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Time of my Life in Chicago

Marathon morning in Chicago dawned under the bluest and fuzziest blanket belonging to my new friend Karen, in Grant Park.
It was normal pre-race chitter-chatter in 40 degrees, perfect racing weather. I’m dressed in my best throw-away couture befitting a homeless person. Wrapped like an oversized baked potato in a Mylar blanket, a long-sleeved shirt and oversized purple sweatshirt. Lime green sweatpants. Bright blue VW cap I got as a freebie.
I’ll ditch all this, but warmth is key while you’re stuck in the corral before starting. Karen’s unexpected offer of blanket sharing has me huddled with other runners like a pathetically mismatched, woefully undersized football team.
Pre-race conversation is the standard fare. Karen asked me my goals, and I tell her without question a PR (personal record), which means sub-3:25. After running 70 miles a week in the Texas cauldron, if I connected the dots strategically, sub-3:20 would be my personal Publisher’s Clearinghouse moment.
I volleyed the question back. I was curious, as corrals are based on previous finish times, she didn’t appear as fit as the other runners in our corral. I wondered if she had been injured and perhaps her training had been derailed. “Well, I used to run sub-4 hours, but a couple of years ago, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, so today is about finishing.”
She looked at me directly and said, “You’re much faster, but I was allowed an exception because I was not ready to go in a corral for others who are considered ‘disabled.’ “
The line connecting my head to my heart went slack. Karen yanked it, and untethered my emotions. I welled up. My personal best aspiration was back burnered for a moment. Her life journey and mine would be very different. But in this moment, it was as similar as it might ever be. We were just two runners chit chattering. I blinked back my waterworks. I gave her a smile, and only told her she is a runner, willing in body, exceptionally able in spirit.
In a moment, we were shuffling ahead, life was marching along as it always does. Myself and about 45,000 others out on a long, long run.
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The interchange Karen and I shared stuck with me through the race, like a piece of gum on my Brooks’ Pure Flows. You keep moving forward, but you know it’s there.
During the race I was keenly focused. I could not tell you if I was in Boys’ Town or Chinatown. I didn’t speak the entire race, other than to thank volunteers. This is highly unusual for me, as I normally could be awarded “Miss Congeniality” at the end of a race because I tend to make friends pretty easily on the course.
Here are my 5K splits, and what was in my head, or in my ears (yes, I wore headphones).
5K- 7:49— You can train your derriere off for a marathon but if you screw up the pacing, none of that will matter because you will crash heavier than Fat Albert tripping over his own shoestrings. The first 5K is the easiest and hardest part of the race. It’s merely the appetizer when you’re actually ready to devour the main course. Kept saying I might feel like a rock star, but there are no Grammy Awards for running a marathon PR in your first mile. On my IPod, Civil Wars’ “Barton Hallow” – swampy song that makes you want to be down by the riverside, kick off your shoes and dance a bit. It ends with refrain: “Keep walking, running, running for miles.” A good song to start as there were a lot of miles to run, hopefully no walking.
10K-- 7:44 – Must move from warm-up mode and locate first gear. Listening to Coldplay’s “Charlie Brown” – “Light a fire, a flame in my heart, we’ll run wild, we’ll be glowing in the dark.” Boy, this feels pretty good. Onward to second gear.
15K – 7:39 At this point, I am straddling a fine line of pushing myself along but not leaping into cliff dive I can’t handle. I knew I had gotten faster, but it felt controlled. I tried to set cruise control for a few miles, but needed to feel like I was under my personal speed limit.  
I’m still listening to Coldplay, “Paradise” – One of Dylan’s favorite songs as he thought it began, “When she was just a girl, she respected the world.” I like it better than the right verbiage of “she expected the world.” I would run to this song all summer in the drippy heat buoyed by ceiling-raising chorus.
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20K— 7:34 I know I’m running faster, but also running within myself. This pace feels unbelievably easy. It’s truly a lovely morning, temps are still in the 40s. I am in my own zone, but emerge briefly to make eye contact with a volunteer indicating I need water. He leaned down, looked at me intently. It was truly sweet to see how earnest he was to get the cup right at hand level. I thanked him because when you’re on your own for 26.2 miles, the little gestures of human kindness become enormous.
Swooning to me, David Gray, “In the Morning” -- A song that perfectly captures my early morning runs, while the rest of the world snoozes. “In the morning, when the moon is at its rest, that’s the time of the day I love the best.”
HALF – 1:40:43—I thank my running pals for helping me visualize where I could and should be at the half. I was thinking 1:41-1:42. I had a friend tell me, “Don’t be afraid of 1:41,” which helped level me out. When I saw just under 1:41, I knew I felt good. I realized I have done what I needed to do for half a race, and was positioned to possibly run sub-3:20. I thrive on negative splits (the second half of your race is faster than the first). To me, it means you run smart -- a Goldilocks-like mode of finding a pace not too slow, not too fast.  Most miscalculate too fast meaning a gross form of slog and jog to the end. I’ve been marathon roadkill before. Today would not be the day for that.
25K 7:31— Quick mental checklist, breathing feels great, legs ready to run, let’s press the accelerator a bit. I’m serenaded by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, “Man on Fire” All he wants is the whole damn world to come dance with him, and the great news is my feet feel like they can go with him. Thinking if I can hold around 7:30 pace the rest of the race, I think I can go under 3:20. So why not start here?
30K--7:27— One sight I do remember seeing was a lovely black Lululemon headband on the course somewhere around this point. Had only I not been running nonstop, I certainly would have stopped, grabbed a souvenir but I now feel like I’ve found “it.” The pace I hope to hold the rest of the race. While racing along, not for the faint of ears, Eminem’s, “So Bad,” is ever so appropriately named, but ever so great for running.
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35K –  7:22—I have located my own sixth gear, a gear I didn’t even know I had.  Blasting in my ears, Gavin DeGraw is singing “Sweeter,” which one of my yoga instructors puts on her “songs you can take your clothes off to” playlist, which means it is uberfun for running.   
One reason I love marathons is there is no cheating them. I keep thinking though about all the yoga, the early morning heat-of-summer workouts, the mid-distance 14-mile runs and realize every ounce of it has brought me to this point late in the race. But marathons aren’t just about training; you have to run smart. Given how I feel right now, I know I have stayed true to capabilities, but not gotten too greedy. Others are wilting, I feel like I’m just blooming.
40K--7:28 – At this point, I have passed the 3:20 pace group, and I started behind them. I briefly consider slowing down, running with them. Have some company for the rest of this run. I toss that thought askew and realize I’ve run within myself this entire race. Why stop now? Onward. Blaring at me, Jorge Quintero’s, “300 Violin Orchestra."  If this song can’t make you move forward, you must have no pulse.
Finish: 7:44—For the first time, I’m feeling a bit breathy. My legs are kind of complaining, not yelling, but definitely talking to me. I tell myself every step is a bit closer to sub 3:20, and if I can hold on to like a 10-minute mile, it will all be OK. For a grand finale, I listen to “I will Wait” by Mumford and Sons. Actually I won’t wait for anyone, and won’t, but I’m too tired to find a different song and the rollicking banjos are pretty darn fun.
Finish time: 3:18:39, I ran about a 3-minute negative split. I am happy as hell and about to throw up
simultaneously. My lungs feel like they’ve had the air sucked out of them with a Dyson vacuum. A volunteer thinks I need a medic, as I dry heave.
I go to get my medal, and locate a friend of mine, Janelle, who lives in Chicago and used to be a childhood camp friend of mine. I had not seen her in 20+ years, and there she was the first person I saw draping medals around finishers.
I raced (OK, staggered) up to her briefly considering her to be a mirage, “Janelle?” I ask incredulously. “It’s Jennifer Wilford.”
She grabbed me, hugged me like some long lost child, and I was overcome to share this moment of personal triumph
with someone I actually knew. My body just started heaving sobs. Marathons will do that. In the end, they physically beat you up, emotionally strip you down. And in this case, the sobs were of joy and relief. And the high surpassed the height of the nearby John Hancock Center.
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You GO Kids!

Insane courage.

Sounds crazy by nature, but I saw it on display in spades last Friday while working with some great kids.

We all have those "firsts" when butterflies launch from your stomach to your throat and the prospect of throwing up seems all too real. First days of school, first time navigating a car, first date, first marathon.

And for seven kids, first time running with me. We gather at 8:00 a.m. in the debut week of summer vacation. This might thrill them as much as watching a turtle stuck in molasses.

kids

Despite my cheery disposition and assurances no one will die, they are unsure what to think. This is the brainchild of their moms, women I've had the joy of running with in You Go Girl since September.

They came to me with a simple question, "Our kids need to get off the couch. Will you run with them this summer? They won't do it with us."

And with that, we gave it a go, literally.

The moms' thought is spot on. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 17% of all children and adolescents in the U.S. are OBESE - triple the rate from just one generation ago. Some kids consider ketchup a veggie and turning on the remote control a form of exercise. This is a huge problem. The alarm has been sounded, but I fear it falls on deaf parental ears.

As parents, we must take a hard look at diet and exercise, and the example we do, or in many cases, do not set. (Confession, my son plays Wii and has computer time. But he also is active, eats select fruits and veggies and thinks it's super cool his mom runs a long, long way.)

This run, I assure the kids, is not about speed. We talk of pacing, speeding up and slowing down when the time is right. If they can figure out the magic of that, it will serve them well in life beyond the sidewalks we tread.

They realize after a half mile, this is not so bad. The trepidation melts and we are having fun. We laugh, observe breathing, make up crazy rhymes and everyone gets a nickname. We are on the move, taking steps toward their first "mile"stone. My son has made some new friends.

We finish two miles. We share Gatorade and high fives.

We will do this again on Friday. I hope the second outing is as good as the first. I'm encouraged because one of the moms told me today that her kids ran a few miles unsolicited.

I am brainstorming how best to continue this. For now we take it a mile at a time, with hopes it continues through the summer. I think selfishly I get as much from this as they. Watching kids move forward in a positive direction is a charge.

If your kids are interested in joining this fitness party, shoot me a note at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it (boys and girls welcome). I will keep you posted on future plans.

Let's keep moving forward.

 

 

 

 

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Warm memories of Pocono

Sometimes Plan B trumps the best laid plans in running, and in life.

After slogging/jogging a Boston Marathon where temps reached 89, I took pride in finishing. But the time, 3:58, was the equivalent of a Weight Watchers sundae after I ordered some triple chocolate Ghirardelli special. Unsatisfying.

Flying home, I consider next steps. I consult my good buddy Kent Prizer, veteran of 100 marathons, who lives outside Philadelphia. Last year, after wilting in 3:38 in Chicago's heat, Kent suggested I run in Philly six weeks later. I cut 6 minutes off my time.

To many, this is the equivalent of a couple commercial breaks. But I am among those who harbor a collection of all-so-ordinary hopes where minutes count mightily for those quasi-serious about this running stuff. We care about PRs (personal records) because they are intensely, well, personal.  My closest running pals put up with Monday morning quarterbacking about misplaced paces and listen attentively to the boisterous descriptions of hills and mile-by-mile play-by-play. These are fishing stories in afterglow of any race, hence the blog.

welcomeIn formulating Plan B, Kent suggests the Pocono Marathon, in the mountains of Pennsylvania.

The course beckons me with crashing downhills. I’ve only run sub-3:30 once, my PR 3:25:30, Chicago, 2009. Temps were blessedly 32 degrees at the start, perfect for a Ginger such as me who roasts like a supermarket rotisserie in the heat. The high for Pocono last year was 63 degrees, which sounds good for late May.

But the weather gods must still be angry. Global warming is alive and well.

The race director sends an e-mail. It will be hot. I have the option to defer this race. Really? Temps will be in the 60s at the start and 80 when we finish.

I now have a severe case of hamster wheel brain, where unproductive thoughts creep. I must re-direct.

The night before the race, I attend the pasta party, which is much more pasta than party, and define my formula of pacing. Tonight it is:  Spot-on training + good health + fast course + mental fortitude + respect for Mother Nature = success.

Running a marathon in the heat isn’t saying, “What the hell, I am tough, I don’t need to adjust.” For me that means I’ll literally burn up.

So I take my PR-hoped-for-pace of 7:49 and figure I’ll go for it, readjust as needed. I’m carrying my own water, like Linus and his security blanket, a decision I feel saved me from dehydration. I will drop 7 pounds on a 20-miler in the Texas heat. Water stops are 2 miles apart, and I know this is not enough for me.

The beginning of the race is usually the absolute best. But the first few miles of Boston, I knew immediately any pace within my norm would be unsustainable due to heat. This was different. Not pleasant, but tolerable.

My IPod soundtrack is setting the tone. The first half, I’m paced with my “feel good” music, or so James Brown is telling me. And I agree. I clip along and Wilco takes me back to fun times with my brother and dropping some chips in Missouri with “Casino Queen.” And I'm smiling, truly having fun with the day. Pearl Jam’s “Got Some” shows you can kick some asphalt in a post-grunge era.

And I do. 7:53 pace at the half including one pit stop.

The second half I am flying along serenaded by Jay-Z and Kanye’s nod to Mr. Redding in “Otis” telling me I have my swagger back. Fellow Ginger Brett Dennen’s “Sydney (I’ll Come Runnin’)," hits the right note until mile 21, where I’m greeted with some unexpected freshly laid black asphalt.

I feel like a baked potato trapped inside double layers of foil. This was NOT advertised on the course map. My pace is now over 8:00 mile (8:07) for the first time since my unwanted pit stop. And it generally stays right there until the final two miles. I’m doing some kind of slight fade, but compared with everyone else, I look pretty damn good.  Carnage has exploded. Some are fighting cramps and limping. Some complain of dehydration, and there are tons of walkers, everywhere. I’m still running around 8:20 pace and flying past many.

The end is brutal. All I can manage is 8:38 pace for the final 1.2 miles, and I finish to “Paradise” -- a nod to my eight-year-old son Dylan who loves Coldplay. But this feels more like hell than heaven. We finish on a high school track, where I had hopes of feelin’ like an athletic rock star if only the heat radiating off this track didn’t feel like a million degrees. I finish in 3:28:20, not a PR, but less than a two-minute positive split on a miserable day.

I am done and about to hyperventailate. Felt the same way at Boston. I’ve finally stopped and my breath is trying to catch up to my body. I locate a volunteer and ask him for my finishing medal. He looks at me like I’m speaking a foreign language. “My medal, for finishing,” I say. “I want it.”

He points, I look down and it’s draped around my neck. I’m in major post-marathon punch-drunk mode.

“Ma’am, are you OK?”

Not really, and I’m even less OK that he just called me ma’am, something you call someone’s grandmother, not someone who just finished a sub-3:30 marathon.

I just need a minute, I tell him. Actually I would love about three minutes, which would signify a PR. I stagger to an oversized Rubbermaid trough filled with ice water and sit and dip my legs. It feels heavenly and excruciating simultaneously. I pry myself out awkwardly and then dunk my entire head where runners before me have literally sweated their asses off. I don't care. The cold water is liberating.

Kent grabs my drop bag. I change my shorts under the privacy of a Mylar blanket and realize I have chafing in places I didn't know I had places. I am in pain, but also happy as hell knowing I might not have my PR, but I gave a PR effort. It’s all I can ask.

That night, over some local brews, Kent and I talk about what’s next. I’m running Chicago in October, weather permitting, a PR. Weather not permitting, hopefully a PR. We’ll see. If not, there's Plan B, I'm sure.

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Boston 2012

AmyMarathon Monday arrives in a hotel room outside Boston, and the three alarms (cell phone, alarm clock, wake-up call) are unheeded because I've been awake for an eternity. I'm surveying a few essentials for the umpteenth time – as if my Body Glide (to non-runners this is not as fun as it sounds) or cell phone magically sprouted feet and ran away. Irrational thoughts are the norm on Marathon Morning.

Nervous energy is coursing through me like a river about to overrun its banks. I record no fewer than FOUR emergency contact numbers on the back of my bib. The temps will reach 89 on the race course, and ever the planner, better to have too many people to call than not enough.

This is my fifth consecutive time at Boston, and I fully understand this event is an exercise in logistics in addition to physical exertion. Currently, the decision to pack or not pack my cell phone is stressing me out beyond belief. I have never started a marathon and questioned finishing, but Monday's race was unlike any of the previous 11 marathons I ever have run. I considered: "What if I bail, and my cell phone, my life line, is in bag drop at the finish line?"

I take a yoga breath, hold for a brief moment at the top of my inhale, exhale, say the equivalent of "what the hell," drop the phone in my bag and head for a chartered bus with about 25 other runners for a journey to Hopkinton, 26.2 miles away from Boston.

kentWe already are one man down as one of my dearest running friends, Kent Prizer, 62 years young, veteran of 100 marathons, including 23 CONSECUTIVE Bostons, and a few sub-3 hour races, shakes his head sadly, and says two words that rattle me to my core: "I'm out." He will be one of the 400 or so runners defering to run another day. The decision, he said, more excruciating because we vowed to start the race together, share some laughs and commiserate for about four hours. I wrap him up in a huge bear hug and lower my eyes to the bottom of my Brooks Pure Flow running shoes. I feel tears damming up in my eyes about to spill over. I know how important the streak, running and finishing are to him. How he not just loves, but reveres this race. I sip some Gatorade like a shot of courage, vow to run a few miles on his behalf. The bus pulls away as he is left to wave goodbye from the hotel parking lot.

We arrive to the picturesque town of Hopkinton home to the start of the Boston Marathon, New England saltbox homes and just 2,500 people, all of whom I think come out to cheer us. People always ask why the Boston Marathon starts at 10 a.m. – a good two hours later than most marathons. Part of the reason is the logistical nightmare of bussing 25,000 runners from downtown Boston to this tiny town where the start is more quaint than glamorous as we begin our jaunt down a narrow two-lane asphalt road, actually named Main Street.

Runners ditch their drop bags on school buses, I leave my bag with previous cell phone inside and realize while Kent is out, I'm now, "All in." IN to run for the euphoria I feel when I run distance, a literal rush regardless of pace. IN to revel in a day I feel like an athletic rock star, where the throngs cheer you for simply doing what comes most naturally, running. IN to stay OUT of the medical tent. IN to run for people who are too tired, old, sick, or dead to even run a mile. IN to exemplify what it means to persevere for my son Dylan, 8. IN to survive and have war stories that will likely grow exponentially when I'm lying on a beach chatting with my running pals, drinking a Shiner Bock when I'm70.

In the starting corral, the sun is piercing me, its rays like daggers. I've donned 60 SPF sunscreen, and I feel like I'm cooking under an electric heat lamp. I'm trying to ignore sweat pours off me, and I am not yet running. I've dropped up to seven pounds of water weight on 20-mile long runs in the Texas heat. I credit fellow runner, Strider and most importantly friend Adam Barth, veteran of the "hot Chicago" in 2007 where the race was suspended due to 88-degree heat with this advice: "Run with a hat and carry your Nathan handheld water bottle." I'm clutching my water bottle like Linus with his security blanket. My hat became a house for bags of ice I would put on my head. The bottle meant I could hydrate on demand, not wait for water stops. This totally saved me.

For me, the start of the marathon allows me to finally breathe a palpable sigh of relief. If I have tapered properly, it means I've put my body on furlough for a couple of weeks, not complete unemployment, but given it rest and recovery to take me on a mighty long journey. I feel like I'm chomping at the bit to run that 8:00 pace I was hoping for, but that will equal disaster on par with the Hindenberg. Never in my life have so many people implored me to run slow.

It's a great life lesson. So many times we are concerned with getting from Point A to Point Z, we've missed all those letters in between – so this race was about 26 water stops it takes to get to the end. Or so I was told by a guy named Frank. He last ran Boston in 1988. He was turning 60 the day after the race. I insisted fellow runners raise a chorus to him and wish him an early happy birthday. He told us no, we needed to conserve our energy. Nonsense I told him. So we serenaded him somewhere along mile 15 at the top of our lungs. We celebrated his birthday and by running, we were simply celebrating life.

Among those I was honored to share the course with was Team Hoyt. I saw Dick Hoyt, who pushes his son Rick in marathons across the country in a wheelchair to say, "Yes you CAN!". I ran past a man with a steel rod for a leg and said a quick prayer of praise thanking God I was still upright on two legs. I ran past military personnel dressed in full cammo gear with backpacks and thanked them for their service.

I got to Wellesley, a place where you hear screaming girls a la "I love Justin Bieber" with signs urging runners to stop and swap some sweat. I think I somehow spied the only guy in the crowd. He toted a sign saying, "Kiss me, I'm from Texas!" I came to a dead stop. "Are you really from Texas?" He assured me he was. I gave him a quick peck and took off on my way.

I took blocks of ice when it was offered and profusely thanked volunteers who were doing lifesaving work whether they knew it or not.

I jogged and slogged up hills from miles 17-21 and hit the top of Heartbreak Hill and decided to hell with hellish conditions. Perhaps the best mile came right around mile 25, when my dear friend, fellow foodie and partner in post-beer long run shenanigans at 9:00 a.m., Rachel Hanson leapt out of the crowd and ran with me for about a mile. I almost cried at the sight of her. At first I thought she was a mirage in the desert of this marathon.

"How are you doing?" she chirps.

"Hot, just really hot," I say.

"Yeah," says Rachel, whose wit is faster than her sub-20 minute 5K. She took the bait I was too tired to know I had even offered. "Yeah, you are running sooooo sexy right now."

She asked if she should talk to me, and I said, sure. She was perfect. She told me what I needed to hear. I was doing great, running so strong, how amazing it was in the heat. We hit mile 25 and she assured me I was almost done. I dug deep enough to almost reach what felt like the tip of my soul, ran the final 1.2 miles faster than any mile of the race – at 8:16 pace. She bailed out just as I hit Boylston Street assuring me I looked fantastic, and imploring me to RUN!

And I did. I ran like hell, or in my heart I did, to the finish, hands held high, tears of joy brimming my eyes to be done with this damn race. The time, 3:58:08, won't equal the best marathon finish ever, not by the longest of long shots, but great times aren't always measured in PRs.

boston_doneTwo days later in the afterglow of sunburn and delayed onset muscle fatigue, I cannot wait for Boston 2013, where I might just kick butt at Heartbreak Hill. Or I might not. I don't feel I need redemption from a race where I had the time of my life.

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