last lap.” Before the race, I made myself a list of goals: first is, make it to the starting line; next, don’t die; then, finish the first set, finish the second set, etc. then FINISH; then, beat 6:19:21, etc, working my way up the chain of previous national championship times for the 50. No way to know if I’ll get to the timing goals, for me its mainly about going the distance. After lap 2 of each set, its my trickiest juggling act — drink plus Cliff cubes, one in each hand. Sam manages to get the stuff over to me pretty much flawlessly, once we realize handing me the plastic bag is just beyond my skill level, and he unwraps everything for me and uncaps my bottles. After each lap 5, I get a bottle of slightly more concentrated Gleukos. Its amazing how much less processing power I seem to have during the race — once he hands me the wrong bottle, and its got a cap on it, and first I try to drink from it, of course nothing comes out, then I look, realize there’s a cap, and it takes another few seconds for me to figure out what to do about that. Good grief! The night before, we’d all sat around the table, giving Sam our specific directions, and he’d written it all down, not missing a thing. After the race he told me that he’d had to keep a lap count with times for each of us, to be ready with the correct items as we approached the aid table.

Not long into the race, Sam comes jogging by me near the aid table, and asks me where my house key is. I have no idea why he’s asking, but I know he never would have bothered me unless something was up. As it turned out, he hadn’t seen me put the bag of stuff onto the aid table before the race start, and it contained Sandy’s sports drink, and now it was missing! But I didn’t find that out until after the race. They don’t find her stuff until several laps in — my capped bottle was nothing compared to what Sandy had to endure.

Before I know it, I’m cheering in my head — first set done!! four to go. I’ve gone faster than planned so far, but I feel pretty good. At some point I notice the banner on our water table, and it feels like a hug from home — my marathon coach, Ellie Hodder, has made up a banner that says “Dream Big — 50k!” and seeing it makes me think of her, the women who coaxed and prodded and enthused me to the finish line of my very first marathon, six years ago.

As I go, these incredible elite athletes are blasting by me, and I get to watch them, and hear their chatter, and note what they’re doing. Ever since the 2004 Olympics, I’ve had a picture of Teresa Vaill on the bulletin board over my desk. Its a shot of her just after she crossed the finish line, and her face and entire body are the embodiment of joy and relief. I keep it there to remind myself that you only get that moment by working really, really hard. Now here she is, blasting by me, aiming for an Olympic qualifying time for 2008. Periodically, Loretta Schuellein whizzes by, looking great. Her fiance, and my coach, Dave McGovern, cheers me as he goes by, in a small pack of fellow elites. Also, Ray Sharp, whom I’ve only met in cyberspace. Many others whose faces I don’t know, but who together represent the best of the best. Then I see Dave on the sidelines, saying “Now I get to coach.” Ah, he’s pulled out early.

Right around the end of my second set, I come up on Annmarie, and settle in behind her. I draft her for the next 4 laps, sticking close, trying not to stumble when she occasionally slows down. We talk about when to switch sides of the course, because there’s some uneven patches, and although in theory, it should be easy enough to memorize where they are and avoid them, in practice, we’re just getting nailed over and over by the same few spots. At some point as I pass the aid table I see my friend Ted has arrived, from L.A. I exclaim, then hear a voice say “63, caution, having too much fun on the course!” and after missing a beat, I laugh — its Dave, who is standing just past Ted. I yell “okay, I’m warmed up, when does the race start?” and Loretta says “Its that attitude thats going to get you through, you are going to do it!” By the end of the set, Annmarie slows down slightly; I look at my watch and take off past her. “Go for it Karen!” she shouts, as I head off. Second place. Second third, stay focused. My next time past the aid table, I hear Sam say “she’s pulled ahead.” (Because of the turn in the course, most folks can’t see what happens down by the metal plates. )

By now, the course is emptier each lap. The 10ks have finished, then the 20ks, now they’re announcing the top 6 50k men. I know I’m second but Heidi’s way out ahead, and I’m not even trying to catch her, just trying to do my best, and make it as hard as possible for her to lap me. My perception of things is a bit altered in the latter part of the course; I know things are happening, but they seem a bit peripheral. I see Loretta with Dave, and know she’s made it into the Olympic trials, but as I write this I can’t remember who told me. The sun comes out and all of a sudden it feels HOT and I take in extra water. At some point I get my second red card, and the pressure ramps up. Each lap goes through two extremes: at one end, the start/finish line, announcers, people cheering, and music, closely followed by the aid tables. Then a long, empty, quiet stretch, with the metal plates and turn to get through. Eventually, I figure out that I need to just go in slow motion around the whole end of the course, and can’t believe it took me so long to think of it. FINISH FOR THE TEAM! I tell myself over and over. Three out of four of us must finish to qualify for a team award. I tell Sam and Ted “you guys are going to have to shout ALOT near the end.” Ted, being Ted, immediately starts shouting, and Sam must have given him some grief over this, because as I continue past I hear him saying “well, I’m practicing.” This makes me smile and OH GOD DID I NEED THAT SMILE. Somewhere around 5 hours and 45 minutes in, Heidi finishes, and I see Sandy sitting on the side of the course. “And then there were three” I think. Sandy’s out. No more room for error, we all must finish. I dig and keep digging, trying to find the stuff I need to keep at it. I start to feel I will just fall over, because staying upright is too hard, but I think “If I fall, I’ll stop. If I’m DQd I’ll stop. Other than that, NO STOPPING. No stopping just because I *might* fall. No being a wimp!!” I no longer feel able to speak, or drink, or check my time. Just step, step, step, don’t stop, don’t stop. I sort of know its cloudy again, because I’m not feeling the heat anymore, and I know that Annmarie and Dora are still going, because I pass by them, and I know I have to keep going, don’t stop, don’t stop.

And then they are pointing me to the finish line, and people are cheering, and someone’s announcing my name, and I can stop! I can stop! I’m done! And then I almost *do* fall over, Sam has to help me lean a bit as I try to walk a little to cool down. And I’m happy, but I’m so exhausted, its an odd, distant kind of happy, a bit surreal, and no energy to scream or jump. I’ve just walked under the watchful eyes of judges continuously for over 6 hours and 21 minutes without a break. After five minutes or so, I’m a bit less out of it, and get down an orange that Sam peels for me. Then, he runs back off to the aid table to be ready for Dora.

Dora comes in incredibly strong, looking just as solid to me as she has throughout the race. Then I just hold my breath until, finally, I see Annmarie. She’s had to stop several times with muscle cramps in the last few laps, but incredibly, she has just gotten back in each time, and here she is, bringing it home for the team. I know I scream alot, and hug her, and cry.

I got a silver medal for second place; Dora took third; and Annmarie took fourth. But the team, the team earned gold — Western Women Go The Distance earned the first place team award, the only team to finish the race, and the first women’s team ever to finish the USA national championship 50k racewalk.

“Let all the dreamers wake the nation” — Carly Simon


January 28th, 2007

Today I completed my first 50k racewalk. I earned a silver medal, 2nd place in the women’s USA national championship 50k. Then I ate waffles, and walked right into the ocean.

I am overwhelmed by today — I have spent time with people who have inspired me, who have shown me kindness, total strangers who have come over to shake my hand and tell me they respect me, and how strong I am. And I have cried watching my teammates cross the finish line, knowing what they were dealing with, how much pain they were in, how much it took to stick to the end.

Western Women Go The Distance.

Sunset on the Beach

January 27th, 2007

“All I wanna do is go the distance” — Rocky

This morning, my last workout. Not even really a workout; I call it “just enough to stretch.” Twenty minutes easy, with stretching. We go out along a path on the bay, surrounded by joggers and bikers and more casual walkers. I feel totally different from these other, relaxed, casual exercisers; its been so long since I went out and did whatever I wanted, I can’t remember when it was. My twenty minutes is on my schedule, so I’m doing it. I don’t enjoy it less, but I do it more precisely. We are careful not to go too long or at all fast.

Its been a hectic week. Monday, at work, we meet a midnight deadline with 2 minutes to spare. I run out for a break and buy a spare hot/cold pack, and go to the doctor. Tuesday’s my last track workout. The lizards are there, and they give me good practice, since they’re all passing me pretty often as I do my three miles at a subdued pace, so I get to practice keeping my own pace. Afterwards, I go inside, and it feels strange not to hit the weight room. Since I’m done so much sooner than usual, I get a last minute massage. Wednesday, I visit the physical therapist who fixed me up after the 2005 Portland marathon. She can only give me a light treatment before the race, but we go ahead and book me for two appointments next week, anticipating the tendinitis won’t be so happy after 31 miles. Last time, she got me racing again, from not being able to put any weight on my leg, in just a few weeks, so I know this is the best approach. This treatment is called A-stym; she digs into my soft tissue with hard plastic tools, to deliberately break down the tissue and let it rebuild. She treats my leg from the bottom of my foot and up the inside, about two thirds of the way up to my knee. Even though it hurts, I know the worst is to come, since she’s keeping it light — last time at one point my entire leg was bruised, but it works and that’s the thing. You just have to grip the table and visualize whatever the hell works until its over. Thursday’s my last real walk, although its not really very challenging.

Friday the whole team visits the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista. This is a place where the best US athletes are invited to come and train, with everything provided for them, dormitories and a cafeteria, sports medicine, physical therapy, etc. Our tour guide is excited to learn we’re in town to race, and asks for the name of our team so she can check the newspaper to see how it went on Monday. Before the guided tour, they show a film, and at one point, they show a few scenes of athletes failing, getting injured, having to stop, and I swear we all stopped breathing — I know I did. I’ve never actually stopped for an injury, although I did injure myself around mile 22 of the 2005 Portland Marathon. Afterwards, when I told people I was injured, they would say “oh, did you finish” and that puzzled me. “Am I dead?” I’d reply, and when they said “no” I’d say “well, then, I finished.” The movie makes me cry.

This afternoon, I head out to the ocean at sunset, alone, and walk along in the icy cold water, thinking about the race. I know I’m going to give it my all, and that my all is quite a bit more than it used to be, from training and skipping dessert and eating all those good healthy foods and reading and learning and pushing. But I can’t know what will happen tomorrow. “On any given Sunday…”

All I wanna do is go the distance.

Ourselves, Getting Stronger

January 20th, 2007

Earlier this week, chatting with a friend, I surprised myself by saying “preparing for this race has been a life changing experience.” I realize its true as I’m saying it. Some of the changes have been unexpected.

I am stronger physically. Well, I expected that, intellectually it would make sense that after months of regular training, I’d improve, strengthen my legs, etc. But here I am, with a resting heart rate of 59, routinely exceeding my PR times from last spring just in training workouts, and its really pretty cool. I can do more stomach crunches, for sure, no big surprise there, but one day back when I was sick, I said to a friend, “well, no matter how crappy I feel, I can still do some stomach crunches,” and he just laughed at first, then paused, when he realized I was serious. And in his pause, I saw myself, the new myself, and wow! its true, I do double abs machine in the gym, then do some more abs work on the mat, nobody pushing me, no doctors prescription, just me wanting to be better, stronger, to give the race my best effort. Once a couple months back, I was walking up on a large hill, when across the street I saw a long, long staircase up to the top of the hill, and I just dashed over and up I went, every step without any pause, just to show myself I could, right up to the top only to turn around and come back down, smiling. Although I’ve been very conservative with my weight room workouts, I’ve increased all the weight amounts by this point, at least once. Back in October when I first visited Dr. Ray, he asked me to try to pick up a ball with my foot, and when I did he said my foot was doing the best job of that of any patient he’d ever seen. I thought for a second, then said, “I’ve been doing the picking-up-a-towel-with-my-feet exercise for a year now.” My arms are stronger, too, from the weights and from the walking, and its easier to carry things.

I’m lighter. Still not skinny like those Olympic athletes, absolutely zero chance I’m competing in a bathing suit anytime soon, but I’ve lost 14 pounds since that fateful day at the end of March I told Dave McGovern “I want to go faster.” Two weeks ago, I carted an armful of “too loose jeans” over to Goodwill, and had to restrain myself from dancing in joy right there as the guy asked if I wanted a receipt. No diet plans, no points counting or weekly weigh ins — just me, wanting to be faster, leaving half on my plate and cutting the saturated fats. I made up a few rules, like “no meat and butter” — can’t have meat and butter in the same meal; and “meat free Monday” — hardest to remember, which I often do halfway through a chicken salad for Monday lunch, but I think I’ve managed it about a third of the time; and “dessert with fruit” — so even when I cave I put a scoop of ice cream over a bowl of fruit, instead of the other way around.

I am stronger mentally. And this one I wasn’t expecting. Over much of the months of training, it seemed to be at the expense of my work. I still worked hard, rarely as little as 40 hours per week, but I felt that I was always leaving work to go workout, or arriving later in the morning after working out, always juggling, always compromising, to get the workouts in. But in December I got through a big work push, a result of two deadlines colliding, much easier than ever before, staying extremely productive right up to the last ten minutes. No small change — I got about twice as much done in a week than previous times. I tell myself that if I can get through two and a half hour workouts, and 5 hour long walks, then I can keep my brain cranking and get through these deadlines. And I do. This past week, I find myself playing my workout playlist while I push at work, and it brings home to me that these two things aren’t really two things — they are more alike than different. The voice in me that says “keep trying” and “yes, you *can* do it” and “you are going to whip this” has gotten stronger, and that voice is what’s left when you’ve used up everything else, no matter what you’re facing.

When the team steps up to that starting line next week, we will all be different versions of ourselves, because of these past months. If only someone could take a picture of *that*.

If at first you don’t succeed…

January 8th, 2007

Guess I survived yesterday’s non-workout — inspiration hit in the late afternoon, and I downloaded Beck’s “Loser.” Loud music while singing “Soy un perdedor, I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me” was just the thing. Mostly I was distracted by other work, followed by a pretty lousy night’s sleep. Then the alarm blaring at 6am. Never one to risk injury by leaping out of bed too soon, I crawled out at about 6:30, and slithered down to the magic coffeemaker, which has its own alarm that wakes it up to make me coffee while I oversleep.

I’ve dried out my clothes in the dryer, but the metatarsal pads in my shoes are like sponges, and both pairs are still really wet. Well, nothing for it but to stick my dry feet in there and try not to think about it too much. I get out to the bike path by 7:30. Its in the low 40s, foggy, misty, and damp, but no actual rain. I set out for a 5k warmup with flexibility drills. Then I do 2k loops for 22k, averaging 7:36/km. I’m really feeling it by then, but the hardest part’s just starting: I’m supposed to push the pace for the last 8k. And I do, from 7:36/km to 7:22/km. I was pretty beat, things were aching, seemed like surely I’d get out to the turnaround point and just be stuck there, a kilometer from my car, and have to crawl back. Started thinking about how my schedule really said “32-35k” so even if I stopped, I’d still have completed the schedule, so what was the big deal?? Then I thought about yesterday’s cut-short workout, and how I’d been unable to shift gears partway through, and just told myself “Don’t stop!” Focused on how stopping was a change, so it was easier to just keep going. Reminded myself this was the LAST 35K!!!! before the race, told myself it would all be easier after this. (This one didn’t work — my next thought was, “race?? No f*cking way I’m doing the race!” ) Told myself if I had to crawl back, I’d crawl, it wouldn’t kill me. Then, the incredible relief of crossing the edge of the path and being done.

At home, I weigh myself: 3-4 pounds less than the start of the workout. I drink some water, the rest of the coffee, grab some cheese and crackers, throw on dry clothes, then jump back into the car: its the first day of the winter quarter, and I have to get to class! I’m right on the edge of not being good to drive, but I make it in, then see that my class is in the furthest building from my office, so I shuffle my way diagonally across campus, looking 5 ways before crossing, and stopping at the flashing “don’t walk”‘s since I’m not sure I can get across fast enough. Its just like the last leg of my workouts, when I have to get back to my car: I don’t feel okay enough to make it, but I don’t see any alternative, so I push till I make it. Its not exactly optimal workout recovery, but thankfully my colleague does the stand-and-talk part today, I don’t have to lecture, I just sit with an ice pack on my foot, feeling everything gradually tighten up, trying to convince a brain cell or two to fire.

Now, sitting at home, digesting two plates of lasagna, it hits me: I did it!!!!

The Goal Remains the Same

January 7th, 2007

I’m just back from an aborted long walk attempt, warming up, drying off, trying to regroup. I’m not so good at this part, though, I just feel like a lazy-ass whining quitter. (Good thing I’m not too hard on myself. ;) I realize on the way home, that both of my cut-short walks have been for the same reason — wind. Today its pouring right from the start, but I have a goretex jacket on, and its above freezing. But the wind is gusting up pretty strongly, so half of each loop is head on into strong wind, and *that* is nasty. Harder, for one thing, but also, even in all the rain, I feel dehydrated, because the wind is right at me. Good grief. Two of my teammates are out training as well, and I’m really thrown when one of them starts urging me to quit the workout, saying she’s afraid I’ll get sick. I guess everyone’s so different, in what it takes to get through, and I know she means well, but this actually shocks me because how I get through is to never think for a second about any other option, and I only say positive things to the others as I go by. I just can’t process this much re-thinking while walking. Anyway, the wind’s the thing, it means I’m getting blasted with colder air while soaked, and I decide, tomorrow’s another day.

Its been a full week. New Year’s Eve I did a 3 mile race that starts at midnight. I did this last year for the first time. I thought, I’m going to do something positive right at midnight, before I have a chance to start the year with some screw up or other, or sitting around thinking about what I could be doing. I liked the symbolism, starting off a year of walking that way. And it sure seems to have worked — in 2006 I did a whole bunch of races, two racewalk clinics, and embarked on my current 50k journey. So I want to repeat the ritual this year. My schedule tells me I’m supposed to take it easy, and I don’t push all out, but I go along and it feels great. Its right around freezing, and I try something new, adding leg warmers over my calves and ankles, remembering back to training from dance classes. This actually works great, feels very good. My pace puts me with the slower runners, those who mix in walking or just run at a slower pace, so I really stand out, people notice me. It does seem to frustrate runners when they can’t pass me — one person is next to me for a little bit, trying really hard to pass me, huffing away, and I’m there next to them, not really breathing hard, walking smoothly along as they bob up and down, and I’m thinking, “this is soooo cool.” I should bring along cards with the racewalk clinic info, to pass out to people like this. Although I didn’t push all out, I beat my 5k PR time from the summer, and I’m pretty happy about that. The post race part is kind of odd, there are a bunch of tables and chairs setup but they are all outdoors, and I’m thinking, yeah, that’s what I want to do after getting all warm from racing, sit down in thirty degree weather — NOT!! I find water and some fruit, and run into someone else from the racewalk club, so it kind of works out. I think maybe the party part of the race was before the race, so I missed it because, well, who wants to party *before* a race?? I was busy warming up.

Tuesday night I head to the track for my 8 x 400 meter intervals. I workout at a quarter-mile track, but I just do 8 x 1 lap anyway, then I can only be happily surprised at my real times, since I’m going slightly longer each time. As I get started, some lizards (members of a local running club called the Red Lizards) are there training, and one or two other folks are working out. About 4 intervals in, though, I notice that its gotten pretty empty. Then I’m startled to notice a guy sitting on a bench on the darker side of the track, further from the street and the Y, I mean, its dark and raining, and as I pass I realize he’s just sitting there, maybe watching me, and that snaps me into urban combat mode pretty fast. I finish the lap and as I stroll through the recovery, across the track from him, I try to decide what to do. I want to finish my workout, and I’m probably faster than him, but he’s bigger than me and I don’t carry mace on the track. He gets up and starts walking around the track as I’m stretching, so I decide to go ahead with the next lap. He ends up going into a bathroom, and I know homeless people sleep in them, so I figure, probably not a troublemaker, just sitting in the rain because he’s got no place else to sit. Then a jogger shows up and starts doing laps, so I breathe out, and finish my workout. Time for a change, though — I decide to move all of my workouts to 7am. I head inside the Y to do my weight training, and when I get home, I blast “Just a Girl” (No Doubt) to get the frustration out of my system.

Friday’s my first hard workout in the morning, I know I won’t make 7am but I get to the track before 9 so I’m pretty happy. Its a whole different set of folks on the track and inside the Y. I’m a bit drowsy, feeling a little out of sorts, but its not too bad, and its not raining. I do a 10k acceleration, beating my 10k PR by finishing the whole thing in 1:12:06. Then I head inside for weight training. After I finish, I drive over to Dr. Ray’s office to get some more metatarsal pads for my new shoes. Friday evening I make a lasagna, and a couple of my teammates come by to eat and talk. We watch some of the video coverage from the 2004 Olympics, and as the head judge DQs Nathan Deakes we are all pretty quiet. I figure we’re all thinking the same thing — please don’t let that be me — I know I am. There’s no 50k women’s footage, because there’s no women’s 50k in the Olympics, only men’s, so we alternate between watching the mens 50 and the womens 20. I don’t know if there’s ever been a women’s 50k race, the national championship we’re training for is mixed, and the international events like the World Cup are men only. It would be cool to be able to look at video of women 50k’ers while training. There’s plenty in common, so we can learn from watching the guys — at one point a helper gets an athlete his drink bottle by throwing it in a high arc over another walker, and we laugh and discuss whether there’s enough time to practice that with our Team Waterboy before the race. Somebody suggests perhaps it would be easier if we just opened our mouths and he tossed in some Cliff Cubes, and well, we just got sillier and sillier from there.

Saturday I’m down for one hour easy. I join in the racewalk club walk, at Mt. Tabor. This gives me a slow uphill as a warmup, then we do loops around the circular path at the top. I’m a few minutes late so I do the uphill alone, but its a really great walk, there’s a spectacular view of the Portland downtown skyline along the way. Then I get to chat with folks as we walk around the top.

Today I’ll just feel lazy and unserious, with the redo scheduled for tomorrow. According to the forecast, the winds should drop down to 4-5 mph by then, and compared to this morning’s 20mph, I’m hoping it will feel like, well, a breeze. :)

“I don’t know how you do it!”

December 27th, 2006

When people say this to me, and they do, I mostly feel at a loss to answer. I tend to smile, or shrug. Yesterday, during my long walk, I think about this some. The first answer that comes to mind is “well, not perfectly!” So much to learn, so many practices jammed into an already impossible schedule, and, sometimes, so little sleep.

Once, during a 5k race last spring, I forgot to double tie my shoelace when I adjusted it just before the race, and after a few laps, sure enough, I felt my shoelace flapping against my ankle. I just had no idea what to do about it! Racewalkers can’t just break form in the middle of a race, after all, and I really doubted I could bend over and tie the thing without moving my feet at all, and therefore taking a step. So I did most of the race with one shoe untied, gaining only one caution, and earned a personal best 5k time anyway. I got teased a whole bunch by my teammates, several of whom would ask “tied your shoes Karen?” before races after that! But I talked with the judges after the race, and learned the real options, and all about using the porta potty and stepping off the course during a race. And, of course, I never forgot to double tie my shoelaces again.

I left in a hurry for the airport when I was going to Florida for the 20k in November, so I didn’t have time to wrap my foot (for the tendinitis). I sat there in the gate area, with the directions and the tape (precut at home since I couldn’t bring scissors), just completely not able to see how the tape was supposed to go. This definitely intrigued my fellow travelers, me sitting cross legged on the floor with one sock off, holding the tape this way and that. And although I didn’t realize it until I got to Florida, my singlet was sitting happily at home on my couch, forgotten. When I’m working hard, or traveling, I often have to improvise. I’m supposed to heat my foot before a workout, and the first time I found myself at the Y, my heating pad safely at home, I looked around, then sat down at the vanity mirror and calmly blew dry my foot. I don’t even want to know what anyone thought about *that* one. One of my most comical moments was also at the Y, when I tried to shower without getting my foot wrap wet. Yeah, right, no problem, showering while standing on one leg in semi-public. Give me a hard 10 miles any day! A few weeks ago, I got caught up in my track workout and lost track of time, then suddenly saw the clock and realized I was due in a meeting in 5 minutes. I jumped into the car, and walked into the meeting 6 minutes later, in full athlete attire, and absolutely soaked through. (Nobody said anything — to me. :)

Every now and then, I’m right on the edge of *not* doing it. Thanksgiving day, I get into my gear and head out to the track, and its just pouring, lots of water on the track, and for a moment my legs just stop, right at the edge of the garage, and I’m just somehow not stepping out into it. This throws me — my head usually wins, so I’m startled. I make a concession to the legs, and put on my shuffle right there, and take two deep breaths, and then I just push those legs down the steps and onto the track and start the workout. Once I’m on the track, its go as always, no big deal. One Sunday I head out to the bike path, intending to do loops to my car; but after the first loop, I open the trunk, and realize what I’d thought was a bottle of sports drink is in fact just water — I have no calories at all. Disgusted, and frustrated, I throw in the towel, get in the car and go home. But I sit down at the computer to check my email, and click on itunes, and the next song on the playlist just happens to be the B52’s “52 Girls,” and as I turn up the volume and sing along, I see the race in my head, and I want it. I get back up, grabbing the actual sports drink this time, go back to the bike path, and finish the rest of the miles.

Of course, “not perfectly” isn’t the whole answer to “how do you do it?” I pay attention to what seems to help, and go with it, no matter if it seems silly. The theme from Rocky on my shuffle actually keeps me going, partly because it makes me laugh, and partly because I’m one of those people who went and saw that movie in the theater when it came out, and watched this guy take himself from nothing to running up those library steps, and it reminds me of that time when jogging just started, and the Legg’s Mini Marathon hit Central Park. To remind myself to keep good form when I’m getting tired, I tell myself “Use the feet, Luke!” in an appropriate Star Wars tone. I spent a few hours watching a show called “The Biggest Loser” on television, even though I mostly detest reality shows, just to see the images of these very overweight people jogging and working out and taking off their shirts right on camera to step on the scale; they’re the definition of determination, of focus on a goal. I watch videos: Miracles, about the winning US Olympic Hockey team; Without Limits, about Prefontaine; Walk to Me, about a woman training to walk her first marathon; and Run Like a Girl, about three generations of female distance runners. There’s this awful moment in Run Like a Girl, when an athlete explains that the male winners received as a prize well-crafted wooden chairs, but she was handed a wooden doll’s chair instead. (Sitting in my living room in 2006, I think of a few creative things I’d have wanted to do with those full-sized chairs, but incredibly, she just lightly jokes to the person handing out awards, “next year, I want a big chair.” She returns the following year, wins, and gets a big chair.) Another athlete completes a men’s cross country race, at a time when there are no women’s, but is physically prevented from crossing the finish line by a row of officials. I can’t whine about a few crunches after watching this stuff. My obstacles seem small by comparison.

The things that sound so impossible to people, are often not the bad ones. Today, in the dark on the track, stepping around the puddles, when it starts to rain, is one of those moments. To me, its a good workout — I’m warmed up and its above 35 degrees, and it doesn’t rain for long, and anyway, I like my fast interval day. I’m pretty used to wet. The time I chafed from my tampon string during a long walk, though, now *that* was BAD.

Blowin in the Wind

December 18th, 2006

Thursday, we get a windstorm. I read about it in the news, so I know its coming. I juggle my schedule, and head out in the afternoon to get my walk in. Although there are still hours before the worst of it is due, the wind’s already kicking up as I head over to the bike path, although only small things like plastic trash pails are actually blowing. I look up at the trees, knowing they’re the biggest hazard. But knowing that reminds me of the signs on the highway that say “falling rocks.” How do you avoid falling rocks?? (Once, awhile back, a wide old tree came down just about right where I was standing on the sidewalk. Just like that, one minute there’s a tree, next minute, there’s a tree lying across the sidewalk and street. I heard a creaking noise, and by some instinct, absolutely leaped forward, and it missed me by a couple of feet. Its just not the kind of thing one can plan ahead for. ) The path is mostly empty, but I do encounter a few joggers, maybe working out early just as I am. The wind is mostly at my back as I head out; but once I turn, its coming right at me. I have to work really hard to keep at it, and after my first loop, I realize I need to abandon my time goal completely — I’m exerting way harder because of the wind, and there’s no way I could keep to the planned times. I decide to just get in a good workout and its the best I’ll be able to do. The wind keeps reminding me of the three stranded climbers on Mt. Hood. This storm may literally kill them, if they’ve made it this far. Rescue teams, Helicopters — everyone’s grounded because of it.

I drive a pretty light car, so I stay at work until the worst of the wind has passed, just after 11pm. We have two deadlines the next day, and I’m making frequent backups to my laptop as I go, figuring that if campus loses power, I can drive however far it takes to find a kinko’s with electricity. I luck out — nothing goes out on campus or at home. But I read the next morning in the news that about 150,000 folks weren’t so lucky. Its the topic everyone’s chatting about on Friday passing in the hallways, waiting in line, buying coffee. Friday I work to my limit, downing chocolate bars and chips and coffee, coffee, coffee to keep me going. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I know this is bad for my training, but its just what I need to do. My one concession is to hydration — I drink lots of water and peppermint tea along with the junk. We make our midnight deadline, and I head home, exhausted. I’m scheduled to race a 12k the following afternoon, but as I crawl into bed, it seems totally unlikely. I haven’t prepped my clothes, don’t know if I even have any clean, and I feel as though I could sleep until Sunday. I set the alarm for 8am, and pass out.

Saturday, I stay in bed for awhile after the alarm. “Screw the race,” I think. “Why not just stay here under the comforter and rest??” I start to wake up, though, and the part of me that registered for the race, that wants the race, and that wants really really badly to finish the 50k wakes up too. I crawl downstairs to make some coffee. Its slow going, but eventually I have all my stuff together, get dressed and head out. I’m out of cereal, but at the last minute I find half of a sweet potato, cooked, in the fridge, so I take that along into the car, along with a mug of coffee. Breakfast of champions. The race is an hours drive away, and I’ve set out quite late. Looks like I’ll get there just before the start, so I may have to warm up in my first mile. The race is a 12k on the historic Columbia River Highway, in Hood River, and the course includes the Mosier Twin Tunnels. Its not a racewalk, no judges — I’m doing it for the workout, since the time won’t count. I make good time for awhile, then I have to slow a bit because gusts of wind are blowing my car some. I get through the windy spots, but then get stopped by an accident cleanup. We just inch along for a bunch, and now I’m forcing myself to take deep breaths, because I’m realizing that I’ll be lucky to just have time to jump out of the car before the race starts. When I see Mt. Hood I think of the missing climbers. With the break in the weather, right now dozens of people are up on that mountain searching. Every person in the area with climbing expertise is out there, and they’ve closed the airspace to avoid any interference. I exit the highway with only five minutes to the start, then take an excruciating wrong turn that puts me back onto the highway. Off I go three miles to the next exit, turn around, and three miles back. When I finally pull in, the parking lot’s full, but there’s nobody around. I spot a few folks at a picnic table, who look like they might be packing up some things, so I go over and ask if I can still race. They say “sure” but tell me I’ve missed the start by about five minutes. I figure I’m here now, may as well do the race, because otherwise I have to just drive home and workout there. Its another bit of time before I actually head out, since I need to get a parking ticket for my car and put on my shoes. Its pretty surreal to start out alone on a path and have that be my race start, but well, every day a new adventure, right? The Columbia River Gorge is gorgeous, even on a cloudy winter day, and the race has gotten me out here, if nothing else. After a short while, I start seeing runners coming back in the opposite direction — ah, 5k participants are headed to the finish line. I have some fun greeting the runners as they go by, although I feel like a salmon. There’s an orange cone at the 5k turnaround, with a sign on top, and some bottles of water on the side wall. I push on, thinking maybe if there’s some fitness walkers in the race, I can catch them. Soon before the turnaround, I see a walker, looks like maybe a racewalker. Aha! I have a target. I haven’t exactly been going slowly, but I pick it up. Coming in not last would be pretty cool, under the circumstances! After the turnaround, I’m on my own on the path, although a couple of walkers and joggers who aren’t in the race go by. A mile or so before the finish, a group of runners jogs up from the other direction. They’re runners who have finished the race and are jogging easily. They turn around and head to the finish with me. This is good fun, and having my own escort makes me feel pretty spoiled. One of them is trying to racewalk, failing miserably, but when he asks me if he’s legal I take the high road, saying only “well, its not legal to wear long pants, so neither of us is legal right now.” Its not so easy to land on a straight leg, it takes some practice. I finish, although I’m not sure if anyone really notices, and I never see the time they post for me, but I have my watch time. Incredibly, I’ve just finished one of my best efforts, doing just over 11 minute miles on average. I definitely feel as if I’ve just pushed. I drink some Gleukos, eat a banana generously provided, applaud for the announcements, then head back to Portland, where I stop at Burgerville for a cheeseburger, fries, and salad. Racing seems to just turn up the knob on my metabolism for the day, and although I eat all this around 5pm, I get out of bed at midnight, starving, and eat a huge bowl of pasta with cheese. That’s me, The Incredible Eating Woman.

Sunday, I head out to the bike path for 30k slow. Even I can’t believe I’m doing this, the day after the 12k race, but its on the schedule and I stick to my conviction that if I start allowing excuses for ignoring the schedule, I’m toast. Its cold but clear, and I’m pretty comfortable in a fleece vest and gloves. The Holiday Express train is running again today, and I’m quite startled at one point when I look up and see Santa Claus barreling down the train tracks in a utility car (this thing looks like a jeep but runs on tracks instead of road).
Drats — way too fast for me to ask for anything. :) There’s still some branches down on the path from the windstorm, and there are crowds for the train, but its mostly good conditions. I finish the last half mile “on fumes” as a friend says, but I finish it, get to the car, buy some groceries, and get home. My ankle’s hurting pretty badly, so sitting’s really lots better than standing, but making my pizza doesn’t take very long, and then I get to settle down to eat it.

While I’m cooking, I go online and see the news — the rescuers found a body on Mt. Hood today.

Twenty with the Train

December 11th, 2006

Today I headed out to the bike path for the long walk. The schedule says “20 miles.” Since I’ve missed training this week, because I’ve been sick, I don’t know how it will go, but I prepare for the 20 just in case. The voice of a friend is in my head “Let me get this straight: you’ve been sick all week and you’re going to do 20 miles???” I know I may have to stop early, training is not the time for heroics, but even she concedes “well, I suppose we could say you’ve tapered.” [Tapering is the shorter workouts you do to rest before a big race.] Its pretty warm — about 45 degrees outside my kitchen window — so I wear shorts and two shirts. The forecast tells me to prepare for rain, but nothing beyond our usual Portland weather — some rain, and probably some breaks.

Starting out on the bike path, I can’t help but notice the train. They’re running a vintage steam locomotive, pulling some passenger cars, on the tracks alongside the bike path this weekend and next: the Holiday Express. Its big and black and all shined up. Signs along the path warn us of “congestion ahead” — folks boarding the train are standing along the path in clumps. The steam plume from the locomotive is impressive. As I approach, I’m reminded of a scene from a movie, some film version of Anna Karenina I think, definitely Dostoevsky. But seeing the train in the movie is nothing like this. As I pass, I’m temporarily enveloped in the white billowy steam, which has a slight odor, and I am struck by the power of this locomotive. And the specialness. Nothing at all like the regular Amtrak. There’s this feeling, that its The Train, an event, leaving in a while, and people are already gathered. Incredibly romantic.

I continue on past the train stop, to finish my 5 mile loop. Its cloudy, but the rain that came down a bit as I started has stopped, and I’m glad I decided to leave my jacket in the car. My approach is to divide the walk into 5 mile pieces, and only think about the current loop at any given time. So, I feel pretty good as I turn around to come back, knowing I’m halfway done. There’s a wind in my face on the return, but still, its not really cold, so its at worst a slight slow down. I have to make my way carefully through the train crowd, but by the time I’m finishing, the sun is out, and I’m missing my sunglasses, which I’ve left back in the car. The sun is reflecting in the river, with the hills rising from the far bank and some houseboats on my side. The train starts, and runs alongside of me for the short remainder of the path. There are people all along the path, and the adjacent paths and grass, snapping photographs and videos of the train, and I’m afraid quite a few of them include a racewalker with a runny nose. The effect of the train as it runs, steam puffing out in a regular rhythm with the wheels, is just amazing.

At my pitstop at the car, I get my sunglasses, and some sports drink, stretch briefly, and head back out for round two. My thoughts seem to want to combine the loops, to think back to the first or ahead to the third or fourth, but I keep a strict lid on that. Right now I’m doing 5 miles, just starting out, and that’s it. The train is ahead of me, and I wonder if I’ll catch it, but I need to stay slow, this is long walk day, and after a bit I realize its gaining on me. I can’t stay disappointed for long — there’s a huge rainbow stretching up from the Portland hills on the left across the river and above the path, and I gawk at it like a five year old.

I’m on the path for awhile, over four hours, and the train passes a number of times as it makes its short runs up past the end of the bike path and back. Each time I wave, to the engineers and also to the children whose faces I can see pressed up against the window. They wave back, eagerly, very excited to be on the train. Most days, we can hardly run the Amtrak on schedule, but today we have the result of some small army of folks who have readied the tracks, and polished the train, and are standing out all day in santa caps, just to get this vintage train to run, and for the first time this year, I feel the magic of Christmas.

During loop three, it starts to rain, and along the way I encounter a man walking along in a heavy jacket and hat, who says “Nice weather we’re having, huh?” I think for a second, trying to keep to my “no negatives” rule in spite of the wet, and say “well, its not snowing.” This gets him to laugh and agree. By the time I get back to the car, the rain has stopped once again. I feel okay, and I’m smiling, because I think I’m going to do the twenty, and that would be so cool. Time to head out for loop four.

Its starting to get dark, and as I go, I notice the pretty effect of the lights on the hill across the river. As I approach my turnaround, I’m closer to downtown, and all of the lights of Portland are across from me. There are several construction cranes for the waterfront construction, across the river, and they’ve all been decorated in Christmas lights. I turn for the home stretch, and it hits me: I’m going to do it. I just need to keep steady, not speed up, stay in good form, stay tall, pay attention to my feet. Well, not too much attention to my feet, because the right one is hurting a pretty good amount at this point, but enough attention to plant them well and keep good form. There’s a fairly dark portion, of half a mile or so, but then I emerge into a brighter area, with the lights of the hills across on my right, the lights and decorations of the houseboats closer in, and to my left, the large Sellwood Christmas tree shining down onto the nature preserve. Up ahead, there is a clearing in the sky, a stretch of light blue as a break in the gray clouds, and I’m walking towards it. I get one last chance to wave to the train, then hit the marker for the end of my walk: twenty miles!! I stop racewalking, and walk slowly the rest of the way to the car.

I’m always a bit loopy after this many miles. I stop in the grocery store, and as I’m checking out, I pick up the pen and search my receipt for the signature line, but of course there is none, I’m using a debit card, and I can’t help but wonder what the clerk is thinking as she corrects me. Back at home, I gather my bags, and carefully take my key out of my pocket to get ready for the door, but its my car key, and after trying to open the house door with it, it takes me a minute to figure out what’s wrong. Eventually, though, I’m safely in the house, bags of groceries stowed away, in a hot shower.

What a magical day.


December 8th, 2006

“It doesn’t matter whether it is hot, or cold, rainy or windy, I just want to run.”

Sunday’s long walk day, so I head out to the bike path, but I already know today won’t be very long. I’ve got a bad cold, and Dave’s already cautioned me not to push it, even suggesting I just stay in bed entirely, if I feel like hell. I’m not sure if its that I don’t feel like hell, or just that I’m that stubborn, but I get dressed, fill my waist pack with tissues, and go. As I start out I run into one of my teammates doing 2k loops at the start of the trail. I walk with her some, just to touch base, then she heads off for a short break and I head out along the trail. After an hour I am just exhausted, so I head home feeling the opposite of strong. Tired out by a one hour walk, what a wimp! I stretch some, then rest, trying to deal with a coughing spell. I used to get these sometimes in Wisconsin, from the cold air. The hard part is, the feeling that I’m choking and can’t breathe. Afterwards I’m just tired.

Eventually, things calm down, so I dress and head in to campus to get some work done.
After only a short time, though, I get a call from my Mom, telling me my Aunt’s just died. My aunt’s not very young, but still, I’m a bit stunned, and quite a bit sad. I make some calls to get the necessary details, and check into some flights back East. There’s no point checking my schedule — there are really almost no times in a year when suddenly disappearing for a few days won’t cause all manner of hellish errors, so its more or less a non-issue, I’ll face it when I return. My cold, though, may be a problem. I learned that lesson about eight years ago by flying with a cold and damaging my eardrums, both ears at once. That time, though, it happened on my return trip — there’s not much point in flying across the country now if I arrive too incapacitated to attend the funeral. I’m using frequent flyer miles, and the funeral’s Wednesday, so I decide to wait and see how I feel on Monday.

Sunday night I only get about four hours of sleep, and Monday its just really disgusting. I carry a box of tissues around with me as I move around the house, so I always can grab a few with no notice, but I feel like what I really need is a giant mop. Well, I think, now we know the answer to the burning question, what am I like when I don’t train? Snotty. Ha ha. I’m totally exhausted, and actually need to rest from sneezing. My body’s getting me back for all of those stomach crunches, I just know it. I lay on the couch and watch old episodes of the Avengers.

Tuesday I know as soon as I heave myself out of bed that I can’t fly. I don’t even feel like I could walk from the airport entrance to the gate. Training’s totally out. Even I can’t cook up some line of reasoning that will let me claim I didn’t “feel like hell.” I feel like hell. But I have some meetings, so I get some clothes on, bundle up, and head to campus. My first meeting goes pretty poorly — turns out its hard to design elegant solutions to complex system performance problems in pantomime — but I can’t stop coughing. I run down the hall and grab a bowl of chicken soup from the deli, and get through my next meeting by sipping at it throughout. Two down, one to go — the last one’s a telecon. It goes long, but I get through it, sitting at my computer armed with tissues, hot coffee, cough lozenges, and water. I don’t even make it out of my chair when the phone rings, and altogether its four and a half hours of continuous meetings before I finally head home. I’m really grumpy and entirely unhappy with this illness that is interfering not just with my training, but with MY WORK dammit. On the way home I stop off for drugs, soup, garlic, juice, and vegetables; I’m not going down without a fight.

I wouldn’t say I wake up Wednesday refreshed, but I do sleep, and it makes a huge difference. After one short meeting, I get dressed and head out for 45 minutes easy. I’m not sure I’ve ever been quite this happy at a slow walk of a few miles, but it feels so much better than doing nothing. I call this kind of walk “just enough to stretch.” Afterwards I stretch and rest, falling asleep on the couch halfway through the Avengers. The bad part hits later, when I get almost no sleep at all. One of those nights, tossing and turning and congested, and all kinds of things I need to get done running through my head. I start Thursday feeling really wretched. I usually have some work items on my list that require less brainpower, but I’m on a paper deadline, so I need intense concentration and ferocious focus. I fake it with extra coffee.

On the way home I stop off for some groceries, and right there in the greeting card aisle, trying to select a sympathy card for my cousin, the stuff I’ve been trying to hold at bay hits me. I manage to swallow down what feels like sobs, but I sense I need to get out of this public place pretty fast, so I just grab all three cards instead of choosing, check out, and get home. As I’m making myself a cup of tea to calm down, I realize that I’m using the last of my honey. Not just any honey, this honey was jarred with care by a guy who died last year, all of a sudden, when a tree fell on him, so I’ve stretched it out, using just a tiny bit at a time, to make it last. And now its done. This time I cry and cry. Its all too fast. My aunt is dead and I haven’t even had a minute to even think about it all. I need to go out and walk, long and hard until I’m exhausted, but I can’t, and its making me nuts. Shit.

Thursday night I sleep. Well, its more like passing out, really, while working on the paper, and I wake up 9 hours later, pretty confused about why I’m in bed with my fleece jacket and glasses on. Before I’ve even had enough coffee to fully panic, I read the happy email telling me the paper deadline’s been extended a week. I actually whoop for joy.

I’m so happy this awful week is over, I want to just cut the length of it out of my wall calendar and shred it.