Monday, June 24, 2013

Digging Deep at Pedernales: Race Report

Photo taken during the race by Jackie Dove
This weekend I raced the Captain Karl's 60K (37.3 miles) at Pedernales Falls State Park.  I have to say that I didn't have as much fun during the run as I normally do.  Maybe it was the heat (about 90 degrees at the start), the sleep deprivation (I finished at 2:24 in the morning), or the 14-gel-pack-induced nausea, but I really had to dig deep to continue pushing on.  Here's a little recap of the highs and lows:

As the gaggle of runners took off from the start, I said my traditional "Saint Sebastian, pray for us!" and began at a jog.  I'm fine with starting off toward the back of the pack, because I've made that dreaded mistake before, of going out too fast, and paying the price later.  During the first loop of 18+ miles, I ran very conservatively, trying to keep my heart rate down in the heat and save my energy for the long night ahead. 

One of my favorite times during a race is when the pack breaks up and I'm left running by myself, at my own pace.  I'd say that happened somewhere after the second aid station.  It was nice to enjoy the beautiful views in the park in the few hours before the sun went down.  The trail was marked very well -- as Tejas Trails races always are, in my experience -- so even someone as geographically-challenged as me couldn't get lost. 

I couldn't believe it when the first loop was done and I found myself back at the start/finish.  I had thought I was approaching just another aid station -- I didn't realize how far I'd run.  I don't wear a GPS watch or use a smartphone app during ultras, because I really prefer not to know -- it usually helps the miles fly by faster.  If I wore a Garmin, I would be constantly looking at it and then thinking, "Really? I've only run .4 miles since I last looked?" 

After this pleasant surprise, I felt good starting my second loop.  I finished up my fourth Rosary and Divine Mercy Chaplet and switched on my iPod Shuffle.  Listening to music usually helps pass the time and keep me energized and moving, and to be honest, during a trail ultra, I'm far enough out of anyone's listening radius that I feel perfectly comfortable singing along to my tunes.  However, this time it just wasn't enough to make my running enjoyable.  I took some candied ginger a friend had given me, in an attempt to combat my nausea, and despite the terrible taste, I think it did help.  Another thing that helped was the quite-appropriate lyrics to my songs, including:

"This looks like more than I can do -- on my own. . . . When I've finally hit rock bottom, that's when I start looking up and reaching out . . . Lord right now I'm asking you to be strong enough for both of us." -- Matthew West, "Strong Enough"

"Blessed be Your name when I'm found in the desert place; though I'm lost in the wilderness, blessed be Your name." -- Matt Redman, "Blessed be Your Name" (Although I wasn't lost, thank goodness, I did see a few scorpions!)

"You lead, I'll follow . . . just light the way and I'll go." -- Jamie Grace, "You Lead" (Especially appropriate since I was using a headlamp, a flashlight, and the almost-Super Moon to find my way along the trail in the darkness.)

Photo from

At the last manned aid station, I asked the volunteers if there were many girls ahead of me.  Their response was "no."  I guess my question was too vague; as I ran away down the trail I found myself wondering, "Does that mean there are 4 or 5 in front of me? None in front of me?" I had no idea.  At least I had an idea of how many miles remained: the volunteers had told me "a little over 6."

Those 6+ miles turned out to be the longest ever!  I had to pause my music and say another Rosary.  That helped re-focus me a bit.  The other thoughts that helped me keep my perspective were dedicating my run to certain loved ones and remembering that I was wearing a Life Runners singlet and running for a culture of life.

With maybe 3 miles remaining, I had to force-feed myself some more Gu.  I did a pretty good job of taking a gel pack every half hour, in order to have enough energy to keep my pace up.  But that stuff is pretty darn disgusting.  And with a queasy stomach from all the jostling and bouncing of a long run, it's especially unpleasant to squeeze 4 ounces of berry-flavored gelatinous goo into your mouth.  My last-ditch attempt at keeping my spirits up was singing aloud to my new favorites, "I Love It" and "Cruise," while constantly pleading for the assistance of St. Sebastian.  I wanted to just stop and walk so many times, but I also wanted to finish well and take home one of the fun trophies Tejas Trails races always have, so I pushed myself to keep going.

Words can't express how happy I was to reach the finish line.  After verifying that my time was recorded (the ankle bracelet holding my chip fell off a couple times during the run, and I was paranoid that a vital component had become dislodged), getting a medal and a few much-needed hugs, I was happy to take home my little award for 2nd place female, change in the port-o-potty, and head back to San Antonio -- successfully pulling my first all-nighter since college.  Arriving home at 5am, I had just enough time to change clothes and head to 6:00 Mass.  I have to say that gazing at Jesus up on the crucifix behind the altar really put into perspective any little suffering I had during the night.  It also reminded me that through suffering comes triumph. 

If I had to sum up this race experience in 5 words or less, I'd say: Thank you God, it's over. :)

Sunday, June 16, 2013

R&R: Running and the Rosary

My cousin once asked me what I think about during long runs. Those are the words he used, but his tone and facial expression implied something more like, "You're insane to go on long runs. Don't you get bored out of your mind? What on earth can a person think about to keep herself entertained for hours on end?"

I'm one of those people who can never think of a good answer when I'm asked a question; it's usually when I'm in the car driving home an hour later that I realize what I should have said. This conversation was no exception. At the time, all I could think to say was that I enjoy the time to think, and that it usually isn't boring at all.

What I should have said was that one thing I really enjoy doing while running is praying the Rosary. During a road marathon, I find that I can say 5 Rosaries and 5 Divine Mercy Chaplets and still have time to sing along to "Call Me Maybe" on repeat several times. (Yes, by the end of a marathon I lose any sense of self-consciousness and am perfectly happy singing out loud to music no one else can hear.)

I've heard non-Catholics question the practice of saying the Rosary, because to them it seems like rote, repetitive prayers -- just meaningless words said over and over again. But in reality, the Rosary is a powerful way to meditate on Christ; in fact, in his Apostolic Letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote that the Rosary "has all the depth of the Gospel message in its entirety." This meditation is perfect for a runner; as I reflect on the Sorrowful Mysteries, for example, Jesus' agony in the garden, it sure puts my little pains and feelings of exhaustion in perspective.  Reflecting on Jesus carrying the cross, I can find strength and endurance to finish my race. Thinking about how Mary interceded on behalf of the newlyweds at the wedding at Cana, I am reminded that I can ask Mary and the saints to intercede on my behalf as well. And contemplating Jesus' great love for me, shown by coming to earth in his Nativity, I ask Him to help me love Him more with every footstep.

While my dad uses a finger Rosary during his runs, I like to have my hands free. I don't trust myself not to drop things when I'm running. But I figure that since God gave us 10 fingers, I should put them to good use keeping track of my Hail Mary's, while I put my feet to good use, shuffling towards that finish line.

"To recite the Rosary is nothing other than to contemplate with Mary the face of Christ." -- Pope John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae

Friday, June 7, 2013

Sacrificial Running

In one installment of Father Robert Barron's Catholicism series, he describes St. Patrick's Purgatory, an ancient pilgrimage site located on an island in a lake in Ireland.  Modern-day pilgrims to the site arrive on a boat, and spend three days in prayer, barefoot, sometimes crawling across jagged rocks on their knees.  They are accompanied by attendants who ensure they stay awake all through the first night, and they are allowed to consume only toast, oatcakes, and black tea or coffee during their stay.

To some, this type of behavior might seem masochistic and/or pointless.  One might ask, why would people put themselves through such pain?  Do such acts actually carry any significance? The Catechism of the Catholic church answers these questions, noting that "Jesus' call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, 'sackcloth and ashes,' fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance" (1430). 

These "visible signs" and "works of penance" would seem to include the actions taken by pilgrims to St. Patrick's Purgatory, as well as other common works such as abstaining from meat on Fridays, fasting, making a sacrificial donation to a charitable cause, etc.  For me, not only do these acts mirror internal conversion, but they help continue the process of conversion -- turning our hearts toward God.  The Catechism teaches that "Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one's life, with hope in God's mercy and trust in the help of his grace" (1431).  If our offerings of acts of penance reflect our interior conversion, then they are not "sterile and false," but fruitful and blessed.

Recently I've been wondering if running could also be considered a work of penance.  After all, running does involve a great amount of suffering -- aches and pains, frustration, exhaustion, blisters (and here in Texas, sotol scratches up and down your legs).  I've recently taken to ultra-marathon running, and I enjoy the adage, "If you ever start to feel good during an ultra, don't worry; you'll get over it."  I can't imagine that anyone who has run a 30-, 50-, or 100-mile race has ever done so without a certain amount of pain and suffering.

Texas Sotol Plant -- Beautiful, unless it covers the trail. Ouch!
Running also involves sacrifice.  To train for a marathon or ultra-marathon distance involves sacrificing time -- perhaps upwards of 10 hours a week.  It involves investing money, as well, for proper shoes and gear, for race entries, and unfortunately, sometimes for medical bills.  And it involves opportunity costs, like not being able to spend a late night with friends Friday so that you can get some rest before a 5am long run on Saturday.

The question is, what is the purpose of these sacrifices?  What is my goal for running these ultramarathons? If it's purely a self-centered desire to do my best, have fun, beat my previous record, or achieve some kind of recognition, then it certainly wouldn't fit the definition of penance.  But what if I run for God?  What if I run because He's given me this body that can run 50 miles of trails so that I can do just that, and offer it up to Him?  What if my runs are prayers to God -- prayers of adoration, atonement, thanksgiving, and petition?

Sister Madonna Buder, commonly known as the Iron Nun for her participation in numerous races including the Ironman triathlon series, asserts in her autobiography that running is a type of prayer posture.  I agree with her, but I also believe that running can be prayer itself -- a type of prayer that uses our bodies as well as our minds and hearts.  Each footstep can be a prayer of praise and thanksgiving.  Each painful step, each weary breath, each sotol scratch can be offered up to God.  As I run, I can meditate on the many blessings God has provided in His great mercy and divine Providence, and my running can bring me closer to God.  I believe that it can help further my interior conversion and can be a fruitful act of penance.

God, please help me keep this in mind when I'm running through the sotol tonight! :)

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Running together

Running brings people together.  At least that's what I've found.  I've talked in a previous blog post about how running has led me to new friendships; but I also believe that running strengthens my existing friendships and relationships.

For the past week, I've been blessed by a visit from my wonderful parents (you can look for the family resemblance in the photo below).  Lucky for me, they're both runners.  I love being able to go for a run with them -- and especially to travel with one or both of them to destination races. 

Me and my dad before the Minneapolis Half Marathon
Me and my mom before the Walt Disney World 5K

For some reason, when you're running with someone, the walls that typically constrain conversations come tumbling down, and you're able to talk about things you normally wouldn't.  Maybe that's why so many runners' conversations involve descriptions of gastrointestinal problems.  Think about it: if you were talking with a friend in a cafe or grocery store aisle, and the words "bloody nipples," "peeing on the trail," or "inner thigh chafing" came up in the conversation, it would be pretty weird.  But no one will flinch if they come up in a conversation while running. 

And it's not just these cringe-worthy topics that come up while running; some conversations are deep and personal.  Because of this phenomenon, you can get to know someone and become close to them very quickly when you run together.  Being able to run with family members and friends is a blessing, because you can have these conversations and strengthen those bonds in a short time.  That's especially important when you don't see your loved ones in person too frequently.

Even though my parents have flown back home and I won't get to run with them again for a few months now, we'll still talk about runs and keep updating our shared training log online.  So, in a way, running is still bringing us closer together even though we're far apart.  Or, I should really say, God is using running as an instrument to bring us closer together.  And I'm very thankful for that.