“The journey I’m taking is inside me. Just like blood travels down veins, what I’m seeing is my inner self and what seems threatening is just the echo of the fear in my heart.”
― Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

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Two and a-little-over-a-half years ago, up to my neck and near drowning in an unhealthy lifestyle and wondering where in the darkness of anxiety my goals and spark had gone, I stood at a fork in the road and decided to fight for myself. To fight, all in. To claim true happiness over comfort and immediate pleasure. To pry every scrap of vitality from my one life before my time came up. To send a message loud and clear to my children: I am going to have to be ripped from this Earth before I leave you prematurely. To look fear in the eyes and stare it down. To break myself and rebuild anew…

I’ll never forget those first steps. Like a baby testing out, over-shooting, falling short and wobbly. I put on my faded blue yoga pants—some of the only pants that still fit—and a roomy golden yellow 20th anniversary Golden Bear t-shirt from my high school campus. Old shoes. Socks that pulled down under my heel as I went (who had heard of running socks back then?). Barely half a mile. At a pace that might barely be measurable. Lungs and heart burst with the slightest of effort. Legs shuffled. I will never forget, ever, how difficult it was. The next day: same outfit, do it again. I saw a neighbor. I felt embarrassed at how plodding I felt. Those steps… so unfamiliar. So excruciating. So much a reminder at how unfit I felt, and was. So much a reminder of not being good at something, and how I’d trapped myself.

Those steps: the first to my freedom. That’s how I see them now. They may have been, of all the steps I’ve ever taken, the most important footfalls of my life. Those were the steps by which I found myself on a new path, in a life abundantly full of challenge and joy and a happiness built not on immediate comfort or avoidance…but a happiness founded sheerly on how hard I am willing to work and what is real.

I was on Mile 5 this morning during the San Diego Hot Chocolate 15K when I let myself remember and feel those steps in my memory. I looked out at the coastal sky, felt my arms slice through the wind, counted the beat of my breath with the churning of my legs…and remembered what it felt like not to have this freedom of flying through the daylight, along the roads, at the top of the world.

Never give up on yourself. Never. NEVER. Wherever you happen to be, whomever you happen to be, your inner spark is worth fighting for. You deserve your freedom.

The power of mirth glowed from right inside of my core and chills spread out over my arms, buffering the discomfort in my legs for a few moments. From those first steps a few years ago, the journey has been intense and wild and even I could not have foreseen just how deeply forged my identity is now in that of a distance runner.

Today’s race was a sweet victory for me, over myself, which is what this running gig is all about. Last year I ran a 1:04:56 on this course, 5th woman in overall. That day in the car on the way home, I told my husband (who had recently taken over my coaching for me) that I wanted to come back and do better in 2015. I would do whatever it took. We made plans. The woman who had won last year won it in 1:02:33. I wanted to match that, if I could.

So I have worked for a year. Had a goal for a YEAR. This, and Carlsbad, are litmus races for me a bit. I had several sub-goals this year, but my two biggest goals involved this pair of March races. In fact, I started getting really serious about training right after these races last year, adding weekly and now twice-weekly interval session, double-day runs, and swimming. Goals? It’s on. It’s a wild feeling to wake up on those cold wintry mornings we had in October and November and not want at all to get out of bed and plunge into the 4:30 AM dark cold, or lay base of 5 miles knowing speedwork would come on miles 8,9,10 that afternoon. Or to have to arrange plans (skipping things like Disneyland days here and there, moving other activities, etc) around interval Thursdays. Or to run on Christmas morning before the kiddos get up. To plan a road trip around opportunities to train in various cities. The training has been a way of life, and the goals have been motivating. There’s no sacrifice, but there are trades.

For me, though: you do the necessary work. All in. No fiddle-faddling around. No “I meant to train more, but I didn’t and if I had, I could have done x, y, or z.” No hypothetical forecasting. No. ALL IN. You only have what you do. Give it everything all year. Lay all the cards down. Be open about what you mean to do. And when the day comes, risk it. Risk the not-meeting-it. Risk the everyone-will-know. Risk the self-disappointment. Risk it ALL. Lay it on the line, every time. I’ve had some great highs this year, and PRs and goals met. I went backward at the Holiday Half. Oh well. Only by risking it all, I believe, do we get to touch on life’s essential vitality. We didn’t hide. We didn’t play games. It wasn’t halfway done. We put it out there with our whole minds, bodies, hearts…ready for the consequences. To me, that is living. To me, that is the power of being a runner.

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Today I ran this 9.3 mile course in 1:01:38, and I was the 4th woman in out of 4653 women. I placed 1st in my division (35-39) out of 824. I was the 23rd person in out of 6313 people. I had a PR drop of 3:18.

I would have loved a spot on that podium this year, but it was not to be. You cannot help who shows up at a road race, and this year three women showed up who absolutely smoked it at 55-something, 58-something, and 59-something. My level of fitness cannot run a 9.3 in under an hour yet, and they were just better. But I can do 9 miles flat in just under an hour (the 0.3 I did in 1:47 today), and I will take that! Because a few years ago? The thought of my running 9 miles/hour would have been UNTHINKABLE.

My goal today was a 1:02, and I beat myself. I’ll take it. Had I run my 1:01:38 in last year’s field, I would have felt that podium. I still have hopes for it next year. You know why I love my sport? I love distance running because it completely rewards consistent discipline and hard work. I know I can keep whittling at my time, if I continue to follow my process and work ethic. There’s so much more to add, so much more I can do. I average between 40 and 50 mile weeks—there’s the potential to add more at some point. I can cross train my arms more rigorously. Ramp up intervals. Continue to build base miles. Race more. There’s work to do, if I am willing to do it. (I am).

The race entry fee, our stay in a suite at the Horton Grand Hotel, and this whole weekend was a 35th birthday gift from my generous husband (and coach) this past December. Definitely a treat…and also a very serious message about how much he believes in me and supports me in trying to be my best and to conquer my personal goals.

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So… Expo shenanigans! Let’s do this thing!

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Picking up the bib!

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Walking in the Gaslamp

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Bill in front of our hotel
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Katie and Eric watch the sunset from the hotel

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I could not ask for a better husband, coach, and friend. With you, I can fly.

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Katie, during check in
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On the way to dinner

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My traveling buddies!

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Laying out gear the night before

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5 AM this morning. A restless night preceded this. Jolts of adrenaline kept shooting me awake. I would soothe my nerves by going through my visualization process again and again and channeling the nerves into excitement. It’s a big thing, though, to be at the point of knowing that you have to prove your year’s worth of work to yourself. I kept worrying I would disappoint my William (which he found to be a ridiculous concern, because he is never disappointed in me), but I realized I was most worried about disappointing myself. That’s the risk of laying it all down, of training all the way. If I fail, I cannot say that it was because I didn’t train; I did. For a recovering perfectionist, running is the ultimate in therapy, ha ha! Every race, I face failure and have to tell myself that I will be okay with it. At times, when I have fallen short of a PR or goal, I’ve had to walk the talk. Good practice. It’s not the end of the world not to meet a goal the first time; it IS the end of the world not to try absolutely all the way in the first place. What do we have if we don’t have our best effort?

I was worried all week about how to “hook in” mentally with this race. The goal was not enough. For each race, I cast it in a larger narrative—hey, that works for me, however weird it sounds. There’s always some sort of “thing” I tap into when I am running. Something to make the chills go. Something that helps keep the suffering away from the discomfort. Something to draw on mentally when the tanks are getting low, that buffers energy. Motivation. Races for which I have had this hook have tended to go really well. The narrative about “this is my second chance, I can come back and do better” was too time-oriented and not compelling enough to me. Last year, my hook was “I am the mysterious dark horse that no one knows, so let’s see what I can do” and that was my black outfit and black fingernail polish phase as a runner. This time had to be different.

Katie and I shared a bed, and I spent all night holding her hand and feeling the comfort of her breath. And I finally really tapped into it. Feel the joy that is running, Kara Goucher has advised. Yes. Feel the joy. It hit me. What is my inner gift? What do I have that has always been part of me? My capacity to feel joy, real joy. My optimism. My feeling that the universe is full of good and beauty. Yes. That’s what I should run on. Run on the joy of it all. Run by believing I can do it. Run by remembering that it is possible to change one’s life. Just run, and feel the freedom. Look at the day. Remember what a good morning it is for a run. Have fun with it. That’s who I am inside. So I promised myself that when I crossed that starting line today, no matter what else, I would run with the joy of it pounding in my heart. Let the legs work, don’t overthink it, have trust that I have trained enough. Run for the love of running.

It worked. It worked, because it was authentic. When the three leading women settled into their pace, I knew I could not catch them for they were clearly at a different place of fitness. But I could go from 5th to 4th woman, and I could pick off some men. So I did…and then for a little while, I had some stretch of road where I wasn’t up front, and I wasn’t in the next wave. I was just…kind of alone…doing my thing. Every once in awhile in the middle section, some one would come and we’d jockey a bit. The real jockeying came in the last 5K. I duked it out with some men. Some I went past, and some went past me. Once finished in the chute, some of them gave me their respect, and I always love earning that.

This was a very evenly paced race for me, my 5K, 10K, and finishing splits all coming in with one second of each other. My overall pace was 6:37 for the whole thing. During the last mile or so I kicked it up a notch, going 5:16 for quite a stretch according to my two Garmins. I raced it in literally chanting out loud the words of the great Pre, over and over: “DO NOT LET FATIGUE MAKE A COWARD OUT OF YOU!” Darn straight. I am still working on racing with his kind of guts. I am not there yet, still have some conservative instincts that I need to try to override.

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My solo walk this morning in the Gaslamp district to Petco Park. I never tire of walking in the heart of a city.

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I’m in the blue, with my arms crossed. All business, baby, all business. Game face. At one point the announcer was talking about me, right in front of me, and hypothesizing that I might be one of the front runners….and I didn’t even hear or notice him at first. In the ZONE. That was flattering and all, but then…

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…then literally the most exciting thing ever in a race happened to me. There’s this professional runner, Ariana, who just moved to San Diego from Minnesota. Folks, she’s like a rock star. I first learned of her at the Holiday Half. I saw her in the corral back then and just knew. She did go on to win that race. She has a blog, which I read, and she has Olympic trial times. I really admire her. Like me, she came later in life to running, and she is just AMAZING. Anyway, there I was, arms crossed in my corral when I saw her finishing warm ups just ahead of the corral. I looked at Bill and we texted, “Is that Ariana??” No way!

So then she comes to get into our officially seeded, qualifying-time corral. At first the announcer says no, you can’t really squish in here. Then a volunteer and I start speaking up (the volunteer knows his runners—that particular volunteer had just helped to organize the L.A. Marathon). We’re like, “No no no…this is Ariana H—— She belongs up here!” With her there, the whole field will be fast. In my mind, this is a great thing…because even though I cannot run at her level of fitness, a faster field means all of us might get swept along to do a little better than we otherwise might.

Anyway, the announcer tried to say something (because he didn’t know who she was) along the lines of Sarah and Ariana duking it out, and I was quick to say, “Uh, no no…Ariana is much better!” But, people, I felt so excited just to be standing next to her for a few moments before the gun. We talked a bit about the course, and she asked what I was going for… I shared that, and then I wished her a great run. She smoked it. She won the women, and only a few guys even beat her. To see someone there who is an inspiration to me was so meaningful. Definitely a boost right before the race, I felt.

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Bowl of chocolate! (Shared with my kiddos).

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My dad raced, also. I never forget that it started with him…watching him change his life and finish his first half marathon inspired me to want to be that kind of role model for MY children.

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After a late brunch, we took one more selfie in our cutie-pie hotel, and Hot Chocolate 15K 2015 was on the books.

Carlsbad 5000 next Sunday… I am looking to have fun with that flat course. The Big Sur Marathon Relay comes in April, with a team. I’m racing Bay to Breakers in May, and maaaaaaaaybe the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Half (on the bucket list at some point) in late May. July will be Butte to Butte in Eugene. So, two out of three March races are done. They are going well. Trying to be smart the rest of the season here, with training and tapering at the right times.

And if I were smarter, I would go to bed right now. Early morning shake-it-off swim for 100 laps (or more) tomorrow morning!

Run with joy,

Sarah

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