Half Done is Well Begun

This is the Bratislava of postcards...

This is the Bratislava of postcards…

The Bratislava of my run...

… and this is the Bratislava of my run.

I know, I know… Mary Poppins said it the other way ’round: “Well begun is half done.”  But then, she wasn’t out running half marathons, was she? I mean, living in pre-sufferage times, wearing those shoes and corsets, and carrying that amazing umbrella and overnight case… not conducive to recreational running, right?  But I have been running– sans corset and heeled boots, much less umbrella.  The Bratislava half marathon is done, and running– for me– is not over, but simply well begun.

Warning:  the rest of this post contains explicit running talk… do not read if you are sensitive– or get bored to tears by– this topic!  Plus, it’s really, really loooong– almost like a half-marathon!  A Fresh Cuppa Chaos will return soon with its usual coffee-swilling fare! 

Sunday, March 24 had long loomed on my iCal as the date marked, “Bratislava??”  The question marks really say it all:  I didn’t commit to the trip until February, and even then I never bothered to remove the question marks from the calendar.  You see, it was a half-marathon destination trip for the running group I had sort-of joined in the Fall.  And by “sort of,” I mean, I was a little surprised myself every time I showed up to run with them; and I was, frankly, astonished when we started racking up serious mileage.  And then one cold, cold day, I found myself lined up to start a race in an East European city– Whaaat?

Starting line... not everyone was as nervous as I was!

Starting line… not everyone was as nervous as I was!

I won’t say it was a piece of cake– I had to push through it all the way.  We started off at a faster pace than we’d done before.  I ran with too much gear, and mismanaged it, wearing too many layers to remove while running, and overstuffing my little camelback pack after an impulsive, starting line decision to carry rather than to jettison the outer layers.  After about 2k, I was ready to shed my outer jacket, but I had to struggle with the pack and the jacket and the whole kit– and running about a minute/mile faster than our normal pace, juggling everything kind of put me in a bad place.  Our pace group of about 10 women stuck together, and some of us chatted as usual, but I was winded from the start and never fell into the groove that makes running with them so much fun.

But, I was determined to stick with them, because I was terrified of running the whole way without these ladies!  I stayed quiet while they waved at cheering spectators, and listened to their chat without contributing much (sorry!).  Bit by bit we ticked off the kilometers, running through the cold, windswept streets of the more industrial parts of Bratislava.  We hit the time where we were slated to take a gel (basically a tube of gooey, peanut butter-like stuff that provides your body with the fuel to keep going so it doesn’t start burning the wrong kind of tissue), and despite us having done long enough runs to test it out several times, I just wasn’t able to get it down.  I sucked down a couple of swallows, tried to drink my water, and found I couldn’t get a decent drink down either.  I just kept going.

Eventually, we hit a hill headed up into the old city centre from the postcard (above).  Thank goodness for those Hampstead Heath hills I ran through the fall and winter in London, because I actually could bear the uphill portion.  And then the downhill portion, running out of the charming part of town, was a quick drop before the road leveled out to another less scenic portion running along a major road parallel to the river.  By then we could see a steady stream of faster runners coming back toward us along the river on the last 5k stretch… but it seemed like we would never get to the place where we would make the turn back ourselves!  At this point, I did manage to get down the rest of the gel I’d been carrying in my fist for the last 5 miles, and I swallowed a bit of water to help it down, though I knew I should have had more.  We finally made the turn back to run along the river on the homestretch and– yikes was it cold and windy along there!

Our group began to spread out along here, and I found myself running with one of our coaches.  When a motorcycle escort came through pushing us to one side, Syma encouraged me to pick up the pace so I could finish with the men’s marathon winner, who was coming up on his finish somewhere behind the motorcycle.  I so wanted to, but just didn’t have the juice!  One of our runners finished her half at the same time as the winner of the women’s full marathon, and there’s a fantastic picture of her raising her arms in victory at the finish line just behind the marathon winner– a Kenyan professional.  Wouldn’t that be a fantastic souvenir???  You wouldn’t have to tell anyone that you were running the half…

Cold, tired, slightly miserable... but I did it!

Cold, tired, slightly miserable… but I did it!

Anyway, I did finish slightly ahead of the pace goal we’d set (2:19, and the goal had been 2:20-2:25).  Though it wasn’t pretty, and I didn’t run the race feeling happy and triumphant, I did keep putting one foot in front of the other!  I’m not ashamed to admit that I had a little moment to myself after the finish chute (when I was actually quite glad I’d stuffed those old yoga pants in my pack, because it was FREEZING!).  I sat down on a bench to slip the pants over my shoes and broke into private tears because I had just never, ever, expected to do a run like that.  It was really quite a feeling– and I would have to say that doing something hard and unexpected and out of your comfort zone is a very good thing to do if you possibly can as you get a bit older.  It reminds you that there’s still so much ahead of you…

Which, I guess, is why I registered for the Windsor half-marathon in September.

>>>>><<<<<

I find I can’t end this running-related post without at least acknowledging the awful events at the Boston Marathon.  That something so life-affirming could be attacked in such a twisted way is tragic.  Even at a minor race on a cold day in Eastern Europe, the mood was excited and happy; and the finish line was a place to celebrate.  The finish line should always be a place of celebration.  That anyone would seek to steal that is just completely and utterly senseless.  My heart goes out to the families of those whose race ended that day, as well as to those who didn’t finish that race and maybe won’t get the chance again.  But runners around the world– some of them, at least– will carry them in their hearts the next time they cross a finish line.  I know this is true:  I went out to watch the London Marathon the week after Boston, and I saw the black ribbons worn by the runners, as well as the occasional Boston t-shirt and Red Sox hat rounding the bend into the final stretch from Embankment at Big Ben.  There may not always be the outward signs, but runners will remember their own.

Finally.  Right now, right here would be the appropriate place to say a couple of thank you’s (like I’m receiving an Academy Award or something– geez!  How obnoxious am I?)

There’s really no way to say a big enough thank you to Paula Mitchell for this gift of running, which is really about way more than just running, it turns out.  Paula’s exceptional passion for helping women learn to run is simply inspiring.  Without her, most of our group would never have had this experience.  And Syma, whom I mentioned earlier, saw that I was struggling that day, and she almost personally escorted me through the race– thank you, Syma, for ensuring that I saw the day through, and for pushing our group to exceed our own expectations!  

Patricia and Kelli transporting the "Sketchy Box" to Bratislava:)

Patricia and Kelli transporting the “Sketchy Box” to Bratislava:)

My Bratislava roommate, Heidi, offered just the nudge I needed to finally register for the race when she asked if I wanted to room with her– thanks, Heidi!  Running buddies Jody, Catherine, Carmine, Charlotte, Niyani, Ariadne, Mary, Julie, and many more– thank you for making the whole endeavor so much fun!  And most certainly not least, Kelli… thank you for encouraging me to try it, introducing me to Paula, seeing that she had my e-mail address, and being such an inspiration, along with Patricia, in all your marathon endeavors.  I never wanted to be a runner, but it sure was exciting to cheer  you both on!

Never say Never

Just happened to be running by Big Ben when the clock struck 12!  That's a lot of bongs...

Just happened to be running by Big Ben when the clock struck 12… that’s a lot of bongs!  I had to turn around at the traffic light and snap a photo.

I admit, I’ve been hesitant to post much about running.  As a devoted couch-sitter for the last several years (if not most of my life), I’m sort of allergic to runner’s talk.  My eyes glaze over when people start talking about miles logged, or pacing, or running gear.  I tune out completely when it comes to races they’ve run.  And if they happen to mention “runner’s high” or endorphins, I have always felt secure in my belief that chocolate does the same thing without all the effort.   So with apologies to my friends who have the same allergy I just described, I promise this blog is not generally going to run on and on about… running.  But that’s what I’m here for today.  Sunday is the half-marathon I’ve committed to in Bratislava, so running has ramped up and taken an increasingly large wedge of my time over the last month.

I swore I was not going to fall for the whole running gig– too much time down the drain, and too much wear and tear on my already crickety knees and ankles.   But the fact of the matter is that I have been running for nearly six months now.  I feel great, and it’s part of my life– so I guess it’s time for me to come out of the closet about it.  And now that I’m running all over London, I’m really enjoying that familiarity of city monuments being landmarks on my regular routes.  Instead of setting off specifically to see Big Ben, it’s where I turn right and cross the river on one of my runs.  Trafalgar Square is a halfway mark– I either turn right and run to Buckingham Palace from there, or I turn left and run up The Strand.  Getting to see and know London in this way is yet another unexpected benefit of my very surprising detour into running.

It’s been pretty cold and wet in London recently.  One day recently I had a particularly hard time making myself get out there (but surviving that 13-mile run coming up is pretty good incentive, it turns out.)  I finally kicked myself out the door, looking fairly ridiculous in my daughter’s running cap– which is a little small for me and tends to pop off the top of my head, despite the efforts of my scrawny ponytail to anchor it in place.  I like to start with a nice long, downhill incline toward Camden, enjoying the view over London toward the new Shard building.  Camden is a busy, edgy area with street markets and lots of vendors selling everything from tacos and donuts to bustiers and big boots.  I always have to dodge around people meandering the sidewalks, but it never bothers me much at the beginning of the run, when I’m still fresh.

On that day, I had a moment’s eye contact with the guy wearing a sandwich board advertising one of the many tattoo parlors– we silently agreed I wasn’t part of his target demographic.  The lady of a certain age in running tights and a turquoise jacket doesn’t usually stop off for a quick piercing or tattoo (sweaty eyebrows are a piercing disaster waiting to happen!  And please let’s not talk about navel piercings…)  My running app calls out one mile exactly when I cross the canal in Camden– I will miss that feature when we move and my run starts from somewhere else.

A snap of Singin' in the Rain theatre while I was waiting at a light.  Should I admit that right after this picture I accidently snapped about fourteen really unflattering shots of my chin as I ran?  They've all been deleted, thank you very much!

A snap of Singin’ in the Rain theatre while I was waiting at a light. Should I admit that right after this picture I accidentally snapped about fourteen really unflattering shots of my chin as I ran? They’ve all been deleted, thank you very much!

This first half of my run after Camden is basically right above the Northern Line on the tube:  Mornington Crescent, Warren Street, Goodge Street, all pretty nondescript until I run smack into Tottenham Court Road tube construction.  After a little detour around the fences, I’m suddenly in theatre-land, running right past Leicester Square.  It gets a little crowded in this area, but not too bad considering how dense the crowd is just on the other side of Charing Cross Road, on the pedestrian area where they sell all the last-minute theatre tickets.  (Laura, we bought tickets there!  And Sandy, I think that’s where you buy them).  And then, who knew it was so close to Trafalgar Square?  I never did until I started doing these runs.  The Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields is just up the street and across from Trafalgar Square, with its tourists, its steps, its fountain and column and lions.  Today there were lots of the guys who pose as statues (taking gratuities from tourists to get their photos taken with them), as well as a kilted bagpipe player in full blow.  I had to dodge behind a gold pirate “statue” wearing a Captain Sparrow wig and Ray-bans, as a class of young kids spotted and mobbed him.  You may remember I have a theory that Johnny Depp gets bored and goes to Covent Garden in full Jack Sparrow kit… but this was definitely not him.

Anyway, I bounced on through the crowd– then stopped on the other side of the square and looked back over my shoulder.  This is what I saw…IMG_1132

IMG_1133And this, in the other direction.  Then I ran past the Canadian embassy (and the Texas Embassy, which is a cantina located in the former White Star Shipping offices– you remember, the Titanic people?  The actual Texas Embassy from 1836-1845 was not too far from here, though.)  From there into St. James Park, across in front of Buckingham Palace (where I unintentionally photo-bombed a handful of tourist snaps– really, it’s impossible to stay out of all of them!), and on to Hyde Park.  Then a tube ride home from Hyde Park Corner, because I was out of time before the kids were due home.  And because I had already been running for over an hour.

So maybe you can see how running has become a pretty fun pastime for me.  With all the things to visit, I barely notice that I’m actually running!  And that’s just when I’m alone.  At least once a week I run with about thirty women who are also training as beginners for the Bratislava half-marathon.  We meet up in the morning and take to the streets together– most recently running through the city and out to Kew Gardens, a final 11-mile trek before our trip.  I wish I’d snapped a photo, but I was too busy running and chatting!  There will be at least one more post about running– the one where I tell you about the fantastic group I run with, and how I ended up doing this thing that I said I would never do.

Never say never, right?