Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Year of the Runner

Food and lifestyle are inextricably linked. While cooking and eating consume my life, so does running. I couldn’t successfully do the latter without keeping a watchful eye on the former. While my focus here is on food, my passion also spills into my Asics. The year 2010 was a banner year personally for running exploits, and I want to share them as both an inspiration for 2011 and a connectedness to diet and healthy eating. Now that Spring has arrived, the running season has left the starting line. 

After registering for Philadelphia’s almost-sold-out (97% capacity as of April 4th) Out & Back Party Run and the Broad Street Ten-Miler, which actually occur over the same weekend in 2011 (Fri., April 29th & Sun., May 1st), I began contemplating the steps that led me to running as both a hobby and a way of life. Much of the inspiration stems from 2010, which for me was the Year of the Runner. Once you're out there on the pavement, you realize how many fellow runners share the same passion. Running is so many things: an opportunity to put yourself in motion, to connect with nature and the outdoors, to provide a solitary calm, to collect your thoughts, to exercise the mind and body, to invigorate the soul. Beside the obvious physical component of running, the mental payoff may be as (or more) relevant. I cannot think of another sport that allows you to slow down so much internally as a contrast to the rapid movement of your body. Therein lies the greatness of running: it provides a momentary retreat into your thoughts, which really is an opportunity to gain much-needed clarity. 

In 2010, more than any other year, I realized that running connects one to a place. Wherever I found myself last year, whether Seattle, Montana, Philadelphia or Washington DC,  the chance to run in any locale allowed me to see that "somewhere" from the ground, in motion. When you venture out on a road or path on foot, you can see and feel so many things that are absent from any ride in a vehicle. It is a chance to experience a place with all five of your senses: Seeing an area from the vantage point of the ground-up, at a pace to be self-determined; Hearing the sounds of an environment, whether the busy-ness of a city or the beckoning silence of nature; Smelling the aroma of the surrounding, which may actually provide the strongest sensory memory; Tasting the air, inhaling and exhaling in cadence, perhaps the saltiness of the ocean or the mustiness of a forest after a rain; and Touching the earth, pounding the pavement, sinking into the sand, or meshing into the mud and dirt on a park trail...all of which bring you as close to a place as possible. This adds up to an unforgettable chance to not only engage yourself with your surroundings, but also provide a memory of a place more powerful than any photo can capture due to the sheer connectedness of running.

Running didn't really get "serious" for me until 2010. Sure, I was always involved in athletics growing up, whether playing baseball or pick-up basketball, so running was inherently integrated in sports. It became a hobby for me in college, as well as a means of staying in shape, but I never took it very seriously. The only real "races" I ran post-college were fundraising events like the Chase Corporate Challenge in NYC. In 2010, inspired by friends who consistently ran short and long-distance runs over the years, I decided to participate in races as a way of maintaining focus, instilling a weekly workout regimen, and competitively completing goals. At the end of every finish line, whether through training or on race-day, the feeling of success was powerful...and emotional. Additionally, running became a potent metaphor for life itself: establish goals, set a reasonable pace at which to accomplish those objectives, focus on the present while maintaining a keen eye to the future, and develop strong relationships that will bolster your performance. 

My running really started in 2010 with the Out-and-Back-Party-Run held in April in Philadelphia. This is a 4-mile run in total, wherein the runner heads "out" 2 miles from the Philadelphia Art Museum onto West River Drive, and then heads "back" those same 2 miles, finishing where one began in front of the famous "Rocky" steps. This "race" signaled my real start to training, and it surely had the best post-run party of the year at Lemon Hill Mansion, including free-flowing beer and a live band. Following this run, I was inspired to get myself into solid running shape and prepare for my greatest running feat: the September ING Philly Rock-and-Roll Half-Marathon. From April, a training plan was established via www.halhigdon.com to slowly build up my body's strength week after week. In conjunction with a training partner who would fuel the competitive fire, the program provided a focus not only on each week, but also the final goal: to complete 13.1 miles under 2 hours.  

Anyone who didn't grow up running or participating in cross-country or track in school probably thinks as I did: there is no way I can see myself running that many miles for that long. However, with a built-in regimen and training calendar, any distance can be accomplished, as long as you faithfully follow the requirements and maintain a fairly healthy diet where you're replenishing lost energy post-run and staying hydrated daily.

With all of this in mind, after the many training runs and races, there were certain days I ran that were completely unforgettable in terms of place and sheer feeling. In essence, these are those times where I felt the greatest yet indescribable "runner's high."  Here are my top 5 Runs of 2010, which I hope inspire you to implement running as an integral part of your life, starting NOW:

5. Washington - Olympic National Park - Kalaloch beach - 3 miles (June)

Mid-summer, I traveled to Seattle, WA that served as the starting point for a camping and hiking adventure that included Olympic National Park and Montana's Glacier National Park. After three gastronomic days in Seattle, my friends and I ferried the car and gear to the wilderness-laden Olympic peninsula to escape into nature. This area boasts coast, forest, and mountain ecosystems. After visiting Hurricane Ridge, we settled in the Kalaloch campsite, which actually sits atop a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean on the West coast of the peninsula. This is an ideal location to experience both a forested campground and sandy beach within a rugged setting. On the final morning of our stay, with departure only hours away, my running buddy and I ventured to the beach around 7AM, cloaked in morning fog and mist. We descended the stairs to the sandy stretch and proceeded North on the beach, literally the only brave souls on this expanse as far as the eye could see, with the Pacific to our left and the eroding cliffside to our right, where the root systems of trees openly grappled with the soil as if holding on tightly before being plunged into the morning tide. The run was only 3 total miles, but the solitude, the visual beauty and overall feeling of being on the edge of the Western U.S. was exhilarating. Along with every exhaling breath, we seemingly uttered "wow" and "amazing" and "I am so glad we found this place." Running alongside washed-up driftwood piled everywhere, looking like it was hand-placed by Mother Nature herself, this was definitely one of the most memorable locales and runs of 2010. 

4. Montana - Glacier National Park - 4 miles (July) 

Following a week's stay in the Pacific Northwest, my friends and I ventured by car to Montana's Glacier National Park, one of the most naturally-beautiful and undeveloped places I have ever seen. Reminiscent of the Swiss Alps, the area boasts snow-capped peaks in mid-summer as well as a dwindling amount of glacial pockets that feed the surrounding streams, rivers, and lakes. The engineering feat known as the Going-to-the-Sun Road is the entry point to this national treasure. Driving along the narrow road, which undergoes ongoing renovation due to the destructive forces of nature in the harsh winters, one takes in the overwhelming vistas with speechless awe. After settling into the Many Glacier campsite, and following a few days of strenuous and extremely rewarding hikes that took us to incredible heights, a 'rest-day' beckoned with a smiling sun that served as a counterpoint to the previous rainy days and nights. My running partner and I departed our camp that sat adjacent to a soothing stream and ventured onto the Swiftcurrent Nature Trail, whose entry point lay a few feet from our tents. The trail descends into a beautiful valley, and we ran deeper into it, with lakes and darting tributaries on our left. At about the mid-way point on our 4 mile training run, we stopped at a slightly-hidden inviting oasis that screamed for a visit with a mini waterfall and tiny pond. We were finally experiencing a warm Summer day, so we heeded the beckoning by removing our Asics and diving into the very chilly yet invigorating pool. It was practically a reward for the previous days' high-mileage hikes, as well as a needed muscle relaxant and refresher that provided an extra kick to the second leg of our run back to the campsite. Dripping with the freshest glacial runoff water, we ran back shirtless with wide grins, battling an uphill grade on the return trail, passing slow-moving visitors who probably would never venture far enough to make the same discovery that just inspired us to "run with hope in our hearts and wings on our heels (Charriots of Fire, 1981)."

3. Washington D.C. - Army Ten Miler  - 10 miles (October) 

I had been told of the great Army Ten Mile race the last few years by friends who ran it and exclaimed it a "must" for any runner looking for a landmark-laden track with various levels of grading that served as a definitive challenge. It is also a race that sells out within one or two days of opening for registration in March, indication enough of its inviting appeal. Taking place in early-to-mid October, the DC Ten's tie-in to the military certainly enhances the experience and inspiration. One of the attractive facets of this race is that it occurs in a very historic city, giving entrants the chance to run by the buildings and monuments that give Washington DC its sense of place, pride and honor. These types of races also allow you to spend an entire weekend with fellow runners and friends, acting as tourist one day and a competitive racer the next. Following an evening of pasta-imbibing and the viewing of the Phillies' lost playoff series to the Giants, we awoke in the pre-dawn hours to a chilly bite in the air, took the futuristic Metro to the Pentagon, and stretched near the starting line. Waiting to begin a race is a blood-rushing, powerful experience, and once the watches were started as our feet inched across the start, the battle for open running lanes began, shifting left-to-right on the narrow paths to develop a pace as well as space. Having already run a half-marathon by this point, this race was more about experience and enjoyment and less about the competition. However, as a runner, there is always a target finishing time, and my personal-goal was being threatened by overcrowding. This race seemingly allowed too many entrants on a too-tight track, which caused bottlenecks and slow-downs, but this certainly didn't detract from the pleasant distraction of the multiple monuments that invited long stares and contemplation. Running along the Potomac River, seeing the Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson monuments, and curling around the Capitol Building at mile 6 provided enough stimulation to keep the heart pumping and legs moving. The race certainly allows you to breathe in the history of the place, connecting you closely to those who once traversed these same stretches of ground and developed DC from an idea in a swampland to the nation's centerpiece of legislature and politics. The Ten Miler finished in a downhill and then uphill flurry, so there was certainly no room for pause. I sprinted the final stretch with a fellow runner to my left and we urged each other to finish strongly. That is the beauty of running - befriending others with the same passion and providing each other with the emotional lift required for an energetic burst at the end. The tight crowd crunched together in front of the Pentagon, following ten miles on a perfect running morning, the sun now high in the sky, providing shining rays as if to smile in approval. I raised my arms in exaltation, having just wrapped up a race in an official time of 1:19:40, a pace of 7:58, just under my goal of 8 min/mile. A personal best was now established for the 2011 Ten-Miler. 

2. NYC - Central Park Loop - 7 miles (August)

Training for the half-marathon is certainly an exercise in patience, mental fortitude and physical exertion. The initial phase of the training plan tests a runner's ability to endure the long-term outlook. If you cannot survive the first few weeks mentally, realizing it is a slow buildup to a powerful finish, then there is no way the body will physically complete the task. By late Summer in 2010, I had been training for about a month-and-a-half, and up to this point, I still had lingering questions if I could actually complete a 13.1 mile race. I had only run half of that distance in training, but I forged ahead with the plan, realizing that staying in-line with the agenda would allow me the strength to compete in September. I found myself in NYC on a weekend in August, so I planned to run my Sunday distance (Sundays are typically the days reserved for the week's long run) in Central Park, battling a few killer hills under the canopy of trees and trudging alongside fellow eager runners around the famed Reservoir. This was a true test of my preparedness. I departed 65th street about 7:30AM, the streets were still fairly quiet, and I enjoyed the morning cool, considering it was a late-in-the-Summer day. I entered Central Park and the surrounding nature served as a soothing calm against the bustling noise of the taxi-filled streets. The run began on East Drive, snaking through the East side of the park, where I passed the famed Boathouse and Belvedere Castle on my left, trudging up strenuous inclines alongside other morning faithful fulfilling their pavement-pounding confessions. The Jacqueline Onassis Reservoir flirted nearby with its pretty vista as I approached uptown, finally reaching 109th street on the edge of Harlem, circling at the top of the Loop and reaching West Drive, passing the Great Hill and then the North Meadow softball fields. As I hit my mid-point mileage, I was finally warmed-up and feeling the energy of the place, happily trapped on a tree-lined island away from the screams of the metropolis and alone with my own thoughts. These early morning runs serve as those welcomed inspirational wake-up calls that make you appreciate the start of the day. Farther down West Drive, I passed the other side of the Reservoir, then the famous Sheep Meadow, and hit the turn on West 61st, not far from Columbus Circle. I closed in on my 6th mile roughly where I began, and as I passed the Children's Zoo to my right on East 66th, I knew I had a final mile to complete a critical training run that would serve as my most memorable feat in my buildup to the Half-Marathon. I turned onto 5th Avenue at 71st Street, seeing the renowned Metropolitan Museum of Art as a beacon, pulling me in closer and closer on flat ground that followed those testy miles in the heavy, choppy hills of Central Park. I passed the "Met" on my left, admiring its structural beauty, welcoming facade, and graceful steps (now filled with seated tourists and locals), then turned down 84th Street to end my 7 mile session. I slowed to a walking pace, sweating happily, and took in solemn breaths as I realized how grateful I was to experience such a run through history and nature. By now, I knew I was ready for a half-marathon, physically and mentally. My confidence was higher than ever.

1. Philadelphia - ING  Half Marathon  - 13.1 miles (September)

September 19, 2010 was circled on the proverbial calendar for months. I really didn't need a paper reminder of the race - it was etched into my mental thoughts during training runs and off days. Any meal I ate or overindulgence experienced were factors playing into my performance on that eventual Sunday morning. Following that memorable August run in Central Park, I knew I had the capacity to complete the half-marathon. It was really just a matter of time, patience, and maintaining the established regimen. Even on those days or weekends spent at the beach as Summer waned, a morning run that finished on the sand in front of the Atlantic served as a buildup (and inspiration) to race-day. I recall my internal watchful eye on everything I consumed: I ate fruit daily, limited alcohol intake, drank post-run smoothies to replenish lost energy, ensured a protein diet via fish and chicken, cut out any thoughts of a burger for months, and hydrated daily with sufficient water. If I was to survive a grueling 13 miles, my body had to be trained properly - and prepared. The final weekend before the big day, I ran a ten-mile route that would actually be part of the race course: the Kelly Drive Loop (8.4 mi). It was the last Sunday run before the "half," and a real endurance and strength test. I completed that track in the early morning, finishing strongly after passing the Art Museum steps as inspiration. I was ready, both in body and spirit.

On the morning of the Half, I met my fellow running friends and participants in the city before dawn, stretching and talking out the nerves. This was my first real big race, so I had a mixture of anxiety and genuine excitement. We walked to the starting area, into a sea of numbered figures, who were ebbing and flowing with nervous energy. Lines at the porta-potties seemed never-ending and unmoving. I avoided the crowds and joined my two buddies at our starting corral. My personal goal finishing time was 2 hours, an average of 9 min/mile. I wanted a strong start, followed by a consistent pace that would allow me to complete my objective. I remember the smiles and high-fives seconds before the starting gun, and then my mental focus registering on cue as soon as we crossed that line and I initiated my stopwatch. There was no need for an i-pod on this day: the ING Half is a Rock-and-Roll themed race that had a band playing roughly every mile, to kick up the energy quotient and inspire the registrants. The initial few miles snaked through the historic section of Philadelphia, from the Art Museum on the Ben Franklin Parkway toward Market Street in Old City, around key landmarks that included City Hall, Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and the Constitution Center. My friend Tim and I had raced out of the gates quickly. I recall averaging a 7:30 pace for the initial two miles, a sign of the adrenaline and sheer desire to hit the open space and avoid the bundling effect that so often occurs at the front of a race. I knew I had to slow it down to reach a consistent pace, otherwise I would "burn out" before the finish. The familiarity of the terrain was certainly a comfort to the mind, and the live music and cheers from street-lined spectators provided inspiration. Around mile 5, as we circled back up the Parkway and around Eakins Oval with the Art Museum now to the left, I felt warmed up and mentally prepared to run the final 8 miles. The initial third of the track was a beautiful course, and I remember breathing in the moment and history as I passed those buildings that were here long before me, which gave me a peaceful mindset as I approached the remainder of the race. A friend joined me as we passed the Art Museum and approached Kelly Drive, and for two miles it was just like any other training run on the Loop. As he retreated to the sidewalk, I trudged uphill towards Falls Bridge with tight legs, but I knew once I crossed the bridge, there remained 5 miles to the finish. I told myself to maintain the pace and stay strong, and re-iterated "Never Quit Running" in a silent whisper as I crossed over the Schuylkill River. 

I always enjoyed running on Martin Luther King Drive (West River Drive) that Summer, because the road was closed on Sundays and only open to runners and bikers. It's a beautiful avenue, with the river on the left and a canopy of trees overhead. Today, the cars were again relegated to the highway, but the avenue's edges were cluttered with spectators and water tables, providing much-appreciated energy. I recall a young group of teenage cheerleaders who uttered a fun and positive jingle that promoted victory. I smiled and high-fived a few of them. I felt inspired...and I needed it to finish the final three miles, which are a major foe in this type of race. After the tenth mile, I knew it was all about staying focused and running through any pain or tightness. I kept a keen eye on the Art Museum in the distance. Having run this track a few times before, I readied myself for the few uphill inclines that awaited me. The cheers escalated within a mile of the museum steps, and I trudged strongly with the knowledge I was almost there. I recall looking at my watch and realizing I had plenty of available minutes to beat my objective finish time, a realization that gave me comfort and the initiative to sprint the final stretch. Once I saw that banner ahead, my arms moved rapidly, carried by momentum and endorphins, and pushed my body and legs. I let out a loud yell of happiness, then raised my arms in victory as I crossed the line. "Yes, I did it." I had a feeling of sheer accomplishment. I looked at my watch. 1:47:08. A pace of 8:10/mile. It's amazing what your body can accomplish when your mind convinces you. After a brief daze, I approached the post-race snack area. I looked around and heard the big band playing in celebration. I breathed a sigh of relief and nodded to myself in appreciation of the moment. This was an event to savor, one that would serve as an inspiration at any difficult time, a happy memory that would be mine forever. A volunteer placed a medal over my head and I looked at the keepsake with a cherishing grin. It would eventually hang nearby like a picture that recalls a great moment in time, requiring a pause for reflection. The Guinness I enjoyed later that morning was one I didn't regret at all. Today, it was all about the achievement. Tomorrow would be about the next race. 

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