Thursday, August 25, 2011

Why I need to stop watching Nancy Grace

I do the majority of my runs close to home, in a neighborhood comprised mostly of retired couples and rich Canadians who think it’s super hip to have a summer home south of the border.

As such, I usually pass by several old people walking small dogs over the course of my usual route, but I hardly ever see other runners. Which is fine with me—whenever I catch a glimpse of another runner in the distance, my competitive juices start flowing, and I feel compelled to somehow “beat” them, either by being the first to reach a certain point along the road (if they are running towards me) or passing them before I reach a certain point along the road (if they are ahead of me).

So to be honest, I’d much rather smile and wave at Dr. Nelson and his bichon frise, Princess Beatrice, than enter into an involuntary speed showdown that, whatever the outcome, will almost certainly leave me feeling like a complete nerd/loser.

Today, however, was different.

As I exited the land of late-onset empty-nest syndrome and turned right onto the main road, a flash of motion jumped into my peripheral field of vision.

I turned my head and squinted into the morning sun, trying to get a better look at this mystery exerciser—the first one I had seen in days. But he was completely backlit, and all I could see was the distant silhouette of a…roller blader?

Hold the phone, I thought. Did I really just see a freaking roller blader?

As I strode along, I racked my brain for the last time I had ever laid eyes on a pair of roller blades. I finally decided that it must have been at least a decade, since everyone knows roller blades haven’t been cool since “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” was on the Billboard Hot 100.

No, wait—I thought—I think I saw a pair at that white trash garage sale I stopped at a couple of years back, the one where I almost got talked into buying a set of Harry Potter Happy Meal toys from a 6-year-old with a Kool-Aid mustache.

My train of thought was suddenly interrupted as an elderly gentleman zoomed by me on some sort of wheeled contraption that can only be described as the awkward lovechild of a mountain bike and a Nordic Track ski machine.

So it wasn’t a roller blader, I thought, shrugging my shoulders with an inexplicable feeling of disappointment—like I’d just seen Bigfoot but then realized it was only Jack Black with his shirt off.

I ran on, wondering why I had never seen this guy out on the roads before. About a mile down the road, I heard the faint sound of an approaching set of motorless wheels.

Then, from behind me: “You’re beautiful.”

My heart jumped. Oh crap, I thought. It’s finally happening. I’m going to have to karate-chop some pervert and make a run for the nearest dog-walking senior citizen.

I had reviewed my response to this exact scenario many times in my mind. The only problem is that, despite my best intentions, I still haven’t taken the martial arts self-defense class I’ve been meaning to enroll in for the last six years.

With no bank of kick-ass ninja moves to draw from, I picked up my pace and stole a quick look to my right to size up my attacker. He was skinny and at least 60 years old.

I breathed a sigh of relief. I knew I could escape from him with nothing more than a swift kick to the crotch and a few hundred meters of sprinting in the opposite direction.

“Your form, I mean—it’s absolutely perfect,” he said as he glided past my right shoulder.

I think he knew he had startled me, because he kept a comfortable distance between us as he continued on with his somewhat flattering commentary of my gait.

“I just love watching you run,” he said. “I can see the winner inside you.”

“Oh, um, thank you,” I said, not knowing how else to respond to such an odd compliment.

The winner inside me? Was that some kind of cryptic sexual reference?

I picked up the pace another notch and made a sharp turn onto a small footpath that led to a narrow canal bridge, hoping it would prove too great an obstacle for his bike-ski hybrid.

“Oh, I see we have the same route,” he said, following me down the path.

I was on the verge of veering off into someone’s backyard and screaming, “Help! I need an adult!” But before I had the chance, he opened his mouth again.

“I’m Bob, by the way,” he said. “I ran competitively for 30 years, and I can always pick out the best runners just by looking at their form.”

After Bob introduced himself, the strength of his creeper vibe diminished considerably. I got the feeling that he was just like me—a lonely runner in a world of tiny sissy dogs with out-of-shape owners.

“My name’s…” I hesitated for a second, weighing the consequences of giving him my real name and ultimately deciding it probably wouldn’t hurt. “…Brooke. I actually ran in college, and my coaches always said I had good form too.”

Bob rode his ski apparatus next to me for another half-mile or so. We chatted about cross training and cartilage breakdown—you know, normal running small talk.

After we parted ways, I wondered if I had just seen a glimpse into my future. Would that be me someday, riding a funny-looking bike thing and striking up unsolicited conversations with young whippersnapper runners?

I can accept that as my fate, as long as I never reach the point where I have a miniature Schnauzer named Prince Charles.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Get real

Well folks, it’s that time of year again—the time when I usually start making frequent withdrawals from the excuse bank to make sure I never have to do that torturous uphill mile repeat workout. Yep—it’s cross country season.

Thankfully, my days of pounding the dirt for several long, unpleasant intervals are over—but that doesn’t mean I’m out of the woods (literally and figuratively).

When I heard that the local high school runners would start practicing this week, I experienced an unsettling emotional reaction that can only be described as a cross country veteran’s version of post traumatic stress disorder.

Suddenly, I was back at the trailhead where that miserable, hot, dusty workout began. Everything was so vivid, so real—I could feel my lungs burning as my legs struggled to carry my sweaty, exhausted body up the rocky incline. I could taste the turkey-bagel vomit spewing from my mouth as I bent over the edge of the trail, gasping for breath in between regurgitations. I could smell the men’s team as they grunted past me, leaving in their wake a hot, wet cloud of unwashed-running-shorts stink.

When I finally snapped back to reality, my forehead was dotted with beads of cold sweat, and my stomach was a knot of imaginary ill-digested turkey bagel.

How did I ever survive that sport?

Then it hit me—I not only survived cross country, I reveled in its status as a sport reserved for ultra-tough renegade badasses.

There is a reason sixty kids go out for soccer while only six go out for cross country. When it comes down to it, any semi-athletic high-schooler could kick a ball, but not very many have the guts and determination necessary to power through three miles of continuous pain and suffering.

So yeah, being on the cross country team made me feel special, even if the other kids didn’t exactly feel that way about it. I think I even remember one of my high school teachers asking me when I was going to try a real sport.

For the record, *Mr. Daniels, cross country is pretty much as real as it gets. I left a pile of bagel barf on the side of a hiking trail, for eff’s sake. And to the stupid football jocks who made fun of the awkward, skinny cross country athletes: I don’t really care anymore because you’re probably fat now.

* Name has been changed

Thursday, August 11, 2011

For the run of it

I don’t know if you, my loyal reader(s), have noticed this phenomenon, but the other day I realized that we runners have a totally sick and twisted self-reward system.

Last weekend, for example, I had a lot of writing to do. (Not the blog kind—the reporter kind that I am [poorly] paid for.)

As I hit the save button on my first of four articles, I thought, “If I can finish the second one before noon, I’ll reward myself with a run.”

I instinctively punched “command + W” followed by “command + N” as quickly as I could and got to work on crafting a passable lead for a story on the high school cheerleading camp.

With thoughts of spirit fingers and pompoms swirling through my head, I abruptly stopped typing and threw my brain into reverse. Had I just promised myself several miles’ worth of pain and suffering in exchange for several hundred words’ worth of pain and suffering?

Most normal Americans reward themselves with things like Starbucks lattes, pedicures or episodes of Toddlers and Tiaras. (OK, I reward myself with Toddlers and Tiaras too, but only because I feel obligated to do something productive in order to justify throwing away an hour of my life.)

But since runners generally get some sort of deranged satisfaction out of punishing their bodies for extended periods of time, we choose that over a cute new pair of shoes. (Unless said shoes happen to be the latest Asics Cumulus model.)

We do the same thing with our weekends. Everyone else spends the week slaving away at their jobs so they can cut loose Friday night and have some well-deserved fun. But what do we do? We get our TGIF on by enjoying a full eight hours of sleep so we can wake up early and—you guessed it—run!

I mean, think about it—how many times have you had the following conversation:

Friend: Oh man, it’s been a reaaalllllllyyy long week. What do you say to a pitcher and a few games of pool?

You: Actually, I was planning to have an early night. I have to get up at 6 a.m. for that half-marathon.

Friend: [Speechless with face displaying a look of utter bewilderment/disgust]

You: Sorry dude. See you Monday.

On that note, since I’m finished with this blog post, I think I’ve earned a nice five-miler. If I run fast enough, maybe I’ll reward myself with a bonus core workout.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Downward jog

Nothing says “dead meat” like a backwoods taxidermy shop.

So when I got off the bus at the starting line of the 10K I ran last weekend, I couldn’t help but feel like I was standing in the gravel parking lot of a bad omen in the form of a dilapidated, antler-encrusted log cabin. Still, as I made my way to the middle of a two-lane mountain highway in the boonies of Northwest Montana, I had a very exciting realization about the race ahead.

The good thing about driving six (point two) miles up a mountain road to get to the starting line of a 10K is that you will be running those same six (point two) miles down the mountain to the finish line.

“It’s all downhill from here, literally,” I thought as I did my final stretches. It was a stark contrast to the racecourse for my first 10K, which, you might recall, started with a roughly one-mile climb up a freaking mountain.

For my sophomore effort, I knew the key would be starting out conservatively. There was actually one steep uphill stretch in the final two miles, and the last mile was flat. If I abused my legs too much on the downhill, they would be totally useless by the time everyone else was starting their finishing kick.

When the gun sounded (and by gun, I mean some old guy shouting, “Boom!” with his thumb and index finger in the air), I let a lot of people sprint ahead of me. I fought off the urge to go with them, even though it definitely hurt my ego to be running behind someone in a skirt.

I flew through the one-mile mark in 6:10. Whoa. I knew I was running downhill, but dang. I immediately slowed down, afraid that even with my conscious effort to budget my energy, I had inadvertently screwed myself over.

Then I thought back on the rest of my experiences that morning: riding to the starting line in a rickety old school bus; starting the race 15 minutes late because there were clearly not enough rickety old school buses to handle the volume of race participants; peeing in the woods near the starting line and fearing an attack by a bear or a crazed hillbilly.

Obviously, the organization of this little fun-run wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of professionalism. I decided that whatever measuring device was used to mark the first mile was probably about as high-tech as the starting gun. Therefore, I opted to totally ignore my split. Instead, I kicked it up a notch and finally got around Skirt Lady.

I kept my pace even and manageable, slowly working my way up the field. Passing male competitors is my secret guilty pleasure, especially when they act all macho about it and immediately pass me back. This happened twice during this particular race, and I’m happy to report that in the end, I finished ahead of both the Bruce Willis look-alike and the sixteen-year-old cross country runner.

But those two were just the sprinkles on the cupcake. The woman who led the female field for most of the race started to fade on the hill. Before that, I had been content to let her go, but once I realized I was gaining on her, my eyes narrowed as I thought, “Game on.”

Amazingly, I still had some spring in my step after five straight miles of downhill pounding. I finally passed her with about a half-mile to go. I weaved my way down the final stretch, dodging 5K walkers and kids.

After crossing the line, my victory celebration was short-lived, as my quads immediately seized up. I limped around the finishing area in desperate search of electrolytes. Again, I thought back on the rest of the morning: rickety school buses; taxidermy shop; 6:10 mile split.

I was not going to find Gatorade anywhere near that finish line.

As I limped to the grocery store to purchase a sports drink, I couldn’t help but chuckle. Even with all of its quirks, this race was way more enjoyable than most of the races I’ve done. There was no pressure, I was relaxed and I didn’t overthink it.

Who knows—if I can talk my quads into it, I might even go back next year to defend my title.