Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Oohrah! Running the Marine Corps Marathon for Team Lemon

Sometimes in life something that inspires you in a way that you can't describe. The inspiration grabs your heart and takes hold allowing you to believe you can do anything.  That's how I felt when I first learned about Alex's Lemonade Stand and its founder, the inspirational Alexandra Scott. It was Abraham Lincoln who said, "It's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years."  Alex Scott was only eight years old when she died in 2004. I did not know her, and yet she's touched my life and so many others in a way she probably never could have imagined.

When I heard about Alex's Lemonade Stand I wanted to be part of it. I wanted to contribute to this incredible charity that was helping children and families deal with the horror of childhood cancer.  The mission of this organization touched my heart.  Did I really want to run another marathon? Honestly I did not. But I wanted to be part of Team Lemon, and this past weekend I ran the 38th Marine Corps Marathon as part of the Team.

We headed to Washington, DC on Thursday evening for the MCM weekend. We were staying with my best friend and her family, so we were getting lots of quality time with our extended family.  On Friday afternoon on the way to the race expo we stumbled upon Zest, a cute bistro in Capitol Hill. It was a great way to kick off the race weekend. Of course I started solidly carbo-loading with a Pancetta and Asiago cheese sandwich. Delicious.

The race expo was kind of a cluster. Packet pick-up took place in a tent outside the expo, and it was extremely fast and easy. I am convinced it was to make people happy before entering the actual expo. We headed across the street to the DC Armory to get in line for the expo. Yes - to get in line to get into the expo building. They were checking bags and using hand held devices to wand people down.  Once in the expo I got that familiar race buzz.  We grabbed my awesome race shirt (#rockthemock) and set off to the Brooks store for some gear.

Hamming it up at the expo
The good news is that I ended up with a fabulous pink Brooks MCM jacket. The bad news is that my best friend and husband had to take turns standing in line for AN HOUR AND A HALF to buy race gear while I checked out the rest of the expo. The expo itself was fine, but if I had been there alone I wouldn't have had time to buy official gear and check out the booths. I can think of no good reason why it takes an hour and a half to check out. Ridiculous.

After the expo we joined our friends for an amazing bluegrass concert at the renowned Birchmere in Alexandria. The music was fantastic and the company even better. It was a lovely evening.

Saturday turned into a relaxing day just hanging out and watching football. We won't discuss my Mountaineer's abysmal loss. It's turning into a long football season. I was a bit of a mess on Saturday. I wasn't feeling great, and my nerves were out of control. I can't remember ever feeling this anxious for a race. I'm not sure why. On Saturday evening we went to Maggiano's for excessive carbo-loading.  After dinner my nerves were slightly (really only slightly) less frazzled, and we headed to bed early.

Race day is always intense, and this was no different. We left the house around 5:45 and boarded the metro at the Franconia-Springfield station, the last station on the blue line. We sat and sat, and finally the conductor announced there was a "circuit out" so we were waiting. Meanwhile the car continued to fill with runners, and I tried to calm my Type A self with the knowledge that if I ended up being late, I certainly wasn't the only one.

Waiting impatiently for the Metro to start
I needn't have worried because the Metro finally left, and we got to the Pentagon station in plenty of time for me to walk to the start (probably a mile) with 30,000 of my closest friends. During the opening ceremonies soldiers parachuted from the sky waving giant American flags. It was an amazing sight. The energy at the start was electric. I joined my fellow runners starting to finally feel slightly more calm.

Opening ceremonies

Ready to go

A howitzer blast signaled the start, and we were off. It took about 18 minutes for me to cross the finish line, and the crowd was tight. I knew it would be a crowded race, but I was essentially running in a tight pack for about nine miles. The course had gorgeous scenery - Rock Creek Parkway, the monuments and National Mall, the Capitol Building. The crowd support was phenomenal. Other than the somewhat dead spots on Hains Point (between the Potomac River and Washington Channel), the crowd rocked it out. They were loud, and they were fantastic.

Howitzer blast signaling the start

And I'm off

I was able to see my fantastic cheering section repeatedly during the race - at miles 4, 9, 14, 15, 17, 19 and 23. It kept me going for sure. I had a goal to not walk until mile 20, and despite the tightness in my IT band that began around the halfway point, I met that goal. My time goal was under five hours (and to beat my PR of 5:20). Just before mile 19 I needed a bathroom break, and the lines for the bathrooms were about 10 people deep. I needed to stop so I just sucked it up. While I was waiting in line I watched the five hour pacer run by and knew that I wouldn't be able to catch her. 

Mile 4
Mile 14
Mile 15 - talking trash

Mile 17

Mile 19
The last five miles were brutal. I vaguely remember running through Crystal City where the crowds were fantastic. I had friends there, and their cheering helped motivate me to keep running. We ran around the Pentagon where there were more spectators and a band playing.  There were more people walking around me than running in those final miles, and I could feel us all digging deep to pull it out. 

Rocking Crystal City at Mile 23
When I saw the marker for mile 26 I knew had to gut it out and finish strong. It was only a quarter mile, and my run felt like barely more than a shuffle at that point. The crowds lining the street were getting thicker, and the atmosphere was, like all race finish lines, magical. I wanted nothing more than to walk, and at that moment I thought of Alex Scott. I thought of this little girl who wanted to help others, a little girl who will never know what an impact she has had on the lives of so many. I was in pain, and I wanted to quit. As I neared the finish I saw there was one last hill. After swearing under my breath I thought there's no way I'm walking up this hill. I would finish strong for Team Lemon. I was at a near sprint as I ran past all the other runners walking up the hill and pushed hard to the finish. As I crossed the mat I felt a sob well up in my chest and had to use all of my self control to contain it. There's no way I'd let a bunch of Marines see me cry. But I had finished 26.2, and I'd finished it for a reason.


I gladly took my medal from one of the Marines and began the long walk to meet my cheering section at the family reunion area. A 40 minute wait for the Metro and I was back at the house for a shower and a little relaxation. We ended our trip with dinner with friends at Hank's Oyster Bar in Old Town Alexandria. There may be no better way to celebrate running a marathon than with great friends, good wine, fried oysters and mac 'n cheese.

Overall I enjoyed the race, but there were a few issues. It was a crowded race, which is fine, but they need to ban headphones. There were multiple times when hand cyclists were trying to pass on a very crowded course, and people couldn't hear them. It was a really great course people. Take our your headphones and enjoy your surroundings. (On a separate note I am on a mission to ban headphones from races. It is making me crazy). I think there also should've been a guideline for hand cyclists in general with the crowded course. They were passing on different sides, and runners weren't always aware of them. A few times I actually worried about the safety of both runners' and hand cyclists' safety. 

In the end I may not have reached my personal goal in the marathon, but I did something far greater - I raised nearly $2,000 for an incredible charity. Alex's Lemonade Stand is working in myriad ways to help find a cure for childhood cancers. I am so, so proud to have run the Marine Corps Marathon for this cause. Oohrah, Alex. Oohrah.  

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Catching my Breath

I was 25 years old when I moved from Texas to Norfolk, Virginia. I had recently graduated from law school, and I was restless. I didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I had no idea how I'd pay back my student loans. I essentially went to Norfolk to visit my sister, who had been living there for a few years, and I stayed. I fell into my first real job working for the mayor. It was there that I really learned about placemaking and the vision it takes to create and maintain a vibrant community. Norfolk was where I figured out who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do, and visiting there feels like home. I'm not sure if it's the salty air from the bay or me tapping into my inner 25-year-old, but when I'm there, I can breathe.

Last weekend I visited Norfolk for my nephew's first birthday party. It had been almost a year since my last visit, and I still believe how quickly this year has flown.  I arrived late on Thursday, and first order of business on Friday morning was a run to the Chesapeake Bay. My sister lives just a few miles from the beach, and I ran there Friday morning. It was one of those mornings where running was hard. I rocked 20 miles a few weeks ago, and yet four miles felt interminable. Despite the challenge I loved being at the beach and having the ocean breeze accompany one of my last taper runs of marathon training.

After my run I headed to my niece's school to join her for lunch. She's a student at St. Patrick Catholic School in Norfolk. The last time I was at St. Patrick's it was for the groundbreaking when I worked for the mayor. I wrote his speech and accompanied him to the event. It was one of many groundbreakings I attended during my job there, and I never occurred to me that eight years later I would be visiting my niece there. It is one of my favorite things about visiting Norfolk - seeing the realization of the community leaders' vision. 

Visiting my niece at St. Patrick's
Following lunch I headed to MacArthur Center in downtown Norfolk to get my shopping fix. I was once again struck by the textbook perfect new developments in downtown - mixed use development with first floor retail and residential, the development around light rail, new streetscaping. It was almost enough to distract me from my mission at Nordstrom. Almost.

Hey look kids! Light rail!
Friday evening my sister, brother and sister-in-law headed to Chow, a restaurant that is new since I was there. It had fantastic southern food (I am a sucker for southern food) and a great cocktail list. We had corn bread and pot liquor (essentially what's left over from the pan when they cook collared greens - amazing) and fried goat cheese. It was incredible.

On Saturday I once again ran to the bay, and this run was much easier. After I got back I ran a mile with my niece who is in the running club at her school. She told me she wants to run track and cross country when she gets older. There are fewer things that could make this aunt more proud.

My nephew's birthday party was Saturday afternoon. I'm so glad I made the trip to celebrate the little guy's big day. The hardest part about living so far away is missing all of the little moments with my family, and I make it a point to make as many of the big events as I can. There have been times in the nearly eight years that I've been gone that it's nearly unbearable to be away from my siblings and niece and nephew.  That's why I cherish these visits. That's also probably why they feel like home.

Celebrating one year with the world's cutest nephew
Saturday night we headed out to one of my favorite downtown spots - Todd Jurich's Bistro - where we joined a few of my friends.  The bartender pours a mean Hendrick's and tonic, and we had a fantastic time. After a few cocktails we moved on to Streats in Ghent (my old neighborhood). We enjoyed more cocktails, appetizers and great company. I probably could've done without the tequila (particularly given my early flight), but I wouldn't change a minute of it. We ended the night at The Wave, a fabulous nightclub. I think that's when I realized I'm not 25 anymore. Regardless it was one of the most fun nights I've had in a really long time.

With my siblings at The Bistro

With my SIL at Streats
My life has changed a lot since I lived in Norfolk, but the city remains a part of me. It's gotten its southern hooks in me, and when I'm there I feel like a more alive version of myself. Maybe it's seeing my family; maybe it's me looking back to a time when my life was less complicated. Either way it's where I can always recharge and catch my breath.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

An Attitude of Gratitude

Last weekend during mass our deacon gave a homily discussing the need to have an "attitude of gratitude". The gist was that we are always looking for the next exciting thing instead of appreciating and enjoying the blessings we have in our own lives.

I have to admit that lately I have not had an attitude of gratitude. I've had an attitude, but it's been surly and impatient.  I realize that it's happening, but I've been powerless to stop it. Instead of being grateful for the many things I have in my life, I've been restless and testy. I've been ignoring the grace that already exists in my own life and have been looking for something more. I don't know what that something is, but I've been going out of my way to find it.

We've been waiting for 19 months in our adoption process. I'm restless and frustrated and just wanting to DO something. I know there's nothing we can do but continue to wait, and the wait feels interminable. Overall it's been about four and a half years of waiting to have a child. And holding my breath. And hoping, although hope is more fleeting these days.

Therein lies my problem. Yes, we're waiting to have a baby, but we have the opportunity to adopt. We have great jobs, the most supportive friends anyone could imagine, loving families, pets we adore. We're at a place in our life where we can travel any time we want to. We have the freedom to come and go as we please, and we do. It's incredible to have the ability to travel like we do. Have I been appreciating it? Not like I should. Traveling is necessary for me because I'm a restless person in general, but I haven't been appreciating it.

Our adoption agency tweeted this picture. Something I need to keep in mind.
The message hit home for me, and I realized what a brat I'm being.  That doesn't mean it will always be easy for me to accept the inequities in life, but I'll be trying. I'll be working hard to adopt an attitude of gratitude. Sure, some days are harder than others for all of us, but there are blessings in every one of them. I've got to remember to count them.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Dealing with Life's Distractions

I am an incredibly social person.  Our dance card is almost always full, and it's not unusual for us when trying to make dinner plans or something to look a month or further into the future to find a free weekend. I love being busy, and I love spending time with our family and friends. I have a hard time saying "no" to anything that sounds fun.  Despite my social nature I also crave alone time, and that's why running is the perfect fit for me.

When you're as busy as I am sometimes it takes a lot to really disconnect from the natural distractions and interruptions of life - from work, from household chores, from the drama that life can naturally contain.  I love to read, but when I'm really busy I find that I can't disconnect from the thoughts racing through my head to appreciate a good book.

Running is the best way (really the ONLY way) for me to deal with life's distractions. I'm not necessarily escaping them, but it helps me process them and work through anything that is eating at me. I've left for a run before feeling very agitated about something, and by the time I get back I've worked through it. You've heard about runners getting into the zone, and for me that happens the most when I'm working through all of the stresses of life. This is also why I run naked (without music), because for me being present during a run is an important part of the experience.

Last weekend I was feeling particularly distracted and antsy about the next few weeks. The Marine Corps Marathon is rapidly approaching, and I want to beat my PR. I will be out of town four out of the next six weekends. Work is always busy, and I want to make sure I'm on top of everything. I set off for my first taper run feeling agitated. Life had gotten under my skin.

It was still dark, and the world was blissfully quiet. The only sound was my feet hitting the pavement.  I watched the sun come up as it turned into a beautiful morning. As the miles mounted, my agitation melted away.  Toward the end of my run I was running on fallen autumn leaves.  There is nothing quite like the sound of leaves crunching under my feet and the smell of fall to propel me through the end of a long run.

Life is full of distractions, and running is how I deal with them. My run may be the only time during a day when I really get to have solitude and time for reflection, and it's integral to restore my soul. It also helps me to prepare to get distracted all over again.  

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Vision (for Communities and a 20-miler)

Vision. We all know those people who have it - who can assess a situation, figure out how to make it better, and work hard to achieve those results. Vision can exist in a number of situations, and in my life I see it as part of my job working with communities and as a runner where I am constantly challenging myself and adjusting my vision of what I expect to achieve. One of the best parts of my job is being consistently surrounded by people who have vision.  Our community leaders have to make the best of every situation. They fight through significant revenue reductions, change in local leadership, local politics. And through those challenges so many communities find a way to not only persevere but to be creative in creating places where their residents want to live, work and play. Places they can be proud of.

Last week I visited one of our member communities, the City of Auburn Hills, for a ribbon cutting of a new project in their downtown. Auburn Hills is located north of Detroit, and it's a relatively new city (incorporated in 1983). It is the home to a lot of business including the world headquarters of Chrysler as well as four higher education institutions (Oakland University, Oakland Community College, Baker College and Thomas M. Cooley Law School).  A little over a decade ago the City designated a downtown, and their vision has resulted in the creation of a vibrant downtown with new projects revolving by their education partners.

The City redeveloped a log cabin structure from 1836 into the DEN (Downtown Education Nook), a creative space for studying and relaxing.  Next to the DEN is 97 new apartments (they're gorgeous) with first floor retail space wrapped around a parking deck. The parking deck is one of my favorite parts. Instead of having the deck front Auburn Road in the downtown (or take up valuable riverfront space like we like to do here in Lansing) it is contained behind the residential units just like parking should be. The final piece to this new development is their University Center which is a new educational facility that provides classroom space for both high school and college students.  We visited this project last year when the University Center was a bar and restaurant that had seen better days. The revitalization of this structure is amazing. When we were there last year I couldn't see the vision, but fortunately for me the staff at the City could.

Auburn Hills is just one example of the many communities in Michigan doing cool things. Vision is the bedrock of any successful community, and I'm so proud to be associated with these communities and amazing projects.

And speaking of vision, I gutted out a fantastic 20 mile run on Saturday. I had a lot of time to think about all of our communities and the work their doing during the three and a half hours I was running. I realize it makes me a dork to think about placemaking while running 20 miles, but it does make the time go by more quickly.  I'll bet our members didn't know that their vision is not only helping their residents, but it's doing wonders for my marathon training.  

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Bacon Cheeseburgers are Delicious and Running is Hard

Last weekend while at my parents' I read a story in Reader's Digest about the fight between big food and organic.  Organic food is all anyone is talking about. The subtitle of the piece is "Have the elite hijacked healthy eating?" It's a legit question.

I've been working with a nutritionist for several months, and it has been hit and miss in terms of how I think her recommendations work. One thing she has said repeatedly is to only buy organic everything. I've done it, and the only place I've really noticed a difference is with meat. I've noticed a HUGE difference in how organic and free range meat tastes. I get it. We buy mostly organic veggies too, but at some point the gluten free, dairy free, all organic diet she wants me on not only doesn't work with our lifestyle, but it sucks. I talked it over with my GI doctor who thinks gluten free and dairy free are certainly unnecessary for me. So I'm back again to my own trial and error and figuring out what works for me.

My nutritionist also said that if I'm eating fresh, organic ingredients that I shouldn't worry about calories. At all. Easy for her to say when she wasn't the one who pretty quickly gained five pounds on her "don't worry about calories and eat organic" diet. That made the Reader's Digest piece even more interesting to me as it compares the amount in calories in organic versus processed food. Eating organic is certainly not always the least caloric option.The article also expressly states, "The fact is, there is simply no clear, credible evidence that any aspect of food processing or storage makes a food uniquely unhealthy."  Does this mean we should eat only processed foods? Probably not. But for me it pokes some holes in all of the dialogue surrounding what we're supposed to eat and the "horror" of processed food.

After I had my colon removed I was tipping the scales at not quite 100 pounds. I lost 30 pounds in about three weeks, and I was having problems gaining weight (a problem I wish I had now). I ate a double quarter pounder meal from McDonald's every single day my first year of law school. Seriously - every day. And it helped me gain back at least some of the weight I'd suddenly lost. And we all know my not so secret love affair with McDonald's. It never occurred to me that eating like that wasn't a good idea.

The idea for this blog was solidified when I read that one of my favorite runners, hurdler Lolo Jones, is eating 9,000 calories a day while training to be on the Olympic bobsled team. Granted we're not all training for a targeted purpose, and that many calories would be a tragedy for most of us. She, an elite athlete, talks about eating four double bacon McDonald's (processed! the horror!) cheeseburgers a day. My favorite line from the article is: "It seems like if you aspire to be an Olympian, you should focus your efforts on the sport that allows you to eat four double bacon cheeseburgers. Bacon cheeseburgers are delicious and running is hard."

In the last blog I did about nutrition I mentioned eating tator tots (because they are delicious). I got some pretty snarky comments about that nutritional choice. Here's the thing - I think if you eat only organic food and that is what works for you then that's awesome.  Frankly I think everybody should just do whatever works for them. I've heard that runners are judgey (well I am but not just because I'm a runner), but I'm pretty sure there is not a class of people more judgmental than the anti-processed food people. How about we all just do what's best for us accept that it'll be different for everyone?  And, let's be honest, bacon cheeseburgers ARE delicious.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

My Happiest Place on Earth

When an athlete wins some major event, they're fond of saying, "I'm going to Disneyland." Disneyland is supposed to be, after all, the happiest place on Earth. For me any place with thousands of children, Florida heat and lines for hours sounds like torture, but to each his own.  When I think about my happiest place on Earth, it's unusual, but it's obviously Mountaineer Field at my alma mater West Virginia University.

Me + Mountaineer Field = Happiness
I think many people who grow up in West Virginia are Mountaineer fans, and I can remember expressly when it happened for me - while watching WVU play Notre Dame in the National Championship when I was nine years old.  It's certainly easy to start loving a team when they're playing for the game's top prize, but it's certainly not easy being a Mountaineer fan.

When I was applying for colleges I really wanted to be a Mountaineer. I turned down a full scholarship to a smaller, nearby state school. I realized even then that I bleed old gold and blue, and the passion for my team has only intensified as I've gotten older.  When I talked my husband into buying WVU season football tickets last year, I couldn't believe it was actually happening. Despite the fact that we already had Michigan State season tickets and it is a six hour drive to Morgantown, season tickets aren't necessarily the most convenient thing. But given that Mountaineer Field is my happy place, it's totally worth it.

Rocking our Coach Holgerson faces before the big win
Last weekend we headed to Morgantown for our first game of the year to see my Mountaineers take on then-11th ranked Oklahoma State.  After being shut out by Maryland the previous game on the road I was less than confident about our game against the Cowboys.  Despite my football trepidation, I was thrilled to be back in one of my favorite places.

Morgantown, West Virginia has consistently won awards as one of the nation's best small cities. Most recently it was ranked number seven on Kiplinger's 10 Great Places to Live in July 2013. It is a fantastic small town that has leveraged it's largest anchor institution (WVU) beautifully. It has a thriving downtown, tons of green space, lots of cultural and arts attractions, and of course WVU sports.  When I think of great places, Morgantown always pops in my mind.

A view of Morgantown from the stadium. I heart mountains.
Seeing that Mountaineer Field is my favorite place and I have such an affinity for Morgantown, you may be wondering why I don't live there. That is an excellent question to which I don't have a great answer. Eleven years ago when I moved away from West Virginia part of me felt like I had to move away in order to feel like I'd accomplished something. More than a decade later I feel like I have. The problem is that once you've accomplished something it makes it harder to give up a professional network to move not to mention the family and friendship ties. 

That means I continue to get my Morgantown fix in small snippets while visiting my parents and attending WVU games.  I get admittedly nostalgic anytime I'm on campus or in the stadium, and perhaps that's amplified by my less than frequent visits there. Mountaineer Field is truly my happiest place on Earth, even when my team is not winning. Fortunately for me this past weekend I was able to scream like a 13-year-old girl at a Justin Bieber concert watching the 'Eers pull out an upset. For me it is truly almost Heaven.

And in a scene that should give all Mountaineers chills (and maybe tears in your eyes too), here is our team singing Country Roads in the stadium after the game - one of my favorite Mountaineer traditions. Let's go!