Enough About the Cold, How about Your Toenails?

There is a memorable part in the film Titanic where, in a desperate rush to save her beloved Jack, Rose takes the plunge into the freezing waters rising steadily in the lower third class corridors of the sinking ship.  I later learned on IMDB that the audible gasp of shock that actress Kate Winslet let out was one of absolute surprise; director James Cameron had never told her that the set’s water, while far from the 30-40 degrees of the actual Atlantic that fateful night, was certainly below 70.

I say this because that very shock struck me this morning as I stepped outside for the first time.  I had once thought (like, 3 weeks ago) that I had “braved” the cold, and had known what it was like to be out there.  But the brick wall that I smacked headlong into was like plunging my head into a handful of water as I washed my face.  This was happening even under six layers of wool, fleece, and polyester.  In the car, the thermometer read 12 degrees.  Central Park, however, was going to be 3 below with the wind chill.

I am writing this as I make my way to class.  I am coaching as a sub today, but the distance is going to be perfect for my run today as well.  40 minutes easy for me, 3.5 miles for these runners.  It is a beginner level group, which means a nice spread of runners going about 10-13 minutes per mile.  I cannot recall the weather being so cold, so I don’t exactly know how many will show up.  I would be pretty impressed if even a handful show up, and I would not blame the rest if they did not.  Even for me, this is, in the most descriptive of terms, pretty fucking cold.

The run was as expected: very easy, timing around 6:30 at my fastest, but for the most part keeping in pace with the class.  It was actually nice, a good mix of fast and easy all rolled into a nice 3.5 mile course.  I talked the entire time, directing the runners on where to go, reminding them to pace themselves, joking about the cold, eagerly sharing my running history and the casualties along the way.  From the blackened toenails of last May’s North Face Endurance Challenge 10k, to the bleeding toe sliced by my third toenail at mile 12 of the Philadelphia Half, no injury was overlooked.  It grossed them out, more than likely, but I hoped that it certainly entertained them.  It at least kept me distracted.

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These Good Cold Days and Keeping Warmed Up

One of the great things that I’ve started to learn as I make my baby steps into coaching is that it is really cool to see such an enthusiastic group of runners.  It has been some of the coldest days/nights that I have ever run.  On a typical January you would find me hitting the gym or just staying indoors bear-style, hibernating.  But with Coach Pat reading my logs and actually taking lead of a few running classes the need to stay accountable is more vital than ever.  I recall basketball tryouts (an embarrassing chapter among many in my high school days…I really don’t think I want to go to my reunion) back in sophomore year.  The coach, he who shall not be named, was one serious (to be blunt) fatass.  I feel that it would be appropriate to call him that because in my mind’s eye I see the Stay Puft Marshmallow man telling us to do suicides across the court and then do passing drills.  First, I sucked at basketball, so that’s a joke.  Second, I’m not going to take orders and do sprints across a basketball court from a man who would feed me to the Pit of Karkoon if I were to fail.

Basketball Coach

There, you can contemplate why people loved high school so much as you are slowly digested for the next thousand years

So if anyone were to tell me, “I’m not going out there in the rain/cold/hurricane!  It’s shitty out, I’m staying in,” I could actually say that I know that’s not true, because not only am I running out there, but I have had almost an entire class out in the twenty degree and teens weather, freezing our asses off in the name of (let’s face it) looking good.

Since starting my training, I have been sure to include comments in my log to Coach Patrick about how I felt during the runs. Even reading it now, I must say fighting the cold has been some of the toughest battles of each run.  I can recall last Tuesday’s miserable battle against the track.  It was a hopeless feeling, thinking at the time that I had to run a 4:15 mile pace (It was actually 4:15 half mile pace, which is actually way easier) and feeling cold and miserable as I looked at my watch and saw that I was nowhere even CLOSE to hitting that mark (again, it is actually physically impossible for me…I’m not being pessimistic here).  I remember that defeatist mentality…the sort that shrouds your mind when you’re trying to focus on keeping your pace.  It is a malicious little thing, burrowing deeper into you with each lap or set and then taking hold when you stop and realize that, man, it really is cold and you’re not even halfway through the workout yet!  You really suck!

My attitude held strong after Tuesday in spite of myself.  I think at one point on Wednesday night, after a painful 1:20:52 of running 10 laps up a hill in my town, I was convinced that I would never feel warm again.

But something happened Wednesday night as I burrowed myself into bed and went looking around for something to read.  I opened up What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.  It recounts the musings of famed writer Haruki Murakami, himself a(n ultra)marathon runner, as he trained for the New York Marathon in 2009.  Writing on the occasions when he wasn’t writing, leading a discussion, or training, he expresses thoughts spanning across so many subjects–his past, his writings, his feelings while running.  It gave me a deep sense of empathy–here, then, is a man who is just as batshit crazy as I am.  Here, then, is a man who is fighting against his body to keep strong.  Sure, he’s by now 60 something years old, but as an individual who spent most of his childhood thinking he was not meant to run and be athletic I was so happy when I discovered that I had defeated my asthma as an adult, and could relate then to a man for whom athletic ability, while readily at his disposal, has never been something so easy to come by.

Murakami’s prose came so naturally, in a way that another athlete, Chrissie Wellington, had not.  Perhaps it was because Murakami is, first and foremost now, a writer.  When I read Chrissie’s A Life Without Limits, it felt..well it felt like I knew she had a ghost writer transcribing her notes.  Murakami’s writings felt more honest, more thoughtful and relatable.

Perhaps it was also because I decided, after reading the first chapter of Murakami’s memoir, to stop reading for the day.  I would get back to it, I decided, after my next run.  It was a good decision.  At this point I am about done, maybe three more chapters left.  It made me feel better, reading about someone else who, at the time of his writing his entry, had just finished his workout just as I had, and was expressing thoughts of pure honesty, wanting to stop, feeling muscles that were tight and fatigued, doubting and yet using those negative thoughts into fuel for his race…that is what I wanted to feel.

I think that’s why I’m enjoying coaching.  They’re not fuel for me to feel great.  Yeah, you’re miserable!  Now you know how I felt during training last night!  We’re all keeping each other going.  Running, while it is a solo endeavor, with you being your own opponent, it is still a grueling sport of spirit.  Basketball players, football players, soccer players, even golfers–they all have to put their balls into something (insert sex joke here).  Runners, in the end, it really is about the people you are around.  Your partner running next to you, that challenge behind you, that loser up ahead that you’re going to overtake with each gaining step.  The cheering crowd on either side of the route.  That is all there to keep your spirits up.  I think it’s really what makes a training run that much better than just running alone.

There are No Stupid Questions. Sometimes.

huh

So today I called Coach Pat with questions, and he told me with a chuckle that the 5×800 at 4:15 was meant to be paced at half a mile, meaning that my times were definitely not slower, but certainly a mite bit too fast.  I felt like an idiot, which has taught me thus to never be afraid of asking your coach questions.  He/She’s there for a reason, and you’re paying them to help you get better…how can they do that if you aren’t willing to give them feedback?

So, today I will be doing 10 sets of hill repeats.  It was supposed to be at Cat Hill in Central Park, a route that even till today I have not run (or I probably have, but just nodded and followed along with everybody else–like a lemming eagerly anticipating what’ll happen if I hop over the edge of that cliff).  I find myself at odds with the great park, mainly because it took me 4 years of working in the city to realize what the hell the transverses were only last year, and that I’ve been calling them everything BUT transverses.

The following was a typical conversation between me and a few students (or colleagues, the people are interchangeable here):

“Where are we running today?” Inquired the enthusiastic runner.
“Oh,” I hesitated.  “That uh–road, path, thing–that cuts across the park.”
“The transverse?”

“Sure, why not.”

As I continue to assistant Coach runs nowadays, though, my confidence in knowing Central Park is steadily growing, although I still probably wouldn’t run through some of the lesser known routes without company.  It’s still certainly better than my knowledge of anything related to Brooklyn (my second most frequented borough next to Manhattan, but even far less familiar).  Don’t even get me started on anything south of Houston.

Week 1 – January 5-January 11. OR The Week that Hell Froze Over

This past week was my first of the New Year starting my training with Coach Pat.  In the past, I had options, with little sense of discipline.  However, with interest in making up for my passive mindset last year, I chose to man up in my tightest tights and brave the cold.  I have run in the midst of thunderstorms, showers, snowstorms, hurricanes, and fires (not).  How bad could sub-freezing temperatures be?

 Wednesday Night, 1/7 –  10 minute warm ups and then 3 sets of 10 minute runs, picking up 15 seconds with each set

1-7

Turns out, on a good run it can be awesome.  On that Wednesday night I ran out into the semi-darkness, sucking up the 8 degree weather and forcing myself through some of the most brutal winds I had ever faced.  It was an incredible feeling, both meditative and exciting, painful and soothing–perhaps something that only after almost a decade of choosing to run outside can induce.  I recall glancing through my frozen contacts other runners as they gasped their way through the soul-eating winds along the West Side Highway, their gloved hands grasping the air as if pulling themselves determinedly up a tempestuous mountain with no end in sight.

Patrick told me after my run to take a measured approach to these first two weeks–they are an assessment after all.  I had mentioned on a good run that the cold can be awesome. I would be remiss if I fail to bring up facts about today’s workout: running 5 sets of 800m at 4:15/mi.  First, it was a cloudless Tuesday afternoon.  I was supposed to run yesterday, but elected to do my ab workout instead due to a downpour of rain and snow that I dared not test–not a solid excuse judging from my previous statements about committing to running, but I confess I also would like to feel like I am actually enjoying my training.  You can’t win all the time, but I felt that switching days would be a nice compromise.


 Tuesday Afternoon, 1/13 – 10 minute warmup, 5x800m at 4:15, 10 minute cooldown

Today’s workout was a test of whatever willpower I had.  From the get-go I lacked the confidence to go anywhere near 4:15.  On a good day I’d be lucky if I could even run 6:30.  On a day like today, after being sore and icky and now dealing with the cold, I made some of the worst paces I had ever seen–nowhere even NEAR my intended time:

Lap 1: 7:04

Lap 2: 7:27

Lap 3: 7:30

Lap 4: 7:40

Lap 5: 7:43

No matter how hard I pushed, no matter what I did to adjust my strides, my cadence, my lung capacity, each lap was worse than the other.  By the end everything hurt, everything stung.  My lungs were on fire, my abs sorer than ever.  By the end of my run, I was swearing up a storm, cursing the weather, cursing my legs and weak body, cursing my sore abs.  Did Coach Pat put too much faith in my abilities?  Did I have not enough faith in mine?  I just don’t know.  I felt hopeless.


I am currently reading a book by Haruki Murakami.  I was familiar with the name, but had never been interested in reading his work until I entered the Konikuniya bookstore in Midtown and saw a memoir, What I Think About When I am Running.  At the time, I figured it would be good to get an artist’s perspective on the sport–the last book that I had read was Chrissie Wellington’s A Life without Limits and I had been left somewhat disappointed more because, well, she’s a champion Ironman Athlete…how can I relate to someone of such remarkable calibre?  Here, though, was a man, an artist, a man who pursued the sport not to compete but to find fulfillment and an output beyond his work life.

Within the first two chapters of reading, I was immersed.  Murakami talks about running, sure, but he talks about life: his musings, his past, his struggles, Mick Jagger.  It is as random and yet as specific as my focus when I am running– the objectives for each training run is clear and yet, while I’m thinking about that, what will I be having for dinner?  Do I have a shot at asking her out?  Why didn’t I ask this girl out back in high school?  I really liked that Backstreet’s Back song when I was younger–follow that beat at this pace, one more lap to go!

 After reading some of the passages in the book, I stopped.  I am going to read after every training run, but no more, no less.  Especially after today’s miserable run, I think I’m going to take, as I had been told, a more measured step.