Friday, October 31, 2014

The story of 26.2 miles (Or how Thomas Magnum and I are the same person)

Shortly before the race.

My official time in the 2014 Dublin Marathon was 4:05:45. That's an average of 9 minutes 22 seconds per mile.

I'm recording my time because I sense my older self will be interested in that information. Though I know my present self is not. Indeed, my present self gets annoyed at the idea of paying attention to anything other than the simple fact that I ran really far and I doubt I could have run much further. Or much faster.

Well, maybe a little faster. In training for the race I had been clocking pace times of roughly 8 minutes 30 seconds on long runs (and as speedy as 7:15 on runs less than 3 miles), which led me to assume it possible to complete the marathon in 3 hours and 54 minutes (i.e., a pace of 9 minutes per mile).

"Oh, sub-four and I'll be happy," I'd say when asked what time I wanted to achieve.

In truth, I hoped I could do better –– something along the lines of 3 hours 45 minutes. So, I'll admit there was a feeling of disappointment on the day. Or, rather in a very specific moment. At mile 25, my back was radiating with pain; my mouth and lips were tingling from dehydration; I could find no energy to put into my legs. I was propelling myself forward mostly through chant-huffing: "I can. I will. I can. I will. I can. I will. I can. I will. I can. I will. I can. I will. I can. I will..."

Jenn and I had only decided to enter the marathon a few months before, in mid-August. We had been toying with the idea of running such a distance together for a long time, even going so far as to sign up for the 2013 Twin Cities Marathon.

That fell through when urgent roof repairs ate up the cash we would have needed for flights. However, with the exception of being annoyed at having thrown away money in paying the exorbitant entry fee I wasn't terribly upset to have missed out. Hitherto, I had not run a long-distance race since 2005 (a) and my memories of such events were not terribly positive. That is to say, my memories of my performance in these events weren't positive.

That is, to a large extent, because I didn't know how to train. I had always figured that if you want to prepare yourself for running a lot, you should do so by running a lot. Turns out this isn't entirely correct. But therein you have the reason I didn't see any problem with signing up to run the Dublin Marathon about two months before the day.

Jenn, fortunately, was more realistic about the work ahead of us and produced myriad charts and graphs identifying when we should run and how much, along with advice on what to eat, and, most importantly, on what other exercise we should be doing. Which explains the whole DDP Yoga thing.

I still found myself suffering serious fatigue as race day neared, but overall Jenn's system made preparing a lot less sucky.

Our friends, Donal and Isobel, put us up while we were in Dublin. Well, actually, that's something of an understatement. They basically served as super awesome surrogate parents. They fed us, gave us a place to sleep, ferried us around town, served as cheerleaders during the race, and were otherwise all-round amazing hosts. They even clothed us. On the morning of the race, Jenn discovered she had not packed her running tights; Isobel saved the day by lending a pair of her own.

Friends from the internet are the best kind of friends, yo.

Signing the wall full of good wishes for runners.

The last mile of a marathon is the distance runner's two-minute drill, I suppose. It's the point that all the other miles have led to, the moment when all you do is push. And afterward, it is the thing you remember most vividly. Not that the other miles are throwaway, of course.

There is an episode of Magnum P.I. ("Home from the Sea") in which Magnum finds himself alone in the middle of the ocean, forced to tread water for an implicitly long time. As one is wont to do in such a scenario, Magnum passes the time experiencing a number of semi-hallucinatory flashbacks, many of them related to water-treading experiences both with his father and in the Navy SEALs. It is a surprisingly gripping episode and one that I often think about when running.

Some people think really deep things when they run; I think about Tom Selleck. Don't judge me. Anyway, somehow it is partially from that episode of Magnum P.I. that I get my belief that you can always run another mile. You can always push just a little more.

Mimicking Magnum checking his father's Rolex whilst treading water, I checked the £12 Casio on my wrist as I drew even with the Mile 25 marker. I realised that if I wanted to finish the race in less than 4 hours I would need to somehow run this last 1.2 miles in roughly 3 minutes. The slight twinge of defeat at knowing I would not achieve my arbitrary and irrelevant timing goal mixed with the exhausted relief of knowing that I would finish –– that I could and would survive the final mile –– and served as a sort of pinprick to the balloon of emotion that had been swelling up since I had gotten out of bed that morning.

I had not slept well, suffering anxiety dreams that I would arrive at the start line too late or that my notoriously unstable stomach would sabotage the day. As Donal had driven Jenn and I to the race my mind had been spinning with worries: Had I eaten enough? Was I hydrated enough? Was I too hydrated? Was I wearing the right gear for the weather? Would I be too cold? Would I be too hot?

All this minor panic affected my thinking to the extent I lined up at the start line with the wrong pace runner. Thinking I was standing next to the guy running 3 hours and 50 minutes I instead queued up near the bloke wearing a 4:50 banner. It was only as the crush of runners oozed toward the start that I realised my mistake. Agitated panic ensued and I spent the first part of the race trying to get beyond those runners who were planning to finish the race an hour after me.

In my head I wasn't trying to catch up with the 3:50 pace runner –– I recognised this would be impossible since he was now so far ahead of me –– but that information wasn't communicated effectively to the rest of my body. Filled with nerves and agitation I just sort of lost control and covered the first 3 miles in 22 minutes. Way too fast.

Keep in mind, too, I hadn't covered this distance in a straight line. Roughly 15,000 people turned out to run the Dublin Marathon, so in moving away from slower runners I had done a lot of zig-zagging around within a dense pack. I was expending far too much energy for so early in the race. Figuring this out, I spent the next few miles telling myself to calm down, sometimes even making little "whoa" gestures to myself.

"SMILE IF YOU'VE ALREADY PEED A LITTLE!" announced a sign being held by a woman in Phoenix Park. This was around mile 6, and I was finally calming enough to be looking around and taking in the incredible support of Dubliners. They were lining the route, banging drums, singing and shouting encouragement. To be a recipient of so much goodwill is a reason in and of itself to run a marathon.

You can see from the picture at the start of this post I had chosen to wear a shirt with the University of Texas Longhorns logo on it. Ireland is a long way from Texas but a surprising number of supporters knew the logo's significance.

"Go on, Texas! You're doing great!" people would shout. "Hook 'em!"

I wrote "Go Go Super Jenn!" on the wall of support.
The size of the crowd increased or decreased depending on what part of the city we were running through, of course. In some places supporters were shoulder to shoulder, in stretches through park there might be just one or two people, but always, all of them, cheering and clapping and ringing bells and shouting and making the whole thing feel like a 26.2-mile party. I saw a man dressed as Elvis dancing with a woman dressed as a toilet. A little girl had set up a full drum kit and was playing with full gusto. Countless children offered high fives. One man stood on a wall playing guitar and joked with runners in his thick Dublin accent: "Ye's wouldn't happen to have some water? I'm really thirsty from all this singin'."

The hundreds of volunteers at the water stations moved at full speed to hand out drinks to runners without any of us having to break pace. They shouted and whistled and whooped support as we stomped through.

Many of the runners themselves were supportive, too. They were dressed in costumes or wearing wigs. They blew whistles or cheered at mile markers. Others inspired just by being there: some carried pictures of loved ones who had passed away. One man ran pushing his MS-crippled brother in a wheelchair.

Wearing my University of Texas shirt had been a good idea in terms of making me slightly identifiable within a crowd, but it was ill suited for the weather. I had trained expecting the sort of windy, grey, cold misery that all of us in the Soggy Nations experience in late October. But in a fit of climatological freakishness weather on this day was sunny and warm. The temperature rose to 20C (68F). The heat, combined with my unnecessary wasting of energy at the start of the race (many runners also complained of strong winds but I honestly don't remember this as too much a problem), began to affect me just past mile 19.

By now I was going through water more quickly and unable to fully quench my thirst. The two pieces of toast I had eaten for breakfast felt like not nearly enough. All around me, a surprising number of runners had broken into limping walks. I felt weak, and some part of me started to wonder where I was going to find the energy to push on.

At mile 20 there was a family handing out bags of Jelly Babies, a soft candy. I had seen a few other supporters offering sweets and bits of fruit but to this point had paid little attention because, well, you know: candy from strangers. But in this case the stranger offering me a clear plastic bag of candy was a 6-year-old girl.

"Thankyouthankyouthankyou," I wheezed, giving her an enfeebled high five and trundling forward.

I accepted candy from a few other people further on, and by mile 22 was back to feeling confident I would finish the race. To underscore this and to resist the temptation to join the increasing number of people walking I had fallen into repeating to myself, in the style of the Team USA "I Believe" chant: "I will not fucking walk."

After a time it occurred to me I was speaking to myself in negatives and the personal chant morphed into: "I can. I will."

At mile 25, when that emotional balloon burst –– filled with anxiety and joy and people's cheering and laughter –– I started sobbing uncontrollably. It was a strange sort of sobbing because my body was too dehydrated to produce tears. My lungs were too overtaxed to hyperventilate. I suspect that to an observer I just looked like someone who was trying hard to push through the last mile. And I was.

In that last mile the support of Dubliners increased exponentially. The crowds now heaved on each side of the route. Their noise was deafening. The race winner, Kenyan Eliud Too, had finished almost two hours beforehand but people were screaming as if I were in the lead. It was one of the most life-affirming things I have ever experienced first-hand.

When I crossed the finish line I discovered my back and shoulders had tightened so much I could not straighten to walk. I fell into a hopping limp as I moved along, breathlessly saying "thankyouthankyouthankyou" to the volunteers who ushered me along, put a medal around my neck, and gave me a bag full of post-run drinks and foods.

A little further on I found a place to stop and go through my post-run stretching routine. I did so gingerly and without much grace. Bending over to touch my toes I almost fell over. Doing a hip stretch required I lie down, so I eased to the ground and lie flat on my back, my arms outstretched.

I looked up into the blue sky and thought about the all-but-defeated skinny man in a University of Texas shirt now lying in the middle of a Dublin street. I listened to the crowd still roaring not too far away and the happy-exhausted chatter of others who had finished. I thought of Donal and Isobel, who I knew were somewhere nearby to take us back home to shower. I thought of Jenn and how happy she must be to be nearing the finish of her first marathon. And I realised that this, most peculiarly, was one of the best moments of my life.


____________________


(a) EDIT: Actually, no, I forgot about running the Cardiff Half Marathon in 2007.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The physical and the mental


The Dublin Marathon is in less than four weeks. The sooner those weeks pass the happier I'll be, because training has brought on oppressive fatigue. It is not just that I am sore and tired all the time but that I am mentally exhausted as well. And as such, I get too easily overwhelmed by life. Little things unpick me, as if I were one of Jenn's sewing projects.

That's Jenn in the picture above, of course, wearing one of her sewing projects: a cape she made for a fancy dress dinner party last weekend. For those of you playing along at home, "fancy dress" in the United Kingdom means "costume." Imagine my disappointment when I first learned this many years ago; I had envisioned a soirée with people in tuxedos and evening gowns. Anyhoo, the dinner party was one of those murder mystery things in which one of you is the killer and everyone has to figure it out.

The setting for said murder mystery was London in 1961. In black and white, with Jenn sitting on a train platform and the grim rowhouses of Grangetown just barely silhouetted behind her, she looks like part of the rebellious element that was bubbling beneath the surface at the time –– like a girl who might have ridden with the ton-up boys.

We had run 15 miles that day, but Jenn has inexhaustible talent for getting up for an event. Whereas I find that as I get older I am damned boring on even my good days. Fortunately, Jenn's friends have taught themselves to expect little of me.

On that 15-mile run I had failed to stretch properly either before or afterward and had developed an oh-so-slight pain in my right hip. Add it to the radiating pain in my knees, the ache in my toes, the shin splint in my right leg, the lower back pain and the mysterious and inexplicable pain in my hands. I didn't think much of it until this morning. 

Last night I had come home from work and run 5.6 miles around Cardiff Bay, again without really taking the time to stretch. I had assumed my cycling home from work enough of a warm up. But through the first miles my right foot wasn't striking the pavement right. My shin ached and my hip ached and my legs felt heavy. I imagined myself tied to and dragging a boat down a canal. Because that's the way my mind works, yo.

"Golly, I'm tired. I feel like an 1840s canal pony."

Things evened out by the end of the run and I finished OK, but afterward was hobbling around the flat because of the ache in my hip. Overnight, the pain was such that I kept waking up. And that has pretty much taken all the wind out of my sails. I have fallen into a comedy Eeyore-esque moroseness and I feel utterly defeated.

My mind jumps quickly to worst-case scenarios. Jenn and I are planning to run 22 miles Saturday as part of the training, the peak before winding down to ensure we are ready for the actual race. I have lost faith in my body, though, and wonder if I will be able to complete this weekend's run. I wonder if it will cause damage that won't heal before the race. And instantly I envision myself dressed in normal clothes on the day of the marathon, sick with myself and limping, able to do no more than cheer Jenn's efforts.

Meanwhile, if you happen to be looking at this site on an actual computer or laptop you'll notice the look has changed. In hindsight, I wish I had taken a screengrab of the blog before changing everything –– just for posterity's sake. C'est la vie. I can't remember, but I think I had been running the previous since 2010.

The new look is considerably simpler, with less sidebar information. Simple is the new hotness, it seems, and I guess it makes sense. Quite a lot of people –– if not most of them –– surf the internet via mobile devices these days. Filling a page with sidebar columns is cluttersome and pointless since many mobile browsers filter them out. I'll admit, though, that I struggle to commit to simplicity. I could probably stand to apply even more minimalism.

My inspiration for the redesign comes from two people: Chris Phin and Chris Phin. Ever since we sat around on the floor of his and Jenny's bare-bones flat in not-so-fashionable New Cross almost exactly nine years ago I have held strongly the view that Chris Phin Is Probably Right when it comes to things tech/internety. You know, the way Neil deGrasse Tyson is probably right about astronomy, or AC/DC are probably right about how to play a kick-ass guitar riff. Other people might have equally valid and possibly better opinions, but if you're looking for a safe bet these dudes are the ones who are probably right.

Jenny, me and Chris. Chris is holding up a London A-Z so "we'll remember where we were."
Nine years ago we were sitting on the floor because, like all people in their 20s living in London, Chris and Jenny could only afford a single piece of furniture: a futon. It felt awkward for us all to be sitting on the futon at once having a conversation, and there were no tables upon which to set our drinks, so we took to the floor. Despite the fact I was in their flat and planning to stay a few days it was my first time to physically meet them; we had formed a friendship through our respective blogs. The wonders of technology, y'all.

Anyhoo, I'm wandering from the point. Chris and I stayed up late drinking and talking about said wonders, and it instilled in me a sense that he was probably right in his opinion of them. This is a feeling since reinforced by his professional career; he's written for and been at the helm of numerous tech-related publications.

His website is simple. Which means that simple is probably right.

Meanwhile, if you look at his simple website at the moment you will see a post talking about his recent decision to step down as editor-in-chief of MacFormat. The plan, it seems, is to go into business for himself, doing freelance, consulting and all the other things media professionals do when they come to their senses and decide they need to step away from the day-to-day slog.

Personally, I applaud this move, if not simply because the last few times I've seen Chris, chatting with him has been just a tiny, tiny, tiny bit challenging. Not because he's dull or any such thing but because he has for the past few years been so tremendously overworked. I had this feeling I was competing for his attention against the bazillion other things he had to do and felt guilty about it. You don't want to add more stress to your friends' lives; you don't want to be another thing they have to think about.

Going into business for himself won't necessarily reduce his workload but it will give him greater control of it. And hopefully that will result in less stress overall.

Aiding him in his freelancing effort, Chris' simple-design website also serves as a tool –– a shingle, to use old-school British lingo –– to communicate who he is, what he can do, and how to contact him. And again, here's me totally copying his moves.

In the past few weeks I've had a chance to write a few freelance articles for some motorcycle websites. Which is awesome on two levels: 
1) People are paying me to write about motorcycles, yo.
2) It's a real step toward one of my major goals in The Five-Year Plan.

I don't think I've mentioned The Five-Year Plan before. It's a 12-page document I wrote up in July, outlining the myriad steps I need/want to take in order to get myself from what I am right now to something more like what I want to be. Effectively, it's an extension of the whole 183 Days idea, which fell flat because it lacked structure beyond just really hoping my writing career would take off.

The Five-Year Plan is more focused and includes just about every aspect of my life: career, relationships, health, etc. The part that deals with career sees me building incrementally toward professional writerdom and sets earning goals in terms of percentages of annual income. It's boring stuff if you're not me.

These recent freelance gigs –– which will likely help me achieve my earning goals for 2014-2015 –– pretty much fell into my lap. I am hugely grateful for my luck, but it occurs to me this won't always be the way things happen. Sometimes people will come from nowhere to offer an opportunity, more often, however, I will need to find them.

So, in simplifying my website I'm also trying to rejig it to serve as a little more of a tool. You'll notice, for example, the blog no longer has a title; it's just my name. Though, I have kept the "Dancing the polka with Miss El Cajon" sentiment in the subheading/description. I've added a portfolio section (which may or may not be a good idea). I'll add a contact section soon. It's all a work in progress; I'm not happy with it yet.

All this is quite exciting and feels very much like those happy moments when you are actually living up to the expectations and ambitions of your younger self. But then hip pain keeps you from sleeping for just one night and you wake up feeling that all is lost.

Training for the marathon is beating me up both physically and mentally. I find it so hard to recover from tiny little things, so hard to push myself through the molasses of tiredness. Here's hoping the 27th of October comes soon, and that I can survive all the way there.

Monday, September 29, 2014

TMO: The forgotten names


Below is the third and final post about my road trip to Yorkshire Dales National Park. Basically, it covers my trip back home, which included a stop in Leeds and at the UK's National Motorcycle Museum.

If you've never been to Leeds I'd suggest you make no particular effort to go there. It suffers from that thing affecting a lot of large British cities that aren't London, which is that they are generally indistinguishable from one another. So Leeds is Cardiff is Bristol is Birmingham: depressingly uninspiring concrete buildings greyed and decayed by decades of traffic pollution. If you live in one of these cities perhaps you can see the beauty and uniqueness of it, but as a visitor there is nothing really to make you want to come back.

The National Motorcycle Museum, meanwhile, is located in that motorcycling Mecca that is Birmingham. Obviously. Going to the museum was an educational experience, though, in the sense it taught me that motorcycles are in and of themselves not that interesting. Not when they're just sitting there, at least.

What fascinates me, what gets me all yammering and wild-eyed about motorcycles is what they mean, rather than what they are. That's not surprising, I suppose, but it's a good thing to know about myself. It's good to know that I am drawn more by the romantic rather than the technical. Acknowledging that helps me in how I approach the whole thing.

Anyhoosiers, click below to read the post:

Friday, September 26, 2014

TMO: Ay up

Linked below is the second of three parts retelling my trip to the Yorkshire Dales. This trip was my second time to visit Yorkshire (having previously had a chance to spend a few days in York back in February) and I find that I really love that part of the world. The scenery is great and the accents delight me.

Though I cannot imagine being romantically involved with someone who had a thick Yorkshire accent. Just think about it for a moment. Think about sexy bedroom things a partner might say and imagine them said in a treacly Yorkshire patois. It doesn't work.

In most other interactions, however, it's an enjoyable accent. Even listening to a Yorkshireman be angry is strangely fun (as long as he/she isn't angry at you). I'd be quite happy to try living up there a while -- particularly in York. Indeed, from time to time I peruse job listings there. Maybe one day.

In the meantime I am content to just visit. And hey, perhaps that helps preserve the magic. Actually living in York and having to deal with typical day-to-day issues like getting home from work in the rain or finding the money to pay for unplanned bike repair or whatever would inevitably tarnish my view of the place somewhat. Maybe it's better to just hold it golden in my mind as a place of great scenery and friendly/odd people who speak in funny accents.

Anyhoo, click below to read about my excessive speeding and eating rich food in pubs:



Wednesday, September 24, 2014

May contain adult content

Jenn and I are trying to sell our flat. Or, well, technically, it's Jenn's flat. She bought it before we met; hers is the only name on the lease. But it's the nature of marriage that you don't pay much attention to ownership specifics. It all blurs together. You don't sit down and say: "OK, I'll buy these oranges and you can buy those apples and we'll split the cost on this milk."

In Ye Olde Days, that was, of course, one of the primary motivations for marriage: a pooling of resources. Two adults working together to improve their general condition. Practicality, you see.

And it is indeed for practical purposes that Jenn and I are keen to sell the flat: to get ourselves into the position of being debt-free. Which will/would be of benefit when/if we move to the United States in a few years. Or just of benefit in general. Being debt-free, y'all; it's the new hotness. And I've worked out that if we could get out from under all our debt we could rent a two-bedroom flat/house (our flat is one-bedroom) and still have a quantum of funds each month to put into savings. 

Simply using the profit of this flat as a deposit on a larger place won't work because the mortgage on such a place would be more than what Jenn could shoulder on her own, and my status as a Damned Dirty Immigrant (who is working and paying taxes to fund the housing and welfare of natural born citizens who stand outside the Jobcentre with their hands down their pants, drinking Stella Artois and shouting obscenities) prevents me from being eligible for such a loan or co-signing onto one with my wife.

If you're not terribly interested in my personal financial situation, I don't blame you. I get bored even thinking about it. Or, well, panicky-bored. That feeling where your brain simultaneously says: "Ugh, dude, I don't wanna think about this," and "AAARGH! I DON'T WANT TO THINK ABOUT THIS!"

Selling a flat, even though it is technically not mine, is, I think, the most grown-up thing I've ever done. And it induces a tremendous amount of stress. 

Firstly, it consequentially results in my thinking about money all the time. I don't mean thinking about it in a City trader sort of way -- "I'm making the moolah right now, baby! Woo!" -- but more in the way Ukrainians think about Russia. I spend all day trying to work out various scenarios and solutions and equations, but at the end of each of them is the reality that I have extremely little wiggle room. There's a 17-gallon bucket to fill and I've got just 17 gallons of water. Things are OK unless someone gets thirsty.

Thoughts on how to handle money lead, of course, to thoughts on how to earn money. Specifically, how I'd prefer to be earning money. Cue the large Sweetums-esque monster of my mind to sing the same old lament of my writing career not being anywhere near as profitable or prolific as I'd have hoped it would be by the time I was 38 years old.

These anxieties stack on top of each other and mush together. It's like ice cream on a hot day. Life becomes the challenge of sitting there in the sweltering heat trying to tackle a 4-scoop cone without having any of it spill onto your hands or, worse, topple to the ground. And in the great quadruple-dip waffle cone of life the additional challenge comes in the fact the flavours are not terribly complimentary. It would be far easier to tackle them one at a time. But you can't. They are on top of each other and as time goes on they become more difficult to distinguish.

Panicky-bored. Panicky-bored. I don't wanna talk about this, man. I DON'T WANT TO TALK ABOUT THIS. Where I'm going with talking about it is that strange feeling of realising that I'm an adult and not feeling terribly happy about it. I think because I am fearful that I am not terribly good at it.

And here Sweetums steps forward again to sing the Middle-class Woes: the feeling that I am a disappointment by scale. Do you get what I mean? Objectively, my life is pretty good; I have achieved some good things. But I feel that if you take into account the tools I've had to achieve those things I am ultimately a letdown. 

I imagine myself in a large room full of mechanical parts. That is my life. And at the end of my life, God is going to walk into the room and say: "Well, what'd you manage to make, Chris?"

"This bicycle," I'll say. "It's pretty sturdy. I rode around on it quite a bit and it's held up. A few flat tires but pretty fun overall."

"Good, Chris. That's fine," he'll say. "But, uhm, well, you know... this room. All the parts and tools are in this room for you to have made a fighter jet. The parts and tools are here for you to have built a fleet of motorcycles. You've always had most of them. Then there were the times -- remember? -- that you put a lot of time and effort into developing some of the others. But you never really used them. A bicycle is good, Chris. And there are many people up here that, if they had presented me with even a drawing of a bicycle, I would have been very proud of. But you. With you, a bicycle is kind of disappointing. I think you've let yourself down a little. Ah well, you've got all of eternity to dwell on it..."

The fact that these feelings spiral from the simple act of trying to sell a piece of property convinces me even further that I am really not doing a very good job of being an adult. Or maybe I just don't like being an adult and resist it to the point of incompetency. I sense that I would be more enthusiastic about the whole thing if Jenn and I were planning to use the money to go on a massive road trip.