This was my 6th half marathon race. Every race I run I am always nervous. Usually my anxiety increases until I feel like I might puke. And this time my anxiety was high, but not that high. Honestly, I had low expectations for this race. I have been sick with a cold and allergies and been running slow this winter too. All in all, I would have been happy with any time under 2 hours. I had resolved not to beat myself up even if my time was over 2 hours.
The morning was cold. In the 30’s and with a piercing wind. My original plan to wear spring weight clothes was scrapped and I broke out my winter gear. I didn’t sleep hardly at all the night before and had nightmares about getting to the start line late. Finally, I was sore from the 30 miles I had already put in over the course of the week. I hurt at the start line.
But there I was. At the start. Lined up in the last wave of half marathon runners, hoping my broke down body didn’t make me into a liar. I had signed up in the last wave, expecting to finish in under 2 hours, and now hoping I could do it.
The first mile all I could think was that my body was moving too slowly as I watched people pull away from me. Then my running app announced my time: 7:58. I better slow down, I thought. Then for the next several miles I trundled along through Peaceful Valley, then Browne’s Addition. I barely registered the historic mansions passing by in my peripheral vision. I was fixated on the ground in front of my feet.
When I got to People’s Park I caught up with the first groups of walkers I would pass. I was able to maintain a good pace and energy through switchbacks leading up to Kendall Yards. At the first turn around point I got to see some of the truly fast runners coming back my way as I went out and they flew back in. At about 8 1/2 miles I felt a flood of adrenaline and endorphins hit my brain and I couldn’t feel my body. It was like I had gone numb for a quarter mile. Then feeling returned and I continued on out to Mission Park. As I was heading out to start the loop around the park, I saw a friend of mine completing his loop on his way back to the finish. Then, after managing to get my fleece hoodie off, and all of my gear back on, I started the final 3 miles of the race.
This is my favorite part. I love seeing people up ahead and passing them. Especially if we have been trading places during the race. I knew the route back in to the finish well since I run this area all the time during my regular runs. I was able to maintain and pick up speed those last few miles. Just after the 13 mile marker I realized I was still holding back and remembered that I didn’t need to anymore. This was it. The finish line. When I crossed it I had a PR of almost 2 minutes and placed 4th in my age group. I was tired but not spent. It was an excellent race.
Today is my runniversary. Or it could be. I don’t actually know the date of my first run. Or the run that started it all. The run that was the first of hundreds of runs. Thousands of miles. I do know this: it was an unseasonably warm day in the first two weeks of April, 2013. It was a Thursday or Friday. And it was an act of desperation.
It was a day when my anxiety was overwhelming. It was so bad I left work early in the afternoon because I couldn’t function. When I got back to my stifling second floor apartment I looked at my couch and thought that I could lay down on that couch and drive myself crazy listening to my racing thoughts and hyperventilating, or I could leave. I could run. I could run until I was tired. And then I could turn around and come home. Walk home if I had to.
And so I did. I also don’t remember how far or how fast I ran. I’m sure it was slow and short. What I do remember is the feeling of my heart pounding, not because I was terrified about the collapse of every plan I had made for my life, but because my body was working hard. And I remember how warm it was. And I remember the sun shining on me.
That was the beginning. The first step.
The last four weeks have been tough. I had the flu. That included one solid week of running a fever, chills, fatigue, headache, body aches generally having no energy. Then there was another week where I didn’t run a fever but I was still tired and achy. I now have a sinus infection that I’m taking antibiotics for (and tearing up my intestines) and I started seeing blood in my urine again. Which is to say that running has been especially challenging this month. In fact, I looked back at this month today and realized that my last really enjoyable run was February 2.
Until Thursday. When I headed out the front door of the YMCA yesterday morning I didn’t feel tired or particularly frazzled. It was colder by a few degrees than it has been but I wasn’t that cold. I could feel my fingers and toes. I was even running a little faster than I started out on Wednesday. It was shaping up to be a good run.
The ice on the Centennial Trail is mostly gone at this point. Footing is sure. I powered through the first 3 miles of my run. Then out past Kendall Yards. After I turned to run home I saw another runner in the distance and watched as we approached each other. As we came close he pulled up and greeted me and I realized who he was. One of the people that I follow on Strava. We have never met in person but I started following him after we ran the same route at the same time. It was a neat moment and reminded me how much I love the community of runners. I don’t have the time to join a running or training group at this time in my life but I still get to participate in this community through social media. I am grateful for that.
How do I run in the snow? I get this question a lot. The most honest answer is that I just do it. The longer answer? I do it. Slower. Carefully. With a lot more clothes than when I run in temperate weather. Let’s talk about warmth first.
I hate being cold. My hands and feet are almost always cold. I have medical condition called Reynauds Syndrome that prevents my blood from flowing to my hands and feet and fingers and toes regularly. It’s particularly bad if I touch something cold– like the steering wheel of my car first thing in the morning or run my hands under cold water. The ends of my fingers turn white and get tingly. Sometimes they stay that way for the better part of an hour. It’s miserable.
So, when I run outside in the cold, my first concern is making sure I will be warm enough. Or at least as warm as I can manage without turning into Randy from A Christmas Story. Layering is the key. First, the base layer.
I wear fleece lined running tights in the winter. My favorite pair comes from Athleta. They are ridiculously expensive but really warm. My second favorite is Zella (Nordstrom store brand.) they are only about $20 cheaper, and also warm. On top I wear long sleeved tech shirts. I have three Nike shirts that I bought on clearance and one Zella brand shirt. I have worn them each for hundreds of miles, at least, and all are holding up pretty well. My oldest Nike shirt has some pilling now but that’s it.
Next layer is a light weight pair of windbreaker type pants. I bought these at The Gap last fall. They are good for retaining some body heat around your legs, especially if it’s windy. On top I pull on a long sleeve fleecy shirt. I have two that I rotate. One has a hood and one has a head swallowing funnel neck. Both are good for retaining some of your body heat on cold days.
Lastly, I cover my hands and my head. Did you know that you lose a significant amount of body heat through the top of your head? Wearing a hat is a good way to keep some of that heat from escaping. I have several handknit wool hats that I rotate on my runs. Taking off my hat mid run is also a good way to cool down if I get too hot. I often take my hat off and shove it into the back waistband of my tights in the middle of a run.
Hands. My hands are the hardest thing to keep warm. I usually wear two pairs of coverings on them in the winter: a pair of either cotton or tech gloves and a pair of wool mittens over top of them. Even so, I often am a couple of miles into a run before they get warm.
Once I’m out the door I can shed some layers as I run if I get too warm. Gloves and hats can be shoved into the waist band of my tights. If I really get warm I can also pull off my fleece shirt and tie it around my waist as I run.
This is the bottom of my left foot.
Doesn’t look right, does it? Well, it’s been like that– calloused toes and strange calloused skin on the ball of my foot — since sometime last spring.
The summer of 2015 I had plantars fasciitis pain in my heels so I changed where my foot was striking the pavement. Eventually I developed this new, possibly more serious, issue. My doctor says I have a neuroma and I’m sure that’s true. A neuroma is a cyst that forms around and inflamed nerve. It’s the result of my foot striking against the ground millions of times. And about 2 months ago it flared so badly I had a run where I had to stop, take my shoe and sock off, then try to run/limp home while running on the side of my left foot. It felt like there was an electrical shock coursing through my toes.
After that I bought new inserts and started sticking a callous cushion to the bottom of my foot every time I head out for a run. It definitely helps. I haven’t had any more days of electricity shooting through my foot. But it’s clearly still not right. I wish I could slice out the callous that has formed in the bottom of my foot. I feel it even during the day when I’m walking around doing everyday stuff. But it’s not like a regular callous– the skin is hard but it doesn’t seem to really build up. Instead I feel almost like it’s forming inwardly, putting pressure on that flaring nerve.
Yesterday was another day when I questioned why I was out in the slush. My feet sunk and then slipped backward a little with each step: sink, slide, push, step, sink, slide, push, step. Several times I had to readjust my balance midstride to avoid falling in the wet, cold, granules. When I started my run I had planned on running a little over 3 miles but by the time I crossed the Post Street bridge I thought, “well, I can do 4. Maybe 5.” As I climbed the hill under the Monroe Street bridge I knew that the next mile was going to be slushy. I knew it was going to be a challenge for my hips and my back. But I also knew that I would feel better for having made it.
So I pressed on. It was eerily empty once I got past the new business district at Kendall Yards. I kept a close eye on the river side of the trail as I ran. My second biggest fear while running is being surprised by someone. Normally there are other walkers on the trail but not this week– not with the arctic chill, followed by epic slush right before Christmas.
By the time I made it back to the Y I was satisfied with my run and sore in other than usual places (low back, hips and left knee.) Yesterday was much like many other days in my running life– there is no why. To quote Scott Jurek– sometimes you just do things.
Is always the hardest one. Especially this time of year. I’m always cold but when it’s well below freezing? It takes a real mental feat to convince myself to step outside and subject myself to the kinds of temperatures that make your face go numb and hurt. That cause my feet to go numb for the first mile or 2 until the pounding on the pavement forces my body to pump blood to my toes. So cold that sometimes I can’t feel my hands for the first half hour. So cold I can feel the wind through 3 layers of fleece, drying and cooling the sweat on my chest and arms. So cold it’s hard to take a deep breath.
But then there is the beauty of it. The still quiet of snow. The softening of my footsteps beneath me. The absence of other walkers, runners, people. And the cold itself. Hard. Sharp. Like a concrete barrier at its worst. On the cold days I feel like I am most inside myself. Enveloped in my own world of forward motion — step, step, step, step, step. And on and on. Thousands of times. The only thing I have to do is take that first step out the door.
That is what my life is. I have a full time job, I’m a single mom and I run 25-35 miles per week on average, and I craft and cook too. I get up by 5:30 during the week, and at 6 on the weekends. write in the morning before my son gets up, and do chores, and make lunches. And breakfast. After he gets up, I eat, do my morning workout, and get myself ready. When the sun comes up I take pictures of my crafts. Then he and I leave the house and walk/run/bike to his school. Most mornings, after I drop him off, I run.
In the evenings, I pick up my son, go to the grocery store if needed, then come home and make dinner. After dinner is usually the time for more chores, baking, homework and then bedtime. After my son is in bed I spend the rest of my evening crafting– and right now that means knitting and jewelry making. I’m almost finished with all of the handmade gifts that I intend to give this year for Christmas (but then there are several January birthdays.) Once Christmas is done I will be able to return to knitting on my Glasgow Sweater.
People ask me where I find the time to do all of these things. I don’t. I don’t find the time. I just never stop moving and doing. My hands and my brain are never still, unless I’m sleeping. And sometimes not even then. And some days, like today, I feel it down to my bones.
One of the most frequent questions I get is why do I run outside? Why do I run in the wind and the snow and the heat and the rain? Why run outside when I could be in a climate controlled gym? Where I wouldn’t have to worry about sunburn, windburn or slipping on ice? The answer to these questions are both simple and complicated– I love to run outside. There are many days of the year (winter, and most of spring and fall) when I would only venture outside when absolutely necessary if it weren’t for running. It’s often too cold for me to really enjoy being outside, except when I run. And that’s because my run is also the only time I’m actually, truly warm.
To be constantly cold wears on me. To feel the ends of my fingers go numb at the tips when I’m sitting at my desk in the middle of the day or when I grip the steering wheel on my drive home at night is both uncomfortable and disconcerting.
On the days when it’s below freezing outside I visualize my feet crunching in the soft snow and the sting of the snow in my cheeks. My heart pumping in my chest and the hammer pound of the blood in my ears. And then I put on as much clothing as it takes to get me out the front door. Wool hat, mittens, fleece hoodie, long sleeved shirt, fleece lined running pants, and a second set of mittens over the first. I shed clothing as I go. I tuck the hat into the waistband of my pants, hold on to my mittens in one hand. And usually, as long as it’s not wet, by the time I am 2-3 miles in I am warm. My toes burn as the numbness recedes and is replaced with a rush of heat as they pound against the pavement. My hands are always the last things to get warm. But eventually blood warms the ends of my fingertips. When that happens I am a machine. Well oiled. Smooth. Tireless. At least for a little while.
And in the summer and warm spring and fall days I sometimes stand outside and feel the heat envelope me. I stand in direct sunlight and feel it burning me. Just a little.
I am not safe.
You are not safe.
Take a moment to digest that. None of us are ever impervious– safe– from harm. There is no shield to protect us from danger. We each take risks every day. Some of them big. Every time you get in your car and drive you engage in a behavior that is fraught with potential danger. And small ones. Walking across the street. Running on cracked sidewalks. Running. Running alone. Running in the road where cars also drive. Running on trails where you could be surprised.
I am a woman and I run alone. I rarely tell anyone when, where or how long I plan to run. Mostly this is a function of my life. I don’t live with another adult. But it is also because running is mine in a way that few other things are. I own it. I do it for myself. And I relish the time it affords me to be alone in my own mind, in my own body. I have no intention of giving that up.
Since I started running many people, all of them well meaning, have suggested to me that I shouldn’t run alone. That I should avoid certain routes or times. Vary my schedule. Only run in the daytime. Only when the roads are clear. As if there exists some talisman that will keep me safe. But this safety, this talisman, is an illusion. Because I am not safe. You are not safe. The best we can all do is keep our eyes and ears open and hope we can see the danger coming before it catches us.