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"Off The Record"
A Blog by Jill M. Geer

At the Crossroads

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

I'm not exactly the Robert Johnson of first-time marathoners, but after nine months of training, I realize that I am at a crossroads. What is less clear is where any of the roads may take me.

After years of slovenliness and half-hearted running, I formed a Facebook-generated alliance earlier this year with two of my former teammates from the University of Arkansas to run the Bank of America Chicago Marathon.

Since almost the dawn of my running life, I said I never could or would run a marathon. History showed that more than a couple of weeks of 50-mile weeks resulted in breakdowns. I had battled my IT bands for 22 years, and the longest I had ever run was 14 miles … a run that resulted in an IT band implosion so complete and intense that it created a new black hole.

But then I said, if 240-pound, middle-age guys can run a marathon, what the heck is my excuse?

So I embarked.

Everything was peachy keen until early August. I like to think I may have single-handedly turned the economy around by all the stimulus I provided in my endless purchases of Nike clothes and shoes. (Does anybody need an empty orange shoebox? If so, drop me an email.) And by following the Hanson's training program, I had miraculously avoided IT band issues, patella tendinitis and all my other favorite overuse injuries.

No sooner had I made that observation about my relative good health than the fates punished me.

In the first week of August, the outside of my right calf had a hissy fit. (Not coincidentally, this happened right after a 50-mile week.) It turned out to be my soleus, and I got in under control in a couple of days. I even had a lovely 15-miler five days later. Too bad I then had to do no physical activity at all for two weeks as I limped around Berlin during the World Championships. Ever walk around in lederhosen while nursing a plate of schnitzel, currywurst and a calf injury? It's not as easy as it sounds.

No sooner had I begun to resign myself to a marathon-free fall than I managed to get back into it, only to be cut down a few weeks later by a strained gastroc … you know, the OTHER calf muscle.

Pain, schmain, I said. So I ran 18 miles. By myself. On a treadmill. With every single step causing pain in both legs – right calf, right ankle, left quad, right plantar fascia.

When I say "pain", I'm not talking about the "somebody is trying to extort money from me for having sex with subordinates" kind of pain. I'm talking more about the "somebody is attacking me with a baseball bat while their co-conspirator applies thumbscrews and blasts Yoko Ono's greatest hits" kind of pain.

So I've muddled around since then. And I woke up Monday, six days out from the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, with an illness that makes me feel like I've haven't slept for days as glacial sheets of post-nasal junk flows down the back of my throat.

Other than that, I am ready to go!

Since my first injury in early August, I've had more time than ever to ask myself, "why the hell are you still trying to do this?" It wasn't just to rededicate myself to a sport I had neglected, or to focus on myself for a few months in a way that few working mothers can, although those definitely were reasons.

It really has become a test to see how much I can endure; how much I can put my mind over matter; how much I can make the best of a less-than ideal situation. I shouldn't be trying to do this, which is exactly why I am doing it.

All I know is that during the last two months, whenever I have thought about crossing the finish line, I have to fight back tears. I remember when I first announced to my family, in 1986, that I was going to quit the tennis team and go out for my high school cross-country team. I remember my dad's well-meaning (and factually accurate response): "Jilly, you're not a distance runner!"

I remember when I told my parents in 1986 that I was going out for a 3-mile training run, and they (basketball and tennis people) expressed concern about whether I should be running that far.

I remember when my dad nearly cried when he shot a roll of film at the 1987 Wisconsin state high school cross country meet, only to realize he either had the lens cap on or didn't have film in the camera as he snapped photos of me crossing the line first.

He was my biggest fan.

I remember in 2005, how my dad could only watch as his body failed him. How months of hoping and praying and focusing and keeping a positive outlook could not force his body to overcome something beyond his control.

Running through an injury or four can be hard, but living through a malignant infiltrating glioma in your brain is usually just about impossible, as my dad and Ted Kennedy both discovered.

So as I took painful step after painful step during that pivotal 18-mile run, the gym's TVs playing live coverage of Kennedy's funeral, that's what I thought about. When I wasn't sure if I'd be able to run a mile that day, much less 18, I put my mind in charge. I took one step at a time, searched for my happy place, did some dime-store meditation and remembered that this was something I could overcome. It wasn't, after all, brain cancer. I felt that if I got through that run, I could not run at all for the next three weeks and still be OK for Chicago.

Can I summon that kind of focus again? This time, it will be for 26 miles, not 18. And since that 18, I've gotten more injured, less aerobically fit, and more fat. Thanks to the physical toll of that that treadmill run, I missed another full week of training. And now I'm sick.

All I can do is try. Hopefully I will feel better come Sunday. I know I will start the race with my friends, Pauline and Joell, and I will hold on for as long as I can. I will take it one step at a time. I know that my husband and son will be there and will support me, regardless of the outcome.

The "race" will be slow. Very slow. I have no doubt that, even if I am well, my body will start to breakdown in a most unpleasant way. Even if I were fully fit and 10 pounds lighter, that breakdown would happen, though in perhaps a less Armageddon-like manner.

But I've decided that it will take a fairly catastrophic injury, or an illness so overwhelming that I cannot move, to keep me from finishing. Feeling crappy won't do it. A chronic injury that is hurting a whole lot but isn't an actual broken bone or torn muscle won't do it. Getting tackled by a deranged Irish priest might, but that guy is probably still sitting in an Athenian jail.

I am not prepared to sell my soul to the devil to be able to finish this journey, but I am prepared to put every bit of it into my effort.

I might fail. But I can't fail to try.

Your best writing is from your heart. Yes, you are a communications goddess, but today, you made me cry.Some of your best. See you in Chicago!
Posted by: Larry Eder on 10/6/2009 9:07:47 AM PT
Lotsa luck, Jill--I'll root for you!
Posted by: Paul Merca on 10/6/2009 9:10:54 AM PT
What an honor it will be to toe the starting line with you! This is precisely what I needed to read today! My last 20 mile run was not pretty and I felt there was no way I am going to finish...that was 3 long weeks ago and your story made me realize I am NOT ALONE! THANKS FOR SHARING! Good luck!!!
Posted by: Nancy Howard on 10/6/2009 9:18:04 AM PT
Thanks so much, Nancy, and good luck to you! For more inspiration, there is a video on Youtube of Joan Benoit in 1984. I can't seem to be able to post the link here, but go to Youtube and search for "the first gold". I saw it on a day I needed this inspiration!
Posted by: Jill Geer on 10/6/2009 9:26:07 AM PT
That is the best thing I have ever read! Now I am mad that I quit because of my IT band! Had I read this first....I'd still be running. Guess what...I will be there next year- to run- not to cheer everyone on! Thanks and lots of luck to you! I can't wait to see you.
Posted by: Julie Taylor on 10/6/2009 9:44:18 AM PT
You have to open your eyes! Moreover, see that you have won the race Now all you have to do is just show up
Posted by: Chachi on 10/6/2009 9:47:58 AM PT
I have run 2 marathons injured. Pulled hamstring and a pulled hip flexor. I weigh over 220 pounds and I finished slowly. Keep your positive attitude and nothing is impossible. Keep the faith and keep moving and you will feel the exhilaration of crossing that finish line. Great article.
Posted by: Frank Newton on 10/6/2009 10:03:02 AM PT
Jill: An amazing column, thanks for sharing it with all of us. I'm sure your motivation and a healthy dose of marathon-day magic will get you through the distance. Just remember: Go out slow, then taper off.
Posted by: amby burfoot on 10/6/2009 10:37:14 AM PT
A wonderful piece, Jill; funny and moving. Remember, it's mind over matter. I was seriously under-trained when I ran New York in 1980 and the inaugural London Marathon in 1981 when I was editor of "Athletics Weekly" but I somehow got round in 4 hours plus and all these years later those runs remain among my life's highlights. Best of luck from this British track writer.
Posted by: Mel Watman on 10/6/2009 10:55:18 AM PT
Jill, you've got the Hall of Fame of distance running pulling for you here - amazing! And as I learned Sunday in Portland, when your body won't do what you want it to do, ask it what it wants to do, and then let it do just that. You'll finish - and you'll become a stronger runner in the process. Have a wonderful time in Chicago!
Posted by: M. Nicole Nazzaro on 10/6/2009 11:30:42 AM PT
Hi Number One, Remember that and I will be rooting for you on Sunday. You have everything it takes to run a marathon and I bet your time will depending on the weather reward you for your efforts. Love the story and it reflects on your dedication to everything you do. Dave Martin
Posted by: dave martin on 10/6/2009 11:35:05 AM PT
Go, Jill! I assume you would like to run injury-free... Considering your previous history of injury, it seems like you need to improve the quality of your workouts! 50mpw is not necessary! Most people can qualify for Boston on 40 or less miles per week - IF the training is of sufficient quality. Another bonus is reduced time spent training. :)
Posted by: Jimmy Holub on 10/6/2009 11:40:17 AM PT
If you have any questions, feel free to contact me. I hereby give the website administrator permission to share my name and email address with Jill Geer.
Posted by: Jimmy Holub on 10/6/2009 11:54:39 AM PT
Wonderful column. Congratulations, Jill, you've already done the hardest part. Race day will be a victory lap - way easier than what you've already endured. Enjoy every step!
Posted by: Jennifer Van Allen on 10/6/2009 12:15:17 PM PT
kick ass jill - -
Posted by: beth on 10/6/2009 12:41:56 PM PT
Jill, I'm sure you're better prepared for your marathon than I was for my first (and only) back in 1978, and even though I walked five miles nears the end (in 90-degree cloudless heat), I finished the first Heart of San Diego Marathon in 5-plus hours. Just stay hydrated and pace yourself. The last mile will be your victory lap. Save the orange boxes for photos of U finishing!
Posted by: Ken Stone on 10/6/2009 1:06:14 PM PT
You had me laughing, and then teary-eyed Jill. Beautiful and motivating...not sufficiently to induce me to follow in yours or Robrt Johnson's footsteps. But best wishes for the race. You've already earnd a beer. :)
Posted by: Mike Hurst on 10/6/2009 3:23:04 PM PT
I KNOW you can do it Jill, and the "Heckpersons" will all be rooting for you! Your story made me shed a few tears as I remember how proud your mom and dad were of you, and not just for your running! We are proud of you too for all that you have accomplished. Give it your best as you always have done!
Posted by: Patti Heckman on 10/6/2009 3:28:39 PM PT
You are way ahead of so many runners who haven't had the opportunity to run 18 miles injured on a treadmill before their first marathon. You know what's ahead and you know you can get through it. It will be a major accomplishment! Have a great race!!
Posted by: Alan Roth on 10/6/2009 7:05:13 PM PT
good luck!! you'll do fine! I ran 3:43 with my longest runs being 7 miles and a 5 miler plus a bunch of 2-3 mile runs
Posted by: Steve Renard on 10/6/2009 7:39:52 PM PT
Steve, that's amazing. You've clearly got some skills!
Posted by: Jill Geer on 10/7/2009 6:24:00 AM PT
Well done, Jill. Extraordinary writing. I hope many people find their way to your column. Best of luck on Sunday. Amby Burfoot's race strategy seems sound! P.S. Missed seeing you in lederhosen in Berlin - darn!
Posted by: Steve Ritchie on 10/7/2009 10:36:03 AM PT
You have encompassed what every average joe and jane out there feels. Mind over matter. You'll do great - not by having finished but by having started! Best of luck!
Posted by: Joyce Sciarra on 10/7/2009 1:15:26 PM PT
Jill as a proud razorback (teammate and Coach) I am so fired up to be a part of this event. I'll be ther cheering my Irish arse off for the lot of ya............ and pre and post provide any support I can. Whatever the outcome much has been accomplished both personal and professional.......So, toe the line and run you guts out!!!!!
Posted by: Michelle M. Byrne on 10/7/2009 3:43:41 PM PT
Go Razorbacks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Posted by: Michelle M. Byrne on 10/7/2009 3:46:45 PM PT
Jill, just think of it as childbirth . . only you know where the finishline is.
Posted by: Cheryl Bridges Flanagan Treworgy on 10/8/2009 7:29:41 AM PT
Jill, what an inspiring piece. My sister, a high school teammate of mine, and I will all be there Sunday trying to finish the dang thing as well. Will be thinking of you!
Posted by: Ann Gaffigan on 10/8/2009 12:50:02 PM PT
It's Friday early hours and I can't sleep excited to be boarding the plane to join you all in the epic event. Laughed hard at the Irish priest bit I have forgotten about that fool and his race track protest. This irish woman will be there cheering her lungs out and providing all the support needed to get you all across that line. Go Razorbacks!!!!!!!
Posted by: Michelle M. Byrne on 10/8/2009 11:24:45 PM PT
Way to go, Jill! We watched for you today in the Loop, missed you - got on the El to Chinatown, but then we got the text update and realized you were already past there, so we scooted over to Michigan Avenue and were able to see you and see you smile when you recognized some familiar faces! We tried to get to the runner-reunite area, but we missed you. Congratulations on all you overcame to do this - and I believe your time qualified you for Boston??
Posted by: Ellen Shattuck on 10/11/2009 4:48:46 PM PT
Jill: Congrats on super 3:41 at Chicago. All that tapering obviously paid off. :) Amby Burfoot
Posted by: Amby on 10/12/2009 7:35:11 AM PT

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Photo of Jill GeerJill M. Geer is Chief Public Affairs Officer of USATF. She recently completed her first marathon at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, where she qualified for Boston. Follow her professional exploits as the USATF spokesperson and her adventures as a mid-pack marathoner -- Off The Record.

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