In about one month, I'll run my first half-marathon, and I'm definitely feeling that nervous/excited buzz. Before I started training for this event, my longest run was nine miles, so I know the race will be a challenge.
Adding to my nerves is the fact that the course features some tough hills: the race has just under 600 feet of elevation gain**. That's not bad—in fact, it's right around the nation's average for half-marathons. For me, however, it's significant: my usual training runs have only about 100 feet of elevation gain, sometimes less. I don't live in an especially hilly neighborhood, and quite frankly, running uphill is kind of demoralizing and soul-sucking. So my efforts here have been limited.
Last week, after feverishly studying the race elevation chart and feeling mild panic at my lack of preparation, I decided to seek out some bigger hills a short drive away. It was a drizzly, grey morning, and I cued up the new Beauty & the Beast movie soundtrack as I stretched my legs. Sometimes you just need a distraction when you're running, and listening to Ewan McGregor sing "Be Our Guest" never fails to evoke pleasant images of decadent French food and dancing silverware.
I'd mapped out a five-mile course that included rolling hills on relatively quiet roads, with a major climb near the end of the route. My legs burned as I slogged up the first peaks, and I tried to follow the advice I'd read: maintain a consistent effort both up and down each hill, which means slowing the pace during the climb. On each descent, I let gravity take me down. The final hill loomed in the distance, and it looked like a monster, rising up into the fog like something out of a dream. A little alarm bell went off in my brain, and suddenly I wanted nothing more than to reverse course. I was afraid to look all the way to the top; I didn't want to see just how high I'd have to climb.
But in the next second, I noticed something: the closer I got to the hill, the flatter it appeared. Maybe my fears were much greater than the challenge itself. Maybe it was possible to let go of my negative judgments and simply see that hill for what it was: a massive amount of hard work that I could eventually conquer. With each stride, I imagined myself coming down on top of the hill. Dan Stevens' "Evermore" played in the background and I thought of the Beast singing tragically in his castle as I finally reached the top. My legs and lungs were spent, but I cracked a smile.
How often do I let fear dictate my decisions? I've become adept at talking myself out of the things that scare me, challenges that push me beyond where I feel safe and comfortable. I avert my gaze from the big things, because they're not easy or simple and I'd rather not delve into them. The excuses keep rolling: I'm not ready, I'm too tired, and anyway, the floor needs mopping. I'll get to it someday, really I will. I'll write that book proposal, dig into that impossible project or have that tough conversation another day. When it's easier, when I feel stronger.
Training for this race has forced me to admit that regardless of how steep that hill actually is, or how difficult a task appears, the things we fear only grow more intimidating the longer we avoid them. It's instinct to shield our eyes, to focus our gaze away from what scares us. But we may find that once we're fully immersed in the moment, whatever had us tied in knots suddenly seems a lot less scary.
**I had to Google this and learned that elevation gain, or the total sum of climbing throughout a course, can help you get a sense of how hilly a route will be. For example, if a route has one hill that rises 100 feet, and I run up that hill three times, my total elevation gain for the course is 300 feet.
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Once you become a parent, a simple visit to the bathroom by yourself can be a memorable and even philosophical experience. As the summer winds down, here are some of the things I’ve noticed during this special “me” time…
1. You see the overflowing laundry baskets.
Okay, technically this happens on the way to the bathroom, possibly after I nearly kill myself stumbling over a rogue Lego or one of those blasted Magic Clip dolls. I notice the laundry baskets are piled high with damp swimsuits, shorts and T-shirts crusted with sand, and mounds of basically clean clothing that was worn for half a morning before its owners decided to stage a fashion show and try on approximately 17 different outfits. I still can't understand why, after years of hauling tons of laundry up and down the stairs, my upper body isn't as ripped as an Olympian triathlete’s (alright, it's probably the chocolate). But while the endless loads of laundry haven’t given me anything close to chiseled biceps, I know they represent a good stretch of summer days when my kids played happily and with carefree abandon.
2. You remember that you’re getting older.
I catch a side glance of myself in the mirror, see the grey hairs poking through and giving my roots an eerie glow. I used to pluck them, until a co-worker told me with a wry smile, “Pull a grey hair out, and three more come to its funeral.” Damn, she was right. Mental calculation: when did Mom start coloring her hair? I squint and examine the skin under my eyes, where I recently discovered what my doctor called a “maturity spot.” Yes, based on external appearances, I must be mature and all grown up now, but there are plenty of days when I throw my own version of a childish tantrum. I’m convinced there is another, enlightened, real mother out there who is going to swoop in someday and rescue my kids from my missteps. Oh, and she will have dazzling skin and flawless hair, too, of course.
3. You quickly run through your mental to-do list.
Let’s see, what’s on the docket for today? We probably need some groceries, since the only fresh fruit in the house consists of mushy, blackened bananas; the first-grader needs new gym shoes or we’ll face the wrath of the P.E. teacher when school starts next week; and the poor guinea pigs are long overdue for a nail trim. Years ago, before I even dreamed of becoming a mom, my daily routine looked quite different. Time belonged fully to me, and achievements and accolades were mine for the taking. I never thought of the words “mundane” or “ordinary” when describing my life. But I know every item on my task list means something to someone, and it wouldn’t get done without me.
4. You realize that silence feels deafening in a way it never did before children.
As I sit on the porcelain throne at last, I notice that the air is so quiet, so still. No feet thumping down the hallway or shrieks of laughter or toys clattering on the floor. For a moment I can close my eyes and it seems believable that I'm alone in this house. And I realize with a start that in a matter of days, that will indeed be the case - at least for a few hours each morning when the kids are back in school. After listening to a steady summer soundtrack of whining, bickering over toys and the constant refrain, "I'm booooored, what super special activity are we doing next??", I suddenly don't know how I'll deal with the return of the quiet. A moment I have longed for in the way I’m sure teachers pine for the last day of school in June. I'm not sure I'm ready for it, or for the ultimate moment years from now when, if I've done my job successfully, the kids will leave their cozy little nest for bigger and brighter places.
5. Before you can get too deeply lost in thought, your brief reverie is always broken.
"MAMAAAAA!!!" The silence shatters as I hear a scream that can only resemble a hyena being evicted from the depths of hell. I'm certain that the kids time their squabbles for these exact five minutes, when my pants are down and my eyes are in a different room. I take a deep breath and bellow down the hallway, "I'm on the potty, kids, for crying out loud! Come get me if someone's bleeding or dying, otherwise - WORK IT OUT!!!"
Maybe it's good that these moments of quiet contemplation are limited to the bathroom for now. I like my ordinary, familiar, comfortable life, and it scares me to think too deeply about how it will be different in a month, a year or a decade. But I know it will change, again and again. So for now I'll hold on to the sweet chaos as much as possible.
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One sweet summer before I became a mom, I completed two sprint triathlons. The first, a lovely event in Corvallis, Oregon, included a 750-meter pool swim, an 11-mile bike ride in the countryside, and 5K run. Admittedly, I did cheat on the run segment (by accident - I took a wrong turn and skipped the last half of the route!), but the event was still a great experience that I fully enjoyed. I remember the adrenaline at the start, my nerves electrified as I dove into the pool, how the swim felt almost peaceful as the water dampened all of the noise around me. I loved the little transition area where everyone's gear was laid out neatly and my bike waited for me like an old friend, ready to carry me over rolling hills, past sleepy neighborhoods to the outskirts of the town. Instantly hooked, I decided to participate in another triathlon a few months later. This time, I completed the entire distance and rightfully earned my plastic laminated finishers' medal.
That was 2008. This month, my graduating kindergartener turned six, and my "tri" days feel like ancient history. Though I've continued running, and even enjoyed some fun races this past year, my pace has never come close to the times I pulled off before having kids. I've often wallowed in self-pity over this fact, wondering if it will ever be possible to return to that level of fitness, to run with the same ease as I did seven years ago. To turn back the clock, show the world that, yes, I may be older and a bit wiser, but I'm just as competitive as before. Maybe I need to train harder, or invest in better running shoes, or study up on the latest techniques espoused by famous coaches. Or maybe, just maybe, despite my best efforts, my body just will not go there anymore.
Running has started to feel stale, an activity I still enjoy but can't fully immerse myself in without a certain flavor of disappointment. And this must be why, while surfing Google one random evening last month, I started looking into local summer triathlons. While none of the sprint triathlons fit into our family's schedule, I found a duathlon (run-bike-run) that will be taking place August 1st, practically in my backyard. I researched further and saw that my gym would offer a group training class throughout June and July. The timing could not have been more perfect, as if this event were tailor-made for me.
"I think I need this," I said to K, who immediately started researching bike racks for the car and told me how he and the girls would come to cheer me on at the event. Within days, I had registered for the duathlon, and signed up for the training class, which began this month.
At the first class, the other participants included a trim woman in her 50s who mentioned that she was following the Paleo diet, and a friendly middle-aged gentleman who handled his bike with ease. His daughter, an elite high school runner who averages a 5:30 mile pace, also joined us for the class. All of us would be participating in different races throughout the summer. Our group leader, a trainer at the gym, looked like a slightly leaner, life-sized version of the Barbie "Ken" dolls I played with as a child.
We started off the session with a 10-mile bike ride that took us past a local community college, wide open fields and spectacular secluded homes. In preparation for the August event, I had decided to invest in my very first road bike, and learning to ride it was an experience in itself. The new bike felt incredibly light and almost wobbly, so very different from the trusty, no-frills mountain bike I had owned for more than ten years. As we started the ride, my little legs spinning and spinning as I tried to find a comfortable gear, my thoughts raced just as wildly. Why are they going so fast? Is it normal to be this tired after only 30 seconds of cycling? Oh, this was a mistake...and - OH my God, I'm one of THEM now, I'm one of those crazy cyclists I always see coasting down the roads. Well, minus the rock-hard abs and fancy jersey, of course.
Though I was bringing up the rear for most of the bike ride, once I settled in, I began to enjoy the experience. And I started to understand what motivates those "crazy" cyclists to get outdoors and brave the open road, where the demands and cares of daily life fall away and for a blissful string of moments, you can just be a person on a bike. All I needed to do, all I really needed to accomplish was to keep my legs going while making sure not to lose sight of the other riders in front of me.
When I focused on this simple goal, all of my senses seemed to be at their sharpest. We passed broad swaths of farmland and I giggled when I saw horses wearing what looked like cozy embroidered sweaters. The wind whipped in my face and whooshed past my ears, and I lost count of how many bugs I had swallowed. The scent of lilac enveloped me with its sweetness. The moon was full and pasty white against the early evening sky. (The "day moon," my kids and I like to joke.) In the background, the soundtrack was an ongoing chorus of red-winged blackbirds, their song a single note that is both mournful and unapologetic, a sound that forces you to listen. As if to say, "I am here. I am alive."
My little bike did not disappoint me. It felt so light and nimble, its thin frame and tires providing only a small barrier between me and the ground. With minimal insulation from the earth whizzing below, I felt every bump and rock on the pavement, a sensation both thrilling and terrifying. Every jolt in the road made me gasp as I feared I would fly off the bike and smash into the concrete beneath the pedals. And I felt a sense of terror that perhaps only a parent can understand, the fear of getting seriously hurt and not being there for my kids.
As our ride continued through a peaceful lakefront neighborhood, the aroma of a summer barbecue filled the air and suddenly transported me back to 25 years ago, to some campground in California. In an instant, I'm 10 or 11 years old, hanging around a tent, my skin and clothes tinged with a light layer of dust and campfire smoke. There is laughter, there is food to eat that probably came from a can and tastes delicious. My mom, dad, brother and sister are there. I don't know where "there" is exactly, only that it happened. The body remembers what the mind can no longer grasp.
When we finished our bike ride and transitioned to a run, I looked with envy at the high school athlete. She had handled the bike segment so effortlessly, keeping pace with the leader for most of the course, and now sauntered ahead of the group as we jogged behind her. At that point, my legs felt like one of those wiggly snake water toys we used to play with growing up, and I was mildly concerned that I had peed my pants. I had to admit that I felt slightly bitter watching this girl, with her tan, glistening skin and dazzling smile that came so easily, which I interpreted as the sign of a carefree mind. She was just so young, her body strong and pure and untarnished, not grizzled and gnarled by years of caring for children, of health catastrophes both big and small, or the weight of too much swallowed resentment.
Yet there's a richness and a complexity to the years that separate this girl and me. People and experiences that I'd never trade, because I couldn't imagine my life today without them.
Yes, the past is so comfortable, so achingly familiar and safe, like the cozy blanket you drape across your legs when settling in to watch your favorite Netflix series. And when we focus on what we've lost - fitness, youth, a sense that nothing scary can happen to us - the past always seems infinitely more appealing than the present. But we can't turn back the clock. We can only move forward.
I'm still nervous and excited about the duathlon, and the training leading up to it. So, yeah, I might look into buying some elbow and knee pads and a super upgraded titanium-reinforced helmet (do they even make those??) just for fun. And I've resolved not to beat myself up mentally if I need to stop and take a breather during the event. But I'll stay committed and keep working toward my goal. Because whatever it has awakened in me might just be a part of the past that I can take with me.
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Postscript, September 2015: The duathlon was an excellent experience! As I summed it up to friends, I met two important goals: (1) I survived (finished), and (2) I did not come in last! Even better, now I have a third medal to proudly showcase in my collection.
I'm Gina, mom to two girls, writer, and seasoned coffee drinker.