Sunday, September 25, 2011

What a Difference a Year Makes

Yesterday, I ran the course preview in preparation for the 2011 Baltimore Marathon. It was so different from last year’s course preview run that I thought it would be worth reflecting on why things are so different. Of course, I am sure that I will have some reflections to share after this year’s marathon in three weeks. But, since I have not been writing nearly as much this year during the training, I think it is worth pausing to make an assessment of how different things were and why that was the case.

Let me begin with a statement that a friend sent me in an email the day before the course preview. She suggested that I run with joy. One year ago, for many reasons, there was little joy in the course preview run—other than finishing at all. This year, the entire experience was different and so much more positive. I could run with joy. And it amazes me how much I can accomplish when I run with joy—or do just about anything with joy. Bringing joy as a primary motivator to my work, my family, or any other activity makes a big difference.

So, why so much difference in the ability to run with joy?

Let me begin with something as simple as the weather. Last year, I don’t have the exact temp written down but it was hot. Probably 80 degrees before 8 AM. It was like a late summer day rather than an early fall day. And trying to run 20 miles without much shade in such temperatures was just crazy. Yesterday was humid, which was still not fun, but not nearly as hot.

The second thing was my own physical status. Last year, I was a first time marathon runner. I’d run two races in September—a 20 mile run at the beginning of the month and a half marathon the week before the course preview. The latter was a very good half marathon for me (personal best on time up to that point) but I made the mistake of scheduling to run a half marathon immediately before getting on a plane for a trip to South Africa. My already sore muscles (last year was the first time I pushed myself to achieve this level of fitness) tightened up more than I ever would have thought possible. When I returned, I spent much of the remaining three weeks in physical therapy. This year, my muscles are a bit sore but it is nothing like last year. One reason—my body has had the experience before. Second reason—my training has been consistent for nearly the past nine months. Third reason—I have taken the consistent training very seriously.

Third thing that was different was some lessons learned since last year—try to get some calories in my body in the morning before I run, hydrate well (even on practice runs), and bring something for calories while I run. Last year, despite the heat, I did not hydrate as much as I should have AND I did not bring anything with me to get more calories in me while I ran. This year, I have had such a different approach before I run, while I run, and even after I run (lots of protein as soon as possible), that it has made a big difference.

The fourth difference is that the course no longer feels like a nemesis to be conquered but more like an old friend. I know that must sound crazy, but here is the thought. Last year, I didn’t know much about the part of the course around the Inner Harbor and I didn’t like the part of the course through either Druid Hill Park or coming away from Lake Montebello. This year, I have run a race and several practice runs around Druid Hill Park. Lake Montebello and 33rd Street are areas that I am more familiar with, and I have had the opportunity to do several practice runs near the Harbor area. So, yesterday’s run was about getting in miles, having a solid (rather than necessarily a very fast) performance, and visiting the places that I know well and that I know I will revisit one more time three weeks from now. Last year, especially on the practice run day, I just felt like I had to overcome. Yesterday was just like checking in. And I think of it as checking in with an old friend as I have friends that will sit across the table from me in discussion and challenge me. Challenge me to change my thinking—which the course has done with respect to my running and from running to how I manage my life in general. Challenge me to change my health behaviors—and, again, I have taken my running to a different level. Challenge me just to live a better life and be a better person.

Now, you may ask how a marathon course has done that. Well, last year I blogged a LOT more often. This year, I have been writing about other things (for work), although I miss blogging. I actually think that it helped me to structure my life better as I took not only a designate time for running but also a designated time for writing almost every day. Structure is good. And, in the end, I turned last year’s experience into a short novel. This year, where did the overall improvement in the rest of my life come from?

The overall improvement came from realizing that, after doing this once, I have something to offer. In a question of whether art imitates life or life imitates art, the story that I wrote had the main character eventually speaking to the group of runners for the charity for which he was raising funds. For me, that will come true in three weeks. In the story I wrote, the main character became a leader within his community. Last year, I was a member of the community. This year, I’m not sure I’d say I’m a leader, but I am definitely a member in a MUCH different way. My running has become a source of being extroverted—gaining strength from a group—rather than being introverted—spending endless hours on my own and enjoying it. I have reached a point at which I encourage others and they encourage me. There are some where we don’t run anywhere near the same times, but my encouragement to them is just to keep getting better—till they are as good as they can get. Their encouragement to me is pretty much the same. And, at the end of the day that is what matters.

Running can make me not only the most fit person and fastest person I can be, but running—in the right proportion with everything else in my life and taken with all the meticulous seriousness that I put into writing a grant or paper at work—can help me to be a better person.

Have I forgotten all the spiritual and life lessons I learned last year, after Gerry Paradiso passed and I raised money for the American Cancer Society? Certainly not. Has the focus shifted a bit from last year? Yes. But I just see it as part of an ongoing evolution that began with my response to Gerry’s passing. And the challenge that I bet most people at his memorial service came away with—to be the best we can be in all that we do.

As a final thought--yesterday I finished the course running north on Linwood back to Patterson park with a smile on my face and a spring in my step. The year before I had to drag myself to the finish. I just hope now that the year in between has brought enough so that I am feeling just as much difference at the end of the marathon as I did at the of the training run.

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