When I opened my eyes this morning, I was instantly aware of two things: I was slightly hung-over from the four glasses of wine I'd had at a friend's welcome-to-summer party last night, and that my running shoes were lying in a small, dispirited heap next to my closet. I'd worn them to the track a couple days before--not for my own workout, but to watch my 9-year-old practice with her track team. My running shoes were a reproachful reminder to me that while I have a great deal of passion for track, marathons, and the sport of running in general, I haven't run a race since last September's Disney Half Marathon. It's been nearly 9 months.
And the third thing to cross my mind as I slid out from beneath the covers of my warm bed into the chaos of the girls clamoring for pancakes outside my bedroom door ("Mommy, we're sooooo hungry!") was my friend Jackie.
She's running the 2009 LA Marathon--and is likely still doing so right now, at 10:42 in the morning. Last year, we ran it together--we crossed the finish line with hands clasped at a solid if uninspired 4:52. The important thing was that we did it together.
I pictured Jackie now at the start line, bouncing on her heels to keep herself warm in the cool morning air, knowing she was feeling excitement and apprehension in equal measure. I selfishly hoped she missed me. I sent her good luck via mental express, and went downstairs with the girls at my heels to make them breakfast.
It was only 6:37am (my children have absolutely no respect for Saturdays, holidays, or their mom's overindulgence in Cabernet) and I was feeling rather muddled. My husband, who'd just come in from a 6-mile run of his own (sick with a cold, hung over, going on 3 hours sleep--you name it--he never misses a run), asked me if I was going to watch the Marathon.
Instantly I was awake and excited, the vestiges' of the half-hangover dissipating like smoke. He turned on the TV for me (why he has to turn it on is a long, frustrating and ultimately silly saga that has to do with my complete inability to work a universal remote) and found live coverage of the LA Marathon. The wheel chair racers were on their way and the elite runners had just begun their journey. The camera panned to the thousands of people waiting for the their turn to dash across the start line. I felt a moment of complete and utter envy that I was not there among them. In other circumstances, I know I would have been.
I don't have a big dramatic back story to share of why I haven't run a race for so long. I injured my back last May (last May 25th, to be exact) training for the 2008 San Diego Rock 'n' Roll Marathon. I had the goal of breaking 4:15. It was to have been my fourth marathon, (2 LAs, one previous Rock n Roll). My previous PR was 4:21:26.
To many competitive runners, that's not an especially impressive PR. But to me, it was an amazing accomplishment. I'd spent a lifetime avoiding running just on general principal--it was boring, too hard, it made my boobs bounce and hit me in the eyes (okay, maybe not that). But I'd never been interested in it. I wasn't a particularity athletic girl. I was on the High School Drill Team for a while, and then a cheerleader, but back in the 80s (yes, I'm old) song and cheer was vastly different than the competitive juggernaut it is today. It was more about smiling, being enthusiastic, and knowing the difference between a offense cheer and a defense cheer. And luckily we had the Head Cheerleaders to tell us which cheers to perform, because honestly, not being particularly knowledgeable about football or basketball (the two sports we cheered for) I would not have known the difference.
So last year I decided I would best my amazing (in my eyes, anyway) achievement by hitting 4:15. If I could hit 4:15, I reckoned I would be a REAL runner, someone who had taken the leap from recreational runner to someone who really had what it took to be a winner (I know, I know). So I completed a 21 mile training run--ignoring the entire time the small but nagging twinge in my back. In fact, I pushed myself even harder that training run than I ever had before, leaving my running companions far behind me in a dash down Taft Ave. that left me feeling exhilarated and a bit smug. (yes, karma is on it's way...)
The next day, I went to a weight training class with a friend, figuring that weight training was an important component to running that I couldn't bypass. I remember hearing the crunch in my back when I lifted a weight--and the sharp, stabbing pain that went with it. I mentioned to my friend in an off-hand manner, hoping she didn't think I was using the aching throb in my back as an excuse not to lift weights. I gritted my teeth through the pain, mentally calling myself a woos/wus (?? spell?? I've never figured out how to spell that word). I was also beginning to feel the first stab of panic--I had never felt anything quite like this in my back, and I was worried. The San Diego Marathon was just 10 days away.
But, to my lasting chagrin, I wasn't done being an idiot. After my friend dropped me off at home, I decided that the metal decorative bench in the back yard JUST HAD to be moved. No tomorrow. And certainly not by my husband, though he is vastly stronger than I. So knowing that it was a mistake and determined to do it anyway, I tried moving the bench.
You know that sound a stalk of celery makes when you break it in half? Yup. That sound. That was the sound I heard as I fell to the ground in agony only experienced in childbirth. I lay there, feeling like a doll with a broken back. Until that moment, I'd never really gotten it when people complained of bad backs. I'd always held people like that slightly in doubt--after all, it couldn't be that bad. Now I knew. I really knew.
Eventually I made my way back to the house and then to the couch, where I remained in various stages of agony for the next few days. I finally made it to the doctor, who clucked her tongue at me for abusing my body to such a degree. She ordered x-rays and sure enough, I had a slipped disc. Not bad (although with my level of pain I thought for sure she would have found my back full of slivers of broken glass) and definitely heal-able. She laughed in amusement when I asked her if I could still run the San Diego Rock 'n' Roll Marathon.
Thus started a regiment of physical therapy that really worked--or seemed to , until I jumped the gun on my healing and ran in the Disney Half Marathon last year. Two karmic punishments resulted from my completely ignoring my PT's advice not to run quite yet: my IPOD broke at mile two (I'd never run a race without my music and found the experience boring and grueling), and I ended the race back at square one with my physical therapy. Yup.
So I was much smarter this time. At the end of several months, my PT declared me as good as I was gonna get (lucky for me, my injury did not necessitate surgery) and said I could try training for a 1/2 marathon again, albeit slowly and with great care. She wasn't overjoyed with my determination to run another 1/2 marathon, urging me instead to try a few 10ks.
But a funny thing happened when my therapy was finally over. Even given the green light to train, I just haven't done it. I've been going to the gym regularly (I've even lost a few pounds) but I hadn't been able to get up the gumption to train for a long run. The longest I've gone since March was 4 miles--the resulting back pain was mild but it was enough to freak me out. In a last ditch effort to inspire myself to "get back on the horse" as it were, I paid my $120 (yikes! gulp! Holy crap!) entry fee to run in the 2009 Disney Half Marathon. But I did that last week and I have yet to run 10 feet, much less started the training I'll need if I'm going to actually get my $120 worth.
But this morning, watching with ever growing excitement in my heart as Kenyan Wesley Korir dashed past Russian Tatyana Petrova at mile 23 to claim the winner title in a race-busting record of 2:08:23, I found the inspiration I needed. And I ran--from the kitchen where I was preparing pancakes to the family room where the TV was so I wouldn't miss any of the marathon. The girls' pancakes were alternately overcooked and underdone. For the first time ever I found myself wishing we had a TV in the kitchen.
Picturing myself with Jackie running last year, I suddenly knew that I would run in a race again. The excitement, the thrill, the amazing feeling of accomplishment I got from running those past marathons and half marathons (a total of seven events since January 2007) was not something I was willing to let slide away.
So shortly following watching the winners break the ribbons, the girls begged to play with the Wii. (we have only one TV--yes, I know, that makes us a strange exception to the three-TV standard of most families) so I let them (they'd eaten their burned-on-the-outside, gooey-on-the-inside pancakes without complaint and I figured the deserved a reward). I headed upstairs, where the unmade bed and lonely-looking pair of running shoes called to me. I put them on and snugged the laces.
I'm heading out for my run now--I'm going to take it slow--maybe the old 3.1 mile route I used to take when I only had a free 1/2 hour to run. And now it's 11:42 and Jackie should be coming up on mile 23, if my calculations are correct. I'll think about her as I'm running, try to shoot some mental energy her way. Because 23 is where the wall is, at least for me. And maybe, just maybe, as I'm finishing up my 3.1, she'll be running over the finish line herself, and in some small way, she and I will be finishing up our run together after all.