“As a breed, runners are a pretty gutsy bunch. We constantly push ourselves to discover limitations, then push past them. We want to know how fast we can go, how much pain we can endure, and how far our bodies can carry us before collapsing in exhaustion.”

~Bart Yasso, My Life on the Run

It has been a few days since I had a live mouse to release into the wilds of the little park on my morning drive to school. Either they’re getting wise to the colorful plastic traps that litter our floors, or they’re actually gone. My money’s on the former, personally, though with our kitchen torn down to the studs and our whole house a mess, I rather miss collecting the little varmints each morning and dropping them off in the park as I go. Best if Sonja doesn’t hear me say that, I suppose (good thing she rarely reads anything I write).

Sleeping poorly has become my Sunday night tradition. I once blamed it on sports, then on diet, but last night I ate only good food, watched no sports, and didn’t even have a nightcap on my way to bed. I should have slept like a rock, but instead I tossed and turned. I wasn’t nervous about school that I was consciously aware of, but I keep hearing things about the “Sunday scaries” and how people in mine and other professions have their weekends effectively torpedoes by the anxiety brought on by the mere thought of Monday morning. I’ll admit, I almost prefer Friday to Sunday, despite the fact that I work on Fridays and not on Sundays. Fridays are full of hope and promise, while Sundays are a harbinger of the coming slog. I love my students and love teaching, yet the profession is being rendered increasingly difficult day by day, and often I wonder if I’m not long for it.

Monday morning, despite having raced on Sunday and not having taken a day off last week, I felt great. There’s a weakness in the joint connecting my right leg to my torso that can ache incessantly if it goes untreated, so I devoted some time to muscle flossing. Still, too, there is my left foot. When it is moist, is becomes almost rancid, but when it dries it is far worse, cracking with every step until the blood softens it up again. Monday, after flossing my joint, I rubbed Vaseline in it the area between my toes, even in the open wounds, and it seemed to do the trick. I thought I’d get five miles in on the treadmill, at a recovery pace, but I felt good enough that I made it a full 10K, then hopped briefly on the bike while I downed a protein shake.

In school Monday, my seniors began checking in their first book on Afghanistan, checking out their second, which will lead us all the way to spring break. I asked my students if they would book talk their favorites, and many enthusiastically recommended Ground Zero, I am a Bacha Posh, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and My Forbidden Face to their classmates. Then I gave them time to check out new books and create a reading map. They have thirty-three days until Spring Break, so even the longer texts can easily be broken down into bite-sized segments. It’s exhilarating to hear seniors who profess to not being readers, even to never having read an entire book, speak with enthusiasm about these texts and what they contain. Therein lies the true power of a teacher. I didn’t do anything amazing, I just gave amazing people the materials they needed to be able to demonstrate their abilities. Of course, it only works for some, and some are still not reading. For my part, I choose to focus on those who are, and I am quite pleased that they are in fact a significant majority.

One of my students today, a smart kid whose priorities are admittedly more social than academic, inquired about an assignment I had given, an “animated bibliography” as he called it, and a light went on. I openly praised his genius while together the entire class joined me in scheming about just what such a thing would look like. I wrote it down in all caps no my board, below the metaphors they had created for their daily journals using metaphor dice. “ANIMATED BIBLIOGRAPHY.”  Brilliant. In another life, I’d have devoted the rest of the day to creating a rubric for this new extra credit possibility, but given that I had to go teach a business class during my plan period—as we do most every day—and that grades were due tomorrow, I could only fantasize about the possibilities and pray that somehow the time to bring his brilliance to fruition would present itself.

Tuesday morning I woke up and ran another 10K on the treadmill. The dull ache between my right quadricep and lower abdominal muscles was present, but ignorable. I turned on an interview that was recorded of a panel discussion at the Smithsonian Museum of American History a few years ago, in which they interviewed many of the major players from the Judgment of Paris in 1976. Warren Winiarski, who made the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon that won the red wine competition reported that when his wife, Barbara, called him in Chicago to inform him they had won the blind tasting, he responded with “That’s nice,” and I laughed so hard that I nearly fell off the treadmill. (That wine changed the world.)

Wednesday TJ met me at 5AM. I got up and did some core, had my espresso, and was on the bike when he texted that he was there. Together we ran ten miles, and I was reminded of how wonderful it is to have friends who run, to run with others. Sonja and I began our marriage running together, training and running half marathons. We ran the Denver Rock n’ Roll shortly after we got engaged, and as recently as 2019 ran a half in Kilkenny, Ireland, while we were there to attend the wedding of a friend. Sonja is really into fitness, but she doesn’t love running as I do, and though I wish we still trained together and ran destination races, I try not to pressure her. Having friends to log my miles with is a real joy, and I’m grateful that TJ regularly makes the drive over so we can run together in the mornings.

Thursday, I awoke at 4:57, beating my 5AM alarm and, I hoped, allowing Sonja to sleep a bit more soundly for the lack of noise. I changed clothes and crept downstairs, but my footfalls on the hundred-and-seventeen-year-old wooden stairs that lead from our second floor into the foyer are unconcealable in the quiet of the morning, and behind me I heard the click of Zooey’s door. I waited for her at the foot of the stairs, and soon she appeared. She’d thrown up the night before, unusual for her, and I wondered how she was doing. In her Frozen nightgown she moved sleepily down the stairs and wordlessly embraced me, nuzzling her disheveled head up into the stubble on my chin. I asked how she was doing, and she responded that she’d like to watch a show. I sipped my espresso and wrote in my gratitude journal while she turned on Daniel Tiger.  Our morning routine. I lifted weights for a bit and did some core work before getting on the treadmill. Despite being at 22.4 miles in three days with ten yesterday, I felt strong, and I poked the buttons on the treadmill until it was up to 7.5, an eight-minute mile, and pushed the decline down to -1 to give myself a little boost. It took just over fifty-six minutes for me to cover seven miles, and I felt great the entire time.

That afternoon, I went to a meeting, then hurried home and changed. Zooey was eager to show me her new dress for the Father-Daughter Dance Friday, and I was eager to see it. Once I had appropriately ooh-ed and ahh-ed her pretty new dress and matching shoes, I changed into running clothes and hit the trail. With Zooey already home, I only needed to pick Titus up so I had more time than usual; I fit another 10K in, rounding out a half marathon for the day and bringing my weekly total up to 35.6 miles. I got back to base, had a Coke Zero, and struck out to grab Titus. Sonja made orange chicken and salad, and I wolfed it down like it was my last meal. Runners can get away with that sometimes—all thing in moderation, except for miles, anyway.

Friday morning it was more than forty degrees out, with drizzling rain falling intermittently. I took my time getting ready and had a double-shot of espresso. I turned off the alarm, stepped outside, and walked to the trail. I lapped Hanscom Park, then ran past the VA to 42nd street, followed it down to Leavenworth, then wove back up to the trail. The first time a car blew through a stop sign, coming far too close for comfort, I was annoyed. It seems like people in cars pay very little attention to those who aren’t, and my cyclist friends would concur. The second time, the truck actually lurched to a stop in the cross walk a few feet from me, forcing me to lunge out of the way. The driver looked out his window at me and raised his hands and eyebrows in a smug shrug as if to say “You got a problem?”  I signaled my disapproval by slamming my open hand into his rear fender hard enough that it made a resounding metallic noise, hard enough that it made my hand sting. Once around his vehicle, I saw him glaring intensely out the passenger side window at me. I raised my hands and eyebrows in a smug shrug as if to say “You got a problem?” and continued on my run.

I was hoping to fit six miles in, but once I loosened up I felt great and increased my pace to something like an 8:40 mile. On the out-and-back portion of the run, I got to the turnaround point, checked my watch, and realized I was going to be late. I may have shrugged a second time. Running is my catharsis, some much-needed therapy. The world could wait for me to finish my run. I got home, turned off my Garmin, and noted that I had run a little over eight miles. I pulled out my phone and pushed the button to turn off the alarm, unlocked the door, and the alarm chirped at me. I pulled out my phone again and tried to disarm it. The app was unresponsive. By the time I got upstairs, it was wailing bloody murder. Sonja woke up, stumbled downstairs in a bathrobe, found a backup key pad, plugged it in, and eventually got the alarm to turn off. I felt terrible for waking her like that. Technology is only fun when it works, I thought, and began noodling on just how long I’d had my present GPS watch.

At school, I made coffee, said hi to a few friends, and grabbed my coverage sheet for the day; my plan period would be consumed by teaching…pottery. I thought this sounded like fun and was disappointed to note in the lesson plan that students would not be actively throwing pots that day. While my seniors worked on their assignment, I logged in and, using a discount code from a few years ago, registered for Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota. A mid-June race, it’s about eighteen weeks out still, which is perfect because I plan to use Bart Yasso’s sixteen-week training plan to prepare for it once I’m done building my base.

I once had the privilege of pacing Bart Yasso, the legendary racer and Runner’s World contributor who, in addition to being one of the original pacers of the Chicago Marathon, pioneered the popular training technique which bears his name. It was at a half marathon in Omaha, and I was pacing 2:10:00. I had another runner take a picture of Bart and I, and he told me he’d most likely hang with me for the first half, then drop back. True to form, the legend was correct in his prediction and slowed his pace after about six miles. A normal pacer stick is sleek, light, and aerodynamic. When I had been handed what appeared to be a cardboard snow shovel for this race, I was annoyed, but when Yasso crossed the finish line I borrowed a Sharpie from an aid station and he graciously signed it. “Thanks for all you do for our great sport! -Bart Yasso” It stands in a corner of our bedroom to this day, near the hooks and shelves that hold my medals and trophies and important bibs from over the years. I haven’t run a full marathon since 2008, but as I thumbed through Yasso’s training plan, I was encouraged to find that I’m logging far more miles at this stage than his plan calls for in the early weeks. I’m looking forward to taking the family up to Minnesota. We’ll visit Lego Land, stay in hotels with swimming pools, maybe catch a Twins game. I’m excited to be planning a family vacation; the marathon will be but one part of what I hope will be a memorable experience.  

Saturday morning it was bitter cold, something like nine degrees, a stark contrast from the forty-something I was running in thirty-six hours prior. I got up and made breakfast for the kids, bagels with peanut butter and bananas, and had some myself. I read my email; I had sent chapter one of my new book to my editor, and her comments were more positive than I even might have hoped. Good to know I’m on the right track. I shot a message to the contractors working on our kitchen, then played a game of Harry Potter Boggle with the kids while we waited for mom to wake up. When she did, we played another, this time including her, before I set out on my run.

I was shooting for something like ten miles, nothing too ambitious, and I had no goal pace in mind, just crushing more miles, just building up the base. For the first time all year I ran with music in. The wireless headphones jammed under my mask created a space around my ears and the tops began to get cold. I listened to “Shivers” and “Bad Habits” by Ed Sheeran on repeat for the better part of half an hour before switching to the soundtrack to The Greatest Showman, which got me to the end of an eleven-and-a-half mile run. When I race anything longer than a 5K, I typically have music in, playlists designed to put the songs where I want them based on the length of the race and my intended pace, a metronome with lyrics to help me maintain my pace, but I only train that way once in a while. I should probably reconsider my practice-like-you-don’t-play approach to competition, but in truth I enjoy being able to hear the sounds of nature—and oncoming traffic—when I’m running.  

My legs were exhausted by then, not from the eleven plus, but from the 55 miles I’d run in the previous six days, the 97.7 miles I’ve run since my last day of rest. I’m not trying to overdo it, but I’m admittedly something of a zealot by nature, and stopping doing anything I enjoy, even temporarily, is difficult for me. Sunday came and I knew I needed rest. The last time I ran a full marathon was in 2008, and now I’m signed up to do another in eighteen weeks. Yasso was right; we runners want to push, want to know how much we can endure. I’ve hit so many new milestones in my running this year, markers I may never have passed had I not thought up this idea to try to help raise money for incoming refugees from Afghanistan. The family next door has been quiet and kept to themselves. I see their lights on, but they don’t go outside much and we haven’t wanted to bother them. That said, it’s my first day off of running in two weeks, and I have a few ideas about how I might use the extra hour or two.

~Mark

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