Going out on a high note

My friends and I have a bet going.

You see, when I declared that I would be retiring from full marathons (coincidentally, not too long after completing marathon #5 on Sunday), there was some healthy skepticism. Ok, it might have had a little something to do with having said something similar four other times. Whatever. I realize my words carry little credibility at this point, so I guess it’s understandable that my friends were dubious about how long I’d be sticking to this decision. I conceded with a slight amendment of, “for the foreseeable future,” but for all intents and purposes, Sunday, October 9, 2011, was probably be the last time I would run 26.2 miles all in one shot.

Probably.

In any case, it was incredibly important for me to go out with a bang–after all, a bad outing was going to make me want to waver in my decision, and then I’d be stuck eating my words once again. But somehow I knew it was going to be a good race. I knew it from the moment I woke up that morning of October 9.

First of all, the weather forecast had been predicting rain and cold weather. Up until a few days before, it was all but a foregone conclusion that we’d need to bundle up and find a way to stay dry throughout the race, and so I had prepared my wardrobe of a 30-gallon garbage bag, throwaway sweatshirt, and throwaway gloves. But when we walked outside into the pre-dawn darkness, not only was it not raining, but it became pretty clear from the outset that I was not going to need my throwaway armor at all. We were going to have perfect running weather–and that was my first sign that it was going to be a good run.

Which isn’t to say that there weren’t challenges. The first one came right out of the gate, when my shins started to tighten up as soon as I started running. They tightened up so much, in fact, that during the first walk break–a mere 5 minutes into the race–I fell behind and got separated from my running buddies, Leah and Janine. That was devastating for me; we had trained the entire season and though I knew there was little chance we’d stay together the entire run, I also didn’t think we’d get separated that early.

I came to the realization very early on that I’d have to do this thing on my own. I’d never run an entire marathon by myself. I wasn’t even sure I’d have the mental fortitude to do it.

With my friends before we all got separated... (photo courtesy of Janine Penny)

But do it, I did. I whipped out my iPod–which I had brought with me in case of “emergency” (i.e. in case I had to go through a stretch of running by myself), popped in those earbuds (thank you Keith for those PureBuds–they really did stay in the entire time!), and fired off my music, praying that I’d somehow find the will within me to do the rest of this thing by myself.

For the next 26 miles, I charged ahead. I listened to Elizabeth Campisi’s songs¬†over and over to get my mind off the tedium of running. Before long, my shins started to warm up and the tightness went away. I saw familiar faces along the course. I saw teammates, coaches, and our awesome team manager, Simone, cheering me along–ringing cowbells, snapping pictures, screaming my name, running with me. Before long, I was in a groove and hoping that I would be able to push out the dreaded “wall” for as long as I could.

Smiling huge because I've just seen our team manager, Simone--it's great to see a familiar face! (photo courtesy of Simone Sarracino)

Remember when I said that the weather was the first sign that it would be a good race? Pretty soon, other signs came. After a brief downpour of rain, the weather cleared up again. I hit a long stretch of downhill–a welcome break after the steep climb leading up to St. John’s Bridge on mile 16. And then I spotted a dragonfly on the back of some stranger’s shirt and I knew Brittanie had come to say hello.

I knew I had this in the bag.

The downhill gave me the energy boost I needed. For the next 5 or so miles, I had new life again, and by the time I came upon another significant downhill around mile 20 or 21, I felt like a new woman. I was running through my walk breaks, feeling no fatigue in my legs or lungs–I may as well have been just starting out on a run, rather than coming up on the tail end of a marathon. This was usually the point (actually, usually, the point comes much, much earlier) where the mind games I play with myself start to affect my game and the aches, the pains, the fatigue get to me and I start to fall apart. But that didn’t happen here.

I thought of Britt. I listened to Elizabeth’s beautiful, inspiring music. I kept eating my gels, drinking my electrolyte drink, taking my salt tablets. And I kept on pushing, kept on pushing. At mile 24, I ran into Coach Tim and told him giddily, “I think I’m going to PR.” At mile 25, I was stopped by a train, giving me a brief (albeit unwelcome) rest.

1 mile to go and what happens? A train happens, that's what! (photo courtesy of Simone Sarracino)

At mile 25.5, I saw Coach Kris, and she said to me, “You see all these people cheering? If running a marathon were easy, they’d be running it. But they’re not. You are. Dig deep. Finish this strong.”

Finishing strong (photo courtesy of Ilya Shafir)

And I did. Limbs tingling, head light, feet numb, I kept on charging ahead and somehow made it across that finish line–and I got my PR. It was a close one: a mere minute and 1 second (damn that train!!), but it was a PR regardless, and I would take it.

It was a good day. It was a good way to say goodbye.

Advertisements

Here we go, here we go

While the rest of the world was counting down to the rapture that might or might not happen, we TNTers were gearing up for our favorite day of the year (ok, the second favorite day–I guess race day tops this one!): kick-off.

As adults, we get few opportunities to experience the excitement of back to school, when you’re reuniting with friends after a long break and eagerly looking forward to the next few months, full of adventure, learning, and lots and lots of hard work. Lucky for me, I do get to experience this, every time the summer season for Team In Training comes around. Today was no exception, as we welcomed new participants to the team and caught up with old friends.¬† We also came together in honor of the cause that binds us all: the desire to rid the world of a monster called cancer.

In the course of today’s celebration, we paused to remember a fallen hero named Louie Bonpua, a Leukemia patient who defied the odds by completing an Iron Man (aka a 2 mile swim, 110 mile bike ride, and full marathon all in the same day!) while going through chemo. One of Louie’s good friends spoke today, to honor his friend who, as he recalled, inspired everyone whose paths had ever crossed with his–and even those who never even had the honor of meeting him.

As we watched clips of Louie in the last embers of his life, desperately ill and barely walking, but carrying the 2002 Olympic Torch as hundreds of his supporters walked with him, we all felt the profound impact of this man and there was not a single dry eye in the room. When asked why he did such crazy things as training for an Iron Man–which is a hard enough feat, even without the rigors of chemo–Louie had a simple answer: I’m still here. I’m still alive, and I’m going to do it as long as my body allows me.

His fierce attitude and refusal to let go of hope reminds me of another inspiration in my life, my dear friend Brittanie Siobhan, whose memory always weighs heavily on me when I think about why I am coming back for “more torture.” Like Louie, Britt never once succumbed to the belief that she wouldn’t be able to beat this demon. She fought it with every once of strength she had–and boy, did she have a lot. Till her last breath, she was a shining example of courage, grace, humor, and hope, and even now, as an angel, she continues to give me–and so many others who were privileged to know and love her–strength and courage.

I don’t think there will ever be a time when I won’t feel this hole in my heart because she was taken from us. But I also know that she’d be the first to tell me to take that sadness and use it as fuel to carry on in her example to live life to the fullest and leave as mighty an imprint in this world as she did in her all-too-brief 26 years.

So once again, I kick off this season with this: I hope I make you proud, Brittanie Siobhan. Fly with me, dragonfly.

She’s at it again…

Y’all didn’t think I’d stay away, did you?

Summer approaches, which means I am once again gearing up for another season to train for a marathon. Marathon #5 will be on October 9, 2011 in Portland, OR, where I hope to beat Oprah Winfrey’s time of 4:29 set a new PR.

We all have to have something to shoot for :).

But most of all, I am back because we still haven’t come to that blessed day when we can say: There is a cure for cancer.

There is no cure yet. Yet. But as long as I am able, I will continue to put efforts into making sure that “yet” turns into “soon” and that “soon” turns into “now.” Just four days ago, I soberly marked the one year anniversary of my dear friend Brittanie Siobhan’s passing. Cancer robbed me of my friend, and that makes me angry and sad and determined that her fight not be in vain.

And so, I am back with Team In Training and back raising money. If you would like to help support my efforts, I would welcome your very generous donations–remember, no amount is too small! Simply visit http://pages.teamintraining.org/sj/portland11/jenkeepsrunning and help me make cancer cry like a little girl.

Goodbye summer, hello off-season

Tonight, we had the end-of-season wrap party for the Summer season of the South Bay Marathon Team in Training team. This officially marks the end of season, which means we’ll now all be going our separate ways. Some will stay with the team for the Winter season, while others, like me, will take a break and return next summer.

 

Tonight was a joyful and bittersweet event. It was great to see everyone one more time before we go into the off-season, fun to reminisce about all of the craziness of the last few months and the amazingly good times we’ve had. Our photo captain, Wellington, showed us a fantastic video he put together of some of the season’s highlights, and it was so wonderful to get to relive all of those moments again. The video also contained clips of some moving speeches by Honorees and participants who had dedicated this season to loved ones whose lives have been touched by cancer, and others who have lost loved ones to this disease.

 

As usual, those were the moments that brought me to tears and reminded me once again why I keep coming back again and again–and again. This is an organization like no other and its impact on me is profound. Not only have I made some of the closest friends I’ve ever made because of this team, but I’ve had the rare opportunity to truly make a difference in people’s lives. How many chances in life do we get to do just that?

 

I’ll be withdrawal for the next seven months. I’ll still run, of course, and I’ll see my teammates throughout the off-season–I’ll even be back on the runs from time to time to volunteer at the aid stations–but until next summer, I will be fondly missing everyone and my routine and everything that’s involved in Team In Training. At times during the season, I go through moments when I’m feeling burnt out and I’m counting down for the end, but always, always, when I get to the end, I feel more sadness than relief.

 

Till next year, folks. Catch ya on the flip side.

Lucky #13

Half Marathon #13 today–and with this race, the Summer 2010 training season officially ends. What a great, great ride it has been, and it couldn’t have ended on a more uplifting note.

I hadn’t done the Nike Women’s Marathon in a while. It’s always been a special course for me; it was the site of the first half marathon I ever ran back in 2005, and also where I ran my very first full marathon in 2008. I skipped it last year following the Victoria Marathon and decided to cheer on my teammates instead, but watching them last year, I got the itch to do it once more, so I signed up to run it this summer.

I had forgotten how much fun this event is–and it is an “event” in the fullest sense. The weekend starts off with a raucous, emotional “Inspiration Dinner,” where we fill up on pasta and get to listen to some motivating speeches. Before you even get into the hall where the food is, you are greeted by a chorus of applause and cheers, and you feel like a hero. Among those cheering are our Honorees, who are just as excited to see us, the runners/fundraisers, as we are to see them, the true heroes. One of them carried a sign that stopped me dead in my tracks and had me in tears before I could even make my way down the stairs into the entrance hall. His sign said: “I’m a survivor because of you.”

 

"I'm a survivor because of you"

Really sums it all up, doesn't it?

 

Inside, we heard from several speakers. The second to final one of the night was one that I don’t think anyone in the room will ever be able to forget. A fellow runner from Portland, Oregon got up to tell us about her sister, whom she lost to Lymphoma last year, and the story of how she and her seven remaining sisters (“Team Nancy,” they called themselves) all banded together to train for this year’s Nike Half Marathon to honor their sister, Nancy. She spoke with tremendous passion and emotion, and by the end of her speech, I was sobbing.

Once again, I was reminded of Siobhan, and the pain of missing her, the pain of losing her, overwhelmed me as it so often has since March 6. I went to sleep with a great ache in my heart and a promise to her that I would do my best in this race to show her one more time how much she still–and always will–inspire me.

As in Victoria, rain was called for in the forecast. Having dodged it last week, I wasn’t sure if my luck would hold, but I felt strong, loose, and ready when I stepped out in the cold, dark streets of San Francisco.

 

Up early for a run

Up early for a run...

 

The first five miles flew by and before we knew it, we were charging up a hill (ok, maybe not charging up it, but we did climb up it!) and already at the halfway point. I was focused on having fun and honoring Siobhan–not on getting any kind of time goal. This made the experience so much more enjoyable, despite all the hills.

As per usual, my little dragonfly made her presence known to me when I most needed it :). As I made my way along the course, I came across this sign: “Go Britt!” It made me smile and I do think it was Brittanie Siobhan’s way of saying hello to me while I was out there.

 

Go Britt!

Go Britt!

 

We made our way into Golden Gate Park where we were met by the very energetic Janine, who was a sight for sore eyes. Actually, we HEARD Janine before we ever saw her; she was brandishing a monster of a cowbell and its unique sound reached us for what seemed like a mile away.

 

I want more cowbell!

I want more cowbell!

 

Unfortunately, this is also when the light drizzle we’d been feeling turned into full on pouring down rain. By the time we made our way into the finisher’s chute, the rain was gushing out of the sky. It didn’t matter at that point, though–I had finished my second race in as many weeks and it felt FANTASTIC!

 

A firefighter in a tux + Tiffany's box... does it get any better?

A firefighter in a tux + Tiffany's box... does it get any better?

 

Now it is time once again to rest up, because yes, yet another race is just around the corner. Next up is the Morgan Hill Marathon Relay on November 7, and thankfully this time, I will not have to run any more than 6.5 miles. I also have three weeks to recover/rest, so I can get that long-awaited break I’ve been looking forward to.

Now my Tuesday nights and Saturday mornings will be mine once again, but I am already missing my teammates. I will see many of them over the next few months, but it won’t be until next June that we will get together once again as a team and train for another race (or two or three ;)). What a fun summer this has been. Simply unforgettable.

Go Team!!

Here we go again…

Did I really sign up to do a half marathon a week after a full marathon? And did I really choose the Nike Half Marathon–aka hills, hills, and more hills–of all half marathons I could have possibly chosen?

 

Why yes, I did.

 

Look, there's my name on the "wall of names" at Nike Town. I guess it's official now--I have to "just do it"!

Look, there's my name on the "wall of names" at Nike Town. I guess it's official now--I have to "just do it"!

When I declared at the start of the season that I was going to make the ambitious attempt at doing three races in a row–San Jose Rock ‘N Roll Half Marathon, Victoria Marathon, and Nike Half Marathon, I didn’t quite have the full grasp of what I was actually signing up for. As the season wore on and reality set in (and the intimidation factor of trying to break my previous marathon PR by at least 30 min sunk in), I decided to drop out of the Rock ‘N Roll race after all. But that still left my two back-to-back events (plus a third in November that I registered for on a whim: the Morgan Hill Marathon Relay), and now that the first of the two is over, I’m starting to feel that slight panic again.

 

Of course, it helps to remind myself why I signed up for this particular race in the first place: the gear.

 

Oh the pretties...

With Nike as the sponsor, was there ever any doubt that the race gear would be nothing short of fabulous?

Just kidding. (Well, sort of–I mean, the gear IS pretty rockin’).

 

Of course, the REAL reason I am doing this race–and all of the other races I’ve done this season–is to honor my heroes.

 

You and me again, little dragonfly

You and me again, little dragonfly

This one in particular has double meaning: not only is it an official Team In Training event, but the race itself is a benefit for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, so by running in this race, I am directly helping to put money into the hands of those amazing cancer researchers, doctors, nurses, and educators. That’s something worthwhile indeed.

 

Now, I can’t promise I’ll run this one all the way through. I will do my best, but I will probably switch to run/walk at some point (maybe even walking altogether ;)). But I am hoping that when that gun goes off tomorrow and the race officially starts, my fatigue will fall by the wayside and I will be able to conquer that course the way I conquered the one in Victoria.

 

With my dragonfly flying beside me, how could I not?

On the wings of a dragonfly

Marathon #4 is now officially in the books! And it was quite the unforgettable ride. But first, let me back up a little and start the story properly…

 

Marathon finisher!
Marathon finisher!

My friends and I arrived in Victoria late Friday afternoon to miserable, dreary weather. Things were only projected to get worse; on Sunday, the day of the race, weather.com was predicting 90% chance of rain. Having run the Napa Marathon in the rain just last year, I was not keen to relive that particular experience.

 

We all stayed in denial about the weather (“There’s a 10% chance of it not raining!” Janine kept saying), and I, in a moment of delusional grandeur, even made the Joe Namath-like declaration that I would make sure we would not see a drop of rain. My friend, Juana, told me (with a serious face that was a little unnerving ;)), “I’m holding you to that.”

 

Onwards we proceeded, strategizing about finish times and contingent finish times and what we’d need to do to accomplish each time goal. We all decided we were going to shoot for a 5 hour marathon, but would be prepared to drop back to a 5:20 finish, just in case things didn’t go as predicted. “Piece of cake,” says Janine (it wasn’t, but more on that later).

 

With each hour that passed, my anxiety grew. By the time Sunday morning came, I was one giant raw nerve, and I had to take a moment to pray, meditate, and reflect on why I was doing this in the first place. I thought of my Honorees, especially my dear Brittanie Siobhan, whose diagnosis came just one year ago this past Wednesday, the same day as the seven month anniversary of her passing. I wrote her name on the bottom of my shoe, touched the dragonfly charm on my necklace, and asked her to carry me forward in the toughest moments.

 

 

 

Lift me up, carry me forward, little dragonfly

Lift me up, carry me forward, little dragonfly

 

 

I think she heard me.

 

We stepped out onto the start line and miraculously, there was no rain. Not even a hint of it–only wet pavement and blue skies up ahead, where we were headed. So much for the 90% chance of rain! That was my first “hello” from my dragonfly, and many, many more to come as the race progressed.

 

The first half of the marathon went swimmingly–my friends and I stuck together, stuck to our plan, and we were on track for a kick-ass finish. At the pace we were going, we were actually headed towards an improbable 4:45 finish, a full 15 minutes faster than any of us had planned for.

 

And then the wheels came off, and boy, did they come off.

 

I’m still not sure what made the switch flip, but at around mile 13 or 14, I felt the fatigue set in, the aches and pains start to taunt me, and as I fell behind my speedier, stronger friends, I started to feel discouraged, lonely, and wishing I had chosen to do the half marathon instead.

 

That’s when my dragonfly went to work. I felt her presence with me with every step and thoughts of her kept me going–and also made me cry. I thought of her struggle in her last few months on earth. I thought of her parents and her sister and her brother, and the great void she’s left in their lives. And I thought of the many years we were out of touch and how I wished more than anything we could have reconnected sooner. When I saw Coach Stacy, the coach from our sister team in Santa Cruz, at the 34km mark, the dam broke completely on my tears. I cried uncontrollably, heavy sobs wracking my body, and I babbled out, “I never got to say goodbye to my Honoree.” Thankfully, Coach Stacy knew exactly what to do and say. She ran with me and got me through my mini meltdown.

 

“Don’t let me give up,” I told her.

 

“I won’t,” she said. “Just put one foot in front of the other. That’s all it takes.”

 

The next 7km or so (how many miles is that exactly? I never did figure that out) were miserable, hard, and took everything I had in me. The dream of a 5 hour finish was long gone, but I still had a shot at the “piece of cake” 5:20 (did I mention it wasn’t a piece of cake?). I sucked it up and kept going and made a deal with Siobhan: “I won’t give up on you if you don’t give up on me.”

 

At 40km, I saw a dragonfly flutter past, and I knew I could take this home. Not long after, I saw one of my teammates, Mike, and I asked him to run with me. He told me I was going to rock this and that I was nearly there. He left me at the start of the last 400m, and then Coach Tim met me. He asked me if I was going to PR and I told him yes. He asked me if it would be a big PR, and I said yes. He gave me a high five, told me he loved me, then let me take the final .2km in towards the finish line.

 

Legs throbbing, lungs burning, I heaved myself across that finish line and let out a primal scream.

 

DONE!!!!!!!!!

 

This journey was not undertaken alone. I owe so very, very much to my teammates, especially Juana, Janine, Ilya, and Marc, who ran most of this marathon and the season with me; my coaches for pushing me to do my very best and made it a breakthrough season for me; our team manager/den mother for taking such good care of our team; my family and friends for their unwavering support; my incredibly generous donors for helping the cause that’s so close to my heart; the Hansons and the Gunters for their encouragement, strength, and grace; and of course, Siobhan, Evan, and Papa Loc, for carrying me all season long, especially in the toughest moments yesterday.

 

Now it’s time to celebrate, recover, and get ready for this coming Sunday’s Nike Half Marathon.

 

Oh and my time? 5:17:58. Almost 31 minutes faster than my previous PR of 5:48. It was a very good day.

 

 

 

With two of the best teammates ever

With two of the best teammates ever