Helsinki: My Victory Marathon

The idea of running in Helsinki came up during dinner with a group of running friends on December 31, 2015. We were about to ring in the New Year with a half-marathon that would start at midnight near Zurich, something that probably only running enthusiasts would define as a great start to the year. We were also accompanying our friend, Will, who was setting out on a journey of 52 half-marathons in 52 weeks that night. He pulled out his itinerary and we were considering where we might meet him next. When a 17k run in Helsinki was mentioned, many in the group responded with enthusiasm.

That weekend, we also met a woman from England, who told us about the “Marathon Globetrotters” club. Anyone who has run 5 marathons in 5 different countries would be eligible for provisional membership. I realized that if I ran the Helsinki marathon, which would take place the same day as the 17k race, I would be eligible. And finally, the timing worked out for my life and training, so I committed.

Training went well and as I mentioned in this post, I was beating my personal best times in shorter races during the months preceding the race. My goal was to finish as close to 4:30 as possible this time, perhaps even break it. Yet to build my confidence that this would be possible, I wanted to run a half marathon in under 2:10 and a 10k in under 58:00. In all my years of running, I had never obtained such times, so I knew it would need to step it up a bit. I ran 8 races between March and July and not all of them were successful, but finally on June 19, I ran a hilly half-marathon in 2:06 and on July 3, a 10k in 55:33. My performance in Helsinki would depend on the weather and other factors, but after these experiences, I was confident that it would be possible to break 4:30 as long as I could remain mentally tough over 42.195 kilometers.

Traveling to Helsinki the day before the race was a bit stressful, but since I took the time to pick up my bib on Friday night, I could take it easy on Saturday while waiting to start at 3pm. It rained all morning and from my window, I saw wind ripping through the trees. I have to run in THAT? I knew the route would already be challenging because it was hilly, but with the addition of bad weather, I recognized that I might have to revise my goal and strategy. But not yet, I told myself.

I arrived at the venue, bought a rain poncho and within a few minutes ran into Will. Seeing him gave me a major boost and it was great to pass the last hour of waiting in good company. He would run 17k, continue another 4.1k to complete his weekly half marathon, and then try to join me for a bit when I passed 25k, where I would be starting my second loop.

I was in good spirits and feeling positive at the start. My goal was to complete the first half in 2:10 and then try to not slow down too much during the second half. If I could manage this pace for the first half, I would be quite confident that I could finish the second in under 4:30. Yet, I would also have to adapt to how I was feeling and I didn’t know how the route and weather would affect me. It was raining and still windy when the race started. Yet I felt really good and at the 5k mark, I realized that my pace was spot on. The hills were friendly and I overtook them with ease, but I was less enthusiastic about the wind, which challenged my stride. At 10k, I was still on pace and feeling good. Really good. It was raining harder but I didn’t care.

Pushing forward for the halfway mark, I was still taking it easy, but not too easy. I noticed that there was water everywhere (see the map below) and we crossed over a lot of bridges, which meant more up and down movement. The rain was letting up by this time but I was worried about some knee pain that I had been experiencing in the past months. I started to feel it before 15k, but then it passed after a few more kilometers. My pace remained steady and my half-marathon split was precisely 2:10. I was thrilled!

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And yet I knew that the first half was the easy part. At that point I had to NOT think about the fact that I was only halfway done, but rather stay present in the moment, take one kilometer at a time, and try to keep up my pace. I needed to make it to 25k, where hopefully Will would join me for a bit. My pace remained quite steady and soon I saw the 25k marker approaching. Yet looking to my right and to my left, Will was nowhere in sight. I checked my watch and realized that since I was trying to not be overly optimistic when predicting my time at the start, Will wouldn’t have been expecting me yet. Later I would realize that he had missed me by only a few minutes.

The next few kilometers were a low point for me. The hills confronted me again, and the wind slapped me as I passed by the various bodies of water. I tried to remain fully in the moment, paying attention to my breathing and trying to not be influenced by the muscle pain, which was ever increasing. One kilometer at a time. I knew I was slowing, which was part of the plan, but I was still on target for a sub 4:30 finish. Yet the hardest part was still to come.

It was at around 30k that I started to face the biggest mental challenge. I had been preparing for it and thus remained positive. Just after 33k, the hills that I took on with ease the first time around were back to challenge me on a deeper level. I tried to tackle them with good technique, maintaining my form and not allowing them to overly exert me. The last kilometers were not easy, but the anticipation of finishing in my goal time was driving me forward. Still, one kilometer at a time and I was already calculating my anticipated finish time as I passed each one.

After passing the 40k mark, I wanted to crash through to the end. 41k came soon enough and I knew I would finish around 4:25 if I could manage not to break, even though I was feeling really tired by this time. Could I even accelerate at this point? Then, unexpectedly, I saw Will to my left, but he was focused on his phone. I yelled and waved as I passed and within seconds, he was at my side and then taking a video, which I didn’t completely appreciate in the moment. “See you at the finish!” he said, as I turned to enter the stadium. The last meters were long but finally, I was approaching the arrival. I looked at my watch just before arriving and saw “4:24” but then it changed to “4:25” as I crossed the finish line. My official net time was 4:25:03.

A few minutes later, I saw Will again and after collecting our bags, we “went live” on Facebook to report my arrival to my imaginary fans who were cheering me on from a distance. (In reality, I know that only my dad was actually tracking me live, but hey, that’s still enough to keep me going!)

The race was great and I definitely felt stronger, especially since my finish time represented a 27-minute improvement on my last marathon, which, by the way, was completely flat and in perfect weather. This was the first time that I was able to maintain my goal pace over the course of a full marathon. However, the best part was how I felt afterward. My head was clear, my vision sharp and I had no pain above my shoulders. Compared to previous experiences, it felt like ecstasy! (Or at least my personal definition of ecstasy since I have no real experience.) The feeling continued for the next couple of days. I didn’t care how much my legs hurt, how difficult stairs were or how tired I felt. I simply couldn’t stop smiling because my head felt so good. Over the next two days, I walked another 30k in Helsinki and Tallinn and had energy left to spare. It was a big difference from the last time when I was confined to bed for a day, vomited all night, and felt foggy-minded for weeks.

I reported back to Dr. Stanton and she responded, “Full steam ahead with your life please!” Those words almost brought tears. “Full steam ahead” never felt possible before, especially not after completing a marathon. But now it does, not only in terms of running marathons but also in other areas of life. Frankfurt broke me, but Helsinki proved to be a victory! Hopefully, Hamburg will be next in April 2017. Stay tuned!

Oh, and now I am a Marathon globetrotter!! 😉

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Marathon 2014 – My celebration of life (part 1)

I’ve had my eye on the Marathon de la Baie du Mont St Michel for many years. But when I signed up for it a few months ago, I only allowed myself to do so by reasoning that I simply wouldn’t go “all out” this time. I couldn’t. It was March and I had already lost a month of training due to being sick and was about to head to India. So I told myself I’d resume training upon my return, but would make it my goal for this marathon to simply finish, even if I had to combine running and walking to do so.

Unfortunately, I came back from India very sick and lost over two more weeks of training as I recovered. When I was able to start running again, the marathon was only eight weeks out and every run was grueling as my body was still weak. Yet I pushed through and completed all of my runs. Until five and a half weeks later when I set out for the one and only 20-mile run that I had planned. Not even seven miles into it, I got so dizzy that I had to stop running and started walking home (2 miles away). But when I started losing vision, I knew I couldn’t trust myself to keep walking so I had to take a taxi, which I never do in Paris. The lingering dizziness prevented me from running a 10k race that I had planned to do with my dad who was visiting that weekend. As I stood on the sideline cheering him on, it seemed impossible to consider running a marathon in two weeks. Still, I wasn’t quite ready to give up. Maybe I could still do half of it and then drop out.

New strategy? Rest all week and then attempt a 10-mile run the next weekend. If all goes well, try to at least start the marathon. The 10-mile run was a bit sluggish but I felt ok afterwards. Of course, I still wanted to finish the marathon, but I was also keenly aware of my body’s physical limitations and didn’t want to abuse it beyond reason.

7_Plan_parcours_marathon_26_06_2013-300x241I had planned to arrive in Saint Malo two days before the marathon to have some time to relax and visit Mont Saint Michel, where the race would finish. This marathon is unique in that you can see the finish from the start and over the course of 26.2 miles you see Mont Saint Michel getting bigger and bigger.

I had no idea how much I needed to leave Paris until I had left. Leaving gave me time and space to reflect. And I started to recognize how many times I had been “knocked down” during the past five months, and not only physically. I was losing my physical, emotional and spiritual stamina. Most people would probably say I needed rest. But I knew that more than anything I needed a deep renewal and healing that comes only from God. And maybe throw in a marathon, too?

I also reflected upon my life since my first and only other marathon in Chicago in 2008. As soon as I finished, I said I wanted to do another one. And I tried several times. Yet I kept running into physical roadblocks, the most difficult one to swallow was a stress fracture that prevented me from running the Paris marathon last year after 17 weeks of training for it. At the same time, I have experienced many spiritual victories during these years. It really has been a roller-coaster ride; the highs are high and the lows are low, and often I feel whiplashed in the process.

Strategy revised yet again. Running this marathon would be a celebration of life, and a defiance of the Enemy’s constant attacks upon my being. Now I was determined to finish, not because I needed to prove anything, but as a metaphor for spiritual endurance.

“Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that lay before him endured a cross and despised the shame and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne.” Hebrews 12:1-2

The Mont Saint Michel landmark provides a point on which to focus throughout the course. So it brought a visual element to the “keeping our eyes on Jesus” part of this passage.

On Saturday, I spent the day at Mont Saint Michel. 1800+ stairs was perhaps not the best idea the day before a marathon, but I enjoyed my stroll through the abbey and along the ramparts. Then I hid away in a café to carb-load on spaghetti. On the ride back to Saint-Malo, where I was staying, the bus driver mentioned that the marathon was taking place the next day. He pointed out the start (in Cancale) and the finish (Mont Saint Michel) as we were somewhere in-between. It was a daunting sight. That is really far.

From there I went to the Expo to pick up my race bib and packet. And even though it was a full day, I think being out all day helped me to fall asleep that night. I slept for almost seven hours.

2014-05-25 08.15.48Sunday morning I was off by 6:30 a.m., took a shuttle to Cancale and prepared to take on the race. And so here I am at the start line: nervous yet optimistic. I didn’t yet know what was about to hit me.

 

 

Stress Fracture

It’s Monday night and I’ve been sitting on my couch most of the day. Back when my life was normal, Mondays meant running early in the morning, working at home for several hours, then biking across Paris to teach, biking to another neighborhood to continue teaching, and then often biking somewhere else for an evening event before biking home. So usually one hour of running and then two hours of biking on a typical Monday.

So it felt really strange to sit on my couch all day. 😦

A week ago I finally had an MRI of my pelvis to see why the “adductor tendonitis” wasn’t going away after 10 weeks of rest and therapy. “Know why you’ve been in pain?” The doctor asked as she looked at my results. “You have a stress fracture.”

Crap. When I first got injured and diagnosed, I said, “well at least it’s not a stress fracture! That would mean crutches…”

Instead I continued to walk, bike and occasionally try to run on it for 10+ weeks, thinking it was tendonitis. I did often wonder if it was a stress fracture, based on my symptoms and internet research. I should have gone back to the doctor sooner than I did. I should have trusted my gut, even though I really didn’t want it to be a stress fracture.

Now I’ve been on crutches for six days. I’ve been forced to slow down my pace of life. I can handle about one outing a day. Today I went to get a blood test, but when I arrived they told me I had to wait three hours after eating to take the test and I had eaten two hours earlier (my doctor should have clarified this). It was too much of a pain to go home and then come back, so I slowly made my way to the post office to buy stamps and then stopped at a cafe for a drink while waiting for the hour to pass.

The first couple of days, my forearms were bruised and my armpits and torso were really sore. Today my wrists are in pain from the crutches. I have to take it easy as I’m getting used to the crutches or I will end up injured elsewhere.

The prognosis? Well, in order for the fracture to heal correctly, I cannot bear weight on it for a while. Pain will be my main indicator, said the doctor and several websites. So I will probably be on crutches for a few weeks, or until I am able to walk without pain. But even then, I will have to limit how much I walk. When I can swim/waterjog and bike without pain, I can resume those activities. Already the pain is lessening, although it is definitely not gone yet. But during the whole ten weeks, walking hurt MORE than biking or swimming, so I am hopeful that I will be able to resume these activities soon. I think I will try to make it to the pool later this week.

My doctor said no running until September. I’m really not happy about that because I’m registered for the Chicago Half Marathon on September 8. I’m hopeful that maybe I can start running a little sooner and at least complete the 5k race that is part of the same event. I’ve never run a 5k before.

Well, even though this diagnosis isn’t pleasant, it is more hopeful than just not getting better for no reason. So, one day at a time and I’m believing that I will come out stronger and smarter in the end. Although at this point, I think it might take a lot longer to heal mentally to the point of re-training for a marathon. This experience may continue to haunt me for a while.

The Marathon I Didn’t Run

In the fall of 2012, I returned to Paris feeling energetic and positive after a much needed time of retreat in the States. I was glad to return home, and feeling better than I had felt in a very long time. I resumed my running schedule and to my pleasant surprise, I found myself logging hundreds of miles migraine-free. That was another first-in-a-long-time.

I registered for the Paris half and full marathons the day registration opened. I was so pumped! My goal and dream was to assemble a team to run in support of As Our Own in India, but alas, the spring enthusiasm of my friends had died away by autumn and I set out on the journey alone.

My 19-week training program started officially in December, but I was building up miles all throughout the fall. I was following a program of running five times plus 4-5 hours of biking every week. For the first 17 weeks, the training went well physically. There were aches and pains here and there, but nothing that really got me down. I did start to get worried when during my two 20-mile runs, my right ankle was in quite a bit of pain. The first run of this distance was hard to finish and I was limping for the rest of the weekend. During the second run, the pain was present but not as severe. There was also the day when, almost two miles into my run, I tripped and fell flat on the ground. I got up quickly and tried to catch my breath and assess my situation. My knees were scraped up and my palms were stinging, but nothing seemed to be broken, so I finished the 5 miles. The last time I had fallen like that was probably ten years ago at a time when I was overly fatigued. I realized that I needed to focus on getting better sleep for the next few days.

There were a lot more mental challenges during this time. For one, it was a daily challenge to wake up and face the cold first thing in the morning. I prefer to run at dawn, but sometimes had to complete my entire run in the dark. I’m not sure if the snow classifies as a mental or physical challenge, perhaps it was some of both. It was also challenging to get up early and run in an unfamiliar place during my travels, when I had to spend a good amount of energy remembering how to get back. Over Christmas, I was in the Loire and thus had to train in the mountains. That was a challenge and made Paris feel flat afterwards. I also traveled to a place where it was not safe to run outside and for a week had to complete all of my training on a treadmill. Five miles was okay, but 12 miles was the ultimate killer. It’s mentally challenging to run for two hours and not go anywhere… I shouldn’t complain though, at least it wasn’t 20 miles!

Then there were all the hard calls along the way, when you have to make a decision regarding your training in light of your physical health. I occasionally took a day off if something was hurting, but usually made up for it another day. Often I asked myself, “should I run on the snow/ice?” Could have been disastrous if I had slipped out there, but I survived about a dozen runs in these conditions, including a 15-mile run on several inches of snow. I definitely need to get the right equipment for such weather by next winter. Then one night I was coming down with a sore throat and I needed to run 17 miles in the morning before catching a train to Nancy. I really didn’t feel up to it, but did it anyway. Interestingly, I felt better afterwards. I guess all that sweating did something for shooing away the virus! The days before the half marathon, I came down with a cold. I had to travel by air twice during that time, which didn’t help me feel better. On Saturday night I was feeling feverish and not sure if I would run on Sunday, nor if I would finish even if I tried. But I decided to give it my best shot and I finished within my goal time (2:14:24). However, I felt even worse afterwards and although I wasn’t terribly sore, my head hurt and I couldn’t stop coughing. I just wanted to curl up in bed for the rest of the day. So running doesn’t always cure a cold. 😦

My last hard decision came two weeks before the marathon. The hard-core training phase was over and my miles were decreasing for the last three weeks. In all that time, I had only missed 1½ runs due to being sick or needing extra rest for my ankle. So I was feeling strong and confident about the marathon in two weeks and was focusing on preparing myself mentally. I was also looking forward to doing a four-mile run the following week after running no less that five miles at a time for over a month. On Wednesday, I had run five miles and had noticed a pain in my inner thigh for the first time. I didn’t run the next day and hoped that it would be better by Friday morning when I needed to put in 12 miles. I woke up early that day because I needed to be somewhere by mid-morning. I remember feeling especially tired and wondered if I could post-pone my run for the afternoon (something I rarely did). I also wondered if it was wise to run with the pain. I paced my apartment for a few seconds debating whether to go or not. Then my inner coach said, “Stop thinking about it. Get out there. Get it done.” This was sound advice on most other days when I was simply lacking motivation, but next time I’m in this situation, I will certainly argue back.

I completed the twelve miles in pain, thinking, “I’ll go a little easier today, and maybe it will loosen things up.” By the end of the run, I was in so much pain that I was losing my stride. It hurt to put weight on it, to stand, to walk. But I thought that like my ankle, a couple of days of rest would make it all go away and I would still be able to do my four easy miles a few days later.

It didn’t go away. It was painful throughout the weekend. And it started to scare me. According to my online research, it could be a stress facture, a pulled muscle, tendonitis or a hernia. On Monday, I called a sports doctor but only got an appointment for Tuesday. When I saw him, he stretched my legs in a lot of different ways and diagnosed me with adductor tendonitis. No running for at least a week, he said, plus anti-inflammatory medication and sessions with a sports physiotherapist. “So what about the marathon,” I asked in a low voice. He shook his head and said… “Well, IF the pain is gone in a week, you can go out and run for an hour. “ If there is no pain during the run, you can compete in the marathon. Otherwise, don’t do it. You’ll be miserable and you’ll damage yourself further. I walked away with Cinderella-type hope, but now I think he may have been as confident in his “IF” as her evil stepmother. 😦

Still, I did everything possible during the following week, holding on to the possibility of “if.” Physiotherapy, medication, rest from running, stretches, ice and heat treatments, pool running, swimming, etc. But no matter how much or how little physical activity I did, the pain did not ease up. I saw my physiotherapist on Tuesday and he said to try to run the next day just to see what happens. I knew it wouldn’t be possible, but I geared up and hit the road anyway. It was even more painful than my 12-mile run and I was sort of half-running and half-limping. I lasted five minutes and then walked back home. And at that moment, it hit me. I’m not running this marathon. I can’t. I think I knew this already by Sunday, but it only hit me then when I realized that my body had shut down on me. And that was hard to swallow.

Not being able to run the 2013 Paris Marathon is a huge disappointment, but I must admit that it isn’t the first time I’ve been hindered from running a race because of injury. In 2007, I had registered and trained for the Chicago Half Marathon. Less than one week out, I walked into a pole and hit my forehead/face so hard that it was bruised and bleeding. A couple of days later, I decided I had better see a doctor about it. He ordered an X-ray. On Friday, I called to get the results and they said they wouldn’t be in until the following Monday. So I asked if it would still be okay to run on Sunday. “You have a head injury that may be serious. It would be very unwise to run a half-marathon before knowing the results.” So I sat it out and learnd on Monday that I was fine. Brilliant. Also, two years ago I was registered for the Paris Marathon but got a bad case of sinus infection early in the year, which lasted over a month. I fell too far behind in my training to be able to compete in the race.

But this one is the biggest disappointment yet because I trained so hard for it! At the same time, this strength was also my weakness and my body maxed out two weeks too early. A couple of months ago, I stopped at a bakery after a 13-mile training run. There was a man there who said he was a running coach. He started asking me questions about my running and when I said I was training five days a week, he said, “It’s too much, you should rest more.” Whatever, I thought, loads of people train this much. Then, ten days ago in the doctor’s office, I received the same verdict: you pushed yourself too hard. Humph. I had given 110% to my training regime, which pushed me over the edge two weeks too soon. I should have done more like 90-100%. I hope that my inner coach has learned a lesson from pushing me too hard all this time.

Well, I’m not going to sit around and mope. I’ve been spending a lot of time biking and swimming since I haven’t been running. These activities are easier on the joints and actually hurt less than walking at this point. I’ve wanted to incorporate more swimming (and even deep water jogging) into my exercise routine, and now is the perfect time to build up my strength and endurance in these cross-training activities. I’ll turn my focus and energy to preparing for my next goal, which I hope will be the Caen Marathon on June 16. I’ve almost reached my goal for As Our Own, but this will give me a little more time to reach, and hopefully surpass it

As for today, a friend and I met up and cheered for the entire crowd of runners as they passed in front of our church in the Marais  – from the wheelchair competitors to the very last ones where were struggling already at three miles. It seemed that there was no one else cheering on the street, so we yelled out names and good wishes until our voices were horse. I’ve never watched a marathon from beginning to end like that, and I found it to be very moving. It’s amazing how encouraged people are by a random high five or a stranger cheering for them by name. It was great to participate even though I wasn’t running.2013-04-07 09.41.43