Well, I did it: this weekend I completed my first half marathon! It feels unbelievable that the big day has finally come and gone. In the past few months, preparing for the race consumed a lot of my energy, and my thoughts rarely strayed far from running, whether I was thinking about my last workout or planning my next one. Sticking with the training plan was effective, but also meant that at times, my family had to schedule things around my long runs. I'm especially thankful for my lovely husband's support and patience :)
It's been about 48 hours since the race, and today I woke up with achy calves and a whole mess of thoughts swirling around my head. As expected, those 13.1 miles were tough, but they were also eye-opening and amazing. Here are a few things I learned:
Lesson #1: Regardless of how well you prepare for race day, there will be glitches. Sometimes they're major, sometimes they’re no big deal. For me, these hiccups were mostly minor, like my music playlist not running in the right order. I also underestimated how long the Porta Potty line would be, and nearly missed the starting gun. It can be frustrating to prepare for an event and then have to deal with something that messes with your concentration. But if I can learn to expect that things won't be perfect, those glitches will rattle me less when they inevitably occur.
Lesson #2: Your mind will travel to some desperate places, but that does not mean you have to give up. In my training, I had worked on running hills, yet I was taken aback by the difficulty of the hills on the course. During the first few miles, I jogged up each incline fairly easily, but it wasn't long before my legs and lungs started to protest. By mile six, the moderate heat and humidity that had been absent during most of my training became a significant factor. Not even halfway through the race, a little voice in my head was starting to scream louder and louder, "I can't do this." My body begged me to stop and walk, which I did, often. I felt demoralized; I'd never planned on walking during the race, except when passing the water stations. From miles eight until ten, I felt like I was in a trance. I seriously contemplated quitting, but I kept slogging along. There were several people around me who were walking off and on, and we leap-frogged with each other for a while. My awesome friend Liz was also running, and it was a huge mental boost to connect with her around mile ten as we grabbed some water. Gradually, my energy returned in little bursts and the negative self-talk began to fade. I started ignoring the pacing signals coming from my watch; I knew now that I wouldn’t achieve my two-hour goal time, and that stung. But I realized that finishing slower than I wanted was better than not finishing at all. By mile eleven, I knew I was going to complete the race, no matter how long it took. In the end, my official time was 2:02:43, which I was pretty happy with, considering how gutted I was feeling during the second half of the race.
Lesson #3: Fueling, as my friend Liz has wisely noted, is a complicated beast. On my long training runs, I'd practiced my race day fueling strategy by sipping water and chewing Honey Stinger gummies. This worked well for me in the cool, early spring temperatures. However, the warmer weather on race day, combined with the grueling hills, made me much less excited to ingest the gooey, sticky gummies I'd so carefully packed for the event. While I did continue to hydrate at the water stations, I stopped ingesting any carbohydrates after about mile six, which was probably when I needed them the most. Gels or even sports drinks may have been easier on my tummy, which more than once threatened to launch its contents onto the sidewalk. In the future, I'll have to experiment more with fueling.
Lesson #4: In a tough race, the little things will lift your spirits. Around mile ten, while cursing the evil hills, I spotted a magnificent great blue heron as it crossed overhead. I love birds and felt like this was a good sign. A little further along the course, a boy stood on the corner giving out high-fives to the runners. I also ran for a couple of miles with a nice gentleman who was a seasoned marathoner, and enjoyed having a bit of conversation to distract me. The volunteers were terrific, too; I’ve never felt as grateful for a drink of water as I did when I stopped at their stations. Even the light breezes and scattered drops of rain throughout the course worked wonders to boost my mood.
Lesson #5: No matter how much Body Glide you put on, it’s not going to be enough. Going into a longer distance event, I was well aware of the perils of chafing. And trust me, I was prepared. On race morning, I applied both Body Glide Anti Chafe Balm and Aquaphor quite generously. As it turns out, I missed a spot. A few spots actually. And I'll just leave this one here.
P.S.: Well, I must be hooked, or crazy, because I've already signed up for my next race: the Fox Cities Half Marathon in September 2017. I'm looking forward to building on my first race and learning from this next one!
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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When it comes to Wisconsin winters, any temperature over 40 degrees can almost feel tropical. This weekend, we took advantage of the warm weather and made the drive to Kohler-Andrae State Park. Located in Sheboygan, the park features miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, nature trails, and some really cool dune cordwalks.
The beauty of this park was an unexpected treasure, especially smack dab in the middle of winter. The kids loved running up and down the dune cordwalks, paths that seemed to spiral into the distance with no end. At times, we felt as if we were the only souls in the entire place. Huge chunks of ice were strewn across the beach, settled into the sand like lounging seals. The kids enjoyed climbing and jumping off these "ice rocks," their boots splashing into the tiny rivers of water below.
As the kids hunted for treasures and made stick drawings in the sand, I found myself looking for signs of life along the beach, picking up shells to see if any tiny inhabitants might still be inside. No such luck: any critters had long since moved out, likely relocated to the belly of a hungry seagull or another animal.
Then I happened to see this peculiar-looking little dude lying on his back in the sand. A quick Google search suggested he was a Whirligig beetle, which typically swims on the surface of water. The kids ran over and we debated on whether our little friend wanted to swim or just keep hanging out in the sand. Gingerly, I flipped him over to his stomach, and almost immediately, he began moving in the direction of the water. He had impressive speed and seemed to move instinctively toward his destination.
We watched as his body broke the surface of the waves, his tiny legs propelling him forward with a natural grace. He even flipped to his back and performed a pretty solid elementary backstroke. We walked along the shoreline for a while, following his progress. Eventually, the kids worried that our little friend might be getting tired, so we fished him out and placed him in a shallow pond a few yards from the lake, flanked by a couple of ice chunks. The girls decorated his pond with some moss and a few seashells, so he would feel cozy and at home.
Who knows if this particular stretch of beach really was his home, or if we'd inhibited or aided him on whatever journey he might have been attempting. Maybe we'll see him, or some of his family, again when the real spring arrives.
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One day last week, the kids and I were engaged in our usual after-school routine: as they raided the pantry for snacks, I dug through their backpacks, hoping not to find another letter announcing the presence of lice in one of their classrooms.
I'd just breathed a sigh of relief (no letter this time) and was preparing to excavate the remains of my kids' lunches when the unwelcome sounds of bickering and whining filled the air. I groaned internally. My daughters seem to be blessed with the ability to pick a fight with each other at the drop of a hat.
There are days when I feel remarkably enlightened (or over-caffeinated) and my kids' spats somehow don't get under my skin. Today was not one of them. Today, for whatever reason, I just did not want to freakin' deal with my kids' innate tendency to create conflict.
Over the din of two little voices shrieking various iterations of, "It's not fair!" and "Noooo!" a lightbulb suddenly went off in my brain. I remembered recently seeing a friend's Facebook post about making your own "Calm Down Jar."
"Girls," I practically yelled, trying to cover the frustration in my voice with what I hoped sounded like enthusiasm, "Let's make a chill out jar!"
They stopped arguing and looked at me. "Okay," they agreed.
I grabbed a mason jar and placed it on the floor. Then the girls took turns filling the jar with water, adding glitter and paint, and stirring the contents. When our creation was complete, I gave it a good spin and we all oohed and aahed as the water whirled and twirled like some mythical sea creature. Mission accomplished: their argument forgotten, the girls were entranced.
Looking at the jar made me think of the movie Horton Hears a Who! "What if each speck of glitter in this jar was really a whole other universe, like in the movie?" I asked the girls. For a moment, we sat quietly, imagining tiny, glittering worlds floating through liquid space. Surprisingly, the kids didn't fight about who got to keep the jar in her room first, agreeing to take turns.
I know that distracting ourselves from the issues at hand isn't a long-term solution for conflict. My daughters' fights remind me that there is plenty of work yet to be done in learning to live peaceably together, whether in our own kitchens or around the world. There are big feelings that need to come out, and tough discussions that need to happen. But sometimes, when emotions are at their most raw and fragile, there is beauty in just stopping for a moment, in pausing to let the quiet surround us, instead of adding to the noise.
We can't stay in the peaceful quiet forever. But once in a while, I will come and gaze at our Chill Out Jar, watching as it spins like a centrifuge, illuminating a different world.
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I was running in my neighborhood one day when I heard a siren in the distance. It got louder and continued for a few minutes, shattering the quiet of the morning. My heart raced a little faster as a dozen what-ifs suddenly barreled through my brain. I was only a few blocks from my daughter’s school. Was the emergency there?
For a moment, I stood frozen in the road, wondering if I needed to do something. Run to the school perhaps? The logical part of my brain effectively nixed this idea, so I checked my cell phone instead. It is my lifeline, a way to connect with my kids—the pieces of my heart that now float untethered in the world for longer and longer stretches of time.
Before long, the siren's wails got quieter and faded away. I checked my phone again; no one had called me. I finally exhaled, but I couldn’t relax.
Admittedly, I tend to live on the over-anxious side of the personality curve. But it’s not surprising that becoming a parent bolsters our sense of vigilance in everyday situations. Wrapped up in the core of motherhood is a perpetual commitment to be “always on,” ready to protect and nurture our kids starting from the moment they are a tiny blip on a screen, for as long as we exist in this world. It is an awesome responsibility and a sacred commitment, the reason we often feel important and powerful yet terrified and full of doubt in the same breath.
I’ve noticed a particular amount of angst that arises with this role, a feeling we begin to carry with us once we learn we are mothers. I remember my first prenatal yoga class, how the instructor gently placed her hands on my shoulders and said, “You’re holding onto a lot of stuff here.” Growing up, I wondered why my own mother seemed stressed at times. “I’m not tense,” she’d say through gritted teeth, an almost comical denial.
Now I understand. The luxury of worrying only about myself is long gone. Driving my kids around, I sometimes become aware that my hands are clenching the steering wheel tightly; the knowledge that I have precious cargo in my backseat is always at the forefront of my mind. I’m late, always late, trying to get everyone where they need to go while staying one step ahead of sibling conflicts. Most mornings I feel like a referee in some bizarre game, calling out instructions, administering penalties. Where are your shoes? Go brush your teeth; the bus will be here in ten minutes. Stop taunting your sister, or you’ll lose another toy! And for Pete’s sake quit climbing the counter!
Only after becoming a mother did I truly understand what it meant to be tired. Not simply physically exhausted, but mentally drained. A mom's brain is always spinning. Turning, turning, turning, like a hamster on a wheel that never stops. Sleep is never quite as restful as it was before children. My kids could snooze through a fire alarm or a Guns N’ Roses concert in our hallway, but motherhood has blessed me with an apparently bionic ear. A soft whimper, a tiny creak of a bedroom door, and I sit up in bed, eyes searching the dark space to see who needs me.
Like so many high-pressure roles, motherhood has a natural cadence that’s not exactly conducive to relaxation. To be a mom is to travel steadily through an endless series of peaks and valleys, as we face challenges and then almost immediately prepare for the next ones. We survive pregnancy and the seemingly infinite stretch of sleepless nights with a newborn, only to move on to our children’s first day of kindergarten, their first painful breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend, and the heart attack-inducing experience of watching them learn to drive. And sprinkled throughout our days are the random events that prompt us to worry about our children’s immediate safety and well-being: a cough that lingers just a bit too long, a phone call from school or the news of violence somewhere near or far. There is always something. There will always be something.
My kids are well past the baby and toddler stages now, and I’ve realized that I won’t ever be the type of mom who exudes serenity and calm. I think I’m finally okay with that. Someday, my kids will likely remember that I was tense sometimes. But I hope they’ll also remember how very much they were loved.
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I'm Gina, mom to two girls, writer, and seasoned coffee drinker.