Category Archives: Fitness

Over the River and Through the Muck

Those pants were black when I started the race.

A couple months ago, a friend mentioned the Cross Country Challenge, held in Gilberts the first weekend of December. She said, “It sounds crazy, and you get cold, and muddy and gross, but it’s so much fun.” I thought about it, but decided she was nuts. And besides, the date didn’t work.

Then, at the Thanks-a-lot Turkey Trot, I ran into a girl I know from DailyMile who was planning to do the Challenge. My schedule had opened up, so I thought, why not?

When I woke up on race day,  thankful for a 10 AM start, the windchill was just 7 degrees. I called my DailyMile friend to confirm our carpooling, mused whether we were crazy, and layered up. On top, I had a long sleeve UnderArmour, my high school gym shirt and an old windbreaker. On the bottom, I wore nylon pants and SmartWool socks. A hat and gloves were essential, too. I had been told to wear clothes that could be thrown out.

We set out for the Indian Hills Training Center, where everyone gathered in a big horse arena to wait until the start. Seasoned veterans showed us the proper method for duct-taping our shoes to our feet. At the last minute, I remembered the YakTrax I had stashed in my car and strapped them on.

The start line was about a mile from the arena, and by the time we got there, the race had already started. Due to chip timing, it didn’t really matter that we were 3 minutes behind. Plus, as I came to realize, this race is not about speed.

Beautiful race. As we set off, the pack thinned out considerably, leaving me alone to run through the snow-covered fields. I was far enough back that everything was well trampled, and the fresh snow provided a convenient canvas for the spray painted pink directional arrows.

We swung through a broken gate and up the first of several  very steep hills. I’ve trained on hills, but these were entirely different beasts. Covered with snow and trampled by hundreds of feet before me, they were slick. The YakTrax helped, but at times, it was a hands-and-knees affair. At the top, I stopped and marveled for a moment before trying to descend, only to drop to my butt and slide down, arms up in the air, squealing like a kid. (I repeated this several times throughout the race.)

After a few hills, a junkyard (!), and another open field, we entered a wooded section where the path narrowed to single file. We were packed relatively close to each other, and when someone stumbled over a tree root or uneven ground, we all slowed.

I had been warned about the course’s water features. And indeed, there were two creeks to cross. The first one was very narrow, maybe three feet wide. I was able to leap across it and land with just a bit of mud splatter. “This isn’t so bad,” I thought, unzipping my jacket a bit. I never ran more than five or six minutes at a time, slowing frequently for obstacles and such, so I never overheated.

Ahead, I heard shrieks. Suddenly we were at the top of a steep bank, looking down at the second creek. This one was much wider, probably 4 or 5 feet. People were crossing in several places, so the pack I was with surveyed the situation and chose what looked like a slightly narrower section. We carefully stepped down the bank to the edge of the muck – you could tell there had recently been a sheet of ice over the top – and sized it up. A tall girl easily cleared it, then another did the same. I took my turn and didn’t quite make it. My feet landed in the muck, which brought me down with a sucking sound. I nearly faceplanted into the bank but caught myself with my hands. Then I tried to get out, but my legs were mired in the goo, like a dinosaur in a tar pit. One of the girls ahead grabbed my hands and helped pull me out. (I love runners.) I was coated with muck from the chest on down, and my shoes squished as I walked. The duct tape had kept me from losing a shoe, though, which is more than I can say for some who ran the last half of the race in stocking feet.

As I continued, the muck began to freeze onto me, making crunching noises as I moved and weighing me down so every time I tried to run, my pants threatened to fall down. I struggled to reach under all my layers to tighten the drawstring on my pants, but couldn’t get it drawn tight enough. My legs were burning with cold, while my hamstrings were on fire from the hills. I walked and slowly slogged the rest of the way to the finish, holding my pants up so they wouldn’t fall.

But near the end, something magical happened. As I shuffled through an open field, I saw a doe, gracefully leaping through the snow, making it look easy. A few seconds later, a buck – complete with antlers – appeared, bounding after her. Graceful, gentle, and powerful, I realized what this race was about, and I felt alive.

The end was rather anti-climatic, as I was pretty far back in the pack, finishing in 1:21:27. (The winners, running in nothing but shorts, bow ties and shoes, finished the 8k distance in 32 minutes.) As I finished, I grabbed a cup of (ice) water and began the mile walk back to the lukewarm arena, where a truck of coffee awaited, along with pasta and fried chicken. On a friend’s advice, I had brought a change of clothes, and was thankful to duck into an empty horse stall and change into dry jeans, socks, and boots, stashing the muddy stuff in plastic bags.

And while I was cold and somewhat miserable by the end – and had to scrub in the shower to differentiate the bruises from the mud – I’m glad I did it. It felt very badass to wake up on a Sunday morning, just a day after the first snowfall, and go play among nature. And 900 other similarly crazy runners. Next year, I’m bringing a sled.

A fellow runner posted a great video that captures some of the essence of the Challenge. Enjoy!

Notes for next year:
1) Wear something under the nylon pants. If I had shorts on, I could have ditched the muck-soaked nylon pants. If I’d worn long underwear or running tights, at least my legs wouldn’t have been so numb by the end.

2) Bring a water bottle. Since you’re out in the middle of nowhere, there are no water stations. In the dry, cold air, I was dying for a sip of something wet by  mile 3. Though maybe a flask would be more appropriate.

3) Bring a (disposable?) camera. Since this race isn’t about time, there were several moments I wish I could have stopped to take pictures of the scenery and fellow runner shenanigans, like runners sliding downhill on their butts or the dirtiest Santa I’ve seen.

4) Bring friends! This would have been a blast with a team, since so much of it was about helping each other laugh through the obstacles.

A New Tradition: Trotting for Turkey

A year ago, I didn’t know that thousands of people wake up early on Thanksgiving morning and run in the cold.  It’s a day designed for sleeping in, unless you’re the one stuck with turkey duty.

But by September of this year, I had heard of the Turkey Trot phenomenon, and  it became a matter of choosing which one to tackle.

Then I learned that the Gifford Park Association, another Elgin neighborhood group, was hosting its first-ever Thanks a Lot Turkey Trot 5k, and my choice was easy.

The forecast began mentioning ominous words like “ice pellets” and “sleet,” but since a couple friends were committed, I was too. I went to the outlet mall yesterday with my parents, and managed to convince them to let me have one of my Christmas presents early. My new waterproof, breathable jacket should carry me through the winter, and today was the first test.

When I woke up, it was still dark, and everything was wet from a steady mist. But at least it was above freezing at 38 degrees. By the time my dear friend Sarah picked me up, the mist had stopped and the wind was picking up. My long sleeve Pumpkin Run shirt paired with my new jacket kept me plenty warm – the wind couldn’t cut through at all, and I actually unzipped the vents about mid-way through the race.

A small crowd assembled in the park, bringing canned goods for the local food pantry. The atmosphere was very laid back, unlike any other race I’ve done. I think a lot of it was the size of the crowd – there were maybe 50 participants? {Ed note: The Courier-News reported there were 111 participants – apparently my crowd estimating abilities need some work)- and the absence of many of the traditional race trappings. There were no bibs or chips, no timing mat, not even an official clock. Instead, as everyone assembled, the fantastic organizer Amanda read off a series of announcements, including something about a problem with a clock, so there was just a guy with a stopwatch.

But for a gloomy, damp holiday morning, the atmosphere felt exactly right. We took off and, without a crowd to keep my pace in check, I started way too fast. I looked down after a quarter mile and was running a 7:40 mile. Whoa, Nelly! I slowed to a brisk-but-comfortable 9:30 pace and enjoyed the course.

I’ll admit I was wary of a course that was two laps – I didn’t want to get lapped! – but the crowd was thin enough it was never an issue. I love the Gifford Park neighborhood (the oldest in Elgin, chock full of interesting, historic homes) and running through it provided an entirely new perspective. We trotted – that’s really the right word – past Channing School and up the steep but mercifully short hill, then around Channing Park and back down the hill and through the center of Gifford Park to began the second lap.

There were an abundance of water stops – essentially three along the way, counting the conveniently placed start/finish line stop at the midpoint – and the volunteers were at every turn so the turns were very clear.

I finished in 29:18, which isn’t great – my 5k PR stands at 28:12 on a very flat course – but given the mood and atmosphere, I was perfectly fine with it. Rather than awards for quickest finishers, those who brought the most canned goods took home prizes, which seemed fitting.

After I finished and grabbed water, I strolled back through the park cheer on everyone else coming in. It was Sarah’s very first 5k, so when I saw her I really cheered, and she joined me to cheer on Cassie a minute later. Post race refreshments included (nearly frozen) bananas, granola bars and Gushers. I would have liked to stick around a while longer, but it was getting colder (and has been all day – the current windchill tonight as I write is just 6 degrees) and people had feasts to prepare. Sarah and I went to find coffee and hot chocolate. Both good downtown shops were closed, so we ended up driving to Dunkin’ Donuts, sharing pumpkin and gingerbread donuts and warming up.

Overall, it was a great local, laid-back race that I would definitely do again. The shirts were cute, and it’s nice to have one with a well-designed logo not clouded by a dozen sponsors.

And I realize how thankful I am for my health, my ability to run, and all the friends, old and new, who make life so great.

Cold Morning for Hot Chocolate

Last Saturday, I ran the Hot Chocolate 15k along Chicago’s lakefront. It was my first 15k, my first race in Chicago proper, and my first “big” race.

It was cold. The start-time temperature was just 26 degrees. I spent Friday night debating which layers to wear so I could easily adjust as I warmed up. I ended up wearing warm-up pants, a long sleeved UnderArmour, a t-shirt, and my new Moeben sleeves over the top. The sleeves worked well, as I was able to roll them up once I got warm and then pull them back down as we turned into wind. I also had cheap Magic Gloves for the start which I ended up stuffing into my pack after about 3 miles.

Overall, I’m glad I did this race. It was touted as having the “best goodie bag in the country,” which I find a very generous stretch (see Cate’s post for more on that), but really, the distance intrigued me. The odd 15k distance seemed a perfect goal.

The race had far too many people – 30,000 registered, with about half each doing the 15k and 5k. Several friends said the lack of a “wave” or staggered start caused the terrible bottlenecks that plagued the narrow course. I couldn’t even get into a corral until just moments before the start. But at least I ended up in the right area, the 10 minute mile section. There were several people who couldn’t get where they belonged (or were delusional about their pace – many who started near me were walking a mile in), which worsened the bottlenecks.

There were times it felt downright dangerous. At several points, the entire mob screeched to a stop as the path narrowed and there was simply no place to go. My heels were stepped on and elbows flew as people tried to advance. I saw one woman fall at the 2 mile marker, nearly trampled by the horde, and there were several other close calls.

The advantage was that I never got very much speed, so I was able to run the entire thing, except through the narrow aid stations. Prior to the race, I had only one training run over 9 miles, which had taken 1:50 and several short walk breaks. Officially, I finished in 1:40:41. (My Garmin had me at 1:38:03, but that’s suspicious, since it had mile 2 as 8:21 – which would have been the fastest mile I have EVER run. Doubtful given the crowd and the aid station. That mile also happened to be partially under McCormick Place, where I lost signal – I’m betting the Garmin paused while underground.) I had told myself no walking until mile 7, so I was pleased.

Going south along Lake Shore Drive was relatively uneventful, but coming back north was gorgeous, with the whole skyline spread out before us in the early morning sunshine. I see the skyline several times a week during my commute, but seeing it from the south, with the lake, was beautiful and reminded me of undergrad picnics at Promontary Point. The stretch of large, ankle-twisting rocks was tough, very different than the crushed gravel I’ve trained on. Throughout, several people ran along the grassy sidelines so they could pass, but I was worried about the uneven ground with my still slightly wonky ankle. I stuck to the middle of the path where there were relatively few walkers. I kept picking out people ahead to pass.

The end was freeing, as the course finally widened to the entire width of Columbus Drive and I was able to sprint hard to the end. Once across the line, I wandered as people handed bottled water and Gatorade. (I usually hate Gatorade, but by the third aid station, it tasted fantastically refreshing, likely because it was ice cold.) Once I found the fondue, hot chocolate and my friends, it was great sharing stories.

I’m glad I did the race to prove to myself I can do 15k before I attempt the Indy Mini Half Marathon in May. (I’m still wary of winter training.) But I doubt I will do this race again due to the crowds and congestion.

Splits: 1 – 10:18; 2 – 8:21 (um?? especially with an aid station?); 3 – 10:37; 4 – 10:55 (aid station); 5 – 10:54; 6 – 11:05 (aid station); 7 – 10:45; 8 – 10:55; 9 – 10:27 (aid station); 0.39 – 3:40 (9:20 pace)

Race Report: Sycamore Pumpkin Run

I ran my very first 10k last weekend, the Sycamore Pumpkin Run. Friday night, while out for what was supposed to be a four or five mile run, I turned my ankle wrong avoiding a gate that suddenly opened in front of me. I sprained the same ankle three years ago, and ever since, it’s been somewhat balky. So after limping home, I popped some ibuprofen, grabbed a bag of frozen peas and propped it on a pillow for the rest of the night. I spent much of Saturday doing the same thing, staying off it as much as possible.

Sunday morning, it felt ok. Not great – very stiff, with a dull ache – but not the throbbing pain that kept me awake Friday night. I took more ibuprofen with my PBJ oatmeal and debated what to wear. It was a chilly 31 degrees. I didn’t want a repeat of the Harvest Hustle where I roasted in the 40 degree chill. I went with a short sleeve technical tee and long warm up pants, with a cotton hoodie that I planned to leave in the car. (I still need to get a non-cotton zip up hoodie, and dig out my non-leather gloves, but I ran out of time.) I downed my second cup of coffee and set off for Sycamore, about 45 minutes west of Elgin.

Once I found the place (thanks, Google Maps, for sending me down a dirt road!) and parked, I jogged to the Armory to pick up my shirt and bib. I could see my breath and second guessed whether I would be able to ditch the hoodie as planned. I then broke what I’ve heard is a “rule” of races – I stripped off my tee and put on the long sleeve technical shirt with the race logo.

I met up with some Daily Mile friends, including the fantastic Beth. We lined up around the 9:30 mile pace sign, waited for the gun and took off. Beth was dressed as Super Pumpkin, complete with cape and mask, which made her easy to spot once she got ahead of me after the first crowded mile or so. There were several cool costumes, from various winged fairies and princesses to a squirrel, a chicken and Santa Claus.

Beth, Crysta and Michael, all Daily Milers

The first mile through quaint downtown Sycamore, I concentrated on keeping a moderate pace. I’m often guilty of going out too fast, leaving nothing for the end of the race. Plus, I didn’t want to overtax the ankle too soon.

Miles two and three were cold, straight down a country road flanked by a subdivision on one side and a farm with grazing cows on the other. There was a crisp breeze through this stretch, especially as the pack thinned out. I focused on keeping a pace around 9:30 and ran along the white line, listening to bits of conversation around me.

Mile four, we turned out of the wind onto another country road. I stopped for water and the ankle complained a bit. I walked a few steps while sipping, then kicked it back into gear. At mile 5, I realized that, if my math was right, I could meet my original “under 60 minutes” goal if I really pushed, so I took off with a pace around 8:30. Unfortunately, this only lasted about half a mile before I couldn’t maintain it, so I slowed down as the crowd surged around me. I felt like I was going to puke as I followed the curving paths through the golf course. I didn’t see the actual finish line until I was right on top of it (damn curves!), but I kept eying my watch, knowing that I was going to be very close.

I really hoped I hit "stop" at the right instant.

And it was. I crossed the line as the clock said 1:00:31. As I hit “Stop” on my watch, it read 59:59. I knew I was about 30 seconds behind the clock time (thank goodness for timing chips!), so I met up with Beth, got a beer, watched the other runners come in… and then went to look for results. Officially? I finished in 59:56. Woo-hoo! Not bad for a first 10k, especially on a less-than-healthy ankle.

Next weekend is the Hot Chocolate 15k. I plan to rest the ankle as much as I can through the early part of the week. I’m not sure what a good goal is yet. Under 100 minutes?

Tingly Toes – Or, Goodbye Heels

I just assumed I’d spend all my adult years wearing heels. After all, I’m not that tall, and that’s what women do, right?

Over time, I’ve built up quite a collection of “grown-up” shoes, in colors from black and pink to red and lime green. When I lived in Chicago proper, I wore stilettos for my standing commute on the El, walking blocks, sometimes miles, in heels and never thinking twice.

Since then, I’ve lived my theory of commuter shoes, which stipulates that the easier the commute, the more comfortable the shoes. I typically wear a relatively comfy pair of atheleisure shoes or sneakers for my commute, then switch at the office.

But this fall, I’ve encountered a couple big obstacles.

First, now that I’ve started grad school, my work bag is stuffed beyond capacity. By the time I haul my laptop, giant packet of readings, lunch and dinner, travel mug and notebook, I have no room left for leisure reading material (not that I have time for such a thing!) or shoes. And in my own vanity, I don’t want to wear the ugly commuter shoes to class. So I’ve been stupidly wearing pretty shoes for walking to the train, to the office, around all day, to class, to Union Station, and finally up the hill to home.

Second, now that I’m running, my feet just can’t take the heels anymore. This week made that especially apparent. After an eight-mile run last Saturday, I developed a small blister on my toe, and my feet were sore. Fair enough. Then Tuesday, I wore relatively low heels all day, including to/from the off-site meeting a few blocks away. Normally, this wouldn’t be any big deal. But the combination of already-sore feet, a blister, and more walking than I intended left me limping by the time I got off the train late Tuesday night.

Wednesday, I woke up with feet that were downright numb. They screamed as soon as I put weight on them. The numbness persisted through a five mile run that evening, all day Thursday, and finally began to ease a bit by mid-day Friday – just in time for today’s long run.

A couple years ago, I sprained my ankle and had to go out and buy flats. I wore those two pairs daily for about three months, then returned to heels. I’ve been wearing those two pairs again (and again) and think it’s time to expand my collection.

Plus, even my old shoes – the ones I’ve worn faithfully for years – suddenly cause problems. They almost feel too small – as if my feet have grown since I started running.

I won’t swear off heels entirely. Sometimes I like the boost of height, and for special occasions, they just seem right. (And what if I meet a really tall guy?) But I’ll start treating my feet – and myself – better.

Besides, thanks in part to running, I feel taller than ever before. So goodbye, heels. It’s been fun.

Doing the (Hilly) Hustle 7k

I love running local races because it’s cool to realize just how many runners are nearby – though I always wonder why I never see any while I’m out.

Saturday’s South Elgin Harvest Hustle 7k intrigued me because the start line was less than three miles from my house. Plus, the 7k distance is good preparation for the Sycamore Pumpkin Run 10k I’m running on Halloween. According to the website, the course had “challenging hills.”

Even on Friday night, the forecast was flirting with Saturday morning showers, so I told my running buddy it would be a game time decision – after a long week, I wasn’t digging a cold, windy, wet run. Rain woke me at 5 AM but it had stopped by the time I got up. As dawn broke, the clouds parted and it turned sunny, but the strong winds out of the N-NW made the start-time windchill a brisk 41 degrees. I haven’t run in the cold yet, so I grabbed a cotton zip-up hoodie and dug through my cold weather gear bin for gloves, but could find only one that wasn’t leather or turquoise suede (when did I buy THOSE?!?).

Some people were wrapped in blankets with mittens while others wore shorts and sleeveless shirts. I secured my bib across my hoodie, using extra pins so the wind wouldn’t whip it around. I washed my hands with the water outside a port-a-john, and my fingers froze instantly – apparently that water had been sitting outside all night. Refreshing!

I heard people grumbling about the hills as we lined up at the base of one. Great, I thought, craning my neck to look up, it’s a nasty one, but we’ll get it out of the way at the start. I stretched a bunch and jogged around, trying to warm my muscles.

The gun went off with little warning and we slogged our way up the first giant hill. After that it gets blurry. I know there were at least five big hills, possibly six. It seemed like we never went downhill, though. A girl running next to me at one point asked how this was possible – the organizers had found a route with (what seemed like) six uphills but only two downhills.

At my last couple 5ks I’ve bolted far too quickly from the start, finishing my first mile around 8:40, but then lacked juice at the end to manage any sort of sprint. I held back a bit this race, in part forced to do so by the hills, and my first mile came in at about 9:13 – still faster than my typical mile, but not as extreme. The cold, dry, ragweed-filled air was really tough to breathe, so I grabbed water at the aid stations at 1.5 and 3.5 miles. (I skipped the 2.5 mile station which was at the mid-point of an uphill. Most people seemed to run right past that one!)

I did walk for two short spurts. At first, my legs were stiff and cold and just couldn’t make it up the third (or was it fourth?) hill. By mile three or so, I was absolutely roasting, but I had pinned my bib very securely across my hoodie, bridging the zipper. I could unzip it, but my numb fingers couldn’t work the safety pins to reposition the bib, and the hoodie was snug enough I couldn’t get it over my head. I tried rolling up the sleeves but that didn’t really work, either. I really need to learn how to layer for colder days and get a good technical sweatshirt.

Most of the race was through residential areas, and several houses had been freshly tp’d before the rain, so there were people out cleaning who cheered us on. In general, I was surprised by the number of spectators, all of whom were very enthusiastic. A few were on bike and cheered at a couple different places along the route. Even some of the cops blocking off streets were yelling encouragement as the runners passed.

The wind was blessedly at our backs most of the last mile, until we turned and ran back down the giant hill we started from. I kicked it into gear and passed two people, which felt great. I need to remember that feeling so I don’t start too fast again!

I finished at 43:02, a 9:55 pace. I didn’t know what to expect for a 7k, so my unofficial goal for a “challenging” but unknown course was sub-45 minutes. As soon as you crossed the line (and they ripped off the bottom of your bib), the organizer shook your hand and gave you a medal. It’s my very first medal, and even though it’s generic, with no race name, date or anything on it, I grinned when I put it on. I finished 39th out of 76 in my “division.” They only  had two divisions for each gender: Under 15 and 15 and up, which seems odd. The winner finished in a blazing 24:57 – a pace of 5:45. Incredible!

The post-race was nicely done, with small Chinese take-out boxes next to bins of trail mix ingredients, so I mixed together granola, raisins, dried cranberries, chocolate chips and almonds. Great, healthy post-run snack! There was plenty of piping hot coffee and hot chocolate too. We wandered by the river and watched the crazy people fishing in knee-deep water, and chatted with other runners.

Overall, a very tough course, but I would do this race again – and maybe break 40 minutes.

Splits: (Approx; from memory as I passed each stop-watch carrying person):
Mile 1: 9:13
Mile 2: 9:25
Mile 3: 10:56
Mile 4: No idea – There was no sign, just some woman with a stopwatch, and I didn’t realize she was the mile marker until I had passed her.

Running Goals

Soon after I started running in March, I joined The Daily Mile, which I’ve heard described as “Facebook for Runners.” That’s pretty apt: the people on Daily Mile (mostly) vaguely know each other, but by interacting with friends’ friends, you build your network. Only this network is made up entirely of runners cyclists and other people interested in fitness.

It has been incredibly helpful and supportive as I’ve gone from Couch-to-5k to my first 5k to looking ahead to my first 15k (gulp).

As you post workouts, people provide good comments, advice and support. It’s so motivating after a tough run to have someone tell you it’s okay, the next one will be better. Plus, there’s a certain level of accountability inherent in publicly logging your runs. If someone doesn’t post for a couple weeks, Daily Mile gives you an option to send them a note saying, “I miss your training!” (Not that I’m the nagging sort.)

One thing I really like about Daily Mile is that you can set goals. When I first joined, I set my goals as: “Break 30 minutes in a 5k at some point this summer, be able to run 5 miles by Labor Day.”

I’ve hit both those goals – and blown them out of the water! I’ve had two sub-30 minute 5ks, and I’ve run 5+ miles several times recently.

So it’s time for new goals:

Run the Hot Chocolate 15k; Run a 10k in under 60 minutes; Break 27 minutes in a 5k

Here are my (tentative) race plans for the rest of the year. Join me at any of them, or just follow me on the Daily Mile!

Sycamore Pumpkin Run 10k – October 31 – Sycamore

Hot Chocolate 15k – November 6 – Chicago

Thanks a Lot Turkey Trot 5k – November 25 – Elgin

I’m also considering the South Elgin Harvest Hustle 7k on Oct 2, the World’s Largest Corn Maze 5k on Oct 17 in Spring Grove,  and potentially the Dec 5 Cross Country Challenge in Gilberts.

Join me for any of these, or let me know if there’s another one you’re curious to try!

(Psst… and if you’re thinking about starting to run, a 5k is a great goal that will help motivate you! Coincidentally, the Nov 25 Turkey Trot right here in Elgin is 72 days away… just enough time to start and complete the Couch-to-5k program!)

Dog Chase

I had planned out my very first seven-mile run for Sunday morning. As usual, I dawdled getting ready to run, despite waking up before my alarm. I ate some toast and flipped through the Sunday papers as I listened to the steady tick-tick of the clock in the quiet house.

Finally, at 8:15 I laced up my shoes and left. It was a beautiful sunny morning, cool but not cold. I was very comfortable in capris and a short-sleeved tee. I started along my route through my neighborhood, the streets familiar from countless strolls, bike rides and shorter runs. Leaves crunched beneath my feet (already?!?) and I passed a few solo Sunday morning walkers, out with their dogs.

I followed Highland Avenue west, past the construction and the gorgeous Painted Ladies, beyond where the sidewalk ended and a man in a motorized wheelchair sped along on the gravel shoulder, smoking a cigarette I was desperate to get around.

I turned south onto Lyle, into a neighborhood I knew only vaguely, filled with homes built in the 7os and 80s, and then onto Lin-Lor, wondering where the name came from.

And as I turned onto Jane Street, I noticed a dog by my side. I don’t know where she came from. I looked around for an open garage, someone out for a walk or on a front porch, but everything was perfectly, serenely quiet, with no signs of life anywhere. I stopped and looked at the dog, saying, “Go home! Go back home!” with shooing motions in the direction I had come. The dog looked at me quizzically, but patiently. It seemed friendly, but it also looked like a pit bull, and I didn’t want to encourage it or anger it.

After a minute, I decided that maybe if I just resumed my run and ignored her, she would get bored or distracted by a squirrel. So I did, for about a block, but she stayed with me, stride for stride. I stopped again, again saying, “Go home!” and shooing her with my hands, but instead she jumped up on me in a very playful manner. I tried walking a block, with no luck, then running again, but she stayed right with me.

And so we continued, crossing major streets, passing into my own neighborhood, where I hoped I could find someone – anyone! – to help me figure out what to do. At every corner, I’d stop again and try to shoo her home. I tried cutting through yards and taking quick corners to lose her, but nothing worked. She remained right by my side, keeping my pace no matter if I sped up or slowed down.

I’ve been chased by dogs before while running, but never more than three or four house lengths before they either see something more interesting or get called back by their owners.

If I had my phone on me, I would have called the police non-emergency number. We’ve had several problems with loose dogs lately, and the police have begun cracking down and fining the owners (when they can be found). This dog had no collar or tags, so I decided that by re-routing myself onto a more major street, I would hopefully encounter a police car on patrol.

Finally, at Gertrude and Walnut, I was able to flag a passing squad car. The officer rolled down his window and I explained the situation. “Open the back door,” he said, “and see if she’ll hop in.” Without hesitation, she did just that, and the well-prepared officer pulled out a dog treat which she eagerly took. He radioed in the information, hoping to match it against a report of a missing dog. He was very surprised by how far she had traveled – when I got home and tracked it, she was with me a full 2.1 miles.

I wasn’t ever afraid, but rather more annoyed (that my until-then awesome run was screwed up) and concerned for the dog. I didn’t want her to get hit by a car, or encounter another, less-friendly dog, and I was worried she was straying far from home.  But wouldn’t a good owner at least have a collar on her?

The officer said they’d take her downtown to see if she had a microchip, and if not, she would go to a local shelter.

I later called my sister – a dog lover and veterinary technician – and asked what you should do if a dog starts chasing you. “Stop,” she said, “so they don’t think you’re playing, and so they don’t have that hunting instinct to follow.” She also said they can sense fear, which I knew, and is why I tried to remain calm and not panic.

Overall, it was very odd, both in distance and how it started. She was actually a pretty good running companion for awhile. I just hope she finds her way home.

All Uphill from Here…

Today was the Helping Hands 5k in Elgin, and it was a beautiful morning. After far too much hatefully hot weather, this morning it was actually chilly! I grabbed a hoodie on my way out the door, though I ended up leaving it in the car.

The race was at the Bowes Creek Country Club on Elgin’s far west side. I had never been out there and was pleasantly surprised by how pretty it was.

Earlier in the week, when I picked up my packet, I had asked about the course, but no one seemed to have a map or know what it was like. After the surprise giant hill at the Founders Day race last month, I was a bit wary but reminded myself I’ve been running lots of hills lately and it shouldn’t matter.

As we got closer to race time, the director announced that the start line was a piece of tape near the crest of a hill in the adjacent brand-new subdivision. We strolled up the hill and milled around, making small talk with other runners. Then someone announced that the race actually started off by going down the hill we had just climbed. “Whew!” I said. “Glad we don’t have to climb this hill!”

Famous last words.

When the race director made his pre-race announcements, he smiled and said, “Those of you who were here last year know what a challenging course this is, but if you’re new this year, well, it’s very scenic!” People nearby chuckled and nodded in agreement. “It’s up and down and up and up and down and up again!” quipped one guy.

The gun went off, and the crowd bounded down the first big hill. I had started nearish the front this time, determined not to get trapped in traffic that could cost me the sub-30 time I was determined to get. I think I started off too fast and nearly lost my legs under me, but that was remedied as soon as we rounded the curve to the first of many uphills.

The first mile passed by quickly. We were running through the partially-completed subdivision, where the homes are brand new or still under construction, with few residents so far. One lady stood in her bathrobe at the end of her driveway, newspaper tucked under her arm, clapping as we passed.

“8:36…8:37…8:38…” a girl with a stopwatch called as we passed the one mile mark. Wha??? I thought. No way! I’ve NEVER run a mile that quickly. But I was thrilled, and also happy that there were people calling times at the mile markers. (One of my downfalls at Founders Day was that I had no sense of time – no one was calling out splits, and I hadn’t worn my watch, so I thought I was way behind the pace. I had my watch on this morning but never looked at it.)

Then we looped around a girl in a cul-de-sac wearing what appeared to be a viking helmut from the Warrior Dash, along with a pink feather boa. “Love your outfit!” I called with a smile. I hope to do that race next year.

Soon we were out of the subdivision and onto the golf course. We looped up and down hills, then back up the other side, running on the walking paths that ring the course and the golf cart paths between holes. At one point, though, we were suddenly on the open prairie and the path switched to a very narrow mix of dirt and loose gravel, reminiscent of the track at Grolich Park that I often run when rain is threatening.  Like Grolich, it was a slow incline. It was so quiet through there, and beautiful as the sun rose higher in the sky, surrounded by coneflowers and black-eyed susans.

Too quickly, though, we were back on a cart path, with a giant hill ahead. Aha, I thought, here’s the beast I will slay! Corny, but it’s what popped into my head as I tucked in my chin and powered up it. It felt really good to pass a couple people who had slowed to a walk.

I made it to the top, rounded a small downhill curve… and found another hill! This one wasn’t nearly as bad, and I could see the finish line another quarter mile down the path. But my legs just wouldn’t do it, and I walked the last few steps up the hill before taking off and charging towards the end. My friend (who finished with his own incredible new PR) doubled back and cheered me in.

I finished with a 28:36! Not bad at all, especially given the terrain. I was thrilled, and even more thrilled that I had promised myself a massage if I beat 29 minutes.

The post-race party was good, with the usual bagels, bananas, and beer, plus oranges that I squeezed into my beer. Results took awhile, but it was a gorgeous morning and I didn’t really mind sitting out in the sunshine, beer in hand, happy about my time.

Overall, it was a great race. Though small – about 110 ran the 5k, and there were another couple dozen doing a 2 mile walk – it was very well organized and everything appeared to go smoothly. I loved that there were lots of volunteers around the course, calling out splits, handing out water, and directing traffic. For the most part, they were energetic and enthusiastic, which makes a huge difference.

Next Friday, I plan to run the Lake in the Hills Summer Sunset 5k. The course is supposedly “fast and flat,” and I can’t wait! The forecast right now calls for a high of 75 and sunny, so it should be a nice cool evening to run.

Anyone else up for it? The race starts at 7 PM, and the goody bag includes admission and food tickets for the adjacent festival.

Why Run?

I ran 28.78 miles in July.

I haven’t been a “runner” very long. In fact, I was never an athlete of any sort. The closest I came was trying out for my junior high basketball team. During tryouts, I tripped over the cones and fell during a drill. That was the end of my athletic aspirations.

As part of a better living initiative last year, I decided to try running. So in the hottest, most miserably humid part of July 2009, I gave it a whirl. I laced up my cross training shoes and went outside after a half-hearted stretching routine. I ran really really hard – feet slamming into the pavement, the shock reverberating through my knees – for as long as I could around the block, then came home, exhausted, drained and hurting.

I had been gone 12 minutes. That’s it. 12 stinking minutes, and I felt like I was going to die. The next three or four days, my legs ached in a way I had never experienced before. It wasn’t just the muscles, but the very bones and joints. I felt old and achy, hobbling up and down stairs, propping up my legs whenever I sat down.

I then repeated the drill twice more over the coming weeks, and gave up. This running thing obviously wasn’t for me. I shifted into a strength training program (which I love) and abandoned running.

But I kept thinking about it. During my weekly winter walk with a friend around the Centre’s indoor track, I started adding short sprints – a half lap here, a full lap there – to do a bit of interval training.

Then I stumbled on the Couch to 5k program. The premise was interesting: this program would take you from the couch (ie, a non-runner) to running a full 5k in just two months. It was too cold/icy/snowy to consider starting it outside in January (not to mention dark outside), and I didn’t want to rely on driving over to the Centre thrice a week. So I waited until March, hearing encouragement from others who had done the program.

I followed the guidelines to the letter, tracking my progress. My knees ached for the first few weeks, until I got fitted for “real” running shoes. And I decided to do the Elgin Fox Trot 5k on Memorial Day – a good goal that kept me on track with my training.

And now I just did 28 miles in one of the hottest Julys in memory, including my first 5 mile run last week.

I volunteered yesterday morning at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon. It was a very early day (out the door at 4:30 AM on a Sunday? Sacre bleu!) but watching 18,000+ runners come streaming through the water station at mile 10 was incredibly inspiring. From the front runners – sailing along at a pace I couldn’t maintain a block, let alone 13.1 miles – to the walkers grimacing their way to the end, we cheered them all on, handing out water and screaming encouragement. I found myself itching to be out there with them. Maybe not the full distance, but I could have run the last 3 miles.

I still don’t particularly enjoy the act of running. My mind wanders and gets bored, so I start counting cars of a particular color or housecats in windows or foreclosed homes on a given block. I start off strong and usually finish pretty well, but in the middle, when my thoughts start to muddle together and I start processing the things that have been knocking around in my head, I wonder why exactly I’m out there. It hurts, and it’s hard to breathe when the pollen counts and humidity are high. But then I finish, and feel great, and I remember why.

And I’m glad I gave running a second chance.