The Taper Chronicles: Philly Marathon 2011

Blisters or Black Toenails?”   This has become my wife’s dilemma as she chooses between two pairs of sneakers for the actual marathon.  “Do I go with the ones that cause blisters, or should I go with the ones that will result in black toenails?”  This is just one of the many nutty thoughts that go through a runner’s head during The Taper.

The Taper: three weeks of angst, psychosomatic drama, tripping over nothing, nightmares and orthopedic mysteries.   I have decided to chronicle my wife’s taper for the upcoming Philadelphia Marathon.  She won’t be upset with me because if you are reading this, you’ve most likely had similar crazy thoughts and experiences too.

My wife, Jill, went with black toenails, as she concluded would be the lessor of two evils.  Good choice if you ask me; however, the running sneaker choice is the easy part.  What we do to fill the (eternal) three-week period to keep from going crazy is another thing altogether.

During the taper, nothing feels good, not our runs, and not what we normally do (not even what we normally wear).   I believe Jill summed it up at one point: ”Every shoe I put on my feet hurts me.“

Shall I move on to the phantom (or real) pains she has shared with me?  In no particular order:

ITB, shoulder (twice), arm, oh and “electricity” shooting up her leg and back.   It doesn’t end there.

This past weekend, I was sightseeing at Red Rocks while visiting family in Denver.   My wife stayed home for a few reasons, primarily because you just don’t want to tempt fate during the taper and travel.  Just as I was being wowed by the amazing rock formations of the serene environs of Red Rocks, my fourteen year-old stepson calls me from 1600 miles away.  The call went like this:

Me: “Hello?

Ethan:  “G, can you please talk to mom and calm her down?  She is crying about her hip.

Me: “Sure

Jill (crying): “I can’t even run as far as Lou’s house (our neighbor two doors down).”

Me: “Everything will be fine, just take another day off.  You will be fine tomorrow or Monday.”

There were some other words of encouragement, followed by the rest, ice, Aleve pep talk, etc, and the next day she was able to run eight pain-free miles.  Another inexplicable mystery during the Taper.

In addition to navigating the pain concerns, the other issues my wife has experienced can be described as “Tripping Over the Invisible” and a “Weather-Obsession.”

In one case, she actually tripped with no obstacle in sight:  ”I just tripped over nothing.   That sounds about right.

Thankfully, the weather is looking good for the Philadelphia Marathon this weekend; however, my wife won’t fully trust the forecast yet.

Finally, there was “The Nightmare.”  I’m sure you’ve had it too: the one in which you missed the race or went the wrong way on the course.  She had that one four days before the race.

The one consistent question Jill has asked me over the last couple of weeks:

I’m going to be OK, right?

As the supportive husband, the only answer is ”Yes.“

So, the next time you’re in the Taper, try to stay sane and try not to trip over anything, even though, based on our experience, it is mathematically impossible.  No matter how nerve-wracking it has gotten for Jill, I still maintain that she is the toughest runner I know. In fact, I predict a Boston Qualifier for her.  Stay tuned.

“I Love NY, Too!”

(This is either two months late or a week early)

I remember being ridiculously mad at the conference organizers for not interrupting the keynote speaker to tell us the news.  On September 11th, 2001, I was attending a conference at the Lowes Hotel at 12th and Market Streets in Philadelphia.

Nearly two hours earlier, terrorists had attacked the Twin Towers using two commercial airplanes, and news was already unfolding about possible crashes at the Pentagon and Western PA as well.   Once we were told: silence.  After gathering up my belongings, I left, immediately trying to call loved ones.

We all remember the spectrum of emotions we felt from those moments on and the days and weeks after that.

That night in Philadelphia, it struck me how quiet the city was….eerily quiet.   Nobody was honking their horns, conversations ceased.  Some friends and I met up at a local restaurant, and sat outside speechless.  Still stunned, not wanting to believe it was real.

Five days later, thousands of runners, including me, would be doing what is now known as the Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon (then known as the Philadelphia Distance Run or PDR for us Philadelphians).   Of course, there were mixed emotions: “Should I still participate in the race?”   Also, there was uncertainty whether or not there would even still be a race; however, when they announced it was still on, the decision was easy: I would be running.  My first half marathon would be run with a heavy heart.

This was the first large-scale Post-9/11 road race, and the patriotism was everywhere.  Reds, whites and blues popped up from the spectators, and some of the runners were even carrying flags, a sight that is typical for larger races now.

Before the start, names were read of the PDR entrants killed in the terror attacks.  This was followed by “God Bless America.”  There was not one runner with dry eyes.   For those of you who remember, the PDR used to start on Market Street, facing due east, right into the sun.   This was even more challenging with tears in the eyes.

An emotional race was run, and there were even more tears at the finish line.   This was the beginning of an autumn filled with fear,  anger and tears.  Coincidentally, it was a time in which I happened to be training for my first marathon: Philadelphia.

While training that fall, there was the fear of more terror attacks.   My runs on Kelly Drive were carried out, but with a cautious look up to the skyline here and there.  I remember hearing and seeing an airplane again for the first time during one of my runs.   I simply looked up, stopped for a bit, took a deep breath, gathered myself and moved on.   Clearly, the world was different now.

As race day neared, I eventually focused more on the actual marathon.   Normal runner’s fears returned: taper angst, logistics, pre-race jitters, etc.  Despite the anxiety, I tried to soak in how special the marathon would be.

Everyone remembers their first marathon; however, with my first being so soon after a Post-9/11 reality, I felt the need to do a little something to honor those we lost.  It was simple: Instead of my usual Phillies bandana, I would be wearing one with the American Flag. Second, I decided to wear an “I Love NY” shirt.  It wasn’t much of a tribute I guess, but it was something I thought to myself.

On race day, the same emotions that I felt during the PDR returned.   Tears and determination followed.

As far as the race itself, well I made the rookie mistake of going out too fast, so the last 10k was a torturous eternity.   At one point, I didn’t think I would finish; however, I started to hear cheers from the crowds, and people kept saying the same thing to me:  “I LOVE NEW YORK, TOO!”

“Why?” I thought.  “OOOH, the shirt!”

These cheers kept me going.   They put me back on point: I thought, “this is nothing compared to what many families have been going through.”  I eventually finished with all of the emotions (and then some) that go along with finishing one’s first marathon.  Obviously, it felt good to accomplish something like this, but it also felt good that life was continuing on.   We will never forget, but we also remember to live on.

So, next week is the ten year anniversary of my first marathon, and my wife and I will be celebrating it by running the Philadelphia Marathon again: Fitting.  It must have been a coincidence then that during a recent long training run, I could have sworn I heard someone say “I Love New York, too!”

The Toughest Runner I Know….

Who is the toughest runner you know?

The toughest runner I know is not the fastest runner I know.  I will define toughness as “having sheer will that nothing or nobody can interfere with.”

This runner once ran the Marine Corps Marathon with a broken toe.   She once ran the Wilkes-Barre Half Marathon with torn back muscles.   Yet that was nothing compared to what she faced before her marathon running days.

In October 2003, she was hospitalized with a serious skin infection.  At first, the doctors thought she had Necrotizing Fasciitis, better known as the “skin eating disease.”  For days, nobody knew if she would survive.  Doctors debated on whether or not they would have to perform surgery, including severing her arm to contain the disease.   Fortunately, she ended up having a Strep A infection instead, still a very serious infection, but treatable with a long course of antibiotics.   Nine long days later she was able to leave the hospital.

For weeks, she was on IV antibiotics, along with physical therapy.   It was months before she was able to run again.   Slowly but surely, she got back into it. Bear in mind, she had never run a marathon up until this point.

Eight months after her hospitalization, she signed up for her first: the Steamtown Marathon, which coincided with the one-year anniversary of her discharge from the hospital.  It would be a symbolic benchmark to her recovery.   Those who love her were a bit worried since her immune system was just getting back to speed.   Since it was her first marathon, her goal was simply to finish, and finish she did in a time of 4:43.   It wasn’t a world record time, but she had the time of her life.  More importantly, she still had HER life.

You would think that the story would end there, and cue the Hollywood movie credits.   However, in 2010, she was diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome, which is an autoimmune disease in which white blood cells attack the moisture producing glands.   Symptoms include dry eyes, dry mouth, hair loss, fatigue, and, for some, joint pain.   You might recall that tennis star Venus Williams was diagnosed with the same illness.  The symptoms of Sjogren’s are annoying but she is learning to live with them.   It has not slowed or stopped her from running.

This fall, she will be running the Philadelphia Marathon, her twelfth marathon, and her goal this time is to qualify for Boston.  She is not one to shy away once she has a specific goal in mind.   She might not qualify, but I wouldn’t bet against her.   After all, this is the same woman who not only got up and finished after falling during the Disney Marathon, but she also beat death.

That is toughness.  Oh, and the runner?  My wife.