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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Running and racing: my own little brand of crazy

The New Year's came and went without some sort of New Year's resolution post to my blog.  First, that's because I don't have a computer at home...and I'm sure not going to find one on a holiday, especially one that always involves a hangover, to write for your entertainment. 

Second, I've never been much for New Year's Resolutions.  I've started and then quit a number of workout regimes after a couple of weeks.  I've joined a health club and then never went.  I went on a kick where I ate only Panera salads for a good month for lunch (not on purpose...I had a gift card).  I feel like I've already accomplished most of the standard New Year's resolutions in similar crash and burn fashion.  I don't need a holiday to make and break a promise to myself, or to endure the bout of post-holiday depression that comes after a failed resolution.  I'm fairly able to do any of that at any point. 

What I have been doing the last couple years is to contemplate what I really want in a number of areas of my life.  Then I think up a really amorphous "goal" like "Be nicer to people" (that will never be a goal of mine by the way...being surly and cantankerous is an essential part of my nature).  Since that sort of goal doesn't really have a start or an end point, or really any benchmarks whatsoever, I get to decide whether I've met the goal at the end of the day.  If I'm happy with my progress on December 31st, then the goal is met, and I have a beer.  If I'm not happy with it, then the goal was stupid, and I have a beer.

I'm not the only one in my family that can't lay off the sauce.

This year, one area that I've had trouble putting into this context is my running.  I celebrated the New Year this year having just finished my second marathon.  When I started training for marathons at the beginning of 2010, I had pretty clear goals.  I was going to run my first marathon.  Now that I've done two in a year, I enter 2011 without really clear direction as to where my training should go.

Since I finished Grandma's Marathon in June 2010, I've been kind of aimless in the races that I choose.  I went to the Honolulu Marathon on a great big whim.  And a couple weeks ago I signed up for the Med City Marathon in May, mostly because it will be my friend Katie's first marathon. 

After that it's a big question mark.  Do I try to finish another marathon comfortably, and with a good time?  Do I push for more distance, and do my first ultramarathon?  Do I go all out and try to finish something really nuts like the Arrowhead 135?  Or do I ramp my distance down and rejoin the ranks of the hobby jogger? 

I think before I can answer any of those questions, I need to answer a bigger question: why do you race?  My answer is that racing is my own little brand of crazy. 

Let me explain.  And note, this is the kind of explanation that your grandpa would give.  It goes about five different places before coming back to the point, if it makes it at all.  Deal with it like you deal with grandpa.  If nothing else, I'm entertaining, and too expensive to put into a home.  ANYWAY...

The quitter

As many runners do at some point, I caught the racing bug sometime last year.  It started innocently enough, with a turkey trot on Thanksgiving, and maybe a local fun run.  Nothing more than a 10K.  Running was mostly something that I did because I didn't want to watch "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" with my wife every night.  Seriously, are there any other shows on E!  Now it's on nearly all night long, and I really can't avoid it.  So if I was going to keep running, I needed some different goals.

Right around the time I caught the bug, I was actually thinking about quitting running altogether.  It all happened on a day when I decided to go for a long run.  I hadn't actually ever gone for a long run before, but Runner's World told me it was something I should be doing. 

That got me pretty excited.  I hadn't been that excited about running in several years.  So one day in early 2008, I thought of the biggest number I could think of and set out to run that number in miles.  Good thing that number was 10.  So anyway, I ran my first "long run" in early 2008.  Well, I ran for 7 miles, and then I did a combination of hobbling, panting, and grunting for the remaining 3 miles.  Afterwards, I thought I was hot shit. 

That was, I thought I was hot shit until one of my marathoning friends told me that 10 miles was when "the training wheels come off."  I was furious.  I had just ran until my legs almost broke off, half my day was shot, and according to the running community I had just started?!  Screw this.  The going had gotten tough, and now I wanted to do my best Ross Perot and quit.  I guess I wasn't really a runner.

"In a recent worldwide algebra test we ranked 14th out of 15 nations tested. If it makes you feel any better, we beat Thailand." -Ross Perot

The dude looks like the eagle from the Muppets, but he did have some great one-liners.  

Back to the beginning

Well I didn't quit, for the same reason that I've kept running for all these years.  I've been running in various forms for sports since I was 5 years old.  But up until 9th grade, I got winded running once around the soccer field.  I was determined to change that before I tried out for the high school soccer team.  I had heard that the Wayzata soccer coach specialized in all kinds of running torture.  His drills all had names of things that were unpleasant to be involved with: hurricanes, gauntlets, wind sprints, ladders (might not sound bad to you, but I'm afraid of heights), and Indian runs (okay...that one is more offensive than unpleasant).  I wanted to be ready.

I didn't know anything about running at the time, except what I had seen on Rocky.  In every Rocky training sequence he wakes up, cracks a couple of eggs and chugs them, puts on the same sweats he's worn since Rocky I, and goes jogging down the same path as he jogged down last time.  He jabs a couple of times while making a noise like when you push the button on the vacuum cleaner real quick but it doesn't turn on.  Then there's a jump cut and he's sprinting up some stairs scaring pigeons.  Finally, at the top he does some kind of moose call, and then goes home. 

So every morning I would get into a grey sweat suit, even though it was 90 degrees outside.  I wouldn't eat raw eggs, cuz that's just gross.  Then I would go trotting down the bike path outside my house throwing punches.  Then I stopped throwing punches because it made me tired.  And at the end of the run, any number of tracks from Survivor (the band, not the show) would come into my head.  I'd get a rush of adrenaline, and I'd sprint to my driveway.  Then I raised my arms in victory.  My neighbors thought I was a special kid. 

That's not the great moment that I remember from 9th grade.  That's the weird, awkward phase before the great moment.  I think everyone has that awkward phase when we first start running.  The first time Rocky climbs those famous stairs, he almost has a double hernia and dies.  Then the series would have ended the way my wife would have liked; with only one stupid movie that I forced her to watch.  But he doesn't, and by the end of the training sequence he's sprinting to the top of the stairs and dancing like an idiot. 

Everybody starts out on running feeling like death walking.  Then one day while stumbling down the trail in traditional Rocky fashion, I noticed that running didn't hurt anymore.  It actually felt good.  I really liked it.  And from there on out I ran as often as I could.  I ran to soccer practice, where I proceeded to run some more, only to run back home.  I liked the way running made me feel.

The bullhead

But in general I've never been real big on feelings.  I'm in touch with my feelings, because when I was dating, and still to this day, women folk like dudes who are less Brad Pitt in Fight Club and more Brad Womak in The Bachelor.  In order to even get a date, I had to bring enough baggage for a round-trip to London.

What I really think is that feelings are great for sharing circles, hippies, and Morris Albert songs.  They make you feel warm and fuzzy, but they usually don't get you where you need to go.  You need a certain amount of drive and ambition to get the job done. 

Too much drive and you end up a super-villain or a corporate lawyer.  Either way you end up with a really cool lair.  But a well-balanced person has enough feelings to do important emotional things like buying flowers for your wife while getting the damn thing done at the same time.  

I've always been pretty ambitious.  Then I went to law school.  If I were to describe law school in one sentence, it would be "It's like a distilled version of the group of assholes you went to college with".  It's a petri dish of ambition, if for no other reason than you want to out-do Jimmy because Jimmy is a huge tool.  And if law school is full of tools, just think of what the practice of law is like.  It's like the ghost of asshole's past, present, and future.  So as you might imagine, I came out with more drive than when I went in. 

  corporate lawyer cartoons, corporate lawyer cartoon, corporate lawyer picture, corporate lawyer pictures, corporate lawyer image, corporate lawyer images, corporate lawyer illustration, corporate lawyer illustrations
Yeah, the picture is copyrighted.  Sue me.  Or at least make the right-click on my mouse not work.

As satisfying as it is to beat up on some douche bag every week, it gets old after a while.  There will always be someone better than you, but that person doesn't usually visit my county.  I face the occasional challenge at work, but a good portion of my career is spent...well, lately...blogging about my career.  While that is fun, it doesn't satisfy the old competitive itch.

That's why running has always been a good competitive sport for me.  It provides me the challenge that I look for day in and day out, without being more than I can handle.  I can beat another runner if I want to, but for the most part my only competition is me.  It feels good to beat my old times and distances, and see myself get better.  But I don't always have to beat myself.  Sometimes it feels good just to give it my all and finish.  It doesn't feel as good to do that in any other sport, because even when you play hard, someone else wins.  If there's one thing I like almost as much as winning, it's not losing.  Even if I bomb at a race and finish way off my PR, I feel good because I pushed through to the finish. 

The race bug

So here's where my grandpa story comes back around, before veering sharply off course again.  In 2009, I signed up for my first half-marathon, the Wells Fargo Half Marathon near my hometown of Plymouth.  Unlike any other race I had ever done, I knew I couldn't do this one without a training plan.  I had run my painful 10 miler, and some equally painful 12 and 13 milers since that faithful day in 2008.  But I actually wanted to race this race, and finish strong.  So I dialed up a Runners World half marathon training plan online, printed it out, and followed it to the letter for the next 12 weeks. 

The race came and went, and I raced it the whole way and finished strong with a time of 1:57.  I got my first race medal.  My wife was proud of me.  I was proud of myself.  I fought hard and won a good victory. 

It wasn't just the race itself that I enjoyed.  A lot of trainers will tell you that the hard part of a marathon or other endurance event is the training.  That makes it seem like some kind of burden.  It's really not for me.  The training for an endurance event is like a journey for me.  It's filled with lots of great feelings, great frustrations, small victories, and setbacks.  The journey has a life of its own.

I'm sure that cycle of training and racing is what gives a lot of people the race bug.  I like it because it feeds each of the running needs that I perceive.  The training represents the place where I can tune in to those great feelings that I had running around the trail outside my parent's house so many years ago.  On an every day training run I can live in the moment, and focus on how great it feels to be out running for running's sake.  At the same time, I don't need to survive only on that feeling, because my ambitious side knows that this run is a link in a bigger chain. 

Then at the end of the whole thing, I can put on my competitor pants, toe the start line, and race my old PR into submission.  My ambition is satisfied.  And after the race is over, and I'm as sore as the Democrats after their latest ass whoopin, I can relax and get back to just running for running sake.

Me after my finish at Grandma's Marathon 2010.  This is when it all comes together.  How can you not feel accomplished with a medal like that around your neck?

The big dog

So racing a marathon is one thing.  Anyone can do that if they put their mind to it.  I think the 70 year old that passed me in both of the marathons I've run proves that point.  Even so, you can feel completely satisfied after finishing one, because if nothing else you're already more physically accomplished than 95% of your fat ass friends.  They will probably consider you a racing god, and anoint you as the most physically fit of all the lazy slobs. 

You can  never run another day in your life if you want, and you could count yourself as a pretty elite runner.  And that's fine if it was just a goal to check off your bucket list before moving on to something completely different. 

But running anything further than that is a completely different story.  It's not something that most people can do, much less want to do.  It's kind of stupid, and a little crazy.  It's going to hurt with a pain I imagine resembles child birth.  But when it's all over, you have run further than most people drive round-trip to work.  Count yourself among the super-elite.  Because you are.

Of course it's really not what people think of you that makes you do things like ultramarathons.  I haven't been paying attention to what my friends think of my little running hobby for quite some time.  When I talk to non-runners about running,  I might as well be talking about knitting.  Either way, nobody cares or understands, and they have no frame of reference. 

I'm attracted to ultramarathons because I think that everyone is really, really good at something.  Apart from Courtney Love, I don't think that anyone is a complete waste of humanity.  My hope is that I'm really, really good at ultra long distance running.

I also believe that the bigger the opponent, the bigger the victory.  I felt great after my first half marathon.  I felt even better after my first marathon.  I've always measured my running opponents in terms of distances, not time.

So I think that an ultra marathon is the next step in my path toward where my running is going.  That's why I signed up for the Superior Sawtooth 50 Miler in September.  I think it's the next step in finding out how deep the rabbit hole goes. 

It's make or break time baby.   


  1. You will love the ultra crowd. It's what attracted me to trying them. They are so supportive and you get a sense of everyone is in it together. Whoo hoo for taking that next step!!!

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