2008 was not quite the year I expected it to be.
After running my first marathon in June 2006 (having never run more than a couple miles in my life) and competing in my first triathlon in August 2007 (just a sprint, with very little training, eight days after returning from a month in Italy), I decided that I wanted to try an Ironman.
This was a little bit less crazy than it might sound, in that I’d spent a dozen years as a competitive swimmer and had twice completed the MS-150 city-to-shore bike ride, but still, an Ironman was a bit outside of my comfort zone…
So, I started off 2008 with that race in mind, and little else in the works. I knew I wanted to test the adventure racing waters, maybe compete in a couple sprint (six-hour) races and attempt my first twelve-hour. But I thought the Ironman would consume most of my energy.
On February 25th and 26th, I took the Pennsylvania bar exam (I passed!). Three days later, Brent was set to head to upstate New York to compete in a two-day snowshoeing/orienteering race. The Snowgaine saw teams of two and three run from checkpoint to checkpoint for a combined 16 hours. Utilizing map-reading and orienteering techniques, participants planned their own routes and attempted to get as many points as possible without going over the alloted time period. Brent was planning on competing with Bruce and Jon, two fellow GOALS ARA teammates, but at the last minute, I decided that it sounded like a fun weekend and a great release from the mental exhaustion of two days of legal analysis.
So, with only two hours of snowshoeing under my belt and little in the way of training (I had run the Philly marathon the previous November and had since been using running and biking more as a stress release from comps and bar stress than anything else), I headed up to Winona State Forest with the boys. Bruce and Jon would race as one team, Brent and I as another. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. During the race, I experienced misery (at the unrelenting cold and the quarter-sized blisters that exploded on my heels), overwhelmedness (at the prospect of six, then five, then four more hours of traipsing around through the woods, only to do it again the following day), cautious enjoyment and even a bit of wonderment (at being able to spend two full days running literally tied at the waist to my husband, and at the realization that I was doing something so outside of my comfort zone that I never even knew existed only months before), and elation (at the finish line on the second day).
I finished the race with a bit more of a whimper than a bang, and committed to coming back next year better trained, with the right running shoes and gloves, and raring to go.
Six weeks later, I embarked on three months of adventure racing mayhem. As I said, I’d intended for 2008 to be an ‘intro to adventure racing’ year for me. Due to some unexpected cross-country moves and benefiting from having a husband who’d been picked up by an established team, I ended up competing in five races with seasoned athletes at the top of their game. I was ill-prepared, without the requisite mountain biking and trail running skills and without adequate base training. Once again, I cycled through a series of emotions: the thrill of victory; the frustration of feeling like I wasn’t pulling my own weight, of dealing with stomach issues and figuring out how to adequately hydrate and fuel during races that make marathons seems like 10ks; the anxiety of being in over my head with little to grab onto; the uncertainty of balancing marital dynamics and team dynamics with Brent; the mild terror of worrying about bears and coyotes creeping up on us as we wandered through the woods with little more than a pocket knife to stave them off; and the utter amazement at having found myself in a community of such dynamic and passionate people.
In mid-April, Brent, Bruce, and I competed in the Savage, the first GOALS ARA race of the season, a six-hour sprint that was supposed to be a good race for newbies but ended up – according to Bruce and Brent – being one of the hardest GOALS sprint courses in recent memory. We came in first place and Brent and I rushed home to prepare a Passover dinner for twenty members of my extended family. At the end of the month, Brent, Chris, and I headed out to Ohiopyle for the Yough Extreme, a 12-hour race through the hills of western Pennsylvania. Five miles into the first running section I took a nasty fall, wrenching my knee and my sternum on two protruding rocks. I spent the rest of the day taking one mile at a time, unsure of whether I’d be able to finish but wanting to see how far I could push myself. We ended up in third place in our division and qualified for the national championship (I would later chicken out of actually racing at nationals). I felt like an impostor, but reveled in the four-hour ride home spent reliving every second of the race.
Seven days later, I ran the Broad Street Ten Mile Run with an average pace of 8:30, a PR by a a mile and a half. My knee and sternum were still bruised and my legs were heavy with fatigue, but I was beginning to see signs of improvement.
After two weeks of recovery, Brent, Chris, and I competed in another twelve-hour race, NYARA’s The Longest Day. This was, in some ways, the most fun race of the year. It was a talented and experienced field, and we ended up with a sixth place finish. Not quite as exciting as the first two, but the terrain – in the southern Catskills – was incredible, and for the first time I felt like, at moments, I was able to pull my own weight.
A week later, Ironman training commenced. I started off well, following my training plan to the letter, but then life began to get in the way. After four years of sprinting through graduate school, a friend convinced me to take the summer off from my dissertation, and Brent and I decided to head north for a five-week road trip. I’d intended to continue following the training plan throughout our trip, but realized quickly that driving from small town to small town, hiking across Massachusetts, and biking through Montreal wasn’t quite what I would need to successfully complete the big race.
I got in a couple long bike rides and long runs but missed out on much of the crucial day-to-day maintenance, and found myself playing catchup once we returned at the beginning of August.
I went out to Wisconsin in early September knowing but not quite admitting to myself that I was in a hole. I made it through the race in reasonable time (I would have been close to my goal time had it not been for a flat tire and my own stupidity in packing the wrong bike tube), but my IT bands were screaming by the end of the marathon and I knew it was only a matter of time before the injuries surfaced.
The following weekend, I ‘walked’ the Philadelphia Distance Run (half marathon) with my dad. I say ‘walked’ because we finished in 2 hours and 57 minutes, a pace of 13:33 per mile. Not fast for running, but blistering for walking (at least for us). I was more sore after those three hours than after the 15 hours of ironmaning. And my right hip never quite recovered.
It’s now three months later and I’m only just beginning to feel the effects of rest (or at least no-running), physical therapy, and prescription anti-inflammatories.
It was an amazing year of racing, and I experienced and accomplished things that I never even knew were possible. At the same time, I went through the season without really thinking, and put myself and my teammates at risk for injury and disappointment as a result.
So, as I look ahead to 2009, I can’t wait to get back to running, and I’m excited for all the races the season has in store – a handful of adventure races, a marathon or two, and of course, the two-day snowshoe race. But I want to approach it deliberately, to develop a strategy to get me from race to race feeling strong and healthy.
And at the same time, I want to remember this past year, and embrace some of its spontaneity. I often live my life by lists, filling my days with as much as I can and planning neurotically for things that have no business being so planned. I want to integrate some of the lessons from this past racing season into the rest of my life, to remember that sometimes the best plans don’t make for the best experiences, that the best medicine for a two-day law exam may very well be a two-day snowshoeing race, no matter how many blisters it breeds.