Wednesday, October 21, 2015

“Look, moon I turned silver for you.” ― Sanober Khan The Glorious Graying of Me

I was chatting with an old friend recently when, suddenly, she uttered a single sentence that changed my life: “Looks like you’re getting some gray hair,” she said as she pulled at my “sideburns.”
“Really?” I squealed with excitement! I was ecstatic! A milestone had been reached!
I clearly started life as a buttery blonde
Admittedly, I’m weird. I still recall how ebulliently I reacted when, at the age of 42, I was told by my optometrist that I would need progressive lenses for my glasses. In fact, I uttered the same word, with the same excitement: “Really?” I then added, “This makes me a real adult!” (Note: that was also the visit to the optometrist when, a little annoyed at having to fill out the contact information page once again, on the line where it asked, “preferred name” I wrote Bunny. I would like to point out that neither at that particular visit to the eye doc, nor on any subsequent visit, was I ever called Bunny; this clearly shows the futility of filling out that form.)
1976. Still blonde
Back to the gray hair sighting. Full disclosure: I get my hair highlighted twice a year. It’s never been to cover up gray but rather to add some vitality to the increasingly dish watery color of my blonde hair.
I was hoodwinked. There is no other explanation. As a child, I had that white tow-headed look, hinting at my Norwegian ancestry 
(though my Nordic dad was dark and swarthy) but the older I got, the darker my hair got. It's not that dark hair is bad, it's just that mine seemed to lose its luster as the buttery hues of blonde slipped away.
My son, Sam, is suffering a similar fate: his tow-headed look has gotten increasingly darker as the years have gone by. At least his hair is luxuriously thick and still has depth that my fine, thin hair can never attain.
By senior prom, 1980, it was all over.
So for the past several years I have gotten my hair high-lighted and each time my hair interpreter triumphantly proclaims, “still no gray hair!” I’ve always been a little crestfallen at this pronouncement meant as a compliment.
I have always loved hair in permutations of the gray scale: salt and pepper, gray, white, silver. In fact, when I look back on the women I’ve dated, or been attracted to, over the past 37 years, I find no “type” in terms of age, race, body type, femme or butch; I seem to have dated across the spectrum. There is, however, one commonality that appears throughout the years: I’m clearly attracted to women with gray, silver, white, mixed hair.
I think this is because I must have imprinted on the first woman I fell truly in love with.  At the age of 22 she had jet black hair with lightning bolts of silver thrumming through it. Although the love was unrequited, my fate, it seemed, was sealed.
Sam clearly blonde a age 6
I have never dreaded the graying of me; rather I have eagerly awaited its advent. Now, finally, at the ripe age of 53, I am able to proudly join the ranks of the Gray! What does this mean, I wondered as I drove home from my friend’s house. I prodded my mind like a loose tooth;was I any wiser? I gently palpated my heart from within;did I understand more about love and compassion?
Maybe those things take time. Or maybe graying hair is a function of age, while not necessarily being a harbinger of wisdom. 
Already much darker, and he's still young!
Still, I couldn’t help but feel a frisson of excitement as I looked at my hair in the bathroom mirror and asked another friend to take a picture of this august moment in time. The next week, when I went for my quarterly haircut, semi-annual high-lighting session, Jerome, my hair interpreter, said “Still no gray hair!” as he wrapped my hair in foil.

“Yes, there is!” I said happily as I showed him my sideburns. I felt inordinately proud, as if I had done something that had taken infinite skill or herculean strength, rather than simply growing older. Still, I did earn every one of those gray hairs—and all the ones to come. Now I really am an adult!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Run, Nori, Run! Lessons learned from my four half marathons this summer

This past Saturday, I ran 2.1 miles—it was my first attempt at running since my last half marathon on September 6. I had mysteriously injured my lower back the week before that race and, probably against my better judgment, I went ahead with the race, even though my back was spasming and getting out of bed was a chore.

It was at Disneyland, I had paid $200 to register—not to mention the cost of flying out and staying in a hotel; dammit, I would finish the race if it was the last thing I did!! So I awoke at 4 AM on Sunday, September 6, took 800 mg of ibuprofen and walked (hobbled) in the pre-dawn darkness from my hotel to Downtown Disney where my last half marathon of the summer was to commence.

I remember when I first decided to run four half marathons over the summer. It was last December and I was a part of a Facebook running group called CJ’sHoliday Challenge. I am not sure how I stumbled upon it, but I was glad I found it. It was focused on the two months between Thanksgiving and January 25th, and led by Coach Jenny Hadfield, a well known running coach in the “real world.” The group was geared to folks of all ages and running abilities and was simply there to encourage people not to lose track of their fitness and running goals during the busy (and fattening) holiday seasons.
Before I joined this group I was an uninspired runner; I tried to get in three runs a week, but they weren’t very long (no more than three miles), nor were they consistent. I did try to sign up for a 5K “race” each month, to keep me motivated. I put “race” in quote marks because I surely wasn’t trying to win, but I did get a racing bib,as well as a t-shirt (generally) and it was timed. But being a part of this group opened my eyes to bigger possibilities. Suddenly, I was seeing posts from people who ran at my pace (a 13 minute mile) who were doing 10Ks and half marathons and even FULL marathons! If they could do it, why couldn’t I? I was going on sabbatical from June 1-September 10. Why not do a half marathon a month during that time, among other sabbatical plans?
I shared my idea with the group and asked, “Am I crazy?” The answer was an unreserved, “Yes!!” But, the other members added, in a good way. Why not go for it? A few even pointed out that I could become of a member of the Half Fanatics if I accomplished this feat.
So I cemented my plan by putting it boldly in my Winter holiday letter and even proclaiming it from the pulpit in a New Year’s sermon. By mid-February I had picked out and paid for all four of my races. I was firmly committed.
When friends would ask me why I chose to undertake such a daunting mission during my sabbatical, I found it hard to explain. I truly felt called to do this. I wasn’t doing it for fame or glory; it certainly wasn't to get more attention (as an introvert, I spend my time finding ways to NOT be the center of attention!) All I could say was that I was going to learn things I needed to learn during the training leading up to the races, and in the races themselves. Honestly, I was feeling a little tredipatious, myself, about the undertaking but as March came around, I begin training in earnest.
Now, on the other side of this endeavor, I can see clearly the lessons learned in the training, the races, and the conversations in between.
Lesson #1
It doesn’t matter if anyone else believes in you; it only matters if you believe in yourself.
I first began to realize during my training that there were some people—caring people involved in my life—that didn’t really expect me to make it to my first half marathon, let alone getting through all four. People who met my stated training goals with disbelief,
and my accomplishment of them with sheer amazement. I remember saying to one friend, after I had completed my first double digit mile training run, “You didn’t really expect me to do that, did you?” She admitted she had been surprised that I had done so.
Now, to be fair, I was a little surprised by my own tenacity. It would have been much easier to keep putting off those long runs; they took up so much time! I’m slow on a good day and my average pace, as the miles increased, got slower and slower. Do you know how long it takes for me to run 10 miles? 2:15 hours!! That takes a lot of planning in order to make sure I had time in the day to run it! It was daunting to me but I kept faith in myself and steadily increased my miles until, four weeks before my first race, I ran 12.4 miles on a long Saturday morning. I came home from that run and, as I was gulping down an electrolyte enhanced drink, suddenly burst into tears. The reality hit home then, I was doing it! I was actually training consistently for a half marathon! All those years of being non-athletic, all the friends who didn’t think I would actually follow through, all the times I doubted myself, were washed away in those tears. At the moment, my own belief in myself took a secure hold. It would carry me through a summer of injuries, illness, and travel that interfered with my on-going training and it would ultimately carry me through that last, rough half marathon in Disneyland.

Lesson #2
The race isn’t about the starting line or the finish line; it’s about those lonely miles in between.
There’s a certain sense of excitement when the gun goes off and the race commences. For a while, I’m in the thick of a pack of runners, with many runners passing me and me passing some as well as we all jockey for position and find our paces. Knowing that I’m a slow runner, I always start somewhere near the back of the pack. If there was a pacer holding a three hour sign, I’d position myself behind that person, since my goal was to break three hours.
And then the race would begin! And we would run through a crowd of cheering friends and family members onto the course! Soon—within a mile or two—we would all be in our respective places that we would hold for virtually the rest of the race. I would find myself playing “leap-frog” with one or two of the other runners at my pace. I might steadily overtake them (think of that annoying moment on the freeway when an 18 wheeler pulls slowly into the left lane to pass another 18 wheeler, going about .5 miles faster an hour than the truck being passed; it takes a long time for that pass to actually get completed) and then when my watch beeps to tell me to take my one minute walk break, they would slowly overtake me.
It’s not crowded where I am, in the middle miles. Far ahead of me are the faster runners; if it’s an “out and back” course the fastest racers will be passing me at about the half way mark. Behind me are runners even slower than me, including those who walk the races. This leaves me in a solitary place with only my leap frog buddies to keep me company.
And it is in those miles, where I’m alone, where there is no one to cheer me on, where the only sound is that of my somewhat labored breathing, that the true race is run. Ultimately I will reach that glorious 13 mile marker and put what little I have left of any reserves into play and run across the finish line where still a crowd waits to cheer me in! And then I will dazedly lower my head to accept my finisher’s medal and head for the cups of water waiting, but I know the only reason I got there is because I slogged along in those lonely middle miles, persistently putting one foot in front of the other, even when there was no one to witness my efforts.

Lesson 3
Sometimes you can’t quite reach your goal. You can choose to focus on how much you missed it by or how close you came.
My first half marathon was June 6 in Moab, UT. It was the Thelma and Louise half—so named because the course ran along the Colorado River in the location where the final scene was shot in that iconic movie. I was nervous b
"Flat Nori" ready for Thelma and Louise
ecause shortly after I had done my 12.4 training run, I had seriously injured my right knee.  I had taken it easy for a few weeks but when I ran six miles the week before the race, the pain was so great that I had to call a friend to pick up, a couple of miles from home.
I had gone to a physical therapist twice in the week before that first race, and my knee was taped up using the kinesio tape, which is all the rage now, to help prevent injuries. Right before the race I downed 400 mg of ibuprofen; I was as prepared as I could be. The course was beautiful and the taping and the drugs evidently helped because I didn’t really feel any pain until about mile 9. Then it came on with a vengeance. I stayed with my pace of run 3 minutes, walk one minute, the entire time and was pretty impressed with my final time of 3:05:41.
Unfortunately, my knee was incredibly injured and I spent the next four weeks before my second race focusing on doing physical therapy for strength and recuperation and did very little actual running prior to the Fourth of July race in the Colorado Springs. Subsequently, my time was worse—I finish
July 4th "Flat Nori"
ed at 3:11:46. I was discouraged but it couldn’t be helped. At mile 11, my legs simply quit working on me. At that point, I switched the tempo to running 1 minute and walking 3. That was the most miserable race ever! 
Then came my third half—the Georgetown to Idaho Springs race. Billed as a fast race because it ultimately is a downhill race, there were several steep uphill portions, too. On a positive note, although I was much slower in my second race than my first, my knee didn’t hurt at all! The on-going PT was really working! On a negative note,  I had gotten a miserable, intractable cold that had kept me in bed for the better part of two weeks in between race two and three. Once again, my training runs suffered. One well-meaning friend (and a “real” runner) tried to convince me to forgo this race and just focus on getting faster for the grand finale in September. I thanked her for the advice but told her I was planning on running that third race, even if I had to crawl over the finish line.
Proudly displaying medal for Georgetown
Instead, I had the best run of the summer! I felt like I was flying down the mountain. I abandoned the run/walk ration of 3:1 and just ran until I felt the need to walk. Once again, however, mile 11 proved to be my nemesis. This time, I started to experience cramps in my left calf that caused the toes on my left foot to spasm. When that would happen, I would slow to a walk until it stopped, then start running again.
I crossed the finish line triumphantly with a final time of 3:00:47. Yes, that means I was just 48 seconds shy of my goal of a sub-3 hour half! At first I was disappointed. I kept replaying those final 2.1 miles, knowing if my calf hadn’t started to cramp, I would have taken less walk breaks. Then I realized that 3:00:47 is a GREAT time for me! And, if I didn’t make my goal, at least I finished with my knee intact and with the best effort I could give. I posted the results on the CJ Challengers page and was met with enthusiastic congratulations. More importantly, I had a good race; a race that was actually fun to run!'

Lesson #4
Run fast, but don’t miss the magic.
This brings me back to where I started this post: a pre-dawn start in Downtown Disney with an 
injured back. I had hoped, following my triumphant third race, that the Disneyland Half marathon would be my crowning glory: a half marathon at sea level, with much better pre-race training runs. Instead, I entered this last race more nervous than I had been before any of the other three.

There were over 15,000 runners and we were set loose in corrals of hundreds of people eight minutes apart. The race began at 530 AM but it was just past 6 when my corral was finally released. At first, I tried my best to get ahead of the crowd, even though veterans of the race had told me the night before that this was not a race to try for a PR due to so many runners on the course. Still, I dodged around slower people, jumped up onto the sidewalk when it got too congested and was generally not having a very good time, although I was very determined. I did my best running, initially, not even taking any walk breaks until after I had run steadily for more than 30 minutes; still I was getting nowhere fast.
That’s when I noticed what many of the other runners were doing. The first few miles of the race took us through the streets of Disney California Adventure and then onto the streets of the Magic Kingdom itself. Even at that early hour, hundreds of workers lined the course to cheer us on and many characters were also there—Mickey, Minnie, and their gang;  Beauty and The Beast, and their gang;  Buzz Lightyear! Woody! All of the big names were out to cheer us on! And runners were pausing from their race to line up 20 deep in order to have their picture taken with these luminaries.

In this first video, you can see me as I run out of the castle at about the :10 mark, on the far right of the crowd. It's clear by my gait that there is something wrong with me!  
That’s when I got it. I realized how for the past three races, essentially all summer, I had been focused on the stress, the injuries, the doubts. I had worried about, rather than rejoiced in, the races. I had spent a lot of time trying to justify to some people why I was running this series, rather than just soaking in the congratulations of others.
For me, doing these four half marathons had never been about getting progressively faster; it’s always been about just doing them, not letting any excuse stop me. That’s why I registered early and why I broadcast my intent. After all, it would have been easy for me to opt out of any or all of these races at the last minute; that I didn’t do that was the victory.
In this second video, you can see me at about the :20 mark, on the side closest to the announcer. I have given up trying to run and am just soaking in the magic.

It was at that moment of realization in that final race, that I stopped jockeying for a better position and just took in the magic that is Disney. I snapped a couple of photos of my own as I “raced” along. I took in the cheering Disney workers and characters and the beauty of running through the streets of the Happiest Place on Earth. As we left the park and headed down the streets of Anaheim, I applauded the bands and dance teams and car clubs that lined the streets to cheer us on. When we made it to Angel Stadium and headed down onto the field, it felt as if we were taking a victory lap; hundreds of people in the stands were cheering us on as the official game announcer welcomed us in. Unfortunately, that was at the 15K mark; we still had 3.7 miles to go.
Towards the end there were several places where cheerleaders were doing chants for us, and I felt as if they were directed specifically to me. “We are proud of you! We are proud of you!” and “We are the champions, my friend!” 

It occurred to me that I really had done it: I had completed four half marathons in four months. I had trained consistently until injuries and illnesses sidelined me, but even then, I never gave up. The victory was mine.  I wasn't the fastest in my age group, I never broke the three hour time, and I was beset by complications that slowed me down, but never held me back. And at the end of that final race, as I hobbled back to my hotel room, I could be proud. Proud that I had, ultimately, crossed the finish line I had set before me, all those months ago.

This commercial captures exactly how I felt at the end!

On Monday, September 7, I was back at home. Although my back was worse than before, I had gotten out of bed early to cheer on my friend, Cate, who was running the American Discovery Trail half marathon here in Colorado Springs. This race was an out and back, beginning in America the Beautiful park and going north for 6.55 before the turn around back to the where it began. Cate is a seasoned runner and had been training hard all summer for this race. She suggested that, if I wanted to cheer her on (and I did; she had been my faithful cheerleader at all but my final race the day before) to be waiting at the 4 mile mark (which was also about mile 9 on the way back.) So I made my way to that mile marker, at Goose Gossage park.
Once the first  and fastest runners came through, I tried to guess about when she’d be by, based on the pace estimates she’d given me. Sooner than I expected she came zipping along, going fast and looking great. After she left, I cheered on the other runners, while I waited for her to return. I looked at my watch, at one point and figured out that the next batch of runners would be about where I would be, if I had been running that race, and sure enough here they came. Some were doing the sort of disciplined run/walk ratio that I did, others were running and then walking intermittently. All of them looked exhausted but determined. I cheered especially loud for them, knowing what it felt to be at mile four, with the bulk of the race ahead. Soon after “my” group passed along, Cate came winging back. I stayed long enough to encourage her then got in my car and sped to the finish line so that I could greet her there.
It was hard to walk, my back was spasming and I was giving out little Tourette shrieks of pain every time it did. But as I waited for Cate, I reflected on my own journey that summer, the lessons I learned, the experiences I had. If you had told me just four years earlier when I first laced up a pair of running shoes and started a couch to 5K program, that I’d be running four half marathons in a single summer, I would have laughed out loud. Yet, here I was. I thought of those in my pace group still struggling on the course that morning and mentally cheered them on some more.
 Soon Cate crossed the finish line. At age 56, she had not only placed first in her age group, she had set a new PR for herself, with a time of 1:52:14- a 8:34 mile.  She writes about that experience eloquently in her own blog, Meditatio Ephemera So that’s another lesson I learned vicariously: you’re never too old to set a new PR.

Over this past month, as I’ve gone multiple times to the chiropractor, and have focused on recuperating, I have to say, I was so glad to not have a race in October. I doubt I’ll ever do so many distance races in such a short time again! But I might do the Georgetown to Idaho Springs race next year; there’s still those 48 seconds I need to lose. And I would definitely do another Disney half-- only next time I will make sure to focus on the magic from the start.

A slide show representation of my summer running!