Let’s face it: I don’t have the beat. Or the pace. Or any kind of running smoothness. Despite the new black compression running shorts, dubbed my “magic pants,” I can’t seem to find a consistent pace when I run a road race. There’s no groove in my moves. No consistency in my MapMyRun® (MMR) split times. I started to doubt MMR’s timing, and began checking my watch to see if perhaps MMR was toying with me. How could I run fast (for me!) training runs, and then chug-chug-chug during a 10K? Why am I so dazed and confused on race day?
I began running road races about twenty five years ago. I’ve been younger, skinnier, faster, and slower, but for some reason, this running season I have yet to find any sort of fluidity or consistency when I participate in road races. I think I will blame it on my son Matt. Now that he runs road races with me and that he is running fast and furious in the tough 30-34 age group, I have turned into a rambling, chatty runner. I usually end up about five to ten minutes slower per race than my hoped-for and achievable goal. Yes, I might have sprinted that last .2 miles, but what the hell was I doing the previous six miles?
During training runs on my routes along Higgins Lake, I seem to do fairly well with my time. I run without music on some days, and on other days, I listen to songs that are based on my hoped-for pace. I run sprints using telephone poles as markers. This seems to work well, and I feel confident, until I show up for a road race. Then my slow gear kicks in, and I feel as if I have turned into a sputtering motor on a fishing boat.
Despite deer running across the road in front of me, random pit bulls that can’t decide if I am a chew toy or something to ignore, or drivers that have road kill (me) on their minds, I can hoof it pretty well for six or seven miles during my training runs. Brimming with confidence, I enter my house and provide my husband with a play-by-play of every significant thing I have seen that morning. I am kind of like a golfer reliving every hole, or so I have been told. After a road race with Matt, I mentally, and verbally, replay every hill, water stop, and moments of chatty conversation with random strangers, and ask myself what I could have done to improve my time.
My first road race with Matt this year was a 5K in Houghton Lake, Michigan, and consisted mostly of trail running. Obstacles, such as tree roots, rocks, mud, planks to cover wet areas, and an extremely uneven path through a densely forested area, made me realize how much I had forgotten about trail running. Although I had experienced the Mud Creek Crawl in Sanford, Michigan, on two occasions in the past, and the much more difficult Great Turtle Half Marathon on Mackinac Island, let’s just say I was older now, and hopefully a bit wiser. I ran a careful race. I did not want to trip, fall, and face-plant in the mud or on top of a rock. Even though the tree roots and rocks were painted to alert the runners, I ran with extra caution. Despite this, I ended up second out of four in my age group. I felt pretty good about this.
For my next adventure with Matt, we tackled the Shanty Creek to Shorts Brewery 10K in Bellaire, Michigan. I was really excited about this race, and I figured I would do well. I exceeded my expectations by winning my age group! I won a prize! I got to go up near the stage. Random strangers clapped for me. I was a winner! So what if I was the only woman in my age group? Actually, I was the oldest woman who ran the 10K. Shouldn’t there be an extra prize for that? I think so. The Shorts Brewery beer after the race worked pretty well as an addendum to my prize package.
Matt and I looked forward to our next 10K: the Mackinac Island Lilac Festival Run. As we rode the ferry from Mackinaw City to the island, Matt reminded me that he hadn’t been to Mackinac Island since he was four. What? Where had the time gone? Although I had run the Mackinac Island Eight Mile with friend Julie Davis twice, and the the Great Turtle Trail Run Half-Marathon four times with my husband, the Lilac Run would be a new one for me. Running a road race on the island would be a first for Matt. I reminded Matt to watch out for horse poop on the roads. He ran a great race, but my right Achilles tendon felt like a Charlie Daniels’ fiddle being tuned while trying to navigate the insane elevation as we made our way up to the top of the island. The headwind for the last two or three miles seemed especially unfair, and I wondered why the island had turned into the Devil’s Triangle. I kept running though, and I finished 14th out of 22 in my age group. Matt and I went to Horn’s Bar for some beer and food before heading back to the mainland on the ferry.
Our most recent race was close to home: The Higgins Lake Sunrise Run. I was excited, and I tried not to be overconfident. During last year’s race, I had gone out too fast and tanked. I vowed I would not screw up again. I figured that between me and MMR, I could average somewhere around a ten-minute mile. Nope. Not even close. I also somehow screwed up starting MMR at the beginning of the race, so I will never know what those darn split times were. Although I ended up second out of six in my age group, I was pissed. Why hadn’t I kicked it up a notch for the last three miles? Why had I engaged in multiple conversations along the way? Why did I make beer jokes at the water stations?
I did sprint at the end and cross the finish line as if my pants were on fire. My husband and son greeted me. I picked up my water and Powerade, and we posed for pictures. I felt good. I didn’t even feel tired. Clearly, I had not lived up to my potential. I imagined my mother’s voice reading my sixth grade report card to me. I tried to block out the negative thoughts, and I realized what I really needed was some food. Jim returned home, and Matt and I went to the Pine Pantry for breakfast. As I sat across the table from him, I realized that even though I hadn’t been a perfect mother as he was growing up, not even close, I must have done something right: I had just completed another road race with my son.
We have another race coming up in July, and a few other ones we are planning on signing up for in August and September. My son has to run early in the morning in Midland, Michigan, before he goes to work. He seems to have the pace thing figured out. I may never figure out how to run a road race again with any sort of consistent pace. I may never win a prize in my age group again with or without competition! But I really don’t care. As long as Matt is at the finish line and waving at me as I cross it, no matter what the clock says, I know that life is damn good. MMR can’t factor that data into my workout log. Maybe I do have the beat after all.
Hey, Joe Jeep? Wasn’t my neon pink running shirt bright enough for you? Didn’t my bright pink shoes negotiating the treacherous roads stand out? Perhaps you dislike the color pink. The two lanes of the road where you had to drive were clear and dry, but the sides of the road and shaded areas where the snow melts and then refreezes onto the road were really tough to navigate. Trying to run-walk up my quarter-mile hilly driveway was tough enough as I began my run, but you, in your negligence or stupidity, almost forced me to hit the ditch on a sunny day when no opposing traffic was present on a long stretch of flat road. Fortunately, I did not have to drop and roll into an ice-crusted snowbank that was at least as high as a barstool. I was cranky to begin with since it was 15 degrees out, and the wind chill made it feel like zero. In my quest to cover as much of my body as possible, I wore two pairs of running pants, two layers of shirts, a hoodie, a hat, and two pairs of gloves. Joe Jeep—what is your goal? To own the road? To prove your Jeep is bigger and better than my pinkness? We will see about that.
I confess that I got used to running without tempting the grille or side mirrors of a pickup or SUV when my husband and I headed to Florida in mid-January to enjoy the sunshine and warm temperatures. Although sidewalks are the worst thing in the world to run on, I found a nice 4-mile loop along A1A to run as I tried to acclimate to heat and humidity that made me sweat before I even turned on my iPod or MapMyRun. I tried running in the bike lane when I could, but there are a lot of serious bicyclists in Florida, so it was a losing battle. Sometimes I ran laps around the parking lot at my mother-in-law’s condo. Since three times around equaled a mile, I could really get going on the flat asphalt as long as no one backed out of a parking spot or someone walking a small dog to the potty/poop area did not allow little Puffy Poodle or Snarly-Boy to bite me.
The owners of these dogs or other folks walking laps around the parking lot were quite friendly. These folks, most likely in their seventies and eighties, repeatedly told me how fast I was. Whenever someone complimented me on my blazing speed, I would turn and say, “It doesn’t matter how fast you are as long as you are out here moving.” After spouting this off a few times and sprinting past a van filled with men going bowling, I realized I had started to believe I was indeed the “Fastest Girl in Town” with apologies to Miranda Lambert. I’m fairly certain her song is not about running.
On one of my sidewalk runs along A1A, I ran past a dead possum, practically the size of a birdbath, and on my return trip towards my mother-in-law’s condo and air conditioning about thirty minutes later, three crows that looked like oddly parked Volkswagen Beetles were ripping into the ever dwindling possum’s body. I jumped across the grassy area towards the bike lane about the same time a woman in a Tennessee t-shirt coming towards me did the same thing. On my run the next morning, just a few bones and hair were all that was left of the possum. The cycle of life and death is always present when someone is running the roads it seems.
There will be consequences, Joe Jeep, if you hit something and leave it to die by the side of the road, so if you could just move over a little bit when you pass by me as I try to run cautiously over the ice and snow-covered roads, I would greatly appreciate it. When spring arrives, I am certain you will splash me as you drive through the small streams of melting snow, and I most likely will mouth naughty words or turn my arms into windmills of disgust. But as long as winter’s grasp holds the roads in turmoil, please remember that I do not want to suffer the same fate as Mr. Possum or end up frozen in a snowbank like Jack Nicholson’s character, Jack Torrance in The Shining. I wonder what it would be like to run in a labyrinth-like frozen wonderland with a crazed man chasing me, but then, the fastest girl in town wouldn’t have a problem, would she?
If a runner falls in the road and no one is around to hear her, does she make a sound? Does swearing count as sound? Ear porn for anyone listening? Recently, as I cruised along at my slow ten-minute-per-mile pace, I tripped on road debris and fell hard. I have a photograph of my right knee to prove it. My left hamstring and adjoining gluteus maximus are now speaking in tongues every time I sit down, stand up, squat, or stretch. I am tired of straddling the white throne as if it is a temperamental old horse just so I can do my business. Despite the ugly knee, the pain in the butt (and elsewhere), all I can think about is running, which is obviously something I should not do until I heal. I am a very impatient person.
I was out for a short 3.5 miler, and I needed to work off my massively sore car butt. After five days on the road that included stops in Peoria, Illinois, to visit my uncle in the hospital, stopping in Olathe, Kansas, to visit friends, and continuing on to Eureka, Kansas, to visit another uncle before turning the old car around and heading for home, I needed to stretch my legs and clear my head. The only real exercise I had within that time frame was a walk in Kansas with my friend Gretchen where the wind blew so hard that I wondered if we might actually be blown into Missouri.
Back home, I headed out on one of my usual routes around Higgins Lake. Sunny skies, 20 degree temps, and my “Summer Run” playlist on my iPod® provided me a sense of calm and relief. I glanced to my right towards a hill I had run up during the summer, but decided I needed to get my hill-legs back before tackling it again. As my head swiveled back towards the road, my left pink running shoe found a groove in the rough pavement and stuck. My upper body propelled itself forwards. My left hamstring pulled itself into an unnatural braking system that failed miserably. My upper body kept going. My arms became turbine-like, speeding up as if an out-of-control windmill. I was “Freefalling” as Tom Petty famously sings, but my landing would not be similar to the one depicted by the skateboarder in the music video. I reached out with my gloved hands and fell onto my right knee before the rest of my body slammed into the road.
November at Higgins Lake is a quiet and peaceful time. Spring, summer, and fall vacationers are nowhere to be found. Locals are at work or inside their homes keeping snug by the fire. Ducks outnumber people. Deer, always facing you with that startled look, turn and run back into the woods upon your approach, but turkeys give you the evil eye before forcing you to turn and run into the woods. On this day, the only witness to my folly was a pileated woodpecker who continued to amuse himself about thirty feet up in a dead birch tree. I yanked out my ear buds, and I listened to him laugh at me.
I sat on the pavement for a few minutes wondering if I could even get up. I was mad. There were no cars on the road in either direction. I finally figured out that if I rolled towards my left side, I could perhaps pull myself up. This painful move involved a lot more swearing. I noticed that my favorite running pants were torn where my knee had hit the asphalt. My gloves had tiny bits of gravel buried in them. I reached for my cell phone in my Armpocket® and thought about calling my husband to rescue me. I realized I was only a mile from home. Damn it! I would walk if it killed me. I tapped the icon for MapMyRun® and switched the app from running to walking. I did not want to miss out on the rest of my workout.
I started hobbling along the road, and about an eighth of a mile from where I had tripped the light fantastic, or something like that, a man walked out of his driveway and headed down the road away from me. I eventually caught up with him. He looked surprised as I passed him. “You came up fast,” he said. Was he being ironic? Sarcastic? An asshole? Or was he just some old guy who had not seen my tumbling routine in the middle of the road. I wondered if it was too early for a beer.
After an excruciating mile of limping home, I opened the door and walked into my house. I must have looked worse than I felt. As my husband looked at me, the concern on his face obvious, I said, “I’m hurt,” as I pointed at my ass. I then pulled up my torn pant leg to discover I was bleeding. I had wondered why my knee felt so warm. As I pulled the torn material off of my injured knee, I felt the material rip the skin off of my leg. I almost passed out, as I began swearing in an even louder voice than I had used on the road. After counting the imaginary stars in the ceiling, I grabbed my cell phone, turned off my mileage app, poked the camera app, and snapped a selfie of my knee. It was time to update my Facebook status.
I walked around for a while and tried to avoid the inevitable: I knew I was going to have to clean my bloody knee. I stripped down and entered the shower. Later, Jim said he could hear me in the other room as I swore and moaned when the water hit the wound. I managed to clean out the gunk, apply an antibiotic ointment, and wrap it all in some pretty gauze. Something oozed through the gauze in a pale-ale color. Even though it was twenty degrees outside, I put on a pair of shorts. I could not find a chair to sit in that my ass didn’t hurt and my hamstring didn’t screech like some sad violinist on Quaaludes. Freefalling…not.
Two days later, I told the nurse I was a bit sore as I climbed up onto the bed that would soon be slid into the open MRI for my two-year checkup. It was hard to believe that it had been two years since my Grand Mal Seizure during a road race and a freefall I have no memory of. I do remember surreal voices whispering “brain tumor” as friends and family circled my hospital bed. Weeks later, I had Gamma Knife surgery and imagined the radiation killing off the ugly thing that affects language, memory, and emotion. Months passed. My dog died. My father died. Other people I knew and cared about died, and I began to feel caught inside a spiral of death and despair, and yet my family and friends were there to catch me, forcing me to stand up, to get over myself. Deal with it. I began freefalling into a world of unconditional love and support. Faith. Mercy.
One week after my two-year MRI, I watched a bald eagle soar high above me before it started its graceful and pure freefall towards the lake as it swooped down to catch a fish. I ran inside to grab my camera. The eagle was too fast for me, and I missed the shot of it flying almost straight towards me before veering off and landing softly on a branch of a barren maple tree some two-hundred feet away. The eagle began the work of eating the fish. I watched through a kaleidoscope of trees, seemingly hundreds of arms and legs protecting the eagle from voyeurs or predators. After the freefall comes sustenance. Patience brings its greatest rewards.