Sunday, October 19, 2014

the tenth finish

Four years ago, on a perfectly gorgeous if a bit too warm Sunday afternoon, without a single cloud in the sky, I ran 26.2 miles for the first time and crossed the finish line at the 2010 Chicago marathon.  At that moment my life changed forever and I immediately knew that I wanted to do it again.  As soon as possible. 

I couldn’t contain the overwhelming emotions in those subsequent few hours and was for the first time in years, if ever, incredibly proud of something that i’d accomplished.  I was officially a runner.  My legs felt like butcher knives had been shoved in them and my entire body was sore, but it was the best feeling in the world.  Fast forward to last weekend and I did it again, racking up my tenth marathon finish in strikingly identical fashion.  With my legs feeling much stronger and my shoulders arched high, i’m already thinking about my eleventh.  

I’ve learned so much about myself over the years and have had true moments of epiphany while running.  But i’ve also enjoyed as many instances of having a whole lot of simple fun and celebration of all things good and special.  The list goes on and on, but I want to share some of the quirkier ones in this space, so here goes:

Expos make me kinda nervous.  Big marathons have big expos where runners go to pick up their bibs and timing chips the day before the race.  Inevitably, there’s also tons of vendors there wanting to sell their wares.  Other races show up and try to get runners to make their’s the next big event.  The music is loud, there are typically tons of people, and the whole gig can be too much for me.  My good running friend Mrs. Murie loves them and demanded that I take a picture for her in Chicago.  I obliged.  

Staying downtown is always a good idea.  Destination races are my favorite, and the bigger the better.  Even though my times are slower than average, I want to be on the grand stage in the middle of the action and there’s no more enjoyable way to do that than a weekend trip to run a marathon.  Chicago never disappoints.  We stayed right on the course at the beginning of mile two with a view of State Street and the famed Chicago Theater outside of our hotel window, making it possible for Todd to watch the entire race from the 25th floor.  The city was alive with runners the entire weekend.  I was able to walk to the starting line just a few blocks away in Grant Park, flanked by the Magnificent Mile on one side and Lake Michigan on the other, making Chicago one of the coolest cities in the world.

Runners like to eat.  While in town we had great meals every night.  Friday dinner was with our friends Nancy and Michelle who live in Lincoln Park at an Italian place, Cocello.  Rich with mahogany and ambient lighting, it was the perfect mix of local flavor and decadent surroundings.  For pre-marathon dinner on Saturday night we went to a small plates restaurant in Boystown with a great menu of protein and carbs and copper mug cocktails.  The vibe was celebratory and the waitstaff was super friendly, even sending us home with desserts in mason jars.  Sunday night post-race we ate at a high-end steakhouse, Sepia, and were pampered with five courses.  I almost always have one glass of white wine the night before a race, but this year I couldn’t resist a moscow mule. 

Bibs make me cranky.  I’m always nervous the night before a marathon and trying to get the dang bib fastened to my shirt is the most difficult task I face.  I’m miserable at it.  I try and try and try and it never ends up square, there’s always one side slightly higher than the other.  Eventually I throw my hands in the air and give up.

Forty thousand runners become best friends really quick.  When I got down to the corrals I didn’t know a single soul, but instantly felt like I was amongst friends, as people were sharing stories and good luck wishes.  That vibe lasted through the entire race, including the estimated 1.4 million spectators along the route.  They held any number of encouraging and hilarious signs, most of which i’ve seen many times before, but my favorite from this year was “all toenails go to heaven.”  I’ve been lucky to never lose one, but I know plenty of runner who have.  The camaraderie amongst total strangers is a wonderful feeling.  It’s probably different in the front with the competitive people, but that’s not where I find myself, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Some tunes were made for runners.  I didn’t take an iPod on the streets of Chicago, but I almost always have headphones in my ears, listening to a carefully crafted playlist that changes frequently.  Recently i’ve really been picking up the pace when I hear “The Wind” by Zac Brown Band, “Happy” by Pharrell, and “Let’s Have A Kiki” by Scissor Sisters.

Every mile gets better, but I really like mile 18.  I don’t know why, but things really start cooking.  It’s fun to know that i’ve gone 18 miles and still have quite a bit more.  My legs don’t typically hurt yet, but I can start to feel the strain and know what’s coming.  There are huge crowds everywhere, but the folks at mile 18 are exceptionally supportive and fun.  I’ve never regretted a race, and once I make it that far I know I’m going to finish.  

Postrace hurts.  So.  Good.  There’s really no other way to explain it, but pain is a very real part of the overall experience.  So are medals.  And beer.  And nachos.  And more beer.  There’s a definite adrenaline surge that lasts well into the night, and once it wears off the pain hangs around for a little while longer.  I can’t explain how it feels, but it’s definitely physical and mental at the same time.

Finish times are just times.  That’s easy for the big, slow guy in the middle of the pack to say, but I’ve never been driven by fast times.  The run is too much fun to make it end sooner.  Every once in a while i’ll pick a rabbit not too far ahead and run them down, but usually I completely ignore pace and just run.  

Local races are great, too!  As much as I love running the big city weekend events, what I really love is simply lacing up and running anywhere that I can.  Northwest Arkansas has excellent events all year long, and I circled a new half marathon on the calendar as soon as I knew about it -- the Hero Half Marathon.  The fire department sponsored it as a fundraiser for a few charities and relied on the local running community to help them pull it off.  I knew it was going to be a great event by seeing so many awesome friends at the startling line -- Deanna Duplanti, Sarah Hood, Jeri and Darryl Hill, John Gheen, Katie Helms, Michele and Heather Diebold, Jerry Bailey, Michael Riha, Davey Bryan, and I was especially happy to see Beth Storey Bryan, who was running her first half marathon.

This event didn’t disappoint, with a course that highlighted the most beautiful portions of the local trail system and then ended with the most difficult and steep incline i’ve ever run in my entire life.  It was short and explosive and straight uphill for the last fifty yards, hurting like hell and making runners beg for mercy.  I can’t wait to run it again next year. 

There’s always another race.  With two months left in the year, I’ve got a few options for races before 2014 comes to a close.  They may happen, they may not, but I feel great for the most part and would love to add another race, regardless of the distance.  When I close my eyes at night in the quiet of my bedroom my thoughts vacillate between races past and races future, and I think I know why:  never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that running would be what made me whole, but that’s exactly what has happened.  For some bizarre reason running makes me feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, and the tenth finish was just as sweet as the first.


Sunday, October 5, 2014

goats and tacos

Sometimes the most random, innocuous, and completely unconnected avenues of life intersect.  From different corners of the hemisphere, they collide unexpectedly to form interesting and unique circumstances that can fade as soon as they appear or change life forever.  I never know when they’ll happen, but when they do it’s a beautifully familiar feeling, like putting on an old pair of jeans right out of the dryer, or the first bite of my mother’s mashed potatoes and gravy.  Regardless of the outcome, these moments in time are special and they almost always remind me why I’ve grown to love running so much.  This week I experienced one for the ages.

My classroom at Bentonville High School is colorful to say the least, with most of the wall space dedicated to different variations of psychology, icons of pop culture, exemplary student work, and a sizable collection of running accoutrement.  I try to strike the correct balance of making the environment an inviting place for students and not a shrine to what I love, but having no acknowledgement to running would feel sterile to me.  Hopefully I’m encouraging the students to give it a shot themselves, and some of them excitedly share their race and training stories with me.  I love it when they do.  I also really enjoy having track and field athletes as students, and always try to show up to their events so they know i’m proud of their efforts.  BHS has a wildly successful program, which makes it easy to root for them with each firing of the gun.  

I had very little interest in running the 26th annual Chile Pepper Cross Country festival this weekend, mainly due to a lack of sleep and energy, but one particular student continually asked if I would be there.  I tried to deflect with vague responses, but he wasn’t having it.  So with just a few days left before the race, when he asked for the third time, I finally committed with a half-hearted and unenthusiastic “of course i’ll be there.”  Sealing my fate, I sat down to eat lunch after a long morning of teaching personality theory, and knew within minutes that i’d made the right decision when I began to read the newspaper. 

Right there on the front page of the sports section was a feature length article about the BHS Cross Country team and their training leading up to the Chile Pepper.  For months, they’d been meeting after school on the outskirts of town to train on dirt roads that closely mimicked the terrain they’d see at the race.  They’d been diligently working hard for a few weeks when, without warning or any specific reason, they saw a goat standing on the side of the road ahead.  As they approached he intently watched them with awe and intrigue and a curious but friendly stare that only a goat in the middle of the country is capable of producing.  As they passed, that’s when it happened:  the goat started running.  

But the goat didn’t turn and run away back to goat land or wherever he lives.  He ran toward the team and began to pace with them stride for stride.  Bewildered and a bit confused, the team pushed forward under the assumption that the goat would follow them for a few seconds and peel off, but that didn’t happen.  As if he were a normal part of the team and doing exactly what he was supposed to, the goat pushed on with the guys, never losing pace, for at least another mile.

Over the weeks the goat continued to show up, running along with the team as they continued to train.  A few of the guys were even able to pet him a few times, but mostly they just ran.  The goat did his own thing and the team enjoyed the company.  Eventually a friendship developed and the guys pushed themselves to beat the goat.  Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t, and there’s even video footage to prove it.  

The hard work and inclusion of their hoofed friend must have paid off, because the Tigers had a great showing at the Chile Pepper and, oddly enough, so did I.  It could have been the perfectly cool temperatures or the fact that I saw my great friend Deanna in the starting corral, but for whatever reason I shaved about 6 minutes off the 10K times that i’ve been recording for the last two or three years.  In the final mile I felt like a champ, with just the right amount of energy in my legs and air in my lungs to pick up the pace and finish strong, which is exactly what I did.  

The Chile Pepper is a huge event every year, with open races as well as high school and collegiate competitions.  The latter regularly draws world class athletes from top schools across the nation, and the Arkansas Razorbacks are always in contention to win, and this year was no different as both the men’s and women’s teams finished first.  But possibly the most unique component of the Chile Pepper is the taco bar that’s available to all runners after their races.  Yep, tacos.  There’s the usual fare as well, bananas and gatorade, but I skip all that and head straight for the main event.  There’s no shame in my game.

The Chicago Marathon is exactly one week from today and I can’t wait to run my 10th marathon where I ran my first.  I’ve trained all summer and into the early fall, doing a fairly good job of staying on schedule with my nonexistent training plan, and my legs feel great.  I’m ready!  Regardless of how I do, I won’t have relied on long runs and carb loading, cross training and stretching, those aren’t the things that will get me across the finish lines.  It’s the goats and tacos of running that will push me through, because those random and innocuous stories of life are what make me smile and remind me to cherish ever mile.  It’s not the typical motivation and it doesn’t work for everybody, but it fits me just fine.  


Sunday, September 14, 2014

the other fifty hours

Man can not live by running alone, although don't think for a hot minute that I haven't thought about trying, so this afternoon I hit the trails for the inagural ride of the BHS Social Studies Department Chain Gang.  After one final email reminder and expectations to only have fun, a faithful group of some of my favorite colleagues headed out to spend the afternoon together, out of our teacher clothes and teacher persona, leaving the teacher lingo behind, just to ride bikes. I wasn't sure how my quads would hold up after a 22 mile training run yesterday, but the comraderie of the great people with which I work made it effortless.

I love teaching as much as I love running. I can remember being in high school and wanting to be a teacher when I grew up, but thinking that it was a career that wasn't available to me. Even after graduating from college, I still couldn't consider giving it a shot. It would take a few more years of self-awareness and the encouragement of a great mentor, Gina, for me to realize that a public school would be a good fit. Today I can't imagine myself not working in education.

One of the most passionate and dedicated educators I know has always said that a teacher needs three qualities to be outstanding: deep content knowledge, a grasp of pedagogy, and the ability to build relationships.  I couldn't agree more, but would add that the third is the most important of them.  I can't say that I have any of those in spades, but I hope that I do a pretty good job, because it's incredibly important to me. I've been on the outside more than once in my life, so hopefully I can remember to include everybody, particularly when it comes to the students in my room. I constantly remind myself that I have no idea what each of them goes home to when they leave my class. The 90 minutes they spend in AP Psychology might be the best part of their day, and maybe a smiling face or a kind word will be all it takes to turn something around. I don't always get it right, but I try my best.

Yesterday morning while having coffee and reading the paper at Starbucks before my long run, the crew of runners that goes out each morning at 5:30 came in when they were finished. They're a great group of people and we often talk about runs, life, the Razorbacks, and whatever else is going on. One of my favorites in that group, Amanda, asked me to write about my classroom, which at the time struck me as a really novel idea, but while I was running I realized that I spend about 50 hours each week in that very space. Wow. It also made me realize how awesome it would be to spend 50 hours running each week. So to that end, here goes nothing.

There are 3400+ students at BHS, making it the largest school in the state of Arkansas. It sounds incredibly unmanagaeble but we do really well at the game of education.  My room is on the third floor, and i'm up there with John, Lyndsey, Mike, Sarah, Fran, Ryan, Kim, Aaron, Lora, Zach, Matt, and Brittany.  They're my crew.  My desk stays organized at all times, that shouldn't be a surprise, and i'm surrounded by things I love. I keep cereal, milk, gatorade, and almonds in my fridge.  There are a mixture of academic and nonfiction books on my shelves, pictures of family and friends on the bulletin board, and pop culture icons on the walls. Of course there's references to running everywhere, most noticably a mylar blanket from the NYC Marathon, and pretty much all of the students know that i'm into distance running, but I don't think the majority of them understand the volume of mileage for each week. And that's okay, because the classroom isn't about me, but I do hope that maybe a few of them might be inspired to take up the sport.

But of all the things that make my room a special place, there's nothing that makes me prouder than the framed pictures of all the AP Psychology classes i've had over the years. I've taught U.S. History, Civics, and Economics at various times but AP Psychology has become my wheelhouse, having taught it exclusively since 2009. I've grown as much from my interactions with these students as they have from me, and I mean that wholeheartedly. I tell each new section at the beginning of the year that they, too, will hang on the wall and forever leave their mark not only on the course, but on me as well.  I know that it's not much, but it's special. 
 After slowing down a bit around mile 18 yesterday morning to avoid an energy bonk, I made my way through the final stretch thinking about The Chicago Marathon and hoping to have a crystal clear sky much like the one I was currently under.  With less than a mile to go, a biker whizzed past me only to brake hard and turn around abruptly with a hearty "Mr. Puckett!!" from the top of his lungs.  I was completely spent and only half-way engaged in what was happening, so it took me a few seconds to realize that it was a former student, Hayden, now a senior at the University and on schedule to finish with an undergrad in psychology and start medical school next fall. 
He told me he was doing neuroscience research with some professors in the department and would be presenting at a few conferences this year.  His beaming face spoke volumes, as he was eager to let me know that he'd continued to study psychology.  I won't pretend to take any level of credit for his successes, but I do hope that maybe his first inkling of excitement for the neuron might have happened in my class.  Maybe being in my room and the interactions he had sparked interest in neurotransmitters.  Maybe he still has the copy of his class picture that I gave to him and all of his classmates.  Maybe.  That was my thought that kept me going, as least, in the final mile yesterday morning.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

running (thinking) in circles

While the following words and thoughts are uniquely my own, as they always are, today’s writing has been inspired by a really kind, intelligent, and generally amazing person.  I asked if I could loosely build on his thoughts and he graciously obliged.  

Race courses and training routes come in all shapes and sizes, but basically fall into one of three categories:  out-and-backs, loops, and point-to-points.  They have similar characteristics:  inclines, declines, sharp turns, bridges, tunnels, bike traffic, sunlight, shade; but they differ in how they start and finish.  Allow me to explain.

An out-an-back course starts at a given point, travels a certain distance, then does a complete 180 degree turn and goes back the same route.  It’s like running from point A to B, then going back to point A.  Out-and-backs are good because they allow the runner to use water drops twice, they’re easily manipulatable if said runner wants to shorten or lengthen the overall distance, and because the turn-around serves as a half-way mark, which can be a much-needed confidence booster.  Detractors will say that out-and-backs increase the boredom factor of seeing the same terrain twice.

Loops are courses that start and end at the same point and roughly follow a circular route that doesn’t repeat itself.  They’re great for seeing new things through the entire run and are great for the runner that tends to bore easily.  They can sometimes be a challenge when trying to run long distances, because loops over five or six miles can be tough to find without a race director on hand to close down streets.  (Note to self:  hire a personal race director when Life Laced Up finally goes viral and I make millions.  Also buy my own Starbucks store.)

Point-to-points are probably the easiest course for a non-runner to understand.  They simply mean running from one point to another.  They’re also probably the rarest of routes available, because they usually require some mode of transportation back to the start.  

Of the nine marathons i’ve completed, eight of them have been loops, with only the New York City Marathon being a point-to-point course, starting on Staten Island and ending in Central Park.  Afterward, I shuffled about a mile on weary legs back to our hotel in Times Square.  My tenth, the 2014 Chicago Marathon, will be a loop as well.

When I have my druthers, I’m a out-and-back kind of guy.  Hands down.  I very much get a charge at the turn-around point, knowing that i’m half way done and looking forward to the burn in my legs that I know is coming.  Loops are okay every once in a while, but I can only do one lap.  Going the second or third time around makes me feel like i’m running in circles, and that’s never good.  Here’s why:

I have a tendency to over think the minutia of life and become fixated on things that shouldn’t matter, particularly when it comes to relationships with friends and gaining their approval.  I know that this character flaw is a hold over from my childhood, but nevertheless i’ve not been able to shake it.  My life journey has been millions of miles so far, most of it in running shoes, but i’m still vulnerable at my core.  Because of this, sometimes it just becomes easier for me to exist alone.  I think my friends know that I can be aloof, and I hope they understand that it’s not a dig on how I feel about them, but instead the exhaustion of my own thoughts.  

There were a few times this week that I fell prey to thinking in circles and fixating on a particular concern that I had blown out of proportion in my own mind, worrying that I wouldn’t be able to make friends happy.  In fact, I spent the better part of Thursday convinced that everything was going wrong and that it was my fault, to the point of distraction from work and not being able to live in the moment.  I’ve wasted countless hours and experiences over the years in this very exercise.  Looking back at it now, I can acknowledge that I was thinking irrationally and making assumptions that weren’t fair to me or anybody else.  When I think in circles I know i’m at my worst, but it’s sometimes hard for me to think in straight lines.  

Unless I put on running shoes.  Almost instantaneously, my cognition is redirected to a place of purpose and strength, to focus and peace, to patience and well-being.  I allow my legs to clear my mind, focusing instead on my heart rate and the lush surroundings of Northwest Arkansas.  I often turn my thoughts to the wonderful people in my life, showing thanks in my own way for the blessings i’ve accrued with each human interaction.  In that moment I stop thinking in circles, and the bright clarity of unconditional love for self and others fills my lungs to capacity and pulses through every cell of my being, radiating outward to all the world. Suddenly i’m at my best.



Sunday, August 10, 2014

the other side

This is the face of a happy, appreciative, content, proud guy.  It’s the face of a runner. 

Ignore the stubble, it’s nothing more than a byproduct of summer laziness and will come off tomorrow morning around 6:05 a.m.  Forget the fact that the picture is a selfie, as obnoxious as the trend may be, there was nobody around to take the picture for me.  Don’t get hung up on anything about the picture, just know that i’m happy, and let me explain why:

Some runs are short.  Because of time constraints, they’re a quick two miles down a trail, only to turn around and head back to the start.  They might even be shorter than that.  Some runs are long, with spurs off one trail that serves as a major corridor, ending hours later with mileage that’s measured with two numbers instead of one.

Some runs are difficult.  They turn into slogs of pain and irritation from hot weather, lack of sleep, no lack of embibing the night before, pouring rain, biting cold, or headwinds that refuse to let up.  Sometimes they’re really difficult because of poor hydration, particularly when it gets hot.  Gatorade is my friend and water is in my hand at all times.  Like really.

Some runs are for the hardware.  Medals make me happy.  If that’s your thing, might I suggest the Little Rock Marathon.  The 2013 medal was so dang big that we ate slices of pepperoni pizza off them on the way home.  Not kidding.

Some runs are for road trips with the best road tripper off all time, my good friend Jamie Huneycutt.

Some runs are for seeing new things.  Nothing excites me more than a new trail or running in a new city.  Just this afternoon I ran a new portion of trail around Lake Fayetteville that couldn’t have been more than a few tenths of a mile, but it made me happy nonetheless to test it out and pound the pavement.  And running on vacation in other cities?  It’s the best way to get off the beaten path.  Sign me up every single time.

Some runs are for seeing old things in new ways.  I can’t count the miles i’ve logged on the Skull Creek Trail right here in Fayetteville, but the terrain, the trees, the skies, the other runners, the experience, is constantly changing.  Look closely, be present, be amazed.

Some runs are for drinking beer and eating really good food.  Like french fries.

Some runs are thoughtful.  Frequently, my thoughts are on the people I love.  My sister, my parents, my students, my teaching colleagues, old friends,  Mrs. Pugh, Mrs. Murie, Todd, Big Gabe and Little Zach, Avery and Charles, the Episcopal Church.  On any given run they may be along with me in spirit, having no idea that I feel their presence with every footfall.  I do.  

Some runs are a chance to remember those that have gone before me.  Often I think of each of my grandparents:  GeGe and her loving embrace and sweet potatoes; Big Mama and her tiny body and ever-present can of Budweiser with salt on the rim; Dali and his homemade rolls; and my grandfather Sam, whom I never met, wishing I knew more about his tragic journey.  I think of an old high school friend, Bart, who left way too early.  I think of Sarah Lee and her tie-dyed tee shirts.  I think of a great educator, Kathy.  I think of Abe Lincoln, the best dog I could have ever asked for.  I suspect this is true for many runners out there, that we all think of the people who have gone before us.  It’s a beautiful way to remember. 

Some runs are for going really, really fast.  As fast as possible.  So fast that it hurts. 

Some runs are fun, particularly races.  Being surrounded by hundreds, or thousands, of friends that i’ve never met but are friends nonetheless is my understanding of a party.  There are smiles, cheers, music, costumes, laughs, and even a little debauchery every now and then.  And runs are even more fun when Deanna Duplanti is in the mix.  We’re both usually bringing up the rear, without a care in the world.  She’s one of the happiest people I know and one of my longest running friends.  I love her energy.  Katie Helms comes to mind, too, when runs are fun.  

Some runs aren’t even runs at all.  Sometimes a planned run is sidelined to spend time with somebody who needs to talk, or to help out a friend, or to get some last minute work done, or to simply be lazy and watch a movie.  The running shoes sit quietly, knowing there’ll be another time, another trail, another race, because there always is.

Some runs are a random mix of all the other runs.  Those are the best.

Regardless of the type of run, and please know that i’ve experienced them all in spades, they share a common bond:  the other side.  There’s never been a run where I didn’t feel better than when I started.  On the other side of the run, my legs are strong, my mind is clear, my focus is sharp, my head is held high, and I’m a better man.  Perhaps those are the reasons that i’ve fallen in love with running, perhaps that’s why I know that it’s changed my life for the better.  Maybe that’s why the guy above is happy, content, appreciative, and proud.


Sunday, July 27, 2014

borrowed time

Summer training for the 2014 Chicago Marathon marches forward with distances getting longer, cross training being tougher, and sleep feeling better than ever.  My appetite has markedly increased as well, but some things never change.  I’m an eater, y’all, and don’t make any bones about it.  With hydration in mind, i’ve kept bottled water and gatorade well-stocked and as cold as possible, too. Cleaning out my fridge a few days ago for kicks and grins, I realized I keep more beverages than any other category of consumables by far.  The second most abundant is condiments.  

So far i’m really pleased with where I am.  Two full months into training and I feel great, continually thinking about the next long run, and even excited about the midweek five and six milers.  Part of the success thus far is due to the unseasonably cool temperatures we’ve had in Northwest Arkansas virtually all summer long.  I can’t count the number of overcast mornings that have topped out in the mid 60’s, which is dang near unheard of for summer marathon training.  I’ve taken advantage of the windfall, pushing hard and knowing that we’ve all been running on borrowed time.  And sure enough, it all came to an end this weekend, when summer stood up and slapped me across the face with a great big “HEY THERE!”

Luckily I knew it was coming, having watched my favorite local weather anchor Gina De Vecchio alert all of NWA to the pending heatwave.  Trying to think ahead, I met Don and Cynthia at the Venesian Inn for dinner on Friday night to carb load on pasta.  No meal is complete at the VI, however, without fried chicken, which is rarely paired with spaghetti, but somehow always seems to work better than expected at this family-owned landmark in Tontitown, Arkansas.  As usual, my meal was on point.

So I might have overdid it just a bit with three pieces of fried chicken, because I was a bit sluggish for the first few miles on my 16 miler Saturday morning, but i’m deciding to blame it on the heat and humidity instead of the groceries.  As stated earlier, this was the first long run of the entire summer in which I felt challenged in terms of the weather.  Summer running can be really difficult when the mercury rises to the 80’s and beyond, but it’s still do-able.  Here’s how to make it work:

  • Start as early as possible.  This means setting an alarm on a Saturday morning and getting up before the sun does.  It might be tough, but it’ll make a nap later on feel excellent.  So do it.
  • Hydrate with water and Gatorade.  Drinking fluids all day, every day is critical.  The only downside are the added trips to the bathroom.  I’m constantly going.  Always remember to wash your hands.
  • Slow down.  Dropping the pace a full minute per mile isn’t the end of the world and will make summer running more enjoyable.  We’re all Kenyans on the inside, but nobody needs to run fast during the summer. 
  • Pick trails in the shade.  This one might be tough, but it’s easier to find trails in the shade than it is roads in the shade, thus another reason to support local trail systems and leave the roads for idiots in SUV’s yapping on cell phones.
  • Take walk breaks.  I do it all the time.  There’s no shame in my ballgame.
I finished up with the temperature marking 86 degrees at 9:30 in the morning.  That’s hot for running, y’all.  Too hot.  But such is training for a fall marathon, and hopefully these blistering long runs will pay dividends when I cross the finish line on the shores of Lake Michigan.  I’ve got multiple 18’ers ahead of me, and probably need to do a 20 miler at some point, and despite knowing that it’ll most likely be hotter than hell from here on out, it still makes me excited to think about those long runs.  I’d rather be running than doing anything else, because regardless of the weather, hot or cold, rain or shine, we’re all on borrowed time, aren’t we?  

I want to make the most of my days while I’m here to enjoy them, and somehow that has grown to mean lacing up and heading out to find sunshine on my face and the wind at my back.  In those moments, when my legs feel like powerful oak trees and my heart rate is pounding, when I am acutely aware of each foot fall pushing off the pavement to propel me forward, when a steep hill is dead ahead and I have no choice but to conquer it, that’s when i’m reminded of how beautiful life can be.  When i’m in the that place, it doesn’t matter how hot it is outside, because nothing seems to matter at all.


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

holy candy

Marathons are available somewhere in the country pretty much every weekend of the year, but there are certainly more held in the spring and fall than any other time, due to the likelihood of getting favorable temps on race morning.  Ideally, a forecast will call for low to mid 50’s with partly cloudy skies.  Of course that doesn’t always work out, and most runners are going to lace up no matter what.  I fall into that category without fail, but definitely love summer running more than most people.  

But runners need to also take into consideration what weather conditions will be like during training, as opposed to only thinking about race morning.  My good friend Sarah Hood eschews fall marathons because she doesn’t want to train in the heat of July and August.  I’ve tried everything (encouragement, bribes, verbal shame, cheap beer, interpretive dance, tourism pamphlets, fibs) to get her to register for the Chicago Marathon over the years, but she’s not a fan of summer training.  And though it pains me to admit it, she’s got a point.  Summer running is a whole different animal that requires specific considerations to be successful.  This means getting up really early for long runs, braving extreme humidity, hydrating to the Nth degree, and collapsing on the couch for the rest of the weekend after anything over 17 miles.  Nonetheless, I’m drawn to the summer months and tend to amp up my mileage in direct correlation to the rise in mercury.

Every once in a while, the running gods smile down on Northwest Arkansas and bless the region with unseasonably cool temps, prompting the locals to experience an exodus from the air conditioned confines of their living rooms for an afternoon in the sun.  For me, it means a chance to run even more, even further, and at a faster pace.  And that’s exactly what I did this morning.  I knew that this week was going to be a break from the stifling heat and humidity, but I didn’t know exactly how refreshing it would be until I got to the Mud Creek trail.  The plan was to head north on the new portion that goes to Lake Fayetteville, which would have been six miles round trip, but somehow I found myself running south instead with no real goal in mind, but already thinking about the Farmer’s Market.  The only consideration was a lack of fuel, a rookie mistake to which I’ll sheepishly admit, because I hadn’t grabbed enough Gu on my way out the door.  Oops.

The weather was simply too nice, however, and I quickly ignored the potential issue, actually picking up the pace and deciding i’d figure it out later.  The Farmers Market couldn’t have been more picturesque when I got there, with vendors showcasing every fresh vegetable imaginable, including one of my favorites that isn’t available all summer: okra.  If I wouldn’t have had a seven mile trek back, I could have easily stayed, watching the morning unfold in the beautiful Ozark mountain town of Fayetteville.  Leaving the square, I ran by St. Paul’s to stop in and quickly enjoy a moment of tranquility and quiet in the open sanctuary.  While sitting in the empty nave, I remembered that the main office, particularly Mary Miller, keeps a jar of M+M’s on her desk.  I’ll be honest and admit that I’ve eaten more than one handful over the years.  But on this fine morning it would be the perfect amount of sugar to get me back.  

Lo and behold, Mary and Laura Wilkins were there and the holy candy jar was full.  Okay, i’m not exactly for sure if Father Lowell actually blesses the candy jar, but those were the best M+M’s i’ve ever eaten, and they were the perfect fuel to get me home.  The final miles were absolutely pristine, with crystal clear skies and a cool breeze blowing at my back.  Summer running continues to be my wheelhouse, and even though mornings like these are rare in July, i’ll make the most of them every single time.  


Sunday, July 6, 2014

an invitation to the party

There’s no denying that distance running is in the middle of a resurgence in popular American culture, and I feel like I've arrived at the party just when the band is warming up their amps and the kegs are being tapped.  These days are a sort of renaissance for big races as marathons are literally popping up in all 50 states, becoming available somewhere every single weekend of the year.  Just like a good party, people find their way to running for various and sundry reasons: wanting to lose 20 pounds,  needing to satisfy a Type-A competitive drive,  thinking it would be fun to get covered in powder or crawl through mud, feeling compelled to raise money for a charity.  

For me?  I sort of fell into running through a wonderful colleague in education who I didn’t know all that well but admired greatly.  All it took was a quick “hey, do you want to train for a half marathon with me?” from her and the rest is history.  There were definitely some bumps in the road during those early runs and more than a few times that I doubted my abilities, but today I can’t imagine my life without running and i’m so thankful to her for that initial invitation.

These blog posts, some 100+ now, were borne out of accountability in training for my first marathon back in the fall of 2010.  That’s what I told myself, anyway, but I knew early on that they were more than a weekly check-in that helped make sure I crossed the finish line.  Rather, they were a way for me understand self, to make sense of my own nature, and to find my place in the world.  But none of these would have happened had I not completely fallen in love with running.  I have been “one and done” with running, and writing as well.  Today, there’s not a better part of each week than my Saturday morning long run, followed only by spending Sunday afternoon writing my thoughts and publishing them for anyone to read, affording me the perfect mix of anonymous and vulnerable exposure.  At first, I think Cynthia Puckett was my only audience, and some weeks she probably still is, but with time people have slowly found my words.  Sometimes a friend or acquaintance will graciously mention that they look forward to reading my posts each week, which leaves me dumbfounded and flattered at the same time.  But the greatest conversations are when people mention that they have subsequently taken up running, albeit it slowly, having never considered it before.  It’s like they got an invitation to that same party I did four years ago.

Three of these very conversations with different people happened this past week.  One of them played out over Twitter, then a series of text messages, in about a 10 hour span.  It went something like this:

Friend That’s New To Running:  I read your blog and it makes me want to run a marathon. 
Me:  You should.  Everyone should! 
FTNTR:  I ran six miles today but I need to go faster.  How do I go faster?
Me:  It will happen naturally, but you can do mid-week tempo runs to help.  My advice would be to not worry about it. 
FTNTR:  I have like one thousand questions about running.
Me:  Hopefully I have like one thousand answers.

.... a few boring technical exchanges, then the convo turns to food, which makes me happy...    

FTNTR:  So what’s good to eat after a long run?
Me:  Chocolate milk. It’s the perfect mix of carbs and protein.  At big races, they have those little cartons like we got when we were kids.  I usually drink two like a hog.
FTNTR:  I don’t really like chocolate milk.  
Me:  What the heck??  Okay, here are your options.  Peanut butter, bagels, chicken, lean steak, cereal, PB+J, pasta, eggs, or basically whatever you like to eat.
FTNTR:  I like the “whatever you like to eat option...”  

This conversation made me smile, because I love that the people I know and care about dearly find running.  I love to hear the progress they make, celebrating their accomplishments on social media outlets, and seeing them out logging miles for the joy of the sport.  But it’s not a one-way street, as the gracious and kind words that my friends have for me serve as motivation to lace up one more time and get lost in a weekend 15 miler, or spend a late afternoon on a quiet trail, or cross the finish line in a mega marathon. 

So thank you.  Thanks to anyone who makes time in their day to read what I write, who reaches out with a great story or gentle word, says hi on the trails, or takes a picture at a race.  Know that my sentiments match your’s and that i’m equally grateful.  Welcome to the party.


Monday, June 30, 2014

day one

When I was a kid, I seem to remember summer starting well before Memorial Day weekend and not going back to school until a week or two after Labor Day.  Summers were long enough to become boring under the sweltering sun of Southeast Arkansas, with it’s mosquitos and humidity.  We loved it nonetheless, spending our days harassing babysitters and lifeguards, eating junk food and watching movies.  

Being a public school teacher, I still have summers off, but they’re nothing like the dog days of my childhood, and they never really get going until mid-June because of snow days (13 this year!), professional development, meetings, conferences, and teacher stuff.  Add to that teaching a section of summer school for two weeks this year and my break didn’t actually start until today.  For the record, that’s one day in June that i’ve been away from the halls of BHS.

There’ll be no complaining, though, as June has been a great mix of teaching, running, time on Beaver Lake, and parties with great friends.  One of my favorite events every year, the Cancer Challenge 10K, was last weekend and true to form, it delivered hills and heat like no other.  This weekend-long event of golf, tennis, and running is first class from start to finish and offers up one of the best swag bags on the racing calendar.  There’s also a great party the night before, with proceeds staying local to fund cancer research and support.  A big group of us went to the party on Friday night and then were up bright and early to run the 10K at 7:30.

The first day of summer is always a tricky one for me, because I struggle with the idea of slowing down and not going to work.  For a lot of my colleagues, summer is the reward for a hard year in the classroom doing what teachers do: creating lesson plans, assessing learning, tutoring stragglers, prepping for standardized test, and dealing with the bane of a teacher’s existence:  make-up work.  In the middle of all that we try to build relationships and show unconditional love to every single student.  All professions work hard, there’s no doubt about it, but please understand that teachers are completely and totally worn out in May and ready for the break.  They deserve a few months of sleeping in, not always showering, and general loafing.  

But I can’t do it.

I’ve got to get up and read the paper over a cup of coffee.  I feel the need to run errands.  There’s always yardwork and laundry.  Sitting on the couch and doing nothing, even for 30 minutes, gives me anxiety of being lazy.  For example:  this morning I tried to watch talk-show television after mowing the yard and it was a disaster.  It was the show with Whoopi Goldberg and Jenny McCarthy, both of whom are really cool, and they were talking to a guest doctor who was revealing America’s favorite foods.  In the three minutes before I couldn’t watch anymore and had to turn it off, this is what I learned:  American’s favorite overall food to eat at home is pizza, followed by tacos.  Additionally, the favorite happy hour drink is a margarita.  The favorite comfort food?  Mashed potatoes.  (Nobody makes them better than Cynthia Puckett.) The most frequently purchased health food is avocados, which is a type of berry.  Who knew??

Despite the ninety degree heat, I had to do something to keep myself busy, so I went for a run.  A six miler to be exact, on the Skull Creek and Frisco Trail.  Because it was hotter than hell and the sun was directly overhead, there wasn’t a single soul out there with me, but there was nothing I would have rather been doing on the first day of summer.  Of course, the second day of summer starts really soon and i’m already thinking about what I’ll be doing that doesn’t include sitting on the couch.  There’s only so many times I can make an errands list, mow the yard, clean baseboards, and read the paper, so i’ll suppose that it’s a good thing I have a new pair of Asics that need some mileage on them sooner than later.  Heat or no heat, i’ll probably be out there again tomorrow.


Sunday, June 15, 2014

the rules

With brand new shoes on my feet and new socks as well, favorable temps for June, a good night’s sleep, and a general sense of wellbeing, Week Two of training for the Chicago Marathon was an exercise in patience and restraint.  Continuing to come off of mild injury from overuse, I planned to go out for a 10 miler for the second weekend in a row, knowing that I had four months of running ahead of me and needing to stay healthy.  The mantra has been that the 18 milers I love so much will roll around in due time, but dangit if I wasn’t feeling absolutely amazing yesterday morning and wanting to go further than planned.  I could tell almost immediately that this run was going to be right smack in the middle of my wheelhouse.  And it was.

I could have added an additional four miles by continuing to the Fayetteville Square where the Farmer’s Market would have been in full swing, making for a great turn-around point and time to visit with the locals, and I thought about doing so for more than a few paces, but ultimately stuck to the plan for two reasons:  number one being that I didn’t have enough Gu to do it without running out of energy, and number two being I don’t want to get injured early in training for my 10th marathon.  And as much as I would have loved to extend my run, ultimately I was proud of myself for following the rules of distance running, which is something I rarely do.  It’s not so much that I deliberately break them, but more like the fact that I don’t pay attention to them in the first place.  I just run.

There are plenty of rules.  Oldheads share them with newbies, magazines rehash them, gurus write books about them, and websites build entire pages around them.  They’re everywhere, and most of them are really good.  For instance:  

Rule Number One:  Find a Training Plan and Stick To It.  If I had a nickel for every time i’ve read that exact phrase, I could pay someone to run a marathon for me.  Training plans look like giant grids of numbers showing precisely how many miles to run four days a week, at what pace to run said miles, and which days to do it.  They’re like data on overload, with 120 days mapped out for guaranteed success.  I vaguely remember finding one online and printing it for my first few marathons, but I never paid any attention to them whatsoever. 

Rule Number Two:  Run Intervals To Increase Speed.   This is a fancy way of saying choose short distances and run faster than normal, then slow down for a short distance, then repeat.  Over and over again.  Okay, yeah, everybody agrees that running intervals typically increases overall speed, but everybody also agrees that they’re best done on a track.  Frankly, I’d rather rub broken glass in between my toes than run laps on a mindless, shadeless, circle of misery adorned with lap lanes.

Rule Number Three:  Run Negative Splits To PR.  Industry-specific jargon is worse than running out of ketchup with a plate full of french fries, and this rule is dripping jargon.  Here’s what it means: the best way to run faster than the last time, or have a personal record, is to start slow and finish faster.  Of course that means the runner must meticulously pay attention to pace, or even worse, succumb to those awful Garmin devices that track every single statistic imaginable and instantly load it to social media platforms.  Don’t we worry and pine over enough data at work?  Stop the insanity.  

Rule Number Four:  Get Good Shoes.  Here’s a rule that will pay dividends in spades and gets me excited because I like getting new shoes, but some of the additional suggestions around shoes are a bit of a stretch.  Always wear the same brand and never deviate?  Hmmm.  Never buy new shoes within a month of a big race.  Meh.  Alternate two pair of the same shoes each week while training.  Who can afford that?  Buy orthotics immediately or suffer imminent doom.  Sounds like a marketing ploy to me.  Here’s the deal on shoes:  having a good, quality running shoe is essential, so find one that works.  For me, it’s currently a pair of Asics that double as a carrying case for other running related accoutrement.  See below.  Yes, that’s a bottle of Gatorade shoved down in my left shoe.  Judge me if you must.

Rule Number Five:  Eat a High-Protein, Low-Fat Diet.  Ummmm yeah, about that.  I’m an eater.  I like to eat.  A lot.  Of everything.  On more than one occasion i’ve been called out for constantly snacking.  The leather recliner I bought a few months ago, and have subsequently spent a ridiculous amount of time using, has been affectionately dubbed the Snack Throne.  I like burgers, steak fajitas, tacos, cheese dip, peanuts, cereal, cookies, brownies, ice cream, birthday cake, nachos, buffalo wings, turkey sandwiches, and french fries.  I don’t make any excuses about it, I like to eat.  One of my favorite weekly feeds is the breakfast buffet at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.  It’s the best $7.00 I spend each week.  Note below:  eggs, bacon, sausage, two biscuits, a donut, jelly, gravy, orange juice, and milk.  Because marathoners Bruce Wilkins and Carole Swope both go to church at St. Paul’s but don’t eat the breakfast, i’m forced to eat for three. 


Rule Number Six:  Carb Load the Night Before A Race.  Most people think this means go to an Italian restaurant and scarf down a massive plate of spaghetti and meatballs, then go home and go to bed.  Bad idea.  The best strategy is to eat a variety of carbs all week leading up to a race.  My go-to meal the night before a marathon is pasta and chicken in an olive-oil based sauce and a glass (or two) of white wine.

Rule Number Seven:  Warm Up Before, Stretch After.  This is a great rule, but I don’t ever do it because I just want to run.  Ain’t nobody got time to stretch.  I’m better about doing the warm-up part, but I rarely stretch.  I know, that’s bad.

Rule Number Eight:  Above All Else, Hydrate.  Of all the rules, this one, along with shoes, I tend to get right.  Drinking water daily is essential for runners (and for everybody!), and adding Gatorade before, during, and after a big race will keep a runner heading toward the finish line and away from the medical tent.  Dehydration isn’t pretty, y’all, and we all want to feel pretty.  So grab a bottle of Gatorade.  Now.  

Yes, these rules of running are golden, but where the rules and I get sideways is that unmistakeable place inside me that makes me run in the first place.  It’s that little kid telling me i’m stupid and not good, that I should go away from my friends and family and live somewhere else.  It’s that part of me that wants to turn around and blend in and ignore the difficult parts of life.  It’s a quiet war in my thoughts that is silenced when I lace up and run simply for the love of running.  If I always followed the rules, I’d somehow mess up the training plan, I wouldn’t PR, and that’s not what I want.  The rules would get in the way of my understanding of running, and I they would make me feel stifled.  I just want to run.  

So that’s what I do.  I run without an official training plan, I don’t pay attention to pace, I eat chips when I want them, I always remember to hydrate, and I avoid those afwul tracks at all costs.  It’s the trail system for me, thank you.  I guess in some ways i’ve written my own rules and they’ve worked pretty well so far, because I keep doing what I love to do.  And that little kid who said i’m not good?  He’s a faded memory with every mile and every finish line.