Monday, January 9, 2012

Marathon Part 5: Serious Running

Another in a series. Start here for Part 1.


One of the secrets of life is that once you run three miles you can run forever. When I had run regularly before in college, I only went a mile and a half to two miles at a time. That was good basic exercise, but I never understood that you have to run beyond two to three miles before the endorphins kick in.   Everybody hears about the endorphins and Dr. Caesar referred to them as a natural substitute for medication. My earlier running never gave them to me because I didn’t push myself far enough, but I knew the endorphins from my hiking.

I love to walk and hike. As a Boy Scout I enjoyed the challenge of a six-day 50-miler backpacking adventure. I’ve done some hiking as an adult, either as a scout leader or on my own with family and friends. After the exertion of climbing a steep trail to arrive at high elevation, I drop my pack to set up camp and feel the greatest exhilaration. The pseudo-scientific theory I developed was that oxygen depletion at high elevations taxes the body and then, when the high destination is reached and the body begins to rest and recuperate, the thin oxygen up there rushes into the resting body creating some sort of oxygen euphoria. It’s a nice theory, but I think it’s actually the endorphins.

That’s what happens when I run. The first one or two miles are fine but I have to push myself to accomplish them. Once I knew I could run a 5-K or three miles, I didn’t have to play the psychological games to trick myself onto the next landmark, but those first two miles still took commitment based on the fact that I knew I could do it. And then I went farther.

Something magical happened on December 15, 2001. The 3-mile runs were now no challenge to me. It was a Saturday and I had the time. I took off on my regular route on the Tramway Trail, up from home to Montgomery, turned back south and kept on going. Once I crossed Menaul it was all new territory, up the gentle slope to Rover, then continuing to Indian School. The only plan I had was to see if I could make it to our old apartment that we lived in for a couple of months during the move from Santa Fe. It sits between Indian School and Lomas on the west side of Tramway. I kept it up until I was across from the apartment then realizing how close I was to Lomas I went all the way to the corner, rounded the posts set there to keep motorized vehicles off the pedestrian trail, and turned back north.   I kept going, up the slope to Indian School, then cresting at Rover and down the hill to Candelaria.  The view and the euphoria set in. I turned and ran over the pedestrian bridge, which I was still using as my finish gate. I did it. Six miles.

And I could do it because I had new running shoes. The left knee had been hurting. That’s why I had switched to the exercise bike and hadn’t run for some weeks before the Thanksgiving 5-K at Kit Carson Park. On a visit to Dr. Caesar I brought up the knee problem. He opined that being right-handed (and apparently also right-footed), my left knee was on my less favored leg and I had been putting it under some stress, particularly on the downhill slopes. He may have mentioned the word “pronating” or I picked it up at about same time in the internet or exercise literature I was skimming at the bookstore. Pronating refers to how you turn your foot when you walk or run and it can twist your knee wrong resulting in patella mal-alignment. It sounds worse than it is. Anyway, Dr. Caesar recommend that I buy good running shoes at a store specializing in running. I didn’t even know there was such a thing.

And there is. Fleet Feet is in the Hoffmantown Plaza on Menual just up from my office. One sunny Friday in December, I dropped in on the way home from work. It was a world like no other. The people behind the counter were all slender and as lithe as the wind. A woman came up to wait on me and being a little flustered I said I was a beginning runner looking for some warm clothes to run in the cold winter. She directed me to some racks I thumbed through wondering how I could justify a warm-up that cost more than any of the clothes in my closet. I got up the nerve and went over to ask her about shoes, “they’re more important anyway.” She responded that I could always layer my clothing for the cold and agreed I needed good shoes.

Then it got even weirder. She had me take off my Nikes and asked if I was partial to the brand. I said, "No." She then had me roll up my pant legs and walk around the store. She attentively stared at my feet and then brought out three pairs of shoes in my size. The first I tried on ended up being the most comfortable. She noted they were by chance also the least expensive. This was the kind of store where prices aren’t prominently displayed so I was a little worried. But the price wasn’t that bad. Dr. Caesar and brother-in-law Doug had both told me I might have to spend $100 or so on good running shoes. These were less than that so I thought it was a bargain. She asked if I wanted to take a test run. That only seemed odd because I’d never been asked that question when buying shoes before and it actually made a lot of sense. So I went out and ran around the block. They still felt good so I paid for them and went home.

All this time I was trying to figure out the brand name of the shoes. They had a large blue swirl (not the Nike swoosh) that I thought might be a stylized letter so they would be “Basics” or “Oasics.” But examining the box once I got home I realized it wasn’t a letter just a swirl. The word “ASICS” was an acronym laid out on the box. “Anima Sana In Corpore Sano.” That is, “Sound Mind Sound Body.” I had seen that before. The Latin phrase was written over the indoor track in the Smith Field House where I used to run my mile and a half in college. It all wraps back around - College youth, my mental state, my new shoes. Whew! Talk about immediate brand loyalty!  The next day they ran me six miles.

A week later they ran me ten. And the Saturday after that again. Having done six I knew I could do more. I looked at a city map of Albuquerque and realizing the major boulevards were mostly laid out on the US Cadastral Survey mile section lines, evident in most western states, It was easy to count up mile and half mile increments on the pedestrian path along Tramway. Then I realized I already knew the ten-mile route from my earlier bike rides.

The Mars bars gave me added incentive. One of the attorneys I supervise, smart enough to remember what my favorite candy bar is, had five Mars bars wrapped up for our holiday gift exchange at work.  I got them at first reluctantly, but then realized I could use them as motivators. Certainly if I actually ran ten miles I deserved a candy bar and the calories wouldn’t matter after that much exercise. Besides, the almonds are nutritious. So I put them in the freezer out in the garage and brought one in to thaw as I went out on a ten-miler. It sat there waiting for me on the night stand by my bed and was more enjoyable on my return than a candy bar has a right to be.

The Mountain helps too. On the northeast side of Albuquerque, Sandia Peak rises in creviced cliffs five thousand feet above the valley floor. Tramway Boulevard is the farthest north-south arterial on the east side of the city. So the pathway along its far side runs as well along the line of the mountains towards the Crest. The contorted cliff face itself is at an angle to the northwest so the mountain face is towards you as you go north on Tramway and the trail.  In the early morning the sun highlights the rock promontories facing the east. As the day progresses, the shadows move across the crags changing the face of the mountain’s rocky protuberances. The stone of the mountain has a slight pinkish hue, hence the name “Sandia” which meant watermelon to the Conquistadors. At evening, especially in the right sunset, the mountain cliffs glow a fluorescent rose color.

Sandia Crest in the pink
My running route on Tramway is up near the top of the houses, center right

The trail ends on the north where Tramway begins its curve to the west to meet I-25. At that curve, literally at the foot of the Mountain, a road turns off to the actual tram that ascends on its thin wire above the ragged cliffs to the Crest. There is a stop sign on Tramway as well as a mini-stop sign on the running trail. That’s what I slapped with my hand as I made it the first time and turned to go back south. All the way north the Mountain had loomed larger and larger until I reached its foot. Now, turning back, the mountain receded, no longer in sight and the valley of the Rio Grande and the City of Albuquerque was laid at my feet.

It was at that turn that I saw the long-awaited snowbow. They say Montana is Big Sky Country and there are wide-open beautiful vistas throughout the Intermountain West. But there is nothing like the skies of New Mexico. We always note it traveling back into the Rio Grande country from out of state.  Most road or air trips ending at home have their final arrival in the evening, which is the best time to watch the spectacular show of the New Mexico heavens. Whether a pulsating cloud of light flashing with summer thunderstorm, a glowing orange to red to purple to pink sunset, or just the wide turquoise blue expanses of empty sky it is always a wonderful welcome home. Whenever there is snow from partly cloudy skies at the same time the sun is breaking through, a not uncommon sight in a land where snow on the ground usually evaporates before it can melt, I ask my children to look for the mythical snowbow. Up there past the Tram turn I saw it. The sun was shining bright with just a small dark cloud overhead. Then a flutter of pulsating bright flashes of ice crystal swirled around me as I ran. I thought I had passed to the celestial realms.  It was more than just the endorphins.

It is also there after the turn to the south at the foot of the Mountain that the Temple comes into view off to the right with the golden angel on the top of the spire glistening in the sunlight. The words come to mind from a scriptural text that encourages good health, restricts harmful substances such as “strong drink” and tobacco, and gives us Mormons entrance to that Temple as a somewhat peculiar people:
And all saints who remember to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments, shall receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones;
And shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures;
And shall run and not be weary. . . .
D&C 89:18-20

I never really made a conscious decision to run a marathon. It just became a part of me. My eldest daughter  had been running some and had a roommate on the BYU women’s track team. Somehow she suggested the idea that we ought to run St. George. “It would be fun!” Sitting in a Sunday School class early in January 2002, the teacher asked us to write down five things we would like to accomplish in our lives then talked about how to set goals to achieve them. Having run for only about three months, I was surprised to see a marathon on my list. Now, how to do it?

Continue on to Part 6 here.

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