Company I Keep

When I tell people that I run marathons or ultra-marathons the first thing many of them ask (after they say “I don’t like to drive that far!” or “Do you take naps during that?” or “Aren’t your knees sore?” etc) “Don’t you get bored?” I used to shake my head and internally roll my eyes. In NJ I always had a network of people and the best running club on earth to run with. Running for hours at a time was simply fun. We’d chat, sing songs, share stories, you’d be surprised how close you get with running friends. Unfortunately now the answer to that question is “Yes! So bored!” I moved to Maryland a year ago. As of this weekend it’s been a year. I have run with several running clubs since I’ve arrived and met some wonderful people. The only trouble is  that I typically run 15-20 miles on the weekend every weekend. It’s not a “when I’m training for something” kind of thing, which means I could drive 30 minutes to meet people that are only running 6-8 miles and I’m stuck doing the other 14 on my own. So I got lazy and stopped making the trip. As spring marathon training is starting to pick up, I will have more people to run with, but for these past few months I’ve been staying local and I’m stuck running alone. Without company it is in fact incredibly boring. Someone suggested podcasts because I’m not crazy about running with music unless I’m on the dreadmill. I complain that what I really need is conversation. The podcasts have been incredibly entertaining! The majority of the podcasts that I listen to are running related – Ultra Runner Podcasts (http://ultrarunnerpodcast.com/) has great ones! They interview all kinds of ultra runners and it passes the time so quickly! I also download from Stuff You Should Know (http://www.stuffyoushouldknow.com/podcasts/) and How Stuff Works (http://shows.howstuffworks.com/hsw-podcast.htm). They have some entertaining topics and I now know a lot of useless facts about coffee, fair trade, anxiety, farting (yup, you read that correctly!), etc. Regardless of the topic it provides a way for me to get lost in the conversation and not focus on how many more miles I have to run. A few times I’ve even caught myself speaking out loud to the podcasts, and most definitely laughing out loud. I’m sure cars driving by wonder why I’m smiling and laughing, but it’s been such a godsend. If you have favourite podcasts, please share! I’m always looking for more!

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LSD…It’s Not What You Think

When it comes to running, different things work for different people. If you google marathon training you’ll find several different methods. Some will suggest high mileage with a few workouts sprinkled in. Some suggest low mileage with a lot of faster running. Both approaches will work, but not for everyone. I’ve been running for quite a while now and I do believe I have a pretty good idea of what works for me. I’m lazy when it comes to workouts so racing is often the best way for me to get into shape.  The long run, on the other hand, is my bread and butter. A perfect Saturday for me is an early 3 hour run, breakfast, a massage, and a nap…all before 1 or 2 o’clock in the afternoon. An 8 hour day on trails with close friends is even better!

My long runs are known to be Long Slow Distance (LSD), and I strongly believe that this approach has kept me injury free. I don’t go out and race every single day. In fact most of my regular runs are done much, much slower than any of my race paces. Tempo runs, track workouts, and races are the days that I push the pace, otherwise it’s nice and easy. I am more than willing to slow it way down if it means that I’ll have someone to run with. Running company is the best kind of company!

Unfortunately I think I a lot of people run too fast too often and end up with shin splints, stress fractures, tendinitis, the list goes on. I also can’t imagine that running would be very much fun if you’re always going out to run hard. I look forward to my easy days, and use easy recovery running as motivation to get in the hard days.

According to the LSD article on Wikipedia, it may not have the same psychological effects as the drug LSD, but the physical (“increased appetite, and wakefulness”) and sensory (“altered sensory experience of senses, emotions, memories, time, and awareness”) effects are pretty similar! And the potential uses – therapeutic value and spiritual purposes are dead on!!

Running the Numbers

Since I’ve started this blog I’ve referenced my obsession with numbers several times. It has been said that in order to get help the first step is admitting you have a problem. Well, I definitely have a problem, but I think it’s getting better?

I started to track my mileage electronically in 2009. It started out innocently enough, a simple excel sheet with the number of miles I ran in a day. A lot of people do this; in fact I’m sure another runner made the suggestion, which is why I started doing it in the first place. Early in 2009, I started hearing about people that ran doubles. It’s hard for runners with full time jobs to get miles in before or after work. It’s also easier on the body (to some extent, you’re still putting the miles on your legs) to run a double digit day with single digits in the morning and again in the evening. When I ran doubles I would enter into my excel sheet “=morning miles + evening miles”. To make it easier on myself, I began to colour those days so I could visually see the days that I ran more than once. I also coloured my rest days. In total there were three colours: black for single run days, green for doubles, and red for days off.  It looks like Christmas, and I feel this is still rather innocent tracking.

In 2010 I stepped things up. I decided I wanted to know when I doubled, if I went to the gym to do some kind of strength training, if it was a race day, if I did speedwork, if I ran on the treadmill, or if I did some kind of stretching/yoga. Each of these categories had a different colour, of course! The innocent went to not-so-innocent pretty quickly. My training log now looks like a rainbow. In addition to that, I wanted to write notes about where I ran, who I ran with, and how I was feeling. This may sound crazy, but I find this the most useful thing that I did. It helps looking back to know that I felt terrible or felt great, or that it was a tough race that I managed to get through etc. I always write a mini race report in my logs so that I can use that for inspiration later.

At some point I started to track the number of runs (greater than 3 miles) that I did in a week, which of course I would then add and average at the end of the year. I also started tracking the number of consecutive days that I ran without a complete day off (terrible idea). I started to think that I had to do the exact same thing I did in previous years or previous months leading up to a race. I started to compare how many miles I ran in January of 2010, 11, etc. to the current year. If I ran more in a certain month and performed better, I convinced myself that was why. I was obsessed with running the same number of miles month-to-month and year-to-year. I wanted to compare my data to others that run similar race times to mine. If I could get my hands on the data I would analyze the crap out of it. Yes, I have a problem. I’ve also found that this kind of obsession takes the fun out of the entire thing so I’ve made an honest effort to not worry so much about the numbers and make sure I’m doing quality running and having fun with it. My family agrees that I’m getting better…though I still have some work to do!

I honestly believe that tracking this data can be a very good thing. Evidently it can also be a bad thing. If you use the data as a training guide, as a diary of accomplishments, as a journal of the adventures running has given you it can be a wonderful thing. The key is not to obsess over it. Do as I say, not as I do!

Rhythm and Blues

If you’ve ever trained for and run a marathon, or are close to someone who has, then you’ve likely heard of the “Post-Marathon Blues”.

Typically described as feeling disappointed, sad, and maybe a little depressed after finishing the big race, the post-marathon blues are thought to be due to one of several reasons: the race being over, not knowing how to top the accomplishment, or not achieving one’s desired goal.

While I appreciate and relate to this explanation, I have realized in looking back at my lackluster year of running (this is relative to me, of course) that these post-marathon blues are much more than just post-race let down.

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Baxter, the Boston Terrier rescue.

It’s been years since I’ve started a new year without a goal race on my calendar. Particularly a spring marathon, to be followed by a fall marathon with my new found love of ultra-distance races sprinkled in between. In 2011 I ran my first 50-mile distance and I followed that up with 3 more in 2012. With life changes on the horizon (a move to Maryland and a brand new puppy) I made the decision to hold off on registering for race after race to give myself some time to adjust to this new life.

As it turned out, running is not only a form of stress relief, exercise, and friendship, but it is also one of, if not the largest, sense of accomplishment for me. When I realized this, I began to put races on my calendar. I felt that registering for and running a race would fill the void and make me feel accomplished. In New Jersey it had been simple; I was practically training before I even registered for races. The training was easy – I had regularly scheduled runs on Wednesday and Saturday with the Raritan Valley Road Runners, speed work on Tuesday evenings during the spring through early fall months, Thursday night runs with a local running store, Runner’s High, and plenty of friends to arrange non-club runs with during the week or on Sundays. Running alone was rare and typically occurred on days that I ran twice making only one run in a day solo.

Moving to a new city and having no friends and no running club proved difficult to find motivation to train. Running for 2+ hours actually is boring when you don’t have people to keep you company (I could never understand why people would ask if I got bored while running…when I lived in New Jersey it seemed impossible).  When no one else was on the track or running up and down hills there was little reason for me to push myself for another repeat or to hit a certain split. I’m too stubborn to not run at all so I continued to run with no heart and no passion. I would simply run in order to record the miles in my daily log and make myself feel like I was still running. The races that I registered for (two 50-K races and a marathon all in the month of March) arrived and I knew that I was not fit to run well. So I slogged through the miles, some much more difficult than others, hoping that when I crossed the finish line I would somehow feel that sense of accomplishment. It didn’t happen. I registered for more races, continued not to train, and continued to feel let down at the finish line. The lack of training and poor performance actually made me feel worse.

I had registered for the Marine Corps Marathon in March. The race closed only 2 hours after registration opened because the maximum participation had been reached. Many larger races are like this. At the time of registration I didn’t have to worry about training for several months. Then I had a busy summer at work. I traveled more than I think I ever have since starting this job in 2008. I was constantly on the road and struggled to get runs in. When I did get runs in it was simply that – running. I wasn’t doing the workouts that I needed to do, or the quality long runs. I knew this going in and I was disappointed yet again. Several times I thought about not showing up to the start line. Why disappoint myself again? I ran two half marathons in September, one as fast as I could manage, and the other much more comfortably. After the first I knew it was a reality check and I would have to reset my marathon expectations. I hadn’t put in the work, I couldn’t expect the results. But I could still cover the distance, and I could still enjoy the experience. I more than exceeded the expectations I had adjusted for myself. Somehow that gave me an accomplished feeling that I wasn’t expecting. I found myself eager for more.

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Marine Corps Marathon, 2013.

In reflecting on why I feel the sudden urge to train and why I didn’t feel the accomplishment throughout this past year of racing, I realize that I haven’t enjoyed the process. The race is a celebration of the training, I’ve always known this. What I didn’t realize was that the sense of accomplishment was not so much in the 3 + hours of a marathon, but in the 3+ months leading up to the marathon where I woke up every day with a purpose – running a workout, running a long run, or running a nice easy recovery run and making sure I had a bath, massage, or foam rolled. I loved the feeling of progress – a new PR in any race distance, a solid track workout, a 20 miler that felt effortless. These subtle improvements on the road to race day were the reason I loved racing. I need to find this rhythm again, and now that I’ve identified it I’m ready. As it turns out podcasts can be great long run company, and you can actually learn a thing or two while listening. Track workouts by yourself can actually make you feel badass.  There are running clubs all over the world and I have slowly made some friends in the running community here.

There are no short cuts and that is a good thing. The journey is what it’s all about. The race is simply the after party.

One Boston

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My first Boston Marathon. April 20th, 2009.

I’ve run 15 marathons. With the exception of one or two, I have always had friends and family there to cheer me on. My Mom, Dad, and sister were at my first two, the second one my Dad was at my side running 26.2 miles with me. My parents have made the trip to South Bend, Chicago, Providence, Orlando, Philadelphia, bags packed for London England, though the volcano in Iceland ended that trip before it began. That didn’t stop them from lining the streets of St. Jacobs near Waterloo, Ontario to cheer me on in the chilling rain. My Mom even gave me the gloves off her hands when mine were soaked through and freezing.  They have always been right near the finish line to yell “Go Swifty” and hug me through tears of joy…and tears of not so much joy (cough…Chicago…cough).  My Mother in Law and Mrs. McGregor (family, though not by blood) came to New York City and stood at the finish line in Central Park to watch me finish one of my best races. My husband has been at several marathons. Two of those were the Boston Marathon. Boston is a point-to-point race, which means we start and finish in different locations. Many races have looped courses or a course that start and finish in the same location. It makes logistics easier. For the Boston Marathon we line up in Boston Common and get on school buses. The buses drive us to the Athletes’ Village in Hopkinton. From there we run 26.2 miles through Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesly, Newton, and Brookline until we arrive in Boston and finish at Copley Square. It’s not the type of course where one can hop in a car or on a subway to get to different cheering locations. Some races, including New York City, are a little bit more conducive to this type of thing. For that reason, I’ve always told Waseem to sleep in and simply wait at the finish line and meet me at the family meet areas (they have signs by last name to meet your loved ones after you finish) one block over. Many of my friends have their families do the same. The finish line at the Boston Marathon is crowded for this very reason.

Like every year that I’m not running the Boston Marathon, I go to baa.org and click on live tracking. I had a list of 16 runners that I was tracking. I would obsessively hit refresh and cheer at the screen, urging them on. When they all had finished, I closed the browser and focused more efficiently on work (I was still working, I swear! My boss may read this). When I received word of the bombings, I immediately began to text, email, and call friends to make sure everyone was safe. By the time we were able to locate everyone on the list, the reality of it all hit me. I broke down into tears. These people were out there to cheer on loved ones, to cheer on strangers that needed their words of encouragement. A place where family and friends should be safe and enjoying and sharing the moment of triumph. Maybe even to be inspired to run themselves. Katherine Switzer has a famous quote, “If you’re losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon”. Such an uplifting event was ruined by a senseless act of violence. Why would anyone do such a heinous thing?

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“You say hearbreak, I say love affair. Boston2012” Heartbreak hill may now have a double meaning.

A group was created on facebook to “Run for Boston” on April 17, 2013. The idea was to get groups together to run a mile remembering the events of Boston, the victims and their families, and the city itself. While I don’t have a regular running group in Maryland yet, I put on a t-shirt I bought at the Boston Marathon Expo last year, and went for my run. I thought about the victims, running to bring them peace. Then I thought of their families. There really are no words for the pain they are experiencing. I ran to bring them hope and strength not in the days, months, and years to come, but in their lifetime. The amount of time they will carry this pain. I truly hope that the acts of kindness and true bravery that have been exhibited in these last few days will bring comfort to the victims and their families: the amazing first responders and bystanders that ran to the aid of the victims, the police officers and investigators in Boston working to bring justice to their city, the playing of “Sweet Caroline” in Yankee Stadium and other baseball stadiums around the country, the dedication of our runs, the candle vigils, and much more. We are coming together to create One Boston. The Boston Marathon will never be the same, but runners from around the globe will run every year as a tribute to those affected in the never forgotten 2013 Boston Marathon.

The World Always Looks Brighter From Behind a Smile

“Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing”
– Mother Teresa

As runners, we have good days and bad days. The same is true for races. We can’t always have a perfect race. You may have had a stressful work week, you may come down with a cold, you may simply have an off day. It may be 86 degrees in October in Chicago…windy city my ass. Saturday wasn’t my day. It was a struggle from mile 5. That’s expected during a 10K, but when the race is 31 miles long, hurting at mile 5 makes for a long day. A good friend recently described me as an emotional runner. I smile at that. It’s true. I’ve had a lot on my mind and I couldn’t seem to shake it on Saturday. It was time to talk to myself and review what I have learned during my years of running. The number one thing I had to tell myself was that your mind is much more powerful than the body and I had to shut the mind up. I had to focus on other things, calm down, settle in, find a way to lose some miles.

I remembered a day of golf – I had made the poor decision to play 18 holes on one of my first few times playing. By the 12th hole I had had enough. I was frustrated, annoyed, and I just didn’t care anymore. I was taking Happy Gilmore swings at the ball, I was picking it up and throwing it (don’t worry, it wasn’t a classy course), and it was time to pick up my clubs and walk the rest of the course. So I did. And while I walked I wondered if Tiger Woods had shitty days and whether or not he played through it as mental training or just threw in the towel. Like running, the answer is probably both depending on the circumstances.

On Saturday I was physically able to run 31 miles. My foot wasn’t bothering me, my hamstrings weren’t tight, my knee was fine. Any aches and pains I had felt over the past few months were fine. I was just tired. So today was all about mental training. I would eat more, sing more, cry more, and get through it. Aid station to aid station.

When you race as often as I do, it’s impossible to always have family and friends there to support you. Today I was on my own. The funny thing is though, all it takes is a friendly face to smile and offer the slightest encouragement to make your heart swell and give you a mile or two of adrenaline. At each and every aid station I was welcomed by a smiling face and words of encouragement. I would leave the aid stations thanking everyone for being there and helping out, but I truly don’t think they knew how much they helped me. Those people are truly the reason I was able to put one foot in front of the other and cross the finish line. One woman saw me three times and would say “Keep smiling that big smile” and I would fake a great big smile for her. I laughed when a woman and her daughter told me “We’ll see you in 20 short miles”. One man looked right into my eyes and said “You’re doing so well. You’re going to finish. Just keep doing what you’re doing”.

I thanked the volunteers at the finish line and made my way to my car. I wanted to change into warm clothes, and had to get home to pick up Baxter. I drove home simply amazed that I had managed to get through such an emotional and physically draining day. As I drove I realized that they only reason I was able to do it was because of the encouraging words of the volunteers and other spectators. Had I been out there alone, I would have thrown in the towel.

So the next time you’re out supporting a race, of any and all distances, remember that a smile and a simple “You’re doing so well and you’re going to finish” could completely change someone’s race. You may think it means nothing, but it means more than you will likely ever know!

Everything Starts with Something

It’s a common question among runners: How did you start running? I rarely tell the full story. Sure, I started running in my first year of university to try to avoid the “Freshman Fifteen”. I didn’t run long distances (well, I suppose long distance is relative), 5K a day and worked my way up to maybe 10K by my third year of university. I considered myself a recreational runner, if a runner at all. I don’t recall telling people “I am a runner”. I think I told people “I run”.

My older sister, Heather, was a runner. She ran cross country in high school and during her last year of undergrad at Wilfred Laurier University she ran for the cross country and track teams. She continued her running career during Law School at the University of Windsor. She ran both cross country and track and even competed at meets at our beloved University of Notre Dame! She went to Disney World for training camp over reading week (Spring Break to Americans…Canadians like to study during our breaks), and with her Lancers team competed at the National Level traveling to places including Moncton, New Brunswick.  After her second year of law school we discussed the possibility of her spending the summer in Toronto with me. I had secured a summer student position in a biochemistry lab working with one of my favourite professors, Dr. Deber at The University of Toronto. We had also loosely discussed training for a marathon “together” (clearly she would have waited for my ass at the finish line). During one of my visits to Laurier University I made the mistake of agreeing to go on a run with Heather. 20 minutes or so in I could barely keep up so I told her I would see her back at her apartment. I asked random people on the street for directions (it’s Canada, they basically held my hand and walked me there themselves) and waited for however long she continued to run for. I thought she was a nutcase. Why I thought running a marathon was a good idea I don’t know. In hindsight, I probably never thought we’d actually do it so I would simply say “Yeah, great idea” in conversation.

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My sister died on February 10, 2004 in a car accident. Typing that sentence crushes my soul. I don’t like to think about it, I don’t like to talk about it. I remember waking up the next day and waiting for my Uncle to come pick me up in Toronto and drive me to my family’s home in Sarnia. I wasn’t sure if I should go for a run. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I’m pretty sure I didn’t run until after the funeral, but the days following are somewhat of a blur.

Every April, The University of Windsor Law School organizes a 5K to raise money for a local charity. In 2003, my sister won that race. In 2004, after Heather died, they decided to dedicate the run to her.  Several members of my family and a few of Heather’s friends went down to run and/or walk the race. My Dad and I ran together and upon finishing I decided that I could run forever. I decided I would run a marathon, the marathon Heather and I were supposed to run “together”.

My Uncle had heard of a marathon that finished at the 50 yard line of Notre Dame Stadium. It was the perfect race. The only problem was that it was 2 months and 5 days away. Most runners would advise that this is not enough time for a first time marathoner to train. Maybe not, but for someone with the spirit of Heather Swift it was just enough time. I went online, found a training plan, converted miles to kilometres so I would understand it, and I began to train. I was tired, I was hungry, and I remember not feeling well on several occasions. Thankfully, I had people to keep me company. My little sister, Kelly and friend, Tim, would often accompany me on my longer runs (on their bikes of course!), which I did on Saturday mornings in Sarnia. The week leading up to the race, I was so nervous I could barely talk about it. I remember calling my Dad and saying “They only want me to run 5K today and not at all for the next two days. Do you think this is right? How am I going to run 42 on Saturday?” My Dad didn’t know, he just figured if that’s what they said, do it. My Mom, Dad, and Kelly came with me to South Bend on Friday June 4th. We had a pasta dinner at Olive Garden and I tossed and turned all night with the Rudy Soundtrack playing in my ears through my mp3 player (I don’t think they had ipods then!). The three of them stood by me right up until the gun went off and “Start me Up” blared through the starting line speakers. My Dad joined me at mile 20 and helped me to the finish line. I would not have been able to finish that race without him. I didn’t know about energy gel or chews at the time. I probably had a little bit of Gatorade and mostly water. Ha, it’s funny to think of now. With my Dad’s help (telling me stories, cracking jokes) I was able to make it to the finish line. I couldn’t walk for days that followed, but I didn’t care. I ran that race with Heather’s picture on my shirt and a quote from a poem her teammate wrote. I went home that night, took my finishers medal and put it in Heather’s room. That one was hers.

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The following year we went back to South Bend. This time my family raised money for Heather’s Scholarships at The University of Windsor. These scholarships are typically awarded to student athletes and/or students at the Law School that live in the same housing complex as my sister did. My Dad and I did the running, my mom and Kel cheered us on and kept us motivated (truly a much more difficult task than people might think).

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Since then, I have run 14 marathons, including Boston, New York, and Chicago. I ran 31 miles (50K) on her would-be 31st birthday, and have now increased to the 50 mile distance which I have completed 4 times. If there is one thing in this world that I am sure of, it’s that I would not have run these races if I still had my sister. I would give up running in an instant to have my sister back in my life, but it does feel good to know that although my running is now my passion and my love, it came from her. It’s her spirit that fueled the fire.

So the real answer to “How did you start running?” is that I started running when I lost my sister. I have yet to run a race without the bracelet that has her initials “HLS” and the words “Be Swift”.

The best way that I know to honour her is to run. On Sunday, 9 years after her death, I went to my favourite New Jersey trails, Round Valley Reservoir. At the location with the best view, I drew her initials in the snow and smiled. She would have loved it.

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