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The Hardest Thing I have Ever Done

It is quiet.  The air is still. I hear a soft pounding in my chest and my feet on the asphalt.  My heart reminds me of the task at hand: kee...

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Find A Way

Near the end of the finish for the McKenzie River Trail Run (MRTR) my watch told me I was over 32 miles.  I was delirious, 40 minutes over my target time, and the heat was seeping into me. The verb to describe my current action could not be 'running;' the action was more of a 'stumble.'  However, I was gaining on a pair of backpackers with full packs that towered up and over their heads.  They looked like something from a Jim Henson movie.  Maybe I imagined them, but spoke to them anyway.

"Have you seen any other runners?" I panted, convinced that I was on the wrong path having passed the needed mileage on my watch, far beyond 31 miles.

"Yeah, we've been seeing other runners," one of them responded.  "Fellow racers I assume--hey are you okay?"

"Yeah, I thought I was on the wrong trail." The sunlight stabbed through the canopy at me as I started to 'stumble' on again.

"Seriously, are you okay?"

I don't remember how I responded.

I had been running sideways for a long portion of the last five miles.  By that I mean that my body had slowly started to tip to the left and I could not correct it.  I would stop to walk and force myself upright but as soon as I started running (or whatever the verb would be for that motion that was not running) I would tip right back over to the side. At least it kept me moving.

Here's what I remember thinking: find a way.  That's a Diana Nyad mantra.  It helped her swim from Cuba to Florida in her 60s.  It would help me finish this 50K, even if I collapsed and died at the end.

I remember I suddenly hated the trees.  I've never hated trees, not even invasive trees which don't belong in an ecosystem and can sometimes reek havoc on a habitat.  But these trees--these sentinels of doom--spelled out one thing to me: This is not a clearing.  I had run the trail enough times to know that the finish line would be near a clearing but all I saw then were trees.  More trees. Somehow I would have to find a way to keep going.

I deeply loved this trail.  I knew the first time I heard of this run that I would eventually try doing this crazy thing.  31 miles along jagged lava beds, up and down roaring waterfalls, a tangle of roots and rocks at every turn.  But the peace that I had found in the beauty of this place, this McKenzie River, one of the last stretches of wild river in the Pacific Northwest, told me that I would pay my homage in this way, by running the length of its wild section.  I had biked nearly the entire length with my husband, Dave, at one time or another (never all at once).  I had trained along various sections and with different groups of people (again, only now doing it all at once).  I knew some places intimately--the spot where I tripped on a root and slid along the path, my eye stopping short of a shard of lava protruding from the earth.  Another spot where I had hiked just a few weeks ago with my dad, the sun dappling the beautiful blue-green water with gems of light. I thought back to that moment when I had learned of this run.  At the time, I had not even finished a half marathon, my longest run was 9 miles, but somehow I knew I would do this.  I thought to myself, as long as I can still run, as long as my legs will still go, I will find a way. Years later, I was very close to finishing . . . if I could only find that damned finish line!

This is me at Carmen Reservoir, still pretty early in the run.  You can see my splits on my arm.  I had started out WAY too fast.

I trotted along, my body tipping sideways, cursing the trees that I loved so much.  I breathed in the dust of the trail and wiped my hand along my forehead hoping this gesture would bring some relief.  None came.  Then, as if from a far away dream, I heard faint cheering.  Or was I hallucinating?  After all, I had been running for over seven and a half hours, the temperature had reached toward the 90s as the day waxed.  But was I just hearing things? Frankly I was surprised I hadn't seen dancing bears by that point.  But wait.  Yes, there it was again.  Cheering?  Clapping?  Growing louder and more distinct until at once I was surrounded by the sound.  I lifted my head from my steady downward preventative gaze, careful of roots and rocks for so very long by then, and I saw two girls through the brush, young and full of life and yelling for their mom--me! 

Veronica ran out to join me and she ran me in (the finish is uphill, by the way).  I was met at the finish line by many friends and my family.  They were all cheering and hugging me, but the race director (shown in the picture below) high-fived me then gently guided me to the medical tent.  He was squeezing my arm and letting go looking for water retention.  Dave was there telling the medics that I needed to be checked; he seemed concerned.  What a frightening thing for him, I thought.  He had to stand there and wait to see if I would come out of those woods on my own or if they might have had to send someone in after me.  There are so few things that are clear about that moment except for this.   I let the aides check me over, mostly for Dave because I was not in my right mind then to think I needed help.  Thinking back, I certainly needed it.

Michael Lebowitz was there and snapped that picture for the Long Run Picture Company.   Ron Stone was there and talking about the heat.  Jeff and Tonya McKay were there.  I heard reports of how Cindy had done and how Jeanette had done; they might have been there too, but so much of the finish is a blur now.  I do remember hearing that Jeff had struggled at the end, too.  I heard that Coach Keith McConnell had done well, after having a bad spill around mile 13 (I think).  The only thing that I wanted to do was to sit down and take off my shoes, but we still had a ways to walk across the street and to the car so the shoes would have to stay a bit longer.

That was a terribly difficult thing to do, running the MRTR.  Would I do it again if I could? I'm not sure.  But I did find a way that day and all summer as I trained for it.  Something that really stands out for me now, as I reflect on that effort, the thing that is cemented into me is that miracles are real.  Yes, I said it and I have no snake oil to peddle.  The thing is, miracles don't just fall into our hands; we have to reach and stretch, grasping for them with everything we have.  Maybe it's because I did something I thought I couldn't do.  Maybe it's because other people thought I couldn't do it and I did it anyway, regardless of what they thought.  Maybe it's more that I still can run and so I do.  As long as my legs can still go, I will find a way to chase those miracles.

Friday, September 11, 2015

That Which Does Not Kill Me...

Only makes me stronger? I am about to get pretty strong then.

Tomorrow, I will attempt the McKenzie River Trail Run 50K.  This will be the longest I have ever ran ...on any surface, though it just happens to be traversing volcanic rocks, thrushes filled with bees and wasps, and the sides of cascading waterfalls with rooty, winding trails concealed by dappled sunlight.

I remember that I wanted to do this.  I remember that I signed up for this voluntarily.  I also remember that I have a lot of people cheering for me and hoping for me and encouraging me.  This brings me great strength and comfort.  It will get me through the brushy reeds where the wasps stir on the backside of Clearlake.  It will steady my footfalls across the craggy lava rocks by Blue Pool. It will give me focus along those uneven paths, compelling me to take one more step and than one more still.

Thank you so much to everyone who has helped me along this path.  There are too many to name.  But I would like to single out my coach.

Coach Joe Henderson, who never once doubted that I could do this, thank you so much.  Coach said from the beginning that I had this.  He said it would be fine.  He unfalteringly believed in me, even when others didn't.  And he continues to tell me that I can and will get this done.  Plus, Coach has never treated me any different because I have MS, or because I am a woman, or because I am a mom, or older, or any of the things that my head tells me make me an exception.  He has always been enthusiastic and supportive and encouraging.  I have many cheerleaders but I only have one Coach.  Thanks Joe. Thank you so much.

With Coach Joe Henderson at the finish of the Eugene Marathon, May 10, 2015
Photo courtesy of Michael Leowitz, Long Run Picture Co.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Haulin Aspen 26.2 Mile Trail

Despite finishing in the 90 degree temperature range and without a lick of shade, the day started at a crisp 38 degrees. I sat in my car eating a Lara bar and contemplating the task ahead.  26 miles. Oh, 26 POINT two miles (the two-tenths of a mile is often the hardest but should always be included).  I tucked everything in, dawned my pack and headed to the start. 
I met up with fellow teammate Cindy Smith.  Cindy is the type of runner that I have long admired.  She has an effortless looking pace, gliding along at a consistent speed regardless of terrain.  She is also authentically encouraging, without being overly enthusiastic.  Plus, she is a nurse, and although she is not an MS nurse, I have always been comforted by having a nurse nearby just in case.  Maybe it is because my grandmother was a nurse and I have always had a profound respect for the profession.  Okay, back on track.
Cindy was talking with a guy (Taylor or Trevor, something like that) who was talking about this being one of his favorite runs.  He described the course in cool language as if he were all about to go out for a quick stroll through the woods.  I envied his confidence.  Then he said something that I already knew; he said "Save some for the hill."
The hill.  So simple a reference for such a daunting wall in my near future.  But I would not know that just yet.  I had looked at the elevation gain of the hill and knew what was coming.  I knew that it was about an 800 foot climb.  I knew that it was situated just after mile 21 and so I had better save some juice.  I also knew that I had practiced hills.  I figured it would be tough but that I would be fine.  More on this later.
So, the gun fired and off we went into the woods.
The first little bit was up a fire road along power lines.  It was rutty and dusty, that pumice soil that stirs up into the air and hangs in a thick cloud just at lung-level.  We were running toward the rising sun and so the shadows of the runners in front of me cast eerie shadows through the dust-filled fog. 
I paced with Cindy for a bit before I finally realized I should not have worn my jacket.  Even though I was cold at the start line, a few minutes into the run, at 5,800 feet elevation, had me heaving for air and hot! So I slowed to a walk and stripped the jacket off.  Here I realized I should have practiced running while removing my backpack and putting it back on.  I struggled.  One strap was endlessly twisted and I was ever more frustrated trying to correct it.  At one point, I decided to run with the twist.  After half a mile, still climbing the fire road, I decided I needed to fix the strap or I would pay later in severe chafing.  I did and I was once again underway.
Now, the running pack had thinned.  Soon, we were headed downhill and I had to watch my footing for the tricky ruts and gullies carved along the descent.  I was just starting to hope that we would not end up running fire roads the entire 26.2 miles when the trail turned into some piƱon pines and we started snaking our way through the dense and shady forest.  This was by far my favorite part.  The foot hills of Mt Bachelor are such a beautiful part of our state, it was difficult to not look around and to keep my eyes on the trail.  At around mile four I tripped.  The ground was soft though and I was grateful this hadn't occurred over the lava I had seen (and would alter traverse). Instead, I landed in a puff of pumice soot, sliding to a stop and cursing under my breath.  The lady behind asked if I was okay and I told her only my pride was hurt.  A mile or so later, I caught up to her taking pictures of an incredible valley.  She offered to take my picture with my phone so I handed her my phone and posed.  She told me to tag #HaulinAspen later on Instagram so that we could share photos (I have since, and we now share photos).  Here's the one she took of me:
I was starting to get chaffed under my arms a little so I stopped at an aid station and got some tape.  I find this is much better than Vaseline anyway, and it was.  I should mention here that I had also started listening to a podcast.  It was This American Life and was on integration in public schools in Missouri.  It was a very emotional piece.  I found myself fighting the urge to cry as I listened to a young girl, 12 years old, describe the ways in which some of the parents at her new school regarded her just because she was black.  I like to listen to podcasts while I run, especially on long runs.  I find that it really breaks up the monotony of the task.  Still, this was just a little too emotional for me.  I couldn't breathe.  Eventually, I shut it off and started listening only to nature.  I could heard the wind in the trees and an occasional bird.  It was just a lovely run.  I even thought about the sun and the heat and didn't so much mind it...
Then I came to the hill.
So, from the bottom, this hill goes on and on and on...and up and up.  It didn't help that there was an emergency 4x4 vehicle slowly making the crawl down just waiting for someone to drop with exhaustion.  I mean, sure I was glad he was there but I was also terrified he was there, his ominous presence reminding me of how very real my challenge had always been. To top this off, there was not a lick of shade.  Not on the sides, no branches over-hanging.  None. And the climb was steep.  Here are the numbers:  
From mile 21.4 to mile 23.9 I climbed from 4,677 feet to 5,390 feet.  This was an 8% grade! and it came in three sections; so remember how I said it went on and on and on?  Yea, well, once I got to the top of that section, the road turned in a new direction and went on and on and on again.  Then, it did that same evil thing for a third time.  This was no hill.  This was purgatory.  The temperature was near 90 and I was depleted.  It took me nearly 45 minutes to climb this section and  ruined my ability to run much for the last 2 miles to finish the race.
Still, I finished.  I finished at 6:03:40something.  And despite their warnings on the website about a 6 hour cutoff, the hung a medal around my neck and congratulated me.  There wasn't a photographer at the end, but I was totally okay with that.  This would be the first race ever that I would finish without an emotional response.  I walked to the refreshments table, drank a glass of water, and then headed to my car.
I learned a lot that day. First and foremost is that I can go amazing distances in the dirt.  Next, it is important to eat something solid.  I had only consumed gu and electrolytes.  Also, while it is fine to listen to podcasts to break up the run, I should stick to material that wont make me cry.  I can save that for roadtrips when Dave is the driver.  And third, do not take the hill for granted, but also take the hill in stride (even walking stride).
Would I run the Haulin Aspen again?  Sure.  Am I glad I did it? You bet!  This was a training run for the bigger goal which is just around the corner and presents its own challenges: The McKenzie River Trail Run, a 50K that might be the most challenging yet.  We'll see.
If you made it this far, thanks for reading.  Remember, I still have MS and I am still not taking it lying down!

Saturday, April 25, 2015

No Run Is Easy

There is no such thing as an easy run.  Sure, there will be those days when it feels comfortable, maybe effortless in the sense that miles could come and go barely noticed, slipping below my feet like invisible markers.  What I mean about an easy run has everything to do with getting to that actual moment, there within the run, metered breathing, efforting, living in the pace.  Arriving in that moment within that run has sprung from another run, dating all the way back to those first days when one mile was still a great feat.  I could never have run a 5K without first practicing shorter distances.  And believe me, this was no easy deed.

When I was in my early 20s, I had a dream that I would run a marathon.  I woke up thinking it was a funny thing to dream about.  At the time, I was a pack-a-day smoker, daily fast food goer, and sugar and coffee addict (my caveat for this last bit is that I drank coffee well into the evening).  So, you can see why someone with my lifestyle would find a marathon dream to be extraordinary.   Despite my diet and bad habits, I was pretty fit, owing this solely to the fact that I worked at a two-story restaurant and constantly ran trays of heavy food and dishes up and down a flight of stairs. I also traversed a college campus, back and forth between classes at least three times per week. Still, I was not near the condition of fitness I am today, being a dedicated runner for a few years now.

Again, in my early 30s, I had a similar dream about running in a large-scale race.  This time, I was surrounded by my people—friends and family, some thin and some heavy.  A few even smoked cigarettes as we ran in that odd-dream landscape.  That next morning, I remember telling my husband that it was time to quit smoking.  The way I went about that is a subject for another blog entry.  I will say now that I have never faced such a challenge and there are still times when I think I am going to smoke again, even after not having a cigarette for over 10 years!  Nicotine is insidious and addictive.  But I digress.

All of this went into that fateful first fun.  I was still a smoker during that first run.  I coughed and wheezed and admonished myself for even trying to run in the first place, but I kept moving my feet.  My miles today benefit from that first run, even if all I could do was shuffle my feet.  When Sarah in the movie Labyrinth decides to go into the endless maze to find her brother, she says “Come on feet.”  I say this too.  Come on feet.  Let’s do this.  It has been this way since my first run.  I have encouraged my feet to help me out, and they have never given up.  Even when under the toughest circumstances, my feet keep going—running, walking, shuffling, dragging; they keep going.   

Running is hard in the sense that each run has been a part of that first run and all the rest.  The next run has an element of every past run.  These activities are each connected, one event supporting the next, in a series of effort that I undergo to reclaim my life.  And today's run will benefit my marathon in a few weeks.  Each run is a part of my attempt to quict smoking (yes, ‘attempt’ even after 10 years).  Each run is the culmination of eating better, drinking more water, resting when I would rather have a cup of coffee at 8:00 PM, not eating donuts and cookies and cake (all the time).  I have learned to skip the  drive-thru to go home and cook when it would be so much easier (and even cheaper) to pull up to the speaker.  It has been years since I have had a taco supreme (do they still make those?) And there’s more too.  Often, I need to work around my family’s schedule.  I squeeze runs in between work and kids’ activities.  I have run on my lunch breaks and at 6:00 AM and in heat that I thought would kill me and at night with and without a headlamp.  I run when it is hot and I run in the snow. I bring that effort with me on the next run, and the next.  I have conditioned myself to keep going, but it is not easy.  It is never easy.

So, when I hear someone say, "I’m just going to go out for an easy three miles," I consider everything that has gone into their  three miles to make them “easy.”  No one wakes up and runs a marathon.  I suppose you could, but I imagine that would be the toughest of all races.  You could also just jump on a bike, or go out and hike a trail, but I guarantee that if you have not put in the effort ahead of time, it will not be easy.  And if it feels easy, it just means that you have already put the effort in elsewhere.

None of this is to say that I don’t have amazing runs, because sometimes I do.  Sometimes, I come in after a run and I think to myself, “wow, that is what I am in it for!”  And yes, I have had the joy of that dream-come-true experience when I have crossed a finish line at a 5K, 10K, Half or Full marathon and thought about the effort, the accomplishment and the benefits to my health and all of the runners around me and the experiences they must also be having.  Still, I never take it for granted what brought me there.  

I never take it for granted what brought me here, preparing for another marathon.  No run is easy. Each is a part of the previous run and the next.
Making it look "easy" with Jeff McKay, training for Eugene

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Disappointment? Nah...

I keep going back to this place in my mind.  I'm on a training run.  The sun is out and beating down.  I notice I use the pejorative term "beating down" instead of something less negative.  The thought enters my head, "you should not run the full marathon." And on that, I crumple from a 9:30 pace to walking. 

It happened like this quite a few times before I put in word to my coach that I was thinking of changing the distance.  Joe Henderson is a great and wise coach.  Here is the exchange that took place before this last September's marathon in Mt. Angel.  Joe's response, the compassion that he used in his carefully selected words, still moves me.

ME: Hi Joe. I think I would like your input on this. I'm concerned about the heat and considering asking the race directors if I can just run the half. This has come up for reasons other than just the heat, though the heat is the main factor. After the temps went up over 70 for the second half of the Eugene marathon in 2012, it really wiped me out, more so than normal. . . I don't know what to do. My sensible side is telling me to stick with just the half and have an epic run and possibly a PR but my  training and my ego are saying run the full. Any coaching advice that might help me would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

JOE: With your special circumstances, the answer is easy to give and hard to hear. Switch to the half. You've surely never been better trained for one, as you come DOWN in distance. I'll send you race director Darwin. Rasmussen's email. Tell him straight out about your MS, and he's likely to be accommodating.

And, of course they were totally accommodating.  And I did end up having a great run, despite the rising temperatures at the end.  The thing is, though, I could not foresee how very disappointed I still was in myself and what I counted as "wasted effort."

Now, I have written about this here, I have talked about it endlessly with anyone who will listen, I have complained to my doctors about me throwing in the towel.  But it wasn't until recent--another 19 mile training run-- when I started to come around on this change in my plans last Fall. 

I found myself back at that place in my mind: I'm on my 19 mile training run.  I'm solo, listening to the pod cast of TED talks I had downloaded earlier.  It starts to get hot and I start to get slower. ONLY THIS TIME, I see the sun glinting off the water and feel the warmth on my hand, arms, shoulder (it's to my right) and I think to myself about the transference of energy beaming into me (bare with me; I know this is hokey).  And then it is okay to walk, but I don't want to.  And then it is okay to take a break, but I press on.  Before I know it, I'm sailing.

Yes, heat is certainly a factor for me, but it does not have to mean the end.  And it did not mean the end in September.

Since that 19 mile run a few weeks ago, I have had fatigue with sunshine.  I have walked, dejected and disappointed.  But then I remind myself about the sparkling sunshine and then energy.  This fills me up.  This is enough. And sometimes walking is amazing, too, all on its own.  Besides, if I ever could not walk, that would be the thing I would want more than even running.  See how that works...

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Interim Running

We have not yet started our team training, though I have started my Half Marathon training for sure.  Still, there are a small group of us meeting on Sundays for the long run.  Today, we did 8 miles (close enough) out at Dorris Ranch.  It was a blast.  I ran mostly with Stephanie Gray and Shelli Lisenby Clemo.  The thing I like about running with women is the range in our conversation while we ran(t).  We talked about movies, funny parenting moments, our dogs.  You know.  This is important stuff.  I got to off load a but of my physical stuff, concerns with my so-called "allergies" and how I am frustrated and a little scared.  

Speaking of, I will see the ear nose and throat (ENT) specialist in a few weeks.  This was the earliest available opportunity.  It's fine though; I am in no rush to have the polyps discovered (as my PA now suspects) or to learn that I truly am allergic to my dog.  The thing is, I have had lots of ailments over the course of my running career.  Twists and sprains.  Fevers.  Flues.  Bruises.  Fatigues.  Nothing has been quite like this, though.  I have been spraying my nose and taking my pills and battling the ear pain, nose pain, eye pain.  So, sure, if the ENT doctor can offer me some relief, it will be welcomed.  But mostly, I am growing more concerned about the possibility of much worse.  

So, relax, I hear.  I hear that there are lots of people with terrible allergies here in the "valley of death."  I also hear that sometimes MSers have a harder time getting over an allergic reaction.  I hear that I should relax and coast until I meet with the next doctor and have the next round of tests.  Sure, I can relax.  I just cant stop itching my ears.

Now, I realize that I started this rant with the wonderful experience of running with two great ladies earlier today.  That is where I need to focus, too, because something important happened then.  Stephanie reminded me that I am okay.  It was subtle and simple and exactly perfect.  She went on to talk about how difficult our first 9 mile (ever) run was for both of us.  It was too.  She reminded me that we had committed to making it to Autzen Bridge before we would allow ourselves a walking break.  Now, 9 miles is still quite a distance, but I know I can do that with much mroe ease that I once did...and here I am now contemplating my first 30 miles.

It's great to have a running friend whom you have been running with for a while.  It is a good reminder of how far I have come in such a short amount of time.  I am grateful to have this experience with Steph.  Thank god that she helps to keep my wandering thoughts focused on what's real when it really counts.  And thank god that she also helps to distract me when the miles get long and tedious.  

So, these interim training runs have been important for more than just keeping up my base.  I am also keeping up my spirits through camaraderie and team building.  My advise for the day is go out for a run with a few of your long-term running buddies and talk about the early days when mileage was lower and efforts were greater.  Hopefully you'll see what I mean.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2015 Is In Full Swing

Well, I have some good news and I have some great news!
The good news is that another article about me has hit the internets.  Here is the link where you can read it (and special thanks to Ashley Graves for seeking me out and writing me up!)

Now, the even better news is that I have met with the new neurologist and he reviewed my history declaring an MRI unnecessary in 2015!  Imagine that?!  Me and my MS, diagnosed nearly 10 years ago, not having to lie in the tube for an entire year! I cannot tell you how happy I feel because I am still coming to terms with it.

Of course, I attribute my running to my healthy condition.  So, I have another full marathon on the horizon.  In May, I will run another full marathon here in Eugene.  No, I am not trying to break any of my PRs or set any other goals.  I am just trying to live healthy.  In the late summer, I am thinking about doing my first ultra.  This is a trail run so it will be extra-ultra for me.  30 Miles on the McKenzie trail, a beautiful river stretch here in our locals part of the Cascades.  We will have to see about that because the race is a lottery-in type.
Speaking of trail running, since I last updated my blog, I ran the Silver Falls Half Marathon.  I goofed off for much of the run, joking that I was going for my PW (Personal Worst).  I ran it with my good friend Stephanie Gray and we took lots of selfies and had a great time.  This is no surprise, as I usually have a good time running with Steph.  Also, it was a beautiful run.  Well, all except the last mile, which was sort of like running on a slip-n-slide covered in cake batter.

Well, that’s about all for now.   I needed to break the 2015 ice on the blog and so I write this super quick.  Stay tuned for more about the run and the MS.  I might have been given a year to relax a bit, but that doesn’t mean resting on my laurels.
On the Horizon:
McKenzie River Half, March 22
Eugene Marathon, May 10
Portland Marathon, October 4