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Personal Record: Fixing a Cranky Butt

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PT, ER, chiropractor?

By Rachel Toor

As featured in the May 2011 issue of Running Times Magazine

I have a pain in my ass. It’s been diagnosed by friends, fellow runners and professionals as “cranky butt.” I used to keep a baseball in my car to put under the offending spot during long drives.

I’ve been seen in public poking and prodding my own backside, the discomfort of the muscle making me oblivious to the embarrassment you’d think I would have felt.

Every other week my massage therapist hurts me so much I curse at him and threaten him harm. A sanguine guy, he says, “Go ahead, curse at me,” and keeps digging away at my butt.

Like most athletes, I am accustomed to aches and pains. I wake up creaky and stiff. Sometimes things get better during the day, sometimes worse.

But recently I took a spill. And then I was like the old lady in the commercial who has fallen and can’t get up.

Something very bad had happened to my back.

When I looked in the mirror, I could see that while my shoulders were level, one hip bone was way higher than the other. I was crooked. And I hurt.

I spent the weekend in bed, talking on the phone to well-meaning friends who tried to tell me what to do.

“You have to see a doctor,” said one.

“You have to go to a physical therapist,” said another.

“Chiropractor.”

“Massage therapist.”

“You have to go to the ER,” said my boyfriend. I explained that I’d had disc surgery about 15 years before. I learned a lot about backs and discs and what surgery could and couldn’t do. If I had another bulging disc, I would have to learn to live with it. “And where did you get your medical degree?” he asked, clearly frustrated by my tendency to think I know everything.

Most athletes know their own bodies. And many of us have had the experience of being treated by medical professionals in ways that will never help.

A friend of mine, an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in feet, once told me that when he saw a runner, he asked if the patient ran for physical or mental health. He knew the answer would change the way he approached her treatment, and he finally confessed that he hated to see serious runners. They were impossible. No offense, he said.

Years ago, when I had a chronic, annoying injury I decided to go to the sports medicine expert who had taken care of a star college basketball player who had broken something. The physician got him back on the court well before the end of the season. This, I knew, would be the guy for me. But the first thing he said, entering the room while reading my history, was, “I have only one question for you: Why would anyone want to run a marathon?” This was not, I knew, going to be the guy for me.

So when I got all crooked, I didn’t want to see my internist–a doughy woman who always yells at me to eat more vegetables and tells me to stop running so much–because I knew she would make me get an expensive MRI and then pass me along to someone else. I asked around until a friend told me about a doctor who was an Ironman triathlete and worked with the local professional sports teams. I found his website and emailed him, telling my history, my problem, my own diagnosis, and asking his opinion.

He emailed me back within an hour. He said it might not be a disc. He said I should come in. And so I did.

He listened carefully, asked about my running and training (he wanted to know my marathon pace!), walked me over to a skeleton and pointed out highlights of the pelvis. He agreed that while my problem sounded discy, it was more likely the SI joint. He said that he could get me to a chiropractor who could fix me. He said “fix.” I damn near kissed him.

After about four visits to the chiropractor, my back was better. And so was my cranky butt.

Those of us who insist on running in ways that are not necessarily healthy for our bodies need the right healthcare professionals. That means either athletes, or people who are accustomed to–and don’t hate–us. I don’t want someone to tell me not to run; I want someone who will figure out what he can do so that I can run again, who understands the psychology as well as the physiology; I need a physician who will understand that, yes, as a patient I can be a pain in the ass, but will help fix my butt anyway.

Personal Record: Race Travel

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By Rachel Toor

As featured in the March 2011 issue of Running Times Magazine

Me, I like to go. Offer me a trip to Iowa and I’ll take back every mean thing I’ve ever said about the Midwest. Ask me to come along on an expedition to Antarctica and I’ll forget that I suffer when cold and say, Hell yeah.

Recently a friend who used to run told me that he was interested in training for a marathon, that he wanted something “picturesque,” like somewhere in Italy, and wanted his (non-running) wife to join him on the trip and during the race.

I got this message a couple of days after I had flown 24 hours to run, 36 hours later, a marathon. It occurred to me that traveling to do races may not always be the best idea, especially for people who aren’t experienced marathoners. I told him to do a local one and then take a vacation in Italy.

How much better it is to sleep in your own bed before and after a race, to eat your normal foods, to not worry about getting blood clots on long plane trips. To be able to find bathrooms to deal with the inevitable effects of effective hydration. To feel like you’re not missing anything if all you want to do before the race is lie in bed and worry and all you want to do after is lie in bed and whine. To know that months of training may pay off in a PR or Boston qualifier.

Everyone knows it’s not a good idea to spend time before a long race walking around sightseeing. And in the days after, you may not want to yelp “Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!” down every one of the Spanish Steps or drag your burning calves up the stairs of the Eiffel Tower.

Traveling to do a marathon, especially internationally, is just kind of dumb.

Why then, is it so appealing?

Why is it that whenever I plan to travel anywhere, before I make hotel or plane reservations, I poke around to see if there are any races? Marathons are the best, especially if they’re on trails, but gnarly, nasty ultras that will surely leave me bloody and bruised are good too. Even shorter distances, if they’re boutique-y and unusual, will suffice.

There’s something in me that says that if I’m going to travel, I should race.

This is, I know, nutty.

What’s nuttier is to time trips to friends or family around races. If I want to visit my brother in West Virginia, why wouldn’t I pick dates to coincide with the Charleston Distance Run or the Rattlesnake 50K? If I want to see friends in Durham, why not go when I can also do the Uwharrie 20-mile trail run or the Umstead Trail Marathon? I mean, I still want to see the people. But I also — and I can’t help this — want to do the races.

Perhaps for me it’s a way of feeling at home. I love nothing more than the time before the gun goes off, milling around with other runners, making conversation in the porta-potty lines, talking about the course. It feels familiar. It feels good. These are my people, I think, as I look around at faces I’ve never seen but still I recognize as friends.

Maybe it’s because I like to pile things on. Why just go on a business trip when it can be a business trip and a marathon? Home for the holidays — and an ultra. I like to stack up diverse chores, to move from one world to another.

Hooking up with a local running group can be great. I ran with the Hua Hin Hash House Harriers when I was in Thailand and got to see a part of the country — and, ahem, experience aspects of the expat culture — I would never have known about. I’ve run with the Serpentine runners through the parks of London. It’s all good. But not quite as good as a race.

Except, maybe, when traveling with others. Then marathoning can be a drag. Non-runners will want to visit crumbling European cathedrals, take their shoes off to walk through Asian wats, try weird, exotic fruits and indulge in heavy, spicy feasts without worrying about the consequences on race day. If you’ve traveled to a region known for its wines, you will want to imbibe. Certainly, the people with you will want to.

I understand all of this, and try to keep it in mind when I make my plans. But for me, though I know it doesn’t really make sense, there’s nothing like traveling and doing a race. It may not make for speedy times or easy recoveries, but it does something else. It brings passion to my journeys. And there’s no better souvenir than one you have earned by running 26.2 miles.

Personal Record: The Competitive Urge

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The importance of doing things that challenge you

By Rachel Toor

As featured in the December 2010 issue of Running Times Magazine

In June I won a marathon.

Memorial Day weekend I went to Idaho to watch friends compete in an XTERRA triathlon.

I hung out with Mo, an excellent athlete who was sidelined by pregnancy. We cheered and hooted, sat in the sun, talked about books. I kept saying how much better it was to spectate than it was to compete.

The run course ended on a long grassy uphill. I said to Mo that I would not want to finish a race that way, that likely I’d slow down and crawl across the line. She said if I saw a ponytail bobbing ahead of me, my real self would kick in and I would kill myself to pass her. Mo believed that I, like most athletes, could not overcome my competitive urge.

Wrongo, Ringo, I said. Those days are over. While I was never particularly fast, I no longer race to win, or even to place. At this point I have achieved all the running goals I set out to accomplish. Age and other inevitabilities are working against me, and I’m enjoying a twilight time of running only for fun, free from the pressure of thinking about my times or who is beating me.

To Mo I heard myself uttering a phrase that makes your bones creak: When I was your age, I told her, with fierce earnestness, all I cared about was achievement, excellence, being the best I could be. I’ve come to value other things, I said, with the smug maturity of someone who has been (relatively) successful in life. Each time she sees me Mo asks for my marathon PR. I suspect she’ll stop when she beats it.

While hanging around and spectating on Saturday, I found out that there was a trail marathon at the same state park the next day. How could I resist? It didn’t matter that I hadn’t run farther than 12 miles for the past six months. The singletracks were beautiful, around a submarine-deep lake. I could do what I’d told Mo I do — just go out there and have fun.

As soon as the gun went off I realized I was a big fat liar.

I’d sized up the other runners at the line and knew I had to win. Around 5 miles in there was a short out-and-back. I was shocked to see another woman no more than a few minutes behind me. I’d assumed I’d built a strong lead. So for the rest of the race I ran scared. When I got tired and wanted to back off, I kept pushing. I’d forgotten how stressful it is to be in the lead.

I crossed the line first. The next runner was more than a half hour behind me.

I won.

Or, as I am wont to say, modestly, humbly, I WON! I WON! I WON!

I didn’t run well or fast. And I was happy I won only because the alternative was to feel like a loser.

That day there was a half marathon, the full 26.2-miler, a 50K and a 50-miler. All my friends, runners who can kick my butt without breathing hard, were doing the longer races. There were only four people in the marathon, all women 40-49 years old.

So you see, claiming victory is an exaggeration. But the experience provided an important lesson.

I have friends whose goal in every workout is to destroy each other and themselves, friends who think if you can’t run fast you don’t deserve to buy shoes. You’re missing something, I tell them. No one cares about your times any more. Why do you care if other people are slow?

But maybe I have been missing out. There is something profound about having to work so hard you hurt. I used to know that the only way to get better at something is to be with people who challenge you; that racing yourself into shape is efficient, and that humiliation can be a powerful motivator.

While I tell myself that it’s OK to be less competitive, to take it easy, too much of that puts you at risk of stagnating. I believed what I told Mo — that I was done with all striving — at the moment I was saying it. But the next day, sore and tired, I was happy to find that I hadn’t matured as much as I thought I had.

For a long time my closest friends and I have been making January 1 resolutions. We give the coming year a title, meant to reflect ongoing effort. I’ve had the Year of the Dollar (disaster — still didn’t make money), the Year of Moisturizing (success! It continues!), and The Year of Losing Electrons (trying to be more positive — don’t ask).

I am resolving that 2011 will be the Year of Doing Things That Suck. I will seek to put myself in situations where I am the dumbest person in the room, the least capable at whatever I’m doing, and the slowest runner in the group. In middle age, when we’ve achieved certain measures of success, it’s easy to get lazy and complacent. It’s good to remember the importance of doing things that challenge us.

Personal Record: Resonant Routes

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Running keeps the record of our lives

By Rachel Toor

As featured in the October 2010 issue of Running Times Magazine

The first reedy notes of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” send me straight to the periphery of a junior high gym, huddled with a group of nerdy girls, watching our more precocious peers leaning into each other and swaying. “Rock Lobster” is college dining halls cleared of furniture, dancing hot and sweaty with Lacoste-clad, Top-Sider-shod boys and dreading the arrival of the “Down, down” part.

One whiff of Charlie perfume would bring me back to my high school locker, waiting for my best friend to get her stuff together so we could walk home. Sno-Cones taste like teen spirit.

We store our memories in our senses. No one illustrated this more literarily than Marcel Proust. In the first paragraph of Swann’s Way the narrator bites into a breakfast pastry and it launches him into the seven canonical volumes of The Remembrance of Things Past.

We have all experienced this transport to our previous selves, occasioned by some particular physical thing.

Recently I went back to Durham, N.C., a town I loved and lived in for a long time — the place I started running — and enjoyed a Proustian pleasure in retracing routes that had filled so many hours of my life.

Starting out on the Duke Forest loop I remembered how Andrew had taken me there for my first run. It was raining and I tried to be miserable, but he made it fun. Going up the hill after the wooden bridge I thought about the time Audrey and I tried to run the trail days after hurricane Andrew (no relation) had blown through. The 6 miles had taken us more than two hours, an adventure of climbing over uprooted trees, crawling under thick downed branches. That was more than 15 years ago.

The concrete bridge was flooded, and as I waded across I thought back to when Ruth and I ran it last year, weeks after my mother died. We’d taken off our shoes and socks to get across. Ruth calls this course the “Punitive Trail.” There are, indeed, a lot of short, steep hills. But having lived in the West for six years, they seem trivial to me now. Still, in my head it’s no longer the Duke Forest loop but the “Punitive Trail,” because that’s what Ruth called it at a time when I found life punishing.

A day later I met up with Owen and we did part of the Sunday Morning Run, the part we always do together when I am back in town. Owen trots over from his office in the Computer Science Department, I meet him in the gravel parking lot, and, as usual, he runs about five steps ahead of me for 9 miles. His butt and distinctive gait are as familiar to me as my old house. As usual, I show up with an agenda of things I want to discuss with him. We talk about what makes for a good lecture; at what dollar amount (in net worth) did he consider someone “rich”? I trust him to tell me if he thinks I’ve gotten too gaunt. When we’re finished, I ask when we can run again.

There’s a section of Cornwallis Road where I remember another computer scientist friend, Jeff, spouting off his wacky sports theories. Cars were passing us and not moving over to share the road. I wondered if it was because of how we looked together — a buff black man and a barely-dressed blonde woman. We were on a country road well south of the Mason-Dixon Line and wondered if we might be killed.

If I had driven 20 minutes to Umstead State Park on Saturday morning I know I would have been thinking about sprightly young Handsome Dan. He used to show up at our weekly group runs in motorcycle leathers and then would strip down to running gear. Once, for miles, we talked about what it was like for a man to be that beautiful. He’s dead now.

There are spots I can use to gauge my fitness, where I recall the pain of past training efforts, where I struggle when I didn’t used to. I have done many runs alone, but I don’t remember them with the same clarity as when I get to a certain patch of loblolly pine, to a point where the trail narrows, and am transported back to the spectral company of a running friend.

These routes, these haunted places, resonate like harmonic chords. They touch something in me that is beyond consciousness. We experience our feelings about the land in different ways. For some, the beauty of nature is best sampled alone. For me, place and people are always connected. Geography has less meaning for me if I’m not sharing it with others.

The years blur but the snapshots of memory remain, trapped in my physical self and released by footfalls and exertion. Another North Carolinian, Thomas Wolfe, titled his most famous novel You Can’t Go Home Again. But you can — for moments. There are times when each turn, each incline, takes you back to a time and place when you felt fine in the world, rich with companionship.

The Colossal Crack

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A story of peaks, canyons and trying to out-pace grief

By Rachel Toor

As featured in the June 2010 issue of Running Times Magazine

She died four weeks after she heard her doctor tell her she had three weeks to live. My mother was nothing if not compliant. She had been ill for four and a half years. I spent every vacation, every break, traveling 13 hours through three time zones and four airports going to see her. From her home in upstate New York, I would run to the drugstore, the grocery store, the library. And I would run on the hills and trails of Ithaca, with a group of friends and by myself.

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Personal Record: Dissing Dean

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By Rachel Toor

As featured in the May 2010 issue of Running Times Magazine

I have often spoken about the kindness and generosity of runners. Indeed, I wrote a book whose premise is that the most important thing running has done for me is to give me access to a great and good community.

Now I come not to praise runners, but to bury them.

I have never met Dean Karnazes. My biggest complaint about him is that he’s a lazy writer, too often grabbing cliches instead of doing the hard work of reaching for crisp, fresh expression for his thoughts. He’s a mid-packer of a memoirist, but he is a good runner. And not a bad ambassador for our sport.

Dean took a bizarre, niche activity that normal humans don’t understand (any ultrarunner could rattle off the stock responses you get when you tell a stranger that you like to run farther than 26.2 miles) and made it comprehensible to a huge New York Times-reading audience. After his book, Ultramarathon Man, came out in 2005, he hit the road — running and talking, making appearances. He has raised more than one million dollars for kids’ charities and continues to encourage thousands of people to get off the couch and go for a run. He made doing ultras seem a little less nutty.

Dean has brought attention to something I care a lot about. I respect him for that, and hope someday to have the chance to tell him so. (Just as I’d like to tell him to lay off the cliches.)

At the Western States 100-miler last year, I spent a bunch of hours hanging around at aid stations with my Running Times colleague Adam Chase, who seems to cover his ripped torso only when it is required by law, sports a visor, and says that people refer to him as “Mini Dean.” He says it’s the hairline, but it’s more than that. He is a dead ringer for the Ultramarathon Man. And so Adam and I got to hear the whispers: Look, it’s Dean! He dropped out!

Here’s the thing: People said this with mean-spirited glee.

As much adoration and enthusiasm as Dean generates among recreational runners, he inspires even more animus from those who take themselves and their running seriously.

At Western States (and indeed, on many running message boards) mid-pack ultrarunners have nothing good to say about someone who could kick their butts without breathing hard. They sneer and smirk and recoil at a man they’ve never met, never spoken with. Faster people — those who know and compete against him — tend to be more gracious and say he’s a sweet and earnest guy, a mensch. But there’s something going on when someone inspires such a vicious reaction.

Why the mean-girl bitchiness toward the man who is, inarguably, the most famous runner in America? Is it because he’s become a celebrity? His buff , unrunner-like bod has shimmered from the cover of many glossy magazines. He’s been on national TV! He’s friends with Lance!

Our endeavor — especially the ultrarunning subspecialty — is supposed to be amateur-based, and unlike other sports where players can rake in millions for sitting on the sidelines, we pride ourselves on being participants not spectators, and somehow more pure, i.e., not commercial. There’s no money in running, everyone says. Except Dean seems to be raising it by the bucketload.

So why begrudge him this? Is it because runners are the kids who weren’t athletic enough to make the sports teams in high school, were never the prom kings, never got to date the cheerleaders? Do people hate Dean because he could, if he wanted to, date a cheerleader?

Not everyone dislikes Dean. Many have told me how thrilled they were to run with him for all or part of a marathon. And I don’t hate him. I am, however, frankly jealous. I would kill for a tenth of his readership.

He’s made it his work to market himself; it’s a hard job, one I wouldn’t want. But when people like many-time Western States winner Scott Jurek (I don’t know him either) say nasty things about Dean, it makes our whole sport look pissy. No one hates Scott Jurek. He’s a vegan, for Pete’s sake. But no one is going to use his scrawny figure to sell magazines or pay him to give business advice. So why is he bothering to dis Dean?

There are complaints that Karno exaggerates his achievements. He’s an excellent athlete, but perhaps not as good as many others. He’s just been more successful at getting recognized. I can understand dismissing Paris Hilton for not doing anything. But Dean has done plenty. And the media has made much of what he’s done. Why do we begrudge him success? (By the way, I’ve heard all the arguments against him — this is a rhetorical question.)

If Dean makes big bucks from running it takes nothing away from me. I can’t muster the energy to trash those who are more successful than I, or who get more attention, or who have different goals or values. There are people who say nasty things about me. And about you. Many of us learn to stop doing this on the playground. Runners: Grow up.

Personal Record: Shirtless Days

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Do you know this runner?

By Rachel Toor

As featured in the March 2010 issue of Running Times Magazine

He is across the street, coming toward me. In a sideways glance, I see him. In a moment, I know him.

His legs are unshaved, and the muscles and tendons ripple. He has scrawny, sculpted arms, a bony, hairless chest and flat stomach. His belly button barely makes an indentation. His ribs are too prominent. You could count them; he doesn’t wear a shirt. Not in the summer. He wears running shorts–one color, usually dark, split up the side.

He sweats but doesn’t drip. He never stinks.

His hair is long and floppy, his skin weathered but not tattooed. He does well in school, less well with girls. He is good at math. He reads. He pays attention. He can seem nervous, ill at ease. Often, he is.

He eats like a linebacker. He is mindful of his weight, notices a couple of extra ounces, but is unaware of how his body looks, only how it performs. His body is an instrument. He knows how to drive past pain, to hold in what is difficult. He tells himself things that he will never say aloud. In his mind he sometimes beats his breast, but more often he thinks he deserves to suffer. When he has an orgasm, he doesn’t make a sound.

In groups he is reticent, offering an occasional gentle joke, a clever aside. When he has a girlfriend, he will talk to her about his races only if pressed. When she asks how he did, he will say, “It was good.” He waits for her to ask the question. Yes, he responds. Yes, I won.

Running will be for him something special, something sacred. He will not talk about it with civilians. He will not, in fact, admit how much of his time training takes up, afraid he will be seen as less serious about the other things he takes seriously.

As he ages, his body will retain that look of the teenage boy, all slim hips and underdeveloped upper body. He will crop his hair, now speckled with gray. His face will become longer, and lines will etch themselves around his eyes, but not from smiling. Cheek bones will jut. (Note: On men this manifests as rugged, athletic and outdoorsy; women do not fare as well in the modifier department.)

He will continue running, even as his times slow. He will continue competing, but will not linger after races to collect age-group awards. Instead he will head off to warm down, maybe running the course again, maybe running home. He will not talk about how fast he used to be, or, when he does, it will seem as if he’s talking about someone else.

He will remember, though, what it was like to run fast. He will remember, though it becomes hazy, what it was like not only to be at home in his body, but to have a home in the world.

Things will never be that plain again. The simple formula, the ticks of the clock, the purity of measurement, the pleasure of having a rival, the clarity of a finish line, this is what he will miss. He will not be able to say that this is what he is missing, but he will feel it. He will feel it every day.

He will excel at some career. His work ethic has been set from early days at cross country practices where he beat himself up to stay with others, where he labored to surpass his teammates.

He will garner professional successes the way he collected trophies; caring and not caring about the material markers.

His wife will become fleshier and more interesting. His coworkers will marvel that he manages to stay so fit. He knows that he is not fit, not really. Not compared to who he used to be.

He fears–but will not admit–that at some point he may no longer be able to run. He knows that he will continue to slow, to be felled by injuries from a lifetime of doing his body little good. He knows that time is not on his side.

He knows a lot.

What he doesn’t know is this: he is beautiful.

When he runs he becomes that floppy-haired loose-limbed boy again. When he is in motion, he celebrates himself in all the ways that words fail, especially on hot days when he glides shirtless through summer streets, unselfconscious, unaware, wearing nothing but side-split shorts and the pride and pain of making himself run as hard and as far and as fast as he can.

Fluke Fitness

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By Rachel Toor

As featured in the December 2009 issue of Running Times Magazine

A few days ago, coming into the cafe where I log a couple of hours writing each morning, I ran into another regular. I asked how his cycling was going. Ben said that he was experiencing a period of fluke fitness.

I knew exactly what he meant.

For years I’ve felt that being a runner has given me a different, intimate relationship with my body. After 17 years of running, I have the illusion that I know it well, how it works, what works for it.

Any teenage boy can tell you, though, that the body has a mind of its own. It has its own rhythms and cycles, its own tides. One of the things that happens when you become serious about running is you know that sometimes, no matter what you do, no matter how well and how smart you train, your body is not always going to perform the way you want it to. You will not only have bad days, you will have bad weeks and sometimes, months.

Because we are animals ruled by reason, we look for explanations; we seek to link correlation with causation. We think: Hmm. Since I stopped eating meat I haven’t been running as well. Or, Oh, maybe those five shots of tequila each night are not helping with my fitness. Sometimes we can make reasonable assumptions about cause and effect. But other times, if you’ve been at it for long enough, you know that it’s just a bad spell. There is, of course, a psychological component. If you tell yourself you’re in a slump, you will fulfill your own prophecy.

Perhaps one of the things that separates the truly outstanding from those of us who are merely mediocre is the ability to keep going during these bleak periods, to tell ourselves that we will feel good again, to continue training, and be patient until things change.

Me, I just give up.

Last winter I pretty much stopped running. Every time I went out for a trot, I felt worse. So I quit going. The less I ran, the worse I felt. You know, the whole negative feedback loop thing.

My mother died. My beloved companion died. I stopped eating, sleeping, and washing my hair. I stopped retuning phone calls. I didn’t even look at my email. My house became an external manifestation of my psyche: a mess.

When the weather got warmer, I ventured out again. I embraced hurting. I thought about how much pain my mother had endured — the assaults from needles, chemicals, her disease — and understood my suffering to be trivial. I didn’t deserve to feel good. I didn’t.

Then something happened. I did a marathon because I was asked to be the pre-race speaker and couldn’t resist a free entry. I hadn’t run longer than 12 miles in six months. I felt great. A week later I did another one, and felt better.

Right now, like Ben, I am enjoying a period of fluke fitness. As with the unaccountable lows, the untraceable bad periods, my body has reached a point of impossible, unexpected strength, mostly independent of what I’d planned, done, or hoped for.

Just as you have to learn to accept the slow spells, I have tried to think of this time as a gift. How fortunate I am to be able to lead a pace group at a marathon (not fast, mind you, but well enough to get women younger than me qualified for Boston) with about as much effort as it takes to wash my hair. I recover quickly these days. I feel like I can run forever.

A fast runner friend of mine once said that of the three important things in his life — running, relationships and work — it was never the case that all were good at the same time. At the time I thought that was a bad attitude. Now I think maybe he’s right.

I don’t know how long this fluke fitness will last. My guess is that by the time this column is published, it will be a hazy memory. Did I ever really feel that good? Was running a marathon really as easy as brushing my teeth?

The body has its own schedule. Grief, sadness, travel, work stresses, personal upheaval, create an incomprehensible matrix. Sometimes it’s better not to try to puzzle it out and just enjoy the good times when they finally come.

Why I Can’t Hate Shannon Farar-Griefer

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You can’t always get what you want

By Rachel Toor

As featured in the November 2009 issue of Running Times Magazine

I’ve been trying for a while to hate Shannon Farar-Griefer. It’s not working.

We first spoke a few years ago when Shannon, an ultrarunner and endurance horsewoman, was interested in getting into Ride and Tie, a sport that combines those passions. We chatted for a long time. We’re the same age, same height, and have similar interests. We could be the same person. Except that she’s Hollywood-hot, philanthropist-rich, has sushi with the Van Halens, owns horses, a beautiful house, and is happily married with two teenage boys (Moe and Ben), and a two-year-old. Oh, plus she started a business that was an instant success. Who wouldn’t want to hate her?

At the 2007 Western States Shannon gave every runner a pair of the Moeben arm sleeves she had designed — and manufactured — to wear when she competes in 100-mile races. They were a viral marketing sensation. I was skeptical, as I often am of trends. I’d seen people wearing them and scoffed. The colors and designs can be a little outre, too L.A., for my all-in-black New Yorker taste. The sleeves seemed silly and gimmicky. I just didn’t get it.

The week before I was to pace at this year’s Western States, I competed in the World Championship Ride and Tie. The day before the event my partner Pip, a sweet but young Arabian gelding, dumped me into a pile of poison oak. By the end of the race, I was scratching like a chimp.

At the awards ceremony, all the (human) competitors got their choice of Moebens. I had come around to wanting to try the arm sleeves, but again, was skeptical of those for the legs.

I complained (and complained) on Facebook about my itchiness. The creator of Moeben commented that I should have used her leg sleeves; they would have protected me not only from nasty UV sun rays, but from poison oak juice. I tried to hate her.

When I ran into Shannon at Squaw Valley before this year’s Western States, she was, as usual, warm and delightful. She showed me her wares and gave me a pair of sleeves to try. She also gave me one of the hemp shirts she provided to each runner. It’s softer than a baby butt. And less smelly.

The Western States course is one of my favorite places, but this year I was pacing scared. The dangers of the 100-mile race are well known: dehydration, hyponatremia, muscle cramps and tears, nausea, kidney failure, bug bites, cougar attacks (not the kind by older women like me), and blistering sunburns. My problem: On a course that is largely single track, you can’t help but brush by evil weed every few steps. Poison oak looks innocuous, like some sweet house plant. Let me tell you, it is not.

I wished that I had chosen to take Moeben leg sleeves from the Ride and Tie. They would have saved me from the poison oak and made me less twitchy about getting more itchy. Once out of the green stuff, I could have pushed them down and used them as rock-stopping gaiters.

Instead I wore Moebens on my arms from the start of the race until well after the finish. I am always cold — people who know me casually think this is amusing; my good friends find it obnoxious — but the day was hot. I kept the sleeves bunched at my wrists and used them to wipe my sweaty, dirty face. Then, after the river crossing, at 2 a.m., when I was shivering (and everyone else was merely warm) I pulled them up. When the sun came out and even I was feeling the heat, I wetted them down; they cooled me.

For 13 hours I said to my runner, Robert: “Can I tell you another thing I love about these sleeves?” For 38 miles, he let me tell him.

The truth is, I could never hate Shannon Farar-Griefer — she’s too nice, too much fun, a fabulous girl’s girl. I am grateful to her for making a product that has made my running more comfortable. I may still be envious of her good life, but I’m glad to have her in mine, especially in the form of Moeben sleeves.

Finishing Kick: Running Back the Clock

By | Running Times Magazine | No Comments

A reunion reveals one runner’s life reversal

By Rachel Toor

As featured in the October 2009 issue of Running Times Magazine

When I slunk back to the dorm room at 8 a.m. Saturday morning, the clothes I had been partying in the night before stinking of gin and cigarettes, almost as mussed and disheveled as my age-inappropriate tangle of blonde hair, my five male suitemates greeted me with grins and nods. They stopped just short of applause.

Maybe in college, 20 years old and unconfident, trying to find an identity, unsure of how to handle your sexuality, inexperienced in the varieties and vagaries of relationships, you would call it a Walk of Shame (though I would argue that’s a sexist holdover used only for girls). But when you’ve been around a few blocks — married and divorced, having zipped through a handful of careers, and are unafraid to write about your life — and you hook up with someone you first kissed nearly three decades before, it’s more like a Victory Dance.

For me, going to my 25th college reunion was more fun and less complicated than attending school there. One of my married-and-kidded suitemates said, in the morning when he was coming out of the shower and I was brushing my teeth, “Rachel, you are living the life we all wished we’d lived 25 years ago.”

Maybe, but my classmates are, to be frank, ruling the world. They are the CEOs and founders of companies. They sit on boards. They do good work. The Obamas are our peeps.

Most of my old buddies look great. The only people who come back to reunions, I realize, are those who look great. While their net value may have appreciated exponentially, their body mass index has not increased much. Most say they don’t get as much exercise as they should, but still, chasing after children and running companies keeps them middle-aged trim.

Nearly all of the people I knew in college jogged. Some did it as training for the sports they played, but most did it because that’s what they did. Val would wake up crazy-early to meet friends to run up Science Hill. To me, they may as well have been running to Antarctica. Many would train for the New Haven 20K race, back in the days when Garry Trudeau designed the shirt.

I did nothing athletic in college, except for competing in marathon-length conversations about Paradise Lost and the teleological suspension of the ethical. I was an intellectual. I’ve been in the gym, the Cathedral of Sweat, maybe twice. I’m sure I never sweated there. I used to watch my friends go out for a run and think, Don’t you have anything better to do?

At the reunion I told folks that I had just done two marathons in eight days. The reaction was shock and awe, mostly, probably, because of who I used to be. When I came back to the suite for a nap before the next big event, Mark and Crommie were about to go for a run. They invited me to join them, sort of. You don’t want to come with us. It will be too slow. We’re not going far enough for you.

Off we went. I was with a doctor and a lawyer whose collegiate fitness level intimidated the bejesus out of me. It mattered not at all that we were slogging along. What was cool was going back in time, revising my history. We saw East Rock. “That’s not even a 6-mile round trip from campus,” I said, surprised.

“Rachel,” they said, “are you trying to make us feel worse?”

I wasn’t. I was just feeling good. So good, in fact, that when we returned and Fro, another of our suitemates, another tall and fit doctor, was ready for a run, I said I’d go again.

Reversals are the stuff of literature. We learn from the surprise; we love ironic twists. Here I was, having gone from a stable, traditional lifestyle right out of school (good career, great husband, nice apartment in Manhattan) to being someone who needed financial aid to attend not only college, but her college reunion. And there I was, running the big jocks into the ground. Oh, and staying out all night.

At the reunion there was time-related cognitive dissonance: How could it have been so many years since college? Many had followed a linear path for the last quarter century, had done the expected and then, suddenly, had turned into their parents. How did that happen? How did we get so old?

As a runner, I am always aware of my age. And I’m aware of the ways in which running keeps me from feeling — or looking — it. It was a pleasure to go back to college and have people tell me I haven’t changed a bit. And to know how much I have.