Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A running narrative

I had a good time last weekend in Chicago, despite the bad weather. On Sunday morning I ran in the Magellan Development 10K race along the shores of Lake Michigan. My goal was to finish in under an hour, which I did, timing in at 56:45. I placed 176th out of 700 runners, 122nd out of 284 men, and 20th out of 46 in my age group. (click here for results) While I set no speed records, or even a personal best, it was a solid re-introduction to racing. The last race I ran was the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 10, 2005. Since then, I stopped running for a few years, gained 50 pounds, went through some difficult life trials and made some bad choices.

Reality gave me a hard check last November as I looked in the mirror at my bulging belly (replete with stretch marks) and realized, knowing my body type and comparing it to family and extended family with the same body type, that if I didn't make a conscious effort to maintain my health, obesity and all its attendant ills would be my fate. I was also tired of being tired, and sick of waking up with lower back pain every day. My body and spirit were crying out for change.

When I joined a local gym and stepped on the scale in the locker room, I weighed 240 pounds, the heaviest I have ever weighed. I remember that first day so vividly, the self-consciousness of being flabby and overweight in a fitness club full of fit people. Getting back in shape requires such willpower to change one's self-image, then habits, and to overcome nagging doubts. Seeing that number, 240, made me sigh in resignation. But then a familiar feeling, one that has carried me through mountain ranges and thousands of miles, overcame my being - DETERMINATION. Unlike previous attempts to establish a fitness and diet regimen in daily life, I had to make this latest effort stick. To fail would be to fall into a pit of self-loathing and ill health. I'd been wallowing in that place for most of 2010 and desperately wanted out. That old stubborn feeling came back into my life, revived me, even as the harsh assessment of the scale tried to drive me back down.

Six months later and 26 pounds lighter (I weighed myself on the same scale at the gym yesterday and am 214 pounds), I stood in the lobby of an upscale apartment building near the starting line of Sunday's race, self-conscious not due to weight, but because I was the only runner in the room with socks that went up to my mid-calf. My significant other chided me for lowering my socks.

"I've never known you to care about conforming," she said. "It's kind of cute seeing you try to fit in."

Indeed, I don't fit in. My shorts are a little long, more basketball than Bill Clinton. I don't listen to music on headphones or wear a watch that monitors my heart rate and blood/oxygen levels. Although my shoes are New Balance, I wear them all the time instead of just for running. I don't do interval training and until recently thought fartleks referred to a strange fetish involving flatulence. I don't have an elaborate stretching routine. I wear cotton t-shirts. None of my clothing has bright colors or is reflective. I don't wear a waistbelt with water bottles or eat shots of Gu. I like running because it's simple, and am dismissive of all the foofaraw other runners bring to the sport. And there was a lot of foofaraw to scoff at Sunday.

Many of the runners are high strung, impatient sorts. That makes sense, given the kinetic nature of the sport. They seem so wide-eyed and urgent. I had to walk through a narrow opening in steel fencing to get to the apartment lobby. A man and woman wearing matching outfits nearly shoved me out of the way to get in front of me. I yelled after them, "Hurry! Hurry! Go! Go! Go!"

As 7:30 a.m. neared, I stepped from the lobby and followed the herd to the starting line, getting there just in time to hear an unseen announcer say there was a minute left until the race starts. "For those of you who registered for the half-marathon and chose to run the 10K instead," he said. "Smart move!" And then we were off. Although it was crowded, no one jostled me, and I settled into a good pace right away, only having to alter it a few times to pass other runners.

My plan of action was to run at a conversational pace. As the trail curved to go around Shedd's Aquarium, I turned to look at the famous Chicago skyline. Most of the skyscrapers were enveloped in clouds. A stiff wind blew in from the lake, the water an ominous, white-capped verdancy. One wave shot over the breaker wall so hard a group of runners in front of me were soaked.

At the 3-mile turnaround, I upped my pace, still feeling good and strong. But now the wind was in my face. Many runners had their caps blown off their heads. Every once in a while a bicyclist would come through, yelling "runners to the right" as they helped a faster half-marathoner get through the crush of 10Kers. At the 5-mile mark I put on the afterburners, breathing heavily, conscientiously maintaining form (shoulders back, lengthening stride), but surprisingly feeling strong. In hindsight, I could have kicked in this pace at mile 3 and maintained it the rest of the way. As I approached the steel fencing before the turn under Lakeshore Drive, I went into a sprint all the way to the finish line, my face no doubt red and huffing.

I love the photo my significant other took as I approached the finish line. My hair is back and stride long. I felt a slight wave of nausea as I crossed the finish line and huffed to catch my breath. The announcer, to my astonishment, pronounced my last name correctly. I grabbed my finisher medal, shouldered my luggage, and after a bathroom stop, began the mile and a half walk back to the Ogilvie Transportation Center.

Thanks again to my significant other (at her request, she shall ever remain nameless) for her companionship and support. We enjoyed a romantic dinner at Oodles of Noodles near Clark and Fullerton the night before. Thanks also to my brother Ken for letting us stay at his place. He's somewhere in Europe or Thailand as of this writing, so he wasn't around.

Despite the bad weather, I felt great the entire run and, in retrospect, could have pushed a bit harder for a better time. But it was a lot of fun and I can't wait to race again. I've already signed up for a 10K run June 25 that starts at Sycamore Speedway and goes along the Great Western Trail. I may also, funds willing, run an 8K race in Kirkland on Saturday. My t-shirt wardrobe expands as my waistline shrinks. It's been a long, arduous trek from last November to Sunday's finish line, but a triumphant one. Further successes and many finish lines await.

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