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Delayed gratification

"You know, I might go in the big pool this morning," Sue said to me.

"Um yes," I replied. "You are. No question."

Sue is an accomplished runner and wants to do her first sprint triathlon this summer. While my focus has been on my marathon training, swimming and biking continue to be part of my repertoire. (After all, I do have a half Ironman to train for once the 26.2 run is licked.) For my easy swim this week, Sue took me to her normal pool.

Turns out, Sue normally swims in the "warm-up" pool -- a small, shallow short-distance pool meant to give swimmers a place to warmup and cool down after races.

The big pool is currently set up for long course, meaning instead of each length being 25 yards each length is 50 meters.

I had never done a workout in a long course pool. And, to be honest, it was a bit intimidating.

But in I went.

And I made Sue come with me.

She did just fine alternating between swimming and aqua jogging as she continues to recover from a spring of injury.

But I made her get out of comfort zone.

Granted, she would have done that all by herself but I felt like I had a little hand in it.

Kind of like when she would politely ask me to run with her on cold, early, dark and frosty winter mornings. Or when she would devise a route that would include hills that, had I known beforehand were on the course, I would have attempted to grow roots so as to not have to continue with the run.

She helped get me out of my comfort zone.

Which is a big reason why I am actually enjoying the start of my marathon taper.

The two easy runs I had this week felt great. Really great. Better than I've felt running in a very long time. On the last run, Sue and Herm and I ran the final 4.5 miles of the marathon course. I wanted a chance to see some of the course. I wanted a chance to run it while I was fresh and feeling good. I wanted to create a positive memory, a visual of approaching that finish line, so when I hit those final miles, I have a flash back that will make me smile and relax.

That ease and confidence may have arrived this week, but both have been developing for months. They were born on those early morning winter runs when the sweat in my hair would freeze into icicles. On those long, boring treadmill runs. On those long runs where I felt good and the ones where I broke down. On the hills of Chestnut Ridge and even in my beloved post-run pancakes.

The ease and confidence could arrive because I went out of my comfort zone.

Delayed gratification is a popular economic topic these days as people try to spend less and pay down debt. In some ways, it's not about deprivation but about prioritizing goals and dreams and wants and needs. And while we love to judge that list of others, what's important to me may not be important to you. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Prioritizing goals includes that delayed gratification. That degree or diploma doesn't come immediately -- it takes work and a few years to get it. That down payment on the house isn't going to come in one paycheck.

The marathon is not going to run itself in a few days.

The 26.2 miles is a one-day event that has been months in the making.

Exercise and health and competition and running were important enough to me to make room in my life to practice them.

The gratification, the payoff, comes in nine days when I cross the line and can call myself a marathoner.

Impressions

It started with the kindness of a stranger.

I went to what I like to call the "stinky pool" to get in my hour swim workout in the early afternoon thinking I would miss the busy time. But alas, all the lanes were filled. I decided to wait a bit and see if anyone got out when one young guy graciously asked me to share his lane.

Thank you very much.

I hopped in, did one lap and noticed that the far lane looked free, so I ducked under the lane lines into my own lane and continued to swim.

The workout contained several time goals but I decided not to care about those today. These two weeks are marathon focus and though I worked hard during the swim, I wasn't focused on hitting the appropriate time for a fast 200.

Instead, I felt great moving through the water. Very fast? Heck no. But I felt smooth. I felt strong. I felt like I was gliding at times.

I felt .... confident.

The feeling carried over to my 50 minute easy pace run. The afternoon was beautiful. Sunny, just cool enough with no real wind to speak of. I started out easy then checked my pace. Right on target. Pace will fluctuate. Sometimes I was a bit slow. Other times a bit fast. I kept myself in a feel-good range and that pretty much kept my pace within where I wanted to be.

And I felt great.

Check that.

I felt GREAT.

It was the best run I had since the lead-ups to the Miami half marathon in January. I felt like I could have run forever. In fact, the last 10 minutes were difficult because I couldn't keep myself running slow enough. I felt that good.

Those doubts after the long, hard runs started to fade as the sun started to set.

For the first time, I started to feel that maybe I was ready for the marathon.

Earlier in the day, I had met my friend Sarah for coffee. She is off to a half Ironman this weekend in Florida and she reminded me of the importance of doing what you love for your own sake. And it was exactly what I needed to hear. This marathon is about me, just like whoever is running next to me will have the marathon be about him. While my vision of the finish line includes the cheers and support of family and friends, something I cherish deeply, my marathon is ultimately about me. Oh, the pride and the accolades from those closest to me mean everything. But what I have to remember is that I am not running in order to solidify or gain anyone's approval.

The marathon is about facing my fears and demons. It's about my own strength and commitment. It's about doing what's important to me for me.

Because my friends and family will eventually go home. And I will have only myself to look in the mirror.

And that's the girl I most want to impress.

Holiday stories

It was sunny, a bit cool but not too breezy. It would have been a great day for a bike ride, even if it was a bit chilly, just be outside and active.

Instead, I chose to do my hour of easy spinning on my stationary bike trainer in my basement.

Why?

The Buffalo Marathon is less than two weeks away. And I'm taking no chances.

This is not in some ultra-serious, I need to focus for competition kind of way.

This is in knowing that if there is a stupid way to get injured, I will find it. I am the girl who gave herself a concussion on the soap dish in the shower after all.

Which doesn't mean I'm injury safe riding inside. It just means I've decreased my chances of injury -- like crashing or getting hit by a car. Those things happen to the safest and most experienced of riders and the last thing I need is to lose my balance trying to get accustomed to the aero bars I had installed on my road bike over the winter.

So, yes, I am playing it safe the next two weeks. I'm getting to bed early. I'm getting plenty of sleep. I'm resting. I'm hydrating with water throughout the day and eating well. It means nothing new for this short period of time. Be comforted, though, that this about doing what I normally do, not about some sort of health perfection. Ice cream and dark chocolate figure into my normal routine. But I will admit that post-marathon I have a list of junk food I can't wait to devour, including my precious Cadbury Creme Eggs I have been patiently saving from my Easter basket.

This downtime also gives me a chance to catch up on my Internet reading. Sadly, the Giro d'Italia is only online through Universal Sports. I had never been certain that watching TV on my laptop would be enjoyable until my coach sent me a link to the NOVA special on the marathon. The PBS show took ordinary "couch potatoes" and trained them for the Boston marathon. I watched it after the difficulty of my longest training run and, well, yeah, I totally cried at the end.

Then there's the story of Katie Visco who is attempting to become the youngest women to run across America. At 23, she started her journey in March in Boston and is hoping to finish in December in San Diego. Aside from being the youngest women to achieve the feat, she also is promoting Girls on the Run, a program that works to empower pre-teen girls through running.

While my workouts may be light the next few weeks and my routine, well, routine, it only takes a few clicks to find some inspiration.

My coach calls this time waiting for Santa. You feel like a kid at Christmas because the big day is coming, full of excitement, and it feels like it will take forever to get here. You wonder at times if Santa will even arrive at your house.

Rest assured he will.

That's why we seek out holiday entertainment.

And stories about running across America, finishing your first marathon and the drama of the Giro d'Italia are my particular inspirational fare this time of year.

What we emphasize

Saturday morning I sent a text message to a friend, wishing him a happy graduation day.

He responded by wishing me luck on my long run.

Already done, I responded.

"Holy crap!," he wrote back. "You start EARLY!"

Indeed, I did.

I met Sue to start my two hour and 30 minute run at 5:45 a.m. which meant I was up at 4 a.m. in order to eat and get to our starting location in Orchard Park.

And oddly, it was pretty much just fine with me.

I've always been an early riser. I get that from my father, who used to be up before the sun. In fact, early morning is often my most productive and creative time.

Running that early in the morning? Well, you kind of forget what it is your doing. There's no time to psyche yourself out and as I can talk myself into or out of almost anything, the less chance I have to think the better off I will be.

Still, quite frankly, the nerves were a bit fresh when Sue and I began the run. The week before I fell apart on the long run. What if I can't hold pace today?

"Pace is just for our amusement," Sue reminded me.

Just run.

I ran the first hour and 20 minutes with Sue then hooked up with some other running friends -- Chris, Margaret and Paula. The two women stayed a bit behind while Chris kindly kept his pace slow to stick with me. He told stories for the next hour straight -- and I appreciated it immensely. Some people get annoyed at the chatter. I love it. It keeps me occupied on something other than my pain, my pace or my doubt.

The run felt good though the average pace was slower than I had hoped it would be.

And although the entire pace thing bothers me, I made a conscious decision to let it go. The training is training, not the race itself. Instead, I focused on the fun I had -- the advice from Sue, the stories from Chris, the ideal finishing time before the drizzle and the really gusty wind kicked in.

After my recovery (pancakes, ice, nap) the afternoon was spent looking through some old photos to make a type of vision board. Usually, vision boards are images and words about things you want to achieve or become. They're about where you're going. This particular vision board I created, though, was about where I've come from.

It's about good friends, good times and places I've gone. It's to serve as a reminder of all that I already have. It's to put me in that positive, confident state of mind with joyous memories. In a way, it's my own version of Dorothy's ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz -- having the power yourself all along.

While compiling my digital board, I came across this quote:

The trick is in what emphasizes. We can either make ourselves miserable or we can make ourselves happy. The amount of work is the same.

So yes, I can either worry about my pace on the last long run and how that will play out on May 24 at the Buffalo Marathon or I can enjoy the fact that I ran well, ran early, and recovered well. I can enjoy the fact that I ran with friends and that I felt good.

For the next two weeks preparation for the marathon is all about perspective.

And perspective is completely in my control.

Getting pretty serious

It was the 2005 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference women's basketball championship at HSBC Arena and the Canisius College Golden Griffins were in a one-point battle with perennial power Marist in the closing minutes. The winner would get an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.

With so much on the line, then-freshman J.J. Williams went to check in at the scorers table. In the midst of the pressure and the intensity, she turned to one of the members of sports information staff and quote the quirky movie Napoleon Dynamite:

"Looks like it's getting pretty serious."

Canisius went on to win that game and become the first Western New York women's basketball program to go to the NCAA Division I tournament.

It was a history-making season and yet one of the most resonant stories from that team comes in the form of the off-beat movie quote at the scorer's table.

It's the combination of the obvious and the quirky that grabs me. In the most intense situation, where everything you've worked for is on the line, well, yeah, it's getting pretty serious indeed.

I remembered that line during my easy run this morning. The Buffalo Marathon is getting painfully close. My last long run is Saturday, though not nearly as intense as last week's. Planning has begun for driving the course, enjoying the pre-race pasta meal two days before the race and making post-race plans for the few family and friends who might come by to cheer me on.

The race-day outfit has been tried and tested as has the pre-race breakfast along with water and gel consumption while running.

Yeah, the marathon? It's almost here. And it's getting pretty serious.

"Are you ready?" people will ask me.

"Um, heck no!" I reply.

Deep down, I know I am ready.

But there are two weeks of final preparations which mostly have to do with resting, tapering and getting my head and heart in the right place.

The marathon is the biggest thing I have ever attempted. It's not just an athletic endeavor, at least not for me. It's about facing fears. It's about staring at those fears for hours of running, for days on end, until they no longer seem all that scary. It's about trying for something big -- bigger than you are, bigger than you think you can go, bigger perhaps than you think you deserve.

Two weeks.

It's getting pretty serious. 

Finding adventure

There is a friend of mine who doesn't have cable TV in part because if he did, he realizes he would never leave the couch.

It's not a bad theory.

Because there are days when sinking into the sofa with the remote control sounds much better than doing the dishes or working or training.

But there are also times when those guilty pleasures can offer a bit of motivation, no matter how unusual it may seem.

Enter one of my favorite shows: Dhani Tackles the Globe.

The 31-year-old Jones is an NFL Linebacker who, in the show for the Travel Channel, goes around the world to train for a week then compete in a sport native to that country while also immersing himself in the culture.

Last night, he competed in Pradal Serey, a "free fighting" style of boxing.

The episodes I've caught have all been ones where Jones is in a country where, as a large African-American man, he stands out. There aren't many NFL-sized linebackers living in Cambodia or Norway. And certainly none taking part in their national sports with a camera crew in tow.

This means he gets stares. A lot of them. He becomes a curiosity. And as many times people cheer against him as for him, simply because he's on the outside.

But Jones is affable and while he certainly has a predisposed way of thinking (he was not happy when the day before the fight his sparring partner went 100 percent in practice instead of 20 percent like they do the day before a game in the NFL) he is willing to adapt as best he can and determined to not only survive the challenge but do his best.

He approaches the sport and culture with a mix of curiosity and respect.

And most importantly, he sees every challenge as an opportunity.

Language, custom and food barriers aside, he keeps his focus and sees each uncomfortable new situation as a new window that's opened.

And Jones doesn't just look through the new window.

He jumps through it.

He embraces the spirit of adventure.

And this is a key reminder for me.

On a group bike ride on Grand Island, two fellow cyclists started talking about the Ironman. One had completed several while the other was training for his first. The veteran told his tales and gave his best piece of advice for any first-time endurance race: Think of it as an adventure.

You are going to be out there for a long time and many things can happen. In fact, those things that happen make for the great stories to be told on long bike rides or over post-workout beverages.

But if you keep your sense of adventure, the task won't get so overwhelming.

In the marathon, who knows what will happen around the next corner? What will happen at Mile 16?

There is only one way to find out.

It's a great day for an adventure. Follow me.

Falling apart

The pancakes were left unfinished.

It was that hard of a run -- I couldn't even finish my precious prized flapjacks.

I spent the rest of Saturday packed in ice and resting and hoping that today would ultimately turn into a good day.

The schedule called for my longest run in marathon preparation. I was to run 3 hours and 15 minutes with the majority of it at my marathon pace.

My friend Sue, who is coming back from injury, ran the first 1:30 with me then decided she would be my support wagon. We planned various routes around Orchard Park which always brought me back to our starting point for water, gels or, what turned out more importantly, moral support.

I was a bit nervous about the run but I didn't really know why. Later, it occurred to me -- I wanted this to be the perfect practice run in preparation for the marathon.

But perfect is a relative term.

In my mind, that meant hitting my paces exactly and keeping them.

Which I did.

For about an hour and 40 minutes.

Then I struggled a bit with the pace. My right knee started to ache. And although our friend Margaret was running this 5-mile stretch, she was behind me. Sue was in the car. I was alone.

And by the two hour mark, I was starting to seriously have doubts.

Um, it's early and I can't keep my marathon pace? What the heck? And what's with this pain? What if something is wrong?

Cue the flood of doubt that I would even be able to complete the marathon let alone come close to my goal time.

I stopped my watch as I neared our base point. Hands on my hips I began to walk. And cry.

Sue came out with Gatorade and water and I tried to hold back the tears, but she could see something was wrong.

"We go to plan B now," she said, never even having to ask what was wrong. "Don't worry about your pace. Pace is just for our amusement. The important thing is to be on your feet for the three hours and 15 minutes. You just need to get your body used to going for that long. Just jog it out. How fast you run isn't important."

I shook my head OK and took off on the next part of my route.

By the way, crying when you run? Yeah, it doesn't work so well. In the first half mile I still had to cry. I released my arms and shook them out and told myself to relax. Crying was only going to make running harder and we just needed to get through this.

My knee and ankles were killing and I made a pact not to look at my pace. I had wished I had masking tape with me, to cover up the pace so I could have that data for later but only be able to look at the time while I was running. But that was a plan for another run.

Sue played the sag wagon role (although some in this Orchard Park neighborhood might have thought she was a stalker) and parked herself about a quarter of a mile ahead of me for the rest of the run. I stopped a few times for water and nutrition and to stretch the right side of my body, which was in full revolt mode.

I started counting down the minutes.

Just 45 left.

Only 30.

Heck, it's 15.

Ten minutes? I've got it.

Two minutes? Finish strong. I ended with about 60 seconds worth of marathon pace and finished at Sue's car.

She assured me it was a good run. That I battled through a lot, including all the negativity that was in my own head. And trust me, every single negative thought I have ever had about myself resurfaced during that last painful hour. I mean everything -- from my doubts about the marathon and being an athlete to questions about if I was good enough as a writer, a reporter, a woman, a friend, a daughter, a sister.

Back at my car, I sent my coach a text message about falling apart on the run. More tears came, but Sue and Herm were meeting me for pancakes and while there is crying on long runs, there is little sadness over pancakes, even if I was too exhausted to finish them.

As always, it was good to finish with friends. They got me out of my own head, a place where clearly it is dangerous for me to spend too long. They encouraged me and laughed with me and while tired, sore and still a bit bruised from what felt like a disaster, I left in a better place

Back home, I took my nap (an integral part of my training plan) and awoke to a text from my coach.

I fell apart on my long run?

"Beautiful," she wrote. "You needed this to happen. Now you are ready. Ice. Rest. Smile. You are about to call yourself a marathoner."

The swim pace

I looked down at my watch.

Yep. Slower.

I wasn't expecting it but it didn't surprise me.

It was one of those days where master's swim practice was at 6 a.m. was not going to happen for me, not because I wasn't awake but writing called. So I decided to do my workout before dinner in a different pool.

The phrase "before dinner" was going to be problematic. Because I was hungry. And swimming in particular makes me even hungrier. The goal was to get the workout complete, though, and get home. Besides, I knew I had enough fuel in me to get through the hour swim.

There were few people in the pool which meant I could have a lane all to myself.

After a 600-yard warmup, I looked at my watch.

My time was a bit slow. Even with my fins.

Oh well.

Let's go.

And so I continued to swim the workout. When I am swimming on my own (that is, not at masters practice) my coach wants me to swim for time not for distance. So an hour is an hour, whether I've finished the 3,000-yard workout or not.

This particular workout consisted of a set of 100 sprints. My swim pace is slow to begin with, so my objective was to swim those 100-yards in two minutes and 10 seconds.

When I'm at masters swim practice, with my fins, I have no problem getting that time with seconds to spare.

On my own in a dank and dingy pool, I barely made it. In fact, once or twice I didn't make it.

Is it possible I'm getting slower?

I then remembered what one of the lifeguards poised in a kayak said to me during one of my races: "You can swim fine. In fact, you can swim better than a lot of the people out here."

This, as I was struggling to complete the course and, as usual, pondering exactly what a water rescue would mean.

The thought returned during this particular swim workout as I wondered why I can't seem to swim much faster.

The obvious reason for my slower times is setting -- at masters I'm in a lane with other people all doing the same workout. I can catch the bubbles off their feet and have that pull me along for a bit (think drafting in cycling). Heck, when I run with other people, I can do a quicker pace, too. This slower solo pace is nothing to worry about.

But then I thought back to that exchange with the lifeguard.

So what if I'm slow?

I can swim.

While I there certainly was some panic about the swim last summer as I grappled with comfort levels and new fitness zones, there also was at work a basic concern about not going fast. Even if I could swim, I wasn't able to keep up with the other women.

And then I realized: so what?

The more I worried about how fast I was going (or not going) the slower I actually went.

Just keep swimming. That's what is in my control. The clock is not. The speed of the other participants is not. My ability to keep moving forward? To think that I will get through the swim? All in my control.

The final tally was 2,400 yards.

After that, it was a plate of pasta and a chance to think about my new perspective.

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