Friday, May 29, 2015

Digging Deeper Than Deep Goes

“It is not the strength of the body that counts, but the strength of the spirit.”  ~J.R.R. Tolkien 
This is not about me. I'm not entirely sure I could ever dig this deep. I suppose part of all of this is the journey to find out how deep it all goes...

Early this year Jeanette turned to me for help training for her first marathon, the Colfax Marathon, having finally coerced her doctor into granting grudging consent for the whole enterprise. A runner most of her life and healthy and vital, Jen suffered a heart attack, 6 years ago, at the age of 38. And with that her whole life changed. It has taken her years of trial and error, learning, researching, exploring all the avenues available, weekly experimental treatments to grow new nourishing vessels feeding her heart, constant angina, migraines, debilitating exhaustion, reluctantly leaving her uber high stress but much loved job as a Boulder County Deputy Sheriff, changing her eating entirely, and on and on. She does everything she can do to take control of a situation no one would ever choose and most would use as a reason to quit doing all the things that could actually kill them. She would be justified to give in and give up. Take some nice easy walks everyday.

But no. She wanted, more than anything, to run a freaking marathon.

I decided to help her because: a) Her doctor gave the thumbs up (She had just begun taking a 'wonder drug' that seemed to be helping with the constant angina, so things were looking promising or at least reasonable), and, b) I believe in personal freedom, which means that sometimes someone might pursue something risky because it is essential to their well lived life (assuming that their choice effects themselves only, which arguably isn't the case, but she had the support of her family). Was I nervous about this whole thing? Yes. Most definitely. So we monitored things VERY closely, and adjusted, sometimes daily, what she did.

The first thing I did, which I believe now was absolutely essential for her, was I added swimming to her schedule - For her I actually wanted lap swimming, not water running because swimming is a horizontal activity. Since we aren't dealing with the pull of gravity in the vertical position, it's more difficult to get your heart-rate up when swimming. This allowed her to increase her workout volume without the deleterious effects of higher running volume. I'll admit that this was a bit of an experiment and something I've been researching, and I was using her as my guinea pig, but, she is such a special case I had to try. Lots of runners are reluctant to get in the pool. At first she balked. Her two daughters are accomplished, talented swimmers and she felt self-conscious swimming. So I challenged her to meet me at the pool one Sunday morning. It was immediately apparent that she is actually a naturally talented swimmer (where did her daughters get it from??) AND she enjoyed it! Score!

We then embarked on a hyper-response-regulated training regime. We adjusted things as we saw that daily short runs worked better than fewer, longer runs. We adjusted when we learned that long runs took a couple days to recover from involving migraines and exhaustion. tweak, tweak, tweak...

Add to the cardiac issues, a knee problem that began many months earlier (which we determined via docs and an MRI would not be made worse with running, it might just hurt like hell!), and you have quite an interesting challenge. The result: She approached her marathon VERY undertrained, BUT with a resolute mind. I told her point blank, a month before the race: "You are not trained for this. If you were ANYONE else I would tell you not to do it. But I know you, and I know your reasons. Based on that, I will support this. But understand that this is going to be very hard."
Before the start

On a chilly morning, May 17th, 5:55 am, we stand in the corral, nervously jumping and wiggling about, waiting for the start. And then we are off.

The opening miles tick away, I'm doing my usual "slow down" refrain, as Jen argues that X:XX is okay, and I say, "No. No it's not. Slow down". We talk...she apologizes for the 'slow' pace as I reassure her that I DO NOT want to go any faster (this is my peak mileage week for a 100 miler in 3 weeks, so I have run a LOT of miles that week leading up to this 'training run'. I just pray I don't bonk on her!). I know the course well, so I try to give her a little mental tour as we approach certain sections of the course - the hard bits to get through and the easier parts to look forward to.

And this is how it goes..until about mile 15...

Not surprisingly, it gets hard here, a) because she is undertrained, and b) there is a LONG uphill, and we've been going uphill for the past 12 miles.

In mile 16 we see Heather. Hugs and we move on. It's a big boost for Jen (and me!) since she got through miles 14 and 15 hoping Heather would be there.

And then we head for the long, gentle downhill along Colfax Ave. heading back into Denver. It's getting warm, but we pick up the pace a bit - some tummy issues pop up, but settle down, and then finally her knee revolts. Mile 18 we walk twice to workout her knee, and then she's off again and that's the last we hear from the knee!!!...back through Sports Authority Stadium...past Elitches. And here things hit. Hard.

I can tell that she's hit the proverbial wall: The glazed look in her eyes, the heavy, labored gait. The silence. The single minded determination to keep putting that next foot forward. She hands me her Garmin: "Give it back to me at mile 23". We head into downtown along Cherry Creek and I can tell it's taking all her mental energy to put one foot in front of the other. I've been here. I get it. I slide in front of her, on the narrow bike path and say, "Just follow me" as I navigate her through the other runners, many of whom are also in a marathon daze...

Mile 23 and she sees Nancy ahead on the sidewalk. Ok. I didn't see her. Jen's doing better than me! More encouragement just when she needs it! Then we turn the corner and the 17th Street hill looms ahead, and for the first time I recommend walking. This is around mid-mile 23. She hasn't yet asked for her Garmin back. I'm not offering.

We crest the hill and we start jogging. Then she stops and says, "I'm sorry Caolan. I'm done. Let me have my watch back". I do not even entertain what she might mean by the 'I'm done'.
"Okay. Let's walk it out. Light and quick. Just keep moving". She does it without argument. We walk, we get some Gatorade from an aid station and Amy comes up behind us, grabbing a drink and walking for a second.
"OMG. My hip flexors are killing me." she says sipping her drink.
"Almost there. Keep moving" I encourage, and she painfully runs off.

Jen pulls out her baggie of meds.
"I need to take some." She peels open the baggie and downs some pills.
Prior to the marathon she sent me very specific instructions on how to deal with different situations and possible signs of trouble. She's had zero issues until now. At least she hasn't said anything.
"How long do those take to kick in?" I ask (I've been willing to push her through the fatigue and normal marathoning pain, but NOT heart issues!)
"A while."
"Should you put on a nitro patch?"
"No. Not yet."...and a second later, ""Okay. Yes." ( I am after all supposed to be watching out for this stuff! And it actually scares me a bit, so I keep asking questions).
“And one has to understand that braveness is not the absence of fear but rather the strength to keep on going forward despite the fear.” ~ Paulo Coelho
During mile 24 she says, "Let's try running."
"Are you sure? We are getting there. This isn't worth dying for!"
"No. It's leveled off. It's not getting worse. That's what matters. I can run".

We round the last turn before entering City Park.
"Three-quarters of a mile to go. You're going to do this." I encourage.
"This is the longest three-quarters of a mile ever."

We start winding through City Park. I'm leading her, cutting the tangents. We round the corner and pass the cormorant nesting area and there's Denise and Dawn, screaming and waving signs.

Just ahead we catch the first glimpse of the finish. I'm feeling chills. "You're almost there. You're going to do this." As we hit the final 50 meters, she grabs my hand and starts what feels like a sprint.

Sprinting to the finish
Hand in hand

As we cross the mat tears start welling up in my eyes and I give her a hug. Jen's husband, Boscos, and daughter's, Erin and Darcy, rush to the fence so excited, and I'm sure also a little relieved. Pictures are snapped and the glasses have to go back on since I'm a red-eyed blubbering mess.

Letting it all settle and sink in
We make our way through the finish area, Sandra finds us, a bit concerned since no splits showed up after mile 16, and we join back up with all our friends and bask in the sun and the deepest satisfaction of an amazing day. A special day. A day in our lives that matters greatly.
Hugs for mom
“Courage is found in unlikely places.” ~J.R.R. Tolkien
Over the years I've written a lot about courage, fierceness, risk taking, betting against the odds, living a well lived life, but this run and this friend showed me what it really means to 'dig deep'. This wasn't just about physical pain. This was about mortality, and what makes a life worth living, which only the individual can determine.

Sometimes we have to do things that others believe are unwise, even foolhardy, but which mean so much to us. I knew this was the case for Jen and while I was a little scared to be part of it, in case things did not go well (how would I feel if something bad happened?? Would I be to blame?), I knew I needed to to support her. My fears concerned how I would feel, but this wasn't about me. This was her choice. She's a big girl who knew all too well what she got herself into, and gets to make these choices, choices that make all the difference to her and her well lived life on this planet. I applaud her toughness, fierceness, courage and resolve in going after what matters to her.
“Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace.” ~ Amelia Earhart
And now I am one week away from a huge and scary undertaking myself. As I approach my first 100 miler I only hope that I can be half as determined and courageous as Jen. I hope it rubbed off a bit on that sunny spring day in Denver. I fluctuate between confident resolve and determination, and abject terror of the unknown. But, hell, for me it's just a run, or a walk, or a crawl, not mortal battle. And I need to be brave enough to try, even though I may fail. And when it all comes down to it, that is what I'm most afraid of...

To be continued. I hope...


  1. What an inspiring impressive and courageous woman Jen is! Perhaps she & you would consider a guest post from her with her POV on the training and race experience. Thanks for sharing.

  2. That is awesome :) Simply fantastic!!!!! I see a lot of Jen in myself and greatful to have you coaching me. Boston here we come.


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