Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Wall

This past Saturday, my Samaritans teammates took on 18 miles--our longest training run yet. It varies from person to person, but it is usually around that distance that the body runs out of stored glycogen and thus you encounter "the wall" and your legs literally cease to work. Even months of preparation, slowly increasing the distance and coaching your body to burn fuel more efficiently is often still not enough to prevent that dreaded moment when your form falls apart and your pace slows to a crawl. I have been waiting for the time when I first experience this feeling, and I was fully prepared to possibly hit the wall for the first time on Saturday morning.

Many say that a good part of running a marathon is mental, and that part of your training is about learning how to psychologically overcome your body's screaming cries to cease all activity once that wall is hit. To be that worn out and still maintain pace requires a mental strategy that is unique to each runner. Everyone has that kind of determination inside somewhere, but it takes some searching to find where it is hidden. I did not make it to the 18 mile run on Saturday, but I was instead given a different opportunity to practice searching for that emotional override. It has been a week, and I am finally beginning to feel relief from an incredibly mentally-taxing journey that began at 4:00am last Wednesday morning, when I was jarred from the deepest sleep by the sound of heat blowing out the glass downstairs and the panicked cries of my roommates who awoke to find flames licking their windows. Several minutes later I found myself in the street, staring in dazed disbelief at the fire erupting from the neighboring apartment building, which was quickly spreading over to our dear third-floor residence at 238 Prospect Street. Standing bare-legged in the 5-degree air with my shoes on the wrong feet and my coat only half on, clutching the two items I had time to grab (my pet snake and childhood blanket) to my chest, I felt like I had hit the wall.

There was not a whole lot that could have prepared me for what we would find when we were allowed to re-enter our apartment 7 hours later to gather essential items, such as phones and wallets. The burned ceiling and roof had rained a thick blanket of insulation through our apartment, sodden with water that had quickly frozen into a crusty, ashen layer that stank unbelievably. My heart fell as I looked into my two roommate's rooms that had taken the heaviest damage--they were unrecognizable, and almost nothing was left. I quickly learned that firemen will go to any lengths to extinguish a fire (and rightly so), even if it meant coming in like a tornado and upturning tables, throwing armoires and dressers, and busting out windows so that they could pull hoses through to spray across the narrow alley. My own room was thankfully against the other wall of the house and although it sustained heavy smoke damage, many items were salvageable. I was completely in shock as I crunched across the piles of debris and aimlessly collected some clothing and sentimental items as every 30 seconds our smoke alarm emitted a gargled, dying chirp from deep in a pile of collapsed ceiling. Almost more than anything, we were so thankful to find Tara's kitty, Memphis, safe and sound jammed beneath Tara's bed.

I'll admit that to maintain a reasonable level of functioning over the next several days, I had to dig pretty deep. The logistics of losing your home and belongings suddenly in the middle of the night are quite complicated, and it was almost too easy to feel utterly overwhelmed. But, just as the cheering crowd can make a world of difference even in the toughest race, support and kindness came swooping in before my shock had even worn off. The people at the Cambridge Public Works took us in, provided breakfast, and kept us up to date on the situation (it took hours for firefighters to extinguish the fire fully) while the wonderful American Red Cross paid for two nights at a pet-friendly hotel and provided us with a small stipend to help pay for some new clothing and toiletries. As word spread among my friends, coworkers, and marathon teammates, I received countless invitations to crash on spare beds or couches. With nothing to wear to the multiple interviews I still had lined up at a career fair on Friday, Carla and her roommates stepped up and pulled out all their best clothing to find items that fit. My mother drove up from PA to join in with those who helped me move out whatever was salvageable from our apartment, and also do countless loads of laundry in an attempt to wash out the sickly sweet stench of smoke that saturated my clothing. Others offered their basements to store my other items. The owner of Casa B restaurant in Union Square graciously comped a fabulously delicious meal to my mother and me, and the folks at ImprovBoston donated the proceeds of Sunday night's show to all 18 who were displaced. Moreover, the bar manager at Bukowski Tavern in Inman Square has volunteered to donate all of his tips from tonight towards the cause as well. I have been blown away by the community's response.

Needless to say, my training regimen took a hit after everything that happened. I finally managed to pull off a short run on Monday after continually feeling too exhausted to even consider it. It was not a great run; the tension in my back and shoulders practically inhibited my breathing, but the lowest part came when I turned up Prospect Street and instinctively crossed to the other side at the intersection with Broadway, ready as usual to push it out for the final block. For a year and half I have run all through Cambridge and Boston and along the Charles or up through Somerville, out into Arlington and around Medford, or down by the harbor and through the beautiful Public Garden, but no matter where I went I always began and finished at 238. I had not cried yet since the fire happened, but to continue down Prospect Street without stopping at our little blue house with the white porch railings, I was overwhelmed by that all-too-familiar weighty feeling of loss. But with a new apartment will come new memories, and I am continually reminding myself to count my blessings. The people in 240 and two of my roommates effectively lost all that they had, and worst of all, one woman lost her life. I survived unhurt, and have a huge network of friends and family offering their support, which is really all that matters. And as hard times often breed new acquaintances, we have finally actually made friends with the second-floor residents of 238 and even shared laughs in the fact that I, being the last one to mobilize that morning, did not manage to put on pants. In the end, mental toughness takes practice and I can only hope that when I finally do hit mile 18, I will be readier than ever to dig deep, find my strength, and continue onward.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Long Run, February 1st: Sweet Sixteen

It was such a relief to step out my front door on Saturday and be greeted by mid-30s temperatures for the first time in weeks. It would seem that the two-week cold snap has finally released its grip, and probably just in time too, as I was beginning to regress into a very dour mental state that involved me repeatedly questioning what the hell the Pilgrims were thinking when they decided to inhabit the inhospitable gulag that is Massachusetts winter. I felt it particularly during the hill workout this past Tuesday night--although it was a somewhat reasonable 18 degrees, it rocked me a little harder than I had anticipated and left me sore and stiff. But, heading downtown on Saturday morning, I was feeling ready and was especially pleased to see Katherine show up at Joint Ventures shortly before 8:00. I was in the mood for some company and pacing advice. We got a slightly later start while we waited for the potty line to dwindle, and in the meantime she introduced me to Morgan, who also is running for Boston Medical Center. Turns out he is 25 as well, and he confessed that he had also never run 16 miles before. The two of us sort of shrugged and exchanged a "guess we'll see what happens" look and off we went.

The scheduled course was the exact same one we've been doing every time, only plus a full lap around the reservoir on the way out. I am getting pretty bored of these stretches of Beacon and Commonwealth, but having a new running companion was a good way to shake things up. Morgan talked about how he transitioned from a music major to a religion major, and then somehow wound up doing clinical work in depression studies at BMC. He is also a Zen Buddhist. He and Katherine chatted about clinical studies and their coworkers and there was lots of doctor jargon flying around so I just listened as we wound our way around the reservoir and headed out into Newton. John had set up maybe 5 water stops for us, and we took our time at each to snag some Gatorade. I found myself hitting the Swedish Fish pretty hard, except after two chews they would solidly cement themselves into my molars and stay there for about a mile. Which was sort of a gross phenomenon, but also convenient. Our pace hovered around an 8:30, which felt slow and very sustainable. I had no intentions of pushing it as I did two weeks ago, as my body really took a beating that day.

We paused in Newton Centre at Peet's Coffee for a quick pit stop (thankfully they didn't yell at us), before moving onwards. After the cut-across to Commonwealth Avenue on Chestnut Street, which plops us midway through the Newton hills, I was pleasantly aware of how good I felt. In fact, after eating a radioactive-looking "island flavor" GU at the bottom of the 3rd hill, by the time we reached Heartbreak I could feel myself getting a bit bonkers. Katherine split from us at Coolidge Corner to run home, and so Morgan and I pushed it out together for the final mile. There is a raised overpass over the turnpike just before Kenmore Square that we have dubbed The Kenmore Hill, and seeing it appear after trotting for several hours is always most welcome.

I have to say, I did not feel as wiped as I thought I would afterwards. It's funny how my perspective of what constitutes a "long" run keeps being steadily pushed futher. My Brooks Adrenaline's have started to wear significantly on the outsole, and a trip to the South End Athletic Company the next afternoon (where they did a fascinating free gait analysis video on a treadmill and I was that irritating customer that asks a million questions) led me to buy a pair of Mizuno Wave Inspires, which are slightly less clunky but will hopefully still keep my ankles from doing the tango. We'll see how they perform, and at least I know I can always switch back to the Adrenalines if they seem sketchy. Next week I will in NH skiing and will miss out on the 10-miler, but I will make up for it midweek sometime.

As I wrap this up, I want to once again thank my multitude of supporters who have been so incredibly charitable. With everyone's help, including the two most recent and unbelievably generous donations from Steve Piltch and the Shipley School, I have almost passed the $9000 mark! At this rate, I am feeling confident that I will reach my $10,000 goal by April. I am floored by the generosity of each and every one of you, and so touched by the outpouring of support. Thank you so much, everyone!