Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Season of Firsts

    The leaves are falling, and all of the beautiful fall colors are fading into a slumber. The cold winter months are fast approaching the Ohio landscape, and for most the change of season is a wonderful welcome. For this runner, I start to think of all of the challenges, and blessings the unpredictable winter can bring. While most people are anxiously awaiting the traditional holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas (and to some degree I am as well) for some odd reason I'm awaiting the first real snow fall of the year. I am anxious, nervous and excited, not because I enjoy the cold or the winter (quite the contrary), but because of the difficulties and wonders I will experience until the spring thaw. Let me explain....

   The summer heat that blessed my soul is all but gone for the year. The grey sky's of Ohio will soon push away the bright blue sky's of fall. Old Man Winter is knocking at the door, and that first morning I step outside to see my breath rise into the air is a game changing moment. I am on the doorstep of some of the years hardest running. I'll pull my hat over my ears, adjust my gloves and take my first run allowing the cold air scorch my lungs. My cheeks red and my nose running, that first run of the new season is always the most important. For me it sets the tone for the upcoming hurdles of the long Ohio winter.

    At the top of my list of difficulties are shorter days. With daylight already getting scarce the road can become a scary place. Speeding cars, distracted drivers and deteriorating road conditions are some of the challenges that are waiting for me to conquer. Running in the dark of night or in this time of year, the afternoon can present some of the more peaceful moments of a day. My first experience running in the dark was on a late fall evening. The temperature was in the high 30's with a strong wind blowing out of the west. I was running on the local High School track. A simple 5 mile run was on tap and the battery in my iPod had just died. I love running with music but I wasn't going to let this inconvenience derail the workout. As I began to make laps the sound of the wind whipping through the white oaks, my foot falls and the sound of my breathing became my music. With how fast the world is moving these days it's hard to pause and just enjoy the simple things around us. I don't recall if I struggled during the run or what my time was, but I do remember the amazing natural music that surrounded me lap after lap. With that first run in the dark that wonderful memory is etched into my mind forever and a love affair of sorts was started.

   As fall is quickly blown away by the winter winds a new season of running will quickly descend upon me. I'm not one for the cold, snow or wind but I am one who enjoys finding those peaceful first moments I can store in my memory. Those moments for me can't be found on a treadmill or in a gym watching the snow fall outside a window. My lungs are strong now; the early winter air no longer a distraction on the runs I so love to do. The hurdle I now face is the snow covered ground. As I head out on an early morning another of the seasons firsts will kiss me. Walking to the end of my drive to start the run there is a sound of snow crunching under my shoes and my warm breath rising into the cold morning air. Off I go with a short stride and quick pace savoring the cadence of the fresh snow crunching under my feet. That amazing short morning run is where I often cross paths with the deer roaming through the country. This a blessing that without fighting the slippery unstable roads and the freezing wind biting my skin I'd never have the experience or the memory to share with those close to me.

   The winter months will continue to punish Northeast Ohio and as they do I continue to push through. Some days finding the energy or the motivation is a difficult opponent to tackle. On one day this past winter I was fighting the call of my couch a hot cup of tea and an episode of CSI: Miami. Feeling guilty, I got ready to head out into a heavy snow fall and temperatures in the teens. The roads already had 4 inches of snow packed down by the cars coming home from work. School for the next day had already been canceled and here I am at the end of my drive questioning my decision. That run was the single best experience I've ever had in the winter months. That defining moment became my motivation to log miles over the harsh winter, and why I'm nervous, excited and anxious about what lies ahead.

   It's early evening, dark and cold. The small town I live in shut down, bracing for the snow storm that predicted 8 to 12 inches and I'm ready to run. For me running in extreme conditions is nothing new. A few years back when the remnants of Hurricane Katrina blew through Ohio I was out running. Dodging falling branches and fighting the brutal winds was one of the craziest things I've done, but one that not many people can say they have. So with that in mind I wasn't about to let a heavy snow fall stop me from logging my 4 miles. I decided to head west. For the first half mile I was complaining. The large heavy snow flakes crashing into my face. The road was soft and the snow was falling as if I was watching a movie playing in slow motion. As I make my way down the road I see flashing lights in the distance. Coming up the road a plow attempting to clear the road, but not making a difference. It passes me and disappears into the dark. As I make my way to the end of the road I notice it eerily quiet and calm. It seemed as if I was the only soul left on the planet. I brush off the feeling and continue on home. Halfway home unable to see through my fogged up glasses I stopped to wipe them clear. In that moment is where it seemed time stood still. I stood in the middle of the road and noticed all of the "nothing" that was going on around me. Not a sound was to be heard, no traffic in the distance, no planes overhead, no wind blowing, nothing, not a sound. Taking time to look around at the snow still falling in slow motion. Taking in color of the orange sky caused by the street lights that looked like candles flickering in that winter storm. It was in that minute that I actually enjoyed my first moment of nothing, nothing but pure uninterrupted peace. An incredible calming feeling, one that I haven't experienced since. I keep running and chasing that feeling hoping it will cross my path again. That first experience is what helps push me through all of the hard winter running.

   The months ahead are not going to be easy. The terrain, weather, drivers and darkness all are reasons to stay inside and curl up next to the fireplace enjoying the company of my dogs, but I'm a runner, my soul needs that cadence to be happy. All of the seasons firsts are out there waiting for me and I'm going to be right there to soak up all of the wonders we are usually to busy to notice. The road is where my heart belongs.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

My Reasons for Running

   I would like to say I've been a runner all of my life, but that couldn't be further from the truth. When I was younger I just didn't understand why an otherwise sane person would run just to run. In fact I didn't even consider running as a sport. Track and Field was semi-entertaining but throw me a football and let me show you how these magic fingers worked. Running to me was always the middle aged man attempting to lose a few pounds because he was going through some sort of a life crisis, until I became that man.

   Far removed from the glory days of catching a football here I am, a 36 year old man just on the other side of my own crisis, now running. It is only nine days after my first marathon and I've already logged another 22.95 miles. On my run Sunday, one that wasn't planned I might add, I was struggling. The wind was beating me down and my body just didn't have the energy. Around the 4 mile mark of the 7 mile run I began to think "why am I doing this ? You should have rested like you planned ! " Nothing except negative thoughts were crawling through my mind until I just stopped. That brief minute at the intersection as I waited for the cars to pass I lifted my head to the sun looked at the changing leaves and smelled a fall bonfire burning in the distance and thought "I love this !"  Now I would love to weave some inspirational story that my love for that moment enabled me to pick up my pace and the run magically became easy, but as any runner knows that would be pure fiction. Truth is my struggles continued until the entire seven miles was in the books.

 Throughout the next day I started to think to myself what my reasons were for running. From the stories I've read it seems everyone has their own reasons for taking part in this crazy sport. Some very inspirational and some just make sense. My story is somewhere in between.

  Four years ago I started to run and honestly I didn't even consider myself a runner. I was that middle aged man battling daily to save a failing marriage. I didn't even feel as if I belonged on the road, but as my marriage deteriorated the road was the only place I found comfort (that thought obviously came in hindsight). Here I was, this guy on a back country road almost embarrassed because I could only do two miles and all the while any passer by would have thought I was having a heart attack. I was a fair weather runner. Once the cold air moved into Ohio for the winter I was done. In fact I didn't even like to go get the mail let alone log a few miles. Besides the air burned my lungs, my knees hurt, my hips hurt, my fingers and toes got to cold. I'm sure you get the picture by now, I made up every excuse I could not to get out there.

  Winter would pass and I would find my way back out on the road making a feeble attempt to build some endurance. As I look back now the more stress I had in my life the more I would run. The pavement became one of my therapists as I'm sure it has for many of us. The other was my best friend Buster. An old golden retriever that knew and shared everything in my life. For those that know me, yes my boxer Sammy was there as well but she was partial to my now ex-wife and the kids. At the beginning of that first summer I lost my best friend. Buster was 13 and not wanting the kids or my wife to see what I was going through I hit the road running. I was utterly devastated, lost and felt I had lost the only friend I had in my life. The road is where everything seemed to make sense and it was where I could go to visit Buster. The memories I carried of him on those runs made the time that I wasn't running tolerable.

   Those 2 miles became 3 and then 4. I eventually out grew my road so I started to hit the high school track. I was doing 5 mile runs with ease or so I thought it was easy. I began to hold my ground against Mother Nature. For two years my last run for the year ended on Christmas Eve. When that day came I began to feel as if I had accomplished something for the year.

   Last year was a turning point in my life. With my marriage now legally over I began to break out of my shell and on those runs that I needed so bad I began to evaluate my part that contributed to the failed marriage. I began to work on things so that I could be a better man, a better person. The road helped me sort out all of the feelings and issues I had with myself and somewhere along the side of one of these back country roads I found my peace.

   My life had started over. I had met some new friends that opened their lives and families up to me. People that took a chance on me when they were entrenched in their own war, and as I had done in the past with my old friend Buster I began to take these new friends running with me. Depending on how tough the day was I'd take their kind smile or their wise advice or just a simple thought that someone enjoyed me as a person. Running to me took on an entirely new meaning and the conversations I had with the road, I believe has made me a better man.

   Christmas Eve was here and as in previous years the official end to my running season. There was snow on the track. I couldn't make out the lanes but I plowed through it logging my five miles in the dark and at the end I didn't feel as if I had accomplished anything. Walking back to my car I said maybe it will hit me tomorrow after all Santa was coming so maybe that will be my gift. As with every Christmas I was up at the crack of dawn (yes I'm a big kid and love Christmas). I wake and no feeling of accomplishment wrapped up under the tree. Just my dogs looking at me as if to say "Dad come back to bed 4:30 is way to early for us". I got dressed and drove to my parents to wake them with my brothers and still no gift of accomplishment. We enjoyed a great holiday filled with laughs, naps, food and gifts. Just what I needed for my first Christmas flying the sleigh solo.

  On my way home I still couldn't understand why I was missing the feeling that had taken hold of me the past two years. Once I was home I figured there was only one way to find it so on that Christmas night I went running looking for that lost feeling. The only thing I found that night was that running for me, now has no season.

   I continued on and a new chapter of my life opened when I began training for and running races. I've only raced in a few but that long lost feeling of accomplishment that I went out searching for Christmas night was found. At the completion of my first race (a grueling half marathon in the cold and rain) that feeling I had been searching for was waiting for me as I was running to the finish. I crossed the line and my emotions slapped me in the face. That emotional feeling of accomplishment has met me at the finish of all of my races. An unbelievable feeling that makes the heart swell with pride and the eyes fill with tears. For everything that I left out on the course mental and physical, the finish line actually became the start of something new.

   Looking back at the past few years from where I was to where I am now I'm amazed. The physical, emotional and mental transformation that has taken place in my life has been unbelievable. I was one never to show my emotions, take risks or break away from my routine. I'm still a creature of habit but I no longer feel the need to sit back and wait my turn in life. There is the old saying that people don't change. I am living proof that they can but the decision has to be made and worked on everyday.

   When my story started I was running from the stress in my life. The road gave me answers and helped me develop patience with things I can't control. I turned the page and started running towards something. That feeling that I was worth something and that I could accomplish anything became my focus. As long as I remember the lessons the road has taught me I know that the feeling of accomplishment will always be waiting for me and in the end I believe I've learned the true reasons I run.....

   I run to remember all of the blessings I have had in my life. I run to remember all of my amazing friends. I run to remember their smiles, their small gestures of friendship that mean the world to me. I run to remember the friend that is no longer here with me but to know he still is. I run to remind myself to be a better person, a better man, a better friend. Everyone fights their own battles. Some we win some we lose. but the road has taught me how to put those lost battles behind me and learn from the path I have taken. Running has made me the man I am today and by continuing to run it will make me a better person tomorrow. This is why I run.

                                                                       Joe Vanek

Thursday, October 21, 2010

My Marathon Journey

   Today is Thursday October 21, 2010 officially four days after my first marathon. I have been reading blog after blog and different race reports posted from the fall racing season. All of the stories have been very inspirational so while out on a run this afternoon I decided to share my story as well.

  My journey began about four years ago and when it started I didn't even realize I was on one. Recently it hit me when I was reading my bio on Facebook that said "I enjoy running a few miles a day". After reading that it was almost like stopping in the middle of a long run and looking back at the road behind you and thinking "Wow I've come a long way. I might as well keep going." At that point in my life running was an escape. A reason to burn through the stress, not calories that had been building in my marriage. Running quickly became my outlet to get centered and deal with the stress of a marriage falling apart.

   Fast forward two years my wife now my ex and the two children I raised for the past 10 years moved on to a different state. My life became a scene out of the movie Forrest Gump. Feeling sorry for myself I went on one of my normal 3 mile runs. Once I got to the end of my road a decision was made to keep going and I've been going ever since. Three miles became five. Five miles became eight and I kept going. I kept my legs moving through the cold harsh winters on Northeast Ohio pushing myself to finish just one more run for the week. At some point during the winter a friend contacted me about a half marathon in May. At this point I had no ambition to race or know anything about them but as I thought about it I decided to try something new. With that decision almost as if I was at the end of my road again the next mile in my journey began.

   Still completely ignorant to what the sport of running was I logged my training miles. Some of the toughest miles I ran in the deep snow and cold blowing winds. I figured that was all I had to do. I had no knowledge of form, nutrition, hydration or equipment. I assumed that racing was just putting on your shoes and running. Although I loved the experience of my first race I was disappointed with my time (1:57:56). Feeling beat down on that cold, rainy day in May I knew in the back of my head that running had become much more that an outlet. It had become part of my being.

   Knowing I left some time on the course in May I decided to go for a PR and registered for another half marathon in July. I healed and trained harder not smarter for the race. I battled through some foot and knee injuries and when July rolled around I set a new PR by 6 minutes (1:51:00). That improvement was still disappointing to me. That was when I started to educate myself and what a rude awakening it was.What I learned was that I had been doing it all wrong. The first 2 races I didn't eat, I didn't hydrate I was even wearing the wrong shoes. My form was horrible wasting energy with every stride so I decided to start over. After the race in July there was an Expo to promote the Columbus Marathon. That very day I decided I was going to run this race but this time I was going to train smarter not harder and let the chips fall where they may.

   The summer went by in a flash. In a short time I felt myself becoming a more efficient runner. I taught myself how to eat and drink while running. Learning how nutrition plays a part in my results (I'm still working on this piece). I've logged some long runs listening to my body to fend off injuries. All of this with the date of October 17, 2010 on my brain. The best part of all of this is I've met some incredible people (@mparmann) with the knowledge and the patience to support my stubborn ways. The running community is amazing. Athletes who support all that you do just for the love of the run, ride or walk.

   So the day has come. All of the pre-race preparation was complete. Sleeping the night before was almost impossible and the nerves at the begging of the race were almost unbearable. Standing there alone a calm came over me when the National Anthem played. The nerves were put to bed and the excitement was awakened when the fireworks went off to start the race. In a few minutes I was going to cross the start and continue this journey I started 4 years ago.

   The first 5 miles went by in the blink of an eye. The people and the sights along the course were amazing. Dodging 15,000 runners and trying to settle into a pace was the hardest part well until mile 6 when nature called. Thankfully we were running by a park and there was a tree that needed watered so I obliged. I continued on taking in fluids along the way soaking up the energy from the complete strangers that were out to cheer the runners on and before I knew it I started to make up some of the time I had lost earlier in the race. My pace was smooth and my form efficient all coming to me just as I had trained.

   The next five miles were really easy. They evaporated before my eyes all because I was in awe of the people out in the different neighborhoods. Right after we crossed the mile 9 marker the first wave of emotion hit me like a truck. Anyone that knows me knows I really don't show my emotions but as I came up to some kids holding their hands out for a high five I was reminded of my step kids and how they always supported my 2 and 3 mile runs as they rode their bikes. Fighting back a quivering lip and the tears forming in my eyes I pressed on with a smile.

   I had broken the race up in my mind to help me get through and as we were coming on the half way mark my heart started to beat a little faster. It could have been the big flashing sign that pointed to the left for the half marathon runners and straight ahead for the full marathon. I passed the sign and thought "this is what I love to do, I've got this !!" I was feeling a little cocky because I felt amazing. It felt as if I had only run 5 or 6 miles and I was just finding my groove.

   The miles ticked away with ease and somewhere between mile 17 and 18 my emotions crept back up on me. Thinking about everything that I've been through and where I was at that point in my life the tears began to swell up. Managing to fight them back at this moment I knew this race was more than just a race. As we came up to the 20 mile marker my body was feeling incredible. This is where I made my only mistake. I didn't stick to the plan to eat as I had trained. I was feeling incredible as if I had only run 10 miles. With that in my head I said to myself " It's only 6.2 miles left, piece of cake" The marathon had different plans for me.

   Cruising along I had to fight back one more wave of emotion that crashed into me at mile 22. A little girl that looked like my daughter holding a sign that said "Run Daddy Run". This was hard to push down because that is exactly what my daughter has said to me on those short runs up and down my road. Getting tired at this point I found the energy to swallow that emotion, force a smile and keep pushing on.

   At mile 23 is where the marathon decided to smack me in the face. The athletes were struggling and I felt my energy fading to nothing. The roadside was beginning to look like a battlefield. I passed runners laying down on the sidewalk with medics, runners puking up green Gatorade and countless runners beginning to walk from exhaustion. My mind was telling me only 3.2 miles left. I began to think how lucky I am to have people in my life that care for me. I thought about the kind, caring and happy smiles that I had the pleasure to experience over the past 2 years. Those thoughts along with remembering what my friends have gone through or are going through made the next two miles possible. The thought hit me that everyone is fighting their own battle and what I was experiencing at the moment was small in the grand scheme of things.

  Finally the last 1.2 miles !! The crowds are getting bigger cheering for you that you're almost there. Magically (actually it was probably adrenaline) I had a burst of energy. The banner that said 1/2 mile to go was in sight and I picked up my pace. As the crowds got louder I began to soak it up. Coming up the final incline a runner fell over his hamstring cramped up I kept pushing. I rounded the corner and there was the FINISH. All down hill. I picked up speed and as I was getting closer I raised my arms as I crossed the line (3:50:03) and as I did I expected the emotions that I battled on the run to all come rushing back. To my surprise nothing, nothing but relief.

   I received my medal got a few bottles of water and made my way to Celebration Village. I found a nice patch of grass exposed to the sun and I sat down. The sun felt incredible and as I sat there legs stretched drinking my water and just like that tears that I fought back earlier fell down my face. Happy and sad both fell but in that moment everything seemed to make sense. I don't know why or how things just seemed to line up and now I know I can accomplish anything.

                                                                Joe Vanek 1410 /3:50:03
                                                            Columbus Marathon 10/17/10