Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Machismo Comes in a Little Pink Bottle

So, I don't know if you've ever spent a summer in our nation's glorious capital, but it isn't exactly a runner's paradise. Temperatures have been in the 80s well before the sun rises, and humidity hovers somewhere approaching 90% (which is, in my humble opinion, just sheer laziness--why not simply rain?). I could go on and on about the weather (that and tourists are every DC-ite's favorite summer conversation topics), but I digress.

Heat-schmeat, training must go on and over at Blair House the Back On My Feet Crowd is racking up mileage. This leads to a conversation about hydration and a completely unexpected bump in the road: the guys don't like their pink water bottles. Some background: Our first race was sponsored by another awesome running-related non-profit (Girls On The Run, check 'em out) and so the swag bag was filled with pink stuff...and hairbands. During the race itself we kept our focus on the important things: good form, finishing strong, not getting our asses kicked by 8 year old girls. But after the finish line and the hula hoop workshops (little girls, remember?) we were left with half a dozen hardened men and quite a few pink water bottles.

I hear you. "Who cares?" you're asking (probably while drinking from a chic smoke-grey Nalgene bottle). Apparently, at least some of the aforementioned hardened and full-grown men do. "But it's the twenty-first century!" you protest. Um-hmmm, sure it is. "So whaddya gonna do, Coach?" you ask (and, frankly, I don't appreciate that smirk there, dear reader). Well, I'm gonna schedule some ball busting interval and hill work, that's what I'm going to do--and share my water, I mean I'm not a monster. On Monday morning one chastened runner carried his bottle with him and found the water therein to be pretty friggin' great. Tomorrow morning we'll hopefully have a couple more. And on Saturday, when we huff and puff our way up a mile long climb on 7th avenue, we're have a whole line of big, tough, macho runners taking long and satisfying swigs out of little pink bottles.

And we invite you to come and make fun of them...you know, if you can keep up.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Fabulous Five-Miler

There's something about doing a five mile run that moves you into a whole new category; at three miles you may still be a jogger, or "somebody who runs sometimes," and four miles really feels more like "one short of five" than a distance in and of itself. At five miles though, you're a Runner.

Schoolhouse Rock taught us that “three is a magic number,” but the only thing approximating a three-miler is a 3.1 mile race, better known as—wait for it—a 5k. Mathematicians know it as the first “good prime” number (also a Fibonaci number which I don’t really understand, but find kind of fun to say.) According to Pythagorians five was mystical because it’s the sum of the first two numbers, 2 + 3. (They didn’t count “1” as a number, which is convenient if a bit confusing.) The Buddhists say there are five hindrances (there’s some overlap there with the seven deadly sins, but really who hasn’t found some redundancies between lust and envy?).

I think that at least in this context it’s significant because when you’re out of breath and bending over and somebody says, “Hey you look tired, how far did you go?” you can just hold up your hand and they get the point…and hopefully a nice cold glass of water for you. Whatever the reason, there’s just something big about hitting the five-mile mark as a runner and this weekend some of our members at Blair House were initiated into that noble and time-honored sect. Membership includes the right to complain about sore quads in public and the right to a second cupcake—“Why thank you, I think I will, you see I ran five miles today and I’m rather peckish.” But being runners as we are, it also means we immediately start thinking, I wonder what ten feels like.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Member of the Month

Over the weekend we non-resident members of Blair House (i.e., the volunteers) had a spirited conversation about which of the resident BOMF member should be our first "Member of the Month." There were a lot of opinions, and each one was backed up with a convincing reason: who has made every run (even the ones in the rain), who cheers for his teammates loudest, who complains the least, who has improved the most, who do others seem to look up to, who is in danger of getting lost in the crowd? Now, I suppose the good news is that with 12 members and 12 months each and every one of these nominations can get the award sooner or later. But the exercise itself was an excellent reminder that there is no one "homeless person."

Everybody stereotypes--c'mon, don't deny it, when's the last time you just knew that slow driver in front of you was an old man...in a hat--and it isn't always for ignoble reasons. To fight for people it can be expedient to lump them together as The People. Homelessness is a crisis and sometimes just trotting out the horrifying total numbers is the most effective way to get people to snap to attention. (Best estimates put the number at 3.5 million Americans over the course of a year, and between 660,000 and 800,000 on any given night, numbers that as you might imagine are on the rise in this economy.)

But as I spend more and more time with the guys at Blair House it becomes impossible to lump them together like that; everyone's story is just too different. Not only did they each take a different path, they've each ended up in a very different place, even if all those places share the same physical address. Angry, frustrated, determined, philosophical, cavalier, stoic, brave, rueful, grateful: all of these, and none of these, are the right response to finding oneself living in a shelter.

So who's the Member of the Month? Some one person will be named (yeah, I know who but we won't announce it 'til the end of the week), and he'll get tickets to take a pal to see a movie one night. But really, they all are.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


OK, technically I am not "absent without leave." I mean, I told folks that I had to travel for work, and I fulfilled my Coach duties earlier today by mapping and mailing a route for the run tomorrow morning. Nevertheless, between dropping the dog off at the boarding facility (very swanky, thank you, so no disparaging comments about me farming her out) and getting everything set up for the cat sitter, not to mention the minor time-consuming indignities of the TSA, I have to miss my run with the BOMF crew tomorrow morning. And that bums me out.

The fact is, nobody else in my life is as consistently cheerful and filled with smiles early in the morning as Greg. And Al simply cracks me up. Kevin likes to slyly challenge me to run faster than perhaps I wanted, and Mike and Scott remind me that sometimes slowing down means you can take the time to learn something new. Will, Ron and Pierre teach me that quality can be more important than quantity when it comes to chatter, and I appreciate that Jose comes out to warm up with us even on days that he then has to scoot off to the job that keeps him on his feet all day long. Anthony loves to talk running, just like me, and Ralph makes me giggle. Andrea's smile lights up the whole city, and Meghan has a great laugh (plus she's a fellow Clevelander). Kelly is a firecracker, Stephanie is charmingly sleepy and Todd has just the right balance of self-effacement and authority. Dave, Tim, Beth, Michelle, Brenda, Steve--every week the group embraces more and more people committed to changing the world one mile at a time, every one of them with something to teach me about being a better person.

I am so very glad I'll be back in time for the run on Friday!!!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Running Our Own Race

On Sunday the Blair House guys run their first 5k race, and I am terribly terribly jealous about it. I still remember how it felt the first time I ran across a finish line and while I can rejoice in extending the distance or improving the time, I also know it'll never feel quite like that again. It was one of those breast cancer runs--but because it was Los Angeles and because Oprah was running it, it was of course outsized. And very very pink. I'd spent a year recovering from a horrible bike/car accident (I was on the losing side) including a fractured pelvic bone and a punctured lung and was running in honor of my grandmother who'd recently been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Between us, I was not entirely sure I could do the distance. Given the crowds it was hard to start off too fast or, frankly, finish too fast, but it did force you to run your own race. Whether you call it 5 kilometers or just over 3 miles, it feels long the first time you do it and you find yourself searching for those mile markers. But during the last half mile something happened: there were loads of cheering people as we rounded the UCLA campus and I found that I actually felt pretty good. Even with those hills--and if Westwood offers anything to a runner it's lots and lots of hills--my legs were strong and I was still running. When I saw the finish banner I thought, well I'll be damned, I'm going to do this! And seconds later, somewhat to my surprise, I did finish and got a little teary as I picked up my medal.

No one's affliction is any better or worse than any one else's, but many of these guys are overcoming problems much longer lasting than any single car accident. Nevertheless, they've been putting in the miles three times a week getting stronger and stronger. This Sunday they'll all cross their first 5k finish line, and I predict I'll get all teary all over again.

Friday, April 30, 2010

That & A Lot of Spare Change Will Get Ya a Pair of Running Shoes

So I'd vowed--publicly--back in early April to donate $1 for every mile I log training for the MCM to meeting my fundraising goal for Back On My Feet. I conscientiously logged every mile and did the math today (but they said there would be no math!!) and came up with 104 for April. Not stellar, but not bad for the month dedicated to getting over the Snowpocolypse slump before the real training begins.

They say that the beauty of running is that there's a low bar to entry. Anybody can do it, you don't need a field or a court or even a ball. It can be done alone or in groups, and it travels well. (Have you ever tried to pack up a bike for a work trip? Then you know what I'm talking about here.) And yet, it isn't really something that just anybody can pick up and do one day. Not if they don't want to hurt themselves. Yeah, you can run in a cotton t-shirt and not a fancy schmantzy super-wicking space-age-fibers thing. And, sure, you can pull out those old gym shorts and make do with those rather than super slick running tights complete with specialized compression fabrics to massage your quads while you run. But the fact is, if you run in crappy shoes you're going down. And let me tell you, running shoes are spendy. Potentially, really really spendy. (We only have one car, largely due to my running shoe budget, I think.)

This $104 I'm putting in the pot today will cover the cost of a pair of shoes for one of the Back On My Feet residential members. The $2500 I'm trying to raise overall will cover the costs of equipment and scholarships for about 1.5 members over the course of a year. Enough to change the world? Enough to offset all the challenges of finding oneself homeless? Nah. But enough to get somebody like Kevin on the road. When BOMF and its running store partner, Pacers, suited up K. he got a super cool pair of bright yellow running shoes. BRIGHT YELLOW. We all gave him kind of a hard time about it on the first day. "Put Kevin out front so he can light the way!" "Hey, where's K.? I'm blinded by some bright-ass shoes!" But K.--who will be pretty up front with you about his former drug problems and having done a couple of stints in jail in his time--had a smile that outshone those shoes when he finished his first mile. And he's shown up every run since so that he can earn points toward getting grant money to go get his GED.

Today I hit more than 2/3 of my fundraising goal for the Marine Corps Marathon and BOMF due to the generosity of some pretty amazing people. I'm hoping that by the time that race rolls around, I'll have logged many hundreds of more miles, and there will be a lot of BOMF members sporting some bright yellow shoes.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Meditation Schmeditation

Lesson One from my half marathon this weekend: I’m almost exactly two songs too short on my running playlist for a 13.1 mile run. A few minutes after crossing the marker for mile 12 the iPod shuffled through its last song and then….silence. Okay, not exactly “silence.” I heard my feet hitting the ground—bam, bam, bam, bam---and some folks cheering for us from the side of the road. And I heard my breath. Just recently I read an article about meditative running; focusing in on one’s breath to train the mind even as one trains the body, and to remain fully present. Thing is, my breath at that moment sounded less meditative and more in need of medical attention. It had a lot to say about the last 12-plus miles: the long uphill between 8 and 10, the generous (nay, excessive) amounts of pollen in the air and the strain of the first long run in a while.

But the iPod was in a zippered pocket and getting it started again wasn’t going to be the easiest thing in the world given that my hands were a little slick with sweat and suntan lotion (and can we just take a moment to recognize that Coppertone really and truly is the official smell of summertime?). So I thought I’d give it try. I am, after all, what my friend Meg calls an “accidental Buddhist” as well as an incorrigible multi-tasker, and if running and meditating could forever blot out the idea of those two elements being mutually exclusive, well then I was all for it.

I tried to focus on taking deep breaths through my almost-but-not-entirely-Claritin-cleared nose and to feel the air filling my lungs, then to trace it moving through my blood stream to my pounding heart and my tired legs. I tried to feel the energy of an entire planet inhaling and exhaling as the air moved through my body. I tried to listen to the sound of the exhalation and note the relationship between it and the rhythm of my feet on the pavement. I tried. But mostly, I heard myself gasping a little bit and my mind was wholly focused on the fact that I had just over ten minutes to go and the hope that all the hills were truly behind us. So I wiped my hands off on my not-so-very-clean shirt, reached into that pocket, smeared sunscreen on the iPod and was almost immediately rewarded with the opening notes of “This Tornado Loves You” by Neko Case.

I’ll try it again, just not in the midst of a race. Maybe I’ll actually turn off the podcasts during my next run in the woods or spend an early morning on the suburban roads taking in the silence. Oh, what were the other lessons from this weekend? Well, I was actually stronger and faster than I thought I’d be, taking 3rd in my age group. Also, Red Velvet Cake is a nice post-race carb replacement. And lastly, Charlottesville, Virginia, is very hilly.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Does it still count as “running” if you don’t actually go anywhere?

Because it is raining today, and because I’m increasingly wimpy as I get older and grumpier, I logged my five mile run on the treadmill. Don’t panic, this is not going to be an extended exegesis comparing the rest of my life to a treadmill; (a) that would be trite, and (b) as the rest of my life lacks an attached television or emergency stop switch I fear such a comparison would be quite depressing. But it did get me thinking about what it means to build a base.

I had to get in the miles today because this month is about making my base good and solid before kicking into higher mileage. Without a good, solid, consistent 25-30 miles a week everything will start hurting as I move toward two and three hour training runs on the weekend (and yes, I do mean EVERYTHING). Base building can be boring. There’s no glory in a daily 5 mile run; no boasting rights or chest puffing or the groovy oxygen-starved hallucinations of victory that so often accompany lactic acid. It’s easy to under appreciate the prosaic run which all too often covers the same old ground over and over.

But as I slogged along on that treadmill, I started thinking about all the people who have pledged their support in this effort of mine to regain my running legs and raise some money for Back On My Feet. At so many points in the last 40-some-odd years there were points where I might have fallen through the cracks; when one of my famously impetuous and misguided decisions could have resulted in a nasty fall. But my donor list reads like a team of incredible guides or teachers; a sort of “This Is Your Life” for a truly lucky girl who might otherwise have been one of the residents of the shelters BOMF partners with.

There are my parents, both of whom have their own experiences with military life and thus an affinity for the veterans I’m running with, but who have always walked that line between healthy skepticism and unwavering support for me. And there are friends from grammar school/junior high/high school who stood by me through teen-aged angst and bad haircuts alike (hey, it was the ‘80s), many of whom has reappeared in my life recently and reminded me of all the good things about growing up in the ‘burbs. The list includes friends from grad school, where pretty late in the game I learned that I might actually have to work a bit to keep from falling behind. And of course friends and co-workers from my adult life: fascinating bright people who hold a variety of jobs in a variety of places but all seem to have in common a desire to help other people and leave the world a little better than it was when they got here.

My base is definitely strong. Oh, and I did manage to get through those five miles, too.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The First Mile (& a 1/2) is the Toughest

When my alarm went off at 4:30 this morning two thoughts went through my head: (1) I probably shouldn’t have had that last glass of wine last night, and (2) this latest harebrained scheme of mine might be over ambitious. But I crawled out of bed and toward the coffee maker and not long afterwards was careening along the beltway with some typically bad Mapquest directions on my lap. I was a moving stereotype—a well-paid white woman in her $125 running shoes, driving a Prius and listening to NPR, savoring the memory of her Peet’s coffee—headed off to Washington Highlands, one of the poorest and least well-served neighborhoods in Washington, D.C.

Today was my first day of running with some of the residents of the Southeast Veterans Center Shelter, a location I’d specifically requested from the DC branch of “Back On My Feet.” While the ever-growing problem of homeless makes me angry in general (really—the richest nation on earth and we can’t recognize that shelter is a fundamental human right?), I find the epidemic of homelessness among veterans especially galling. Over the course of a year, about 200,000 vets spend at least a night out on the streets, and the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans estimates another 1.5 million are living on the edge, precariously balanced just this side of homelessness. And these are stats from BEFORE the current recession.

After some calisthenics we hit the road for a hilly 1.5 mile run. Generally speaking, I don’t get out of bed for anything less than a 5k these days, but for the vet I was running with today was a milestone. It was the first time he’d done one of his three-day-a-week runs without stopping to walk. In fact, as we turned the last corner he broke out into a sprint. We didn’t talk a lot about grand socio-political issues or the vagaries of life while we ran because for that mile-and-a-half we were both just runners; panting up the hills, praising the down slopes, remarking on the view from the top of Atlantic and comparing strategies for dealing with sore muscles. I know he was in the Air Force. He’s knows I’m from Ohio. Mostly we both know there’s a 5k race coming up in 3 weeks that would be a monumental achievement for him to finish and it’ll take some real work to get ready for it. Will a 5k change his life or his housing situation? Nope. But the pride and self-respect we’ll see on his face at the finish line will help get him there.

I myself am going to shoot for my first marathon in over 6 years. I finished my last one with an ice bag duct-taped to my knee and ever since I have slowly moved further and further away from seeing myself as a “marathoner.” I’m going to do the Marine Corps Marathon in October as a fundraiser for BOMF, even though I know it’s going to take a lot of hard work just to get to that starting line (the finish line is almost too much to contemplate right now). I think that my partner’s tips on muscle cramps are going to be more and more useful as we go along this summer.

If you’re interested in sponsoring me on this mid-life adventure, check out my fundraising page at: http://www.active.com/donate/BOMFMCMarathon2010/AChrist255 I’m going to donate a dollar for every mile I run, so be sure to give me a shove out the door each week too.