Thursday, April 23, 2009

I miss riding

To be specific, I miss riding a rational Limerick.

I feel that riding her will help my calf recover more thoroughly. I don't know why; I just feel it. But most of all, I simply miss my presence atop her high-withered back. Every time I lift myself aboard, I am back within my soul.

The last time I had a truly good ride on her--one completely free of nerves on both our parts--was January 1st. That's almost four months. One-third of a year. Crazy, isn't it?

Sometimes I worry that I will forget how she feels beneath me. How any horse feels beneath me. I know it's impossible. When you've been riding for almost 23 years, you just don't forget. When you've been riding that long, every single time you climb into a saddle or onto an equine back, the muscles alive beneath the sleek hide, you feel deep within the bones of your legs and hips and lower back that that horses--with all their wild beauty--were truly made to be ridden by us fortunate, grateful humans. You feel like you are home.

Every time you climb aboard, an ancient part of your soul remembers...

Among our first conscious signs of ourselves, in the limestone caves of Spain and France, they are already there, prancing, stampeding, and evidence suggests that we had already begun to see them as something more than themselves...There is what looks like an altar to the horse in the south of France, in a cave at a place called Landes, dating back fifteen thousand years, a "kneeling sandstone figure" of a mare amid skulls and horsehead figurines. Our awe in their presence--who has not felt it, just standing across the fence from one?--is as old as anything we can call ours.

-John Jeremiah Sullivan

Monday, April 20, 2009

The hawk and the toad

A cold rain fell from gray clouds when I set out for my run yesterday. It was 3:40 and I wanted to run a winding four-mile route, ending up at the gym at around 4:15 for a short swim.

The rain stirred my spirit and I wanted to run long and hard. I relish runs in bad weather. The worse the weather, the better the run. But my still-healing calf requests patience and an easy 10 to 9-minute-mile pace.

Pulling the brim of my white Nike cap down low, I ran up the sidewalk along Leask Lane. I crossed the street twice to continue following the sidewalk, which started and ended without reason on either side of the road.

I hadn't gone a quarter mile when I saw the hawk. Instantly recognizable with its large wingspan and gliding flight, it swooped down through the drizzle and rain and out of sight just ahead of me. I ran quickly to where it had ended up and searched the sky above me.

It was perched atop a street light, head cocked towards me, one brilliant dark eye on me. It had seen me long before I saw it. Content that I was nothing of concern, it shook the rain from its feathers and groomed its white belly with that hooked beak. After a minute, sleeker and satisfied, it focused on the ground before it. I made a kissing noise at it. It ignored me.

I had to go. I had to meet my husband at the gym. Casting one last look at the hawk, I resumed my run. I ran across the intersecting side street by the street light. And there, right in the middle of the unmarked right lane of the road, was a small toad.

I applied the brakes and turned back to the toad. I reached for the toad. A middle-aged guy in a Lexus SUV pulled up to the intersection in the other lane, pretending to not notice the strange behavior of the runner on the road in the rain.

I picked the toad up and looked at it. It was small and wet and cold and did not protest. Since it was not fat, I guessed it to be a male. I half expected it to reward me with a sudden stream of alarmed-toad pee but it did not. I knew that if I left it on the road, it would either become hawk food or roadkill.

Should I put him in the grass by the curb? In the bushes a dozen feet up the sidewalk? I knew that none of these options were good. The road was too close. My run was going to take me to the Danada trail head and beyond. Perfect; I could drop the toad off at the big pond there. Perfect.

The toad fit snugly into my right hand. With my keys in my left, I ran carefully. I did not want to jar the toad around and force him to bail out of my hand as I ran. Yet I did not want to squeeze him so tight that he was uncomfortable. To further complicate things, I knew that running with an altered gait could do plenty of damage to my healing calf.

So for the next mile, I had the not-so-easy of task of running with unaltered biomechanics for the sake of my legs while, in one hand, carrying a toad ever so delicately and smoothly, as if it were a ripe peach that was not to be dropped at any cost.

The rain continued. I had been a bit cold before encountering the hawk but now I was warm with the energy of an important mission.

At last I passed the barn and ran up the limestone trail head. I ran down the gentle slope to the left and searched for a clearing to the pond. As soon as I found one, I slowed to a walk and headed for the edge of the pond. I placed the toad on the pebbled edge of the water. I gave him a little nudge. He did not move. I stroked the toad along the side of his head with my index finger and he leaned into the pressure. I stroked the other side and he shifted his weight and leaned into that side. I smiled.

I turned to leave but had a thought. It was cold and wet and the toad was exposed there on the pebbles. I picked him up again and he croaked. I did not hear it but I saw the vocal sac blow out red and round and my hand vibrated with the croak.

How amazing, I thought. I have handled countless toads, particularly as a child, but never had one croak and sing in my hands.

I set the toad in a nest of grass on the bank of the pond. He croaked again, and again. I hoped he would find a mate there. Finally remembering that I had to be at the gym soon, I turned and left.

Today is Day 1 of Week 1 of my 18-week marathon training. I am generally only superstitious when it comes to horse racing but I hope the toad brings me good luck during my marathon training.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A sunset at the barn

Yesterday evening while I was waiting for Limerick's beet pulp to soak, I wandered down to the lower barn to check on the horses. The door at the west end of the barn was open and I was treated to a gorgeous sunset. Also, the stall doors at that end of the barn were aglow with orange light. I thought it was beautiful and took the best pictures my Blackberry would allow.

Monday, April 13, 2009

I love my heart

It’s amazing. I have, especially of late, always been acutely aware of the beating heart within my chest.

But until I saw it on an ultrasound screen on April 2nd, I never truly made a connection with it. I lay on the gurney next to the ultrasound machine, electrodes all over my chest and abdomen. I felt warm goo and slight discomfort as the ultrasound probe jabbed my ribs. The technician adjusted the monitor so I could see it. On the screen, in black and white and gray, was my beating heart.

“And this,” the technician said, “is your heart.”

The technician focused on my mitral valve. It billowed open and shut, open and shut. Although I was at rest, the heart’s pulsing was so rapid that I marveled at how it must look during exercise, during my runs.

After the initial ultrasound I had to walk, and then jog, on a treadmill. They were hoping to get my heart rate up to 192. After the maximum heart rate--or as close as they could get--had been reached, the treadmill would abruptly stop and I was to immediately lay back down on the gurney so the technician could ultrasound my heart again.

Honestly, that was probably the most difficult run I have ever done. I had running pants and shoes on but nothing on top except for the zillions of electrodes and a hospital gown. A huge tangle of wires connected me to various machines. The treadmill was narrow and short, with handlebars on one side and in the front. The room seemed so small and claustrophobic. Suddenly, falling off the treadmill was a real threat.

“I hope I don’t fall off this thing!” I said.

“You won’t—no one has fallen yet!” the younger technician said. I recalled what they had told me—that they were not used to young, healthy patients in the room.

“Well, it would be ironic if I was the first,” I said. They laughed. I gripped both handlebars tightly. I knew it would make running even more difficult but I was so sure I would fall off the treadmill without holding on.

(As a result of my hearing loss, my balance isn't the best. My center of balance can easily become disorientated. I am a klutz!)

The younger technician set the treadmill at an ever-increasing incline and pace. As I walked, then ran, she periodically took my blood pressure. A large screen with squiggly lines tracked my heartbeat and displayed my heart rate. After fifteen minutes of this torture (of which the only bright side was the fact that my calf was not hurting at all), my heart rate was at 179.

As planned, the treadmill stopped abruptly and I laid back on the gurney, doing my best to not trip up in the trillions of wires around my torso and legs.

More warm goo. The uncomfortable probe. Suddenly my heart was there, pounding clearly and furiously on the ultrasound screen. I waited for it to palpitate.

Laying there, waiting and watching the mitral valve billow open and shut at a dizzying pace, I realized that my heart would not abruptly stop on me as I had once worried. I realized that this incredible, truly involuntary organ was always working, always beating. As I slept, as I ate, as I watched television, as I ran, as I groomed Limerick, as I read, as I swam under water, lungs held tight with air, as I held my husband’s hand, my heart was beating. No matter what I was doing, it was beating.

And right there, I suddenly fell in love with my heart.

Sure, it will palpitate. Its beating will plunge if I run then stop. It will skip or add beats. It may even hurt. But it is doing none of these things on purpose. It is how it is—mitral valve prolapse and all. I regretted the years I spent smoking. I regretted the bad food I ate in college. I regretted the years I didn’t exercise as much as I should have. I regretted everything that could have hurt it.

My heart may not be perfect, but it is there for me. And it’s up to me to be there for it.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The calf saga, continued

After two insanely long weeks of no running whatsoever (including one torturous week of no cardio workouts at all), on Tuesday I finally ventured forth from my apartment in running clothes, brand new orthotics nestled snugly within the soles of my New Balance 826's.

Suddenly feeling like a pompous dweeb in my running tights, I began walking.

I walked not just because I was trying to take it slow and easy, but because I was scared. If the pain returned then so would the frustration and the self-loathing. Not being able to run due to an injury has been far more depressing than I thought it would be. I have read first-hand accounts of the anger, depression, and frustration that injured runners struggle with on a daily basis as they heal. I would sympathize but in my heart I didn't truly understand.

Now I do.

I have tirelessly been doing all I can to help my calf heal. I bought a foam roller and The Stick, two pieces of physical therapy paraphernalia that no runner should be without. I religiously kept my calf wrapped in self-sticking athlete's tape, and when the tape no longer self-stuck, I borrowed from Limerick's bottomless stash of Vet Wrap and began using that.

I saw a physical therapist for a free injury consultation and he concurred with what I had known all along--mild strain. He recommended that I purchase orthotics for my over-pronation (when I run, my feet--particularly the right foot--roll inwards upon landing). He also gave me a routine of stretches I can do for my calf.

That very evening, my husband and I visited Naperville Running Company (which is fast becoming one of my favorite stores!) and there, one of the employees helped me choose orthotics for my running shoes. I also bought a pair of Zensah calf compression sleeves to replace the Vet Wrap. To my distaste, the only color available in my size was pink but I bought them anyway.

That alone tells you how dedicated I am!

And so, every night I have been doing the following, in order:

  • Remove the calf sleeve
  • Do the prescribed stretches
  • Use the foam roller and The Stick
  • Put the calf sleeve back on (and there it will stay until the next evening, showers being the exception)
  • Ice the calf for 20 minutes
I also ice the calf in the morning and, at work, I will borrow an ice pack from the freezer in the hair-raisingly-disgusting employee break room and ice my calf on and off throughout the day.

And back to Tuesday. I walked for a quarter mile. Tentatively, I broke into a slow jog. My calf felt okay. I jogged further. Still okay.

After a little over a half mile, I felt a slight twinge of pain in the calf. Right away, I slowed to a fast walk. It continued like that for another mile and a quarter, with much more time walking than running.

I was disheartened but not discouraged. The next day at work I decided to schedule an appointment for a sports massage on my calf. The physical therapist I had seen highly recommended the massage, anyway.

The past 24 hours have been excellent for my calf!

Yesterday evening I tried another walk/run. This time there were no twinges of pain and I spent far more time jogging (at a yawningly-slow pace but hey!) than walking. I walked at the start and ends of the run, and I walked up the steepest part of the hill at the end of my route.

I was elated! I was so happy to be out and running, pain-free, on the limestone trails that I had a huge smile on my face. I probably looked like a maniac but fortunately, no one else was around to see.

Then today at lunch I went back to the therapy office where I had my original injury assessment for the sports massage on my lower legs. It hurt at times, and the therapist noted that she could feel the strain (not to mention several other knots here and there). She said I was doing all the right things and to keep it up.

My marathon training is scheduled to begin next weekend. Originally, I thought I would be starting it with a 35-miles-per-week running mileage but now it will have to be lower. No biggie; I'll be happy to just stay on schedule for the training.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Illinois Derby and a LONG show

Last Saturday my husband (who, to my delight, is falling ever-further into the two-minute adrenaline rush that is horse racing) and I went to Hawthorne Park for the Illinois Derby.

They say Hawthorne Park is no Arlington Park. They are correct.

Nevertheless, we had a lot of fun. Besides the Illinois Derby, there were a lot of Derby (and Oaks) prep stakes races on the televisions. It was a rare day of losing money for me versus breaking even or winning, but I only lost five bucks so it wasn't a big deal.

Every year I pick a Derby horse a month or two prior to the race. This year my horse is Quality Road. He didn't run in the Illinois Derby but blew away his rivals in the Florida Derby a couple weeks prior.

Musket Man, the eventual winner.

Giant Oak; he was touted as being truly
giant but...he really isn't. Either way,
he's a handsome horse. Placed in the race.

The start of the Illinois Derby. Giant Oak's
insanely pink muzzle is visible second
from the right.

On Sunday I woke up at 4:00am after five hours of sleep for the schooling dressage show at Fields and Fences in Wadsworth/Gurnee. I wasn't planning on riding (good thing, because I technically couldn't, anyway...different story!) but I wanted to tag along with Lim to take in the experience of being at a show, stress-free.

Long story short: the day was endless, I was exhausted, Lim was fairly well behaved (she did spook at a cooler on a table and went into the classic Thoroughbred "periscope pose" countless times) but thanks to the horrible weather blowing in and the other horses freaking out in the arena, I knew that had I ridden her, she would have been truly awful.

It was one of the longest days of my life but I did have fun and enjoyed watching my friends from the barn perform. I was very proud of all of them, even if their horses weren't behaving perfectly!

A sparkling clean, alert Limerick and her
dirty, exhausted mom.

My husband and Lim--I love this picture!
My husband came with but left at
noon in his car. I think he had enough
of horses for the weekend!