Sunday, July 30, 2017

July is a Monster

The smell of honeysuckle was long gone and the blackberry branches were stripped of their fruit. My skin dripped with salty sweat and stung my eyes. The nights seemed to go on forever. The sky would darken, but not ever get jet black. My days felt unfilled. I was consumed with worry.

I didn't always hate summer, but it became the time to deal with change. Maybe it was making me stronger.

What once meant ice cream and staying up late now meant unrelenting heat and the stress of uncertainty. No matter the time of day, the mugginess encircled. There was no escaping the suffocation of warmth.

Runs continued to feel disappointing because my paces slowed. I felt all the work of winter and spring dissipate within just a few weeks. Never mind that I couldn't see the stack of miles. Never mind that this had been happening for the past 20 years.

A couple of weeks ago, I sat on the dirt next to the tire of my car in the shade. I let my heart rate slowly fall as a pool of sweat formed around me. The self-deprecation had slowed and had finally allowed myself to sleep, to eat, and to run without constant anxiety. It stayed with me like all of the other ones. Anguishing and heart-ripping in the midst of their darkness. But time heals some of the sting. And I slowly picked myself up and remember that nothing ever lasts.

The end of the month brings an about face. Paces are far from February and I am weeks from fully contributing to my new career. But I can see the top of the mountain and I am not afraid to keep working. The top isn't finite. It is just another part of this winding trail. I am sure to continue to stumble, to fall again, and to be challenged in ways I never expected.

I have run my biggest mileage month ever due in part to this setback.

I completed a good chunk of the Georgia Appalachian Trail on foot.

Friends from all pockets of my life reached out to me and showed their support. I felt vulnerable in my previous post because my pain was still very fresh, very real. I'm not healed, but I'm healing. My misfortune is so teeny in the grand scale of humankind that I sometimes feel silly for writing about it. But the kind words I received truly did lift my spirits and overwhelmed me that I am surrounded by so many good humans.


Monday, July 3, 2017

Life and Merrill's Mile RR: having the courage to be as raw and real as possible

July 1st, 1:30 p.m.

For the umpteenth time in my life, when things didn't go as planned, I have turned to running for a bit of therapy. Partially for the ability to feel in control of something, but partially to physically exhaust myself to the point that I am more patient, more kind, and more understanding. Sometimes I need those qualities to treat other humans better, but more likely, I need it to treat myself better.

Losing my job just over a week ago was a direct punch to the face. It was unexpected and certainly left me questioning everything I have done as a professional. I went through all the grief emotions. And though I felt enormously flawed, I also couldn't help but feel guilty. Guilt because of all the things I still was grateful to have. Tremendous people in my life that have lifted me up. A roof over my head and food in my belly. A healthy body. The ability to keep dreaming despite feeling pushed to the ground. But there is no denying that there were dark moments over the last 10 days. 

I told myself I would give myself a calendar week at the very least to consider my options. I updated my resume, made contacts on LinkedIn, reached out to former colleagues, and forced myself into becoming comfortable talking about it. I started with the most appealing positions first and slowly moved into things that I would consider or felt I met the qualifications. 

Radio silence until Wednesday.

In the first few days, I dreamed about the AT as an outlying possibility. It wavered from really possible to really financially irresponsible and I pecked at research. Because I wasn't hearing anything back immediately from any future employer, I allowed myself to fester on this dream. Advice trickled in and I even went so far as to compile a list of gear I would need to begin the journey.

But Wednesday came and I got my first bite of returning to work as a "normal" adult. It made me feel empty inside. I went through the motions of the interview and while I could picture myself in the position, it didn't make me feel any sort of joy. At the end of the day, I knew that if prolonged, I would have to accept whatever was offered to me. I could always look while I worked, but I feared that I would get stuck in something that I ultimately did not want to be doing. And I don't want to live to work. I want to work to live. 

Again, the guilt. I should be grateful for any opportunity. I should take whatever it offered. 

But Wednesday morning, I had found out about a former colleague passing away far too young and wrote a brief manifesto about my crossroads. I went for a run. I started out slowly as it was taper week and I had already used my rage energy to run a 5:57 mile the previous Friday. My mind was wandering and as I made the turn around, I started to get sad and angry again. Sad that the stupid adage of "only the good die young" was so poignant in the situation. And angry that it took someone's death to make me aware of my life.

It seems like a simple decision when put into that context.

But as the week came to an end, I had 5 interviews and the very millennial attitude of I only want something that enjoy. Am I sabotaging my own chances of being a viable employee? What if I turn something down and I don't get any more offers? Am I being too greedy and should I just be gracious with what I am offered?

I'll never know how the other way would turn out. That's the thing about decisions. You don't get a redo. My logical brain is weighing the pros and cons so hard on every situation that I feel like my brain is going to explode. And the few minutes I find in peace every day without the anxiety of the unknown are rare.

But when I run, I am at peace. It is all I have to do in the moment. It is all I have to concentrate on. No matter what else is going on, I cannot change the past and I cannot worry about the future.     

July 1st, 7:30 p.m.

Adam and Megan have traveled an hour to see me off. There is no trade-off for them as spectators and I cannot help but feel overwhelmed by the fact I have such good people in my life. Dan raps on my car window in the rain and tells me that his wife and daughter are also staked out in the car. A short while later, the rain stops and Adam helps me pull out my gear. Jay has come down from Raleigh on a very last minute decision to cross Georgia off his list. Soon after, I see Sam out on the course, plugging away at his 100 miler. And look, Sarah and Sean are here too!

We chat a bit with everyone and bide the time until the 9:00 p.m. runners line up at the starting line. A few of us are called to check our timing chips and suddenly, it's go time.

There is a pack of us that starts out running mid-9's very comfortably. Jay and I are super chatty the first mile and I almost forgot that we had spectators as we came around the first lap. Hi Megan! Hi Adam! It is surprisingly comfortable for an evening in July in Georgia and after a long week of limiting my runtherapy due to the taper, I am ready for some miles.

On the second lap, I high-fived Megan and gave Adam a kiss before they took off for the evening. Our pack continued to go around and around for the first hour with steady conversation and introductions. I had been outed as the overall winner from the prior year which put pressure on me in both good and bad ways.

At the 45 minute mark, I stopped to grab a gel and my handheld. 12 hours is a long time to stay on top of calories and hydration and I was hoping that I could be as successful as last year. The pack thinned a bit in the next hour and then it was just Jay and I. Every time I saw someone on the course, it was a boost and though I didn't run with Hal, he did leave me a bag of popcorn in my camping chair.

I had another gel at about an hour and 30 minutes in and that marked the end of any strategy for nutrition. Jay and I separated at some point and I started just clicking off the miles in the low 9's. At first, I was a little concerned to lose company so early on. However, it did make it much easier to just run by feel and not be as concerned with staying in stride. I continued to reevaluate my effort and backed off when I felt like I was pushing the needle a little too far.

By the end of the 3rd hour, I was feeling good about my overall pace and pretty much on track to repeat the prior year's performance. It rained for about 15 minutes or so and I was happily cooled off. My guts were rebelling a bit and I felt instant relief after a porta-potty jaunt. My miles in the 3rd-4th hour were some of the best, but I was digging myself into a hole by avoiding calories and hydration. I ignorantly clipped off some sub 9's and would later pay the price.

After hitting the marathon mark just past the 4th hour, I picked up my iPod as a treat. The rain caused one of the earbuds to be full of static and so I just had one in my ear. Coupled with my inability to be comfortable at time, the music situation was hurting more than helping. I think I ended up tossing it onto my chair after about 3 laps.

Hitting 50K was the next milestone and I was plunging hard and fast into the pain cave. I stopped talking to people as I went by. The next 2 hours were completely and utterly miserable. I knew I needed to eat, but I kept passing the aid station because my stomach was a wreck. As the 6 hour mark loomed, I desperately wanted to throw in the towel. Everything hurt. My stomach, my legs, and worst of all, my mind. I couldn't wrap my head around running for 6 more hours.

I went to the darkest crevices of my mind. The self-loathing was cutting me deeper with each mile. I screwed up at life. And now I am screwing up running too. Mentally, I was 99% certain that there was no way I was going to find a happy place again in the race.

At 6 hours and 28 minutes, I stopped to do damage control at the aid station after emptying my guts at the porta-potty. I knew even if I was going to spend the next 5+ hours walking, I needed to get my stomach under control. I ate a slice of orange and drank a cup of ginger ale. I walked about 50 feet beyond the start/stop line and started making noises like a dog about to puke.

And then I puked everything I had just consumed. 6 violent and painful pukes.

I brushed my mouth with the back of my arm and stood still for a moment. And then I moved tentatively forward. Into a walk. Into a jog. Into a run.

Though I knew I was basically running on empty, I felt better than I had for about 15 miles. I gave myself a few more miles and then decided to try some broth. I'm not a soup person. And I was shoving ice in my sports bra half the night to stay cool even though it was in the 60's. But Sarah's love broth was a magical experience. I drank a cup of it and within minutes, felt like someone had injected me with a power boost. As I came around with my empty cup in hand, I asked for a refill.

At 8:14, I passed the 50 mile mark. 7 minutes slower than last year. I felt a little defeated and couldn't do the runner math to figure out that I still had a shot at a repeat performance. But the broth definitely got my body going in the right direction and though the miles were wearing on me, I was in a much better spot than the 2 hours prior.

My strategy dropped into the run/walk category over the next 12 miles. I would start walking at the start/finish line and pick up at the D2 sign. It was maybe about 1/8th of a mile. It would allow me a minute or so to digest the few things I could manage at the aid station. And mentally, it gave me something to look forward to every lap.

As the sky started to lighten, I felt a sense of relief knowing that I could get rid of my headlamp and visor. Plus, being able to see the other runners was huge. We could yell out to each other across the loop because we could finally see each other!

Nearing 7 a.m., I realized that I actually had a 100K PR that I was about to beat. This gave me a huge mental boost towards the end. And last year, I was trying to just hit 100K so I stopped and did a lot of walking after reaching my goal. This year, I had a shot at cracking 70 if I stuck with it the last 2 hours. I allowed myself a little bit longer walk as reward for the 100K and then kept on plugging away.

My mind was settled, my stomach was tolerable, and now I just had to overcome overuse soreness. The upper outer portion of where the hip meets the glutes meets the thighs on both sides were aching. Of the three pains, I can handle the body soreness easiest so I was relieved that this was the devil I was dancing with late in the race.

I really wasn't paying much mind to the overall standings until the last couple of hours when Jay checked on them. Loop races are weird because you never really know who is in first. Even the fastest runners will stop for aid and walk at some points. I was a lap ahead of the field and unless I experienced a breakdown and/or someone found a second wind, it was likely I could pull off an overall win.

Sean was pushing me to go for 71, 72, but I was definitely content to hit 70.X. As soon as I realized that hitting 70 was a possibility, I really just stayed in the moment. There was no outside noise. No dwelling in the past. No dreaming about the future. Just one foot in front of the other. Breathe steady. Stay moving.

The best part of the race usually is the last mile. But this one was especially great because I got to finish with Joseph and Cary who had been part of our pack at the beginning of the race. Both had hit the 100K mark and we all walked the last mile together with less than 20 minutes left on the clock. I don't even remember what we talked about, but that kind of camaraderie in ultras is easily the best part of doing them. It was so distracting that the finish and finish line experience was kind of a blur.

We all stood around and talked for a bit before collecting our medals and going about the rest of the morning. Jay and I had breakfast beers and sat soaking in the sun before we parted ways. I bid Sam good luck as he continued his 100 mile journey and high-fived John on my way out.

As I drove down the winding roads heading home, I honestly couldn't believe how dark things got around 3:30 a.m. and how I somehow managed to keep going. The body is an extraordinary thing--I am grateful for the one that allows me to do what I love. These experiences prove that things don't always go as planned. And maybe it's a bunch of idealistic hogwash, but I like to think that getting roughened up makes me appreciate all the things I am still so fortunate to have.