Chronicles of an Endurance Athlete's Wife

Married to an Ultra Runner

Author: scatudal (page 1 of 2)

Think Beyond the Distance

Yesterday I did something I never thought I would do: I ran a 25 Kilometer race.  Without.  Stopping.  No joke.  My legs kept moving for the entire race, carrying me up short but steep ascents before reliably floating me back down between precariously placed cacti and over dirt, rocks and granite.  It’s an incredible thing to realize that, with proper fuel and adequate training, human bodies have the ability to do pretty amazing things.

Of course, living with my husband for 10 years has made me aware of this reality as an armchair observer (and when I say “armchair observer” I mean it literally, like full-on sitting in a LAZ-Y Boy holding one of those nifty claw contraptions to help me grab the remote control while observing.  Hard.). I’m sure it’s no epiphany to many of you self-motivated endurance athletes that your body has the potential to be a veritable machine.  But for a layman like me, whose previous idea of “endurance” was binge-watching Game of Thrones, it was revolutionary to realize that the pursuit of physically ambitious goals can be broken down into the simple equation of desire+work, given the variable of health.

It was the McDowell Mountain Frenzy event put on by Aravaipa racing, set in the rugged desert mountains of Fountain Hills, Arizona.   I really had no idea what to expect, and my goal for yesterday’s race teetered between merely finishing the 16 mile course without stopping/puking/falling, to laying the smackdown and winning the whole damn thing.  (Like I said, I am very inexperienced in the running realm.)

My husband gave me sage advice on the car ride down to Phoenix, amid the smooth sounds of Kindle-induced sibling rivalry and a screaming sleepless baby: try to hang with the lead women and see how long you go before blowing up.  After all, I had absolutely nothing to lose and this initiatory race could be used as a reference point for future races.  (Ummm, by the way, did I mention that I officially signed up for Transrockies next summer? 120 miles over 6 days, with 20,000 feet of climbing?  Yeah… I’m shocked too.)

The gun went off, and I quickly weaseled my way through the single-track crowd of runners, trying to heed my husband/coach’s advice to stick with the leaders.  Severely unaware of race etiquette, my Canadian-ness emerged in full force as I “sooooried” up the line until the 3 lead women were in view.  (I definitely didn’t win the race, but I may go down as one of the most apologetic passers in American trail race history.  Like, I was SO sorry.)

For the first few miles I felt weightless, invigorated by the delicious amount of oxygen in the air, at least compared to running in my usual hypoxia of Flagstaff’s 7,000 feet.  It was overcast with a slight drizzle falling from the desert sky, and I felt good enough to admire the beautifully furrowed topography while still making sure not to faceplant in said terrain.  In fact, I felt great for nearly 10 miles and actually began harboring such delusional thoughts as “maybe I could podium.”  Ha. Ha. Ha.  (Yeah, yeah, I know… “First learn stand, then learn fly.  Nature rule, Daniel-san.”)

You guys, I can now say that I officially understand some of your fancy running terms: “blowing up”, “bonking”, “hitting the wall”, because I did those things.  With gusto.  I went from cruising relatively effortlessly for the first 90 minutes to seriously wondering whether I could finish the last 6 miles.  I began dissecting my race into “winds”- as in “Hey, I got my 2nd wind!”  Every time I felt like stopping, I convinced myself that my next wind was right around the corner.  “Come on, Steph.  Don’t stop.  Your next wind is coming.  I can feel it.”  In the end, I used 9 winds.

My husband’s advice on the circular nature of pain, which I’ve written about before, was on my mind constantly.  Each time I saw a climb approaching, I told myself that the pain would exist only momentarily, then wane into a descent, giving me enough time to prepare for the next sufferfest.  I don’t know if it was a mind-over-matter deal, but I really did feel the ebb and flow of pain and relief, even in the deepest throes of discomfort.  This idea, along with my generous amount of self-given “winds”, allowed me to finish the race without stopping.

I crossed the finish line definitely NOT in podium position, but equally proud of myself for having passed my previously established pain threshold.  I dug deep, as cliched as it sounds, and found within myself a new base of discomfort (as in, I know I can survive hurting THIS bad, so what’s next?)  I was handed an awesome Aravaipa finisher mug and walked over to my beamingly proud husband and three half-naked and fully muddied children.

I left the race with a new understanding of mental fortitude, and a budding sense of belonging into a new world: the unparalleled camaraderie of the running community.  As I was passed by handfuls of runners after my decline at mile 10, I noticed how each and every one gave me words of encouragement, advice or even a subtle cheer as they cruised by.  For the first time, I felt like I actually belonged to this running world, rather than being a distant onlooker as I have been for the past decade.

But perhaps the most poignant takeaway from yesterday’s race was found in the car ride home, when my inability to go to the restroom before the race rectified itself with a fury.

“I gotta go.  NOW,” I looked at my husband frantically.  There was over thirty minutes left to our car ride, and we were surrounded by nothing but a narrow shoulder and miles of flat desert.  Not even a large cactus to hide behind.   No rest stops, nothing.  I would have to hold it.

“We can pull over if you want,” he offered, but other than the sparse-to-no cover, I was afraid that if I squatted down somewhere, my quads would seize and I’d be stuck in the high desert with my pants around my ankles.  I shook my head.

“I’ll tell you something Brian Tinder told ME that Ian Torrence once taught HIM about ultrarunning,” he said, laughing because he knew all about what I was going through.

“What?” I replied, too tired to follow the pedigree of advice being told to me.  I felt like I’d learned enough about running, racing and mental grit for the day.  Now I just needed to GO.

“Think beyond the distance,” he said with a hint of a chuckle.

“I’m not RACING, Rivs.  I just have to use the freaking bathroom!” I exclaimed.

“I know, but think of it this way: if I’m feeling tired 25 miles into a 50 mile race, I imagine that I have to race 70 miles.  That way, running 50 miles no longer seems that far.  So, if you have to hold it until Flagstaff, just pretend we’re driving to Winslow, an extra hour away.  It’ll make it easier.  I promise.”

I thought about it for a while, summoning the newly established pain threshold and mental prowess I had gained in the race.  Then I took a deep breath.

“Think beyond the distance,” I said while nodding, subtly gripping the sides of my seat as we laughed.

The Grandest Canyon

By now it has become glaringly apparent that I tend to do things that I am neither physically or mentally prepared for.  (See previous posts on topics such as: road biking 2000 feet up a mountain 5 weeks after giving birth, running up that same damn mountain 3 years later and then right back down it, running a trail half marathon when the furthest distance I’d ever run prior to the race was 6 miles, etc.)  I haven’t yet decided if it’s stubbornness, boldness, adventurousness, stupidity, naivety or my husband’s overwhelming confidence in my abilities that moves me to attempt these feats.  Whatever it is, I did it again.

A few weeks ago, my friend Mary Jane called me up to ask if I wanted to join her for an overnight trip to the Grand Canyon.  I’m embarrassed to admit that despite having lived in Northern Arizona for five years, I had never been to the Grand Canyon (other than a quick “how’s your mother” over a little bridge once on a road trip home from Utah.)  The thought of spending a night in a charming lodge on the edge of one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World with some badass women was alluring, and I figured I could maybe even run a few miles down and up, then spend the rest of the morning sitting in a warm cafe reading a book and eating mediocre pastries while waiting for my seasoned runner friends to make it back from the bottom of the canyon.

Somehow, the plan quickly escalated from a quiet canyonside breakfast, to a quick 5 mile jaunt, to running down the Kaibab trail and back up.

“If you’re going to run the canyon, you might as well just go for it,” my husband said supportively when I started to second guess my choice to run the 13 mile Kaibab out-and-back on my own.  Mary Jane and our two other friends were planning on running 7.6 miles down the Bright Angel trail to the Colorado River, followed by a few more miles along the water before crossing a bridge and climbing 7 miles and 5,000 feet up the Kaibab trail for a hearty 17.7 mile loop.  Um yeah, that’s a strong Hell No for me, dawg.

True, I had been running a little more than normal over the past couple of months, averaging about 22 miles per week.  That being said, the majority of those miles were spent on a treadmill at exactly “0” incline with a fan spewing a steady cool breeze in my face and the option to quit was as easy as pushing a giant red button that says STOP.  Yes, yes I think I will, smart little fake running machine.

But somehow (and even in retrospect I’m not even sure how it happened) I went from second guessing my decision to run Kaibab to committing to the full 17.7 mile loop the morning of the trip.  Maybe it was curiosity, maybe it was pride, maybe it was the fear of running in the canyon alone, maybe it was my husband’s persistent belief that I could do it.  Whatever it was, the day after Halloween I loaded myself into Mary Jane’s car with an inordinate amount of snacks and a shaky resolve to push myself farther and harder than ever before.

We arrived at the canyon just as the sun was setting. Standing on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon that night, I was completely blown away by her beauty, vastness and sacredness.  Looking down into that monstrous, beautiful chasm as the sky blazed its signature sunset hues of pink and orange, I was overcome with a sense of reverence.  There really is nothing quite like the Grand Canyon, and I finally understood the hype.  Still, I was in disbelief that a human (let alone myself) could run down to the bottom of it, and then (hopefully) back up all in a single trip.

After gawking like a little child over the South Rim, MJ and I met up with our friends Sam and Mackenzie for a delicious and overpriced meal at Al Tovar, then settled into our “rustic” room (ie Sam and Mackenzie were smart enough to bring sleeping bags to avoid using the hotel sheets).  I fell asleep quickly, looking forward to a night uninterrupted by cries for “Mama” and slept soundly despite the roaring nervousness and doubt that had borne into my gut ever since I decided to run the whole loop.

I woke up the next morning to a loving text from my husband, encouraging me that I could do it, he was proud of me and to not get dead.  The four of us packed our bags, double checked our hydration sources and laughed about the strange selection of food I had brought: a bagel and cream cheese, 2 PB&J sandwiches, 2 protein bars, a small stache of my kids’ Halloween candy, salted cashews and a bag of Corn Nuts, all per my husband’s request.  I didn’t even mention that I had forgotten to pack the 3 bean and cheese burritos he had urged me to make.  At the very least, I would not starve to death.

After a few mandatory pre-run selfies, we took off down Bright Angel.  It was a difficult balance between making sure to stay on the trail while still taking in the beautiful scenery unfolding around me.  There’s nothing like running between the mammoth rock walls of the Grand Canyon to make you realize your trifling significance in the macrocosm of nature.  I held back tears on multiple occasions, not from pain but from respect and awe.  “You save that salt and water, damnit,” I told my hypersensitive self, struck by the large WARNING sign I had seen about the dangers of going to the river and back in one day, which was accompanied by a drawing of a man vomiting violently on his hands and knees.  Note to self: going to the river and back will turn you into one of Daenarys Targaryan’s dragons spewing fire at her demand for Dracarys.

We were cruising, and I felt invigorated by the feeling of weightless flight that accompanies hardcore descent, despite the tightening in my calves.  We made it to Indian Gardens- an uncanny oasis of water and trees after stark desert-like foliage- and I felt strangely good.  For the first time, I started to believe that maybe I could do this.  When we finally rounded the corner for my first glimpse of the Colorado river, about an hour and 20 minutes after we began, I was torn with ambivalence: I made it to the bottom, but ohholyhellwhathaveIdone, now I have to climb OUT?!  It was really the first time I realized that I was literally about to climb out from the bottom of the MOTHER FREAKING GRAND CANYON.  Like, from the bottomest bottom of it.  (Later, my husband deadpanned that I hadn’t really done the whole thing because I didn’t get a rock from the bottom of the Colorado, which he said was mandatory.  I only believed him for 5-85 seconds.)

After running across a long suspension bridge, we refilled our packs, ate some snacks on Boatman’s Beach, dipped our feet in the crisp water, and started our ascent.

“This is when shit gets REAL!” MJ called out, having made this exact loop multiple times before.

And she was right.  For as glad as I was that my screaming calves were taking a backseat to my climbing quads, nothing could have prepared me for the relentless climb.  Mile.  After. Mile.  After. Mile.

It was grueling.  It was the hardest physical thing I’ve ever done.  There was a point- about 1 mile from the top- that I actually thought I wouldn’t make it.  But then MJ, who had been mountain-goating up ahead, dropped back down to rally me for the last few thousand meters.

My legs were wobbly and my breathing was labored.  Casual day hikers descending for the scenic view looked at me with pity and apprehension.  Maybe I even looked like the Dragon vomiting man on the signs.  Probably.  But I did it.  The whole loop took me just under 5 hours, but I made it to the top.

It was then that I realized that part of the beauty of the canyon is that you have to EARN it.  You have to endure the physical duress, the mental games and the self-doubt to experience her true grandeur.  Like so many things in life, beauty is forged through hardship and we don’t really see its grace until after we emerge on top.

It has been two days since I climbed out of the canyon, and I have to say that the soreness I feel is unlike any other.  As I hobble around the house, I can see my husband smirk in quiet satisfaction.  “Oh, are you sore?” he snickers, and I immediately regret feeling little sympathy for his post-ultra run woes in the past.  How bad could it hurt?  I used to think.  But now I know.  Oh, honey.  I know all too well.

Still, despite the pain of climbing and the soreness aftermath, I am already planning my next trip to the Grand Canyon- to see her beauty, to feel her unparalleled energy,to be ensnared by her inevitable pain, but to emerge at the top stronger, always.

Crashing the Transrockies Run

A few weeks ago, I made the ultimate groupie move and crashed a stage race in Colorado. By “crash”, I mean I was there purely for spectator and entertainment purposes, and also for the purpose of “my husband and I are in dire need of alone time away from our kids for more than 2 hours at a time for the love of God and all that is Holy.”

If you didn’t know, the Transrockies run is an epic running stage race that covers 120 miles and 20,000 feet of elevation gain over the course of 6 days through the Colorado Rockies.  The race starts in Buena Vista, Colorado and makes its way through the iconic towns of Leadville, Vale and Beaver Creek, among others.

Each night, runners camp in tents set up by the race crew, and are fed gourmet “camp” foods like delicious tacos, grilled veggies and pasta.  There is also a steady flow of Michelob Ultra and a midnight snack bar, just to keep things interesting.  It’s a pretty sweet set-up, and my husband, having had attended the race 2 years in a row, thought it would be a fun experience for me to tag along.

“I bet you’re going to want to run it next year by the time you leave,” he said, keeping a straight face as I scoffed at the idea.  I give myself hardcore Strava kudos if my mileage for a given week is above 20 miles.  Covering that kind of distance in one day FOR 6 CONSECUTIVE DAYS?  There were few things I could think of wanting to do less.

Still, I had grand aspirations of waking up early each morning of our trip to hit the trails and see the beautiful mountainous scenery, running through the thick pines and feeling the crisp air invigorate my lungs.

I did run, once.  It was in Leadville, on my first day in Colorado.  I started out strong, vainly wondering if passersby thought I was getting ready for the Leadville 100.  “I bet I look so fricken cool,” I thought, sporting my husband’s Altra buff and running way faster than my novice running abilities merited.

The dream died hard, about .7 miles into my run, when my legs started to seize and my lungs burned from that “crisp” hypoxic air that accompanies 10,000 feet of elevation.

“Aaaaand I’m out,” I said to myself about 6 minutes later, briskly stretching on the side of the road just to maintain an air of “Yeah I know what I’m doing. Pfff.”  Then I turned around and slowly hobbled back to our AirBnb.

Note to self: don’t run super fast in Leadville just to look cool.  Or just don’t run super fast in Leadville for any reason.  It’s not going to go over well.

But for as much as my one and only run in Colorado was a total fail, the trip itself was one of the funnest experiences of my life.

My husband had driven down a few days earlier with his friends Brian and Caleb, and I made the 11 hour drive solo to meet them on day 3 of the race. Although I needed a break from motherhood, I couldn’t quite bring myself to leave my kids for 8 days.  That being said, I enjoyed every minute of those 11 hours of silence, alone with my thoughts, music and NPR and devoid of pterodactyl-esque baby cries and sibling arguments.

I met my husband in Camp Hale, about 15 miles from Leadville, right before the start of the Transrockies’ “unofficial” beer mile. When your welcome to Transrockies is ultrarunner and friend Brian Tinder sporting a red and black thong, chugging and vomiting Michelob Ultra for a mile straight, you know it’s going to be a good week.

After the beer mile, we sat around “Chill Ville”- an area of couches, Adirondack chairs and snack tables set up by the race crew each afternoon- to watch the daily awards.  Although I had just arrived, I could feel the sense of community and camaraderie that had been forged among the runners in 3 short days.

The next morning I slept in, feeling only vaguely guilty for the luxury of sleep when I knew others had been awake for hours making their way up and over the Rocky mountains.  I had an uncharacteristically lazy morning, then drove through the winding, pine-flanked road that led from Camp Hale to Red Cliff, where the race finished that day.

My husband and I walked past the creek where runners were giving themselves a natural post-race ice bath, and up a dirt road to cheer for the descending  runners.  I was in awe of the shapes, sizes, and ages of runners accomplishing the arduous task of running for hours at elevation, especially after my 12 minute Leadville running experience.

I watched runners emerge from the mountains, both smiling and grimacing, and I could feel the ignition of pride well up in me.  I started to understand why someone would willingly put themselves through such a physically taxing experience.

Once the majority of people had crossed the finish, everyone congregated at Mango’s Taco and Margarita bar for lunch.  Runners, tired from the run but excited by their accomplishment, laughed and talked about their day, speaking of hardship and triumph in shared commiseration and elation.

And it was the same each day- people coaxed their sore and fatigued bodies up and out of their tents and made their way to the starting line.  They ran through the mountains, and then emerged at the other end a little more tired, but a little stronger, too.

And although everyone was extremely accepting and kind towards me throughout my days as a hardcore spectator, I felt like an outsider.  It had nothing to do with the way I was treated.  If anything, I met some of the kindest and friendliest people I’d ever encountered.

Instead, I set myself apart knowing that I was not being forged and reinvented by physical duress, as the Transrockies runners were.  I was starkly aware that I was not participating in the act that bonded these hundreds of people together-  the grueling, life-changing hard work on the trails each day.

In conflict resolution, we call this community building phenomenon “superordinate goals.”  It is the notion that people can be brought together by enduring hardship together- and through this shared experience, they form an enduring bond that supersedes race, ethnicity, class and politics.

For all of the good times I had at Transrockies- the laughs and the hugs and the Brian Tinder thongs- the most poignant take away from the trip was my newfound understanding of racing.

I realized that it’s really not about winning, or PR-ing or beating an opponent.  When it comes down to it, racing is about learning through discomfort.  It’s about making friends.  It’s about looking into a stranger’s eyes and understanding their pain.

Most importantly, racing is about going through the mountain, whether literal or metaphorical, and coming out stronger on the other side.

And you know what?  I just may have told my husband that I want to sign up for next year.  I’ll keep you posted.

 

 

Living in a Pipe Dream

I started this blog a few years ago when my husband’s goal to become a professional athlete seemed like a pipe dream.  We were young and poor, nomadic and impulsive (myself more than him.)  We slept on a mattress on the floor, ate beans and rice everyday and lived in a run down house across from a baseball field that moonlighted as an open air saloon for the homeless. We had a little girl, and were just trying to figure out how we wanted to build our lives as a family.

When I started writing here, I was still struggling to find myself amidst the chaos of new motherhood.  As most parents know, it is hard to maintain a clear determination of who we are when most of the day is spent mindlessly (yet lovingly?) cooking, cleaning, tending to/and or ignoring shrill cries, playing pretend, being a taxi driver and making sure everyone is moderately happy.  (Over the years and subsequent children, my standard for childhood happiness has gone from “make every day the best day ever” to “did everyone get fed today?”)

We were married young, (22 and 24 years old) and luckily, we grew up together rather than apart.  My husband toyed with a lot of career ideas in the beginning; chef, singer-songwriter, medical doctor (yes, he really has all of those talents) but he always came back to running, as far-fetched a dream as it seemed to actually “make it” as an athlete.

But, as I mentioned, we were young, poor and didn’t have much to lose, and so we decided to go for it.  Of course, over the past 3 years my husband went to school to get his doctorate in Physical Therapy as a back-up plan.  People still laugh when he says that his degree is a second option, but believe me, he isn’t kidding.

The other day, an acquaintance asked my husband about his running career, and what “the dream” was for him.  “I’m living it,” he responded without an ounce of irony or facetiousness.

The acquaintance looked around our humble home that boasts a Play Doh caked carpet, mud-streaked windows and doorless kitchen cupboards (not the trendy kind, the kind that results from a 2 years long paint job saga that we haven’t cared about enough to finish.)

He could probably see the goats grazing around our wild forest/barn hybrid backyard,  with a fence-hopping neighbor chicken or two pecking around to see if the insects were better in our yard.  He likely noticed the artful toddler penmanship on the couch he sat on, or the myriad scuffs on the worn entryway dresser we thrifted from a garage sale.

We could tell he was searching for an appropriate response, one that would mar the surprised look on his face.  “Awesome!” he said, then quickly changed the subject.

When people think of professional athletes, they think of the Mayweathers (respect) and LeBrons.  But running is not boxing or basketball.  There isn’t millions to be made in the sport.  People do it because they just straight up love it, even if they know they’ll never be rolling in Bentleys and makin’ it rain with Benjamins.

Although I wouldn’t call myself a runner by any means (but I have grown to really love trail running over the past few months), the years of being an endurance runner’s wife have taught me that running is more than just a sport.

To the true lovers, running is an emotional outlet, a therapist, a means of constructive masochism, a way to moderate (or facilitate) extremism, and a socially acceptable way to hermit while allowing lone wolves to find like-minded friends all rolled into one activity.

Yes, we would likely be rolling a little deeper if my husband had decided to become an MD and I had pursued a writing career right off the bat, but at what cost?

The truth is, we are living the dream.  Our dream.  My husband is able to make a living doing what he loves, working on a daily basis with more grit and self-motivation than most people can find in a lifetime. That in itself is a dream we try not to take for granted.

I’m able to stay home with my three young girls, which I see as an absolute privilege.  I get to invest time in writing, even if it brings in 0$ , so that when I’m ready to pry my loving motherly death grip from my children (or when they’re all in school, or when they tell me they’ve been sufficiently smothered) I can continue my dream career as a writer.

Sure, our house is modest, our car is old and we don’t have some of the luxuries associated with The American Dream.  But we are doing what we love to do, and getting by at the same time.

We’ve come a long way from where we started as a couple of kids trying to make sense of adulting.  We’ve learned that often, happiness is born from struggle.  We’ve discovered ourselves, both individually and collectively, through really hard times.  We’ve stumbled and built ourselves back up more times than we can recount, but each time we emerge just a little bit wiser, and a little bit stronger.

Most importantly, we’ve learned that there is no dream without hardship.

I guess my point in writing this is to say that “the dream” is relative.  “Making it” is also relative, and as long as you feel fulfilled, happy and accomplished doing what you do, that IS the dream.

I know I’ve said this before, but as I grow up, I realize the importance of staying true to what I believe and honoring what resonates to my core, regardless of what others think.

If makin’ it rain is what resonates, power to you.  If being a struggling artist makes you tick, go for it.

At the end of the day, we’re all just trying to make sense of adulting in our own ways, and I’ll likely still be trying to figure it out when I’m old and grey.

 

The Beauty of Constructive Suffering

This Saturday, I worked my last shift as a waitress, likely forever.  I came home from my bittersweet final night at 11:30pm, was awoken at 4:15am (like clockwork) by a vocally persistent 1 year old and left at 6am to meet my friend Jenny for a run.  (My husband had left at 4:30am to meet some other friends for a much longer run.)

Jenny and I were planning on running just over 6 miles up the Arizona Trail, climbing about 2000 feet to meet some friends at the summit for the grand finale of a local event dubbed “Le Tour de Snowbowl.”

The Flagstaff tour was held over the 21 days of Le Tour de France, headed by local restaurateur Caleb (who also happens to be my former boss and one of my husband’s best friends).  His intention in holding the tour was to motivate the community to run, bike or hike up a mountain for the promise of comradery and a free pizza at his restaurant, Pizzicletta.  And if you’ve ever eaten Caleb’s pizza, you know that climbing a mountain at the buttcrack of dawn is totally worth ingesting its deliciousness.

I rolled up to Jenny’s house right on time, apprehensive about the physical feat of endurance that lay ahead of me.  I knew Jenny was quite the runner and had climbed the same trail multiple times.

On the other hand, my running escapades had been mostly limited to structured treadmill runs while jamming to Despacito and the occasional Ke$ha hit music video on my uber modern gym running machine while a bunch of angsty-yet-kind teenagers watched my children for 45 minutes.

I had prefaced my run with Jenny by telling her to drop me if I was running like a 6 week old Pomeranian on a waxed hardwood floor (just picture it and you’ll totes ROFL.)  I had given myself 2 hours to accomplish the climb, but was apprehensive whether I would make it to the mandatory 8:30am Tour de Snowbowl summit time.

We started our run on schedule, and Jenny benevolently let me set the pace.  We talked and laughed our way through the first few miles, and I kept waiting to bonk and beg to stop for a breather.

But a funny thing happened as I ran up (and up and up) through Ponderosa Pines and Aspens, the trail muddied and soft from the monsoon rain earlier that morning.  As the sun gradually made its bold appearance in the Southerwestern sky, I found within myself an undeniable sense of determination.

“I can do this,” I thought, emboldened yet stunned by the relative effortlessness I felt as I ran.

We continued to climb, stopping only for a few sporadic socially-mandated Insta Stories, and made it to the top 40 minutes before the 8:30 morning curfew.

I played it totally cool at the summit (don’t worry, I totally know how to work social mores) but inside I was beaming with pride and satisfaction.

“Oh hey, did you just run up?”

“Oh yeah, totally.  Not biggie.  Just another day, amiright?”

I’m sure to many of you, climbing mountain is just another day on the trail-a warm up or cool down run, even.  But to me, a quintessential life coaster, it meant so much more.

Jenny and I waited for the others to arrive at the designated Tour de Snowbowl congregational area, snacking on the Nibs, Pop Tarts and Tang that my husband had lovingly stashed in my hydration pack the night before when I was at work.

After a while, I saw my husband’s glistening chiseled bod and Zeus-esque beard make its way through the Snowbowl parking lot.

“You did it!” he exclaimed proudly, although I knew he never doubted that I would. It’s no exaggeration to state that my husband usually believes in my physical capabilities more than I believe in my own (ahem, see previous posts).

After some hugs with fellow Flagstaff crazies and a Tour de Snowbowl photo, I was ready to get hitch a ride back down the mountain as planned.

“You should just run down with us,” my husband suggested in his all-too-convincing tone.  “We’ll take it really easy.”  (The things I’ve done at the mercy of that kindly persuasive man #threekids.)

In my mind, it was a miracle I had climbed the 2000 vertical feet up.  There was no way I was planning on running back down.  I had made definitive plans to drive with a friend back to my car at the base of the mountain, because that’s what normal people do after running for an hour and a half.

But there I was, 5 minutes and a few sips of Tang later, running in between my husband, Brian Tinder (who unfortunately was fully clothed) and our Wisconsin friends Annie and Brian, down the trail I had just mentally high-fived myself for summiting as a life-achievement feat.

We cruised down the trail at a speed I would definitely not categorize as “easy.”  I tried to throw my husband a few “is this what you call cruising?” death stares, but due to the narrowness of the trail, the glances went totally unnoticed.

But you know what?  I survived.  And you know something else?  I actually enjoyed myself.

As we approached the bottom, I thought about how so much of what holds me back in life is all in my head.

I honestly hadn’t thought I would be able to make it to the top of Snowbowl.  I had tried to think of every excuse to avoid meeting Jenny that morning (Late night?  Nocturnal baby? Night terrors?  Clowns?  The Russia probe? Kim Jung Un?) but somehow, I was doubling the mileage that I had originally thought I was capable of.

It made me realize that for most of my life, I have found comfort in mediocrity.

I drift through life in relative ease, burrowing deep in a nest of the daily grind.  I rarely push myself too hard.  I live snugly in the background, viewing the extraordinary as a feat that only others (such as my husband) discover.

I haven’t yet decided whether it’s the fear of failure or the fear of success that holds me back.

Both are equally daunting.  If I find success in my pursuits, I’m bound to a life of expectation, pressure and self-criticism.  If I fail, I run the risk of never trying again.

Potential is not what holds me back. It’s the fear of meeting it that haunts me.

I am extremely content living in the beautiful banality of everyday life.  It’s a blessing and a curse.

And while I am sincerely happy in my day to day life, it is miraculous to experience the catharsis that comes from pushing a little (or a lot) harder than what I deem normal, or comfortable.

Pushing through the pain of climbing, heavy legs and labored breath, I found within myself an unfamiliar sense of resolve to be more than complacent in my own life.

As I climbed and descended that beautiful mountain, I learned, through the beauty of constructive suffering, that I am capable of so much more than I give myself credit for.

 

 

 

The Daily Commute, in Running and Relationships

On a normal weekday, my husband makes his daily commute to work on foot, running 12 miles from our quaint mountain home on the outskirts of Flagstaff into town, and then back home as the sun sets at the end of a long work day.

These long commutes are the majority of his training, making it so that he doesn’t have to do specific workouts on top of a busy work day.  This gives him some extra time for morning snuggles and evening dance parties with the babes.  And if I’m lucky, I get a solid 45 minutes of Netflix and Chill (emphasis on “chill” in its literal sense) before he falls asleep next to me, often while I’m making some deep commentary on a particularly intense scene of our show.

“You feel me, Rivs?”

Nope.  He’s out.

Every time.

Although this in itself sounds like an impressive feat (the running, not the exhaustion-induced narcolepsy, although some would argue that they are both quite remarkable), I have to admit that I’m so accustomed to his supernatural physical and mental fortitude that I’ve come to expect this type of behavior.

The other day, amidst the hustle of getting a reluctant 7 year old ready for school while simultaneously trying to dissuade a headstrong 2 year old from stuffing blackberries into her Baby Alive Doll’s butt (true story) and urging a feisty 10 month old to put food in her mouth instead of on the floor, I noticed that my husband wasn’t on his way out the door as he normally would be at 7:15.

I quickly glanced around the living room.

Running shoes still lined up with the other 15 or 30 other pairs by the door.

Hydration pack still lying in the corner.

Husband in sweats rather than his normal 7am stretchy pants.

Gloves still lying neatly on the entryway dresser, next to an assortment of sunglasses, hats and watches all absolutely essential to running and therefore need to be visible at all times.

The empirical evidence was gathered, denoting only one thing.

“Are you…driving to work?” I asked, unable to hide the horror in my voice.

“Yeah, my legs are pretty dead and I have some things to work on at the clinic before I start work,” he replied.

“Oh…” I mumbled, the word “lazy” floating through my head even though the only physical exertion I’d demonstrate that day would be a 28 minute circuit workout and some pragmatic squats to remove toys and/or dirty diapers off the floor with a baby in my arms.

“I can’t believe he’s NOT going to run 24 miles and work for 8 hours in a neurological rehabilitation clinic today while still finding time to work on his doctoral thesis” I thought before stopping myself to note how asinine that sentence sounded in my head.

I had to take a moment to humble myself.

I’m often so consumed with patting myself on the back for how hard I work at home with 3 kids that I don’t appreciate all that my husband does.

I think this is typical in relationships, and is often the reason they fall apart.  We become so entrenched in obsessing over our own hard work- how much we put into the relationship or comparing tit for tat tasks around the house- that we stop showing appreciation for all that our partner does.

In that momentary epiphany of my own self-absorption, I realized that my husband’s hard work doesn’t negate my own.  Things run smoother when we praise our partner’s efforts before taking an exhaustive inventory of all the things we’ve done that day.

I may spend the day keeping things out of plastic dolls butts while wiping real human ones.  I may feel like a taxi service carting kids here and there, finding time to squeeze in an essential salsa drop-off at my husband’s work (sometimes you just NEED salsa for your burrito after you’ve run 12 miles.  Straight up NEED it.)

Yes, I do a lot at home.  But that doesn’t mean that my husband isn’t working equally hard in a different capacity.

Even the extraordinary becomes unimpressive when you witness it day after day.  It’s up to us to search for the marvelous in the mundane.

Chaffed Nipples and the Universality of Pain

My husband crossed the BMO Phoenix Marathon finish line in uncharacteristic rage.

Rather than throwing out high-fives to the cheering crowds in the race’s final stretch, I watched as my husband’s impressive stride slowed to a pedestrian pace.  He wore a pained grimace on his face in lieu of his habitual wide-mouthed smile.  His legs were quivering with pangs of over exertion.

There was no doubt that he was hurting a little more than normal.  From my position across the metal fence, I couldn’t tell if it was because his legs had seized, if he was severely dehydrated, or if his less than jovial finish was due to the fact that he came through in 2nd place, just seconds behind the Ethiopian victor.

One thing was certain; he had raced hard.  He had thrown down with some fast east African dudes, and he had done it with every ounce of “baby daddy gots to win the bread for his 4 babes to pay for the fun weekend in Phoenix at a hotel out of our price range cuz YOLO” he had in him.

Now don’t get me wrong- he always races with more guts, determination and grit than most humans can muster in a lifetime.  But it seemed apparent to me that this race was fueled by even more constructive fury than normal.

The crowd was going wild- all three top finishers had made it through in under 2:19, all within a minute of each other.

We watched my husband haphazardly walk through the finish, then collapse in a heap on the pavement.

“Oh NOOOOO!” our oldest daughter exclaimed in panic.

“It’s okay, Harp. Daddy will be fine.  He just ran really hard and he’s very tired,” I replied, my heart warmed by her concern.

“No, I dropped my lollipop!” she responded, pointing to the gravel-encrusted Tootsie Pop laying on the asphalt.

“Should have known,” I whispered under my breath, once again reminded that despite being unconditionally full of love, children are are often selfish tiny human a-holes completely oblivious to the sacrifices parents make for their happiness and comfort.  But whatevs.

I quickly shook out of the existential tangent and turned my attention back to my husband who was being congratulated and slowly helped to his feet by a group of race volunteers.

Meanwhile, Harper had picked off all of the floor debris from her candy and decided that her 7 year old life was once again worth living.

I called to my husband now that is seemed like he was in a somewhat conscious state,.  He hobbled slowly over to kiss me and our 3 girls.

Iris, our feisty 2 year old, clambered over the guardrail to jump into his shaking arms.  Rather than deport her back over the barricade, a nice race volunteer helped my other 2 daughters over the rail to be with their father.  I guess I didn’t look light enough to be hoisted over, or limber enough to climb the fence, so I was left on the other side singing my husband’s praise from the other side of the wall.  It was a great wall.  It wasn’t too yuge, but it was great.  The best, actually.

“Are you okay?”  “How are your legs?  Do you need some food?” “Do you need more water?”  “How was the race?”  “You did SO good!”  “Are you happy with how you did?”

For some reason, I always Spanish inquisition my husband after a race.  It’s probably super annoying, but I’ll explain it away as deep love and concern manifesting as a conquest for empirical evidence in order to figure out how to best help him feel better.

“I’m good, just hurting,” he responded with characteristic kindness and stoicism.

“Is it your leg?” I inquired, wanting to understand his pain, both of us knowing that I could do pretty much nothing about it.

“No, it’s…. It’s my nipple.”

My husband slowly pulled his thin black singlet to the side to expose a cracked, inflamed and bloody right nipple.

I busted out in laughter.  I couldn’t help it.

Here was my Spartan husband, generally unfazed by physical duress.  He had just run 26.2 miles with some of the fastest runners in the world.  His big toenail was hanging on by a thread.  His hamstrings were seizing.  I later found out that during his 5:12/mile pace race he had jumped-on and run over the roof of a car that had been illegally driving on the race course.

All of these pain-inducing experiences, and here he was complaining about his freaking nipple.

Unfortunately (or fortunately?), I knew all-too-well the agony he was enduring.

“Now imagine a hungry baby sucking on that nipple,” I scoffed, smugly satisfied that he could experience one of the painful pastimes of early motherhood.

Despite exhaustion and glycogen depletion, my husband let out his familiar laugh and smiled in commiseration.  He held our 3 daughters tightly, and though he was too tired to say it, I knew his embrace was telling our children that it was all for them.

After a few bottles of water and a couple of vomiting session into a nearby cardboard trash bin, my husband finally felt well enough to hoist Iris onto his shoulders and make his way into the finish area.

As we walked around the various tents- Harper accumulating an unrespectable amount of mesh Frisbees and Chik-fil-A freebies- I couldn’t help but think about the universality of pain.

(Yes, my husband’s chaffed nipple got me thinking about the metaphysical nature of pain. If you haven’t already realized it, I’m pretty weird.)

I started thinking that despite the different walks in life we all take- whether we decide to be mothers, lawyers, athletes, mechanics, or doctors, whether we end up married, divorced, widowed, homeless, depressed, happy, successful or defeated, we all experience physical pain in the same way.

We all have metaphorically chaffed nipples from all different life experiences.  And in that very small way, we are all the same.

Even though I had never run a marathon, I knew exactly how my husband felt under completely different circumstances.  I knew in a very small way, how he was hurting.  And in that moment, both his pain and his humanity became more real to me.

Don’t let some of the rhetoric of today’s global climate fool you.

We are all human.  We all love.  We all feel pain.  And it hurts just as badly to you as it does to me.  To them.  To all of us.

 

You Do You

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When my husband and I first met, running was mostly a hobby for him.  Yes, running paid for his university degree and facilitated our ability to live in Hawaii for 8 years, but we were still poor, struggling students with nothing but a couple of surfboards and an old Ford Ranger to our name.

Our first daughter was born while I was doing a Masters degree at the United Nations University for Peace in Costa Rica (damn hippies, right?  Now you’re onto us…)  After her birth, shit got real, so to speak.  The pressure was on for us to become somewhat responsible adults if we were to be entrusted with the life of another human.  

For a lot of people, this means getting a stable job, buying an income-appropriate home, trading in Walker Texas Ford Ranger for a minivan, relinquishing lofty dreams to the good old days and maybe getting an overpriced purebred dog.

I have to admit that I was tempted by the image of normalcy- the American Dream if you will.  There is a particular allure to consistency, stability and conformity, especially when rearing a child.  My interests rapidly switched from travel, conflict journalism and the ever-plaguing White (Wo)Man’s Save The World complex to budgeting and white picket fences.

My husband, on the other hand, unadulterated by postpartum minivan hormones, maintained that having a child didn’t negate his desire or ability to become what he had always wanted- a professional endurance athlete.

Not that there is anything wrong with living a predictable, responsible life.  I mean, if everyone was like “F-it, let’s reject the American workforce and all become professional athletes!” we’d really need to make America great again.  

But it takes all sorts to create a dynamic society, and so we moved to Flagstaff so that my husband could train at altitude and keep chipping away at his goals.

I did my best to maintain a good attitude about remaining relatively impoverished despite our potential to make a decent, stable income. Between the 2 of us, we had 4 college degrees, and yet we were working as servers at a local restaurant to pay the bills so that my husband could train sufficiently and I could stay home with our daughter during the day.

We were happy, and yet extraneous pressures were telling us that this was not enough-that we needed to grow up, become responsible adults and get those 9-5s.

I can remember one winter evening when my husband told me “It will all be worth it one day.”

We were huddled around the one heat source in our house- a 3ft by 4ft Mordor-esque heat vent in the middle of our living room floor that I’m sure is all sorts of outdated and illegal.  Our bookshelf was made out of 2 cinder blocks and a plank of wood.  Our bed was a mattress on the floor.  If we wanted mindless entertainment, we sat in front of our small laptop to watch 99 cent Redbox movies.

And even though we had so little, I can remember feeling so happy, and so fulfilled with our simple life.  My husband’s almost apologetic words were appreciated, but I recall thinking, in that moment hunched over Mordor, that I was completely content with what we had.

We have since moved away from the Mount of Doom and into a comfortable home with a modern heating system (#goals).  My husband is a successful athlete.  I am a mother that is fortunate enough to stay home with my babies.  But looking back, we were no less happy then, even with so much less to call our own, materially speaking.  

Lately I’ve been reflecting on how, as long as our basic human needs are met (food, shelter, health), income has little effect on our happiness if we are doing things we love with people we love.

A friend recently sent my husband a quote by David Blaikie about ultrarunning and it got me thinking about this whole shebang.

“Perhaps the genius of ultrarunning is its supreme lack of utility. It makes no sense in a world of spaceships and supercomputers to run vast distances on foot. There is no money in it and no fame, frequently not even the approval of peers. But as poets, apostles and philosophers have insisted from the dawn of time, there is more to life than logic and common sense. The ultra runners know this instinctively. And they know something else that is lost on the sedentary. They understand, perhaps better than anyone, that the doors to the spirit will swing open with physical effort.

In running such long and taxing distances they answer a call from the deepest realms of their being – a call that asks who they are …”

Now I’m no ultrarunner (This past Thanksgiving I dropped out of a 10K Turkey Trot a week after my husband ran a 50K under the Middle Eastern sun.)  But I think this quote applies to anyone who is in tune with what they really want to achieve in life.  

“There is more to life than logic and common sense.”  This is the line that hit me hardest. What makes sense to some as a respectable, responsible life might not resonate with the deepest realms of our own being.  And that’s ok.

Just do what you love, with the people you love and to hell with those that tell you it’s not enough.  

All in Good Time

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When your husband has just come home from a 5 day photo shoot in the Australian outback and leaves 3 weeks later for a transatlantic flight to the Middle East, it’s hard not to feel like Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing.  My husband is Patrick Swayze (with, surprisingly, slightly less spandex), and here I am like a subpar backup dancer, trying my best to keep 3 small children alive, eating dinosaur nugget tails for dinner and using wet wipes as a pseudo shower (who has time for standing under actual hot running water anyways?)

“Nobody puts baby in the corner,” I say to no one in particular as I sit slumped in a leather chair after all the kids are finally in bed- an inordinately large chunk of 85% dark chocolate in one hand and TIME magazine in the other.  But who am I kidding?  I’m likely going to stay awake just long enough to stuff my exhausted face with chocolate and fall asleep upright before even feigning interest in grown-up reading material.  Yes, all I will learn today from literature is what Baby Bear saw and maybe, if I’m lucky, who Doc McStuffins fixed in her toy hospital.

When you’re partnered with someone who is so fully living their dream, it’s difficult to not feel left behind.  I know I’ve written about this before, but it seems to be a reoccurring theme in my life as my propensity to pop out offspring increases parallel to my husband’s success as a professional athlete.  Right now, my husband is in Qatar to race on Team USA at the 50K World Championships.  He is greeted by a man holding a golden pot offering freshly brewed tea each time he walks into his hotel’s lobby, and I’m over here like I brushed my teeth today, can I get a hell yeah?!

Not that being a mother isn’t the most fulfilling and important job I’ve ever had.  It is.  But, it is an inarguable fact that there is nothing sexy or glamorous about motherhood, and that truth is even more starkly apparent when compared to a jet-setting partner.

But what I’ve come to realize is that there is nothing to resent.  My husband’s success is not dumb luck or serendipity but rather the result of years of calculated determination and hard work.  And anyways, what would I get from being aggrieved by my husband’s accomplishments?  Being jealous (because let’s admit it, that’s what resentment is most of the time) wouldn’t motivate me to pursue my own goals and dreams.  It would only serve self-pity.

I often scroll through Instagram and see self-made entrepreneur mothers standing in pristine kitchens laughing in reckless abandon as if their toddler has never pooped his pants or eaten a preservative in his short life.  I see them living their dream of being a famous blogger, or fitness guru, or foodie, or fashionista while being in the midst of motherhood and I think “how the hell do they do it?” and “why not me?”

It’s so easy to allow others’ success to make us feel inadequate, or to feel as though the time has come and gone for chasing dreams.  But just because now isn’t your time doesn’t mean that your time will never come.

And so I’ve decided (over and over) that instead of interpreting others’ success as a fountainhead of jealousy, I will use it as a source of inspiration for me to go after my own dreams.  Okay, maybe not right now (unless I categorize “dreams” as taking a pee without a toddler sitting on my lap or sleeping for more than 3 hours at a time.)  But just because I’m not currently traveling the world as a famous journalist or a prize winning author doesn’t mean my time has passed. As a very wise friend once told me, there is a time to live our story, and a time to tell it.

So don’t be discouraged if you haven’t achieved your time-oriented goals.  Sometimes life throws us hurdles and detours  to getting to where we thought we might be.  Don’t see those detours as obstacles- instead, learn to see them as contributors to your own story, and fuel for your future success.

For now, I’ll be Baby in the Corner- but this Baby isn’t sulking in despair waiting for a young Swayze to lift her from despair.  No, this Baby is enjoying the quirks, triumphs and joys of motherhood while carefully dreaming about all things that are still to come.

Because right now, when all’s said and done, there is no backup dance I’d rather be doing than sitting on my living room floor blowing raspberries and gluing feathers onto a paper turkey with my 3 kids.

I Had a Baby

Rivs Blog Baby

I had a baby. Yup, another one.  It’s safe to say that the past 3 years of my life I’ve felt like a hormonal milk-spewing baby factory.  That being said, it’s also undeniable that I’ve loved (almost) every moment.  Well, other than the first and last 3 months of pregnancy, going through labor, the 4 weeks of newborn sleeplessness, having my conversation and thinking skills reduced to toddler nursery rhymes, the erratic and uncontrollable hormonal rollercoaster ride, the inevitable hyperactive mom anxiety that accompanies a fresh baby, and trying to tame a wild 2 year old and sassy 6 year old while caring for the newbie.

I’m not one of those “glowing” pregnant women that revels in the miracle of life growing in her womb.  No, I see pregnancy as a grueling means to a beautiful end: I grind through the first 12 weeks feeling as though I drank way too many wine coolers the night before, try shamelessly for the next 6 weeks to squeeze into pre-pregnancy pants in stark denial of my growing girth (shoutout to my girl Vanessa who looked at me one day and said “Uh-uh Steph.  You can’t wear that anymore.”), then submitting for the last 12 weeks saying “eff it, homegirl’s gonna get huuuuge” and rounding out the 9 month odyssey eating cake for breakfast and bacon nachos for dinner erry’day. (I’m pretty sure my husband said “Wow, you’re really going for it!” on more than one occasion.  My response was always a blank stare, likely accompanied by some bacon grease dripping down my face.)

Okay, that was a long clause- but I promise I love being a mom.

As the newborn-rearing fog slowly fades and I gradually feel myself emerge from The Walking Dead level of consciousness, I have started to have thoughts.  Yes, I have been able to string a few coherent ideas together enough to be inspired to write.

I had a really hard time in the first few weeks after bringing our little Poppy girl home.  I was overwhelmed by the thought of making dinner even before lunchtime hit.  I would set aside everyone’s pyjamas (even my husband’s. Ok maybe not…) hours before bedtime in panicked anticipation for the chaos of bedtime.  I lay in bed at 8pm unable to fall asleep because I knew I would have to wake up every 2 hours throughout the night.

I became so consumed with the difficulties and frustrations of life that I was unable to see joy in the little things that make motherhood all worth it.  I guess doctors call this the “Baby Blues,” but I call it being freaking human.

Ironically (and I say that because I used to have harsh feelings towards the sport), it was running that helped me change my perspective on the seemingly overwhelming feat of raising 3 children.

As I ran ever so slowly through the Ponderosa Pines one morning, the 50 pounds of baby weight making each step feel like my feet were stuck in mud, I realized how pushing through the frustrations of being physically unfit is a lot like fighting through the sometimes overwhelming nature of early motherhood.

I am still very new to running, but I can remember being so distressed with a bad day of running that I questioned why I even tried.  I would spend the rest of the day ruminating over how much running sucked.  Sometimes this trend would last for days, until I found myself running spritely through the trees, feeling the liberation that the practice offers.

And then I would remember why I did it.

After all, if running was easy, we wouldn’t do it, would we?  A large part of what makes running so satisfying is that it is often hard.  Like motherhood (or life in general), it is overcoming the hurdles of hardship that makes running so worthwhile.

It is easy to slip comfortably into discomfort, wallowing in self-pity and submitting to failure.  It isn’t until we emerge from the hard times that we begin to see their worth.  That’s where I’m at right now- appreciating the rough patches because they make the good times that much sweeter.

Having a particularly frustrating day of training makes the days when you feel like you’re weightlessly flying so very exciting.  Working through injury makes you appreciate your health in ways you never imagined.  Finishing a race that you think you’re going to drop-out of every single mile is so much more satisfying than ending one effortlessly.

Likewise, the shrill cries of a newborn make a soft coo or wide-mouthed smile all the more magical.  Sibling bickering (or all out war) makes the moments of tenderness between your children even more beautiful.  Waking every 2 hours to soothe your baby makes those 8 eight hour stretches so appreciated.

As I ran through the woods that day- painstakingly slow as I urged my body back to fitness- I was reminded of the beauty in adversity.  I realized that it is in the space between failure and success that we find our greatest strength.

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