Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years Later, We're Still Standing Strong...

I was sixteen years old and a junior in high school when the September 11 attacks took place ten years ago. That's certainly old enough to grasp the seriousness of the day's horrible events, but looking back on it, I don't think I fully understood how huge it was until years later. I remember walking back from gym class and sitting in American History with the radios on, listening to the reports about the World Trade Center and what it would mean for the future of our country. My friend Allison and I were primarily excited about picking up Mariah Carey's new CD, Glitter, after school at Walmart, but over time, we gradually realized that something much bigger was going on around all of us.

Now, a full decade later, the United States is far from perfect, but one thing we can say is that we are still standing, as a nation and as individuals. We are still going to school, working, spending time with our families and friends, and working toward personal goals. It's never easy, of course, and some people could go on for hours about what they feel is wrong with America right now, but the bottom line is that we're still here, and considering where we were exactly ten years ago, I'd say that's pretty darn good.

Do you remember where you were on September 11, 2001? Pretty much all of us can recall details of where we were physically standing and who we were with at the time, but the question involves much more than that. As a person, who were you, and do you feel you have changed in any significant ways since then? For me, personally, I was an overweight teenager who hated exercise and only really did it when my mom suggested visiting the local gym on a Saturday, or when my PE instructor, Miss U, kept us on our toes with step aerobics and occasional 1-mile runs. I can still remember Miss U telling us that as high school students, we basically kept moving because we were required to, but her goal was to hopefully motivate us to stay active in college and beyond, when our teachers and parents weren't there to give us that little nudge. I have thought about those words a few times over the years, but it's only now that I'm starting to truly get it. It really is true; exercising is one thing when you're a kid, benefiting from all those adult influences in your life, but when you grow up and can make your own decisions, can you find the will to make healthy ones?

I certainly didn't during my younger adult years. College came with all its trademark freedoms, and part of that meant I could eat whatever I wanted without being under the watchful eye of my parents. I went to the campus gym every once in a while, and I always liked to walk, but it was never enough to keep up with my monstrous snacking habits. As a result, I was an extremely overweight and unhappy person, and I knew what would make me feel better, but at that stage in my life, I wasn't committed to doing the grunt work. It wasn't until I was about 24 years old that I finally said "Okay, I'm going to work out every day. I'm going to sweat off all those pounds I gained in college, and things are going to be much better from now on".

Well, a few years later, through a series of considerable lifestyle changes that only God deserves credit for helping me achieve, I had lost a decent number of pounds. I looked healthier, I felt better, and honestly, if I had stopped there and stuck to that weight for the rest of my life, that would have been okay. I would have still been considered a "larger" person, but at least I wouldn't be morbidly obese like before. But here's the thing--when you start to experience some success, you feel more confident in your ability to get even stronger, and you just want to keep going from there.

That's what I experienced when I went with the whole family to the Chicago Marathon on October 10, 2010, to cheer on my sister Katie, who was running her very first marathon. Throughout her training regime before that, I balked at the idea of ever doing something like that, and I would often make fun of her for choosing to spend her free time going for long runs. In fact, whenever she would head out the door for the prairie path, I would come up with some kind of snide comment like "See you later! Enjoy! I'll be thinking of you when I roll over in bed and go back to sleep."

Then something happened on the actual marathon day, as I was watching the crowds cheer for thousands of runners--runners of all ages and backgrounds--who came out to complete 26.2 miles along the streets of Chicago. They all had different reasons for lacing up their shoes and getting out there early in the morning, whether it for a charity, or to beat a previous personal record, or to simply cross the finish line and be able to say that they ran a marathon in their lifetime. For some of them, too, they just wanted to run for the health of it--to get their hearts pumping and be confident that their bodies were getting that much stronger.

Initially, I was inspired by my older sister Katie's perseverance in completing the Chicago Marathon for the first time, and I wanted to be like her. What little sister doesn't? I quickly made it known on Facebook that I aspired to prepare for the following year's marathon, and while I received a lot of immediate support, I'm sure it was a difficult concept to take seriously. I mean, I had lost about 80 pounds at that point and was doing well with my diet, but I was absolutely not thin, and there was still a long way to go. Still, I was determined to make this happen, and by early February, I had officially registered for the Chicago Half Marathon in September 2011. The plan was to start with that and go for the full marathon in 2012, but of course, that only lasted about a week at best, and before long, I was also signed up for the Chicago Marathon on October 9, 2011. Again, my family and friends were very encouraging from the beginning, but it was a lot to take in. Katie was concerned that I was taking on too much too quickly, and she wondered if I should concentrate on a few 5K's before moving up to something bigger. While I appreciated her advice, I knew I had my mind made up, and of course, she--along with the rest of the family--was willing to do anything she could to help as I started this journey.

So there I was, 25 years old, intending to tackle a half marathon in 7 months, and I literally hadn't run in 7 years, since high school gym class. Miss U required us to train for and complete a 1-mile run once a year, and I vividly remember feeling knocked out for a few days afterward from just that! This was the full extent of my running experience, and it had taken place almost a whole decade earlier. Add all that up, and it's easy for anyone to conclude that I may have bitten off a little more than I could chew. Still, I knew I was the kind of person who could be lazy at times, but when I want to do something badly enough, I get it done. I think we're all like that. When we want to achieve a goal, we experiment, work each corner, and figure out exactly what it will take to accomplish it...and we get it done. When it's something we really don't want, we just make excuses until we just forget about it completely and move on.

Since February, I have run on average 5 or 6 days a week, tracking my progress along the way. As an added bonus, my weight dropped even more, and I have lost an additional 60 pounds since training for the marathon. (If you ever want to drop some pounds, running is a great way to do so!) In May, I completed a 5K in my hometown, and while it was a little tougher than expected, I was proud to finish. I slipped into a very comfortable routine over the next several months, running on the treadmill and continuing to attend Weight Watcher meetings with my mom. It always seemed like September 11 was so far down the road, and then, all of a sudden, it was three short weeks away. Then it was one week. Then, before I knew it, my mom and I were attending the expo two days beforehand to pick up my race packet, and the big day was officially upon us.

When I woke up this morning at 5:00, I knew I was ready, but as all runners know, those butterflies can be overwhelming. Mom and I took a cab to Jackson Park, and before long, all the participants were loading up their start corrals to get ready for 13.1 miles. As I stood there, waiting for the line to move, all I kept thinking was I hope this isn't a complete disaster. This was what I had worked for, and most importantly, it was a HUGE step in determining if I was even remotely ready to take on a 26.2-mile run in four more weeks. It was exciting, but very unnerving at the same time.

Then I crossed the start line and took off on the course with the other 20,000 runners. It was absolutely incredible what happened. Instead of just training alone at the gym and trying desperately to finish a workout, I was in the race that I had registered for back when I was barely able to run a few steps. I finished in 2 hours and 36 minutes. The weather was beautiful (although a little hot during the last few miles), the crowds and volunteers were amazing, and I just feel really lucky to have been there. I have developed a real passion for running and never want to stop doing it. I'm grateful that my mom was there to hug and congratulate me at the end of it, and it was so much fun to tailgate with my dad, sister, and uncle at the Bears game (even if only for about a half hour), then have lunch at a downtown cafe with Mom before heading back home.

In short, as Americans, I think we're very fortunate that we can still have these special moments with our loved ones. Whether big or small, all of those moments mean something in their given time. We are also lucky to have the freedom we have, which allows us to push out of our comfort zones and become stronger, healthier, happier people. I loved every second of today and will always remember it...and I hope you continue to make your own memories in life...regardless of the day, the time, or the situation. At the risk of sounding like a cheesy country song, it's never too late to change your life for the better, and on days like today, we're reminded how lucky we truly are.

Question of the Day: Where were you on September 11, and what are you most grateful for today?

Now here are some pictures...

                                                       Getting ready at the hotel at 5 AM!

Such a cool experience...this truck was present at Ground Zero on 9-11-01. Eight firemen got on it, and sadly, they all died on that day, but they will always be remembered.

                                               Tailgating with Kerry and Dad, respectively!

Did our waitress simply not realize that if you fill my ice cream cup all the way to the top, I am just going to eat it all? All I can say is that it was A-MA-ZING!

Hanging out with one of my best pals, Ditka, and celebrating with some good old family time after a perfect day!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Wet (and a Little Wild) at Navy Pier!

Yes, I am very tired right now, so if that title sounds cheesy, it's the best I can come up with right now :) This week was short to begin with, compliments of our Labor Day weekend, but I trimmed it down even more by getting the afternoon off from work and taking the train downtown with Mom. I had to go to the Chicago Half Marathon expo to pick up my race packet for Sunday. It was so much fun to go down there, pick up my official bib number with my name on it (I'm pretty easy to please), and walk around the expo. One thing's for sure--your money can disappear pretty quickly once you start getting excited about all the cool stuff they have! I ended up getting a pair of socks, a patriotic headband to wear on race day, and a few shoe charms to "spruce-up" my already-slightly-obnoxious footwear. You can't see them too well in this picture, but I got one that says 13.1 for the half-marathon, 26.2 for the full marathon, and two ribbons to honor the September 11 attacks. Lacing them in was extremely frustrating, and if they don't look quite right, then that's just how they're gonna have to look, at least for now! :)

It was raining when we left the expo, but Mom and I really wanted to have dinner outside, since we both love visiting downtown and rarely get the chance to do so. We found a nice umbrella on the patio at Harry Caray's and had a very nice, relaxing meal, complete with my all-time favorite...Mike's Hard Lemonade! That's probably a better post-marathon choice, but oh well--I definitely enjoyed every sip!

Well, I guess this means the half marathon is just about 24 hours the heck did that happen so fast?? Sunday is going to be an extremely important test of how prepared I am for the Chicago Marathon. The bulk of my training has taken place on a treadmill (I plan to write a post about that within the upcoming week), and while I've heard that even the most elite runners sometimes do as much as 90% of their training that way, it probably isn't the most ideal situation. I guess that I just grew comfortable on that treadmill and had a hard time separating from it, but either way, this half marathon is bound to be interesting. Giving up is not an option at this point, because again, if I can't even do 13 miles, how am I ever going to complete 26.2 a month from now? A lot is at stake here, so as I'm running along Lake Shore Drive this weekend, I'm basically going to be repeating the same two words to myself: KEEP GOING. That's what I did for my first 5K race four months ago, and it worked pretty well. Of course, that was only about 3 miles, but I know from experience that positive mentality makes an unbelievable difference. When you're running or doing any type of exercise, it doesn't have to feel good or easy 100 percent of the time. Smiling is only optional, and if you have to walk for a while, then that's fine, but you don't stop. As long as your feet are moving, you're that much closer to the finish line, and I know that the thought of receiving my finisher's medal will be an amazing incentive to push forward.

Question of the Day: What's your favorite motivational quote? Mine comes from the wall of my gym, written in huge letters, so everyone who walks through there can see it every day. I mentioned the first half of it already, but here's the entire thing, short and sweet: "Smiling is optional. Finishing is not!"

Here's one more picture from the expo, simply because I'm a dork who can never whip out her camera enough times! It was a fun, happy day with one of my favorite people in the world. I love you, Mom!

Good night, everyone, and Happy Friday!

Monday, September 5, 2011

If the Shoe Fits...Spend a Third of Your Paycheck On It!

I have been eyeing these shoes at The Runner's Soul for a while now, and after getting paid this weekend, I finally went and bought them--just in time to break them in for the Chicago Marathon! (If all goes well, I also plan on wearing them for the Chicago Half next week.) I think the saleswoman could totally tell I was interested in their appearance more than anything else, and she was definitely right. That's probably not the smartest thing for a serious runner to do, but they fit great and haven't given me any issues yet, so maybe just this once, I've gotten away with being shallow and judging the book by its cover! Expensive, colorful (yep, they glow in the dark) and a little loud...yes, they are all of the above, but I absolutely love them, and when you're planning on running 26.2 miles in about a month, it never hurts to find something that contributes to the excitement! People must think I'm nuts walking/running around in these things, but what can I say? Life is short, and I've always been a believer in wearing what you love and having some fun! Easier said than done, I know, but I've had a blast wearing these shoes so far, so even if I look a little dorky, I'm gonna run across that finish line with a huge smile!

It's been a very nice and relaxing Labor Day weekend (passing by way too quickly, as usual), but it's time to get back to work tomorrow! I've eaten a lot more these past few days than I'd like to admit, which is usually the case after I've completed a long run. That's part of the problem when you finish 20 miles--part of you thinks that you've earned a practically immeasurable number of calories by running for over four hours straight, but truthfully, it's never as much as you think. That's just one of life's unfortunate realities; you can spend hours on a grueling workout and consume all the calories you burned in a single slice of pizza. Okay, maybe that's a bit of an overexaggeration, but you know what I mean. That's one of the things I continue to struggle with on a daily basis, and having lost 148 pounds to date hasn't made it any easier. When you love food as much as I do, it's something that you deal with for the rest of your life, so for me, I'm trying to learn how not to let a workout--no matter how long or successful it was--serve as an excuse to overindulge.

It is unbelievable that the half marathon is less than six days away now. I remember signing up for it several months ago, thinking about how far away it seemed, and occasionally wondering if I was delusional to think that I could keep up with all the other runners on the course. I am so excited about it, though, and the fact that it takes place on September 11--the 10th anniversary of the attacks--makes it even more special (that's the #1 reason I signed up for this particular half marathon in the first place). It will be fun to dress in our nation's colors, get out there, and take a stab at something that never would have crossed my mind a decade ago, not even for a second. Hey, if nothing else, I'll be in style (sort of) with my flashy new footwear!!

Question(s) of the Day: Do you have a favorite post-exercise meal? How do you prevent mindless overeating after an intense workout?

Friday, September 2, 2011

Amazing Milestones That Last Your Entire Life!

It's hard to believe I haven't updated here in almost three weeks. Though I hate to admit it, I've gotten a little lazy about that, but my goal is to write something at least once or twice a week, like I did when I first started blogging. Hopefully, this will be the start in getting back to that.

Well, last time I posted, I had completed my longest weekend run to date, which was a little over 15 miles. The week after that, I did 17 miles, and for my "step-back week" following that, I shot for an easier 12-miler (but could only find the stamina to do about 11). This weekend, according to the Hal Higdon training schedule I've been following (for the most part), I was only required to do 18, but mentally, I felt ready to tackle 20. I've always read that many runners--especially beginners--should do their 20-miler about three weeks before the marathon and only attempt it once (to save energy for the race), but many Chicago marathons that I've talked to did those miles last weekend and have already talked about attempting it again before October 9. I guess it depends on where you are physically and what works best for you personally, but in any case, I felt a surge of competitiveness over that, and now here I am, feeling amazing and wishing that everyone could experience what it feels like to really get out there and succeed at something you never considered before.

I've talked about this a little in the past, but it really is true: the human mind is incredible at guiding you through situations where physical preparation can only go so far. Of course, that doesn't mean you can afford to get lax and let your head carry you the entire way, but I sensed it even more when I started running today. I have known for the past 5 days that I was going to do these 20 miles this morning. I made a special trip to The Runner's Soul for energy gels, planned an approximately 4-hour block of time to run, ate my usual "running breakfast" beforehand (good old Powerade, banana, and Cliff bar), and headed to the treadmill with plenty of water. Most of all, I just spent those few days really making it clear to myself that I was going to work through those 20 miles, no matter how tired I got. Even if I had to walk a little more than usual, I would stick with it and not quit early.

Now, I guess that was basically a combination of physical and mental preparation, but either way, I felt the difference as soon as I started running. It's funny because on the days that I say I'm only going to do about 5 miles, I'm exhausted after about 3 or 4. On the days when I don't set a specific number in terms of mileage, I sometimes can barely push past 2 miles. Today, however, I started out nice and easy, with my iPad in front of me, and after the first mile, I felt stronger and more confident than I ever had at that point during my previous runs that week. I didn't start to really feel it until about the 12-mile mark, and I truly believe the mind has something major to do with that. When you make up your mind how it's going to go, and you rehearse it in your head beforehand, it really does pay off later. Three weeks ago, that 15-miler felt insanely difficult--much more so than those 20 miles today--and again, it just becomes easier as you go, even if you don't think it will.

Finishing 20 miles is a huge step in knowing that you're ready for the real thing, and after doing three really long runs over the past few weeks, I am so excited about how my body has adapted to all this. Exactly one year ago, I couldn't fathom the idea of running at all, much less for the pure enjoyment of it, and I used to make fun of my sister Katie regularly as she trained for the 2010 Chicago Marathon (in a loving sisterly way, of course). Then, after I made the decision to participate in the 2011 marathon, I told myself that even if I burned out halfway through, or if I didn't finish in the official 6.5 hour time frame, I would be okay with that, because simply getting out there and trying felt good enough for my first attempt. Now that I've stuck with the training process and completed 20 miles, I don't worry about having to re-adjust my expectations. I no longer fear that I might not make it through the entire 13.1-mile course on September 11, or the 26.2 miles on October 9, because I know that I will. It feels amazing knowing that as people, we can come so far with goals that seemed impossible at one point. On one hand, it's such a cliche, yet when you experience it, there's nothing better!

I'm definitely looking forward to the long weekend, and I hope that everyone enjoys their Labor Day. Use the time off to enjoy time with friends and family, and maybe do something that you can't always fit in with hectic work schedules!

Question of the Day: Have you ever accomplished something where you relied on the mental preparation as much as the physical? What was it, and how did it feel once you got there?