Saturday, January 28, 2012

Backward and Forward and Right Here and Now

   I haven't had this much down time since I started running almost four years ago. I had an easy summer, and that was planned. But since September, the down time has been due to a nagging ankle injury. The ankle feels like it's working its' way to being fully healed now, but it's been a slow process. And in the meantime, I've let myself fall out of shape. I could have done more to stay in shape, while my ankle was healing, but I didn't. That's done now though, and it's time to look forward.

   I've got fifteen weeks to get myself ready for my next marathon. It's unlikely that I'll PR. Aside from the gap between where I am right now physically and where I'd need to be to PR, I'm also aware that coming back too fast and hard can aggravate the old injury or cause a new one, and land me right back on my butt. So I'm going to ease myself back. Which means a new approach for me.

   I've never trained for a marathon, without the idea that I'd try to PR. And to my surprise, I'm actually liking the feel of this new vantage point. I got my first glimpse of what that might be like a couple of months ago, albeit under significantly different circumstances.

   I went to Memphis for what I initially thought would be a full marathon. But as the injury lingered, I realized that running 26.2 miles probably wasn't going to be a good idea. My ankle was still hurting, and I had been severely limited in my training runs. So I decided to run the half marathon instead, and then get back out to the course to find my girlfriend, Abby, who was running her first full marathon, and cheer her on and take some pictures.

   I was frustrated in the weeks leading up to that race. I'd signed up for the full marathon, and it was hard to swallow the idea that I was going to settle for the half. I knew that it was the best thing for me, but it felt like quitting, and I couldn't get rid of the sour taste in my mouth.

   The morning of the race, my ankle was particularly sore, and in my mind I was questioning whether I should even run the half. I started with Abby. We ran together for about a mile. It was a great morning to run. The air was cool and crisp. Abby was excited, and I was excited for her. But after the first mile, as my ankle pain persisted, I told her that I was going to drop out. I wished her well, and cut my way to the side of the road.

   I sat there for a brief moment. Feeling sorry for myself. Feeling frustrated. And then I took off my left shoe and looked at my ankle. It was stiff and sore, but there was no visible swelling. I could run. I couldn't run fast. And I shouldn't run 26.2 miles. But I could do 13.1 miles at an easy pace. I was in a city that was new to me, and I was dying to run through it. So with the thought of looking at the morning as an opportunity to see Memphis and enjoy an easy run, rather than as a race that wouldn't be what I'd originally hoped, I laced my shoes back up and got back on the course.

   I was immediately happy with the decision. I found a pace that I was comfortable with, and I settled in and soaked up my surroundings. We ran along the Mississippi River, and I watched the runners around me. I was on the back end of the pack, and there was a different feel back there. There were more people running with partners, whether friends or lovers. People talked with each other. Some were running the half, others the full, but all had settled in for a long morning run. The urgency and intensity that dominates the front end was harder to find in the back, at least during the early miles.

   I spotted Abby somewhere between the 3 and 4 mile marks. I watched her from behind as she smiled and laughed and interacted with runners and spectators alike. She looked like she was having the time of her life, and I was tempted to hang back and watch her all morning. But I made my way through the crowd and ran up to her side instead. She squealed and I smiled, but I didn't stick around. I had found a rhythm, and I wanted to hold it. I just told her that I needed to go ahead, and she nodded and smiled and told me to get going.

    As I ran, I took in the people and the places that I passed. I talked with a woman that had a shirt from a 5k that takes place in my Chicago neighborhood every October. I read the stories of inspiration that people had written on their shirts. I looked at the pictures of children from St. Jude's Children's Hospital, which the race was benefiting. I ran through the Memphis Zoo. I stopped for a quick half-beer with some merry spectators. And I remembered the joy that comes from simply running for pleasure. Something that I'd allowed myself to forget while fighting through my injury.

   Eventually the fork in the road did come. The half marathon course and the full marathon course parted ways, and my pride did feel a sharp stab as I made the turn for the former. But I quickly sat that aside, as I grabbed my bag and went to find Abby.

   I found her quickly and easily, and she was much the same as I'd left her. Smiling and laughing. In the moment. Taking in everything that was there for her. And I smiled as I aimed the camera, and waved to her. When she got to me jumped at me and hugged me hard, and as good as that felt I urged her to go. I wanted her to save that energy, because I knew that there were tougher miles ahead.

   But in hindsight, she was aware of something that I was missing. She knew that she needed to pace herself. She was running responsibly. But she was mostly present in that moment. She wasn't trying to run a race that wasn't there. She wasn't thinking about what could be and what might be and what wasn't. She was there. She was loving her run. And she wanted a hug, so she hugged me.

   And as I gear up for the Prague Marathon, I'm going to try to keep that lesson close. I'm going to map out a training program, and when the time comes, I'll set some general guidelines for my approach to the race itself. But I'm also going to run for fun. I'm going to run because I love to run. I'm going to run at whatever pace feels right at the time. And I'm going remember to forget the big picture every now and then. So that I don't miss all of the little pictures that the big one is made of.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Project

"If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience another life... run a marathon." - Emil Zatopek

"The story I am writing exists, written in absolutely perfect fashion, some place, in the air. All I must do is find it, and copy it." - Jules Renard

Perry Coons (My Dad) - Four Marathons
   As I've plunged into the world of marathons, I've met and talked with innumerable runners and marathoners. Runners with a vast array of histories, abilities, and motivations. Runners that have gone far beyond what they initially believed themselves capable of. Runners that have worked their tail off and still come up short of their goals. Runners that run to compete. Runners that run to prove to themselves that they can. Runners that run for sheer joy. I've experienced the incredible feeling of camaraderie that permeates the running world. And, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, it's one of the most amazing things I've ever come across.

   I also love to write. Though most of the writing that I've done over the years has centered around my own thoughts and feelings. But as running has helped me look at others with a fresh set of eyes, the idea of writing about other runners began to seem like the most natural thing in the world.

   So far, I've talked with people that I know. I've tried to get their stories, while learning what questions to ask, how to listen to the responses, and how to best record and then write out those thoughts and experiences. But the list of runners that I'm going to talk with is now expanding well beyond my immediate circle of friends and acquaintances. This project is already going in directions that I hadn't anticipated. And I'm incredibly hopeful and excited about the possibilities.

   I'm going to focus on marathons, because I believe that particular aspect of running culture is uniquely suited to expressing the more personal elements of athletic competition. Marathons require a great deal of time, effort, and sacrifice. And they are therefor inherently personal experiences. But running a marathon is also something that is within reach for most people. It simply requires an honest commitment to see the task through. Whether you're a 65 year old mother of four, and you finish in six hours. Or perhaps you're a 30 year old veteran runner that is trying to break the three hour mark. The core experience is quite similar. You set a high goal for yourself. Something that you know will be difficult. Something that seems intimidating and gives you reason to doubt. Then you chip away at that fear and doubt one step at a time. One run at a time. 

Abby Smith (My Girlfriend) - One Marathon
   My goal is to find those stories, in all of their beautiful diversity, and tell them as well as I can. I don't know what form the final product will take. I just want to be open to whatever people give me. And I want to present those stories with an honesty that does justice to the effort that the runners have given.

   I'm estimating that this project will take the better part of this year. I'm going to talk to people about past marathons, future goals, and any training that they're doing at the moment. I'm hoping to learn what drives each runner. What first prompted them to run a marathon. What keeps them going. What obstacles they've faced. What reflections they have to offer. Most importantly, I'm hoping to discover what their marathon experience has to say about them as a person. I want to know what it has taught them about themselves, and how it has changed them. And I'm hoping to find a way to convey those things through words.

   If you're reading this, and you would like to contribute, or you know somebody that might like to contribute, just let me know. I can't collect too many stories, and I would love to hear yours.

Chris -

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


   My big brother, Kevin, was born forty-one years ago today. He passed away nearly twenty years ago. I've thought about him often over the course of those two decades. I've thought about who he was, and the impact that he had, and continues to have, on those who knew him. I've thought about the time that I spent with him, and I've thought about the times that I missed out on his company, even though it was right there waiting for me.

   I was eighteen years old when he died. At that point in my life, I didn't have a healthy appreciation for the impermanence of everything and everybody around me. I didn't have an appreciation for my own impermanence. So I took people for granted. I took time for granted. But in a sense, that also helped me get the most out of some of the experiences that I did have with him.

   During childhood and adolescence, I was totally caught up in the immediacy of whatever thoughts and feelings I was experiencing at any given moment. I wasn't concerned with the "big picture" of life. Life was what was going on right then and there. And that helped me see Kevin in ways that I'm not sure I'd have been able to see him, had I known him as an adult. Had I seen him in the context of our mutual mortality, I might have missed some of the more subtle, and most valuable, experiences that we shared.

   Kevin was born with cerebral palsy. He wasn't expected to live long enough to leave the hospital. But he not only left the hospital, he lived another twenty-one years. And to this day I can't say that I've known a happier person.

   Outside of the house, Kevin was usually in a wheelchair. That wheelchair took him to school and church. It took him to Easter Seals Camp and to the park. And when he went to those places he infected everybody around him with his smile and with his voice. He sang loud and often, regardless of where he was. Propriety was never a concern of his. But at home, he was rarely in the wheelchair. At home, he was usually on a thin mat or beach towel, on the floor.

   I remember laying down next to him on innumerable occasions. Sometimes we'd be the only two people in the room. A television or radio might be on, but we were otherwise alone. And I'd lay on the floor with him. Two little boys. Two brothers. And I'd look at him, and he'd look back. But he looked back in a way that nobody else did. He looked at me in a way that nobody else did. It seemed like he was completely free of any consideration of himself. He just soaked up my every movement. Every facial expression, every word spoken, every inflection in my voice. It felt like all of that was being taken in. And in turn I looked at him differently. He wasn't like everybody else. He seemed to be more. When I think about those moments now, I can't help but wonder. I wonder if I can find that place that he was in.  

      The father of three of my cousins passed away yesterday. And on that topic, my cousin Katrina posted this on her Facebook page this morning: "My Dad lost his battle with Pancreatic Cancer yesterday. Everyone keeps asking how I'm doing... Here's what I want to share; I'm okay. I was so blessed to get to spend time with him just last week. While the battle was long and full of highs and lows... It allowed me extra time to pay closer attention to things like, the way his beard felt when he kissed me on the cheek, Or the expression on his face when he told a story that he wanted to get just right. I'm thankful for the time I got to spend and that I was able to have a few more memories to cherish."

   I read those words, and it reminded me of Kevin. It reminded me of those days from my childhood when I could recognize his ability to see other people. To see them without a filter. To see them with curiosity and compassion, rather than with judgement or frustration. To see them without his outward vision being tethered to his vision of himself.

   And I've spent most of today with those thoughts. Thoughts of others and how I relate to them. Thoughts that are at times fragmented and uneasy. And at other times warm and reassuring. And I haven't come to any grand conclusions. I've had no epiphany. I'm just sitting here in front of my computer. Drinking too much coffee. As lost as ever. Trying to make sense of a world and a life that seems so overwhelming at times. But grateful nonetheless, for those fleeting moments of clarity that I receive from others, during those brief moments that I'm able to see what is right in front of me.

Happy Birthday Kevin.