Week seven: upward and upward

I haven’t written much about the actual experience of running lately because when it comes down to it, there’s not a whole lot to say. You put one foot in front of the other and move forward until it’s time to stop.

It’s not all that exciting, really. What makes it interesting is what goes on in my head and inside the heads of the people around me. How we interact, how we react to the running experience, and what we think about how we’re reacting.

I was going to get to all that, but I was waiting for something momentous, like mile ten.

Then mile eight happened, and it felt more like mile 18. True, I can’t talk about running 18 miles with any authority, having never in my seven weeks as a runner attempted anything close to that. But that’s the comparison Coach Scott made, though he didn’t get around to mentioning it until we were done.

I’m coming to learn that Scott Boliver is a pretty understated guy with a high tolerance for pain. Not a surprise, I guess, for someone who works as a prison psychologist, and whose dad, Ray -- who volunteers at the site every Saturday along with his mom-- showed up a couple of weeks ago in the pouring rain attached to a portable drip bag because he had undergone some sort of intense medical procedure.

Not a problem, he assured us, as he urged us to help ourselves to more of the pretzels and orange slices and candy corns he and Scott’s mom, Pat, supply for us along our running route every week. Then there’s Scott’s son, Alec, who also volunteers every week and who was back at the site a week after undergoing brain surgery, shaved head and all. Strong stock, the Boliver clan.

We runners all gathered at 8 a.m. on Saturday to gear up for our eight-mile run, feeling pretty good. Seven miles last week was a cinch, so we didn’t pay much mind when Coach Scott started talking about hills and hydration and special running form for steep inclines.

We should have.

Saturday’s run took us up and over the formidable rise known as the Cahuenga Pass. It’s not the real Cahuenga Pass, which extends through the Santa Monica Mountains from the Los Angeles Basin to the San Fernando Valley. Runners and bikers seem to have bestowed that honorific upon this particular long and steep incline, which runs from Travel Town past the golf course and the old zoo, to accord it the respect it deserves.

On the (real) Cahuenga Pass two major land battles were fought, the first, the Battle of Cahuenga Pass, in 1831 between settlers and the Mexican-appointed governor’s squad and the second, the Battle of La Providencia, 14 years later between settlers over possible secession from Mexico.

On our pseudo-Cahuenga Pass we soon found ourselves in the midst of a struggle of our own: the Battle to Stay Upright and in Motion. According to Coach Scott, we would best achieve this by avoiding the temptation to lean forward, by maintaining our rhythm but slowing our pace, and by taking short steps and keeping our feet low to the ground.

That was all well and good, but we were still straining to move forward.

We’re typically a fun-loving group, and everyone was feeling particularly cheerful at the beginning of the run, buoyed by the Obama victory and a bright, sunny morning. When we all realized that the “hill” we were on was more like a never-ending incline, up and up and up, then down a bit and up and up some more, the strain of staying in motion sent us all into silence.

I won’t bore you with the gory details, the pinches, the strains, the cries of agony and the blinding sweat. Suffice to say that two hours later, all nine of us managed to make it to the end, in varying states of physical distress. The bananas and peanut butter sandwiches on the snack table were a revelation.

Was this my future for the next three (make that six) months? Was the reality of training for a marathon catching up to me? I needed the insight of a veteran runner to put things in perspective.

Fortunately, my friend Sara Stein, a real runner, is also training with APLA for the marathon. I hardly ever see her because she is in a fleet-footed group that is dispatched early (so they don’t have to run past all us slow-pokes) and long gone by the time we finish. Sara is an even-tempered person. As the proprietor of a public relations business in the fashion industry, she has to be. I called her as soon as I got home, but I barely had time to say hello before she launched into an uncharacteristic tirade.

The run was “terrible,” she said. “Horrible,” “humiliating, unnecessary and wrong, just wrong.” Sara, it turns out, had a hard time keeping up with her co-runners. She’s one of the few women in her pace group and the only one who’s given birth --twice. Back in her pre-kid days she used to take the hill on her weekend runs, but only one side, not both, and even then it was a big challenge, she told me, and she and her husband would come and gaze at it afterward and marvel at her strength and stamina. She hadn’t attempted it lately, and hadn’t intended to. But here she was, being left behind, only to be regaled by one of her running mates with tales of struggling runners losing control of their bowels. “Oh. My. God!” she shrieked into the phone. “The horror!” Then she added: “Congratulations! It’s great that you made it.”

I was left feeling both proud of finishing a hard run and sheepish at having to be told the magnitude of what I’d accomplished. It reminded me of my second day in California, in the fall of 1989. I’d moved to San Francisco fresh out of college and was unpacking my boxes when the radio went dead and my third-floor flat began to quiver. I grew up in Chicago and didn’t know from earthquakes. It was freaky to feel the earth move, but after a quarter of a minute it was done and it seemed there was nothing to do but go back to unpacking. That was Loma Prieta. By the time of the Northridge quake in ’94 I was living in Southern California, and when the shaking began I knew enough to feel the requisite, involuntary dread.

According to Coach Scott, we’ll be taking Cahuenga at least two more times during our training. I can only hope to keep the dread at bay.

3:23 PM Monday, November 10 2008 • Link •  
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