Five Marathons and the Many Pints of Guinness In Between

Almost four years ago in Victoria, I stumbled into a pub to have my traditional post-marathon pint of Guinness. The summer of 2014 was the last of three summers that were dark, harrowing, painful-growth experiences, and the one thing that had kept me moving through it all was that I had a BQ to run. The narrative was that I was going to go to Victoria, qualify for Boston, and then I would have Boston to look forward to. My previous race had been a 3:46 in Ireland, and I reasoned that if everything went well in Victoria, then I could easily make up for about 11 minutes I needed if there were no crazy winds, slow half-marathoner road blocks, and certainly no waiting several minutes for a Port-O’Potty with a crazy line that hadn’t in fact been stationed every 5K as promised. The probability of being forced to run off and awkwardly pee in front of a judgmental sheep because I literally couldn’t hold anymore would be low in quaint but thoroughly urban Victoria. 3:35 or bust!

IMG_0254
For the record though, this is still my favorite marathon start ever. “Be ready to run 30 minutes, a’right?”

It was a bust. Instead, the wheels had come off around mile 16, and I found myself run-walking most of the last ten. Still good enough for 3:42, which was a shiny new PR, but seven minutes short of a BQ. The last ten miles had been rough- I hadn’t been kind to myself, and a few days later the tears and 1000 yard stare had been dutifully documented by the race photographer. I sat down with my pint, ordered some conciliatory poutine and felt sorry for myself.


Behold the power of the poutine
Behold, the Power of the Poutine.

What transpired next was one of the most influential running conversations I’d ever had. The woman next to me, also drinking a woe-is-me pint, had missed a BQ by less than a minute, and that was after not squeaking in under the cutoff for the 2015 Boston field. You can BQ and NOT get to run Boston?! WHAT. Now I’m really not going to get there ever. We laughed over our shared misfortune, but as she’d already run Boston a few times, she had sage words of advice that I took to heart. Keep trying…You’d be amazed at the progress you can make with a coach…one day everything will come together and it’ll be even better because you’ve worked at it for so long. I came home and moped for a few days, found my resolve, and then put a plan into motion.

Things fell into line in short order. A friend of mine had a coach he’d worked with and he had only glowing, positive things to say about her, so I contacted her and felt like I’d found someone who knew their stuff, would call me out on excuses but also not run me into the ground, and would be supportive through the whole process. Step one accomplished. On to step two, find a race… Nothing is more motivating than a shot at redemption. In 2013, I trained myself into the ground getting ready for the Barcelona Marathon. A week out I started having hip pain so severe I could barely walk, but it was already built into the travel plans. Maybe it’d magically get better and I could run the race without problems? Nope, not the way bursitis works. Instead, I limped around one of my favorite cities in the World, watching everyone the race I had trained so hard for. It’s a flat, fast course, the weather tends to be fantastic, and it would be an excellent reason to go back to Barcelona. It was less than five minutes between when the idea popped into my head and when I registered. Operation BQ BCN was put into motion.

The night before the race has gone down (at least so far) as the last night that I had truly terrible pre-race anxiety. I talked myself out of even starting- within 24 hours of arriving in Barcelona my hip started nagging me again, and it led to a restless night. At about 2AM, I decided at the very least I was toeing the line. I was staying halfway through the course in Gràcies, and I decided I could at least run a half marathon. That decision was enough to help me get a few hours of sleep and get to the starting line, which is when everything really, truly started to lock into place… so well into place that I decided to leave my key with my finish line bag. Maybe I’d BQ, maybe I wouldn’t, but at the very least I was finishing getting the damn Barcelona monkey off my back! I got in the starting corral for the sub 3:30 runners, and in the blink of the eye, we were off to Europe’s the Final Countdown. I knew there might be a few tears along the way, but as an Arrested Development fan, I was starting with a giant smile.

Three hours and thirty minutes later, propelled by Brazilian samba groups, spirited cheering of Som-hi! and Mol bè! I rounded the corner past the Plaça Espanya and saw the giant numbers on the clock counting up- 3:30:01… 3:30:02… 3:30:03… It’d be the second marathon in a row that I finished in tears, but these were happy tears. The journey back to Gràcies involved the unwelcome discovery that metro stations in Barcelona do not have escalators going down to the tracks and many glasses of Cava to help deal with that discovery, but I’d done it. 

In the time since, I’ve run Boston twice and even won an ultramarathon, but my first BQ still counts as one of the best experiences I’ve ever had as a runner. It was that moment, after three rough years, where I allowed myself to start to think of what was possible. Hell, if 26.2 miles could feel that not-terrible (I refuse to call it good. That last 5K was rough and the only thing that kept me going was chasing Oleguer) what about *more* than 26.2 miles? Thus ultramarathoning Jessica was born… and three years later found herself registered for a 100 miler… but that’s another story. None of it would have been possible if I hadn’t slain some demons I’d been carrying around. Many of them were demons I had created myself, but the worst of them had been fed bitter meats by supposedly well-intentioned others. Step one is this process is have the dream and don’t ever give up; step two is surround yourself with good people. The Sports Medicine doctor I saw about shin splints in high school who made the comment that I just “didn’t have the body type to be a competitive distance runner”… to the would-be coach at a party who made the comment of “you’d qualify for Boston no problem if you just lost 5-10 pounds”… for the record, file both of these under ‘THINGS TO NOT SAY TO ANYONE EVER’. I was savvy enough at 18 to not make the follow-up visit with that doctor, but his words rattled around in my brain for years whenever I was having a rough patch in my running life. It took me over a decade to make the jump from half marathons to marathons because I convinced myself that I couldn’t finish. When I finally did finish, I still convinced myself that BQ-ing was out of the question. And yet…

I’m actually glad Boston lowered the qualifying times because it increases the likelihood of when a runner BQ’s, they’re actually get into the race. There’s been a lot of talk (mostly griping) about the new cutoffs, but most of it ignores the fact that this is effectively what the benchmarks have been for years. I had nightmares both times I submitted my registration that I hadn’t squeaked in, to the point that in 2017 I had a back-up race planned. I’m a little bit annoyed that the five minute cushion I thought I was getting is no more, but I was also gunning for a finish well under the 3:40 cutoff, so it really doesn’t change much.

In the sixteen years since I toed the line of my first half marathon, among the biggest lessons I’ve learned is nagging doubts have a way of adding seconds and even minutes to miles. They make it that much harder to get in hill repeats on cold, dark, wet nights, and in those middle miles of a race, when the adrenaline has worn off and things are starting to get real, they can come at you like a flock of Hitchcock birds. You can convince yourself of just about anything, and maybe…just maybe you should use that power for good and build yourself up- convince yourself that you can do it! If you don’t the first time you try, it just means that the story has another chapter and there’s still something you need to learn.

What that woman in the pub said is absolutely correct- when you work towards something for a long time, it is all the sweeter when you’ve finally pulled it off. More than that- I can say that my first Boston was the success it was because of everything I learned in the process of getting there. When the time is right, it’ll happen. Try something new in your training- hire a coach you trust, try new workouts, tweak your diet, start incorporating strength training… hell, make the effort to get a full night’s sleep and be ready to be amazed at the difference it makes.

Keep training, keep fighting, and keep believing.

And as one very wise Irish Gran told me the night before the Connemarathon, “Make sure you have your pint of Guinness!” Whether it helps you sleep or is the reward for finishing a training cycle, or you want your “Guinness for Strength” you’ve earned it.

That Husky Life

Adhara, or Addy*, is undeniably a beautiful dog.

Housewolf Queen
*Also Queen Fluffirusimus, First of Her Name, Sovereign of the Housewolves and the Snowdogs, Lady of the North and Protector of the Realm

She is also whip-smart, stubborn, independent, prone to mischief, and not above pulling things out of cupboards, the fridge, or off countertops. Or above pulling Fyre boots out of closets for nefarious purposes. Huskies are not doting retrievers, hanging on your every word. They’ll do what you ask if they see the reason for it, and if they don’t, be prepared to have a full-fledged conversation explaining why what you’re asking is important… and sometimes you will lose these arguments. There’s something almost uncannily human about those woos. Some huskies are big talkers; some are more the strong silent type; some are selectively vocal. It took Addy about three months to start talking to me, and since then she’s certainly had a lot to say, but it’s usually when it’s just the two of us. Neighbors and passersby on the street who mimic husky noises are met with stony silence and polite-but-aloof disregard. I’ve learned to smile apologetically, shrug my shoulders and say she’s a bit of a cat- aloof and independent. And if she’s aloof with most humans upon first meeting them, she’s a downright ice queen when it comes to most other dogs, including other huskies sometimes.

Ice Queen
Sorry sweetie, she ignores me too sometimes

Their thick double-coat is legendary for shedding and also gives them an ideal temperature range that is not quite comfortable for most humans. If you are horrified about the idea of dog fur literally everywhere, this is not the breed for you. If running on cold, dark, icy evenings/mornings means hitting the treadmill, this is also not the breed for you. However, if you melt above 80F and spend most of the summer trying to avoid heat while you dream of cooler days, then they make great adventure buddies for ten months of the year in the Northwest, and excellent reading/napping partners for the other two.

To put it visually

Perhaps no other breed has as many misconceptions, ranging from how closely related to wolves they are to how big they should be, to what environments they will and won’t do well in. Similar to their Clydesdale-cousins, Alaskan Malamutes, they are among the most genetically similar to wolves. THEY ARE NOT WOLVES. At least not anymore so than any other Canis lupus familiaris (domestic dog). They also tend to be smaller than most people seem to expect them to be. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have told me that Addy is “going to grow into those paws” or that she “must be mixed with something else?” when I tell people her actual age. Nope. Not a puppy, not a mix. And while she dreams of a romp in the snow year round, she does okay when it gets hot as long as we’re smart about it. That usually means shorter, infrequent runs in the summer to keep her mostly in shape or substituting walks for runs, and then making up for it when the cooler weather returns. If she seems not so enthused about exercise, I take her cue and leave her at home. I’ll take the twinge of guilt I feel over leaving her behind over the terrifying possibility of heat stroke and an emergency vet visit any day.

Huskies are high energy dogs, but they can do well in the city. While having a large yard makes any dog parent’s life easier, my experience with her is that she wants to be wherever I am, so if I’m outside sitting on a porch, she’s outside sitting on the porch at my feet, not making solitary loops. If I’m running, she’s running. The best way to get her to lose interest in a squirrel? Keep moving. The thought of being left behind is more than enough to send her chasing after me. It took me a year of trying to coax her away from trees to learn this.

The Early Days
“I got all day, Squirrel!” *human yelling in distance* “Correction: I’ve got five seconds until my human moves on and I tear off after her”

If I’m ordering a beer at our favorite brewery, she’s ordering the doggie equivalent…

Brewery Dog
“I’ll have a milkbone, please and thank you. Ma prefers Stouts, so a pint of that if you’ve got a good one, or an IPA if you don’t”

If there is one thing I can say emphatically about life with a husky, it’s that they will absolutely, 100% ruin other dogs for you. You’ll still love them all, and you’ll smile appreciatively while you watch a friend’s dog go through their routine of tricks. When I still had my first husky, Lucy, I remember after one particularly exasperating weekend watching a Great Dane out for a walk with their human and feeling just the slightest hint of jealousy at the pure dumb joy the dog had for seemingly everything. I found myself vowing that I was through with smart, stubborn, complicated dogs. Like so many similar vows, it was broken, but Addy finds ways to remind me why I made it. I’ve had it with getting ready in the morning and feeling completely batty because where are all of my left shoes?! WHY ARE THEY IN YOUR CRATE?! HOW DID YOU…what?! Why the left shoe, dog, why? Why did you pull the peanuts off the counter, pull the lid off, but not eat a single one? Wow, babe. You didn’t spill a single one on the floor. I’m kinda impressed. PLEASE DON’T TRY TO SMACK THE HISSING RACCOON IN THE FACE WHILE WE’RE RUNNING. 
Dogs don’t eat bananas…?

Bananas
No, we do not. Believe me human, no one is more disappointed that these are bananas than I am. Or that you caught me with them on the floor

 

Addy has also found several means to make me remember why I broke it. The combination of personality, comedic timing, and zest for life will win you over, and other breeds, for all of their qualities just don’t fit the bill afterwards. However, I can’t state emphatically enough how much this is not the breed for everyone. Perhaps no other breed so capably teaches you how to not take life so seriously… and requires almost infinite patience. It’s like living with a combination of a toddler, a cat, and wolf, and you never know where in that spectrum your furry companion is going to fall on a given day. But if you’re willing to put up with the occasional misplaced fruit, the constant reality of fur everywhere, and are willing to get your lazy bones out when it’s freezing, you will never find a better companion.

How I Learned to Stop Making Excuses and Love Bouldering

Long long ago, in a crag far far away- alright, maybe not so far away, but seeing as I no longer have access to the IMA, it might as well be- I went out on a limb and signed up for a belay class with a then-acquaintance from marching band. In doing so, I ignored my history of being the kid who would get maybe 20 feet off the ground on a wall and then would lose her nerve and ask to be belayed down. My sophomore year in college I decided to embrace that ‘try everything’ spirit of college and in doing so I found a new passion that not only bonded me to one of my dearest friends, but also provided me with countless hours of enjoyment as I puzzled over cruxes and delighted in jugs. To the horror and frequent admonishment of my flute professor, I climbed as much as I could, sometimes so much that taking notes in class became a challenge for my poor hands.

I never could get into bouldering though. The routes felt harder, I didn’t like not being on a rope, and when I fell off a route and sprained my ankle, I stopped trusting my feet and became even more stymied by bouldering problems. After graduating and losing access to my beloved climbing gym, lacking the rack to climb outside, and finding my climbing friends busy elsewhere, I went from climbing 4-5 times a week to climbing to 4-5 times in a decade… maybe less. My beloved Mythos sat in my bag of ‘I’ll use it again someday’ athletic equipment for  years. When I first tried them on again after a long hiatus, I was actually fairly convinced that between the leather tightening and my (seemingly) ever-growing ultramarathoning hobbit feet that I would need to buy new ones- creating a significant hurdle for getting back on the wall. With patience and a little bit of love, they finally formed to my feet again.

Ready for New Adventures
Ye olde Trusty Mythos: the closest I get to fine Italian leather shoes

The other significant hurdle was an absolute dearth of possible climbing buddies. After months of getting Seattle-maybe’d on climbing plans for top roping, I finally decided that it was bouldering or bust if I wanted to start climbing again. Off to Seattle Bouldering Project I went, and after a seeming eternity of driving around in search of parking (why do climbing gyms *always* have the worst parking lots?!) I was standing in front of the most juggy, straightforward V0 I could find.

I got maybe ten feet off the ground before that familiar feeling of ‘Nope!! DO NOT LIKE!’ discomfort stopped me cold and I delicately down-climbed. Well, @#$k. I glanced over at the clock and decided paying almost $20 for two minutes of climbing was not okay. I steeled my nerves and tried again. I got to the same position and mentally coaxed myself into having a go at the next move. Somehow, through a series of both positive and negative self talk, I found myself hanging from the top of the wall shortly thereafter. For the next hour or so, I forced my runner’s body up and down a few more routes- enough to give myself a healthy case of DOMS for most of the next week. It wasn’t auspicious, but it was the start of a burgeoning romance.

Over the last year, I’ve gradually moved from predominately climbing yellows to a mix of greens, reds, and as of yesterday, purple. The transition from awkwardly push/pulling myself up the wall to my zen-sloth ways of old didn’t happen overnight, and it definitely wasn’t linear. There were the days when I could barely slog it up anything, and then there days when hitting the gym with a date would force me to bring my A-game. By the by, bouldering is an excellent first date activity. Finding out your date is a mansplaining beta-sprayer or the kind of guy who skips the hardest parts of the route is revealing in ways his beer or coffee choice is not.

My most recent climbing date had two revelations, both illuminating in their own way. The first was related to this-

I don't know how I feel about this...
First thought: Wait, what?! Second thought: Yay, more things for me to climb!

Having been a solidly yellow-green climber for almost a year, the amount of cognitive dissonance I got from sending a red route threw me for a serious loop. A few moves into the route I almost jumped down because it was so unexpectedly easy and I quickly convinced myself something hard was coming up and I had no business even trying it- despite not struggling with anything. How frequently we limit ourselves by thinking we already know what we can and can’t do! Going up and over gave me a huge boost of confidence, which was only slightly deflated when I discovered that the rating system had changed. My imagined V3 nemesis was pretty comfortably in the V1 range, but pushing through something that I thought would be really hard gave me the courage to be more adventurous and I found myself taking on harder problems than usual. I climbed like a champ the rest of the night, and for the first time left with routes I was excited to throw myself at with fresh arms.

The second revelation maybe had has much to do with how the date went as it did with my climbing revamp- I was excited to come back solo. In a lot of ways, after a year of being frustrated in other climbing pursuits- alpine climbs foiled by logistics and bad weather, top roping trips Seattle-maybe’d, there’s a joy in the consistency of gym climbing and not having to count on anyone else to knock out a good climbing session. And when the climbing’s good, it serves as an illuminating moving meditation with so many parallels. Start from stillness and listen to what your body wants to do naturally to solve a problem, and how much simpler things seem. Make the move to grab that next hold before your arm tires out/hand slips and you have to work yourself back to that moment to do so- *if* you’re able to do it again. Find-don’t fight-the flow from one hold to the next. It’s not unlike when I’m really keyed into a piece of music and I find myself wondering as an interpretive artist about the emotional life of the person who wrote it. Is it possible to get insight into the inner life of the route-setter as well? I love to play the game of trying to guess whether the route-setter was a man or woman, short or tall, blessed with long arms and legs, and how they tackle problems not screwed into a wall.

No Excuses!
The amount of chalk left on the purple route seems to seems to correlate with the amount of philosophizing it inspired. I also might totally fan-girl the route-setter if I ever met them.

 

Continue reading “How I Learned to Stop Making Excuses and Love Bouldering”

On Falling Short and Silver Linings

There’s a funny thing no one tells you about failure. It is the unsung hero of teaching you what you didn’t think you needed to learn. Sitting in a camp chair at Ollalie Meadows, whipping tears and trying to avoid eye contact with other runners coming through, I tried to graciously accept both my fate and delicious pierogies from Scott McCoubrey. It was hard to process a lot of what had happened in the last three hours. I had felt relaxed and strong coming through each of the aid stations, and despite being almost 50 miles into the race, my energy level hadn’t flagged yet. The prospect of not pushing through it hurt almost as much as the hotspots that had seemingly instantaneously erupted on my heels just a few hours before and turned my gait into a caricature of human motion. Deep in the infamous pain cave, my type-A brain screaming at me that at least we could do the respectable thing and get to Hyak, every time I shuffled my feet I was reminded of where it hurt. Four days later, it’s oddly comforting that things still hurt- it partially validates my choice to drop. I planned obsessively for the race and prepared myself not just physically but mentally for embracing the suck. It was in the script that at some point it would hurt and I would have to push through the lows to get to the greener pastures on the other side. Being so hobbled by blisters and biomechanical failures by the halfway point that I could barely navigate the technical terrain was not in the script.

 “If you want to make God laughtell him about your plans.” Woody Allen

Everything up to mile 38 flew by faster than I could have ever imagined. I spent miles running with familiar faces and getting acquainted with new ones . This is one of my favorite part of trail races- you meet someone, you share a few miles and in those moments you get a candid glimpse into their soul. Usually one or the other of you pulls ahead at an aid station and then maybe you find each other again, maybe you don’t. Each aid station was huge boost in morale, especially when I got to Tacoma Pass and I got to see my crew for the first time and my furball, who was predictably concerned about my sudden disappearance from the Easton Fire Station. Many people describe Sibes as humans in dog’s clothing, and after getting emphatically lectured on how very not okay it was that I ran off, it’s hard to not agree. Addy is among the most human-focused and perceptive dogs I’ve ever known, and she was all business as she navigated the orange ribbons from Tacoma Pass to Stampede Pass. When my crew picked me up from the aid station at Ollalie Meadows, she repeatedly checked to make sure I didn’t disappear again, a humorous process that involved her switching from leading the group to looping around to the back to stand in front of me. When she had reassured herself that I was indeed coming too, she would take the lead again- a cycle so like a doting mother that it was impossible not to laugh at it and start to feel human again.

 

It’s a disappointment and to some, a failure, but it doesn’t feel that way. Perhaps it’s because the rest of my running this year has been so good. I’ve run more miles than I ever felt was possible and have managed to avoid any major injury setbacks that kept me off running for more than a few days. I have no doubt that I will try another 100 miler and have spent the last few days making Yes/No Decision charts for several. Did I really need to see that Run Rabbit Run has cleared their waitlist? How wise is it to dive immediately into another 100 miler? How realistic is it to plan a trip to Colorado on the fly? Maybe the elevation will help slow my ass down and keep me from going out to fast? Why does this line of thinking seem like a slippery slope…and a profoundly silly idea?! Wait, what about Orcas?! Ooo… I have no doubt that I will have another go at Cascade Crest, despite spending a hot second at Ollalie Meadows never wanting to run that first 50 miles again. Some day I’ll find that wooden token from Blowout Mountain in my Salomon pack and the hunger will reawaken. When that day comes I don’t doubt this experience will prove a great boon.

There’s a disconnect between feeling fine energetically and feeling trashed from the knees down, and after targeting 50 miles a week for the entirety of 2018, losing that regular schedule of training is disorienting. The hell do you mean I’m not doing a long run on Saturday? How about 10-12 on the road and keep the hills to a minimum- it’ll be easy peasy! Then let’s find some hapless marathon or 50K to tear into… That urge to swing for fences is strong.  Maybe dust off some of those old road goals you have… Funnily enough, I do have something else on my calendar coming up. A particular race that I have “unfinished business” with, and considering that my favorite 50K is sold out and I have a whole extra five minutes to BQ, that pull is strong to go out and try to find a little bit of redemption on the road is strong. No script and no expectations this time though. Just a girl and her running shoes, and maybe a bit of an axe to grind.