Chicago vs. the Blue Ridge

“. . . our bodies both shape and are shaped by our life experiences.” (Ann Cooper Albright. 2011. Situated dancing: Notes from three decades in contact with phenomenology. Dance Research Journal 43(2): 7-18.)


The avocado on the Chicago River branch. Photo: Piay Mayalorca

My running practice began in an urban environment (Phoenix, AZ) about 9 months before I made a move in January 2014 to return to the central Appalachians of my youth. This is meaningful here because the types of spaces I run through mean a lot to my experience of running. I don’t necessarily subscribe to the notion that, as a runner, I must identify as someone who runs roads or someone who runs trails. I enjoy both for the very reasons that they differ so much. I love the way that my body feels when it’s churning down the road and pushes toward a 6:00/mile pace; I love the serene engagement and constant activity of a new trail (or discovering newness in one that I’ve run dozens of times). Both settings offer a way of knowing my world and my place in it through running, for which I am very thankful.

The time qualification in Chicago (my second marathon) came from my first marathon attempt in Charlottesville, VA. And, Chicago served to place me into a comfortable BQ qualification zone (2:51:34) where a very hilly Charlottesville and a poor fueling plan left me bonked and roundly out (if 12th place should ever feel so bad). Aside from a slight tinge of disappointment, I absolutely loved every minute of that first marathon (ok, mile 24 didn’t go very well, but still . . .). The town, people, course, support, camaraderie, and overall spirit of the race couldn’t have been more fantastic.

So, it seemed to be a given that Chicago would be all that and more for me, especially with the faster time and BQ. And, by all means, Chicago performs its marathon like a champ. It is, after all, a gigantic, world-class affair. I was, for at least a mile or so, a handful of minutes behind the best of the best. If only they had a strong gravitational field trailing behind them . . .

The very odd realization for me was that, despite having run a mere 2 seconds slower than my target pace, finishing with every “A” goal achieved for the race, I had been absolutely and thoroughly miserable for almost the entire experience. And I knew exactly why I hadn’t enjoyed the run. The noise. Both my aural and visual fields had been completely overwhelmed from the minute I started to run until the moment I queued for a banana at the end. Shouts, screams, bells, amplified rock bands, un-amplified marching bands, and DJs seemed to populate every block (though I do recall thinking that there was one somewhat quiet section of Chinatown). My brain was continuously telling my eyes that we were getting a fantastic architectural tour, but I don’t recall seeing any buildings. Ok, yes, Sears/Willis Tower hovers vaguely in my memory of the run, but is that image really from the run? I can’t be sure. All I knew from the moment that I stopped running was that I had had one of the worst running experiences I could remember in my body. And that really threw me off, especially since I should have been celebrating a real, personal victory, now weirdly detached from experience.

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The avocado on the James River branch

Exactly four weeks after Chicago, I was scheduled to run my first ultra-marathon, the unfortunately named Mountain Masochist, a 50-mile point-to-point run on the Blue Ridge of central Virginia. In terms of the distance, course, terrain, and elevation profile (9,200 ft. of ascent and 7,200 ft. of descent), MMTR could not be more different than the Chicago Marathon. Importantly, my experience of the race was polar opposite as well. From the congregated headlamps of our pre-dawn start to the crisp feeling of creek crossings; from the leisurely aid station munching (sure, I’d love a cheese quesadilla before I conquer the last 13 miles) to the cloud, heavy with moisture, that rolled over the mountain as we ran along the ridge; from the slow crawl up the steep climbs to the angular dancing around the trees. Not only was I happily running 50 miles, I was doing so in a body that felt at ease. Joy.

The MMTR start . . . my daughter said that we looked like a glowing millipede. Photo: Virginia Pannabecker

This is rightfully the first post for this project/blog, and I share it a day before a kind of “beginning.” I’ve made the decision for the coming year to run primarily on trails, having signed up for a series of 6 races. (Honestly, “beast” seems so silly, doesn’t it? I mean, grrrrrrr, I’m a beast! . . . . It’s difficult to reconcile with the feeling of floating I have on trails. Also, the shear magnitude of food at trail races begs for this to be called the “feast” series. But, I digress.) I am also considering the Mount Rinjani Ultra in Indonesia. And, if my body and running practice continues to develop well, an unsupported thru-run of the Appalachian Trail is in the planning. I do have one road marathon on the calendar as well, because I really do love running straight and fast. I will, after all, need to be ready to run Boston in 2017. But, it’s a nice, quiet race on the other side of Lake Michigan. (I won’t even say where on the off chance that I may attract even one more runner to the tiny field.)

All of these events should find their way into this blog, though hopefully in more interesting and less-straight-forward kinds of ways. Now that I’ve grounded myself in this space, experiments will follow. Because, this project is meant to be more than simply a reflection on the running. My goal is to grow more deeply in the creative practice of running as a lived experience. I look forward to sharing it here.

Tomorrow (Feb. 13, 2016), we begin with the Holiday Lake 50K. Let’s.

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