Friday, December 24, 2010

Placenta. (or) Not Quite Finished.

Remember when you were in 6th grade and it was time for the dreaded sex education segment of science and you were made to watch that very graphic, very shocking PBS video from 1983 entitled "The Miracle of Life"? I do. Boy do I.

After the horror of watching the birth (I was 12, after all, and their scare tactics worked), I was completely perplexed and troubled to learn that the woman has to then birth the placenta, or afterbirth.

That just seemed overwhelmingly insulting. Like, really? I just pushed this baby out and now I have to birth this blobular mass to which I have no seeming connection? Really?

This is kind of how I felt about the mile and a half shuffle out of Central Park after crossing the finish line. I knew it was necessary and had to be done, but really? I'd just run 26.2 miles, for the love of Pete. And now I have to walk a mile and a half before seeing anyone I know? Really?

Crossing the finish line in and of itself was an interesting experience. After miles and miles of crowd hysteria, music, and high fives, the finish line was surprisingly austere, almost a let-down. Since there are so many people in such a tight space, no spectators were allowed at the finish, and the party stopped once you ran over the last timing mat. Then a volunteer gave you your medal, a photographer took your finisher's photo, another volunteer wrapped you in mylar, another one taped it shut, and another one handed you a bag of food with an apple, gatorade, pretzels, protein supplements, and water, all within the span of about three minutes. All very perfunctory. Then you just kept on walking. And walking. And walking.
Photo courtesy of brightroom, in case you can't tell
I like my finisher's photo above, though much like the photos from Brooklyn when the surprise of Shannon and Heather's arrival is settling in, I think I look a little nuts. And despite the enormous sense of accomplishment I felt for having just completed my first marathon, I was about one step away from a complete breakdown. The runners around me weren't really helping the situation: one girl was vomiting in a trashcan, another was absolutely coming unglued on the phone talking about how she couldn't feel her legs, how she couldn't walk, and others just gave up the fight all together and were laid out on the ground, tongues hanging haphazardly out of their mouths.

For those of you non-running readers, I realize I'm not really doing a top-notch job of selling the sport.

I mentioned earlier that when I crossed the finish line, I thought to myself this will be the last time I'll ever do this! Watching runners fall apart confirmed this notion, and after being so deep in my head for 4 hours I needed to talk to someone, anyone, to help me move forward, to get me to the bag pick-up so I could put on dry clothes and warm up. After several failed attempts at conversation with the apparent non-English speakers around me, I finally stumbled upon an Australian woman who was clearly in the same boat as me, which is to say freezing, tired, close to vomiting, and trying to stay up off the ground.

This lady, I love her. She's a mother of four, never wanted to run a marathon and I daresay never will again, but she did it just to do it and brought several friends along with her from down under for the ride. And you know that accent-everything she said sounded like the most upbeat, pleasant thing you've ever heard. I'm pretty sure she said "I am just miserable right now!" but because of that accent she may as well have said "I feel like a million dollars! I could run another 26.2 right now!"

She saved me from myself, this nice Australian lady, and when it came time to part at our respective UPS trucks where our bags were being stored, I felt somewhat rejuvenated. Once I got on my warm clothes I felt better, knowing that I was one step closer to being out of the park and reunited with my people. It was then that I took the picture below I've posted before, the photo where I just needed to look at myself to make sure I was still of this world. I was in an alternate universe, a kind of bizarro reality show that I'd decided to participate in months ago but had, by now, forgotten why.
Since it's taken me almost 2 months to write about this experience, I've obviously had some time to think about the various components of the marathon. I've concluded that although the long walk out of Central Park was fairly miserable, it also gave me time to collect myself, to make sure I didn't totally fall apart when I did finally get to see Jay, the kids, Tommy and Maddy, Heather and Shannon, and Mandy and Amber. If I had seen this crowd right when I crossed the finish line, I no doubt would have completely surrendered to the overwhelming emotions I was feeling and would have most likely cried. And cried. And cried some more. As it was, I was able to come down off the emotional ledge I was perched on so precariously and get it together, somewhat at least, before I saw them outside of the park.

I've read a lot of reviews of this marathon and nearly every one mentions this last portion of the race, the long walk out of Central Park. Many refer to it as the "Death March" and though macabre and darkly humorous and accurate, the connotation of this reference is so deeply disturbing and rooted in our cultural psyche that I decided to make a motion to change it.

Due to my limited readership and influence, I doubt you'll hear people refer to the long walk after the New York marathon as "Placenta" from here on out. It's a strange simile, I know, but having 3 kids in 4 years will naturally orient one's mind to childbirth. And much like having a baby, a marathon too is hopefully a moment of self-definition, a worthwhile, meaningful, difficult, emotional, joyful, painful, crazy, life-altering experience.

And, for the record, I'd do it again.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Manhattan: Central Park

Crossing the Madison Avenue Bridge, the last bridge, was like a dream. It was happening, and I was vaguely aware of it, and I was watching myself do it, and I was there but I wasn't there, and I couldn't stop it, and there were stars everywhere, and it was twilighty and sunny and dark all at the same time. I do remember this bridge, however, primarily because it was registering as the final one I had to go up and over, and mile 21 was just on the other side.

The relativity of 5 miles after 21 miles is such a strange sensation. On the one hand, it's all "Big deal" and "Whateva! I just knocked out 21 miles, suckas!" and "After all this training I could run 5 miles backwards!" On the other hand, it's the trial of miles, it's 5 that feels like 50, it's still 5 miles. And it hurt.

I watched the Thunder Road marathon and half-marathon this past Saturday in Charlotte at mile 8. The first wave of runners that came through still looked fresh, strong. I stuck around for a while looking for a friend and a strange thing happened; the looks on people's faces all took on the same quality-bewilderment mingled with exhaustion mixed with a tiny bit of slack-jawed confusion. Or, me at mile 22. Please see below.
I've mentioned before that I rarely stop and walk, for fear I'll disappear. At mile 22, I stopped and walked. My quads seized up on me like never before, and I thought a good stretch would help work out the kinks. Problem was, when I tried to kick up my heel behind me into the palm of my hand, my hamstring revolted, leaving me frozen in a gnarled, awkward half-stretch.

No worries, I thought. I'll try the other leg. Predictably, the same thing happened.

At this point, I had no choice but to grit it out and keep running, to keep telling myself that I was going to love this last six miles, that I can handle a little discomfort. A few expletives may have crept their way into the Metaphorical Race Bag at this point too.

Despite the pain, running along Central Park East/5th Avenue really was lovely, and the energy that was moving me forward was tremendous, not only in terms of crowd support but from the legions of runners around me.
I knew my crowd was going to be at 95th and 5th and that Mandy and Amber were going to be a few blocks up from that on the opposite side of 5th Avenue, so I had a goal. The finish line, of course, was the ultimate goal, but at this point in the game I had to break it down into manageable increments, lest I got overwhelmed with the enormity of the proposition.
What makes this portion so brutal, aside from the obvious fact that you've just run 24 miles, is that you're running steadily uphill for a solid mile, as you can see above. Note the grimace on the man's face in front of me. I feel him. I really do.And what I love about the above photo is not the muffin top created by the aforementioned knee-length spandex, but rather the guy beside me, smiling. I love this. I hadn't noticed him until posting these photos. He looks like he is genuinely having a great time. Like Hey! This is fun! Or maybe he thought all the ladies in my crowd were cute, because they are. Or maybe he found Heather's decibel change charming rather than alarming. Who knows. At any rate, I like this guy. I wish I would have noticed him during the run. Or maybe I did. Maybe he talked to me. I really have no idea.
This guy apparently was a few paces in front of me and was a big hit with the kids, as was the fellow dressed as a hot dog. On the first bridge I passed a guy dressed as a big rhino in a homespun rhino costume. Whatever works, I suppose.

It was at 95th and 5th that Maddy so graciously jumped in to run with me and that I so ungraciously gave her the Heisman. I've thought a lot about that moment since then, wondering about the dichotomy of wanting so desperately to see my people but needing so vehemently to finish alone. I've concluded that at that point, I could only be accountable to myself. I didn't want to have to justify or explain to anyone that I needed to walk. I didn't want to throw up on someone I know. I didn't want to cry in front of someone who'd remember. A complete stranger, sure. But not someone I love.

So I kept going, solo, but surrounded. I saw Mandy and Amber shortly thereafter and at that point, I'd stopped to walk. I looked across 5th Avenue and saw two people that I've known for most of my life, and I threw up my hand, kissed it, and saluted them like I was P Diddy. Seriously. Where that came from I have no idea, but apparently seeing them made me feel famous, so I went for it.

After seeing them I turned into the park and the hills continued, winding through beautiful, crowded, tree-lined, twilighty miles 24 and 25. Then back out of the park and along Central Park South, then back into the park and through some really loud Bon Jovi which made me laugh, and then finally, jubilantly, the sign below came into view.
Jay took these photos on Saturday before the race while I was hanging out with my Tarheel girls. Please note Thomas and Cameron running UP towards the finish line.
I knew there were hills, and I knew the last 5 miles of the race in particular were hilly. But the last 400 yards up the hill to the finish line were unbelievable, enough to make you feel like you were moving backwards.

I was determined to run the last part, and I did. Though I was moving forward, I felt like I was river dancing, my legs all jaunty and wompy and sideways as I tried to avoid an onslaught of cramps and willed my legs to get me to the finish.

They did.

I made it.

I crossed the finish line in 4:08, threw my arms up in the air, and then shuffled forward, alone, stunned, triumphant, and solemnly ecstatic.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Weekend Update.

It was a big weekend for my running friends.

There are two milestones that are particularly noteworthy and thus receive top billing here:

First, AK, the aforementioned Ambassador, qualified for Boston this past weekend with a 3:44:52 at the Kiawah marathon. After months of dedicated training, she laid it down on Saturday and finished strong and steady. Congratulations, AK!

Second, Len ran his first marathon in Kiawah, finishing in 4:38:24. After also training for months, he successfully completed his first 26.2. Congratulations, Len!

I've been so choked up about these two and their accomplishments. Before Len even left for Kiawah I was all verklempt, getting teary when I thought about him running his first marathon, getting misty when I was sending him Rocky-like texts to get him psyched. And then when AK crossed the finish line, I had the good fortune to be on the phone with Heather as she cheered excitedly, watching AK run through the finisher's chute. Every time I think about her qualifying and reaching her goal so soundly, I start crying.

Also of note, Denise ran a solid half in Kiawah, coming in at 1:53:17, as did Scott, who set a PR of 1:24:47. And I got to see my old roommate Ashley buzz by at the Charlotte half on Saturday morning. If I weren't wearing clogs, jeans, and holding a child, I would have run with her for longer than the 10 feet I "sprinted" trying to keep up with her! And though I didn't see him, Billy M rocked a 1:45:35 half in Charlotte, which I'm pretty sure is a PR as well.

Not to get all "triumph of the human spirit" on you, but races and qualifying and first-time marathons and PR's are paramount to runners. Everything is relative and everyone is a winner here, and when you do something you set out to do, when you achieve a goal that you've worked so hard to achieve, it's a reminder to never quit, to keep putting yourself out there, to keep striving for excellence in whatever form that may take.

So congratulations on a great race weekend, runners, and thanks for the inspiration and motivation!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Metaphorical Race Bag.

Unless I'm doing speedwork, I don't typically run with music. I'm no purist, mind you, but instead am a complete spaz. And I'm lazy too, so I haven't put together any awesome playlists where one song flows to another and my heart rate mirrors the beat of the music, where the tempo gradually increases or decreases in the right places. I'll go from the Boss to Justin Timberlake to Ce Lo to the Beatles, which means I'm inspired, then in love, then laughing, then crying, all within the span of 15 minutes.

Although I'd assigned a few miles here and there for friends to "run" with me and even though I knew many of you were thinking about me, I also wanted to cover all my bases, so I knew that I had something to think about when I felt the crazy closing in on me.

I solicited advice from other marathoners about what they think about when the miles get long, what mantras they use, what songs they like, etc. Having just completed her first marathon, Madeleine suggested two items for my race bag.

This Buddhist chant was taught to Tommy and Madeleine when they were training for the Charleston Half-Ironman and were riding a stationary bike for 2 hours (huh?) by another nutjob also riding a stationary bike for 2 hours. I love the idea of this centering chant, and I tried to look up a quick quip to distill the essence of its meaning; no such luck. Rest assured it keeps you focused and centered.

That being said, I couldn't use it. My feeble mind couldn't memorize the unfamiliar words. That and I already had Baraka za Mungu kweli ni za, Ni za ajabu in my race bag, a Swahili spiritual that often comes into my mind when I'm running.

2. Invictus by William Ernest Henley
You may be familiar with this poem from the movie Dead Poets' Society. Or maybe because you're a Mandela fan and thus know that this poem sustained him throughout his prolonged prison sentence. It's a powerful one, to be sure-the last two lines in particular: " I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul."

Without getting into a full-on theological debate here, I'll just say that this one threw me for a loop. I don't think I'm the only one driving my ship, so to speak; I've got help from God and a few saints and most definitely some guardian angels, so to say that I'm the master of my fate really had me going down the free will versus determinism road, which is all just a little too heady for a first marathon Metaphorical Race Bag. And though I admire the strong sentiment of this piece and how those last two lines are almost like beating yourself on your chest with your fists in rapid succession and giving everyone the bird, I couldn't put this in my bag either.

I say this not to diss Madeleine's suggestions, but merely to point out that everyone's race bag is going to be different, just like whether or not it works for you to run with music, or with a partner, or in the morning, or at night (or in a box with a fox). Obviously they sustained Maddy through her 26.2. And we know that running is 99% mental, so you've got to find what works to keep your sanity.

I also tell you this because it illuminates, at least in part, my complete and total obsession with all things marathon in the weeks before the race. If I had a conversation with you sometime within the vicinity of November 7th, chances are it went something like this:

Me: How did your grandmother's surgery go?
You: Great! She's doing well and is in recovery, and blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.
Me, upon hearing "Great", "well" and "recovery", thinking: I wonder if her grandma ever ran the New York marathon? Did she break 4 hours?

You get the idea. And you also know that I do genuinely care about your grandmother. I just had absolutely no focus. Unless it was about running, or getting ready for the trip, or the race bag, I just had trouble keeping it together.

Back to the race bag and its contents so you're not up all night reading this post:

1. The Rising by the Boss
Though I know almost all of the lyrics, what I primarily fall back on is the "La, la, la la la la, la la" after the chorus.

2. An email from my friend, Ben
The part that stuck with me said "Because you're Kelley Barnhardt. You like challenges. You're not scared of a little discomfort." And boy was there ever discomfort.

3. Badlands by the Boss
I know this one by heart too, but it's really the opening chords that get me. That and when he says "For those who have a notion, a notion deep inside/That it ain't no sin to be glad you're alive.

4. Peter Sagal's essay "The End" in the November 2010 Runner's World
This whole piece is awesome, but I memorized the final paragraph for the race bag: "What I have found is that the last six miles separate distance runners from those who are merely obsessive or have a high tolerance for boredom. They are the crucible from which come molten, freshly recast marathoners, and each one of those miles is a distinct trial to conquer, and reason to train, and reason to boast, and as such, in truth, I love them, because though you'll never know exactly why you do them, it's over those last six miles that you finally find out if you can." Boom.

5. Tommy's claim that I was going to love the last six miles. I held on to that assertion like it was the gospel truth, and hoped to all hopes that it was.

6. Baraka za Mungu kweli ni za, Ni za ajabu
I find myself going back to this song any time my mind is blank, so I knew it would be in the bag.

The great thing about a Metaphorical Race Bag is you can stuff it with as much or as little as you like; it all depends on how much you want to carry with you. It weighs nothing except what weight you give it, and it's really easy to store. You can throw it away any time you want or just keep it tucked in your metaphorical back pocket (no pockets on that knee-length spandex).

I called on a few of these items at mile 20 in particular, and again as I crossed that final bridge into Central Park.

Disclaimer: I realize this race bag would be more aptly named a Theoretical Race Bag, or perhaps a Hypothetical Race Bag, or even Imaginary Race Bag. But when Tommy and I were texting one day before the race, I mentioned that I was "tucking something into my Metaphorical Race Bag", so there it is. This bag is not a comparison to something else, but it is what it is-a group of "things" I carried with me through the race to help me through the tough miles. But in a temporary lapse of literary reason, I called it a metaphor, so there you have it. Metaphorical Race Bag.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Bronx: Twilight.

Are you tired of this chronicle yet? It's mirroring the marathon itself in the time it's taking me to get it out there.

I just googled "Willis Avenue Bridge" to get a visual of the 4th bridge I went up and over, this time from Manhattan to the Bronx.

I don't remember it at all.

Or maybe I do? But only after seeing the picture. It's a little bit like your earliest memory-do you remember it because you remember the sounds, smells, and feelings surrounding it? Or do you remember it because you've seen a picture of yourself in it, heard about it, and have therefore created the memory?
For example, will they remember the sound of the xylophone, the kindness of the street performer, the smell of the air in Central Park? Or will they only be reminded, vaguely, when they see this picture years down the road?

That's kind of how I feel about the Bronx; I was there for less than a mile. I remember loud music, crossing the 20 mile marker, turning, turning again, seeing myself run on a huge screen scaffolded over the street, and being a part of a particular fluidity, an energy that seemed to be moving the crowd forward, regardless of pain, motive, or desire. The race was just happening to me at this point.

I tried to reach into my metaphorical race bag, but only fragments of thought were coming to the surface. I knew that just over the next bridge was the final 5 mile stretch to Manhattan, to Central Park, to a finish line that seemed both near and ridiculously, heinously far away.