Area Man Stops Running for a Week and There’s Nothing Physically Wrong with Him or Anything

IMG_2749_blog.jpg

Early Monday, Matt Morgan’s absence from the streets of Northbrook raised little concern among the parents driving their kids to school and the people rushing to catch the Metra train downtown.

By Tuesday morning, with no sign of the man in his moisture-wicking T-shirt and awkwardly short nylon shorts, rumors began to fly.

“I thought he had the flu or got hit by a bus or something,” one woman told us on condition of anonymity. “Just about every morning, I can count on him darting out in front of my car through the red ‘do not cross’ sign at Pfingsten. I mean, he thinks he can hold up his hand at me like ‘sorry’ and that makes it any less dangerous to run all willy-nilly into oncoming traffic. When I didn’t see him at all by the end of the week, I knew something was wrong.”

It turns out he is not sick or injured. He’s simply chosen not to run. In fact, it’s been a full week since Morgan has jogged anything more than a mile.

He did run a little bit on Wednesday, but only to participate in Global Running Day, which is an annual holiday made up by runners to congratulate themselves on running, and really, he only ran that day for the purpose of posting a running selfie on social media.

Members of the I Worked At Northbrook DQ Facebook group, who first reported him missing from the neighborhood sidewalks, wondered what could be the cause. If he were injured, they surely would have heard about it, because runners who are hurt will constantly tell you they are hurt as an explanation for why they aren’t running and post pictures of themselves doing things they normally don’t have time to do when they are running so much.

Aside from the isolated, shameless selfie self-promotion on that made-up running holiday this past week, Morgan hasn’t told many people about his running hiatus aside from his co-workers and church friends, who have heard him go on about it multiple times a day.

“I needed a break. I’ve run like six days a week for about a year. I mean, running a hundred miles a month takes a toll,” Morgan said, seemingly unaware of his intense humblebragging.

He went on for a few minutes, using words like “splits” and “VO2 max,” but nobody wants to read about that stuff.

What does a man who runs nearly every day do when he’s chosen not to run anymore? It defies logic.

“I’ve been staying up till like 9:30 at night, reading and sewing on buttons that fell off a couple shirts,” Morgan said. He declined to comment further.

Why This Runner Sets the Alarm for 4:30 in the Morning

430am

Ding ding dong dong. The bell tower alarm goes off, like it does almost every morning. Only it’s 4:30, not my usual wake-up time of 5 or 5:30. That half-hour makes a lot of difference, and at least right now, I’m really missing it.

Eyes half closed and brain still half struggling to comprehend what’s up, I fumble to press “snooze.” But there will be no more snoozing. When I have my wits about me, I focus on the phone, swipe a couple of times to shut off the alarm, and roll out of bed.

For runners like me, these are moments of truth.

Three days a week, I wake up and lace up and head out the door. What started years ago as a means to an end—I ran primarily to perform well in an upcoming race but didn’t really enjoy any of it—morphed to become an indelible part of me. I identify myself as a runner now as much as a husband, a father, a churchgoer, a creative director.

Even with my love of running, I need a goal to maintain motivation. Usually, it’s a race. These days it’s to finish the New York City Marathon on Nov. 5. No—not just finish it. Set a personal record. And like my shoes won’t put themselves on my feet, this goal won’t happen by itself. You can either do the work when it needs to be done, or you can continue snoozing.

My training plan calls for 8.5 fast miles on this particular weekday, as it did the previous two weeks. Those last two efforts, however, did not go well. They weren’t total failures, but they weren’t successes, either. Started out too fast? Didn’t eat well enough beforehand? Or was it that I didn’t eat well enough the night before? Did I not hydrate properly? These questions rattle through my mind as I allow my body to ease up, about halfway into the run. This happened two straight weeks. Ugh.

The plan has this fast 8.5-miler for six of seven weeks, so if I want to hit my goal for the workout—heck, if I want to hit my goal for the marathon—I’d better figure it out. I can either deal with this demon or give in. And I’m not getting up at 4:30 to give in.

The day before the third, pivotal session, I hydrated well and ate a carb-tastic dinner (chicken and ziti). When I got up, I scarfed more carbs and good fats (whole-wheat bread with peanut butter) in addition to my usual banana. Perhaps as important as these food and drink tweaks, I prepped my head to be in the right state to wrestle a run I’d repeatedly struggled with.

After a check of essentials—headlamp, watch, water, gel—I venture out.

These fast paces seem easy for the first few miles. That’s nice, I tell myself, but stick to the program. Rein in the pace. Keep the breathing steady and relaxed. The hard stuff is coming, and you’ll need those feel-good reserves. I often visualize my body as a steam engine, with the carbohydrates in my system serving as coal in the fire, and like a shovel-wielding train engineer, I’m continually assessing the fuel situation and ready to react: How’s the power right now? Need anything to keep it up? No? OK, then, let’s push on!

Some days, the stars align and I have a fantastic run. Other days, even when conditions seem to be the same, things can go well and then very suddenly fall apart. I might have an inkling why, or I might not. Experience has taught me to appreciate the good days and not agonize (too much) over the bad ones.

This particular day, at oh dark hundred, the stars aligned. The first few easy miles gave way to a gut check in the middle stages, and then a push past halfway—over the hump!—until I could sense the downward momentum and practically feel myself finishing strong, well within my time goal.

With the sun only starting to peek through the trees in the neighborhood, I cross the imaginary finish line at the end of my street, and I stop my watch. Resting my sweaty hands on my fatigued, sweaty knees, I exhale forcefully a few times to slow my heart rate, then I straighten up. Endorphins flood my system. As I turn to walk home, I reflect on what this success feels like. I savor it.

People ask me why I do this. Why I run crazy distances at crazy paces at crazy hours. Why I run at all. This is why. I’ve hit a high point for the day, and for all intents and purposes, the day hasn’t even begun. It’s worth setting the alarm for 4:30 a.m. now and then, knowing you’ll be missing a precious half-hour of sleep, and getting up in the black of night, to test your limits in pursuit of something you want. You should try it.

How 14 Failed Runs Got Me to the Chicago Marathon

failed_run

I was still running high after a successful winter of training and a mammoth marathon PR in April. But an unusually cold spring quickly gave way to an unusually humid summer, and by the second week of July I knew something was wrong.

July 5 was a buildup run: Hold pace for a couple of miles, speed up and hold pace for a couple of miles, speed up again and hold pace again. I burned out after the first section. I just didn’t have it. The next week was the same run and the same result. That weekend, another failure.

Weeks of this turned into months. I stopped enjoying my training. I started hated it.

I was discouraged. I’d never struggled like this in all my years of running. But I was not defeated.

Every running morning, I got up, laced up and headed out. I slogged through many a workout, alternating walking and running after the running part failed. I forgot about my pace. At worst, I could manage only a tenth of a mile of continuous running. I take that back: At worst, I stopped my watch and walked home.

It was the slogging—continuing past the point of needing to walk, of feeling like a failure—that prepared me for where I am now, oddly confident on the eve of the Chicago Marathon. Every run since my 20-mile disaster (it was supposed to be 22) has been good to great. My stride has returned along with the cooler weather, and just in time.

Despite all my failed runs—14 of them, I counted—over the last four months, I am finally (FINALLY!) ready to take on this iconic race, just not how I imagined it. I may not have it in me to achieve my original goal (cut the gap to my Boston qualifying time in half), but I’m feeling good about my fallback plan (PR).

If a new PR isn’t in the cards, that’s OK, too. I’ll forget about my pace like I did in all those failed training runs and simply enjoy racing through one of the country’s greatest cities. Win-win.

Why I Spent $24.95 on This Awful Race Photo

marathon_misery

I received the email with my official marathon photos. You know the one. I clicked the link to access the proofs, knowing full well I wouldn’t like what I saw.

In this case, it was proof that I was indeed suffering during the race. This was January 2013.

One particular image so finely epitomized my experience that I grabbed a screen shot of it—though I couldn’t bring myself to pay for the download. The screen grab stayed where I saved it, on my computer desktop, for over three years. Occasionally I’d call it up and look at it, and I’d recall the misery of that moment.

It was past mile 20, after I’d hit the wall. I’d given up on my plan to walk only through the water stations and was instead willing my body to keep moving at all. I’d also given up on my time goal, cursing my failure to achieve what I worked so hard for. I hated the taste of my gels. I hated a lot of things. I was past the point of exhaustion—physical and psychological—and I had an eternity to go before I could be done with it all (and, not surprisingly, go directly to the medical tent).

I look at the picture now, and the pain is as real as it was then.

This week, I finally paid for the digital download. $24.95 on my credit card. Three years after the fact.

Why in the world would I keep the screen shot on my desktop for so long—or maybe more curious, why would I ever spend hard-earned cash on such a forgettable photo?

Because I don’t want to forget what happened. I don’t want to forget how I failed, or how I felt. Ever.

Two weeks ago, I ran the marathon of my life, and I have all the happy pictures to prove it. (I bought them right away.) I’ll cherish these photos, along with the memories they evoke, for as long as I have room for them in my brain and on my hard drive. But I’d better not forget that awful 26.2 in 2013, either. And now I’ll always have that picture to look back on—in unsightly 300 dots per inch. I want to zoom in and see the anguish in my face and remember the wall and the water stations and the wayward goals. I want to remember what went so terribly wrong on the racecourse that day.

It’s by reflecting on our failures—and learning from them—that we lay the groundwork for improvement. I’ve elevated every aspect of my running since 2013, I’m pleased to say, and with this awful picture now in my possession, I’ll know by exactly how much.

 

Race Recap: 2016 Big Sur Marathon

bixby_mm_blog

The 2016 Big Sur Marathon is over. Cross this race off the bucket list. But let’s not move on to the next thing yet. Let’s savor this one for a while.

I close my eyes and breath in, taking it all in. My senses are full. In this quiet moment I’ve made for myself, I recall THE POUNDING.

THE NERVOUS POUNDING of my heart in my chest as our bus approaches the start line.
We’d ridden the entire 26.2 miles of the marathon route in reverse to get there. It’s an interesting backward preview, knowing on foot you’ll be covering all the ups as downs and the downs as ups. What I remember for sure is there were a lot of each. (When the day was done, I gained more than 2,000 total feet of elevation.) I look out the window. It’s dark at 5:30 a.m., and with no visible scenery to occupy my mind, I reflect on my training. That was a big downhill we drove just now, which means a big uphill later. At what mile will that be for me? Did I do enough hill training for it? Will I push too hard in those early stages and not leave enough for the rest of the race?

THE FUTILE POUNDING of my fist on my iPhone, because the battery has conked out AGAIN.
I pull the phone out of my belt to take a picture, and I’m greeted with a frustratingly familiar black screen. Ack! I know there is juice, even though the phone has been searching for a signal for hours. No, this is because it’s too cold outside. My phone would frequently do this during training runs in Chicago. I usually joke and tell people it’s because my phone was purchased in Phoenix and it’s not acclimated to the weather. Only I’m not laughing now. There will be no more midrun selfies, at a time when I wanted them most. I’m really glad I got some shots early on, because I’ll need to rely on my memory and the official race photographers to preserve my effort for the rest of the morning. I make a last-ditch attempt to power up right before the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge—no luck—and holster my phone for good. Well, this is fate telling you to get your mind off the technology and make memories with your brain. Focus on the moment.

THE RHYTHMIC POUNDING of the taiko drums at mile 10, a traditional signal to begin the 520-foot ascent over the next 2 miles to the highest point of the course.
The drum line is strategically placed there at the base, at the Little Sur River bridge, I’ve read, for just such an effect, to plant the rhythm in the mind, the body and the soul. So much is written about that couple of muscle-busting miles to Hurricane Point. What they don’t tell you about, or at least what I missed if they did, is the wind. Gusts had been buffeting me and the other runners for miles, and nearing Hurricane Point, when we were at our weakest from the climb, the wind was a double slap in the face. I’d already cinched my visor down on my head earlier, and the bursts here were enough to blow it clean off. Thankfully, it stuck when it hit the pavement and didn’t continue skittering off the road and down into the Pacific below. Why am I even wearing the visor, I wondered, except to have something to aggravate me? The sun had barely broken through, and it wasn’t raining, which are my two main reasons for the headwear in the first place. I took it off to carry for a minute, realized I didn’t like having it in my hands, and then wriggled it back where it belongs. Don’t let the killer hill or the assailing wind or the floppy visor get you off your game plan, man. There’s too much race left.

THE UNRELENTING POUNDING of my feet on the pavement, especially around mile 20, when I can finally allow my mind to comprehend the finish.
A few days earlier, I watched the Boston Marathon on TV. We followed the lead pack in the men’s and women’s races, including some of the best distance runners in the world, and one of the commentators said that by mile 20, marathoners—yes, even these elite athletes—get fatigued and must rely on mental toughness to finish well. Mile 20 has significance for me, too. Not only is it near the limit of any of my training runs (22.5 is my longest, and that didn’t go so great), but it’s also the spot where I hit a wall in two of my three previous marathons. So how was I doing now? After a mental check head to toe, I realized my right ankle was sore, and my quads, especially my right one, were screaming. Most of the course, the southbound lane of Highway 1, is steeply sloped toward the ocean, which takes a toll on the body’s frame even if you make a point to find the flatter spots. Could that explain why my right side hurt? At any rate, I’m feeling like I have enough left. Only 10K to go. Which is what, 45 minutes? You can take 45 minutes of pain. Let’s call it discomfort. You can take it. You can make it.

THE SWEET, SWEET POUNDING of the massage therapist on my right quad, and my left one, and my adductors, and my calves, not long after the race.
I hobble through the finishers chute to the VIP tent, having just enjoyed a decent kick to the end and also having totally shattered my PR from three years ago. (“No one PRs at this race!” people would tell me later, in amazement. But I did, by 50 minutes.) I grab the first thing I see, a berry smoothie, and the thing I see after that, a big ol’ chocolate chip cookie, and make as much small talk as I have breath for. The party organizers point me toward the free massage area. I’m thinking it was an excellent idea to spring for the VIP treatment. I’ve never gotten a massage after a race before, but don’t mind if I do. I take off my space blanket and my medal, which isn’t actually metal and has already become my most coveted running memorabile, and manage to hoist myself up on the table. I lie on my back and as my muscles cramp up, I’m surprisingly relaxed.

I close my eyes and breathe in, taking it all in, and reflect on the Big Sur Marathon. My senses are full. In this quiet moment I’ve made for myself, I smile.

This Is Big (Sur)

bixby03_post.jpg
Bixby Creek Bridge

“If we were told we could only run one marathon in our lifetime, Big Sur would have to be it.” —Bart Yasso, chief running officer, Runner’s World

I don’t recall exactly when the Big Sur Marathon first entered my head. But I know that when I read Bart Yasso’s quote about it last year, Big Sur burrowed there.

The marathon, with its breathtaking California coastal views and epic climbs (perhaps as payment for those views), is on a lot of people’s bucket lists. It’s on mine. And I’m fortunate enough to not wait long to cross it off.

Search for “Big Sur Marathon” online, and you’ll find no shortage of amazing photos of the ragged edge of the Western world, most notably of Bixby Creek Bridge, complete with ant-size people running across for a humbling juxtaposition.

Oh, what an experience it will be! But if it were only about photo ops, my family and I could have purchased plane tickets and booked a hotel room for a few nights on the Monterey Peninsula. (Although we’re doing that, too.)

No, this is about the Big Sur Marathon, 26.2 miles of exhilaration and pain along northbound Highway 1. This is about 16 weeks of training—starting in January, in Chicago, in subzero wind chill—logging up to 35 miles each week (yes, only 35 miles, but that’s another blog post), subjecting my glutes and quads and calves and lungs to grueling hill work. This is about eating well (OK, eating like a horse), nursing nagging injuries, and avoiding illness or shaking them quickly. About keeping an eye on the prize. This is about being on the cusp of shattering my marathon PR in the grandest way I can think of.

There are a lot of superlatives in this post. The risk in building up something so much in your mind is having the experience not go as you envisioned or things not play out as planned. When you’ve worked so hard for something, and when every account you hear about it only boosts your already high expectations, it’s hard not to make more out of than you should.

I need to try to keep those feelings in check, but also allow myself to be moved in the moment.

As I write this, with less than 24 hours to go before the race, my nerves are good. Butterflies are minimal. Taper madness, even that’s not so bad! All that’s about to change, I know, when I head to the expo this morning to check in, and when I board the bus (at OMG-early) to the start line.

This is Big.

Make a Donation to PAWS Chicago

give_back_wide

Happy tax day! If you’re like me, you waited late to file (oh, but not too late!). Did you get all the deductions you wanted? Maybe you wished you could have given a little more to charity.

Well, you can do something about that charity thing right now. By giving to PAWS Chicago at this link, you can …

 

  • Deduct 100% of your gift on your 2016 taxes
  • Support a worthwhile cause, giving hope to homeless pets
  • Help me get to the Chicago Marathon

 

Won’t you donate to my cause today?
Our area’s homeless pets and I are grateful for any amount.

—> CLICK HERE TO DONATE <—