A Mammoth undertaking

It’s frankly been quite awhile since I’ve really physically challenged myself (or posted here!), but I made up for it last weekend with a lengthy, strenuous hike.

Gram backpacking in her 60s

My Gram, who was my inspiration for my past marathoning, died late last year at 100 + 1 month. My friend Sue proposed doing the 20-mile option of the Mammoth March NJ in her honor/memory, as Gram was an avid hiker (and skier, backpacker, biker, camper). I immediately said yes. The route followed trails in parks that I know she had hiked on.

What a great way to honor her! She would be with me on the course in more ways than one.

The Mammoth March is not a race but does have a time limit of sorts (8 hours for the 20-mile option, which works out to less than a 3 mph pace). I haven’t done any races since 2018. We signed up for the March at the turn of the year, so I certainly had time to train and prepare.

A few miles in, the climb begins

I felt confident that I could complete the mileage and persevere, but I was nervous about the terrain/elevation — all my marathon walking over the past many years has been very flat and very paved. And that said, I didn’t train as I should have, other than doing several lengthy (flat) walks and some last-minute treadmill incline work. (Sue, conversely, was concerned about the distance but not the elevation as she is a very frequent hiker.)

We did a test hike a few weeks before the event, 13 miles on part of the actual course. We found that our pace was compatible and we were a good team, but the trek took us … well, let’s just say an unusually long time. So we had concerns that we’d finish the 20 miles in the allotted 8-ish hours, especially this time of year when the days are shorter.

On the day of, I broke a cardinal rule of distance events (don’t wear/try anything new!). Weather conditions prompted me to make a game-day decision to start the hike in a pair of not-really-hiking-boots instead of the sneakers I’d worn for the test hike.

Three-quarters of the way!

I paid the price for my rule-breaking. I started feeling a hot spot on my heel about 4 miles in, and even with switching to sneakers (which I’d smartly stashed in my backpack) at mile 5, the damage was done and I had a quarter-size blister, already popped and the skin rubbed away. Amen for some awesomely effective blister patches available at the aid station, which got me through to the finish without debilitating pain (but which didn’t stop the doubling in size of the blister).

The many fellow hikers on the March were all so friendly and helped us keep our pace and our spirits up! The course was well marked and varied, and the aid stations had the right combo of refreshments (hot soup at mile 16 was so welcome on a dreary, trying-to-rain autumn day).

In the first half of the mileage, my hamstrings started feeling tight and stressed. In the second half of the route, that faded as my knees — due to some of the downhills that required careful maneuvering — started to ache. Throw in the heel blister threatening to derail things and I was really watching for the mile markers. We were so grateful to have a wide, flat, fine-graveled road for a stretch of a few miles on the back end. However, a detour back into the woods on narrow trails came along between miles 17 and 18, and with it the hardest part of the course — a tricky long downhill, during which my knees started to scream and each step was fairly unpleasant. Talk about moving gingerly!

I knew I wouldn’t give up. I knew I had it in me. But I knew this was asking more of my body than I have in quite a long time.

As the sign says: CHALLENGE COMPLETED!

As we neared the last mile or so, Sue got a second wind and was energized by the approaching finish line. I, on the other hand, seem to start to fade when I know the end is near, and so the last mile felt like it went on forever. But I was so very glad that the last mile was flat, soft, and rock-free!

We finished the course in less than 8 and a half hours (not counting stops), with a total elevation gain of 2,352 feet, and proudly and joyfully accepted our medals.

So… back to Gram. I called on her at several points during the day, both for stamina to keep going and in wanting her to appreciate the trail, the scenery, the event. And I carried her with me, literally, and left her behind as well, to be forever a part of trails she loved.

I can’t thank Sue enough for suggesting this as a way to honor my beloved, inspirational grandmother, and I can’t thank Gram enough for instilling her put-one-foot-in-front-of-the-other attitude in me. (And for keeping the course under an umbrella, while it apparently rained all day pretty much everywhere around us.) I just wish we’d done more hiking together and that I shared her outdoors spirit earlier in life.

Hiking bling!

Time to start anew

Since I started doing races for myself in 2010, I’ve done two half marathons a year (three in 2017).

Not this year. I did only one.

And that one was hard-fought — I had the trifecta of cold, rain and battering wind. It was the first time that I honestly felt like not finishing a race. I likely would have, if I wasn’t already headed in the direction of shelter and a hot shower for the remaining distance of the course.

For 2018 race number two, I looked to find one that would coincide with a trip to northern California, eager to add another state to my race list. While sorting out details of finding a viable event, I held off ramping up my training, and in the end neither happened.

Somewhere, deep down, my motivation switch had been flicked to “off.”

The year had started on a down note and, as I came out of that fog (and the fog that was much of 2017), I was barely going through the motions of regular physical activity and healthy eating.

Sometimes we need a break … although it seems silly to say we need a break from healthful habits. But sometimes we I need to feel gross about ourselves myself to snap us me back into the desire to not feel gross. Rock bottom, as it were.

I think I’ve reached that point.

I don’t know if it’s good or bad that the timing coincides with New Year’s — a.k.a., time for resolutions. At the very least, I can remind myself of how to have better chances of keeping a resolution.

Resolutions — or goals — should be SMART. That is:

Specific: The more specific, the better. Break it down into smaller pieces.

Measurable: Figure out how you will measure whether you’ve reached a goal. Keep a tracker or journal, for instance?

Attainable: This is similar to the first step above: Keep it specific and concrete. Lose 50 pounds is a great goal. But Lose 10 pounds is more doable as an initial aim, which fosters a feeling of accomplishment when you reach it (and then set your next 10-pound goal).

Realistic: Is your goal something you can achieve with current resources and/or knowledge? If not, can you easily obtain the resources needed? Again, break it down into specific pieces.

Timely: The goal should include a time frame in which the goal will/can be achieved.

As 2019 begins, be easy on yourself.

I plan to shoot for very small goals, even day-by-day, to get back into a regular exercise habit, make better food choices, and rediscover my inner motivation. Here’s hoping.


A life-changing date

Ten years ago today, I did my first race: On Oct. 30, 2005, I walked a full marathon (26.2 miles), the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C.

My life has since changed in numerous, wonderful ways. To be honest, it changed even before that date, as I embarked on months of training for the race. Committing to such a goal and working toward it provides motivation and reward at many steps along the way. And I shared so much of that with co-workers who also were training for the event.

Crossing my first finish line was a very emotional experience!

Crossing my first finish line was a very emotional experience!

The goal was daunting, to be sure, but with each longer-distance training walk, I felt stronger, more prepared and more sure that I could do it.

The race day itself remains one of the most emotional and fantastic days of my life, and the memory will never (I hope!) fade.

The Marine Corps Marathon certainly is a great experience for a first-timer — and a walker, at that — because 1) it attracts a huge participant field and you’re never alone on the course, 2) the spectators are plentiful and nearly everywhere, 3) the scenery is pretty impressive (U.S. Capitol … Washington Monument … Smithsonian buildings), and 4) a Marine puts your medal around your neck. How great is that?

Doing this race was life-changing for the obvious reasons — achieving a big fitness goal, learning about what I could accomplish physically, feeling oh-so-proud for doing it.

But that’s not all.

As someone who hated gym class, was never among the first chosen for a team, and finished pretty much last in every meet when I spent one season on the high school track team (javelin, discus and shot-put), I finally found a physical outlet that felt great and at which I could feel a sense of achievement.

I caught the race bug, to be sure. I did a full marathon each of the next two years and then tried my hand (foot?) at half marathons. Before each race, I still felt a few butterflies, but I also felt confident in my abilities. As each finish line came into view and I crossed it, I still felt the same sense of elation and pride. I returned to the Marine Corps Marathon in 2011 to do my fourth full marathon, and on Sunday I’ll be doing my 15th half marathon.

Lots of fun times with race friends!

Lots of fun times with race friends!

Doing races is a great way to visit new places and really see them. There’s nothing like a race course that winds around a city to help you get an overview of somewhere new. Races have taken me to (among other places) Oregon, the Outer Banks, Myrtle Beach, new parts of Pennsylvania, Las Vegas, Florida and Dallas. In some cases, I was participating and in some cases I was there as a team coordinator, but in either case the travel was a great bonus.

Becoming a marathoner has altered my career path as well. It led me to seek certification as a group fitness instructor so I could work with others who were inspired and motivated by the idea of training to walk a race. I can’t get enough of the great feelings gained from doing a race; I love to see others experience it too!

But probably the best part of my race “career” is the friendships I’ve formed with fellow walkers. Preparing for and participating in a race is quite the bonding experience — and it’s so much fun to share it with good friends.

So, I want to send thanks and love to Katie, MaryPat, Beth, Pat, Pam, Rebecca, Jane, George, Kim, Annie, MaryAnn, Lee, Mary, Megan, Lana, Robynn, Bim, Jes, Marianne and others with whom I’ve shared this journey. (Katie, MaryPat and Beth get top billing because they, too, were on that course 10 years ago today, even though I didn’t know MaryPat and Beth very well at that point. Pat and Pam were seemingly everywhere along the course to cheer for us, even though we barely knew each other.) I’ll always have a fond place in my heart, too, for Karen, Polly and Craig, the most organized spectator crew ever on that day in 2005.

Thanks and love go, too, to the guy I call my “personal cheerleader-slash-photographer,” Chris. He’s the most patient and willing spectator I know.

micheleAnd special thanks and love to Michele, whose idea to create a walk-a-marathon training plan and program started it all. Look at how much pride and joy you’ve brought to so many, Michele! THANK YOU, from the bottom of my heart (and feet).

Sweet results

Mind over matter

Mind over matter

About two months ago (time flies!), I wrote about embarking on a sugar-free diet. At the time, I was only a few days in, but things were going swimmingly. The rest of the journey would prove to have some ups and downs.

The plan I followed was 21 days long. The first phase included only minimal sugar from natural sources like vegetables (no fruit allowed). The next phases re-introduced fruit, honey and processed whole grains, while the final phase allowed “treats” with a small amount of added sugar.

Some of what surprised me most over the course of the plan:

  • I didn’t crave what I expected to crave (ice cream, chocolate).
  • I didn’t miss what I expected to miss (Diet Coke, ice cream).
  • I gained a new appreciation for true whole grains (e.g. barley, quinoa, buckwheat). I already was a fan of quinoa but learned to use it in new recipes.
  • I discovered that a simple salad dressing of oil + lemon juice really is tasty and effective.
  • I was astonished at just how much sugar is found in some foods. Every once in a while, I like to have a chai latte from Starbucks. A medium (I can’t bring myself to use their sizing terminology) contains 43 g of sugar — or nearly 11 teaspoons! (The recommended max of added sugars a day for women is 6 teaspoons.) That was a sad realization but one that definitely made an impact.
  • IMG_1375A sugar source that you most crave might not be an “obvious” sugar like cake or chocolate. I discovered that the sugar I crave most comes in carbohydrate form — especially bread products. During the plan, I might have hurt someone for a slice of pizza or a sub sandwich on a nice chewy Italian roll. But a chocolate bar? Nah, no thanks.

So, as the plan went along, I was feeling GREAT.  I was wholly satisfied with the meals I ate — focusing on lean protein, unprocessed whole grains, produce, dairy and other foods in their natural state. I made sure to be prepared, cooking batches of quinoa, broiling chicken breasts and chopping veggies so I could throw meals together without much time to debate what to have. That enabled me to avoid eating something off-plan when in a pinch. Most of all, I felt even and stable. No indigestion or bloating or any similar issues. I felt clean and fueled and satisfied. I even successfully made it through a weekend away with my college roommate and our husbands at a baseball game in another city, early in the plan. (Though I do owe them a night out for drinks, because alcohol was not allowed in the first phase, and how can you visit with your college roommate without a toast or two?)

Midway through the 21 days, I’d lost some weight and I could feel the positive effects of this new eating plan. I was being proven wrong when it came to my skepticism.

And then I got cocky.

The last few days of the plan allowed you to eat a small treat each day, as a way to account for your added sugar allotment. The first couple days, I didn’t even have a treat. I confess that in part I was afraid to open the floodgates. But I also wasn’t really craving anything that badly (other than the aforementioned pizza).

That Friday night, I had a very small brownie sundae at a get-together. The next day, my husband and I set out for a weekend of bike riding. Our route would take us through some Jersey Shore towns known for pizza, so I made sure that our ride would coincide with a lunchtime stop. I reasoned that I’d count the pizza as my added sugar treat that day. I’d wanted to have a diet soda with the pizza (to me, they go together like mac and cheese) but the pizzeria we chose only offered Pepsi products, and I prefer Coke products, so I held out.

What was strange was that the pizza did not taste as good as I expected it to. It was a bit anticlimactic. Maybe I got a bum slice or two, I thought.

We went out for a seafood dinner that night. I had part of a fried tomatoes appetizer, drenched in marinara sauce. It sounded better than it was. And afterward we went for ice cream, and I had a small serving. Here came more rationalization: “I biked more than 30 miles today — I can cheat a little and overdo the sugar a bit.” I think because I was anticipating my first ice cream in 3 weeks of summer, I went a bit overboard, ordering a chocolate and peanut butter twist in a cup, with chocolate coating. (Rather than something simple, like plain vanilla, which might have been more satisfying.)

Again, though, it was anticlimactic and didn’t live up to expectations.

The next day we biked another 30+ miles. I had a couple more “cheats”: a white sandwich wrap, some french fries, a big Diet Coke. And now I started to feel like I was in the twilight zone — even the soda was not as fabulously enjoyable as I imagined it would be.

Early on Monday morning, I awoke feeling super bloated and just plain ugh. I got on the scale and couldn’t believe it. I was UP about 5 pounds from what I weighed before the weekend. Could my few “cheats” have had such a negative impact?

Long story short, it seems they did. Not only did I feel heavy and overstuffed but also sluggish and unmotivated. I couldn’t even blame the latter two effects on a weekend of bicycling because we were so conditioned from all our recent rides. I was super upset and disappointed in myself, feeling like it took me just a couple of days to completely unravel the previous weeks of doing so, so well on the plan.

As disheartened as I was, the lesson was invaluable. I couldn’t have asked for a more concrete illustration of how good it felt to eat so cleanly and with minimal added sugar. I immediately got back on track and within a few days felt great again.

Soon, I returned for my final weigh-in and was glad to find that the tide had turned. My total weight loss was more than 11 pounds. Along with that, I lost a total of 6.25 inches (arms, thighs, chest, waist, hips), with the most from my waist, which shrunk 1.75 inches.

In some ways, it’s crazy how great 11 pounds less can feel. On one hand, it doesn’t seem like a lot. But on the other, it makes me feel like a different person.

And speaking of a different person … I’ve changed in a lot of ways over the course of this endeavor, but I’ve stayed the same too. As great as I’ve felt on the plan, to be frank it’s still a struggle sometimes.

By far, the hardest part for me has been limiting myself to only one serving of processed whole grain a day. (That category includes cereal, bread, crackers, pasta.) For most of my life, I’ve been a cereal-for-breakfast and sandwich-for-lunch person. And even if I’m choosing a so-called healthy cereal like plain Cheerios or some form of Kashi, that’s still a serving of processed whole grain that contains added sugar. And even if I choose a whole wheat bread with zero or minimal added sugar, it’s still a serving of processed whole grain. Can’t have both now, so I’ve really had to adjust my typical menu. That’s still a work in progress. I also have to fight the mentality that if I’ve really adhered to the plan during most of the week, that I can balance out with some “cheats” on the weekend. That’s also still a work in progress.

So as time goes by, I’ll post more about my progress and my pitfalls. And I’ll remind myself how great I feel when all the pieces come together.

One million bucks

That’s about how much was raised by participants in the Alliance for Lupus Research‘s 5K walk for lupus in New York City on Saturday.

I participated in the walk and I’m proud to say that friends and coworkers of mine donated $503 (yep, $503, not $500) toward the cause on my behalf, which I augmented with a donation of my own. One hundred percent of donations will be used toward research efforts. (And it’s not too late to donate, even though the walk has occurred: Click here.)

30-year friends, walking for a cause

30-year friends, ready to walk for a cause

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I signed up to participate in this event to support one of my oldest friends, who has been battling lupus for 13 years. I’ve seen the ups and downs she has experienced with this tough illness — which include severe joint pain, extreme fatigue and other symptoms that have an awful impact on quality of life — and was pleased to join her in this event.

It seems counterintuitive, but exercise is vital for helping people with chronic conditions (in most cases) have better health and mobility. People suffering from joint pain, for instance, might feel that to go out for a walk would make the pain worse. But the opposite is generally true. (Refer to my recent post, “Walking and arthritis,” for more info.)

The event day was sunny and beautiful, and the 5K crowd, in the thousands, was varied. Many people had formed teams, and team captains spoke before the walk’s start about how they were there to support loved ones who are fighting lupus or even have lupus themselves. The walk’s course started at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum on NYC’s west side, went south to the Chelsea Piers complex, and back.

It was so inspiring to be a part of this cause, to help contribute toward research efforts and, most of all, to support my dear friend. I’m already thinking ahead to next year and how many people we can get to join us on event day! A two-person team is just a start.

Not so sweet

Pretty much anytime you read or hear about exercise as a means to a healthy life, nutrition is mentioned next. They certainly go hand in hand.

Mmmm ... brownies.

Mmmm … brownies.

And just as it’s not always easy to find the motivation to exercise, it can be difficult to always follow a healthy, nutritious diet. I sure can attest to both. In my adult years, I’ve lost a total of 50 pounds over time, but have battled with that last 10 pounds, back and forth.

And my exercise has ranged from a big fat load of nothing to a list of physical accomplishments that includes four full marathons, a dozen half marathons and a 10-mile race thrown in for good measure.

I know I’m not alone when I say that my best intentions don’t always win out. I never met a dish of ice cream or a brownie that I could easily turn down. On the flip side, I’ve been known to binge on fresh summer fruit, too. (Is it bad to eat two mangoes in one sitting? They’re just SO good.)

Boooo ... sugar.

Boooo … sugar.

I know many people who have tried a sugar-free diet, both as a constant way of living and as a way to reset their systems. In the latter approach, they spent several days with zero sugar — not even in natural forms, like fruit — and slowly reintroduced it to their diets. Ultimately the intention is to weed out as much added sugar as possible. Natural sugar is not a bad thing, the key word being natural. But added sugar has no nutritional value and no reason for being, other than making foods sweeter and setting us up for a lifetime of cravings.

It’s an understatement to say that there’s a boatload of research on how bad added sugar is for us. There’s a new study that not only links it to heart disease but to a higher risk for death. Another study found that fructose (a form of added sugar) can create a domino effect that causes our “I’m full” sensor to essentially malfunction. Yet another looked at the link between sugar consumption and decreased brainpower. And that’s just scratching the surface.

Research also shows that sugar consumption creates a vicious cycle. You consume it, you crave it, you consume more, you crave more… you get the idea.

So: How much sugar is OK? What kind of sugar is OK? The American Heart Association recommends that women consume no more than 100 calories a day, or about 6 teaspoons’ worth, from added sugars. (For men, it’s 150 calories and 9 teaspoons.)

OK ... in moderation.

Way more than a daily allotment!

For mathematical purposes when you’re reading nutrition labels, 4 g of sugar = 1 teaspoon. So if you’re eating one granola bar that contains chocolate chips that has 12 g of sugar (as I saw on a label of one today), there’s 3 teaspoons, or half your allotment for the day. From one 4-inch granola bar!

It can be hard to determine what portion of the sugars listed on a label are natural and what portion is not. The AHA offers great information about this and much more, here.

Aside from information sharing, my purpose in posting this topic is to share my experience in going sugar-free. For the past 6 days, I’ve been participating in a sugar-free diet test panel. I spent the first 4 days with zero sugar, natural or otherwise. Yesterday, I was able to add fruit back in, along with one serving of refined whole grain.

I had previously scoffed quite seriously at friends who tried this diet. I believe in all things in moderation, I said. Cutting something out just sets you up to really crave the taboo item, I asserted.

So what changed? I read more of the research. I took into consideration my friends’ raves about how great they felt. I realized that I needed a reset of my own — a final piece of the puzzle, if you will, in trying to live as healthfully as possible and eat cleanly.

Yum ... natural sweetness! / Photo by Chris M. Junior

Yum … natural sweetness! / Photo credit: Chris M. Junior

Do I miss ice cream? Yes. Surprisingly, I’m really craving some pizza. (Tomato sauce is generally loaded with sugar, and the white dough ain’t so great, either.) But I’m finding that I can survive without my daily Diet Coke, and that I can pass up the doughnuts and M&M’s in the office. I still love fresh fruit and consider it a yummy treat. And the more days that go by on my “eating clean” calendar, the better and more revved-up I feel. (The weight loss is a welcome side effect too!)

I still believe in “all things in moderation” — but I don’t think I was eating sugars in moderation. I’ll revisit the topic at the end of the test panel time period and let you know how I’m feeling then. In the meantime, I welcome feedback and/or comments if you’ve tried this way of eating yourself.

An 86th birthday half marathon

I promised in one of my earliest posts to tell the story about how my active grandmother (Gram) joined me on a race course. I’m happy to share one of my best memories.

What I didn’t mention was that the race — a half marathon — was on her 86th birthday. Not that I had any doubt she could do it.

Race bling!

Race bling!

The 2007 Philadelphia Marathon was on the list of events for a team I helped coach and coordinate. When I noticed that the race date happened to be Gram’s birthday, I knew I had to see if she might want to add a half marathon to her list of physical accomplishments. (You may recall from my earlier post that she took up skiing in her 50s, helped found a hiking club in her 60s and biked — more than once — across New Jersey.) Plus, because she had essentially inspired me to hit the race course in the first place, I loved the prospect of doing a race with her.

At that point, I’d completed three full marathons but no half marathons, and she was familiar with my participation. And I’d joined her on ski slopes and hiking and biking trails many times over the years. So I called her.

“Gram, there’s a half marathon in Philadelphia on your birthday. Do you think you’d like to do it together?”

“How far is a half marathon?” she asked.

“Thirteen-point-one miles,” I replied.

“Okay,” she agreed.

“Great!” I said. “When it comes time to start training officially, I’ll give you the details.”

“Oh,” she said, “I don’t think I need to train. I go hiking every week!”

Well … okay then!

But she was right. Her regular hiking prepared her just fine. (I wouldn’t recommend this for all beginners, but if you’ve met Gram, you know it was going to be okay.)

The race was on a Sunday. On Saturday evening, our team held a pasta dinner and gathering. I couldn’t have been more pleased to see my wishes about Gram come to fruition.

You see, our family would always tell Gram how terrific it was that she was so active; that she hiked regularly in her 80s; that she still liked to get out on her bike. But she would always respond dismissively, as if it were no big thing. She’s always been modest that way. I wanted her to hear the same accolades from strangers, believing it might give her more of an idea of how awesome and impressive she is.

When my coworkers eagerly approached us to meet her, and when so many other members of the team expressed their admiration to her, I think some of it did make an impression. By the end of the evening, she was reveling in her celebrated status. I was overjoyed.

Soon race morning dawned. We rose early, dressed in layers for the chilly race, and lined up with thousands of others near the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She soon expressed her amused annoyance with repeated photo taking by my husband. When the “Rocky” theme music begin to blare from the PA — the race starts in front of the famous stairs Rocky ran up, after all — we were off!

Our pace was slow and steady, and in 3 or 4 miles we were with a small group of walkers who were shifted to the sidewalks as the streets were reopened to traffic. We went through Center City, past Independence Hall, near the Philadelphia Zoo and Drexel University. It drizzled on us, but Gram kept stating that she was fine in her wool sweater — tried and true on many a winter hike. She even gave me her gloves at one point!

As we were in the final mile, we saw some women coming toward us. Among our team was a group of sisters, each of whom wore a different large dressy hat. A few of the sisters had finished the race already and were backtracking to find their other sisters. When they spotted Gram, they expressed delight in seeing her on the course. Gram stopped in her tracks to gab with them. I had to gently urge her to keep going. “We’re almost at the finish!” I encouraged.

My husband waited just before mile 13 to get our photo, and my dad (Gram’s son) and stepmother found a spot right near the finish line to watch for us. We rounded Eakins Oval, saw the end approaching, grabbed hands and crossed the finish line, as her name was broadcast by the announcer.

We did it!

We did it!

We happily accepted our medals, wrapped ourselves in space blankets, and started to celebrate. Our family eagerly sought us out in the finisher area to offer hugs and congratulations. My dad announced that he was treating us to lunch, and we happily chowed on cheeseburgers as Gram talked about how she couldn’t wait to get in her jacuzzi tub at home.

Proud finishers.

Proud finishers.

Several weeks after the race, Gram called. In the mail she’d received a wooden plaque with a photo of us crossing the finish line and commemorating her third-place finish in her age group. (Which I dispute, by the way. Upon checking the race results, I noticed that the first and second-place finishers were listed as age 99, so I suspect they were people who didn’t input an age and that was a default.)

“Did you get one of these in the mail?” she asked.

“No, Gram — I didn’t exactly finish third in my age group,” I said, smiling. But that was okay. I wasn’t in the race for a PR.

Seven years later, she’s approaching 93 and most recently joined a croquet league. The half marathon plaque still hangs in a place of honor in her home. And the memory of sharing the experience with her holds a place of honor in my heart.

My first race (of 17 and counting)

We all have to start somewhere.

I started big — a full 26.2-mile marathon. Some people start with 5Ks and work up. Nope, not me! Ha!

And I started not with just any full marathon: My first race was the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., with about 30,000 other willing participants and a big rumbling BOOM of a Howitzer or some such as a starting gun. Talk about race-day atmosphere!

To be fair, most of the details of my first race were decided by someone else. If it were left to me, I probably wouldn’t have become a racer at all! Or at least, I doubt it would have occurred to me. Who knew you could walk in a race?

You see, I worked at Prevention magazine. (If you’re not familiar with it, it focuses primarily on health and wellness.) In 2005, our fitness editor/director, Michele Stanten, came up with the great idea to publish a story encouraging readers to set a fitness goal of walking a half or full marathon. We printed training info in the magazine and reserved some registration spots with the race for our readers. Response was overwhelming! We had a handful of entry slots for staff members who were interested in participating, too.

Michele asked us to let her know if we wanted to sign up. (Here’s where you can refer to my previous post, Why I Race.) In short, I thought about my own health and wellness and decided to be proactive. I have to confess that there was a bit of ignorance in there too! I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But in the end, what I was getting myself into was utterly positive, rewarding and life-changing.

The MCM has a time limit that can be challenging for some walkers. It’s not about a finish time but about reaching and crossing a bridge three-quarters of the way through the course before the bridge is reopened to traffic — a.k.a. “Beat the Bridge.” Suffice it to say that it made us all be more committed to preparing properly for the event. Who wanted to train for months and months, racking up the mileage, only to be foiled on race day? It was a daunting thought. And that aspect served as a foundation for all my race training and preparation to come. Walking a race is one thing. Walking a race at a brisk pace that gets you through the course with support and across the finish line within established time limits so you can enjoy the atmosphere and the finish festivities is another.

During MCM training, we coworkers who were participating had so much to compare notes on and bond over as the months went by. I can’t imagine doing something like this for the first time all on my own, without a support system of fellow participants. It was reassuring to all of us.

The calendar ticked down and race day arrived. I could do a whole separate post on specific memories of race day (and maybe at some point I will), but I’ll share the highlights now:

  • A race-morning starting area is the biggest illustration of “hurry up and wait” that you will ever experience
  • Few things are better than seeing a familiar face cheering you on at about mile 13 or 19 when you could really use a boost
  • Walking a race is a great way to really see many neighborhoods of one city (and all in one day!)
  • Hiccup-crying for a whole mile is draining but cathartic (I beat the bridge, but wasn’t sure I would until I did!)
  • Cookies at mile 22 are the best cookies you ever ate in your life, followed closely by a celebratory bacon cheeseburger
  • Knowing you are going to cross the finish line after so many months of training and preparation is one of the most emotional things you might ever experience. It’s been nearly 9 years and it still makes me tear up even now.

Finishing a marathon is something no one can ever take away from you, and it’s an accomplishment to surely be proud of. Whether you walk it or run it or do a combo of both, everyone on the race course is entitled to give it his or her best shot and reap the emotional and physical rewards.


Why I race

OK, so it’s one thing to go for a walk. To set out around the nearby streets of your neighborhood for a 30-minute stroll.

But how and why does one progress from that to deliberately walking 13.1 (because just 13 would be crazy, as racers like to joke!) or 26.2 miles?

For me, it’s about my grandmothers.

No matter where you stand on the nature vs. nurture continuum, we all have both in our makeup to some degree. When the opportunity first presented itself to walk a marathon (more on that in a future post), my thought process turned to my grandmothers.

At that time (2005), one of my grandmothers was not in the best of health. She was 81. During her life, she wasn’t really an exerciser, and her primary form of physical activity over the years was gardening and yard work. Sometimes she did a little stationary cycling.

My other grandmother tended to amaze everyone who met her. In 2005, she was 84, and she went hiking weekly with a hiking club she helped start when she was in her 60s. Even before that, in her 50s, she took up downhill and cross-country skiing, and in her 60s she bicycled across New Jersey (from the northwestern corner to the southeastern tip) with a cycling group on a week-long trip a few years in a row. She was active and fit — and quite healthy.

So, as I thought about whether I could/should/wanted to walk a full, 26.2-mile marathon, I thought of two possible outcomes for my old age, at least in terms of the “nature” angle. And it was clear to me that I wanted to age like my amazing, inspiring active Gram — and to accomplish that, I might want to step it up (no pun intended!) while I was still relatively young.

I registered for the race. And I’ll tell you in a future post how my active Gram joined me on the race course a few years later.

Why I walk

The world is full of exercise methods — so why walking?

For me, at least, it goes back a long way. When I was in elementary school and junior high, I lived in a remote area. To get to the school bus, it was either a 3-mile drive on a winding, rutted, dirt road or a walk down the mountain we lived halfway up. My mom always said it was a quarter-mile trek. Not sure how she knew that — we didn’t exactly have a pedometer or some GPS-related smartphone app back then.

At any rate, that’s what I did: Most days during the school year from third through eighth grade, I walked down a winding path through the woods and over a small stream to get to my bus stop. And at the end of the school day, I hiked back up. It took about 15 minutes down and more than twice that up, as I recall.

Fast-forward to my 20s, when I was looking to exercise more regularly to lose weight and feel healthier. Walking became my most frequent choice, whether on the treadmill at the Y or around my neighborhood.

I think walking appealed to me at the time because it didn’t feel like a workout. For that reason, it appealed to my lazy side.

But time and knowledge have shown me that walking is not lazy at all. The beauty of walking is that pretty much anyone can do it, without choreography, without special equipment. That makes it easy, and accessible. As the saying goes: Put one foot in front of the other…