Training for a marathon or any running event is a test of physical and mental strength. I’ve never been a runner, but after training to run my first marathon in 2008, I fell in love with the sport. In November 2010, I ran my 5th half-marathon. One month later I had emergency brain surgery to remove a two-inch tumor. This blog is about my journey to get back into the physical and mental shape I was in so I can continue my long distance running and ultimately get to run another marathon.
Sports have never been my forte. Even the simplest childhood activities were difficult. I always marveled at my baby sister who would careen around the yard on her bike with mud splattering up her back when she would ride through puddles. Our parents pleaded with her to stop ruining her clothes. It was only then that she started riding her bicycle in a swimsuit. When weather would turn to snow, we would ride our bikes in the barn. For someone who already had difficulty turning her bike, the proposition of turning a bike in the 10 foot wide aisle contending with obstacles of hay, wheelbarrows, dogs and a sister, it seemed insurmountable. I’m not sure if I was ever able to deftly maneuver around all this without stopping, standing and pivoting the bike below me.
The Midnight Ridazz at one of their night-time cycling events.
Several years ago, I purchased a bike. It's nothing fancy, just a regular bike from Target. Despite my best efforts to pedal and stay erect, it seemed that whoever came up with the adage “It’s just like riding a bike” should be shot. Riding a bike as an adult is not as easy as it was when I was a child, and considering I had a very difficult time all those years ago, my frustration only continued to grow each time I would take my bike out. I had spent some time looking for the optimal size bike and settled on a children’s bicycle. I considered ways to make it easier, like getting the brakes reversed so I would be able to use my left hand on my back brake. (Apparently, getting brakes reversed is a benefit of growing up in a small town because the bike shops in Los Angeles refused and went as far to say that changing the brakes to do this in the states is illegal.) Once I had the bike and made my peace with having to brake with my right hand, combining pedal movement, forward momentum and staying upright was tough…. I would wake up early on the weekends and take my bike out before the cars started revving their engines and the roads would be filled with the din of LA traffic. Each time I took my bike out, I would get marginally better… but only marginally. That is, until today.
Tour de France map.
Still lacking in confidence to ride with the big kids down the road, I peddled up and down the dead-end road by my apartment. Bigger than lacking confidence, I lacked something else, that two-inch brain tumor. You world be surprised how much easier bike riding is without this thing getting in the way, misshaping my brain and causing it to swell. The only thing swelling now is my ego. The speed was slow. The distance covered was not vast. I have now realized that stories kids come up with while riding or phrases they tell themselves like “crisis averted” come from near misses with bushes or luxury cars. Today was a step and each time I take the bike out, it will get easier and easier. As the laps increased my grip on the brake loosened. I’m not in a hurry to get out there and commute to work on my bike, but the idea of one day being able to ride several miles with friends just ‘cause will become as easy as running 10 miles with friends. Both of these are far away right now… after looking at all the Hal Higdon half marathon training schedules, it seems that the best one would be with cross-training built in. This program will not only get me to my next half marathon, it will turn me into a cyclist. I don’t expect to join the local club the Midnight Ridazz, but adding one more thing into what I can do is pretty exciting.
I never thought I would look at several laps on a dead-end road as anything remarkable, but on today, on my first bike ride since brain surgery, it is a huge victory.
I visited to my old office yesterday. I did not anticipate the deep need to reconnect with friends and old coworkers and their need to reconnect with me. I arrived at 1 o’clock and left after 7 pm. During my time there we talked about life, running and current creative projects. I met new people who knew my story. I had learned that one good friend there (who is also a running buddy) was instrumental in getting a prayer group organized while I was in the hospital last year. One fellow he introduced me to is interested in running a half-marathon. We encouraged him to run the Inaugural Rock n Roll Pasadena Half-Marathon. Then my friend caught me off guard when he said, “Sarah is a miracle. Look what she can do and she had a brain tumor. If she can push forward, you can do this too.” I’ve joked over the past months with friends about having a brain tumor and that they can't say they can't do something if I can do that activity with a brain tumor or post surgery. Most recently, I quipped at one friend (who was lamenting she signed up for the Malibu half marathon and didn't realize it had so many hills) "You have to do it. If I can do it with a two-inch brain tumor, you can do it." Yesterday showed me that my tumor and story are apparently are large enough for friends to share and guilt people they meet into achieving their best. While I want to inspire and help people reach into their souls and dig down to find what they can do, I did not expect the ripple effect this would have on my friends… them pointing to me a benchmark for what success and drive can be… what is possible with the power of prayer and grim determination.
The grim determination got me through a lot- it’s why I was adamant to get physical therapy multiple times a day once I was stable enough to have it, and it’s why I needed to get out and run as soon as I did. The half-marathon 6 months post-op was a need. The attempted half in October was an epic failure, but a good lesson. I have been running for fun and getting better about making it a priority and shifting workouts to get them in before a long day of work. I did some research for a new running friend and found a training program for her. After joking around last Saturday and telling her she better get on it and train to do the Pasadena Half Marathon with the running group this February, I realized HOLY SMOKES THE HALF MARATHON IS 12 WEEKS AWAY! While my paradigm has been continually shifting, I must shift it again. I have to stop running for the sake of running and letting heat/cold/time (name the excuse) get the best of me, and I need to TRAIN. The program I found is not too different than what I had laid out for myself, but it’s from running guru HAL HIGDON. That said, the Sunday after Thanksgiving is exactly 12 weeks from the half-marathon I have already committed to. I want to have the best experience possible while pushing myself physically and mentally. The question of the next marathon still lurks in the distance, but getting to a marathon as in life, I have learned, is about a series of successes and setbacks- it’s all about how you handle them and push forward.
With taking on a fitness challenge, setbacks are inevitable. I wouldn’t be serving myself or anyone else if I weren’t honest about the stumbling blocks I’ve encountered. I have continued to repeat Week One, hoping that I would be able to be more successful than the previous week. I’ve been told that “hopes” should be reserved for Santa Claus and that I need to be pro-active with my paradigm shift. (Even though I have already shifted my paradigm once from a sedentary lifestyle to endurance runner.) People tell you to “grab the bull by the horns,” but really, this is difficult, no matter how many times you have or haven’t done an activity.
You cannot compare yourself to others; you must compare yourself to yourself. I know what my body is capable of, but still this year is different than last year. Sunday marked the 3rd Malibu Marathon. It is only a year ago that I ran my 5th half-marathon with a 2-inch honkin’ brain tumor. Today, I need more sleep and face other challenges. Fortunately, my health isn’t in jeopardy like it was last year, but my health is different. Even though the tumor is gone, I was not able to maintain cardiovascular or quad fitness it takes to tackle the Malibu Hills. I can blame one of my doctors for sending me into a spiral depression so I said, “forget running,” or I can blame God for giving me a brain tumor. Really, the only person I have to hold accountable is myself. It is for that reason my poor workout accomplishments are above.
The laundry list of failing each “new” week is quite extensive. With my setback, I remember to relish some of the accomplishments, and attempt to keep those as reminders to forge ahead. I over came a frustrating summer. My Garmin died during one run and I have yet to send it back to get a replacement. I started wearing my Timex like I did when I fist started running. I took it back even more and threw my “drt equation” (distance equals rate times time) out with the trash- I simply started focusing on distance… I’d get there when I’d get there. Speed would come. And so far, it is slowly coming back. I did all this, and then I was saddled with something that added another layer of complication: more responsibility at work. That said, I have taken the advice of other running enthusiasts: Get your run in before work, then it won’t matter if you work late.
Last year at this time I was feeling pretty crummy and couldn’t understand why. My journal even quips that I wonder if I have a brain tumor because it’s the only thing that could make one feel this bad. I’ve got almost everything I want- family/friends, my health, great job, and soon a 7th half-marathon. I’m not worried about time (although, if we’re being honest, it is fun to think about), I just want to finish and finish strong.