Sunday, March 29, 2015

Hammy Setbacks

I was given the gift of company during our snowy 12 mile run last Saturday, something that was greatly needed to push me forward. We all showed up before the run in some amount of rough shape. These three weeks at peak are brutal on the body; following up the 18 miles on March 14th with 8 miles of hill reps the following Tuesday, and we were all feeling various body parts starting to "go." By the final few miles, I was uncomfortably aware of a twinge that had sprouted deep in the area behind my left knee. I hoped taking Sunday and Monday off would give it time to settle, but my hill workout on Tuesday was cut short on the 5th rep when it steadily worsened. I took three days off, iced, stretched, and left for the peak 21 mile run yesterday morning feeling pretty hopeful.

The 21 mile run was sort of my final hurrah last year, although of course I wasn't aware of it at the time. It was a beautiful day that permitted us to run in short sleeves, and I think it was the first time my arms had seen sun since October. This year, however, the weather was not so generous, and we got off the buses in Framingham amid steady snow. I was pleased to have time on the bus to connect with my teammate, Davia, and we started off the run together. I recalled taking the first 4.5 miles rather slow last year, and I decided to repeat that tactic. I also wanted to use these first few miles to feel out my hamstring. I was fully aware of the absurdity of it all, testing out an injury's readiness with a ridiculous 21 miles (I'd normally give it a test run with, I don't know, one mile at most?), but I was feeling the pressure of knocking this one out. Completing the 21 mile at a good pace last year made me feel 100% more ready for the actual race, and I needed that reassurance more than ever this time.

However, half a mile in, and I could already tell I was in trouble. A tight feeling and slight burning sensation were already pulling all my thoughts to my left leg, and as we cruised up to our first fuel station at mile 3, I dreaded the decision I knew I would have to make. My energy was raring but I held myself to a jog, hoping to at least make it to the Samaritans tent at mile 8, where I knew Daniel would be waiting. But shortly after Natick Center, I could tell I was about to start making things quite worse, so I stepped off to the side by some cheering supporters at the fire station to borrow a phone and call Daniel. Coincidentally, we had just taken the time to memorize each other's phone numbers the night before, and I bitterly mused at how quickly it came to good use.

It was hard to not feel like this twinge in my hamstring was the Toe Incident all over again. Race Day feels so far in the future all winter, but the days seem to fly by after the peak run. As I chilled down in the falling snow waiting for Daniel to arrive, masses of runners passed by and it felt all too familiarly like last year when I stood on Heartbreak Hill on April 21st to cheer for my teammates and thousands of others, wishing I was almost anywhere else. Climbing into the car after Daniel finally arrived, I felt like such a failure once more as we sped past hundreds of runners down the length of Washington Street and Comm Ave. Feeling incapable with only three weeks to go is not a position that makes me feel very comfortable, and I spent the afternoon riddled with anxiety and feeling quite sorry for myself. I had a sports massage that afternoon (a gift that Daniel gave me for my birthday way back in November), which I had scheduled with the intent of it being a kind reward to my aching body after putting it through the mill. However, it was now instead the first step towards healing this issue as quickly as possible, and I explained everything in great detail to my massage therapist before we got started. He was a rather eccentric guy, which I probably would have handled better in a lesser state of anxiety, but I was soon completely preoccupied by physical discomfort as he tackled my frozen hamstrings and quadriceps with some pretty serious maneuvers. I am quite aware of how tight my legs tend to be (absolutely not helped by my lackadaisical approach to stretching, nor my genetics; 8 years of ballet in my youth and I could never do a damn split, if that tells you anything), but I was less aware of how that tightness inhibits my ease of movement. My range of motion was miserable, but after one excruciating hour, I had gained many inches of hamstring reach and I was amazed at how different walking felt.

In short, I now have my work cut out for me once again. I quickly activated the one-month membership to Boston Sports Club that Michelle gifted to me last year after the accident (something had told me to hold off using it!), and I already have a plan in motion for the next three weeks that involves heavy cross training, superhuman amounts of stretching, and probably another visit or two to the magical hamstring masseur. I am in a much better emotional place now than I was yesterday, and hopeful that I can reorient myself and work around this setback to still run on the 20th. I am telling myself that last year was my year to rock the peak run, while this year will be the one to rock the actual race. And now, I am going to go stretch.

Lastly, if you are curious, check out this link to read about the Boston Strong quilt (made by a Samaritans marathon runner last year) which will be hanging in the Statehouse from April 1st - 20th.

Friday, March 20, 2015

I left school around 4:00 on Tuesday, armed with my hot pink gym bag filled with all my hill run essentials. The workout actually starts at 5:30, but for once I managed to not get sucked into various meetings or project planning or discussions about curriculum, so I decided to get a head start while the sun was still strong. It was almost 50 degrees and almost blindingly sunny, and I hardly felt the sense of impending doom that usually precedes the hill workout as I waded through rivers of snow melt on my way to Porter Square. My foot felt solid, despite having run 18 miles three days prior; a very rainy ordeal, which left me chafed where the wet seams of my shirt rubbed against my sides but thankfully spared me any foot pain. With patches of grass showing among the snow piles for the first time in nearly two months, the world felt decidedly less hostile. Looking to the north, I could see the thinnest strip of deep gray sky on the horizon over Arlington and Medford, but everything looked peachy in the direction of Boston as I headed into the T to go downtown.

My 20 minute trip underground brought me up onto the Boston Common amid a completely different scene than the one I had left in Cambridge. Evidently, during the time that it took to travel underground to the other side of the river, that tiny layer of gray sky had quickly stretched its way over the entire Commonwealth and brought with it a 15-degree drop in temperature and a wind that ripped up Tremont Street and made me struggle to push the door open to exit the subway. I knew that the forecast for Wednesday was a mere 27 degrees, and it seemed as though Canada was on her way in already for a most unwelcome visit. The first drops began to fall only moments after starting my first steps around the Common and Public Garden to warm up, and by the time I reached the bottom of The Hill, I was barely able to open my eyes through the stinging rain.

As I began my repetitions up and down the length of Beacon Hill, head bent down to reduce the sharp bite of the rain on my face, my view was reduced to the toes of my blue sneakers coming in and out of frame with each stride and the glimpsed faces of passing commuters, mostly hidden beneath hoods and umbrellas. With so much of the world shut out, I was mainly left to my own thoughts. Thoughts of work, of my parents who are away in the Middle East. Thoughts of Nathaniel. The wind increased, and I began to think of a Shipley family who recently lost their 13 year old son, Cayman, to suicide. As I pushed my way up the hill, I thought of what they must be feeling at that very moment. Agony, I knew. I remember the first weeks after Nathaniel died, how every second of the day was punctuated by a deep pain in my chest that radiated into my upper back, like the grief was boring a hole right through me. I had never experienced emotional pain so profound that it became physical as well, and it is not something that I will forget. I remember those first moments of each morning, when I was barely coming into consciousness, often out of a regular dream with nonsensical plot lines and familiar faces; where for a few rare moments I had forgotten that he was gone and everything carried on against the familiar backdrop of my life, one that included my brother. And then I would wake up, and in an instant that gaping hole would open up like a vacuum and every emotion, every traumatic memory, every regret would come rushing in to fill the void. Other nights I would dream of his death, and my emotions would follow me right into my sleep. I felt completely and utterly broken. As the rain soaked through my clothes and froze my forearms, I wondered if Cayman's family was feeling anything like I had. I know that he had a sister.

The rain steadied, and then abruptly transformed into pelting hail like someone had thrown a switch. As I let gravity take me down the hill to prepare for another repetition, the little balls of ice rolled ahead of my feet while more pinged both delightfully and somewhat painfully off my body. Trying to catch the little hail stones in my hands, I turned around to head back to the top and was overwhelmed by the thought of why am I doing this? I could run this hill a million times and it would never bring Nathaniel back. I could run marathons for the rest of my life and it would not ease the Naib family's grief for their son, Cayman. The grief for a loved one is as enduring as their death. I know I will always grieve Nathaniel, because I will always love him. So why, why have I felt the need to once again pour myself into training for this one particular race? Squinting my eyes against the stinging ice, I scanned the snowy Common as if the answer lay somewhere nearby.

Not surprisingly, I did not come up with a brilliant response during the 45 minutes I spent going back and forth over the same length of Beacon Hill. I thought about how I am running to support Samaritans and the tireless work they do each day to support those who are feeling desperate, suicidal, or are grieving a loved one. Every time I go into the office to drop off my school bag before a hill run, I hear the volunteers answering countless helpline calls. The admire the volunteers for their calm courage as they tactfully and skillfully navigate whatever comes through the line; just hearing their side of the conversation is enough to make me leave the room as promptly as I can. I could never do what they do. But no, supporting Samaritans is only part of it, and I couldn't seem to put my finger on the rest. Turning to head up the hill for my second-to-last time, my body was beginning to scream. Was I running for the physical challenge, like an attempt to achieve some semblance of solidarity for the those who struggle daily as Nathaniel did? Like if I could will myself up the hill one more time, perhaps someone like Nathaniel would find the strength to hold out a little longer? Yet I had no doubt that my bodily cries paled in comparison to the inner marathon he ran every day. For soon I would be done and sitting on the T to head back home. He was never done.

Heading back up the hill for my ninth and final time, I felt uneasy. The hail had ceased and it was now just bitterly cold and gusty, and I was dressed inadequately. Why couldn't I pinpoint the true reason why I felt driven to do this? Was there no reason at all? Perhaps it was just a distraction from my grief, or a way to feel like I was doing something amid the helplessness of it all; not very empowering reasons, I concluded. Feeling somewhat defeated, I ran the last rep hard, and when I reached the top I doubled over with my hands on my knees, my heart racing out of my chest. The sky remained a deep, mottled gray, but I happened to glance up at the state house to my left and saw one tiny slit of blue sky peeking out from the clouds behind the golden dome. Turning around to go down for the final time, I looked ahead at the massive mirrored side of the John Hancock building in Copley Square and saw that the slim swath of blue sky behind me was magnified and reflected across all 60 stories of Boston's tallest skyscraper, 760 feet of brilliant blue contrasted against the surrounding dark cloud layer. In my mind, I almost word-for-word replayed Meg Ryan's conversation with her mother in Sleepless in Seattle ("It's a sign!" "But you don't believe in signs!"). I admired the oddness and beauty of it the whole way down the hill and by the time I reached the bottom, the building stood tall and gray again, washed out against the stormy backdrop. I couldn't quite figure out the physics of it all, but it somehow brought me comfort. I am indeed doing something small, perhaps nearly insignificant, like one fleeting sliver of clear sky in a massive storm front. But it is beautiful, and who knows; perhaps it will reflect as something huge for someone else, whether it brings them hope or comfort or will to continue. It is big for me. And maybe that is enough.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Long Run, February 28th: PA Love

I can hardly think of a better way to say "good riddance" to February than by waking up super early and running 18 miles in fifteen degrees. Except for maybe a large, homemade brunch. Or sleeping in, and then doing a long run...or perhaps not running at all, maybe just playing with a cat instead. Actually as I write this, I am beginning to think of a rather large number of things that may be more desirable, so I'll just move on. I am sure that I wanted nothing to do with life when I woke up at an unmentionable hour to drag my sorry behind to Kenmore Square. I was, however, quite excited that my mom and Daniel would be joining the fun by handing out gatorade along the course. My mom and dad were in town for the weekend, and although my dad was busy at the IOCDF board meeting on Saturday morning, mom and Daniel agreed to be my support team.

It was awesome seeing my mom at Joint Ventures right at 7:30, and I started the run with more energy than usual. It was brilliantly sunny, but quite cold, and poor conditions around the reservoir and near Newton were forcing us to modify our usual route and instead do a simple out-and-back on Beacon Street and Comm Ave. I knew that my two cheerleaders would be waiting at the turnaround at mile 9, so I ran only the first mile or two slow with some Samaritans runners and then did my best to hurry down Beacon and get to Commonwealth Avenue quickly. It felt a bit odd heading the wrong way up Chestnut Hill Ave, and I realized that the backside of Heartbreak is actually possibly more difficult than the front.

Interestingly, Comm Ave all the way to the Newton firehouse was more of a spectacle than usual, with swarms of runners dressed like superheros and somewhat inexplicably like various fruits. The mood was contagious, however, and I found myself smiling at the ridiculous costumes. I was also aware that, for the first time, I was now "that person" coming down Heartbreak instead of going up. Generally, when one is panting their way up a hill, seeing other people cruising down the opposite way all effortlessly makes the sweat taste a bit more salty. I have often resisted the urge to yell at them for going the wrong way. You're supposed to go UP Heartbreak hill, durrr.

The density of superheros and other costumed runners increased as I approached the firehouse at the intersection with Washington Street, where I was enormously pumped to find Boston's legendary Keytar Bear playing on the side of Comm Ave at a gatorade table. His keytar beats are actually so fresh that I sometimes can't even handle it. I've never seen him outside of the T or Faneuil Hall area, so that really rocked my world for a second. In case you've never heard about this guy, read his interview for Boston Magazine here. It's pretty hilarious. My favorite part..."The costume is a little dirty. Do you think it's horrifying?" "I think it's horrifying." Also the way he hates on obnoxious school children.

Never have I continued beyond the Newton firehouse, but it was like entering the doldrums from the Phantom Tollbooth. The superheros and music disappeared, the carriage road got way more icy, and I swear even the snow got dirtier. Only our training program was going out another mile before turning around, so there were just few runners in general. But soon I could see Ma and Daniel at the turnaround, and it was nice to catch a break for a few minutes. I felt good though.  Heading back, I positioned myself with two other girls from the program who were holding 8:20 - 8:30, which is just about where I wanted myself. The run back was somewhat uneventful, to be honest. I held pace, got to see my cheering squad once more at the BC Wall, and then picked up some speed for the final 3 miles down Beacon Street to finish in about two hours and 40 minutes, including all the stops. I am sure that consuming three hyper-sugary gels along the way helped the process, but overall I was in high spirits. Good riddance, February. On to my least favorite month of all, March.