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“….Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;

I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want

to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.

-Excerpted from Mary Oliver’s “Starlings in Winter”

I’ve written about a few races now on this blog (my first year of racing, second year of running). I don’t know yet how longwinded this particular entry will be; if there is one truth I have learned, it is that many runners eagerly recount every moment of their races, a fact at which Runner’s World magazine will poke fun. Race stories are much like labor stories, I find. I hang on every word of other people’s write ups, and I could retell my own labor stories ad infinitum. Race or labor stories, sometimes tedious, may not be for all audiences—if you find yourself skimming this entry or even bowing out now, I don’t blame you at all.

But there is another truth I have learned time and again in this journey to do my best as an athlete and that is this: We may not start off as talented as others may be, but with consistent hard work we can sure make a dent in that gap. 

I was telling my husband on the way home from Long Beach this afternoon that it is a great regret of mine that I did not start track or cross country in high school. I wish to goodness I had built my base back then. As we reflected, though, we talked about how any person could wish that about any number of life paths, really. We have to celebrate our lives for what they have been, and then do the best we can with what we have right now. It’s never too late to become what we hope to be, if we’re willing to work for it.

In high school I had a fixed mindset, I think. I thought that athleticism only applied to those who were naturally gifted at sports. I felt like I could never quite fit in to that world, that if it didn’t come quite as naturally as other types of things (although I worked hard at those things, too) then maybe I wasn’t meant to pursue a truly athletic life. I watched various friends excel at volleyball, tennis, cycling, running, softball, and soccer—-and, like so many of us do with so many parts of life, I counted myself out. I can never do that. They are gifted at it; I’m not

So. I am not naturally talented as an athlete. I’m not particularly tall. I have struggled most of my life with my weight. When I was a child and did competitive dancing for awhile, it was clear to all that I was fairly awkward and clunky with my body. My hand-eye coordination has improved since having children…but I am probably not going to be a professional softball player. I was not born to be good at being an athlete of any kind.

But, I do have a determined gene somewhere in the DNA. I was born to be stubborn. Persistent. Hard-working. Scrappy. Never-giving-up. It took me a LONG time to understand that I could use those traits to learn how to pursue a skill so foreign to me. The body has evolved to run, but I will be the first to say that I had to learn how to dig that skill out of the muck. Carol Dweck’s ideas about growth mindset? So right on. We can get better at almost everything (uh, being a pro basketball player is out for me) if we are willing to work at it, take setbacks as learning opportunities, and challenge ourselves consistently to be better at a skill in incremental steps. If I had the chance to return to the classroom, I would be a completely different teacher now having gone through this journey of the last couple of years. It is the honest effort that matters most in determining where we end up. Where we start? Just a beginning. Yes, we are going to have proclivities. But all those things we count ourselves out of doing? Let’s stop that. Instead, let’s resolve to get to work.

My dad started the Long Beach yearly tradition (as it is quickly becoming) in 2012. This was his first half, his first race, and it was a celebration of all he had achieved in putting his health in order. I watched for him from the spectator’s grass area and, though I had started running myself by then, I marveled at his accomplishment and still grappled with the internal voice that taunted, “You could probably never do that.” Somehow, though, the inspiration of my dad’s run began to take hold. He had given evidence of what hard work and will could do. In fact, that was part of his point in running that race: a life lesson that we can change ourselves no matter where we happen to be in life.

Well, one year after his first half at Long Beach, I ran it with him. I raced for the first time last year and wrote up that experience here. In 2013 I ran the 13.1 miles in 1:43.06. The 2013 Long Beach Half remains one of the most intensely emotional races I’ve experienced, for the very fact that each step proclaimed my freedom and newfound self. Last year’s LB Half was also my first race: today marks the one year anniversary of my first year of racing.

This year, the tradition expanded and the meaning widened. My daughter Katie (6) ran the kid’s fun run on Saturday—her first time running at Long Beach. My brother David and sis-in-love Ashley also ran their first half marathon today with us. One of my best friends Steve also ran Long Beach for the first time today (although this is his second half). Every year, we add more people to the tradition. My dad’s first half in 2012 has generated all of these amazing ripples. Look at what he has done here. He was the pioneer for us. He blazed that path long before we ever had the courage to set foot on it.

My plan this morning was to pace at 6:40 per mile. Goals included: 1) Keep the 6:40 pace for 13.1; 2) Break the 1:30.00 barrier; 3) PR from last year on the same course.

It was a good plan. I stand behind it 100%, and I only wish I could have executed it better. I went out a bit fast but not too badly, and I maintained the 6:40 pace through 8 miles. Then I began to suffer. I found out where I am at, that’s for sure. I know I have work to do, and to be much better than I did today, I need to log more miles per week. I scrape by with 30 mile weeks, and what I did today is not bad considering that I really need to drive that quantity up to build a better base.

I did PR, and I did break—JUST!!!!—the 1:30.00 barrier for an official time of 1:29.59. Whew! I wanted a better time, but I couldn’t achieve that today. And not for lack of trying… I gave everything I had, I felt at the time. I just need to work harder to be better.

My pace suffered after Mile 8. I kept driving fairly hard, but it wasn’t 6:40 at that point. For a couple of miles I slipped just past 7:00 pacing. When I got to Mile 10, I told myself as I had rehearsed, “Cool! Almost home, just do a 5K now. No big deal.” I started imagining my favorite 5K route at home, and that went fine until I hit the marathon bifurcation. For some reason my legs started feeling draggy and wooden. There was a bit of an incline portion, and it felt eternal.

I felt like my goals were starting to slip away… And that’s when I became the nutty runner who coaches herself out loud. Come to think of it, I did that in the same spot last year. I let out a couple of deep guttural sounds, the primal ones that happen in labor and delivery. And then I said to myself, “It’s time to have some guts! Fight for it! Fight for it!” Yeah…it would probably be more appropriate to keep all that as an internal dialogue as I do so much of the time; but I find that in really dire straits, saying it out loud seems to help me feel more committed.

And I kept repeating to myself a little personal mantra: pain is temporary, but the victory of the mind over the self is forever. Whatever pain I had to bring on, it will go away, but regret of not making my goals will never go away, especially if I feel like I gave it up without every bit of fight. With that, I started driving… I actually recovered some of my pacing those last couple of miles. Which, as I discovered, comes at a great price. My legs are dying tonight. Bill suggested I take something, but I don’t want to: I do not want an interloper disrupting the full adaptation process my body will complete if I let it do its natural work. I figure that if I put in this kind of race today, I should reap the full benefit of making my body work all the way to repair—thus emerging stronger than I was.

“Then you will suffer for a couple of days,” Bill cautioned gently.

“I know,” I responded. “I know.”

As I write this, my legs are feeling every step of that race today. But I want that strength… Because in the coming year I have work to do. If my legs have to hurt now in order to adapt, then so be it.

Today’s results have me ranked as the 9th place woman out of 8930 women. I will be receiving a 3rd place medal in my division. Top 10 is pretty cool. I’m happy with that.

But I have mixed emotions, if I am being forthright. I’m proud, but only for a few seconds. It’s like that proud feeling doesn’t stick in my chest the way one might think it does, or should. I know objectively, these are good numbers. Top 10 women at Long Beach? Two years ago, this would have been so very improbable for me, so I kind of enjoy it for that reason. I like surprising myself and others. Yet I also know I fell off my pace. I also know I don’t ever want to let myself think for a moment, “Okay, that’s good enough. You can stop working so hard.” Just because I did my best today, doesn’t mean there isn’t more to do… I celebrate, but at the same time in almost the very next breath, I am asking Bill, “Okay, what’s my next goal? How do I get better? What am I going to work on after recovery?” Complacency is the enemy of the self. I found a limit today, and I need to work to get past it….and really, as happy as I am to have made my baseline goals today, I am much more interested in bolstering the areas of weakness I discovered in those 13.1 miles. Mentally, I know there are moments when I could have been more in control, too.

I am not, however, downtrodden about this. When we talk about weakness in our culture, some read that as a source of sadness or something negative. It’s not. I am happy to have discovered some weakness today. I can work on weakness. If I didn’t discover weakness, that would mean I didn’t butt up against a limit today and therefore was not giving my all. If I don’t find a limit, I can’t start to push past it. So this talk of reflecting on what I wasn’t good at? It’s all part of being fully alive and committed to learning, growing, and becoming my best. There’s nothing wrong with identifying weaknesses; in fact, it takes quite a bit of emotional security in order to do so. I trust in the process of hard work. A weakness today won’t be a weakness forever. I can whittle away at it with consistent hard work. I found out exactly where I am at—and therefore, I did my job this morning.

The temperate morning was perfect for a run. I don’t race with music anymore, so this year I really got to savor all the sounds of the race itself and of Long Beach. I heard the birds, the cheering spectators, the waves. It means something to many spectators, it seems, to watch a woman, specifically, go by, especially near the front of the runners. I heard about it several times as I ran. I also teared up near 7.5 miles when I saw some signs that Katie and Steve’s son Alex helped to make yesterday with their handprints. We’ve been friends for so, so, so long and to be running this course together and to see our children’s handprints overlapped together…well, come on now. Tears for sure. Right when I needed it, I saw a burst of sun come through some clouds along the beach and thought of my friend S.H., a light in this world, and I got the chills that helped ward off the discomfort in my legs for a moment. I thought of my family. I thought about how different my life would have been if I had never started running. I ran part of the same path as Katie had run the day before and thought about my strong girl. I thought about my husband, who always believes in me.

The course seemed to go by more quickly this year, and I guess it did…but I don’t mean pace-wise. The 13.1 did not seem as long or scary. With a year of racing under my belt, the distances seemed to fly by a bit more. When I got to the 10K, I thought, “Just one more of these to go!” By the same token, though, I was infinitely relieved to pass the marathon bifurcation—I couldn’t imagine 16 more miles from there!!—which is how I know I am not quite ready for THAT challenge…..yet. But now a marathon is a “someday” goal, and it wasn’t before. I really want to be ready, though. See how these things creep up on you? Ha ha. Never say you can’t!

Pictures!

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Around 6.5 miles

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With Dad, after our finish

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Lunch after the race, back in mama mode!

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Look at her happy, happy radiant face. I love her. Go, Katie!

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Katie told me afterwards that her legs started to get uncomfortable and she thought about stopping to walk, but that she made a conscious choice NOT to stop. That’s my girl. She went sub-10:00 at a 9:50 mile for a new mile PR.

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I think she’s hooked.

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Expo with Steve last night

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This moved me to emotion this morning: firefighters out raising the flag in the wee morning sky.

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And more emotion: I got really, terribly choked up when I saw these three at the starting line.

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This guy? Photobombed my first take, so I decided to join him in the excitement on the second take. I am normally all business at the starting line and have an intense game face, but this moment of levity helped set a good mood for the run.

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I love you, my husband and coach. I could not do this level of work without your guidance.

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Selfies post-race. Steve had an awesome run, too, but that’s his story to tell…

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Two of my reasons for pursuing health and strength. I want to be with them for as long as I can in this life. And to keep up with them!

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Brother and sister

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Our LBC crew!

Going to take a mellow week of cross training and light running… Hoping to articulate some new goals with my coach this next week or two and figure out the next set of races and a plan for spring season. The big race season has ended for me, but there are a couple of winter runs I might try to sneak in on the fly. But since I have nothing major coming up, I can start breaking down my legs with plyometrics and put some more weight training in. It’s been mainly legs and swimming these past months to keep the legs springy and ready for racing. With a bit of a racing hiatus, I can do some other kinds of workouts in addition to keeping up mileage and think about bigger things for the Carlsbad 5000 and some other favorites in spring.

It was also the 30th anniversary of the Long Beach Marathon/Half-Marathon, so that was neat, too!

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Katie had not yet turned two when I began receiving American Girl catalogues in the mail. They had become popular, I later found out, right after I entered high school and so I had missed them entirely. Looking through the catalogue I could see the definite appeal—history, literature, adorable dolls and clothing—but we were far from that stage at the time, and I wondered if we would delve in. It seemed to be a potentially expensive world, and my mind could not yet imagine my two-year-old taking care of that kind of a doll.

I kept an open mind, though, particularly as the historical American Girl series and dolls came highly recommended in time from a person whose taste I have always trusted completely, my friend Donna. She told me how she would read the books ahead of her granddaughter, making thoughtful margin notes as she went. In this way, the books became part of a larger dialectic between grandmother and granddaughter. I thought many times about how beautiful a reading experience that must be.

But where to start? And when? Many of these books target an audience slightly older than Katie; the book says ages 8 and up. When would the time be right?

Katie, however, has been a reader since age 4.5, and an independent reader at various progressing levels since Kinder. (She is now fully autonomous and avid. I started keeping a list of new chapter books she has read on her own since this past June, and she is currently at 37 books. This does not count all the chapter books she read before June, the chapter books she has re-read since June, or any other little reading she does of short stories, magazines, etc. Since school started, we keep quite busy, too, so her rate of consumption is actually even more rapid than it appears—she is a passionate, eager, and fast reader). At any rate, we had read many, many chapter books together already before she turned five-years-old (all of the Little House series, all of Harry Potter, several Roald Dahl, some White, all kinds of other things): we savor the reading time together and always have, and our discussions have been rich. We have read thousands of pages for thousands of hours, discussing words, practicing the art of reading—and it is showing. I fully believe the ONE THING we can do for our children, if we do no other enrichment at all, is to read, read, read, read, read to them. Constantly. Hours and hours each week. (And, while we read: to talk at length about what we read and how the author has constructed it; to explore how literary themes are played out across multiple books; to read in a variety of genres; to show them all the parts of the book like copyright, publishing info, table of contents, etc., to talk about word origins and definitions; to talk about organization and logic and presentation of what we’re reading; to discuss how the artwork augments the ideas of the text, to look for symbolism in the text and in illustrations…yes, even in short children’s books). If we do nothing else, the sheer hours spent in focused reading are going to grow those supple brains.

Right after Katie turned five, we happened to be in Costco in the pre-Christmas season. Costco carried at that time boxed sets of three or four of the historical girls. The boxed set included all six books that go with each girl, a very small version of the doll, and a game. For the books alone, let alone the miniature doll, the price was excellent. Katie saw them and became intrigued. When she wasn’t looking, I put the Caroline set in the cart and covered it with the kale salad and some sushi and saved it for Christmas; my mom went back and got the Rebecca set for Katie’s Christmas that year, also.

So in January 2013, we had two sets of American Girl books to enjoy. There are twelve historical girls sets; each girl has a six book set. We started with Rebecca, an immigrant growing up in New York City in 1914. We next read about Caroline, a girl growing up in Sacketts Harbor, New York when the War of 1812 breaks out.

From there we read about Addy, a courageous girl seeking her freedom in the midst of the Civil War in 1864.

Josefina came next: she is a Hispanic girl who lives in 1824 in New Mexico prior to the land’s ownership by the United States. Katie had a gift card for Amazon from her Nana for Christmas that year, and she chose to spend it on this set.

By the time Katie’s sixth birthday rolled around, we had read only these four girls; we would read a set and then take a month or so off to read other books together. Even though Katie was an autonomous reader at this time, one of our chief pleasures is reading together. We still read together, and probably will for many years to come. Even when it became clear that she could handle all the rest of the girls on her own, I wasn’t about to miss out on them! I find myself learning, too, more about American history as we go along. Plus, I want all the talking points with Katie: I want to read what she reads so we can share those words and thoughts together.

For her 6th birthday, Katie wanted to go to lunch at American Girl in Los Angeles and pick out an historical doll. At the time, she chose Caroline, and we have enjoyed her. She is a brave girl who smuggles an embroidered escape map to her father who is being kept in prison by the British, and learns how to sail, who helps her mother immeasurably while her father is imprisoned, and who helps to put out a fire at the family shipyard when the war comes close.

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Katie’s birthday lunch with Caroline, October 2013.

Then we were hooked. We had purchased Kit, a clever young lady growing up in the Great Depression in 1934, during Katie’s birthday celebration; a couple of months later, Katie received the Molly (WWII, 1944) books from my parents for Christmas. We were still reading a variety of books and conducting school as well, during this time; but in late spring I found the Kaya set of books for a mere $8.00 TOTAL from a secondhand seller on Amazon. Since most of the sets cost between $28 and $32, scooping those up required very little inner debate. Kaya is a Nez Perce girl who has a deep love for horses and respect for nature growing up in 1764.

By this time, we had five sets left and things began to get serious. Finishing all the girls became a summer bucket list item, especially when we discovered that several of the sets we needed were at the library. My mom bought the Samantha (1904, women’s rights) books for Katie (I forget the occasion); and I bought the Felicity set outright on a trip to American Girl in June, knowing that I would want to have Felicity (1774) in our home library for reference during our future studies of the Revolution.

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A trip to American Girl in Los Angeles in June this past year, celebrating the end of school with my younger cousin Lark and my Uncle Jeff, along with my mom and Eric

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Excitement in American Girl with Lark!

After finishing Samantha and Felicity, we polished off Kirsten (1854, pioneer and immigrant) from the library before our Oregon road trip.

We also finished Julie (San Francisco, 1974) by the end of July, getting the whole set at once from the library.

Then we checked out five of the six Cecile and Marie-Grace books (1853, during the yellow fever in New Orleans). They are the only set to split into two girls: they are friends, share a setting, come into each other’s books, and alternate books in the series. They also have two different authors (one who writes Cecile’s part of the story; one who writes Marie-Grace’s). This became a bit of an issue. We checked out the five in stock, but we were missing #2, the first book of Cecile’s. We waited for a few weeks, checking the library often. We didn’t want to start the set until we had them all; I deliberated about buying the set. Finally, I decided to call the book in from another location. Because of the delay, we didn’t get started on the set until after we were back at school.

Today, we finished our final book together, cuddling on the couch as we have often done during these 66 books. We have read only a few times when Brother has been awake; since those first Rebecca books, we have snuck time in when he has napped or after bedtime, or early in the morning after I run and before he wakes up and school starts. A few times, he has read with us. A few times we have read together while Eric plays with Boppa or his daddy. This has been our mother-daughter project and amazing form of bonding for us.

On her own, Katie has read many of the supplemental American Girl mystery novels featuring these characters, as well as the supplemental novels about their best friends. She has also read a few of the Girl of the Year books (Saige, Isabella). But the historical girls are ours, a common memory of hours spent learning together and “let’s-just-do-one-more-chapter” and “this is so good!” and “I can’t wait to see what happens!”

Although all of these girls have different personalities, all of them are courageous, confident (or learning-to-be-confident) young ladies who grapple with actual ethical decisions and always choose the right course. They respect and love their parents, they make difficult choices, they deal with loss, and they demonstrate true friendship. Many of them actively seek ways to help not only their families but also their communities. As we read, illustrations occasionally in the margins acquainted us with cultural objects or artifacts of the time; at the end of every book is a “Looking Back” section that explains some of the history and context for the events in that particular book in the series. The blending of fiction and nonfiction is perfect.

Katie’s favorite girl, she wants to tell you, is Felicity. She also adores Samantha and is hoping for Samantha for her birthday.

My favorite girl was Kit, particularly as I thought of Nana and learned many more details about the ways in which families in hard times conserved and made do. Some of their ideas were ingenious. I choked up several times when I realized what a sense of pride and dignity that generation possessed; even when they had nothing, they never blamed anyone else and they were loathe to ask for handouts. There was a sense that you didn’t complain or look to make others responsible for you; you simply did what you needed to do to survive and take care of your American Dream. I loved Molly, too, for that reason, though something about her personality didn’t quite click with mine at all points. Josefina’s generosity and love for her family spoke to me quite a bit. And I liked Julie quite a bit more than I thought I might.

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Matching mother-daughter “Kit” nightgowns

Finishing our last book had the potential to be emotional today, but we reminded ourselves that we can and will re-read the ones we own for sure as we continue elementary school and arrive at all those moments in American history. Those books are waiting for us to enjoy again together, as all good books wait for multiple readings. To have this foundation in Katie’s mind, too, is going to be a real benefit; now she has schema on which to hang information from her history textbooks. We can say, “Oh, remember when Felicity wasn’t sure if she would take tea after her lesson?” or “Oh, what did Samantha’s grandmother think at first about the protests of women to vote? And how did she change her mind?” or “Who did Addy have to leave behind when she ran away from the plantation? How did she feel? Why did she do it?” This common experience will make our studies so much more alive, I think, as we progress toward the upper elementary grades.

So my darling Katie, I wouldn’t trade these many hours of reading with you for anything. We have learned alongside each other, and often sharing a book is one of the most powerful forms of togetherness there is. American Girl has been well worth the investment of time. It seems like only yesterday I was looking at the catalogues and thinking about how far away that age all seemed. Well, we are here. I am so thankful I get to teach you and be with you every single day!