Lost in Translation

When my husband proposed a 27-mile paddling adventure to circumnavigate Gardiner’s Island, I said yes without hesitation.

Long distance running, I figured, had equipped me with all the skills and experience I’d need for the task. After all, I can cover 26.2 miles on foot without a problem. Four a.m. departures are routine for me. I know how to stay fueled enough to keep my energy levels steady without getting into bathroom trouble. And even if nature calls, I am a master at squatting wherever I am and taking care of business. Most importantly, perhaps, I am at complete peace with my pace. I start slow and finish strong. It’s comfortable, it’s conversational, and completely sustainable for hours and hours upon end.

But some things, I learned, don’t translate so easily from land to sea.
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The sound was faint, but my husband’s directions were clear as day. When someone levies this command, there’s no mistaking it.

“I’M MOVING AS FAST AS I CAN!” I screamed.

We were aiming for Cartright Shoal, a sandbar four miles from shore we’d designated as our first rest stop. The cross-current was tossing our kayaks like salad. The forecasters had vowed that the winds wouldn’t get stronger than 3 mph, but now, at 5:30 a.m. they were gusting strong enough to drown out the sound of my huffing and puffing.

I glanced at my Garmin, in search of a lift. I’d brought it along for moral support, figuring that seeing the miles accumulate would provide a steady flow of positive feedback when the going got tough.  After all, it worked for running.

One mile; 28 minutes.

Not the news I was hoping for.

I watched my husband’s red lifejacket disappear into the horizon, and sighed hard.

I was accustomed to letting the race pack speed ahead without me, but this effort felt like a nightmare:  I was pouring every ounce of energy and strength I had into moving towards a destination that never got any closer, no matter how hard or how fast I tried. I was going nowhere. I needed a little positive self-talk. I leaned on what had worked in marathons.

You’re not in pain. You’re not injured. Just keep going. It doesn’t matter how fast you’re going. It just matters that you’re going. You’re a runner. You’ve done way harder than this. Just keep going. Don’t give up.

An hour later, I crashed into the sandy beach and emptied myself out of the cockpit, sideways.

I dusted off the sand and the seaweed, bit hard into a cheese stick and grumbled softly, trying not to get too worked up about how little distance we’d covered and how exhausted I already was.

Apparently the muscles that had been training for all those marathons hadn’t been on speaking terms with any of the other muscles in my body.

How could I be so out of shape? I ran the San Francisco Marathon last weekend. I ran 17 miles yesterday. I can’t believe I ever considered myself an athlete. I’m supposed to be training for the Toronto Marathon. How am I ever going to finish that?

I had learned from running never to seriously entertain any doubts, fears, or urges experienced before the halfway point. For better or for worse, we were still three miles from the starting line, then it would be another 27 miles around the island.

Peter had landed 20 minutes earlier, and had already cased the island. He was snapping photos and cheerily chirping about his findings.

“We could totally paddle out here and camp out,” he said. “Who would know?”

“Yup,” I grunted, stuffing back tears.

I turned back to Garmin.
Four miles; 90 minutes.

If I was running 27 miles today, I’d have covered 10 miles and only have 17 to go. I barely made it to the rest stop. What was I thinking?

Rattled, and unsure of how I would make it another 30 miles, I stopped at an abandoned lobster trap and used one of the few remaining skills I still felt confident about.
I squatted and peed.
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Peter stared hard and long at me and sighed. He was fresh off of completing a course to get certified as a Maine Kayak Guide. He’d never taken the test to get the actual certificate, but after spending a lifetime on the water –on surfboards, rowing shells, canoes, kayaks, and sailboats – (his vanity tag says “WATERMN”)- he was confident on the water and I was confident in him.

Now he was worried. And so therefore, was I.

He gingerly explained that my conversational pace could turn us into sitting ducks in the face of aggressive fishing boats or a squall.

My  slowness – an asset on the ground – had become a liability at sea.

He reviewed the safety protocol for me three more times.

“When a boat comes toward you paddle directly into the wake,” he said. “You don’t want to take the wave broadside. You could capsize.”

“Got it,” I said.

“Now repeat it back to me. What do you do when you see a  boat?”

I repeated his instructions verbatim.

And we shoved off.

I tried not to panic, knowing that it would only steal energy I’d need to paddle.

Don’t worry about how fast you’re going. Before you know it, it will all be over.

Indeed, it was sooner than I knew.

Shortly after we shoved off, I saw a menacing black flotilla barrelling towards us at top speed. I figured it was a fisherman, eager to get the first catch of the day.

Man they’re aggressive, I thought, as the protocol we’d just reviewed escaped my brain.  Runners are so much nicer.

Unsure of what to do, I held up my yellow paddles in an “I surrender” gesture as he pulled up next to us, sending our kayaks bobbing about like weeble wobbles in his wake.

“Are you in distress?” he demanded.

“No.” Peter said.

“Well you’re trespassing,” he yelled. “You will be arrested. This is private property.”

Ah, right. Security.

Gardiner’s Island is private property. It’s been owned by the same family for 400 years, and apparently they weren’t taking visitors.


“You’re being watched,” he continued. “There are security cameras all over the island.”

He was wearing no uniform, but definitely took his job seriously. I expected him to take out a gun at any minute. “We’ve taken down your license and your boat numbers. You will be arrested.”

Security cameras, where? In the sand? In the seaweed? In the lobster trap? Had my bathroom break tripped off the authorities? Did they have my bare buns on film?

“If you step again on the island,” he warned, “you will be arrested.”

“Ok,” my husband said. “Sorry. Thank you.”

We watched him speed off.

“There’s no way that we can paddle around Gardiner’s Island without stopping,” Peter said.
“We must abort the mission.”

I was disappointed, as I was looking forward to the bragging rights I’d earn telling everyone about our 27-mile paddling adventure. But I’d exhausted any excitement about actually paddling that far. There was a tiny part of me, I admit, that considered our near arrest somewhat of a bailout. Narrowly escaping a night in jail sounded way tougher than DNF’ing our adventure for lack of guts and gusto.

We forged on to explore some of the other areas of the bay. Without the prospect of a long-distance endurance test hanging over our heads, my mood lifted a bit, and I felt, for the first time that day, energized. Nevetheless, I continued along at my pokey pace. After all, we no longer had to worry about finishing the journey before sundown. Why rush?

As we reached the next spit of land, 5 miles and 3 hours later, my husband sighed and stared at me, again, long and hard.

He pulled off to shore, and without a word, took out a rope, and tied my boat to his and started paddling. He was giving me a tow.

This was the nautical equivalent of a sag wagon, and I had no compunction about being on the receiving end.

If it was going to make him less miserable, that was fine by me, and it would likely make me way less miserable too.

It was actually kind of nice, just floating along, all of my strokes as value added.

When we finally reached shore, I looked at my Garmin one last time.

13.93 miles; 5 hours, 52 minutes.

As we dragged the boats and equipment out of the water and on to the car, I tried not to draw comparisons to the pain, angst, and energy cost of this 14 miles compared to its cost on land, but it was impossible.

I could cover nearly 40 miles in that time on land. No equipment to haul up, and no one ever hassles you about trespassing. I’m sticking with running. This water stuff is for the fish.

“Now that I think about it,” Peter said, “I guess it might have been better if we’d trained for this all summer and built up to this.”

Right. Blinding flash of the obvious. The fundamental principle of competition had somehow been lost in translation. If you want to finish and enjoy a long-distance sporting event feeling healthy and strong, you actually have to train your body and your mind for it.
And that takes time. What we had done was akin to jumping into a marathon without training.

“I refuse to feel badly about this,” I protested. “We went out on an adventure. It wasn’t the adventure we planned, but we were out here for six hours and 14 miles. Beats the heck out of sitting in the suburbs talking about it.”

“You’re right,” he said. “It was a beautiful day.”

Best of all, maybe I still had enough time left in the day to go for a run.

Marathon Challenge: Lessons Learned

Four Weeks.

Four Races. 

128.6 miles.

It wasn’t impossible. And when you consider the oustanding feats of runners such as Michael Wardian, Chuck “MarathonJunkie” Engle, Larry Macon, or the thousands of 50-StatersMarathon Maniacs, and Streak Runners, my personal Marathon Challenge doesn’t even register on the radar screen of impressive. It’s just some silly little mini-adventure I put together because I love to run long, hate stressing about PR’s, and want to take advantage of my good health to experience as much as I can. I learned a lot along the way – much of it the hard way. 

Know your strengths, weaknesses, and do what you love.  A very smart person once told me that each person has his or her own unique “orthopedic threshold.” For me, fast running and speedwork are a recipe for disaster. I pull muscles, I stress out, I get upset, and I just don’t do well when I’m trying to run really hard over a short distance. I was more scared of doing Wednesday-afternoon speed sessions than I was of running four marathons in four weeks. I look forward to the long slow distance runs at whatever pace I want. They feel indulgent. I rarely get injured no matter how many miles I cover, and I always feel better after I’m done than I did before the run. The point is, my Marathon Challenge felt doable. There was no dread about it. If there had been I wouldn’t have made it. My body didn’t fall apart. My spirit wasn’t broken at any point along the way. Lots of people called me crazy, but who cares. I wasn’t hurting anyone, and there are way worse ways I could think of to spend one’s free time.

You’re never too experienced to make a rookie mistake. Before I took the Marathon Challenge, I had 11 years and 24 marathons and ultras under my belt. During the Challenge, I went out too fast in a race, tried new foods on race day, spent too long on my feet on the day before the race, overdressed for races, and over carb-loaded on the day before the race. And those are just the rookie mistakes that I remember making. I’m not sure how much practice I will need to get it completely right, but I suspect that I will never be flawless. I’ll always find something new and stupid to do.

Take recovery as seriously as you take your training. Within minutes of finishing each race, I pulled on compression socks, ate some recovery food and drink with a healthy mix of protein and carbs, did the post-race recovery squat, and walked around. As much as I wanted to melt into the couch cushions, the movement made me feel better. I also indulged in at least 8 hours of sleep each night between the races. Luckily I was so exhausted by the night before each of the races that I wasn’t too jittery to sleep as I usually am.

Let the body be the boss. Before the races started, I had asked 6 different experts how to train between the races. I received 6 radically-different pieces of advice. I ultimately let my level of hurt help me make game-day decisions on how much to run, and whether to run at all. I felt so differently after each race, so my training changed pretty drastically too.  

  • Week One: After my first marathon in New York City on Nov.1, where I finished in 3:24, 16 minutes slower than my PR, I didn’t feel sore at all afterwards. I cross-trained the next day, did a 6-mile tempo run, rested, and ran easy before my next race, the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon, on Nov. 7. 
  • Week Two: I finished Indianapolis Marathon in 3:11 after going out way too fast, and paid for it later. For a full 4 days afterwards, my core was super sore. I felt like someone had punched me in the gut. I rested and ran easy until the Richmond Marathon on Nov. 14.
  • Week Three: About a mile into the Richmond Marathon, I started to feel the pain of Piriformis Syndrome on my left side, the first red flag that perhaps I was running too much too hard. It haunted me all the way through the race, but hasn’t emerged since. At Richmond, I ran 3:15, 4 minutes slower than the week before, and 7 minutes slower than my PR. After Richmond the only pain I had resulted from the face-plant I took on my 2-mile “recovery run” the day after the race. I skinned my palms and hips, and bruised my still-sore core. Because of this, I didn’t run at all in the week between Richmond and the JFK 50-miler, Nov. 21.
  • Week Four: I’d never shown up to any starting line with so much time since my last run as I did at JFK. As it happened, overdosing on rest was just the right move. Since I spent the first 16 miles of JFK walking and hiking slowly, I was sufficiently warmed up by the time the terrain was flat enough to start racing in earnest. After the race I spent 5 hours in the car driving home – not exactly the post-marathon recovery routine RW advises – and I paid for it later.

It’s taken a full four days to shake off that “first marathon” level of soreness. It hurt to move and it hurt not to move. Stairs were impossible. Everything chafed. I was bloody and bruised. I have been trying to use the stationary bike and attempted some yoga. But mostly I’ve been doing a lot of sleeping and complaining. There’s only one thing I can’t complain about: a race this weekend.

It takes a village. I have to thank my adorable husband, two girls, co-workers and boss, who endured months where I was absent for long stretches of time, or worse, present and cranky, picky, and all-around high maintenance. I also have to thank thousands of people who I never met, who sent encouraging words of support, congratulations, and reassurance when I needed it most. Usually, when I’m training for marathons I do my own thing and meet up with friends and running clubs whenever it’s convenient. But with the Marathon Challenge, I had hundreds of people out there 24-hours-a-day no matter how crazy my schedule got, to commiserate with and cheer on and be inspired by. Without them, there’s no way that I would have ended up at any of the starting lines as happy and excited as I did. I felt like we were in one giant race that started in waves, starting October 3, with the first marathons of the season, in St. George, Utah, and the Twin Cities, and continuing on, through marathons in Chicago, New York, Richmond, and Philly. I hadn’t thought much about online social media before the Marathon Challenge, but I am a convert. Thank you to all of my new friends and support crew out there. I couldn’t do it without you!

Mars and Venus Go Running

“Mother Nature,” my husband said through a clenched-jaw in a tone he’d never used with me before, “is fraught with conflict.”

This was one of those comments that your spouse utters, and you just know it’s best not to respond to. After all, it was 90 degrees. It was noon. We had bugs stuck between our front teeth. We had already been running for five hours over gnarly terrain and I had just chirped for the millionth time that the woods were so beautiful and wasn’t it nice to enjoy the summer like this.

We were on our first trail run together, a 50K. This was Peter’s first ultra. And while we both enjoyed the suffering, it was not the height, in all honesty, of marital bliss.

You see, we love each other a lot. We both love running a lot. We have discovered, in the past five years, that we do not love running together a lot. Or doing other sports together, in fact.

He loves to row. On my first lesson, shortly after Peter sculled by and yelled “Hi Honey!” so proud of his wife and future rowing partner, I slipped on duck poop, landed on the boat, and split my ear open. As I drove myself to the ER, I saw Peter. I honked with the hand that wasn’t squeezing the bloody mangled ear. He waved and smiled. I burst into tears. I needed 22 stitches.

We’ve tried cycling together. It’s a sport neither of us specialize in. That hasn’t gone much better. He’s naturally gifted on the bike, apparently, and can’t understand why I lumber along so slowly. And I can’t understand why he abandons me. Or how he can go so darn fast.

Road runs together have also been unsuccessful. When his pace slips, I ask if he’s okay and he hates that. When I fall behind, I hate it that he doesn’t ask.

We’ve found that we function best as athlete and crew. He loves to watch the Boston Marathon each year, and be there at mile 22 with the towel and water. I love to watch his regattas, and be there at the end with the fleece and Clif bar. We both feel as if we’ve accomplished something important. I totally get the easy end of the bargain, as his regattas are 4-minutes long and 13 miles from home.

He, on the other hand, gets to spend our fifth wedding anniversary watching me run around a one-mile loop. I’ll be competing in the World 24 hour championships in Italy that day. Beforehand I’ll be an irritating bundle of nerves. Afterwards, I’ll be a moaning pile of soreness he’ll have to lug across Newark International Airport.

I recently reviewed our wedding vows to see if he’d committed to this. Our vows were explicit, specific, and witnessed by a federal judge. We promised to love each other through every bounced check, dirty dish, and every body part that surrenders to gravity…etc. etc.

Hmmmm. Nothing in there about watching your wife run in circles for 24 hours, and celebrating your life together over a family-sized tub of TUMS and a stale baguette smothered in raspberry-flavored Hammer gel. Poor guy.

Who needs a running buddy you’ve found a love like that.

After the Fall

“Did you fall again?” my husband asked, with shock and amusement. 

Yes, I confessed, I’d done it again. And while I had a few less layers of skin than I did when I left, in fact I felt a heck of a whole lot stronger than I did before the fall.

Falling is something that I do a lot. I do it so often, so easily, and due to microscopic pieces of debris.  I excel at it. My palms, knees, and hips are covered with scars. Today I opened up a new collection on my right elbow.

I was running on a smooth stretch of road with no shoulder or sidewalk. It was warm, the ice had melted, and I felt so safe and comfortable shuffling along that I didn’t register the tree branch in my path.  I  stepped on it then went flying through the air and on to the pavement.  Unfortunately I was heading downhill at the time. So the journey through the air was a little longer than it usually is.

One of the benefits of being such a frequent faller is that I am also pretty practiced and efficient with the whole getting-up process. I quickly get to my feet and out of the way of oncoming traffic, scan my body for broken bones, then let out a few weeps and wails to expel the shock and trauma. It’s not pretty, but if I don’t indulge in a few seconds of self pity, the memory of it festers in me for weeks. I do keep moving as I sob, though, any way I can. Usually I’m far enough from home that no matter how strongly I want to stop in my tracks, I’m motivated to start running again just to get home and bring the entire humiliating experience to an end.

Today it was tough; I had battled some motivational paralysis before the run, and when I fell, I still hadn’t decided whether I’d be tough enough to stretch it out to 10. After I hit the pavement, taking a shortcut seemed inevitable. But as I walked down to the base of the hill, I started thinking about my last big spill.

It happened 18 miles into the JFK 50-miler, back in November. The seconds after the fall were marred by fear that I’d ended my entire Marathon Challenge with a clumsy catastrophe, and possibly injured my knees so badly that my entire running career was done too.  Somehow, I’d managed to pick myself up and start walking again.  Somehow I managed to get the energy and strength finish – bloody and bruised –  in 8:26 – seventh in my age group, and among the top 20 women in the race.

That memory gave my spirits a little lift. When I hit the bottom of the hill, I moved from a walk into a trot, and just kept going. I ended up with 11ish miles for the day, and enough energy and desire for a few more. I felt grateful that I hadn’t broken any bones, knocked out any teeth, or concussed myself, and I didn’t feel half as pathetic as I had before the fall. Sure, I’d fallen – yet again – sure I’d shed some blood. But I’d also mustered up the guts to get going again. Best of all, I’d finished feeling like I can’t wait to get out there and get going again.