Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Pain Threshold

I love me a slow jog. Give me 20 miles of stars, sunrise, and scenery. Let me soak up the oxygen with a deep and easy inhale. I’ll build the ache over distance, the soothing effect of moderate effort. Moderately moderate. No-reason-to-go-overboard kind of moderate. Breaking-a-sweat-is-so-overrated kind of moderate. Okay, easy. Easy effort. I love me an easy pace.

So imagine my chagrin when I decide to add speed intervals to my weekly workouts. I don’t think I have a fast-twitch muscle in my body. I have never actually sprinted in my life. Ever. No playground races, no soccer team drills, no chased-by-bullies-or-bears traumas. But when one has run more half and full marathons than one can count on one’s fingers, things get a little dull. So I added 400s to my Tuesday mornings. I warm-up by jogging a half-mile, then I run at a fast but not deadly pace for a quarter mile 5-8 times in a row, with a short cool down between each one. I polish it off with another slow half-mile.

It’s tough. The first couple intervals are manageable. During the next couple intervals, I start to breathe a bit harder. Then I do a couple intervals counting to 100 to distract myself from the effort. Finally, I finish with one or two intervals during which I look and sound like a bull after a long session in the ring with a champion matador: frothy sweat at the corners of my mouth, an audibly heaving exhale, and a mad fear flashing in my eyes. I’m doing it, people. And let me tell you, I’m feeling pretty good about myself.

So I tell my best friend all about it (she’s a wicked fast runner, you know). “So have you thrown up yet?” she asks with straight-faced candor. I look at her, my mouth slightly ajar with surprise and annoyance that she hasn’t yet clapped her hand heartily on my back and shouted, “Awesome job! You rock, queen of speed!”

“Am I supposed to?” I ask doubtfully.

“Yeah!” she responds with chipper enthusiasm. She goes on to quiz me about dizziness and numb legs, finishing with, “You really haven’t thrown up? Even a little bit, in your mouth?”

Me. Staring. Mouth ajar. “It’s supposed to feel like that?”

She faithfully goes on to explain this whole speed training thing to me. The speed intervals build your vO2 max, which makes your cardiovascular system stronger and more efficient--able to endure more punishment so you can eek out a few more strides and a few less seconds in a race. She diligently pulls out her pace wheel, a rainbow-colored torture device that predicts reasonable finishing times for various distances based on past performance. Pardon me, “reasonable” finishing times. So using my best half marathon time, the wheel o’ misery suggests marathon, 10k, 5k, or 1-mile times I can expect to achieve with training. The pace wheel thinks I’ve been slacking.

And then she utters the two words that now haunt me. “You’ve gotta hit your pain threshold.” I’ve heard her use this phrase before, in reference to training and intervals and hills and Olympian marathoners. And I feel like a fraud again. I’ve been play-acting this whole runner thing. I realize that I’m a complacent marathoner. Shouldn’t that be an oxymoron?

But I know it’s true. I’ve found a comfort zone, and I’m reveling in it. By the way, there is nothing wrong with this! Finding a good comfort zone and spending lots of time there is necessary to a sustainable human life. I should do almost all of my runs in this comfort zone; I should do my long runs at an even lazier pace than that. As a runner and a wife and a mother and a Christian and an educator and a friend, I should spend most of my life in my comfort zone, where I am competent and useful and able to breathe. But as a runner and a wife and a mother and a Christian and an educator and a friend, I need to spend a little corner of my time outside of it, bumping up against my pain threshold. Not my mild-discomfort threshold, not my slight-exertion threshold. My pain threshold. Friends, this is not a place I know.

So I’m starting with running. I’m keeping the intervals, but increasing my speed. In April, I’ll alternate them with hill repeats. I’m scheduling quality time with my pain threshold so that my comfort zone will expand--and then I’ll get to push harder to reach my pain threshold! (Crazy, much?) My speed-goddess best friend is helping me. I asked her (what was I thinking?) to pace me for a fast mile. She did it. I needed to stop half way through; she didn’t let me. I wanted to die at 3/4s of a mile; she told me to run like I was rescuing my children from imminent death. It hurt so bad, I couldn’t bring myself to care. She pushed. I finished. Then I laid right down, hot cheek to cold pavement, and sucked air so hard I gave the universe a hickey. Hello, pain threshold. Nice to meet you.

I’m officially more afraid of leaving my comfort zone, because now I know just how uncomfortable it can be. But here I go. I’ll keep you posted on how that works out for me--as a wife, mom, teacher, believer, and friend. Time to give my heart a workout of another kind. (Was that a prayer?) Yikes.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Happy Birthday to me?

I am getting moderately old.  Sitting at the computer for more than two minutes leaves me with the posture of Quasimodo.  I stand and walk around at a 45 degree angle for 20-60 seconds before I can manage to straighten my back to a fully upright position.

Also, those lines on my forehead that used to be a part of my quizzical expression never leave.  Also, I have matching lines on my neck.  My. Neck.  I want to walk around with my head extended in some accordian-like imitation of E.T. to erase them.

Also, I don’t have jowls.  But I do have the earliest pockets of face fat that may someday evolve to be jowl-like.  Richard Nixon, here I come.


Finally, whereas last year I ran 35 miles in 3.5 days to celebrate my 35th birthday, this year I’m going to see a movie with my mother, and then eat a big dinner at 3 in the afternoon.  Early bird special, you’re mine!  Old age suits me.

Oh, and that half marathon that I decided just three weeks ago NOT to run.  I’m totally running it.  I’ve got to recapture my youthful zest somehow.  If I brake my hip doing it, my next stop will by Morning Side Retirement Home.  Sigh.

(Yes, my birthday is still over a week away.  I'm obsessing.)

Monday, March 12, 2012


One of the best post-workout choices a person can make is to down a glass of chocolate milk.  

It has something to do with the balance of whey protein and casein protein and carbohydrates that is perfect for quickly re-energizing and repairing muscles.  Whatever--it’s delicous!  Bottoms up.

Aren’t I so health-conscious?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

I Believe in Hobbits

I recently indulged in a Lord of the Rings movie marathon.  Way easier than running a marathon, let me tell you.  And bonus: during a movie marathon I fuel up with pizza and ice cream--way tastier than goo.

I love those stories.  Love!  I’ve read the books 4 times now, and I’m hankering for a 5th soon.  I even named my daughter with a nod to an elven flower that grows in Lothlorien (the heart of the elven kingdom in Middle Earth, duh).  And when Gene and I were young and in love, I fancied myself Samwise Gamgee to his Frodo.  So, obviously, I’m an LOTR dork.

Gene was enjoying the movie marathon too, and using it as an opportunity to introduce our son to epic heroism.  I noticed Gene would call him over to watch mighty battles and fierce clashes of good versus evil.  Of course, the little guy’s just six, and he frequently wandered from the room to act out his own battles off screen.  So I was able to observe the moments Gene most wanted him to pay attention to, not to miss...moments of bravery and purity of heart in the midst of the bedlam of war.  When deadly foes vastly outnumbered the fellowship of heroes, Gene would make sure our little guy watched them stand strong.  I love the man my husband is and the man he wants our son to become.  

But for me, quieter moments thrilled me most.  I wanted Soren to notice that Sam didn’t let Frodo go forward alone, and Merry and Pippin pledged their small bodies and large hearts in allegiance to people not their own, and that Gollum could choose, if only for a time, to be Smeagol again.  And my favorite line comes after the climax, when two little hobbits have given all they have to give: “I am glad you are here with me.  Here at the end of all things.”

I love hobbits!  I love that they celebrate ease and welcome simple pleasures.  I love that their statures and their dreams are never outsized.  I love that you never see them coming, never expect them to be the hub that the whole world turns upon.  I love hobbits because I believe they tell us the truth about ourselves.  A king can be kingly, a warrior can win, but those short, fat, unaspiring halflings are the crux of happy endings.  

That’s us, you see.  I’m a hobbit.  I’m a little person, and there is just one of me.  What in the world can I do?  How in the world can I matter?  But I believe that each of us, small and insignificant, changes the course of the story.  In quiet, unseen moments, when I manage a spark of bravery and purity of heart, I may just save the world.  

Tolkien writes about “eucatastrophe,” the catastrophic event that holds the only kernel of hope for a happy ending.  He says it is, “a sudden and miraculous grace never counted on to recur.  It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure; the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

I live eucatastrophes regularly, tiny struggles for a happy ending.  Running a marathon, or a half marathon, or a friggin’ mile if that’s all I can manage, is a miniature eucatastrophe.  And not yelling at my kiddos when they spill their juice, but kissing their frightened faces and saying, “It’s no problem.”  And sitting on the couch with my husband, or making him a sandwich, or saying “I love you” even when we disagree about something.  And tutoring women for a measly evening each week.  And sending a check.  And saying a prayer.  This is my epic heroism.  

And I love that I have something in common with the hobbits.  No one expects those little guys to count, let alone matter most, but they do.  And no one expects a middle-aged, chubby housewife to run 26+ miles.  But I do.  I wonder what that means, in the scope of things.  Like Tolkien, I marvel at the unexpected impact of little achievements, the essential nature of unseen gifts.  No surprise there...I believe in a dying savior, a servant king.  I guess it’s the same thread throughout: hope.  In a happy ending we can’t manage ourselves.  Maybe, thanks to a catastrophe we couldn’t see coming, we arrive at “the end of all things” not entirely alone.

“Dear Sir,” I said--Although now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Disgraced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned.
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light,
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons-- ‘twas our right
(used or misused).  That right has not decayed;
we make still by the law in which we’re made.”
-J.R.R. Tolkien “On Faerie Stories”

Friday, March 2, 2012


I’ve been playing hooky.  Obviously.  In October, I ran the Portland Marathon and  blogged about it.  In November, I uploaded a post about my best friend because it was about damn time--I’d been working on that sucker for months.  Then, I took a break.  I usually cool my heels a bit after a marathon.  I like taking 2-4 weeks to chill out, occasionally work out half-heartedly, and bask in my accomplishment by backsliding like a walrus on a slippery shoreline.  This time around 2-4 weeks became 2-4 months--and counting.  

I’m calling it a hiatus.  The word means a break, gap, or space.  In anatomy, it refers to a natural empty space in bone where new cells grow.  So I’m not so much ditching long distance running as I am reclaiming the space and time it took up to see what grows there.  I’ve needed the mental energy for other endeavors and challenges.  My husband’s work life is good in a lot of ways, but oh so demanding in others.  I’ve reintroduced careful budgeting into my life, like I haven’t done since our first years as poor college kids in love.  And I’ve been taming the beast called worry.  Thankfully, since I’m not out the door for a run an hour or two before dawn, I’ve been able to stay up later at night, for conversations and chillin’ with my spouse--also for full-blown binges on dumb TV and junk food.  Hey, it’s all therapy to me.

I manage a bit of exercise here and there.  I’ve jogged a few times.  I’ve enjoyed dropping my youngest off in the play area at the gym and reacquainting myself with the elliptical machine,  the stationary bike, and various sundry equipment with shelves for books.  I even let Jillian Michaels (of The Biggest Loser fame--yes, I watch) shred me for 15 of her 30-day plan.  You should see my traveling push-up; it’s a beaut!  With the coming of the New Year, I optimistically signed up for a half marathon, because the thing I needed to warm my heels up again after luxurious weeks of cooling was a plan, a schedule, a commitment!

And still, I’m not running.  Not really running: multiple days a week with an increasingly long run on weekends and checks in my training log.  I don’t think the half marathon in 4 weeks is gonna happen. Ce la vie!

So what is the matter with me?  

Thankfully, nothing.  No nagging injury or implosion of the will.  (Maybe a small collapse of one corner of my will, but the structure is mostly standing.)  I’m simply permitting myself a season.  I’m gathering stones instead of throwing them (or maybe I’m the stone and I’m gathering moss).  I’m not searching for a race; I’m giving one up as lost.  For everything there is a season, and this particular season is cold, and the mornings are dark, and the sidewalks are treacherous with frozen slush and black ice.  And 5 a.m. comes earlier than it did last season, I swear.

And there is one reason more.  When I make running habitual in my life, it ripens into a  ritual--a sacred season of reflection.  The quiet, steady thrumming of heart and footfall opens my mind to myself.  I imagine, analyze, wonder, and decide.  My spirit heaves with my lungs.  It is good, and it is my own.  But right now, I need to save reflection, analysis, and decision for my family.  We are taking on a challenge that requires mental energy and a lot of partnership.  During this particular season, instead of waking up early to work my body and soul, I’m staying up late to chat with my husband.  We imagine, analyze, wonder, and decide together.  “Me-time” is sliding a little lower on the list, for now.

Some runners would say, “But this is exactly when you most need to keep running!”  Yep.  So true.  I need to get my sweat on for my sake and for the sake of those around me.  God knows (He really does) how dark my innards are and how much they bleed onto those around me, in dirty looks and exasperated sighs and impatient resentments.  Adding endorphins to the mix makes a positive difference.  But the scope of my physical triumph is remaining narrow for a season.  Instead of 10 miles, a 30-minute video suits me fine.  Instead of pre-dawn epic expeditions, a speed date with a treadmill at 9 a.m. will do.

I don't know how long this season lasts, so you'll have to keep reading to find out with me; and I’ll have to start writing.  Therefore, I’m making it official.  My hiatus from thefatmarathoner.blogspot.com has come to an end.   Cheers!