Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Run 100 miles or give birth? Where are my shoes? (and 186 days to go!)

Because my timing is impeccable, I'll become a father four months before I run Western States 100. In other words, when I should be changing diapers or giving Beth a break from her 24/7 existence in the baby's world during her maternity leave, I'll actually be out in the middle of the woods running by myself...six or seven hours at a time. And they said I'd have to cut back on my running once we had kids! I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I married a saint.

One of the joys of preparation for parenthood is spending the better part of one or two weekends in a hospital conference room learning about childbirth. I've got twelve hours under my belt so far. This mostly has involved listening to stressed-out mothers-to-be rant about their doctors (please be quiet and just find a new one, ma'am, so we can go home on time), rubbing Beth's shoulders in some sort of practice for the big day, and watching absolutely disgusting...I mean informative...videos. How much money they had to offer these women for the film rights? Do you get an imdb page if you star in the hospital birthing movie?

This past Saturday's class was on natural childbirth. I'll never know firsthand, but apparently natural childbirth hurts...a lot. No wonder everyone's always begging for the epidural! Our instructor tried to explain contractions by drawing a series of parabolae on a whiteboard, a diagram that explained the rise and fall of the pain. It reminded me of the ebbs and flows an ultra runner experiences...miles where everything feels great, followed by slow, painful, foot-dragging canyons. My friend Jay even witnessed one WS100 runner awaken from a two hour nap under piles of blankets at an aid station, only to start knocking out 9 minute miles on his way to a 27 hour finish, his first in five tries.

Our instructor encouraged the use of certain techniques to battle through the peak birthing pains, which she tried to imitate by making us squeeze ice for one minute...over and over and over. As we made our way through the various techniques, it hit Beth and me: we use these techniques all the time when we run! All of the techniques taught were variations of dissociation, or self-distraction from the task (read: pain) at hand. They're helpful for a mother in labor, and they've been helpful in my past races, including many of my marathons and last summer's ultra.

The first drill focused on our hearing. She played some music that sounded like a bunch of xylophones being played over a leaky faucet. We were supposed to focus on the sounds or something. Imagine popping the earbuds of your iPod in as you head out the door for a run! It's not a technique I use in my running, but anyone lucky enough to own Apple stock back in 2002 knows that the iPod is the ultimate dissociative tool! I might have to pack one just to be safe.

She then turned to speech, encouraging the use of a mantra. One expecting mother repeated, "They do this in huts every day!" as her inspiration, thinking of the millions born without the luxury of an anesthesiologist or even an endless supply of Gatorade (perhaps my favorite part of our hospital!). I ufrequently use a mantra on race day. My favorite is the repeated recitation of the Notre Dame Victory March ("Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame"). I also say Hail Marys, calling on a higher power to see through to the finish line. My running friends and I have adopted "HTFU" (Harden the ___ Up") as a quick hit motivator. Another friend, as he slogged through blisters and pain of an Ironman, repeated a phrase that might just come in handy at Western States: "Get comfortable with being uncomfortable." I have no doubt I will in the canyons of the Sierra Mountains.

Finally, the instructor suggested the use of quick visual hits around the room, identifying whatever came into view. Door. Chair. Tree. Nurse. Jerk. (Who am I kidding? That's what Beth will be thinking when she looks at me!) I've used this technique in a lot of road marathons, scanning the crowd of runners and spectators ahead of me, focusing on what is ahead rather than the synapses trying to tell my brain to shut things down so the pain will end. I'm not sure this technique will be helpful in a trail race like Western States, because so much focus must be paid to the rocky, rutty terrain directly in front of me, and a good portion of the race will be run at night under the light of a headlamp. I'll keep it in my back pocket, just in case.

I never would have guessed that a doula would serve as my first coach for this journey! I'm expecting my share of pain when I run this race...but if billions of women have withstood the pain of childbirth, surely I can withstand blisters and leg cramps...right?

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