Change of Plans

What a month it’s been. Around January 1st, I took some time to look back at last year and try to write up some kind of year-end reflection on the great mess that was 2020. That task threw me into a serious funk and that was *prior* to the little insurrection of January 6th. When everyone said “Winter is coming!” I have to admit – I did not expect an invasion of our nation’s Capitol to be part of the story. I used to work on Capitol Hill and watching those people – I would say those punks, but I have too much respect for actual punks – smash the windows and defile those hallways hit me hard. I can tell writing this that I am still angry about it.

But, January 6th was followed by January 20th. A new President, finally, and the beautiful words of Amanda Gorman to help us climb the next hill. A huge sigh of relief and a breath of hope.

Also, some significant changes in spring running plans. Despite my best efforts, I could not muster any real excitement for training for the Newport marathon. I kept slugging it out on the roads, running through slush, running through some cold grey winter days in Michigan, attempting to run many tempo miles on the streets of West Hartford before finally realizing that my heart wasn’t in it. I had told High Power Running Mentor #1 that the main reason to train for a marathon during a pandemic was because I love marathon training. But I sure wasn’t loving it. So I changed plans.

I toyed with the idea of a half marathon, but even that felt pretty dang far. Instead Coach Mick and I settled on the idea of a 5K training block. I had a lot of fun training for the 10K last spring and I want some of that speed back. I also suspect short distance races are the ones most likely to happen in person and I have no interest in a virtual race. So, 5K training it is. I even have a race coming up – the Super Sunday 4 Miler in Bedford, New Hampshire. Sure, that’s a little longer than a 5K, but beggars can’t be choosers. I’m hunting for an actual 5K later this spring. Fingers crossed.




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New Training Cycle – New Hope – Newport – Berlin!

This week kicks off a new marathon training cycle and even though life is quite weird and sometimes scary and depressing, I am also finding the excitement that comes along with new beginnings.

I am training for the Newport Marathon, which will hopefully take place on April 17th, 2021. I chose Newport before we knew we’d have a vaccine for the coronavirus. I wanted to run a spring marathon between late March and early May and I didn’t want to have to fly anywhere. A small race like Newport is much more likely to happen than larger events. With just under 350 finishers in 2019, Newport is more than twice as big as Jim Thorpe so I’m hoping to have people to run with for more of the race. The racing company, Rhode Races, held several successful events this past fall and they know how to put on a race with Covid protocols. The course is hillier than I would like, but I’ll take what I can get. The race takes place during Newport’s Daffodil Days Festival. I keep imagining myself running past vast beds of daffodils, one of my favorite flowers. It feels like a joyful way to welcome spring.

Official training started Monday with my usual swimming and weights. Tuesday was a more challenging tempo run which I nailed (!), thank you very much. The rest of the week is about getting in some miles while dodging our first big snowstorm of the season. First long run with pacing this weekend.

The first Covid vaccinations were also delivered Monday. I don’t know what the spring will bring in terms of racing or the virus. But new beginnings bring new hope. I planted daffodils and tulips in our yard this fall. I can’t wait to see those little green shoots peek out next spring.

I got more good running news this week. I got into the Berlin Marathon through the lottery! I’ve wanted to run Berlin as long as I can remember. As a scholar of German politics, I’ve spent a lot of time in Berlin and I love the city. It’s sort of the underdog of world capitals – a difficult but fascinating history, lingering signs of the division if you know where to look, glitzy consumer capitalism next to neighborhood hangouts. I still remember a long training run in 2013 for the Hartford Marathon when I ran with a much-loved colleague. A dear friend met me in East Berlin with a jacket I never ended up returning. That day, running 16 miles from West to East, the seed of marathoning in Berlin was planted in my mind.

The national elections and the marathon coincided in 2017. The Christian Democrats “won” the elections, but the radical right party, the Alternative for Germany, entered parliament for the first time. It’s also probably the first day I paid attention to Eliud Kipchoge, winner of the men’s marathon. He didn’t run a world record time that day, but he came back to Berlin in 2018 and smashed it, running 2:01:39. Kichoge wasn’t the first to break the record in Berlin. It’s probably the fastest course in the world and the record has been broken 11 times there. I don’t expect to break the world record but I sure would like to break my own. Bring on Berlin!

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Arctic Adventures and the Hygge Project

“Winter is coming.” “The worst is yet to come.” “The next few months will be cold and dark and full of death.” How many times have we read those headlines in the last few weeks?

The winter will almost certainly be cold and dark, and probably also full of death. I don’t deny that truly horrific events may be on the horizon. But last night, I heard some very different sentiments from Rose: “Mom, this is the best thing ever!” “When we sing together, the magic starts!” “The memory of this is already tingling in my brain!”

We were just starting our drive home from her first outdoor rehearsal of the United Girls Choir (UGC), the choral group she joined last year. UGC has been on hiatus since spring but the choir is coming back to life as part of the holiday season with rehearsals and classes online, and a few in-person meet-ups (socially distanced, of course, do I even need to say that?).

How do we want to face this season? Is it a winter of dread or a winter of wonder? A line from an advent prayer echoes in my mind: “Knowing the darkness bears unexpected gifts.” We can focus on the darkness or we can focus on the gifts.

I can’t help but think of the emotions runners feel when heading to the starting line. Racing hard hurts. But Deena Kastor, one of the best distance runners ever, compares race day to Christmas morning. With one key difference: On race day, you get to decide what’s in your present, based on the attitude you bring. Approach the race with gratitude, excitement and confidence, and maybe you’ll find that brand-new bicycle you’ve been longing for. Approach the race with fear and dread, and you may find the equivalent of a lump of coal. Deena doesn’t deny that it’s going to hurt. A lot. But focusing on the negative often creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Which is the better way to approach the start? With a heart full of dread, thinking over and over again, this experience is going to be unimaginably awful? Or with an openness to whatever good things the next several weeks might bring?

Hence, my (attempted) approach to the coming winter: Arctic Adventures and the Hygge Project. Note, I do not promise to succeed. I promise to try.

On the Arctic Adventures front, I’m taking to heart both the science that says transmission of the virus is dramatically decreased outdoors and the old saying that there’s no bad weather, only inadequate gear. Thank goodness that my main form of recreation, running, is much more enjoyable outdoors and I already have an embarrassing amount of gear. Not that more gear isn’t good. I’m always in favor of more gear.

Last month I went backpacking and slept in a tent with temperatures in the low 30s. With a couple of Hot Hands in my sleeping bag, I wasn’t even cold. We had an amazing bonfire, gorgeous hiking, and wonderful conversation. What else is possible outside this winter? It turns out choir rehearsal in a pavilion in a park is “the best thing ever.” We enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner on the porch, watching the sun set over the pond. I am looking forward to more winter hiking, more bonfires, lots of running and the challenge of finding the beauty and excitement of colder weather.

At the same time, I also want to implement the Hygge Project. Hygge is a Danish word meaning “a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being.” I plan to revel in the coziness of home. It’s true that we won’t have many visitors inside the house this season. But we have a fireplace, two cats, many blankets and a whole box of candles. We have a basement full of board games and an insane number of cookbooks. These are good ingredients for Hygge.

We also have two children who won’t live with us forever, but who are both home now. This might be Aidan’s last full winter under our roof. I don’t want to spend it being angry and afraid and full of dread. Yes, I expect some hard things this winter and I don’t know quite what they will be. But I am also looking forward to time outside in the winter wilderness and then snuggling down at home. I am looking for the unexpected gifts that darkness brings.

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Jim Thorpe 2020 Race Report – Part 2

I didn’t sleep that well the night before the race. I was definitely nervous. But everyone says the sleep the night before the night before the race is the one that counts so I didn’t let my restlessness get me worked up. I was ready. Up before the alarm went off. This is marathon #10 for me so some things have become pretty routine. I had mixed my Maurten the night before and had no problem drinking it first thing in the morning. I also had my usual Race Day Oatmeal, courtesy of Shalane Flanagan. I even bring my own bowl at this point. The hotel had a free breakfast so Mervus and the kids ate downstairs while I gathered my stuff. It was fun seeing other runners getting their breakfasts! That hotel camaraderie! We left the hotel around 6:45am and drove right to the start at White Haven.

Hotel breakfast: Love our expressions here. This captures so much of the Wiliarty dynamic.

“Marathoners watch the weather” – It’s a line from Deena Kastor’s book and it’s true. You train for four months for an event that’s going to take around 4 hours (or three or five, or six…) and the weather during that four hours can have a big effect on the outcome. Race day conditions were not terrible, but not brilliant. The temperature at the start was predicted to be around 60, but humidity was forecast at 100%. Yikes. I actually stayed pretty calm about this. Coach Mick always says “There’s a 100% chance of weather” and that’s true. I also can’t do anything about the weather so there’s no point in fretting about it.

When Coach Mick and I had our pre-race discussion, he said I didn’t need to “worry” about the weather, but that I should respect it. I had originally hoped to run 3:38 (8:20 pace), maybe 3:36 on a great day and my training said that goal was reasonable. But now we were looking at an exceptionally humid day. He recommended adjusting about 10 seconds a mile and aiming for an 8:30 pace which is a 3:42 marathon. This was sad news because I really want to break 3:40. But I’m not in charge of the weather. I talked to High Power Running Mentor #1 about the race some too. He argued that Kipchoge ran his sub-2 hour marathon in very similar humidity (though lower temps). Joshua Cheptegei ran his recent 5K world record at 79 degrees. Though of course, that’s only 3.1 miles, not 26.2. So, would the humidity matter? I looked at my own past marathons. I’ve run two really hot awful ones, but they were much hotter, and I’ve run a couple in non-ideal conditions, but they were a bit cooler. Hmmm. For good measure, I consulted Spice Boy and he recommended slowing down even more than Coach Mick did – by 15 to 30 seconds a mile. I decided Coach Mick knew what he was talking about and I’d go with the 8:30 pace strategy.

Getting out of the car for the start was another somewhat weird moment. We found the parking lot and I went to the porta-potty to take care of business. At first it felt kind of surreal because there were so few people there. But as more folks arrived, that pre-race vibe started to emerge. People were taking pictures with their friends, doing warm-ups, feeling nervous and excited. Me too!

The last text I sent race morning before putting the phone away was to Coach Mick: “Weather a tinge better than expected. Same temp but humidity is fog and not too warm. My choice what happens today. Run with joy.” I had thought the predicted 100% humidity would feel like a wall of water. Instead, it was a mist that felt like zillions of little ice particles. It was definitely more comfortable than expected.

Starting line

I had wondered what the start would be like for such a tiny race during the Covid-era. Everyone was wearing masks, of course, but we could get rid of them as soon as we started running. The runners stood near the starting line while the race directors explained what would happen. There were no starting corrals – the race director just said, faster people to the front, please! I lined up in about the middle, having no idea what “faster” meant in this case. They took groups of 10-15 people and said, ok, you guys, start! The next group wait a sec, ok, now, start! With only 150 people in the race, this process went quickly and smoothly. I kind of miss having the national anthem and a starting pistol, but those will be back eventually. Just getting to race at all is fabulous.

The course starts with a mile out in the wrong direction and then back so that you’ve covered enough distance by the finish line. The initial mile out was more trail-like trail than the rest of the race would be. Instead of crushed gravel, it was grass with two muddy wheel ruts. It wasn’t terrible to run on, but a bit slippery and uneven. I know it can take GPS awhile to latch on so other than getting the notification that the live tracking was working, I didn’t look at my watch much. I might have seen 8:50 pace once, but I told myself not to worry about that. The first mile can be a throwaway mile and better too slow than too fast. Just before I got to the cheater mat at the turnaround, I started to see the faster people coming back. YES! A REAL RACE! So good! Then my watch beeped. 8:22. What? I was aiming for 8:30 and had assumed I would be quite a bit slower than that because of the surface.

Ok, I told myself, just slow down a bit. First mile doesn’t matter either way. It’s good that you’re kind of running on a mud track. It was a little reminiscent of the last two miles of the Hampton Court Half in London. I figured the surface would slow me down a bit and I wanted to just let that happen. I got back to the start and my watch beeped again: 8:22. Oops.

I saw my family with the banner Mervus had made several races ago. I waved and blew them a kiss as I ran by. I hoped so much they would have a good day. I know spectating is a hard and sometimes thankless job. It’s a ton of waiting around for a second or two of cheering, but WOW does that second or two matter to the runner. I wished my crew well and kept going, again telling myself to sloooow down. The next mile was partially through the town of White Haven, so I knew it might be quicker because we were on pavement. 8:23. Hmmm, consistent at least. Once on the trail, I told myself to settle in. It was pretty much going to be this for the next 23 miles with almost no variation. There’s an access point around mile 4 and I had hoped my family could get there, but I knew they might not make it. We cruised by the parking lot at mile 4 with only a few people, not my gang. That’s ok, I said. They’ll be at the next access point, mile 11.4. Cruise on through. Another mile down, 8:23. What else is new?

Early in the race. Hands are relaxed. Shorts still dry and smiling for the camera.

At that point, I pretty much said, fuck it. I’ve run four miles with a one second pace variation. I’ve been trying the entire time to slow down and my perception is that I am slowing down, but I am still in the low 8:20s. That was faster than I planned but I thought, maybe I am just having a day because I felt great. [Note: I am really too experienced to have fallen for this, but it is SO EASY to start too fast!] Mile 5 came in at 8:21. Some guys ran past me at that point, saying that with the humidity and the surface changes and the slight descent, they were having a hard time finding a groove. I didn’t say anything, but I just laughed inside. I didn’t seem to be having the same issue at all. I was locked into 8:22 pace.

Until, I wasn’t anymore. In a moment that seemed very sudden, those delicious icy pinpricks of mist vanished. I doubt the temperature went up 10 degrees, but it felt like it did. All at once running felt a lot harder. This time around my watch didn’t beep until I was a decent distance past the sign for mile 6. 8:37. At first I thought, yikes! That’s a *huge* slow down! What the hell? Then I realized how far past the mile marker I was. If the sign was in the right place, then that split was faster than 8:37. Was the mile marker wrong or was my watch wrong? The RUNegades, the group that puts on the race, had been so amazing about every detail. I don’t know how you figure out where to put mile markers on a trail that looks exactly the same for miles on end, but if anyone could do that, it was the RUNegades. I decided the signs were correct and my GPS was wrong. [This assumption turned out to be correct. The tall rocks along the trail mess up the GPS signal.] I was definitely slowing down, but I might not be at 8:37. The next mile marker came up a lot sooner than I expected so something was definitely off. I decided to start manually taking mile splits. GPS is not perfect. Trust the RUNegades to have the mile markers in the right places. Since there wasn’t any other variation in scenery for distraction, it was easy enough to take splits manually.

I don’t remember the miles from 7 to 11 very well. One of my main goals was to stay happy and run strong as long as possible. Marathons can take you to some pretty dark places. It’s not that I’m afraid of those places, but I don’t run my best there. This was likely to be a lonely race some of the time so I knew it might take some extra mental work and I wanted to manage that. In the book Inside A Marathon, Scott Fauble often tells himself while racing “That’s just thinking.” I did a fair bit of that. “Eight miles down, three until I get to my family” – that’s just thinking. “I might actually be bored, that barely ever happens to me while running” – that’s just thinking. “It’s getting hotter. This is not good” – that’s just thinking. All of that is just stuff that takes you out of your body and into your head. Instead, I tried to stay relaxed and just run. During my own meditation practice, I have often used the phrase “Make the space” and that came to me also. A reminder to relax and let things flow.

For fueling, I took a Maurten gel every 30 minutes, alternating between caffeinated and non-caffeinated. I drank water and dumped it on my shoulders at every water stop. The race provided water in small bottles and most of the aid stations were unmanned. There was also Gatorade at every other stop (more on that in a later post) and Gu and bananas at some – at long as no other forest dwellers had eaten them first.









Finally I got to the mile 11.4 access point. No family. Shoot. That’s ok – I can do this alone. I hope they are fine, but I bet they are. It’s no problem. Then – voila! – a second parking lot? That was NOT on the map. But this was a bigger lot with more people including MY PEOPLE! I was SO happy to see them. They had the banner and water and ICE. I chucked a bag of ice into my sports bra and carried a second in my hand. I had a big glug of water. I probably said something, but who knows what. Then I was off again.

I had thought that miles 12 to 18 would be “easier”. I called this part of the course “The Squiggles” because the course serpentines to follow the river so it bends back and forth every couple of miles. A marathon is too long to run all at once so you need to chunk it up. I expected that during the Squiggles, I could count down the miles in mini-sections because every couple of miles, we turned a corner. Except instead, during this portion of the race, I was very much alone. I wasn’t at all afraid – I didn’t know about the bears yet! – but it’s harder to stay focused and keep pace when you’re by yourself. It was also warmer and I could tell as the ice melted that I was starting to slow down.



I feel better about this phase of the race now that a little time has passed. It would have been easy to start walking, but I didn’t. Running, particularly racing, is one way I find I can be closer to God. I suddenly thought of the sermon from church the week before on Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. When they refused to worship an idol, King Nebuchadnezzar had them thrown into the furnace. But instead of them burning up, a fourth person appears in the flames and they emerge unscathed. If Jesus could rescue some dudes from a furnace, then he could certainly keep me company on this trail. I thought about God, tried to run my best, and kept going until the next bend in the Squiggles. Repeat for miles 12-18 with splits coming in at: 8:44, 8:34, 8:45, 8:30, 8:41, 8:40, 8:41. They are mostly not even close to 8:30. But I felt like I was moving so much more slowly that when each one appeared, I figured, hey, could be worse, stay on it.

Hands clenched here and shorts are drenched. Still smiling, but definitely feeling the strain of the race.

Rose and I had crafted the middle section of the playlist, chock-a-block full of upbeat inspiring pop songs, most notably “Up for Anything” and “Try Everything” – both songs she picked up from Curious George soundtracks. I can heartily recommend that curious monkey’s movies as a great source of running tunes! But for the end of the race, I had inserted a playlist that High Power Running Mentor #1 made for me, in January 2019. At the time, I was struggling with running and with life and the customized collection of music he put together for me has been in rotation ever since, whenever I needed a little extra reminder of my own abilities. God and the musical presence of my daughter and a good friend kept me going through The Squiggles, if no longer on race pace, then at least also not collapsing.

The Squiggles end near mile 18 and I had calculated that Aidan would probably appear on his bike around mile 20 or 21. I tried to remain open to the idea that he might or might not appear at any time, but of course I was scanning each cyclist I saw. Then, there he was, right around mile 21. Of course, there’s no doubt when you see your own son. Even from a distance, I recognized his way of riding, the tilt of his head, the little wave of his hand. I confess, I have no idea what he said to me. I know I barked out something like “Ice!! Ice!” and he quickly biked ahead and handed me a couple more bags for the sports bra.

Even before Aidan arrived, I had been trying to “go fishing,” as Chris McClung of Rogue Running calls it. To “go fishing” means to set your sights on a runner in front of you and try to reel them in. As soon as I was out of The Squiggles and I could see a couple of people ahead of me, I felt a near-desperate urge to re-connect to other runners. Before Aidan arrived, “going fishing” was a real struggle, but with him biking by my side, it was game on. I spent the last five miles of the race working to catch whoever was in front of me. I’m guessing I passed 5-7 people which, in a 149 person race, is a significant percentage of the field! In any case, chasing people down and passing them was certainly better than the loneliness of The Squiggles. Passing people at the end of a race is fun!

Aidan took this from his bike. One of my favorite race pictures ever! Serious fishing going on here.

Running the last five miles with Aidan by my side on his bike was a beautiful experience. I was trying to pass people, but I didn’t think about much. I was working really hard. My Aftershokz ran out of battery at some point so I was without music, but it didn’t matter. I thought about being with Aidan in the hospital in early August after his bike accident. I felt the intense pride of a mother whose son loves her enough to support her in what is possibly a completely insane endeavor. I learned later that at that 11.5 mile mark, Aidan had found a cool tunnel, but rather than opt for further exploration he told Mervus, “I think we should go – I want to get to mom. Minutes might count.” I don’t know if Aidan understands yet how the presence of someone you love by your side can completely transform an experience. Those five miles are worth everything to me, the long training runs, the craziness of travel during a pandemic, the early bedtimes and early morning training runs. My son rode next to me while I worked as hard as I possibly could to achieve the goal I am chasing. That is so much more than enough.

I had not been looking at my overall time, but even my fried brain knew by now that I had missed my big goal and was not even likely to PR. One of Rose’s favorite Star Trek quotes is from Data: “The Effort Is Its Own Reward.” I kept my mind on that idea. Just like I told Coach Mick last thing before the race started: My choice what happens today. I would have liked to run faster, but I chose to run strong through the end and I feel proud of that, regardless of the time on the clock. At the very end of the race, some people who had been running easily behind me picked it up. I followed, doing everything I could to stay with them! A big push at the end and a final time of 3:48:05. No PR, but my second fastest marathon ever.


I had imagined giving a huge WOOP! when I finished the race, but I am pretty sure that’s not what happened. Instead, I crossed the line, stopped and put my head down and my hands on my knees. So incredibly happy to be done. Then, the usual. Volunteers asking if I am ok. Getting some water. Getting my medal. Looking for Mervus and the kids. The EMT guys kindly created a seat for me on the side of their ambulance. After an effort like that, my body just wants to hold still and gather itself for several minutes so that’s what I did.

So happy to be done!

Mervus and the kids brought me some chips and Gatorade and eventually I was able to get up and walk about a bit. We found Team Sizzle and it was amazing to see them, though SO HARD not to hug them!! I also found the race directors and said thank you. The post-race festivities is the one place where I really blew it with masking. I had a mask with me and initially just forgot to put it on. We were outside, of course, but at the next race, I’ll be more cognizant of getting the mask on as soon as possible.

Team Sizzle at the finish!

The RUNegades put on an awesome race!

After the race, we scooted back to the hotel so I could get showered quickly and we could grab our stuff. The restaurant I had made reservations for turned out not to have outdoor seating. No worries. Aidan to the rescue again as he hopped on Google Maps and found a brunch place, just outside of town and away from the zoo of Jim Thorpe. We had a delicious brunch in a great tent. I was even able to get my traditional post-race mimosa! It was *hard* to say good-bye to Team Sizzle, but we hope very much to see them soon at another race. The drive back was easy peasy and recovery is going well.

Takeaways? I do wish I could have run faster, but I will probably say that after every race. It feels spectacularly audacious to get away with racing a marathon mid-pandemic. My family is my very best support crew and it was a weekend when I felt wrapped up in their love and support. The marathon remains glorious.

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Jim Thorpe Marathon 2020 Race Report – Part 1

Life has been crazy since March. Not just my life. Literally, everyone’s lives. My original plans to run the Wineglass Marathon in October were dashed when the race was cancelled in mid-June because of the Covid-19 pandemic. By that time, it wasn’t a surprise since most races had been cancelled. By that time, we’d already been dealing with the pandemic for a few months and I had figured out that I was just going to keep training. I didn’t adjust anything when the race cancelled. The discipline of running imparts meaning to my life and that’s something we all need right now. I definitely wanted to keep training. What would I do about a race? Unclear.

The day after Wineglass cancelled, the Badass Lady Gang sent me a link to the google spreadsheet they’d been compiling. The Badass Lady Gang is a group of women that found each other right as the pandemic started. We run together several times a week, grabbing coffee on Friday and brunch some Saturdays. They’d been collecting data on races that might take place, hence the spreadsheet. I registered for the Narragansett Marathon on October 25th and the Northern Ohio Marathon on November 1st.

Then I found the Facebook group “Finding Marathons and Other Races That Have Not Been Cancelled.” It turns out there was almost an underground world of very small races that were actually happening in person. Most of them were far away from New England, but the occurrence of races in other places gave me a lot of hope.

Ultimately it was a Sub-30 friend who tipped me off about the marathon at the Jim Thorpe Running Festival and I signed up for that as well. I ended up registering for three separate marathons in three different states over a five-week period, hedging my bets to find one that would actually happen and that quarantine rules would allow me to attend. Coach Mick and I took the advice of the Running Rogue podcast to heart and thought about training for a plateau rather than a peak.

Training went quite well with only a couple of hiccups. I reduced mileage a little bit for a trip to Michigan in late July to visit my family, but I got in some great runs while there. Then, less than 48 hours after we returned to Connecticut, Aidan had a bike accident and ended up in the hospital for four days. I never want to repeat that. Ever. Needless to say, training took a back seat. He’s fine now, thank God. In August I ran a hot 22 mile training run and it went fine. In September I ran 20 miles with the last 8 or so at marathon pace and it went really well. I ran over 70 miles a week, two weeks in a row – something I’ve never done before! In the 15 weeks preceding Jim Thorpe I ran about 100 miles more than the 15 weeks preceding Chicago. I certainly felt ready for a good race, but which race?

As the time approached to commit to a marathon, I was conflicted. Northern Ohio felt like too far of a drive and I wasn’t keen on being away from home for Halloween. Narragansett was close to home, but a more difficult course and the race directors didn’t have final approval for the race. The course at Jim Thorpe was better, but the earlier date meant a risk of warmer weather and the location, Jim Thorpe, PA, would require an overnight stay. Finally I realized that I was simply too nervous to head to Jim Thorpe alone, under the current circumstances. I felt like I should have been brave enough to do this, but I simply wasn’t. Instead, I asked the Incredible Mervus what he thought about the family coming along. Despite the Covid-craziness, he said yes, and that was a total game changer. With my crew by my side, I feel like I can do anything. Game on for Jim Thorpe!

We got into town shortly before 1pm on Saturday and went straight to the parking lot for the train station, which was to serve as the parking lot for the race also. It was a zoo! So many people there – it was hard to find a spot to park. The race is really small, so who were all these people? The trail that runs from Jim Thorpe to White Haven is billed as one of the most beautiful in Pennsylvania, maybe the entire Northeast. It runs between the Lehigh River and the train tracks and between cyclists, train passengers, and hikers, the place was jammed. Yikes.

Getting ready for the shake-out run was a moment of significant doubt. It was drizzling a little. My family wanted to stay in the car, whereas I had thought they might poke around. I couldn’t tell where the trail started. It was so packed with people, uncomfortably crowded. I remembered the race I did in London – it felt like that, like I was very far out on a limb. Am I really doing this? Is this too much to go through just for the chance to race? I felt like a complete idiot. But I got out my Next%’s and put them on. I knew the trail was crushed gravel and I wanted to see how the shoes felt on that surface. I walked back to the little hut where they collect parking money and discovered the trail was in the opposite direction, so I turned around and walked back. I was wearing tiny shorts, a singlet, and my fancy shoes. My traditional track outfit, chosen to make me feel fast and powerful. Instead, right at this moment, I feel a bit like a space alien, dropped into the midst of hordes of cyclists, hikers and train passengers, all dressed for the cool fall rain.

But when I got to the trail head, there were a couple of runnerly-looking people, and the woman was wearing a Boston 2019 jacket. I called out that I had a matching jacket in my car and were they here for the race? I had worn my Boston jacket to remind myself that I’m not an imposter because sometimes I still feel like one and this whole trip felt outlandish. She introduced herself and her husband, and yes, of course they were here for the race. I found their presence reassuring. It was nice to know I wasn’t the only crazy one. I warmed up and headed out on the trail. The surface was totally fine so that was good news. Running on the trail was a little muddy, but not terrible. Not at all bouncy, but forgiving and good to run on. As I was running north, I heard the train whistle and saw the train! I was delighted, taking that as a good sign!

After my shake-out run, we had planned to spend a couple of hours strolling around Jim Thorpe. The pictures I had seen online showed an adorable town with lots of cute stores and beautiful streets. This is perfect for my crew – Rose and I especially like walking about and doing a little shopping. The town was totally gorgeous and decked out for Halloween, but it was also really crowded and it was raining. We put up a brave front, but it was too chilly for ice cream. Too Covid-y for relaxed shopping. Too crowded and rainy for strolling. We finally threw in the towel to head back to the hotel. Before we did, we made one last stop. I had had the idea that Aidan could bike backwards on the course from the finish line to meet me. 26.2 miles is a long way to go alone and the way the trail is structured, there’s only a couple of access points. I also knew it might get warm and there weren’t going to be spectators or friends to pass out ice. Maybe some company and some ice would come in handy at the end. We rented a bike for Aidan for race morning.

After checking in and getting settled at the hotel, we turned around and headed to Macaluso’s for dinner. We were meeting Team Sizzle! An actual Sub-30 meet-up! I have long admired Team Sizzle for their huge spirits, generous hearts, and incredible endurance and I was super psyched when it turned out they were also planning on Jim Thorpe. The whole team ran the half on Saturday and the grown-up Sizzles were in for the 8 miler on Sunday as well. Dinner was great. The food was really good. Rose hit it off right away with Mr. Sizzle, as I had predicted. We shared tales of races past and plans for races future. We compared notes on Star Wars and Star Trek. We sat outside in a tent and if there was a little traffic at first, that’s a small price to pay for dinner with some fabulous friends. The kids didn’t have to work too hard to convince us to stay for dessert. Back at the hotel, it was time for last minute race prep and bed as soon as possible.



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Imaginary Running Friends

His laugh, so clear and sudden in my ears, I was sure he must be next to me!

Do you ever run with someone who isn’t there? Not a ghost, just a friend or maybe a running idol or your coach. Most runners find that having someone with you makes the effort easier. During the past months, many of us have run alone, but even during normal times, it can be hard to find someone who shares your schedule and pace. That’s when I resort to imaginary running friends.

It started with Snarky Girl on easy runs. It can be hard to find conversational pace if you have no one to converse with. Since she’s one of my best easy run buddies, I started talking to her even when she wasn’t there to be sure I didn’t go too fast. We’ve had some great talks this way, even if they do tend to be one-sided.

Most commonly, however, my imaginary running friends show up at the track, probably because that’s when I need them most. Coach Mick doesn’t say much. Occasionally he yells “Elbows! Elbows!” or sometimes “You’re a metronome today!” Mostly he runs quietly by my side or just ahead of me when things get tough. Unsurprisingly, High Power Running Mentor #1 talks a lot more when he shows up. He’s full of the advice he’s given me in person: “Eyes up!” “Steady! Hold that pace!” “Relax your shoulders!” and most often “Don’t be afraid of it!” I’ve had some local friends show up in my imagination too. Speedy Girl has given me form cues much more often in my head than in real life. During the last rep, I find myself racing Allegro Fuerte. Even when I might appear to be alone, I rarely lack for company.

Last week, I had a striking visit from Rose’s new friend, Jackson, age 8. Those two share a passion for playing make-belief with stuffed animals, making movies, and coming home with each other’s toys. She’s convinced him of the awesomeness of the TV show MASH and of the character Frank Burns in particular. Jackson visited me last week when I started to struggle during a set of 5 x 800m. The very best thing you can bring to the track is a positive attitude so I reminded myself to run with joy, no matter what. That’s when Jackson showed up. He’s is in third grade and about half my height, but there he was next to me, running, and laughing! Jackson laughs so much and so easily – he’s like a pure spark of elven joy. I finished the 800s with a smile on my face. I wish similar visits for you, dear reader.


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Just don’t quit

Just don’t quit. That’s all you have left, your own ability to not quit.

This workout is not going well. I’m trying to run 3 miles easy, 2 at 7:30, 1 easy, 1 at 7:30, 2 easy. The 7:30 is theoretically my tempo pace, but today I am not even breaking 8 minutes a mile. Yes, it’s hot, humid, and hilly but it’s been like that for weeks. I’m running alone, having failed to convince my friends and training partners to take on this nonsense with me today. I’m training for a race that may or may not happen and right now it feels very much like the pandemic is winning.

Just don’t quit. We’ll be back to normal by the summer, by the fall, by Christmas, by never. The finish line keeps moving. What kind of race is this? I want to escape, but that would mean leaving the planet and I don’t have that one figured out yet.

Control the controllables. Excellent advice for running and for life. I can control my effort, my attitude, my response to a world spun out of control. I can run hard, uphill, on a hot, humid morning and not stop trying. I am a lot slower than I would like to be, but I am still moving forward and that is something.

Later in the day, I am snippy with Rose as she melts down on the way to a much-anticipated concert. She is exhausted from a day at summer camp. I am exhausted from too many problems I can’t solve.

Thank goodness, I catch myself: All I can control is my own response. I do not want to ruin this evening. I stop talking and listen to music until my anger dissipates. We arrive at the venue with minutes to spare (minutes!) and we are treated to live music under the summer sky on a beautiful night. We spot some shooting stars and make our wishes. The pandemic has not won after all. Not today at least. Just. Don’t. Quit.

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Dispatch from Middletown May 31 2020

The world is literally burning this week. Sometimes it’s all I can think about and it’s so hard to know what to do. This morning I was getting ready to run when a friend texted me a congratulations note –  it’s my runiversary, the day I started running back in 2009. Apparently I’ve made enough of a fuss about it in the past 11 years that other people remember.

I’m grinning for the camera here at the start, but feeling like an idiot. I chastise myself as I start running. Will you grin for any camera, Sarah? Is that all it takes to bring a smile to your face? You’re a fool and a fake. Today is not a day to smile.

Then I run on the road near my home and see this sign. Has it always been there and I’ve never noticed? Did someone put it up over night? I’ve no idea. I have 8 miles to go and a lot to think about but my feet are a little lighter.

I decide to run past my church. There was a parade in my town last night to honor George Floyd and to protest structural racism. I should have gone, but I was tired and I was a little nervous and I hadn’t seen my family all day. Excuses, and not terribly good ones. Now I had to see the sign I had heard about. I needed to see it for myself. I can’t go in my church, but at least someone came and put up a sign. It’s a beautiful sunny day in this town I’ve come to love. I can run without worrying about anything except that I should have brought some water. I hope one day everyone can do that.

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Quaran-10K Time Trial Report 2020

I was supposed to run the Mystic 10K as my goal race of the spring season on May 17th. But of course all races are currently canceled. As we descended into quarantine, runners had to decide what to do. Many switched to primarily easy miles rather than structured training. Some lost motivation, while others began running more than ever. I didn’t really change much. I like the discipline of a training program and it turns out, I have no problem following one even without a race. After the success of my semi-spontaneous 10 mile time trial in early April (in place of the Middletown 10 Miler), I decided to run a time trial for the Mystic 10K as well, but to make some improvements based on what I had learned.

It was a LOT colder one week earlier!

Because so many runners are turning to time trials and virtual races, there are now many resources offering instructions on how to get the most out of this exercise. One thing I learned from my 10 mile time trial is that I very much liked running on a known, certified course. Rather than drive all the way to Mystic, I decided to run the Iron Horse 10K in Simsbury. I even went and scoped out the course ahead of time, just like I would have for an actual race.

The Middletown 10 Miler time trial also taught me that I wanted a bit more celebration to help simulate a real race and frankly, because I like celebration. During that time trial, I started fantasizing about Mondo’s pizza and Nora’s cupcakes, the traditional finish line offerings. We have done no take-out until a week ago, but I decided that after the Quaran-10K, we would get dinner from the Blackbird Tavern, my favorite post-race destination. I asked my family to make me a medal because I realized I really wanted one. I ordered a surprise “cheese flight” from Spread and stocked up on Haagen Dasz. I put a bottle of prosecco in the fridge to chill. I was absolutely creating a post-race celebration with the goal of pressuring myself to create something worth celebrating.

Certificate for the First And Hopefully Only Iron-Horse-Mystic-10K!

I also told more people what I was up to. Before the Middletown time trial, I only told Coach Mick, the Incredible Mervus, Speedy Girl (who paced me), and the Fabulous Femmes. For me, this is a tiny crowd! This time around, I told all of those folks, plus two additional online groups, the 45s, and Sub-30. The 45s are a small intimate group with an enormous cheering capacity. During the current weirdness, we have created a tradition of a Saturday afternoon Zoom meet-up and I knew I would see them after my run. Sub-30 is a huge group and I just tossed the time trial into the standard morning workouts post. Speedy Girl and the Retiree had both volunteered to pace me, so they knew as well, plus some of the girls in the Manchester Running Company. I was a lot more public this time around, again with the goal of creating more pressure on my performance.

The lead-up to the time trial brought with it the usual weather watching. I generally put Coach Mick in charge of this activity, but somehow I got a little fretful this time around, mostly because I theoretically had the option of changing days to get better weather. As Sunday started to have a better forecast, I wondered about postponing a day. But by then I had lined up pacers and celebrations and mentally, I was fixed on Saturday. Coach Mick reminded me that those things matter and anyway, in a real race, you don’t get the flexibility of picking your day. We decided to stick with Saturday.

Race day dawned clear and a bit warmer than it’s been with an expected temperature in the low 60s at start time. Breakfast was the classic oatmeal and coffee. Two caffeine pills about 45 minutes before start time. I didn’t have any good solution for water worked out beyond sticking my water bottle in my FlipBelt shorts so I did that. I didn’t end up drinking anything, which I would certainly have done in an actual race, especially given the temperature. But I can’t get that bottle in and out of the shorts quickly so I decided to just skip it. On a warmer day or for a longer distance, I would have taken some fluids for sure.

I did my standard warm up of a couple miles, a few minutes of goal pace running, strides and drills. This went much better than the previous time trial when I kind of blew off doing a proper warm up. If you’re going to try to run fast, do everything in your power to treat it like a real race. Control the controllables. A proper warm up is solidly in the realm of controllables.

With all that taken care of, I couldn’t procrastinate any more. It was time to start. It was strange that I was quite nervous, while my pacers were very relaxed. After all, for them, this was a pretty easy run with friends – something that has been off limits for many weeks.[1] Allegro Fuerte had suggested playing the national anthem on my phone before the start. I kind of wish we had done that as a sort of starting line ritual and if I do another time trial, I might. As it was, the Retiree simply said “Go!” and we started.

The Iron Horse course is a kind of double lollipop, where you run over a bridge, around the first loop, down a straightaway, around a second loop, back down the straightaway and over the bridge to the finish. With the Retiree’s help, we were able to locate the official start and finish markers, which are painted on the curb, so we knew we were running the regulation course. The course is pretty, but not particularly interesting. It’s rural Connecticut roads with some houses, some fields, and a couple of garden shops. To the best of my memory, we saw a few runners, a smattering of cyclists, and some cars, but not many. It’s really easy to social distance in rural Connecticut because there are just not many people there to begin with. The Retiree and Speedy Girl ran about ten to twenty feet in front of me and at least six feet apart from each other. We were kind of running in “Kipchoge formation” and I’ll confess that I sometimes imagined a laser line on the group between the two of them. They talked about craft beer for essentially the entire time trial. I am not even kidding. I said literally one word, which I’ll get to in a minute.

I had mentioned to Coach Mick the day before that I thought the time trial would be fun and he corrected me: “It won’t be fun. It’s going to suck pretty hard most of the time and you should be ready for that.” Of course, Mick is correct, as usual, and we were barely crossing the bridge before Howie showed up with his deal. It crossed my mind to tell the Retiree and Speedy Girl that I wasn’t feeling it today after all. Maybe we should just jog back to the cars and head home. I could try again a different day. Or also not, because maybe time trials weren’t for me after all. It took an enormous amount of willpower not to stop and we were only half a mile into the race.

I didn’t stop, thank God. I certainly didn’t need a repeat performance of the last time I ran a 10K with the Retiree. The first mile clicked off in 7:37, exactly as planned. I had hoped to start around 7:35/7:40 and work my way down to 7:30 by the end of the second mile. The second mile came in at 7:33 so we were exactly on target. The third mile of the course is a long straight segment with rolling hills and plenty of shade. It came in at 7:38 (a tiny bit slow, but not bad!). I stopped looking at splits after that. The Retiree checked in with me periodically, but I couldn’t really answer his question of “How are you doing?” How was I doing? I was working hard, a lot harder than I wanted to be this early in the race. Howie was fucking unrelenting with his damn deal. If I thought at all about how much further we had to go it was a totally daunting prospect.

Yet if I focused on how I was feeling, the situation was far less bad. Nothing hurt severely. I was running hard and breathing pretty hard, but not in an out-of-control sort of way. It was not at all comfortable to run that fast, not even a tiny bit, but at the same time, there was nothing really “wrong” so there was no reason to accept Howie’s suggestion to slow down a little. Instead I just kept running, which makes for a rather boring race report. I was fairly aware of turns on the course and street signs. I had got lost the week before and I didn’t want that to happen again, though I knew that the Retiree knew where we were. I still couldn’t help sometimes thinking things like “After this field, there’s a big rock and then we turn left” or “Don’t turn onto Ferry Lane now, but later you’ll come up that way.” A lot of the time though I just ran.

High Power Running Mentor #1 has accused me of thinking too much while running and that has surely been true. My position had been that my big overactive brain wasn’t going to shut up regardless, so I should at least figure out how to get it to work for me. I’ve had a lot of success with that approach, but this training cycle, I’m working to turn my brain off and be more “in-body.” I’ve tried a bunch of different things to accomplish this. Meditation is one great tool for learning to set the mind aside. Speedy Girl talked about a series of form cues that run through her head on a perpetual loop during a race and I suspect that’s similar. Coach Mick recommended a Stryd webinar with a mental training coach and one of his ideas was to focus on relaxing your mouth, especially the back of your throat.

These ideas came together for me in a realization that now seems obvious. This relaxed running “in-body” idea is, I think, not very different from what I do during an uncomfortable yoga pose. It’s the same relaxation technique I learned while taking voice lessons. It’s the approach that got me through two unmedicated childbirths and which I now use during dentist appointments. It’s the ability to move the body into a state of deep relaxation even in the face of potentially severe physical discomfort. It’s not easy to learn, but I have found it more straightforward to transfer from one area of life to another. That is, once I realized childbirth was going to involve the same technique I used in yoga and singing, I was much more confident I would be able to get through it. It simply hadn’t occurred to me prior to this training cycle to try using this technique while running. I was able to be “in-body” somewhat during my last 5K and again during the time trial.

I also thought about Scott Fauble’s mantras that he talks about in Inside A Marathon.[2] Whether he’s thinking that a race is going well or badly, Scott reminds himself “That’s just thinking.” And that’s right. Running fast is hard and Howie appears with his stupid deal, but all of that is just thinking and not terribly relevant. Scott’s other mantra, my favorite, is “Scared Money Can’t Win.” I’ve used that in *many* workouts since reading the book and it was on frequent repeat during the time trial. HPRM#1 and I have talked a lot about managing the fear of racing. Coach Mick reminds me before almost every race to #runfearless. “Scared Money Can’t Win” has been critical in helping me execute that idea.

Most of the race was a mix of me trying to be pretty deep within my body, not talking, sometimes reminding myself “It’s just thinking” or “Scared money can’t win” while occasionally checking street signs, all set to the background soundtrack of endless chatter about craft beer. Early in the fifth mile, I was struggling pretty hard. I blurted out my one word of the time trial: “Help!” The Retiree and Speedy Girl both cracked up! I couldn’t talk at all but I thought to myself, it’s a tiny bit mean that they are laughing, but on the other hand, it’s pretty freaking funny that I said that. I think I also said “Help” to HPRM#1 during the Chicago marathon and decided that it was much better than “I give up” which was certainly the alternative. I wonder if I had checked my split if I would have felt better? Mile 4 was 7:38 so I was still in the ballgame. Mile 5 slowed to 7:50, however. I’m glad I didn’t see that. Mile 5 was just a total and utter grind. I’ve no idea if we had a headwind at that point, but it sure felt like it. I remember effectively nothing from that mile except my deepest longing that it would end.

Right around the start of mile 6, the road splits at a Y-intersection and the course heads to the right. It’s mostly downhill from that point and you can see the bridge. By now I was totally done thinking. I was semi-incoherently counting. Some part of me was completely surprised to discover that I was going to finish this time trial after all, while another part of me was still considering quitting and walking it in. I hadn’t looked at my watch in so long that I had no idea at all how fast I was running or how much time had elapsed – I was just running as hard as I could, trying to hang on to the finish. I think Speedy Girl said something like “Don’t kick too soon” and I just thought, “Kick? What world are you living in, girlfriend? I am going to be damn lucky not to collapse before the finish line!”

Speaking of the finish, the course finishes with a very long (endless?) stretch down Iron Horse Boulevard. The Retiree had put a big stick across the finish line and he ran ahead to pick it up. I could now see the “finish line” but it was so incredibly far away. I ran like hell and FINALLY got there. Hit STOP on my watch and bent over a railing trying to breathe and not to puke. The watch said 47:39.9 – I’m calling it 47:40, a 20 second PR. I am SO damn happy. A PR during a time trial on a warmish day? That’s freaking awesome!

Of course post-time trial celebrations looked a little different. No hugs or high fives. Not even any sneaker taps. It was still amazing. Luckily I had an incredible celebration at home to look forward to. After grabbing take-out coffee at Starbucks, I picked up our cheese flight at Spread. The Incredible Mervus had made me a truly incredible medal and Rose crafted an adorable certificate. I followed up the cheese and crackers with a totwaffle and then Blackbird takeout later that night. I am aching to be back with friends, back in our restaurants, back on our race courses. But for now, a time trial, a new PR, a wonderful family celebration, these things are also splendid.

[1] Connecticut rules currently allow social gatherings of fewer than five people. We maintained social distancing throughout the time trial. But we haven’t been doing even much socially-distanced running so this was a treat.

[2] Everyone should go buy this book. It’s a little under the radar, but it’s marvelous! Each chapter is one week’s worth of training for the NYC marathon, followed by Coach Ben Rosario’s explanation of the purpose of the training, then Scott’s take on how it went. It is a seriously geeky book, but it’s fascinating and very funny because these guys are both smart and excellent writers.

Behold: The Totwaffle

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10 Miles with Friends plus Brunch

Quarantine is a bummer, friends. We are so, so lucky here in our big house with our big yard looking out at our pond. The grown-up Wiliartys have jobs that are pretty secure. The kid Wiliartys have online school that is not terrible. We have Zoom meet-ups with German groups and running groups. We have Zoom church and Facebook live concerts. I go to the grocery store about once a week. Even though I spend a million dollars every trip (who is eating all this food???), we are still ok financially. We are so blessed. And yet, quarantine is a bummer.

We miss our friends. Especially me, as I turn out to be the most social of the Wiliarty gang. We miss travel, again especially me, as the family member with the most Wanderlust. We miss being able to see grandparents in person, drinking coffee in cafes, hugging people we are not living with. I miss my students so very much. I even kind of miss driving around running errands.

I miss running with friends. Oh man, do I miss running with friends. Have I seen the occasional running buddy, able to run six feet away from them, unable to high five at the end? Maybe. Maybe not. I sure miss being able to say “Hey, I ran with so-and-so last week” without having to also say “Of course, we maintained social distance.”

But do you know what gives me hope? We are about to get some things back. We are not going to get back big city marathons any time soon. European travel is not really on the horizon. I don’t even know when I can go to Michigan to see my parents, something my heart yearns to do. But 10 miles with friends plus brunch? That is coming pretty soon. Yes, it is going to look different. There will probably be masks involved somewhere and maybe gloves and the sanitizing of credit cards and sitting outside (though I love that part). 10 miles with friends plus brunch means talking and laughing about whatever the hell we used to talk and laugh about before the current weirdness. It means looking at a menu (though maybe not touching one?) and deciding: Omelet? Oatmeal? Pancakes? It means yes-I-would-like-more-coffee-please over and over again.

Ten miles with friends plus brunch is one of the sweetest parts of running, indeed of life. It’s coming back pretty soon. When my heart is heavy and sad, that’s what I think about.

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