The past 2+ weeks, I’ve spent a ridiculous/embarrassing amount of time watching the Olympics (BMX = an Olympic sport. Who knew?) and can’t help but marvel at how easy the athletes make it look — Jenny Simpson closing in the final 100m to win bronze in the 1500m, Emma Coburn medaling in the badass steeplechase, Des Linden making 26.2 miles in the heat and humidity look like a Sunday morning jog, and don’t even get me started on Allyson Felix… Their various social media pages are filled with all the rewards and the good stuff that comes with being a world class athlete: the sweaty smiling selfies, the successful tune-up races, the confidence-boosting training runs, and the free goodies from sponsors. But what you don’t see, are the workouts that aren’t all rainbows and glitter, the diabetic-coma inducing (translation: delicious) dessert you can’t eat, the late-night party you can’t go to (and by “late-night”, I mean anything after 8pm), and the mind-numbing exhaustion that comes with pushing your body to the limit day after day.
awe·some ˈôsəm/ adjective
extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear.
A few weeks ago, I had the awesome honor of pacing ultra-marathon runner and internet winning flow chart designing dude Chris as he ran his second 100 miler, the Vermont 100. Chris had emailed me early in the summer and asked if I would pace him. I checked my calendar and immediately said yes. It wasn’t until the next day when I took a look at the course, notably, the elevation profile. The entire course is 14,000-15,000 ft of elevation gain and loss, which meant I needed to train on hills starting yesterday. I found whatever hills I could in Manhattan and ran as many repeats as my legs could handle. Thanks to my training, I’m now intimately familiar with the graffiti along the Williamsburg Bridge, and can tell you all about the intricacies of the Harlem Hills.
The race day (or more accurately, race night) plan was to run the last 30 miles together, with nearly all of those coming after sunset. I made half a dozen PBJ sandwiches, threw some gatorade and Vitamin Water into the car, grabbed a whole pack full of Honey Stinger bars and chews, made sure I had my foot-saving Topo socks (seriously, those things are genius), put on my We Can bracelet (a little extra motivation and inspiration never hurts)and Sparkly Soul headband, and made sure to wear my NYCRUNS Brooklyn Marathon hat and I was on my way to Vermont. I arrived at the mile 50/70 aid station on Saturday afternoon not knowing what to expect. I’ve run almost 30 marathons and three 50 milers, but the scene here was unlike anything I’d ever experienced: socks and shirts changed, water bottles topped off, blisters popped, salt and sugar consumed at impressive rates, and grilled cheese sandwiches disappearing faster than they could be made. Shortly after I arrived, Chris came through mile 50, looking like he only ran a 5km. His wife Surjeet (aka crew chief), Becky (fellow crewer and navigator extraordinaire), and I met up with him again around mile 60, and he still seemed in very good spirits. Then, we drove back to the mile 70 aid station, where it was my turn to start running. I filled up my water bladder, put on my pack and headlamp, said a few prayers to the running gods, and off we went.
We all hung out for about an hour in the food/medical tent and watched as people came in – some walking casually, others hobbling, some barely standing upright, but all dripping wet, freezing, looking utterly exhausted. One guy walked in, soaking wet, wearing only spandex shorts and a running belt, laid face down in the middle of the tent, and promptly fell asleep. His ankles were still flexed. Someone put a blanket over him and he didn’t even move. Someone else checked to make sure he was breathing. (He was.)
New Orleans Marathon. February 28, 2016. My chance to try and podium in a major event. No pressure, right? Just go down there, have fun, and run (and to quote my aunt, “save the Hurricanes until after”)! In the weeks/days leading up to the race, I just couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that I was going to run 7 minute miles for 26.2 miles. How is that possible? Sure, I’ve done it a bunch of times before, but to do it again? That’s crazy talk. I looked at my training logs to remind myself of the work I did, I examined my beat up feet and worn down shoes. I thought of the miles in Brooklyn, Princeton, Philadelphia, Miami, and Grand Cayman (wow, not bad for a training cycle). I recalled my favorite memories during past races – seeing my family at the finish line in Long Island, all those (10!) times I made the right on Hereford then left on Boylston in Boston, the final left turn in Prospect Park at mile 26 of the Brooklyn Marathon, and running on an air strip during mile 48 of the Nashville 50 mile Ultramarathon. But nothing helped, I just couldn’t get rid of the anxiety and self-doubt. I was hoping that when the gun went off, my head and body would sort themselves out and muscle memory would take over…
While looking around in Corral 1, I noticed the half dozen or so female elite runners, doing all sorts of jumpy warm-up exercise thingies, in their crisp singlets advertising their sponsors. And then there was me. No pre-race routine (unless you count repeating, “oh shit” over and over again), no fancy sponsors, just my favorite (stinky) sparkly soul headband, probably-time-to-be-replaced orange CPTC New Balance singlet, and a few Honey Stingers gels stuffed into the waistband of my shorts (little did I know, I would not be needing those today). The gun fired, and off we went, some much faster than others, but all of us doing our best to avoid the potholes and vie for shade as we paraded down St. Charles. The craziness settled after about a half hour when we reached that point in the race – usually around mile 4 of a full marathon – where the initial euphoria wears off, and everyone realizes exactly what they’ve gotten themselves into and suddenly everything is very quiet. I heard Sam’s unmistakable footfall behind me (he was running the half, and on his way to a near PR), and tried to quiet the nay-saying voices in my head by convincing myself that it was just a training run. We were on the Westside highway, running into that ever-present headwind, nailing another 6 x 2 mile workout. Alas, I could trick myself for only so long. By the time we got to mile 7, I realized I was working way too hard to keep up a 7:05 pace.
Something was wrong. Enter: panic mode, quickly followed by: stifled-cry-while-trying-not-to-choke mode. I signaled for Sam to pull up next to me so I could tell him things were not going well. He replied with some words of encouragement, clearly not getting what I was telling him. I tried sending him a message via ESP (and a few of my best dirty looks) to let him know, “DUDE. WE HAVE A NO BUENO SITUATION HERE.” No such luck. I resorted to actual speaking and told him I was thinking of calling it a day at 13.1. That got his attention. He stayed next to me, and did his best to keep me going, but I just wasn’t having it. At mile 12.5 the half marathoners turned off for the finish line and let me tell you, I have never been so jealous of half marathoners in my life. Normally, I love it when they split off and we have the course all to ourselves. Not today. I almost went with them – and could have collected a finisher’s medal and avoided the dreaded “DNF” (Did Not Finish) – but waited until the very last cone dividing our paths before following my fellow full marathoners, determined to try again. I desperately wanted to get my shit together.
It was my final attempt trying to save what was turning out to be a disastrous race. Between miles 12.5 and 15, I could see that I was the 12th female and just a few minutes behind the lead woman, and – in what can only be described as a cruel joke from the marathon gods – my pace slowed from 7:05 to 7:15 to 7:20, and eventually, 8:00. I got passed by two women. I wished them well as I peeled off the course just beyond a medical tent. I saw Sam and started to sob uncontrollably. I was done. My marathon ended at 15.33 miles. I had just DNFed my first race. A medic came running over, asking if I was sick. In between tears and wiping gobs of snot off my face, I answered, “no.” He asked if I was hurt. Again, “no.” He wanted to get me a wheelchair. He wanted to call over another medic. Dude, seriously, I am not hurt. The poor guy looked so confused, if this girl wasn’t sick or injured, why did she just drop out of the race? “I just don’t have it today,” I said. Thankfully, Sam waved him off. And before doing anything else, I took off my number. I wanted to get rid of it as soon as possible, I was embarrassed by my yellow marathon bib.
In the hours (ok, fine, days) that followed, I was so sad. So disappointed. All those hours training in the cold, on vacation, early in the morning, late at night, and for what? So I could run 60% of a marathon? Much like you do after a relationship ends, I asked myself, what happened? Were there any signs? Could I have seen this coming? I guess the short answer is “probably” and the long answer is a conversation to be had after a glass or two of wine (preferably with a box of tissues handy). I tried not to focus on the race and spent the next three days in Lafayette, Louisiana where I nursed my bruised ego in the form of boudin, po’boys, and bread pudding.
I took a few days off from running, and then – thanks to some advice from my coach – got back outside. We agreed that the best way to get rid of the demons of the New Orleans Marathon was to run: I’m signed up to run a half marathon this weekend. If all goes well, I’ll have a finisher’s medal and hopefully a little bit of that self-confidence I keep hearing about. If not, well, at least I’ll get a free bagel.
For the 4th straight year, Sam and I made our week-long pilgrimage to Miami for The Rockboat and a (very) welcome reprieve from the gross NYC winter. Since the cruise is typically held in February, I’m usually in the early part of training for a spring marathon, and so the week down south has been a low mileage (i.e., relaxing) one. Then came this year. The Rockboat was a month earlier than usual, and I decided to mix things up and run a marathon in late February, which meant that I had some serious miles to do while we were away. I was more than a little anxious about the trip – I had to run ALL of the miles, plus my right foot was sore (damn Plantar Fasciitis), and I’m a textbook introvert so the amount of auditory, visual, and social stimulation on the boat are enough to make me run for the hills… or at least a dark quiet room.
So, The Rockboat: it’s a floating music festival where beer is sold by the bucket and soft serve ice cream is considered a food group. Where spontaneous parties in the elevators are the norm and cruisers learn to appreciate the words “washy washy”. Where the music starts in the afternoon and goes until nearly sunrise. Where I learned from Edwin McCain (while sitting next to him at the Blackjack table. Naturally) and the dealers that he was big in the Philippines and is known down there as Manila Ice. Where I’ve had the chance to see big bands like Sister Hazel, Brandi Carlile, Barenaked Ladies, Reel Big Fish, and NEEDTOBREATHE. Where I’ve seen old favorites like Will Hoge, Red Wanting Blue, Tony Lucca, and the Alternate Routes. And where I’ve met new favorites like Brendan James, the Roosevelts, and most recently, Andy Suzuki and the Method (pause. Can I please get an amen for best band name ever?).
Since we left town just a few days after NYC got rocked with over 2 feet of snow, I had been doing a lot of miles on the treadmill and, despite my best efforts at rolling and stretching, my frikkin Plantar Fasciitis was acting up again. After a really rough (read: disgustingly sweaty and rocking – like, literally rocking) 6 miles on the treadmill on the ship, I half limped into the spa, desperate for a foot massage to loosen up the grittiness that had become the bottom of my foot. When I told the lady what I wanted, she said, “oh, no, you don’t want that! You want acupuncture!” Well, I had just won $150 playing blackjack the night before (Hit on 16. Double down. Split — but not 10s) and I figured the worst that could happen was that it didn’t work. I mean, I was getting acupuncture on a cruise ship…
Two 1 hour sessions, 35 needle sticks and a few naps later, I was symptom-free. Magic. It must have been magic. The western medicine-trained scientist in me was (and still is) completely baffled. Within hours, the swelling and soreness were gone. I don’t know how it worked, I don’t know why it worked, but it did. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit perturbed – normally I would have booked a few sessions with my Physical Therapist extraordinaire, taken a bucket of Advil, iced my foot religiously, and – let’s be honest – been more than a little cranky about it all.
After the Miracle in the Spa, we docked at Costa Maya, Mexico, where Sam and I figured running outside the resort area probably wasn’t a great idea (the armed guards around the gates kind of gave it away), so we ended up doing a crap ton of laps around the track on the boat. How much is a “crap ton”? Well, if 5.5 laps is 1 mile, how many laps is 10 miles? 55. 55 freaking laps we did on that track.
The next day we did 14 miles up the West Bay of Grand Cayman, where the humidity was oppressive and a local dive shop owner put us to shame when she told us it was “cold” at 82 degrees. After nearly 2 hours of running and a few “oops” moments (surprise! The cars drive on the left side! Also, wild roosters. Lots of wild roosters), we made it back to port in one piece. Kelly and Sam: 1, Grand Cayman: 0. Huzzah!
The next couple of days brought more miles on the rolling treadmill, more laps around that damn track, and more sweaty clothes hung out to dry, making our sleeping quarters look – and smell – like a locker room (apologies to the room steward). After docking, we left the pouring rain of Florida only to land in the pouring rain of NYC.
All in all, it was a pretty good trip: I squeezed in 80 miles for the week, got converted to acupuncture, found my new favorite band, and spent a few days with some pretty cool people listening to some pretty rad music. If only I could have found time to sleep, the trip would have been perfect.
This summer, I lost weight. I lost a lot of weight. Simply put, I was too sad to eat. After a few weeks of consuming nothing but a serving of greek yogurt and a pastry from Starbucks each day, I had to buy new clothes so I didn’t look like a little kid playing dress up in my mom’s clothes. After almost a month of this sudden, severe drop in caloric intake, I found myself standing in the dressing room at the Gap, in disbelief at the fact that I was trying on (and fitting into) shorts that were a 00. Having been teased for years because of my “bubble butt” and my “Kelly belly”, the size of my new clothes was very strange — I used to look at stuff that small and scoff — I did not think my bones could mange to arrange themselves such that they could fit into something so tiny.
My last 50 mile race was 2 years ago and it was on trails in early July in (mountainous) Ithaca, NY. It took me 10 hours and 40 minutes to complete, mostly because I had no idea what I was doing and took it very cautiously. This time, it was about 30 degrees cooler and the race — the Nashville Ultra — was on much less technical terrain. With the more favorable conditions, I wanted to see if I could maintain a 10 minute mile and finish between 8 and 9 hours.
I haven’t been shy about the fact that the summer/fall has been a tough training cycle for me. It was one of those training periods where I felt like I could never get any momentum. Sure I had a few 80+ mile weeks, but in a 3 month span, I also got stitches in my toe, subsequently developed tendinitis, got rid of it, and cursed as it came back. I moved (twice!), started a new job, broke-up, and then made-up. I had some obnoxious IT band problems, a fibula that decided to rotate out of position, a seriously disgusting stomach virus, and was wrecked by a migraine or two. In between all these mini hurdles, I spent most of my days running. Running away from things, running towards things, running to feel better, running until it hurt. I ran the hills of Prospect Park, the flats of the west side bike path. I ran the Williamsburg bridge at sunrise, Central Park at sunset. I ran in beautiful Hawaii, humid Delaware, hilly Pennsylvania, and back home in the chaotic East Village. Most of all, though, I ran to get ready for what was supposed to be an exciting fall calendar. I was going to try to run sub 3:00 in the Hartford Marathon in mid-October and then PR at a 50 miler in Nashville in early November.
Towards the end of a really kick ass (translation: ridiculously tough) hill workout early on a Saturday morning where Sam and I were serenaded by “kids” from a rooftop who were still up drinking from the night before, I developed serious knee pain. Shit. I hobbled home and then, like the intelligent runner that I am, tried going out later in the day for my second run. Why? Duh, “runner logic” said that since I had a marathon to train for, my knee pain would just magically go away. Right? Ha. About a mile into the run, I practically had a temper tantrum, the pain was so bad. Based on the location of the pain, I had a pretty good idea of what it was: the dreaded IT band syndrome. Ugh. If my diagnosis was correct (and we all know what a great idea it is to self-diagnose, ahem Webmd), Hartford probably wouldn’t happen, and my goal of running my second ultra might not happen, either. Why did I work so hard, only to end up injured? Or, as I asked a number of times this summer, “WTF?”
Anyway, I digress. Back to the part where I was dry heaving on the east side path, having a nice little public breakdown. Let’s just say it wasn’t my finest moment. Still crying (thank goodness for dark sunglasses), I limped home, and immediately emailed my physical therapist. She worked magic on my foot 5 years ago when I had the brilliant idea to just “run through” Plantar Fasciitis (PS — don’t do that). I practically begged her for an appointment ASAP, and wanted to virtually hug her when she set me up with Dan, another therapist in the practice who had an appointment first thing Monday morning, He told me it would be a relatively easy fix (note: he didn’t say “quick”, he said “easy”. I learned there IS a difference), rolled up his sleeves, and got to work prying my IT band off of my quad/hamstring. Yes, apparently it’s a thing: your IT band can adhere to your muscles. And yes, the therapy is as much “fun” as it sounds. I never knew massage could be so painful. You know that scene in the movie the 40-Year Old Virgin where Steve Carell gets his chest waxed? That was me. Minus the bleeding.
A few weeks and many bruises later, Hartford came and went. After spending way too many hours watching Netflix, eating dumplings, drinking wine, and generally being a crabby human being, Dan gave me the green light to start running again. I did my first run on the treadmill, because I figured that if my knee still hurt and I felt the need to smash things, at least I would be in a relatively controlled environment. The run was… tentative. “Is that my IT band?” “Do I feel something?” “Am I ok?” “What happens if I go faster?” He told me to stick with just 2 miles. Of course I did 2.25 miles… and then asked him the next day if it would be a good idea to pace a friend doing a 100 mile race the next week. I believe his exact words were “stupid and crazy.”
That was a few weeks ago. I’m still seeing Dan twice a week for some hurt-so-good PT (apparently your fibula can rotate out of alignment. Yep. Also a thing.) and am heading to Nashville tomorrow for an ultramarathon. I spent 4 hours on Sunday at miles 18 and 23 of the NYC Marathon cheering — and crying — as thousands of inspiring people passed me en route to Tavern on the Green. After the role reversal of being cheerleader instead of runner, I’m more motivated than ever to conquer this training cycle and take a little 50 mile tour around Nashville. It’s going to be freaking awesome. And exhausting. And amazing.
And I’m totally going to cry.