Monday, March 19, 2012

No pain, no gain

I'm sitting here at my writing desk not entirely sure I'll be able to stand up again. But I have to type this blog entry now because I seriously suspect muscle stiffness from yesterday's NYC Half Marathon 2012 to swallow me whole soon enough.

I am so pleased to report that I finished the race - and not only that, I finished it in a respectable time of 2:32:11. Sure, there were heaps of people faster than me but there were probably heaps of people slower than me too. But as I ran along, I reminded myself that the race just belonged to me and as long as I stayed ahead of the bus that picked up all the stragglers, I'd be fine. Well I stayed over 25 minutes ahead of that bus, and I was really happy with that. When I look at my overall time, as well as my interval times (at 5km, 10km, 15km and 20km marks), I realise that I actually stuck to my run/walk race plan the whole time and averaged an 11:30 per-mile speed - or even faster, in some parts. My knee started to hurt at the 3-mile mark (right on schedule) but I just ignored it and pushed through. As the coaches predicted, adrenalin played its part.

It's hard to believe that the journey to the finish line began in November when I signed up and committed to raise funds for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and get race-ready with the Team in Training crew. When Christmas and New Year came, my dedication lapsed a bit and I struggled to regain my form, injuring my knee a bit and dragging myself off to twice-weekly physical therapy sessions (that have proven so beneficial). And just when I never thought I'd make my $1,600USD fundraising goal, generous friends, family and even a couple of complete strangers dragged my doubting carcass over the line - and then some - so I ended up raising a wonderful total of $1,726USD for charity. The sense of pride I feel today is like nothing else.

But 13.1 miles is a long way, as I discovered first-hand yesterday. Getting to Central Park at 6am on a cool Sunday morning probably wouldn't have happened without the kindness of those two strangers who stopped their cab to pick me up en route, when they saw me in my race bib, trying vainly to flag down a ride. Getting to the Park, I found KP, Flock and Flora from work - and had a lovely chance to share some pre-race jitters and good-luck wishes with them. I lined up in my corral early, way down the back with all the other runners who estimated it would take them 3 hours to finish the race. My fellow inmates were a ragtag bunch - all ages, fitness levels, and apparent half-marathon expertise. I was quite taken with the trio of ladies from Hong Kong who wore matching red shiny suits, full faces of make-up, gold jewellery, and clear plastic ponchos over the top to complete their race-day look. I had to look twice to make sure they weren't spectators who had wandered into the runner enclosure by mistake. Sure enough each one of them was sporting a race bib. Crazy.

Before long we wound our way through Central Park towards the start line. The elite runners had kicked off some 30 minutes before and just as we were rounding the last bend, applause started. The elite runners were already coming past us - and we hadn't even started! It had taken them 30 minutes to run 6 miles in Central Park. Is that freaky? I think it might be freaky. But I was too wired to get intimidated - I just clapped and whooped and cheered with everyone else. You've got to recognise talent when you see it.

And then it was our turn and as I went to cross the start line, I saw my Dad and K waving their giant flags (Australian flag and the Boxing Kangaroo one) and it really did lift my spirits. I was off and racing! Around Central Park I went, swearing at Harlem Hill and The Three Bitches, and cursing my knee all the while. I was run-walking with one of the girls from training for a while, but she fell behind me at Harlem Hill and I didn't see her after that. I wondered if I should have stopped to see if she was okay, but at the time I could only think about moving forward.

As I finished my 6 mile mark we had effectively done a full circuit of Central Park and I was back where I started - and back where Dad & K were waving flags to welcome me back. By this point I needed to pee so bad, and Dad has video footage of me waving and telling K exactly that - plus I think you can hear K recommending I use the porta-potties. Classy footage, that.

Breaking out of the Park I ran down 7th Avenue. It is a beautiful, wide street - and almost spooky when it is free of vehicular traffic. Cheer squads lined the route and whenever I spotted some Team in Training volunteers, they all screamed and cheered for me and I almost cried a little every time. Am I getting soft in my old age, or was I just tired and delirious? We will probably never know. As I ran through Times Square, bands were playing some great music (including "Love Shack", as I passed through) and I applauded them all. I think the anticipation of hearing the next band's song really inspired me to keep going. Every little bit helped.

I turned right onto 42nd Street and heard more bands playing and more volunteers cheering. Even one of my training coaches ran with me for a bit. She must have thought I was weird cause I asked here where the porta-potties were. This is what I was focussed on during my race? I think she was a bit surprised. But I found an empty one down by the West Side Highway when nature finally called. You know when you're young and you blow your nose into a tissue and then you open the tissue to examine the contents? You know it's gross, but you do it anyway? Well that is my only defense for why I looked into the bowl of the porta-pottie yesterday before I used it. Involuntary reflex, or something. But suffice to say I am never - ever - going to do that again. Shudder.

Powering down the West Side Highway and I was a bit disappointed because I thought there would be an uninterrupted view of the Hudson River along there. I hadn't counted on so many warehouses and boat docks and other infrastructure to block my view. But I guess they were also blocking whatever frigid winds might blow off the River and wipe me out, so let's be grateful for now. At the 34th Street mark, and again further down, I saw two groups of people from work and I ran across three lanes of runners to say hello to them. As I ran away, I almost cried again. What is wrong with me? Overcome with emotion at how kind people were to come out so early on a Sunday to cheer me on? That's not like me at all. Or maybe it is.

I was so distracted that I didn't even realise I had passed the 10-mile mark and I was officially on my longest run to date. My legs were starting to really hurt by this point, and I did walk through some of the periods when I technically should have been running. But somewhere in the distance I could hear the crowds at the South Street Seaport and somewhere inside of me I found some extra grunt and I pushed myself. I turned off my Gymboss interval timer, and I just belted it home.

As I approached the finish line, I could see Dad & K on the sidelines, waving the flags and cheering like crazy people. My cheeks hurt from smiling and as I crossed that finish line into the arms of the lady with the medals and the kid with the scrunchy silver cape-blanket, I was the happiest I've been in a long time.

It didn't take long for me to find K and Dad at the finish line - I had been walking for about 10 minutes (as we had been told to do) and there were THOUSANDS of people down at the Seaport, trying to find their families. Getting away from the crowds, we went and had a pie and beer at Tuckshop in the East Village, and then another couple of beers at McSorley's before we had to give up and go home for a looooong sleep.

The sense of personal achievement aside, I still feel really satisfied with my race performance yesterday. I am never going to be a professional runner - or probably even a good runner - but I did something new yesterday and I got to enjoy one of the best cities in the world, in a way that not everyone gets to do. I am so glad that my family and friends were there to see it happen too. I just hope that I can rely on their muscles to carry me places today, because I'm not sure my own are up to the task.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

What's Going On?

Sometimes stories or people come into your life and they make you sit back and wonder if you're doing the right thing with your life. Tonight I had this experience. In the one evening, I crossed paths with a story that mad me sad, and a person that made me want to high five everyone I met on the way home.

I remember the first time I heard about "Death of a Salesman". I was going through my big Marilyn Monroe phase and I had been reading about her marriage to Arthur Miller, and the play that had won him the Pulitzer. But it wasn't until years later that I went along to a performance of the play with my friend, Groovy Gem. I recall that the intensity of the performances mesmerised me. As the lights went down on Act 2 I blinked, and tears just poured out. Groovy Gems and I workshopped it a bit afterwards and we were equally depressed, angry, but most of all I think we were just very sad for all the characters.

So you've got to wonder why I might put myself through that emotional drainage again tonight. Well we're a few years on now and I'm a little older and a little wiser, and frankly I thought it was about time I gave the play another shot. Oh please, who am I kidding?! This time around, I'm in New York and the play is in previews on Broadway. Not only that, but it stars Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman and the spunky new Spiderman himself, Andrew Garfield. My seat was in the fourth row of the theatre, so I was front and centre for all the action. As with my first exposure, this production of "Death of a Salesman" had me riveted from start to finish. Hoffman played Willy Loman with all the desperation, delusion and despair that I remembered. But I think it was Andrew Garfield who surprised me the most. His portrayal of Biff was so strong and raw that I couldn't look away. When father and son have their breakthrough in Act 2, my heart broke for him and I just wanted to get on the stage and hug it out. No tears this time, but when I joined the audience in the standing ovation at the end, I realised I was clammy and worn out. The play had sat so heavily on me tonight that I couldn't decide if I needed a shower or a stiff drink, or both.

I ended up having neither, but I thought about the play the whole walk to the subway. I found myself getting really mad at the characters who had lied to themselves, and each other, throughout the whole story. I was frustrated at them, sad for them, and irritated that even after all this time, Miller's story can still resonate with me. So I was distracted when it came to putting my Metro card in the machine, and when it repeatedly jammed, a tourist offered to scan it for me. Mortifying.

It wasn't until I got on the bus that my mood lightened. But it didn't have anything to do with heading for home; rather it had more to do with the elderly gentleman who moved over on the seat to make room for me. Thanking him quickly for his kindness, he cautioned me that he's not always so kind, and he gave me a mischievous wink. Tapping his hands on the seat in front of us, Old Man leaned over and complimented me on my glasses. He admitted he had fallen in love with me a bit. Oh dear, thinks me. Then the man started making little snare drum sounds, winked at me again and said, "I'm syncopating with you, my lady". Um, okay - so there's a first time for everything. But I've got to hand it to a man who can syncopate. I was slowly emerging from my Miller-induced funk and actually giving this guy my attention when he randomly asked me if I had heard of Marvin Gaye. He seemed pleased when I replied in the affirmative. So he told me that he played percussion on one of Mr. Gaye's biggest hits, and could I guess which one? I took a punt and offered up, "What's Going On"? His face lit up in the biggest smile and he clapped his hands with glee. "Oh baby, you are one smart and beautiful lady" he said. As we travelled the few blocks together, he introduced himself as Jack Ashford, member of the Funk Brothers studio band. Mr. Ashford told me about recording sessions with the greats, including Marvin Gaye and jazz legend Miles Davis. After a career spent travelling across the US and around the world in limousines, Ashford moved to New York and raised "ungrateful children who make me ride the bus". Arthur Miller is never far away from any of us. But sure enough I Googled Mr Ashford when I got home and verified that I was indeed sitting right next to a tambourine maestro tonight. And he syncopated with me. Mercy mercy me!

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Winners are grinners

Cheshire Cat
Originally uploaded by Elysia in Wonderland.

So the NYC Half-Marathon is two weeks today. I have been freaking out about that, I don't mind admitting to you. And I get worried sometimes when people try and tell me that I'll finish the 13.1 miles no problems (despite my knee issue). I know they mean to be encouraging and comforting, but I can't help but wonder if they're really just blowing smoke up my ass. I have been trying to stay upbeat but also realistic about my prospects.

And so last weekend it was really important to me that I clocked 8 miles - because that was my longest run to date. Yes I was almost crippled afterwards but psychologically, if not physically, I had to prove to myself that I could do it. And sure, in the following days I paid the price for my idiocy. My physical therapist didn't exactly growl at me like I feared he would, but he did say I needed to be careful and keep my eye on the prize. And to reinforce his point he pushed and prodded my knee extra hard this week (double ice-packing at times). Yeow.

But today I pushed myself even further, because I've realised I rather like being in hell. Today I actually clocked 10 miles but not only that, I incorporated a run-walk up Harlem Hill, the ultimate bitchy hill in Central Park - or at least as far as I am concerned. Let's be serious here - the Hill was not fun, but conquering it was essential to keeping my head in the game.

And before we start mixing the punch and blowing up balloons, I need to be transparent about something. I clocked 10 miles today but I couldn't run-walk that full distance - my knee really DID give up towards the end. But I reckon I would have done race-quality time for at least 9 miles of my run today. For the periods that I walked, I paced it out and didn't go on a casual Sunday stroll either. And in the end, I finished the 10 miles in just under 2 hours, which I thought was a pretty respectable time. And quite a promising one for race day, if I can only sustain it.

Stretching afterwards was an unpleasant experience (for me, and anyone watching me I presume). I think my hamstrings were crying from Pilates yesterday. Incidentally, whose dumb idea was it for me to book into a bunch of intermediate Pilates classes before the half-marathon? Ouch all over. Idiot.

It's now been about 45 minutes since I finished my run (and the delicious Central Park Boathouse coffee reward afterwards). I feel pretty good at the moment - my knee, legs and feet aren't even as sore as they were last week. All good things. I shall reach for the ice packs very soon though.

And let's get real here, I don't exactly feel like going outside and running ANOTHER 10 miles, but at least my brain is more confident that it can push my body for 13.1 mile race in fourteen days time. Race Day will be here before I know it. Dun-dun-DUUUUUUUN.