Monday, September 27, 2010

Walk The Walk?

Applications for the Team In Training Boston Marathon program come out tomorrow. Why do I know this?

Because I have a reminder on my calendar. And I also haven't deleted the email notice from Team In Training announcing the date.

I can't deny the lure of the Boston Marathon. I can only attribute these actions to a tiny seed that was planted two years ago when I watched my first Boston Marathon from a crowded corner at Boylston and Hereford - less than a mile from the finish line.

Totally inspired, I crossed the finish line at the Manchester Marathon seven months later.

When I crossed the 26.2 mark, I wasn't sure if I'd ever want to do another marathon. I could easily have checked that off life's list, right? It's a pretty big deal to go from a non-runner to a marathoner. No one ever expects you to run two marathons.

I mean, seriously, running a marathon is
really hard. There's no way around it. The training is physically hard, filled with sore knees, tired legs, loose toenails and muscle knots.

But more than anything, it's incredibly time-consuming. To do it - to do it well - you have to commit literally hours and hours to running.

You have to commit to running in rain - or, for Boston, in the snow. And dark. And cold.

You have to commit to waking up early and almost entirely giving up your Saturday mornings. You have to commit to running when you plain just don't feel like it.

You have to schedule your life around running; rather than schedule your running around life.

Knowing what it takes, I'm not sure if I'm ready to commit to that again.

Then, I think about this past April, when I took my familiar spot at the final turn of the Boston Marathon - one of nearly a million spectators who lined the streets to cheer and support runners.

There's nothing like standing at that final turn, to see the pure emotion on the runners faces - joy, pain, relief, all of it. (Here's the post I wrote about Marathon Monday 2010.)

The cheers from the crowd gave me goosebumps - and even thinking about it now makes me smile a bit.

It makes me think of my first marathon - and the pride and complete sense of accomplishment I felt as I made the final turn. It makes me remember how I spontaneously decided to wave my hands in the air as I crossed the finish line, friends and family lining the street on the last few steps. (Check out my finish line video here.)

See? There I go again. Notice I called it my "first marathon"? That implies there might be a second? Must be that seed starting to sprout again.

The idea of running Boston is certainly firmly planted in there somewhere. Like a lot of runners I know, my only realistic way to get there is with a charity number. (There's no BQ in this gal's near future!)

That means, not only would I have the challenge of the training schedule and the 26.2-mile run ahead of me. I'd also have the task of raising nearly $4,000.

Sometimes the idea of fundraising is almost as daunting as the run itself.

When I think like that, I want to give myself a swift kick in the pants. After all, through my time as a mentor for the Team In Training program, I have spent many seasons (years, really) encouraging and supporting runners.

I've eased their fears, helped them with fundraising ideas, encouraged them and showed them that they
can do this. They can train for a marathon. They can raise the money.

And they do. All of them.

Part of me thinks it's time to take on another fundraising challenge. I've given plenty of time and energy to TNT. But I know time and energy doesn't pay for cancer research.

There's also that part of me that fears regret more than anything. What if, in just one short year, I'm no longer able to run a marathon. What if the decision to run or not to run is no longer mine?

I've talked the talk. Now I just need to decide if I'm ready to walk the walk. Or, as the case may be, run the run.

Friday, September 17, 2010

My Kind of Vacation

As I packed for my 10-day vacation a couple of weeks ago, I went through my checklist: bike shorts and shoes, gloves, water bottles, helmet.

I neatly folded and stacked everything I’d need for my cycling adventure in Napa and Lake Tahoe into my suitcase.

Eyeing a little extra room in my bag, I grabbed my sneakers and my running clothes. “I’m gonna bring some running stuff,” I told my TC. “I’d be surprised if you didn’t,” he replied.

Our vacation was planned around the Tour de Tahoe, a 72-mile organized bike ride around Lake Tahoe. But I secretly hoped to squeeze in a few running miles, too.

I’ve done plenty of exploring while running and riding, but if you’re like me, you probably tend to stick to routes you know. I know my go-to running routes by heart – the 3-miler, the 6-miler and the ambitious double-digit ones around my neighborhood.

Somehow this year, I’ve found myself evolving into a duathlete. Riding my bike started as a way to cross-train and prevent running injuries. But it’s become yet another athletic pastime that I enjoy.

Cycling is also a way to expand my comfort zone a little further. After all, a three-mile bike ride wouldn’t get me very far. Thanks to my pedal-power, I’ve been able to explore many nearby towns on two wheels.

That’s why the idea of creating a vacation around riding (with a bit of running) was particularly interesting.

My running adventures have taken me to Portland (Maine), Cape Cod, Lake Placid (N.Y.) and even Orlando to participate in half-marathons. Each time, I get a thrill out of exploring a new place on foot – even if it is a designated race route.

There’s just something about seeing something for the first time that makes the miles pass quickly. And, taking the time to step out of a car – to actually smell the air and hear the sounds – is particularly appealing.

After the series of hoops I had to jump through to get my bike to California – having a bike shop box it up, shipping it on the plane, reassembling it in a hotel room – I was set to explore. (I’ll note my running gear, which was tucked safely in my luggage on the bags-fly-free airline was much easier, and less expensive, to travel with.)

The first bit of exploring I did, however, wasn’t by bike at all.
I woke up early the next morning, thanks to the fact that my body’s clock was still clearly in the Eastern time zone, and I was itching to get outside. TC sat at his laptop planning a cycling route. I, on the other hand, opted for my running shoes.

We headed off in the same direction, north along Route 29, the main highway that runs through the Napa Valley. Soon, he was out of sight and pedaling hard up a mountain.
I stayed on the flat road, turning off the busier highway in favor of a quieter local road that was lined with vineyards on each side.

I took the time to breathe deeply, taking in the new scents of my new surroundings. I saw birds I’d never seen, towering mountains in the distance and, a bit to my dismay, heard a nagging rustling in the tall grass along the road. (I never looked to see whether it was a snake or a lizard or a rodent – none of which I wanted to see.)

My route took me by workers tending to vineyards and past houses (estates, really) with architecture and landscaping that we just don’t see at home. I wish I had my camera with me, but since I prefer to run light, I’d left it back in the hotel room. I’d have to settle for the pictures in my mind.

Before I knew it, I’d gone almost five miles. The out-and-back plan, since it was the safest in unfamiliar territory, would mean I’d put in 10 miles.

It’s been a while since I’ve run double-digit miles (not a good thing when I have a half-marathon on my calendar in less than a month, by the way). But at that moment, I didn’t feel any sense of fatigue or aches. In fact, I wished that I could keep going and exploring.

Luckily, my practical side – the one that knew I would pay the price for trying to crank out 14 or 16 miles – prevailed, and I turned around at the five-mile mark. My enthusiasm for the new place would have let me run forever. At least it felt that way.

I repeated the same routine the next morning with a slightly shorter route on some new roads. I followed the run with an after-breakfast bike ride of 35 or so miles.

My bike enabled me to get off the main road and see a part of the country that most tourists don’t get to experience.

A lot of people think vacation should be simply a time for rest – maybe sitting on a beach somewhere with someone bringing you colorful drinks decorated with tiny umbrellas.
To me, vacation is about spending your time the way you want to.

In those moments when I was running or riding along the vineyards of Napa or the mountains of Tahoe - more than 200 in all - there’s nothing I would have rather been doing.

These runs and bike rides weren’t just training miles. They were a very important part of my vacation memories - great, great vacation memories.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Oh Tahoe, You Take My Breath Away!

Riding around Lake Tahoe is simply breath-taking. Both literally and figuratively.

Figuratively, no written description - or even pictures - could truly capture the beauty of this spot. The lake, the mountains, the tall trees. Even the sky is bluer than I think I've ever seen it.

One of my fondest memories of our time in Tahoe will be coming around a corner on a small, secluded road we found near Fallen Lake and being faced head-on with a towering mountain looking out over the lake.

It seems almost every turn has some sort of scene like that.

Literally, riding around Lake Tahoe takes my breath away. Meaning, riding at this altitude - we're at 6,200 feet above sea level - is a challenge. By comparison, that's approximately the same altitude as New Hampshire's highest peak, Mt. Washington. It's certainly not often that I do training up there.

I'd been warned that riding in altitude was going to be a challenge. TC had been here a couple of years ago for the Tour of Tahoe and described the almost unbelievable shortness of breath I'd experience almost instantly.

Drawing on his experience, we decided to spend the bulk of our trip in Tahoe to acclimate before Sunday's big ride around the lake. It's a smart move.

The hotel's info booklet has an entire page dedicated to altitude sickness - listing symptoms like headaches, dizziness and, of course, shortness of breath. It cautioned against heavy exercise. At these heights, people just aren't able to do what they usually can.

But, c'mon, we have our bikes in our room and no rental car. It wasn't like we were going to have a low-key couple of days. Plus, one of the goals of these first few days in Tahoe is to acclimate to riding at this altitude.

So we suited up and planned a 40-miler for the first day.

It wasn't going to be like the 40-milers we have at home, the ones where we pedal hard and don't usually stop. Here, we planned to use our bikes to explore the area and see parts that regular tourists probably don't experience.

Planning a route here is challenging. Roads are either very, very flat or very, very steep. And not much in between. Unfortunately, the flat options are pretty limited to a couple of major-ish roads around the lake. Not exactly ideal for cycling. And certainly not ideal to trying to ease into riding at altitude.

The steep roads shoot off in every direction from the basin where our hotel is. I'm talking really steep. The elevation maps are daunting, to say the least.

TC did his best to plan a scenic route with minimal climbs for our first ride. According to the plan, we'd have one mile-long bump to tackle somewhere around mile 10. After that, it would be pretty moderate and easy.

We woke to a chilly morning with highs only in the 40s - too cold for me to think about getting on the bike - so we took our time with a leisurely and big breakfast that would feul our ride. (As a bonus, the cooked-to-order breakfast is provided complimentary at our hotel. We definitely get our money's worth.)

Shortly after 11 a.m., when temps had reached the low 50s, we decided that we would hit the road. Gearing up was a challenge, as I'd only planned for warmer rides and hadn't packed any long riding pants.

I decided to wear a pair of long compression socks I'd picked up at the pharmacy before I left. I'd actually cut the feet out of them and economically fashioned them into a pair of arm sleeves that I planned to wear on the day of the tour.

On this ride, however, they'd be used for their original purpose. I pulled them up on my legs until they almost reached my knees. Good, that would keep me warm.

Once outisde, I was instantly chilled. I'd never ridden in temperatures like this. (I'm truly a fair-weather rider.) When I didn't need them on the brakes, I curled my fingers up under my hand to keep them warm. Half-finger gloves don't do much for warmth.

We took an access road behind the hotel to lead us to Pioneer Trail. Within the first mile, I quickly learned what TC had meant about riding at altitude. The tiniest incline - one I probably wouldn't have even noticed as an incline at home - literally took my breath away.

I gasped and huffed and puffed. Wow. They weren't kidding.

We pedaled slowly and took our time. Breathing got better, but still was certainly a challenge.

Then we reached the hill on Tahoe Mountain Road. And up we went.

My legs felt fine, but my breathing was labored and difficult. I pushed forward, breathing harder and harder. It was borderline embarrassing. I felt like I hadn't ever ridden up a hill in my life.

My lungs burned - "like razor blades were inside them," as TC described later. I wanted to stop. I really, really wanted to stop. I wanted to get my heart rate out of the red zone and my breathing back to normal.

TC talked me through it, counting down how many tenths of the mile-climb we had left.

Then, I saw the top. I could make it the rest of the way. We stopped at the stop sign at the top. I looked back down the hill. It was steep, but I'd definitely done worse. Still, that hill had kicked by butt.

Welcome to altitude riding.

The rest of the ride was spent exploring the Fallen Leaf Lake area, including a hidden waterfall, beautiful lakeside homes and a secluded lake at the end of the one-car road we'd discovered.

From there, we turned back towad Lake Tahoe and headed to the beach. We stripped off our shoes and socks and leg warmers to walk barefoot along the shore. Now this was a rest stop. I'm not really sure how long we were there - long enough for both of us to fall asleep. Imagine that, falling asleep at Mile 25 of our ride!

Eventually, we pressed onward. TC asked whether I wanted to tackle the climb. I knew exactly what he meant. This climb has been on my mind for months. It's a tough, steep-pitch, switchback-filled climb around Mile 15 of the Tour of Tahoe.

I'd explored it virtually with Google maps street-level feature and literally by car when we arrived in Tahoe. To say it was on my mind is really an understatement.

I told him to head toward it and I'd see how it went. My plan was to ride the decent gradual uphill to the climb and re-evaluate. I stuck to TC's wheel like glue up that hill. And, surprisingly, I felt pretty good.

Up to the first switchback, I told TC.

We turned a ridiculously tight and pitched turn and pushed upward. It was hard. But I took it slow, finding a somewhat comfortable gear. I got out of the saddle when I needed to, which helped a lot. (Mental note for Sunday's ride.)

We took a break a little past the planned stop. Did I want to go back down or finish out the climb? I had the harded part ahead of me - a double-switchback pitch that would surely push my legs and breathing to their limits.

I decided to go for it.

I don't remember much about the climb, actually. I remember going super-slow and pushing super-hard on my pedals. I remember gasping along the way. As soon as the final pitch was in sight, I clicked down into my Granny Gear to pull myself the rest of the way up.


We stopped at the top to admire the view. The beach we'd just ridden from was a long, long way down. TC gave me the biggest hug I can remember getting and we celebrated with a few pictures.

Then the descent, which was a bit harrowing and scary. I was certainly on my brakes around the hair-pin turns, but rode the downhill better than I thought I would.

It was 15 miles, almost all of which was slightly downhill, back to the hotel. TC led the way and rode it hard. I struggled to keep up. My eyes were locked on his back wheel, only a few inches in front of me. I hung on, surprisingly, despite the fact that our speeds were in the 20 mile per hour range.

When we finally reached a red light in town, I got a rest. You're giving me a good workout here, I told him. When did you become such a good rider, he replied.

Yesterday we put another 30 miles on our bikes. Today we have an easier day planned - with 15 miles out to the beach, a day of reading and relaxing, and 15 miles back.

Tomorrow's the main event, the tour of Tahoe. The 72-mile ride around the lake attracts a couple thousands cyclists. I can't wait to be one of them.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Mile 2,010 (and beyond)

Yesterday I completed Mile 2,010. And 2,011.

Tomorrow, I'll probably do 2,012. Or maybe even 2,030. By the end of this week, I'll probably pass Mile 2,100.

See, even though I finally completed my personal challenge to run/ride 2,010 miles in 2010, I'm far from being done. (The fact that I'm writing this after just arriving in Lake Tahoe a few days before the 72-mile organized bike ride I have planned virtually guarantees me a hundred or so more miles this week.)

In the weeks leading up to that 2,010th mile - after I could really see the "finish line" approaching - I began to think about how I wanted the completion of the challenge to be. After all, the end was really in my hands.

Would it be on a run? Or a bike ride? At home or on vacation? Alone? Or with TC?

Would I mark the event with a celebration? Or pass through the mile like any of the other 2,009 that had come before it?

I could have easily banged out the final miles before leaving for vacation (I didn't log any miles last week - a first for any week this year). I held back a bit, rationalizing that I wanted to give my legs a bit of a rest after a high mileage week the previous week - I logged 118 miles between running and biking - and I wanted to give my legs a break before what I expected to be a physically active vacation. (In my first few days here, I've gotten in a 10-mile run, a 5-mile run and a 36 or so mile bike ride - and all those in what was going to be the restful leg of the trip.)

Soon, I realized that I'd probably hit the 2,010 mile mark somewhere in the first few days of visiting the Napa Valley. Could it have worked out more perfectly?

My trip to the Napa Valley with TC has been in the works for a while. Actually, we originally had plans on visiting Napa in April, then following it up with the Tour of Tahoe in September, but unexpected changes at work chained me to my desk for a few weeks during our planned April vacation.

So, we decided we'd just extend the September trip - visiting Napa first, then taking on the Tahoe bike challenge.

Since I'd already had a week off from running and riding, I was itching to get out and do something almost immediately. But our trip had a series of logisitical hoops to take care of first - for one, unpacking and reassembling our bikes. (Another post on traveling with bikes later, but let's just say that we hunted down a bike shop to help us out after discovering that a borrowed pair of scissors from the hotel's front desk isn't the ideal tool for the job.)

One we got settled at one of our hotels (we're already on the fourth of the trip - the final, luckily), TC and I headed out. He was on his bike; I laced up my shoes and hit the road for an ambitious 10-miler. Believe it or not, it's been months since I did a double-digit run - and the thought of the Maine Half Marathon I have on my schedule less than a month from now is a little more than daunting.

The morning 10-miler was unlike any long run I've done in a while. There's something about running in a new place - with new sights and sounds and smells - that helps me forget how far I'm going. Running alongside Napa Valley vineyards made me wish I could have kept going and going and going. (My practical side won out and I looped back for my planned 10 miles.)

The next morning, after we'd spent the night at a wonderfully private bed and breakfast, we were at it again - TC tackling some ridiculous mountain road, me running alongside vineyards. Five miles this time.

We ate a delicious breakfast prepared for us by the innkeeper and headed out again - now together, both on bikes.

To say that the area was beautiful is really an understatement. It's breath-taking. Crisp, blue sky. Towering mountains, vineyards as far as you can see. Pictures really do not do it justice.

I knew I'd hit the 2,010 mile mark on this ride. Or at least I thought so. According to my calculations, I needed roughly 35 miles to get there.

We mapped out a route, but about 10 or so miles into our journey, decided we'd change our plans - the plan now was to have no plan. We explored sideroads and saw parts of the Napa Valley that I'm sure most visitors never experience. We pedaled through Yountville and down a secluded road where we passed locals in wide-brimmed hats and farmers driving tractors.

I looked down at my odometer. We'd gone about 16 miles. Less than 20 to go.

At that moment, I consciously decided I didn't want to count miles anymore. I wanted to take in the sights and enjoy the unstructured nature of our ride - something that, thanks to a prominently placed bike computer that displays my speed and distance at all times, is rare.

I clicked a few buttons on the bike computer until it displayed the clock feature. Usually, I display my distance. The clock feature, I figured, was the least measured option I could choose.

We hooked up with the Silverado Trail (a part of which I'd run earlier in the morning) to make our way back toward the inn. We stopped to snap pictures and, for the most part, rode side-by-side and talked. (Thank you, California bike lanes.)

TC eventually asked me what I was showing for mileage - I hadn't told him that I consciously stopped tracking. (Actually, when he reads this post will be the first time he learns of it, since when he asked I immediately became curious and checked.)

I had about 5 miles to go. Our inn was nearby, and it would be close. It was no longer a guarantee that I'd hit 2,010 that day.

Then, TC asked me the question that I'd been asking myself for the past few weeks: "What do you want to do?" When, exactly, did I want to hit Mile 2,010? Today? Tomorrow? In Tahoe?

I was too close not to jump at the chance to wrap it up during that ride. Besides, the ride had been near-perfect and I knew there wouldn't be many other opportunities like this one.

My odometer clicked to 35 along a cut-through road between the Silverado Trail and Route 29, the main highway running through the Valley. I asked TC to pull over so we could mark the moment with a photo.

It wasn't the most picturesque part of our ride, surely. But it captured the moment - the sun, the cloudless, blue sky, the vineyards - and a smiling, but somewhat tired-looking me standing with my bike on the side of the road.

No real fanfare. (I confess that I thought of doing something silly, like holding my bike over my head mimicing a pic I saw of the woman who won the Mt. Washington Hill Climb - but when the moment came, I didn't do it.) TC and I high-fived and pecked. I'd done it - and I certainly couldn't have done it without him.

As always, he's encouraged me more than I ever could have imagined. Among other things, he's pushed me to do more bike miles than I thought I could do, persuaded me up hills I didn't think I'd make it up and endured my early morning alarm clock so I could sneak in some running miles during the summer heat.

After the photo-op on the roadside, we traveled the mile or so back to our inn - told you it was going to be close! We cleaned up and headed off to experience another Napa memory, a wine tasting at a small, local winery.

There, I posted my photo on my Facebook and dailymile accounts with a simple caption: Mile 2,010.

The comments and "thumbs up" started rolling in. I'm often surprised at how encouraging people can be from across the computer screen. They probably don't realize how much that ongoing support is a key to success.

Not surprisingly, my friends like to push me a bit. So it wasn't long before the question came: What next? Some even offered their suggestions. Boston Marathon? 3,000 miles by the end of the year?

Although I joked with TC that I've earned the right to hang up my sneakers and bike for the next three months, I don't see that happening. I haven't quite decided what's next - but I'm sure something will be next.

Until then, I'll take the next few days in Tahoe to challenge myself in a new setting, with a new single-ride mileage PR on the schedule. And maybe, if the mood strikes, I won't have that bike odometer staring at me for a ride or two.

Mile 2,010

Here's a pic snapped at Mile 2,010 for the year, just outside St. Helena, Calif.