the Amway River Bank Run

It’s time for me to make my annual moderately profound post about how I’m not fast or athletic but I am stronger than I think and yes, I really can run long distances (okay, not “ultra” distances. Give me a break.). You are probably tired of reading these posts, but in case you’re not, here and here are some examples to help you catch up. Although I know these things about myself, I am still awed almost to tears each time my hobbit body crosses a finish line. I crossed another one on Saturday, so I’m going to write about it, and if you don’t want to read it, you can skip it.

But this time, I’m going to focus mostly on the race itself, not on my performance or lack thereof, so this is also kind of an event review post–still not very exciting for most of you unless you live in the Grand Rapids area or enjoy shelling out money to travel to races. You know what? I’m writing this post for myself. There we go.

The 41st annual Amway River Bank Run, a 25K (that’s almost 16 miles) road race, took place this past Saturday. My two running buddies from Virginia flew in on Friday afternoon, we picked up our packets at the crowded DeVos Place (now I know how to get to DeVos Place! GR milestone), and we spent the evening in a low-grade panic while eating healthy food from Core Life Eatery and then cookies from Cookies and Cupcakes by Design across the street (where we would return the next day for our traditional post-race cupcakes). We got up early Saturday, now in a total fog combined of panic, tiredness, and cold, and drove downtown to park in the Pearl-Ionia Parking Ramp because we had seen on the website that it was going to close at 6:45 am, and we thought it made sense to beat the crowds and park there. It kind of made sense. We sat in the car for over 45 minutes, trying to stay warm (it was 38 outside), staring at Grand Rapids Community College’s Raleigh J. Finkelstein Hall (which looked pretty when the sun started coming up over it), talking about how much we hated running, and wondering why were were doing this. Then, shivering, we found the starting line, took a few pictures while we were still looking cute and–more to the point–alive, used the portable toilets, and huddled for warmth inside DeVos Place until it was time to start.

As we knew we would, we appreciated the cool weather once we got started. Although (spoiler alert) I still felt like I was going to die at the end of the race, this experience was much less horrible than the marathon I ran last year at this time in the blazing heat of Waco, Texas. The temperature was perfect, and the wind created a moderate challenge only near the end of the race. (Running against the wind always makes me smile a little anyway because I like that Bob Seger song.) The course, on the other hand, was not what I expected. I was picturing us running downtown the whole time, but instead, we left Grand Rapids proper fairly early on (by way of a really ripe-smelling sewage treatment plant–maybe they should rethink that leg of the route) and ran on the access road along 196 that I have seen people running along before–it seems to be a common route for race events. We crossed into Wyoming and then Grandville (where we glimpsed that bizarre apartment building that looks like a hulking castle) and briefly Walker before turning around and heading back toward GR through the Millennium Park area (which looks really cool! I want to go back and explore). Honestly, the route was kind of boring, but there were bands playing, volunteers cheering and handing out water and Gatorade, and mile marker signs with snarky and/or inspirational quotes. The quality of the event was on par with that of the Virginia Ten-Miler, which for me is the gold standard of races if only because I’m so used to it.

But this was the Ten-Miler plus a 10K. And it was hard. Around the half-marathon mark, my legs told me they weren’t going to run anymore, so I walked for a while and tried to do some dynamic stretching, which didn’t help. (N.B. There was a Coca-Cola bottling plant around this point in the race. You know what would have helped? An ice-cold Coke. Idea for next year, people.) So then I told my legs to shut up–we were going to run the rest of the race. And we did. Highlights of the last few miles included crossing the Grand River and running the last quarter-mile or so uphill, with people lining the street who didn’t have a clue who I was but were still cheering for me (or maybe for the woman who passed me on the curve by Madcap Coffee, but I’m going to believe it was for both of us). This is the part where I got a little teary. I had been listening to a Queen-based Pandora station for the whole race, but here I took my headphones out and listened to the crowd and my ragged breath. And I felt like Rocky, because I went the distance.

That’s as sentimental as I’m going to get this year.

reasons to move to Lynchburg, VA

Tomorrow I am moving away from Lynchburg, VA (well, technically Forest, but let’s not split hairs), where I have been living for 15 years. I am writing this list partly to convince someone (perhaps you?) to move to the area and buy my lovely three-bedroom, open-floor-plan, single-story house in a quiet, convenient neighborhood (see realtor.com for further details), but mainly as an elegy to my life in this small city, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, that has been so good to me for so many years.

  1. It’s nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I’m really bad at geography and topography, but I’m pretty sure Lynchburg is in a valley, which means that it’s sheltered from the harsh cold and snowfall that can occur in the mountains themselves. It also means that just about wherever you look (especially out in Forest, where I know about a nice house for sale!), you can see the blue silhouette of the mountains, especially on a clear morning.
  2. There’s a cliff in the middle of downtown. Officially, it’s called a bluff. I’m sure there are other cities that have this odd geographical feature, but I’ve never been to them. At the top of the bluff is most of downtown; at the bottom is Jefferson Street, some recreational spaces, a railroad track, and the James River. You can enjoy the view by sitting on the deck at Bootleggers eating a delicious burger or by walking a skinny trail along the bluff at Riverside Park.
  3. It has historical sites you haven’t already been to. Lynchburg and the surrounding towns have a number of historical locations that aren’t overrun with tourism. (Appomattox, about a 20-minute drive away, is pretty overrun, but even there you can find some newer attractions, like the Museum of the Confederacy, which is not a glorification of the Lost Cause but a thoughtful, objective presentation of history.) Forest is home to Thomas Jefferson’s second house, Poplar Forest (just down the road from a cute house I know!), and downtown Lynchburg’s Old City Cemetery is full of Civil War and railroad history, plus some beautiful old graves and trees.
  4. Most people seem to enjoy serving their community. I think this is because Christian culture and hipster culture intersect in Lynchburg in a way that you don’t really see elsewhere, except in a few other cities (such as the one I’m about to move to–Grand Rapids, Michigan). Your Facebook news feed will give you lots of suggestions for ways to meet people, have fun, and do good all at once: from food truck fundraisers to racing in the CASA Superhero Run (or actually becoming a Court Appointed Special Advocate–they’ll be looking for a new volunteer to replace me!).
  5. Speaking of races, Lynchburg has the most enjoyable one I’ve ever run. The Virginia 10-Miler, which occurs the last weekend of September every year, garners a massive turnout from locals as well as people who love it so much they travel in order to participate. The course is scenic and challenging (you don’t have to run up the bluff, but Lynchburg is hilly in general), and hundreds of volunteers turn out to hand out water and Gatorade and to cheer, making you feel like a celebrity even if you’re the slowest runner on the course. If a 10-mile race sounds like punishment to you, there’s also a four-miler as well as a four-mile walk.

I’ll stop here, though I could go on: Lynchburg has a cool old baseball stadium where the minor-league Hillcats still play, some good coffee and ice cream shops, and a full schedule of various festivals throughout the year (even more if you venture out into the surrounding hills–if you love apple-picking and hoedowns, you’re going to love fall in this area). Whether or not you decide to move here (and buy my house!), Lynchburg is a lovely place to visit. I’ll be visiting as often as I can.

I ran a marathon yesterday!

Back in January, I wrote a post about meeting Connie, the septuagenarian marathoner, in the hotel exercise room, and how she inspired me to (maybe) run a marathon this year. So I thought I should check back in and let you know that I did, indeed, run the inaugural Silo District Marathon yesterday morning in Waco, Texas. Last fall, I wrote about my visit to Chip and Joanna Gaines’s Magnolia empire (a word I’m using in a descriptive, not a pejorative, sense); this race event, which also included a half-marathon and a 5K, was their brainchild, which means that it was both warmly hospitable and efficiently organized. This was my first marathon, but it was Chip’s first road race ever, so I kind of expected to be able to keep pace with Chip (who is also about 10 years older than I am), but I was wrong–he left me in the Texas dust. So did Clint Harp (Fixer Upper‘s go-to carpenter and furniture designer), who was the team captain of the half-marathon. He, along with a lot of the other half-marathoners, passed me even though their race started about half an hour later than my race, which didn’t make me feel very good about myself. The competitive, Gryffindor part of me was merciless during the part of the race when we were sharing the course with those fast half-marathoners; I couldn’t believe how slow I was, but then again I could believe it because I hadn’t trained enough, hadn’t rested or eaten properly the day before…I’ve posted a number of times (see here and here) about how hard I can be on myself, especially in physical competitions, so you get the idea. But then, around mile 10, the hard-working, long-suffering Hufflepuff part of me kicked in, and I turned my mental energy to forcing myself to keep going–even if that meant limping, as it did toward the end of the race. (I didn’t injure myself, unless you count severe chafing between my legs, to the point of bleeding–I was just really sore.)

Because that’s really what a marathon is about; forcing yourself to go on. With shorter races, things like technique matter a lot more. A marathon is about sheer endurance, which I like to think I have a lot of. (I’ve written about that too.) The race materials from this weekend kept referring to us as athletes, but I don’t think it requires that much athleticism to finish a marathon (at least not the way I finished it–barely dragging myself across the finish line); it just requires a willingness to endure pain. I’m not sure what that says about me. I think it may mean that I have a psychological problem. But I’m weirdly proud of it.

Today my quads are really hurting–it hurts for me to go down stairs (going up is okay) and to lower myself into a chair. And when I’ve been sitting for a while, I get stiff and have trouble getting back up. And I need to go home and put some antibiotic cream and bandages on that nasty chafing. Notes for next time, and notes to anyone who’s thinking about running a marathon: Seriously consider wearing pants or longer shorts, even if it’s hot. And maybe don’t run a marathon in Texas, where 75 degrees doesn’t mean a beautiful, balmy day like it does here in Virginia. 75 feels a lot hotter in Texas, where they seem not to know about clouds or shade. And also, make sure you train for an actual marathon–I meant to do that, but the longest training run I had made time for was 11 miles.

My most important piece of advice: If I can run a marathon, you probably can too. Chip Gaines would probably say the same thing about himself, though I’ll never underestimate him again! Our race t-shirts and the banner over the marathon starting line said, “You were built for this.” There’s obviously a home renovation pun in there, as well as a Purpose-Driven Life-style spiritual meaning. But when I think of people who are “built” for running marathons, I think of tall, willowy people; I don’t think of people who look like me (i.e. a hobbit). So I take inspiration from that as well–you may not think so to look at me, but I was, apparently, built to run a marathon.

your New Year’s inspiration

I hope you had a wonderful Christmas (although, as we learned in my last post, we are still in the Christmas season and will be until next Saturday, which is Epiphany) and didn’t miss me too much during my unannounced hiatus last week.  Today, I have a story to inspire you toward whatever goals you may be pursuing in the new year.

Last week, we were staying in a hotel while visiting family in Ohio.  One morning, I was in the fitness center doing a walking incline workout on the treadmill, when a little old lady–I use the term quite literally, with no disrespect intended–came into the room and hoisted herself up onto the elliptical.  My initial reaction was “Bless her heart,” but as the minutes went by, I could see in my peripheral vision that she was holding her own pretty well.

When I got off the treadmill, she was still going at it, and she wished me a good day, a merry Christmas, and a happy new year.  (At least I think she did–I had my music up loud.)  I thanked her and asked if she wanted the TV remote, which had been sitting unused on my machine, but she couldn’t hear me very well either (she didn’t have her hearing aids in, as she told me a few minutes later), so she got off her elliptical to find out what I was talking about.  I felt bad that she had to interrupt her workout, but it quickly became apparent that she wanted to talk.  We had one of those polite little strangers-in-public exchanges, but this wouldn’t be an interesting story at all (sorry about the long set-up) if not for what she asked me while I was on my way out the door.

“Have you ever run a marathon?” she asked.  I popped out one of my earbuds and answered, “No, I’ve run a half-marathon, but not a full marathon.”

“Oh, you have to run a marathon,” she said.  “I’m training for my 13th marathon.  I didn’t run my first one until I was 61.”

[From here on, I’m not going to continue with this dialogue thing–just imagine me saying variations of “Wow, amazing!”]

She began speaking as if me signing up for a marathon were a done deal.  “Just have fun,” she said.  “You can alternate between walking and running, at least on your first two marathons.”  (Now she was assuming I was going to run two.)  “Don’t worry about keeping up with the Kenyans.”  Here I laughed knowingly; my heart always sinks when the first Kenyan runner passes by on the return leg of the Virginia Ten-Miler when I’ve barely gotten started.

The conversation was short, and it ended with an exchange of first names (hers: Connie) and with Connie telling me she would pray for me and my family (this is not really a surprise in Central Ohio, Bible Belt North).  I walked away from the fitness center with a lot to think about, most of which can be summed up in various cliches such as “Don’t judge a book by its cover” and “It’s never too late to try something new.”  So I won’t belabor the point.  I’ll let you draw your own conclusions, and I hope Connie’s example won’t discourage you (“I’m not her, so I won’t try”) but inspire you.  Your thing may not be running marathons (though apparently mine is), but you do have a thing–go do it.

weekend miscellany

I couldn’t think of a unified topic for my blog post this week, so I’m going to tell you a few things I learned or re-learned this past weekend.

  1. Grilling okra is a good idea. It takes away the infamous sliminess of the oddly-shaped vegetable and brings out the true flavor.  You may want to consider wrapping your okra in foil, though.  The slippery little guys kept falling through the grates on my grill.
  2. Bambi is a great movie. I’ve mentioned before that it’s in my top five Disney animated films, but sometimes I forget how excellent it is.  It’s visually gorgeous, from the watercolor backgrounds to the use of color to convey emotion—note the liberal use of red during the scene when Bambi fights with another young buck.  It uses orchestra and voices to create mood and replicate sounds in nature—“Little April Showers” is not the only musical composition in the world that approximates a thunderstorm, but it’s a good one.  And one of my favorite things about Bambi is the use of real children to voice Bambi, Thumper, Flower, and Faline.  Their line delivery is a little more studied than that of the absolutely hilarious children in A Charlie Brown Christmas, but their delight—sometimes conveyed through hysterical laughter—is pure and genuine.  Even the dialogue captures the way a child would really talk, like when Thumper says the water in the frozen pond is “stiff.”  Maybe this relatability in the main characters was why I enjoyed Bambi as a child, even though the film as a whole could be justly be described as scary, sad, and slow.  Even though it’s only 70 minutes, I’m not sure if most children today would sit through it.  And maybe that’s okay—perhaps the real audience for this audience is art- and nature-loving adults.
  3. A guitar string may not be the best weapon for killing zombies. This falls under the category of things I learned for the first time this weekend.  I’m writing a story, which I eventually hope to adapt into a screenplay (so I can win my Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar) for a buddy road-trip movie that is set during the zombie apocalypse and sensitively explores the topic of clinical depression.  (Here I need to say that anyone who has ever written or ever will write a zombie movie screenplay is profoundly indebted to George Romero, who passed away yesterday.)  I read one of the final scenes at a creative writing group on Friday evening, and while I got really positive feedback about the emotional impact of the scene (technically, it was negative feedback—as in, “No, you can’t kill that really nice guy!!!”—but I knew that meant my character development had worked), I also got some practical comments about the impracticality of slicing off any head—even a dead one—with guitar string.  I also got some alternative suggestions, like using the neck of the guitar, which apparently contains a metal rod—who knew?—as a stabbing weapon.  The people at this creative writing group (I highly recommend joining one, by the way) are serious sci-fi/fantasy nerds who can sustain serious, unironic conversations about stuff like this, and I benefited from their suggestions.  Perhaps I’ll share some of this story on my blog!  It’s still in the early stages (I skipped ahead to write the last scene), but I’ve “known” the two main characters for a long time.  I posted a non-zombie story about them a few years ago.
  4. Sixteen miles is a long way. I know this because I ran ten miles Saturday morning and walked six more Saturday evening.  I don’t regret it, but I would like to make this public service announcement: If you run first thing in the morning, make sure to drink water first, since we all wake up slightly dehydrated.  Also, do not wear yoga pants for a long run, especially in the dead of July.  The more you know…

Everybody’s got a hungry heart

I am writing this post from a fog of hunger.  I did just eat a little container of hummus (150 calories) and five naan dippers (another 150), but I don’t think the energy has kicked in yet.  So bear with me.

Last week I started participating in an eight-week weight loss program sponsored by my employer.  When I first signed up, in April, I referred to it as a “wellness” or “fitness” program because I couldn’t bring myself to say the dreaded WL phrase.  And even now, as I’m writing this, a whole host of qualifiers comes clamoring to my mind because I feel like I need to justify my participation to you (and to me): “I don’t want or need to lose a lot of weight, just ten pounds.” Or “I’m doing this because I’m planning to run a half-marathon at the end of the summer” (thereby letting you know that I’m already an active person).  I.e., I don’t really need to lose weight, at least not as badly as that other employee that I just saw walking down the hall, who should have been the one to sign up.  Etc.  In fact, when I showed up for the first session last Tuesday, I kind of hoped they would send me away–“Oh, you’re too skinny for this program!”  But they didn’t.  So I finally had to admit that maybe I actually needed to be there.

That was the first hurdle to be leaped (not that I’m quite up to jumping hurdles yet.  Next obstacle: Committing to a daily calorie goal.  I really, really hate counting calories.  In fact, I have serious philosophical problems with the whole idea of treating food as nothing but fuel.  I’m pretty sure chefs think of themselves as artists, not bioengineers.  And we all recognize that a gift of food–especially homemade–is a lot more meaningful than a free tank of gas, monetary value aside.  (See my post called “food speaks.”)  In addition to my theoretical objections, I hate the inconvenience of having to know or guess the caloric content of everything I eat.  What about the chicken jalapeno popper soup that was already in my refrigerator when the program started, which I made from a recipe that didn’t include nutrition facts?  It has a lot of fresh vegetables in it, and one of the main ingredients of the “creamy” broth is cauliflower, so it’s actually pretty healthy.  But I don’t know how many calories are in it, so I end up making a guess that’s probably wildly inaccurate.  And I know it’s cheating to lowball the estimate, so I guess high–and probably cheat myself out of 100 calories I could have eaten.  (Maybe that’s why I’m so hungry this afternoon, come to think of it.)  Ironically, this calorie-counting thing has me cooking less and eating more packaged foods: at least this way I know what to record in MyFitnessPal.

The exercise part is the easiest for me; as I mentioned (and I’ll say it again, in case you missed it the first time), I’m already a pretty active person.  This works to my advantage because, logically, I get to add calories onto my daily intake whenever I exercise.  So I’ve been doing this thing that I’m pretty sure is antithetical to the spirit of this program: If I’m getting toward the end of the day and I realize I’m not going to have enough calories left to eat a snack while watching Fear the Walking Dead, or whatever, I’ll get in a quick extra workout to buy myself some more calories.  I actually worked out three times on Sunday, and I had three snacks during Fear (hey, it was the two-hour season premiere).

I’m fully aware of how pathetic this is.  I also know that when I go back and read through this post, I’m going to hate how whiny I sound.  And I already want to apologize to Bruce Springsteen for appropriating his song title because it was the first clever saying with the word “hungry” in it that I could think of.  But I’m going to go ahead and post this before I change my mind because I think some of you can relate.  And we all like reading about stuff we can relate to.  Now to find out how many calories are in a fun-size 3 Musketeers, because I’m still hungry.

It’s not a competition.

This past weekend, I participated in two competitions: a chocolate-themed 10-mile road race, and my family’s annual Oscar prediction contest.  Of course, the Academy Awards themselves are also a competition and are surrounded by a number of unofficial competitions of the “who wore it best?” variety.

I am a competitive person, and specifically, I like to win.  This explains why I prefer playing trivia and word games, which I’m good at, over playing card and strategy games, which I’m not.  It explains why I was disappointed not to receive the Dissertation of the Year award last year when I should have been happy just to be done forever with being a student.  It also explains why, although I’m proud of both of my friends who completed Saturday’s race with me and I’m glad we got to have that experience together, it irks me that one of them finished five minutes (and five places in our age and gender category rankings) ahead of me.  I’m not mad at her; I’m mad at me.  I should have trained better.  I shouldn’t have eaten all those fish and chips the night before.  I should have started slower to preserve my stamina.  I could have beat her–that’s what I’m still telling myself three days later.

I have this mantra/piece of unsolicited advice that I frequently use on myself and others: “It’s not a competition.”  Of course, some things, like races and the Oscars, actually are competitions.  But there are a lot of things that we turn into competitions that were never intended to be.  Who contributed the most to this project?  Who’s the busiest?  Who has the most friends?  When I was in grad school, the competition that never stopped happening in my head was about who made the smartest-sounding remark in a class discussion.  Now I host a similar head-competition: Which professor is the most popular with the students?  But that’s just one of my many mental Olympic events.  There’s also “Can I run longer than that guy two treadmills down from me?,” “Do I look more physically fit than that woman my age?”, “Whose food looks the nicest at the potluck?”, and “Who knows the most about [insert topic here]?”

Participating in all these competitions all the time is exhausting.  It’s also antithetical to the way Jesus lived and asked us to live.  When Jesus’ disciples were arguing about which of them would have the highest place in the kingdom of God, he told them that they had to become like little children in order to even enter said kingdom.  Here’s something about little children (older children start growing out of this): They’re not good at games, in part because they don’t understand the concept of competition.  Another competition I tried to get started this past weekend was a relay race in the 3-year-olds Sunday school class I teach.  A very small minority understood what they were supposed to be doing, but most of them just stood there and looked cute at me.  And I got annoyed with them for not being competitive enough.  True, little kids will fight over toys–they can be a bit greedy–but that’s not the same as competing.  They really seem unconcerned about who wins and who’s the best.

I would love to press a reset button and go back to that non-competitive mental mode of childhood.  Because I can’t do that, I have to work really hard to be happy for others who can do things better than I can, to be content with who I am and what I’m capable of (not that I shouldn’t strive to improve where I can), and to be like Jesus, who was perfectly happy giving all the credit to his Father.

I am not fast.

A brief explanation to the people I’ve been road-running with (that is, in the wake of) recently.

My running style can best be understood if you keep in mind that I am basically a hobbit.  I’m about 5’2″ and (this is a nice and fairly accurate way of putting it) solidly built.  I like to walk barefoot and can be quiet and light on my feet, but never graceful like an elf.  I enjoy and am quite good at hiking long distances, like to the Old Forest on the borders of the Shire.  I can carry my dearest (emaciated) friend up the side of Mount Doom, no problem.  But if you expect me to be fast, there we encounter a problem, unless you intend to give me a piggyback ride as Boromir did for Merry and Pippin.

Speed is not my skill.  Endurance is.  I’m well aware that endurance is not glamorous.  It is hard to depict in literature or film, and boring to read or watch.  For me, though, it’s something to be quietly proud of.  I take pride in the fact that during the Virginia Ten-Miler, I keep running steadily up Farm Basket Hill when most of the runners around me, some of them generally faster than I, are slowing down to walk.

Apparently I also have endurance in other areas of my life.  My chiropractor says I have a high pain tolerance, which is kind of an ugly cousin to endurance.  The first time I had a phone conversation with my dissertation chair, whom I’d never met in person, he said he thought I had grit, another close relative of endurance.  I’d like to believe it was the steely note of determination in my voice, but I think he was probably just bluffing.  Still, he must have been right, because I finished my dissertation (relatively quickly, I think, considering some of the logistical difficulties I encountered), and anyone who completes a doctoral dissertation must have grit.

I composed this post in my head during a recent run when I was feeling really bad about the fact that the second-slowest runner was so far ahead I couldn’t even see him.  I’ve framed it as an explanation to my fellow runners, but I think it’s actually just validation for me.  And I’m sharing it on my blog because there may be some other hobbits out there who need to look at their boring endurance trait from a new perspective.  Keep trudging, my friends.