Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Next Generation

My kids are the worst.  Utterly goofy silly little boys that manage to create a rave party out of the simplest moments.  They always conveniently forget to make their beds, flush the toilet and separate dirty laundry away from the clean laundry.  They are 18 months apart (not something I planned well) and extremely close.  Raising two loud busy little beings so close in age has felt like living in a daycare that never closes up shop for the night.  Did I mention they are inseparable?  The baby boy follows his big brother's cues like a faithful loyal subject and big brother always makes it a point to include baby boy in every one of his endeavors.  These two unique little dudes are the perfect blend of wit, grit and off beat charm.  My husband and I always joke how they managed to pick up all of our habits and personality traits, both good and bad, no matter how hard we tried to prevent it.

Unfortunately, our bad habits are the ones we noticed in them first.  Hubby's habit of yelling and talking loudly like he lives in a wind tunnel is apparent the second you enter our house and hear the affront of our high volume conversations.  My perpetual sarcasm and potty mouth comes back to haunt me every time I hear one of the boys threatening to let a four-letter gem fall out of his mouth.  We are not perfect parents by any stretch of the imagination, but we have a good time together and feel like we are doing an overall good job raising them.  I agonize over them and my parenting ups and downs when I zone out on my solo runs.  What parent doesn't constantly question their decisions and practices when raising their kids?  I am so afraid that every minor misstep I make will lead to permanent damage in our family dynamic, forcing my children to seek a life of crime or run up a boatload of bills in therapy.  Paranoid?  Sure, but I wouldn't be a decent mother if I did not worry about them on some overly protective level.

One interest my oldest son has been developing steadily over the last 2 years is running.  He runs regularly with the marathon club at his school and occasionally goes for 2-milers with mommy.  Although it should not surprise me that he picked up this hobby from me, it did whack me on the head the first time he wanted to tag along for a neighborhood stroll.  I ask him all the time why he runs and his answer is childishly innocent and simple.  He likes it (duh!) and it feels good when he looks back at how many miles he has logged.  Besides, he lives in a house where both mommy and daddy have weekly fitness routines so something was bound to rub off on him.  Ironically, I never considered what effect my running had on my kids.  My son doesn't know my insecurities about my belly rolls that ricochet around in my head constantly.  He doesn't know that I sometimes run as a type of mini-escape when daily pressures get too big for me.  He doesn't know that sometimes when I want to hide from my grown up responsibilities (including parenthood), all I am able to do is go for a run and hope that I feel better three miles later.  All he sees is that mommy consistently laces up those running shoes, heads out the door and somehow comes back home a happier person.  I imagine in a child's eyes, it must seem like a magical transformation happens somewhere out there on those runs.  Maybe in a lot of ways it does.

My parental running influence is not unique to just my household.  Some of the other "divas" in my running crew are noticing similar developments with their own offspring.  One junior diva has been kicking asphalt with us in early morning runs for months now and even has one major race to her credit.  Another mini-junior diva just signed up for a kids' triathlon training program, with her racing debut due this spring.  Unintentionally, we have each made our kids believe that running is the activity of choice or at least worth trying out.  For all our faults and shortcomings, it is a relief that at least for now, they choose to mimic us in a hobby that shows us at our very best.  Who knows if this infatuation with running will last beyond a passing fancy.  Before you know it, these kids may move on to other activities and interests that don't include us at all.  It is hard to ignore that my boys are sometimes too cool to hold mommy's hand or give a kiss goodbye to me in public.  I realize they are starting to view me as someone they need to outsmart these days rather someone they choose to cuddle with.

However, when I return home from a race with a big gaudy medal around my neck and mud-soaked shoes on my feet, all they see is a super badass athlete that happens to be their mom.  "Did you win?" is always the question that greets me at the door.  The absolute best feeling is when my husband brings them along to one of my races and I get to see them squeezed in with all the other sideline spectators cheering for their mom as if I was the only runner out there.  Their eyes light up when I stop to get sweaty hugs and high fives from my very own three person fan club.  They don't notice the hundreds (alright, thousands) of faster and fitter runners that pass me on the course.  Never mind the fact that I tell them repeatedly that I have never won anything in a running event other than scoring an extra banana at the post-race parties.  This has not swayed them from believing in the power of the sport.

Now not only are me and the other divas their mothers, but we are also their role models.  The way we train, the way we eat, and the way we rest are being watched by younger eyes trying to unlock the secrets of this new sport they may or may not choose to stick with.  My son will ask me for advice on things like when to hydrate and when to speed up, hanging on my words like he was listening to an Olympic world class coach.  I try not to turn all over protective and "mommy-ish" on him and respond objectively, sharing running wisdom I have gained over the years.  Moments like that are fleeting but golden in my eyes and I don't want to let them go.  Far into the future my kids and I may one day share a coexistence where our lives and interests no longer intersect.  By then, dear old mommy will no longer be the sun they orbit around.  I might possibly fade into the background as the one they simply check in with on major holidays or borrow money from when they are strapped.  My hope is that no matter where life takes them or what dreams they pursue, we will still share a common bond through a shared love of running.  Maybe this running legacy we are creating now will go on to future generations long after my running days are done.  At the very least, I hope they remember this time as a period in their lives when I was more than just their mom, but their inspiration.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Race Report: Houston Half Marathon

Every January my running buds and I get all geeked out over the hometown race as if we were pre-K kids going to a Wiggles concert.  We try to go to all the weekend's events including the fitness expo, the kids fun run and of course the marathon itself.  The Houston marathon celebrated its 40th year this weekend and has grown into the city's largest single day sporting event.  Yeah this town has hosted NBA All Star games, flashy rodeos, soccer championships, and most recently, the Olympic marathon trials.  However, this marathon consistently brings out crowds by the thousands and gives us regular folks a chance to accomplish some hard fought goals.  One news report declared that over 250,000 people came out to be a part of the festivities in some form, either as runners or spectators.  I was one of those individuals on the course as I ran my first half marathon after a year long hiatus from the sport.  You've read how I blubber on and on about the challenges of the past year, but today was a complete triumph that I grabbed hold of with a firm two-handed grip.  Being back in the middle of that crowd as a part of the race experience felt fresh like I was doing it for the first time.

I celebrated my birthday with the fellow "divas" of my running crew the night before.  They surprised me by showering me with gifts and cards that brought my usual sarcasm to a halt as I soaked up the love and the friendship of a group of gals I have grown to deeply appreciate.  I am not big on huge birthday parties or extravagant gatherings when my time rolls around, but this dinner was really nice and I had time to enjoy the company of some good friends.  My normal routine would be to seclude myself indoors the night before a big race so I can be in my jammies the moment sleepiness hits my body.  The goal is to be as rested as possible when that blaring alarm clock goes off (around 4am...yikes!).  Making it to bed on time was not a problem, but I still seemed to somehow want to hit somebody when it was time roll out from under the folds of my warm comfy bed.  The early rise was well worth it because we made it down to the race start line with no problems, further easing any pre-race jitters I would have denied having.

Everything about the race and the entire weekend seemed to flow easily as if it were predestined for a greater purpose.  On second thought, maybe it was.  Maybe some of us were meant to run that race and leave behind ugly doubts of failure and self-worthlessness and simply enjoy the blessing of that singular achievement.  Spectators on the sidelines have long been the best entertainment at marathon events because of the colorfully humorous posters and banners they display in an effort to motivate us tired sweaty (ready to give up) runners.  One particular poster caught my eye yesterday around mile 11.  It said, "There will come a day when you are no longer able to do this.  Enjoy this moment while you have it".  Geez, did that ever get me all sappy and emotional.  My eyes starting to sting as all the tension and uncertainty of the past year simply lifted off me in the flash of that moment.  Although I am not exactly sure what, but it felt like I made peace some things right then and there.  Having already lived that period when I was unable to run, it made this race much bigger  than simply winning a finisher's shirt and medal.  It felt like a rebirth.  I wanted to pull over and share with that perfect stranger how her little poster deeply affected me.  It's a good thing I kept going, because the smell of my sweaty running clothes probably would have knocked her out!

After passing that poster and the anonymous lady that unknowingly gave me a wonderfully uplifting moment, I deliberately slowed down my pace.  My body felt strong but I wanted to go slow.  If you are a non-runner, you need to know that slowing down your pace so close to the finish line is unheard of.  We are usually so time obsessed that we do whatever is necessary to dig deep and pull out all the stops during that final stretch.  Beating your best finish time, or PR as we call it, is the only thing on your mind at this point in the race.  However without a coherent thought in my brain, I slowed my pace considerably because I was not ready for this experience to be over yet.  The wait to get back here had been so long that I dared not rush through it.  I knew if I sped up like I was trained to, the final two miles would be a blur of grey pavement and winded breathing.  I wanted to remember the race in the same euphoric state I was in right then.  I don't regret it.  My running buds that were unable to run this race were on the sidelines cheering me on with the same genuine enthusiasm we show for each other throughout every running milestone.  Had I been focused only on the clock, I might have missed the big smiles on their faces as I passed them in the final seconds of a journey that will remain imprinted on my heart.

Sweat-soaked and hungry, we finished off the morning with heavy food and goofy laughter as we swapped stories and checked out each other's minor injuries.  I made it back home to three handsome cuties that had birthday cake, pizza and flowers waiting for me as an adorable post-race sugar fest.  For the second time in one day, I had to pause and give thanks for that moment when I knew instinctively this blessing was meant for me to slow down and savor it.  Ironic, isn't it, that I made it a point to slow down my pace on a weekend that was originally meant for racing and other time pressures.  We find clarity at the strangest moments in life but the trick is recognizing it and learning from it.  I have learned a lot in my short, um, 39 years and hopefully my future years will continue to season me with peace and enlightenment that I can pass on to others.  Let's hope I have the wisdom and sight to see those uniquely beautiful moments when they unexpectedly make an appearance.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Feeble Fears of the Fearsome

Speed work and I don't mix.  Hill training is not my friend.  If I never do another wind sprint ever again, my heart won't break.  Come to think of it, I am not fan of running workouts in general that push me out of my comfort zone.  For me, running is supposed to be social and light.  Running is what I do to escape the hard stuff life throws at me.  Running is what I seek when I want to relax and take things out of gear.  It is the medium through which I connect with some of my closest girlfriends on a leisurely weekend morning.  In my world, running is the one thing that balances me when everything else judges me, disappoints me or leaves me feeling less than.  My running lifts me up and keeps me hopeful in spite of anything that tries to tear me down.

Of course it has not always been this way.  Early on, running was challenging by choice.  I used to perform a solid variety of intense workouts mixed in with my long runs.  Back during my independent single woman "pre-mommy" years, I had days when I would put in grueling cross training routines at the gym and then afterwards I'd hit the neighborhood roads for a few extra miles just because I could.  Back then the focus was to strain and confuse my muscles so my body never got bored or complacent.  Easy workouts did not exist for me because I was always pushing to the next level and the next challenge.  Six days a week without fail, I pushed my physical limits and my body displayed the results of my efforts.  Leaner and better nourished, I truly looked like an athlete back then.  Those were my cocky glory days, when I rocked a 2-4 dress size but could cut down someone twice my stature with my mammoth brash attitude.  Boy oh boy how things have changed over the years!  The brash attitude is still in place, but the athleticism I once took pride in has taken a back seat for a very specific reason.  I fell in love.

My heart unconditionally belongs to the three greatest loves of my life.  My husband and my boys keep me in a constant state of delight and blessedness (and paranoia!) that is unsurpassed by any other aspect of my existence.  Spending family time with these three guys has taken the place of those long hours in the gym or at the track.  I still carve out running time of course, but it takes a little more creative planning than it used to.  My schedule depends on my firm grip of these priorities and anything that shakes it up can bring havoc to my household.  Unpredictability scares the hell out of me.  Fear of change and spontaneity has kept me on a straight and cautious path for the sum of my days.  My quintessential "good girl" status has remained intact only as a by-product of my insurmountable fear of  the big bad unknown.  I lean in favor of step-by-step instructions, partnered a with a money back guarantee and gold star promise that things will turn out okay.  Cowardly, right?  Sure, but it helps me sleep soundly at night and keeps my grey hair from multiplying.

Well, so much for calm predictability.  The new year has launched my little clan into unfamiliar territory.  We are faced with making some major decisions about our immediate future and none of our options bring much comfort.  This fork in our road promises nothing of smooth travels or easy navigation.  Decisions we make now will greatly affect our home, careers and finances.  Initially my husband and I questioned and feared the possible outcomes separately, not knowing if the other felt the same reservations.  There is no greater fear than assuming you stand alone in the face of a major dilemma.  However once we began to talk things out openly and honestly, a few things were recalled.

As always I was able to make parallels between lessons learned from my life experience and my running experience.  I remembered those glory days in my running past when I put in long hours of cross training and speed work at the track, preparing my body to function well in tough road races of the upcoming season.  It never failed.  When I put in the hard work in a practice setting, I almost always performed well at showtime.  When I slacked off and skipped the hard parts, my body grew weaker as a result.  When I think back on the events from this past year (see my blog entry A Year in Retrospect), I can see how that time was a test of sorts.  We were stripped of our safety net and unceremoniously thrown out of our comfort zone.  The entire year was hard and unpredictable as we moved from day to day with no guarantees of a happy ending.  It also changed us, strengthening our resolve with every hurdle we cleared.  The first time around the track was tough, but our stride became smoother the second and third time around as muscle memory took over and carried us.  The parallels are clearer to me now.  God did not make me a bull-headed stubborn chic without a plan.  Now I just have to trust in my gut that all this "training" has been preparing me for something.

My prayers have always been consistent in asking for guidance.  Childishly, I always ask that as I go through life, God will make my path littered with flashing neon signs telling me which way to turn.  I want all opposing options to be so distinct that I sense immediately which direction I am supposed to follow when the critical time comes.  This is where I find myself now.  Terrifying as they appear, God has unveiled a couple of those flashing neon signs to me.  Had we not gone through some of the turbulence of the past year, we might be more apprehensive right now.  Those events were part of our base training and muscle building phase, and the next few upcoming months will be showtime.  Although I don't know what is going to happen, I do know that I am stronger in mind and spirit today than this time a year ago.  All that confusion and unpredictability was merely a strength building period that left me tougher and ready to tackle our current dilemma with maturity and focus.  After all, we will never know what treasure awaits us unless we keep pushing forward to find it.  With my faith as my guide, I know that treasure will be revealed soon, very soon.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Not "Yo" Average Running Start

My chest swells with pride any time someone allows me a minute to brag on the races I have completed. There is not one ounce of creativity in me.  Singing, dancing, painting, or (sometimes) cooking are talents I was not born with.  But let me start talking about my racing adventures and you would swear I was a world class athlete that took the running community by storm when I appeared on the scene.  Of course that could not be farther from the truth.  My average pace per mile is so slow that I often refer to it as my running shuffle.  Oh I had a few shining moments of glory when I was able to keep pace with some fairly strong runners, but that was a lifetime ago and my priorities are very different now.  These days my joy comes from the beautiful scenery along my favorite routes and the time I spend gabbing with my running buddies as the miles fly by.

Going way back to before I ever toed my first start line, I was actually a walker.  Initially in my limited understanding, working out led to getting sweaty, which led to bad hair days.  Needless to say, exercise was not a part of my daily routine until my mid-twenties.  Having always been a voracious reader, most of my free time was spent getting lost in hardcover bestsellers at my favorite bookstores as well as dropping major cash at Starbucks daily for a caffeine fix.  The company I worked for at the time offered all employees free memberships to a local gym.  A good girlfriend of mine took advantage of the offer and I tagged along with her the first couple of visits so we could catch up on gossip while walking on side by side treadmills.  We would gab and socialize during that treadmill time and eventually eased into a regular workout routine where we would meet at the gym a few times a week. 

When I lost that job (hey I was destined for greater things, right?), I also lost the free gym membership.  By then the walking routine had become a regular part of my week so the only option was to move my workout to the streets.  In an effort to mix up the walking a bit, I started targeting stop signs and street lights.  On my neighborhood roads, I would start jogging at a stop sign and then switch to power walking when I got to a street light or vice versa.  It was a fun and effective mind game.  The workout would flip flop over and over again until my stopwatch informed me that 30 minutes had passed.  Slowly but surely I got stronger in the jogging intervals and no longer needed the walking breaks, so they were phased out completely.  My confidence grew enough that I set my sights on running across a bridge in my area that connects to a local running path.  The bridge probably measures a half mile in distance, so to go across and back would mean I would need to run a full mile non-stop.  I set the goal and focused on the prize.

Walk breaks be damned on this bridge!  All the "real" runners in my neighborhood ran along that path and if I ever wanted to be considered a real runner as well, then that bridge would have to be conquered.  If it were not for the fact that I was running, I would have sworn I was trembling the entire trip across that bridge.  My breathing remained steady and my focus never wavered.  When I finally completed the run along that foot path for the first time, I had to turn around and look behind me for my brain to process that I actually made it to the other side successfully.  My emotions overwhelmed me for a few seconds as a stood there taking it all in.  I sucked up the tears that threatened to flow in an attempt to act normal so no one would think I didn't belong there.  After all, I had just proven I was indeed a "real" runner so mushy tears were not allowed. 

Going back the same way I had just come, a goofy grin crept across my face and stayed there the entire way home.  My then boyfriend (now husband) pretended as best as he could to share in my joy, but there was no way he could have possibly understood how massive that accomplishment was for me.  All he asked was when I was going to do it again.  From there, the seed was planted and I was a changed woman.  A 5K and a 10K race would follow soon after, but the need for a greater challenge grew.  As intimidating as it was, I signed up for my first marathon with Team in Training.  In exchange for raising money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, the TNT group coached and trained me to run the Rock and Roll marathon in San Diego.  It took me over five hours to get to the finish line.  The next day I wore every ache and sore muscle after that first marathon like badges of honor.  No one I knew had attempted such a thing, so my friends and family revered me like I had scaled Mount Kilimanjaro and lived to tell about it.  Suddenly I was treated like an athlete and I relished the feeling. 

Even all these years later after having completed several races of varying distances it still feels good.  I still have every finishers shirt, every medal and every race bib of every race I have run.  One day I will pull them all out to show my grandchildren or great grands that their old wrinkled nana was once a real athlete and she kicked some butt a time or two.  If I live long enough my running days will eventually come to an end as joints get older and muscles get weaker.  My hope is that the pride I felt during that initial bridge run will never fade and I will always be able to keep going in spirit. 

Monday, January 2, 2012

A Year In Retrospect

One of my favorite quotes comes from Oprah Winfrey.  She says, "I don't worry about failure.  I worry about 'Did I do all I can do?' ".  Right now those words hit home stronger than ever.  This time of year when the holiday buzz quiets a bit, I usually go for several fun solo runs in the crisp January air to take time to reflect on the previous year's ups and downs.  Making the obligatory new year's resolution has always seemed superficial and corny to me.  Why make a resolution to change things in your life when you have not yet learned from the old?  Maybe I am too melodramatic, but these two weeks following the start of the new year are always used for self-reflection.  It is all about me, me, and more me.  You see, my birthday falls on January 15th.  My birthday, instead of January 1st, has always marked my own personal new year.  It is when I activate my "reset" button, so to speak.  Instead of jumping on the bandwagon with other resolution makers to lose weight or start exercising more, I spend time thinking about what the past year has taught me.  Yeah, I always vow to eat better, run more and clean out my sock drawer (yawn!).  However on the most basic level, my thoughts revolve around what worked this year and what did not.  In what areas did I thrive and what efforts fell short?  How did I grow and where did I fall behind?  Most of all I wonder what direction my spirit is pulling me towards next.

This past year was heavy.  My beloved husband of 10 years faced some of the most difficult challenges of his young life.  When he was hurting, I hurt with him.  Personally and professionally, his life was turned upside down when his kidneys failed and an organ transplant was desperately needed.  His health deteriorated quickly and our time together was delegated to ER visits, uncomfortable dialysis sessions and long hospital stays.  His beautiful spirit suffered and his undying faith was tested.  Being a witness to this was heartbreaking at best.  My husband's need for a kidney transplant took over as we found ourselves on a quest to find anyone, relative or stranger, that would be a tissue match for a successful organ transplant.  Due to multiple complications, not one of his family members were a match.  He was placed on an organ donation waiting list where he would remain for possibly up to three years.  Not everyone survives the long wait once placed on the list.  He needed a miracle, but would have to take a number and wait at the end of the line like so many others.  The grim possibility of this outcome was not lost on me.

As monumental as his health problems had become, the solution actually rested in my hands.  When any aspect of your loved one's life is broken, you want to do all you can to fix it and erase that hurtful element from their horizon.  You want to be the hero that slays the dragon and rescues the damsel in distress.  You want to place a bandage on their boo-boo and kiss the hurt away.  I was granted this power when we found out I would be the perfect tissue match to donate a kidney to my beloved.  My husband had reservations from the start about me undergoing surgery on his behalf, but I had no doubts that this act would resolve the most pressing problems we were facing at the time.  My normally squeamish and cautious nature melted away as the transplant process got underway.  To fast forward through the story a bit, the transplant was successful and all the ailments affected by the initial renal failure have been reversed.  We both healed quickly from our respective surgeries and have matching "love" scars to prove it.  He was granted his miracle and I give thanks for every day he wakes up pain free.

My dear husband still wrestles with the changes caused by his health problems, feeling responsible somehow for our new reality.  My prayer for him is that he will soon make peace with this past year's events and come to understand that the experience is all a part of a greater journey.  You see, my husband has long been the Rock of Gibraltar for numerous individuals.  He was accustomed to being the "Helpful Henry" that could swoop  in and solve any problem whenever he was called upon.  His kidney failure was not a problem that could be fixed by his own valiant efforts.  For the first time in his life, he was powerless to overcome an obstacle on his own.  It forced him to shed some of his pride and accept help from outside forces.  We saw unimaginable kindness from everyone we knew.  He is slowly starting to realize that the countless family members and friends that lined to help him through this ordeal were the many lives he had touched through his own countless selfless acts.  They lined up for the chance to repay him for all the times he was simply being a good guy.

I could relate to what they felt.  By far and wide, I am my hubby's biggest fan.  Hey, I didn't marry the guy for nothing!  His cute butt and smile weren't the only things that lured me in (wink wink).  This simple guy with the big heart deserved a break and I wanted to be the one to hand it to him.  My belief is that God had a plan for us long ago when He put the two of us together.  Our kidney exchange was only part of it.  The rest is still being revealed.  My tacky joke is that the transplant surgery scars ruined my bikini body, but I never had a bikini body to start with.  Don't be mistaken because that little fact does not worry me in the least.  Over the years my less than perfect body was able to produce two strong healthy sons, run nine full marathons, and give one perfect kidney to my darling husband when he needed it most.  It could be said this old body has done okay.  I walk away from the whole experience knowing that we, as Oprah would say, did all we could do and it was so worth it.  For once I was able to step up to the plate and not worry about the wages of failure.  Since 2011 was such an interesting year, then the upcoming twelve months might have an even greater experience in store.  I am hitting my reset button now and opening my heart as we get primed and ready for the new year and all its shiny new promises.  With no guarantees of success or failure, I  anxiously await the chance to once again do all I can do.