Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Journey to Runner Status: 50 Shades of Purple?

Since I was a teenager, I have regularly run—other than a few “breaks” for things like pregnancy and a bad ankle injury.  But, for the most part, running has been my main mode of exercise.  It has been my “medicine” for anxiety, sadness, to help me achieve health (even though my health is my biggest source of anxiety)… I like to run.  No, I love to run—especially after the run is over. 

Despite my individual participation in the activity of running, I have always been hesitant to call myself a RUNNER.  I mean, I ran around my neighborhood in old t-shirts and shorts.  RUNNERS run competitive races, keep track of time and distance, have nice running clothes, special running shoes, and they have those amazingly sexy toned calves.  I’ve never been a REAL runner.  But that all changed 2 days ago…

But my journey to runner status really began about a year and a half ago.  I hurt my ankle and couldn’t run.  I tried biking and walking and the elliptical machine—nothing was the same as running.  I decided once I could run again, I would RUN again.  I wanted to run a 5k and not be embarrassed.  Last summer, I started timing myself and seeing how far I could run.  I couldn’t even run a 5k after that stupid injury!  But I was setting a goal.  Physical goals are hard for me.  Though I had run, I wouldn’t push myself or anything like that.  So, my goal was to, by this spring, run a 5k and not be embarrassed.

Then, Buzz ran the Marine Corps Marathon last October.  He did it without training and made mistakes a real runner would never make—like buying new running shoes the day before the race.  I mean, even I knew that was a no-no.  I made fun of him—a lot.  But, on the day of the MCM, something inside ME changed.  I obsessive-compulsively checked the live updates to see how he was doing.  I was so proud of him.  Maybe he wasn’t a REAL runner, either (though hands-down he was way closer to one than me)…but that didn’t matter.  He was out there pounding the pavement for 26.2 miles like every other RUNNER out there.  I was inspired.  That day, I ran 5 miles under a 10 minute pace.  That was the longest distance I have ever run, at least since college.  When Buzz got home, he was sore to say the least.  But within a day, with the pain still present, he said he wanted to do it again.  What was wrong with him?  Was he a real runner?  Only a real runner would subject himself to that kind of torture, I think. 

Then, we signed up for the MCM series Turkey Trot 10k.  I “trained.”  My goal was to finish in an hour.  I was nervous.  Buzz and I ran the course prior to the race, since it was here on base, and I made it under my goal time.  Still, race day I was really nervous.  But I came in under 55 minutes!  I felt great!  I couldn’t wait to do it again!  Maybe I COULD become a runner.  We signed up for a 4-mile race in February.

I bought real running gear, not so much because I wanted to LOOK like a runner, but because I realized that that gear is more comfortable and necessary when you are running long distances outside—especially when it’s too cold to be outside to begin with.  I considered starting a blog called “50 Shades of Purple” to chronicle my quest to become a runner—turns out I really like the color purple and this is reflected in my running clothes, even though it must be impossible to match shades of purple among various articles.  Plus, it fit with the whole 50 shades theme as I became obsessed with running and developed a new relationship where the running dominated my mind and body.  But, I opted out of the blog idea because I was scared I would fail and then I would have these deep desires out there for people to see…and everyone would know I didn’t achieve my goal. 

Then came THE injury.  It was some strange-name condition that is worse than shin splints and not as bad as a stress fracture (which they thought it was but was ruled out with an MRI that diagnosed the strange-name-thing).  I only had to take a few more weeks off from running (yay!) and get some orthotic inserts for my running shoes.  I felt old and anyone who needs orthotic anything is certainly not a RUNNER.  Nonetheless, the day after I got the diagnosis, I signed up for the MCM Historic Half Marathon—about 4 months away, even though I had still not run more than 7 miles.  Ever.  My goal:  13.1 miles in less than 2 1/2 hours.  IF I could do that, I would feel confident in calling myself a RUNNER.  That race became more than a goal.  It began to define who I was—or who I could be—or who I wanted to be.  It consumed my thoughts.  Running was always on my mind.

So, I “trained” again.  But this time I knew I had to start out slowly, despite reaching the 7-mile mark before my injury.  I had to start out at 1 mile, slowly, and then work my way up.  That was frustrating but I didn't want to risk another injury.  I remember my sense of accomplishment when I completed my first 8-mile run without a struggle.  I stopped getting gastrointestinal distress (as Buzz and I embarrassingly call it) after my longer runs.  I started recovering faster from the joint and muscle pain and stiffness.  The first time I ran 10 miles (with hills) the pain was intense but the sense of accomplishment was bigger than the pain.  I was soon able to run 8 miles with no problem.  Then, one day, after my 8 (planned) miles, I just kept going—to 13.1!  Yes, there was pain—but it paled in comparison to the goal I had just reached—in less than 2 hours and 10 minutes (with minimal hills). 

I started researching my big race.  Hospital Hill scared me to pieces!  Hospital Hill refers to the hill next to Mary Washington Hospital in the final miles of the half marathon.  There are stories…this hill is a legend around here and among those who have run the course.  Running groups (with real runners) started training to tackle THE hill.  I started training to run more hills on base, since I wasn't part of a real-runner club.

The day before the race, I cried on the way to pick up our race packets.  Buzz didn’t understand.  Of course I could do it, he said.  But what if I couldn't?  What if I stopped/didn’t finish, or got hurt, or passed out, or died?  (Yes, those were real thoughts.)  We drove hospital hill.  It didn’t look THAT bad in the car…except I would have to run 9+ miles before I tackled it on foot.  My response:  at least the hospital is right here.  All I wanted to do was finish under my goal time and that hill was standing in my way.  But, if by some chance I could actually achieve that goal even with the evil hill, then I would have done it, I could call myself a runner, and I would never do it again.  I would stick to 10k’s and finally run that 5k I talked about this time last year. 

The night before the race, I carb-loaded with Moe’s and mac and cheese.  I only slept about 4 hours.  I was so nervous.  When the alarm went off at 4:45 I was exhausted, but jumped out of bed easily thanks to my nerves.  Real runners aren’t nervous before a race.  And they probably aren’t that tired.  Plus, real runners probably train when they were tired.  I didn’t.  I waited until another day to run if I was tired.

I got dressed—I had put aside my race day outfit (with 4 shades of purple) a week before, down to my underwear that I knew wouldn’t give me wedgies.  I made my old-faithful long-run breakfast—a peanut butter and banana sandwich.  But I couldn’t finish it because I had a nervous stomach.  Real runners didn’t get that—I bet they were able to scarf down their breakfasts.  I took my vitamins, kissed K (the babysitter spent the night so she would be there when we left), drank lots of water, and headed off.

We parked.  After 2 pee-pee stops (at Wal-Mart and a porta-john) we were off to the start line.  While waiting for the porta-potty, I saw people—real runners—running to warm up.  I couldn’t do that.  I had to save my “juice.”  The first 2 miles was my warm up—plus I was already warmed up from the heart-pounding anxiety.  But, back to the start line: It was real.  This day I had dreamed of—choked up about envisioning myself crossing the finish line—was here.  It was real and surreal all at the same time.  I bet real runners didn’t think it was surreal. 

I almost cried during the national anthem.  There I was, among Marines and real runners—at the same start line on the same course.  It was happening.  Deep breath…the gun fired.  And we stood there.  With that many people running, it’s not an on your marks, get set, go sort of thing.  It takes a while to get to the actual start line and then some more time to really get going as you wait for the pack to disperse.  But, soon enough, we were off.

I remember running under the huge flag in the air right after the start line—hoping in less than 2 ½ hours I would be looking at the same flag from the other direction with a huge sense of accomplishment.

I was so excited, but told myself to settle down.  I had 13 miles ahead of me.  Then came the rain.  I realized that I hadn’t trained in the rain.  Real runners do that, but not me.  Oh well, it would keep me cool, I thought.  It did.  And one of my shades of purple was a new armband I had bought at the expo the day before (a not-real-runner move, I'm sure--to get so excited at the expo and make irrational-type purchases) and it was perfect for keeping the wetness out of my eyes.

In all of the excitement, I am so proud of what I did the entire race: I took it all in.  ALL of it.  I looked at every person cheering that I could.  I high-fived the people on the side lines.  I read the signs.  I looked at my fellow runners—fellow runners?  If they are fellows, does it mean I am among their ranks?  Anyway, if this was going to be my ONE and ONLY half marathon, my one experience that would help me become the runner I wanted to be even if I would never do it again, I had to take it all in.  I had to savor all of the information my senses fed me.  And I did.  When I got tired, I danced to my music on my iPhone, just like I do running at home.  When I hurt, I reminded myself that it was just pain and the race was really run in my mind.  When it got tough, I took the advice from real runners—it’s just me and the road.  When I had to, I looked at my feet, saw I was still moving, and reminded myself this was about ME and I COULD do it.  And the only person I had to prove something to was ME.  It hurt toward the end.  I remember telling Buzz that every step hurt right after Hospital Hill.  Hospital hill was a beast, but I conquered it with flying colors, with Buzz by my side.  I loved the sign that said “What Hill?”  I loved the clapping and cheering.  It makes me want to go be a spectator at a big race and cheer on all of the runners…maybe I could be that person with a sign that pushes the person who "wants to be a real runner" toward their goal.

Buzz and I held hands as we crossed the finish line.  The pics and video show a big smile on my face.  My time: 2:12:44.  Maybe it wasn’t the best time for a real RUNNER, but it was AMAZING for ME.  The pain didn’t even bother me.  I was on top of the world.  I did it!  And I loved it.  I took it all in.  I lived each moment.  I RAN each moment.  And it felt good.  It still feels good—amazing!

The pain has subsided for the most part and, yesterday, I signed up for another half marathon later this year…and the Turkey Trot 10k again.  What’s that?  I signed up for ANOTHER half?  But the one two days ago was supposed to be my one and only.  The only explanation…I AM a RUNNER!   (And I’m writing this down because I never want to forget this feeling when I made that transition…or maybe I’ve been a runner all along, but that was the moment when I recognized it for REAL.)

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