sports blog by andy shenk

Running the Sunburst

In Musings on June 30, 2012 at 10:29 AM
Editor’s Note: My sister, Rebekah Shenk, wrote this piece, describing her recent performance at the 2012 Sunburst Marathon, as well as the training process that preceded the race. Not only does her writing accurately depict the discipline, training methods, and passion of long-distance runners, it also reveals the creative and life-giving aspect to running. I enjoyed this immensely and I hope you do as well! 

Running a marathon is similar to a flower blooming.  Long before the race day a seed is planted.  Slowly that seed begins to mature and develop.  After some time it becomes visible as its tender green shoots emerge from the soil.  It grows tall and strong.  Then, one day, it unfolds its petals and shows the world the peak of its beauty.  On that day, it is admired more than any other day.

A flower does not bloom everyday and a marathon is not run everyday.  This year I had the opportunity to run the Sunburst Marathon.  In my mind it was a much anticipated event.  I did not run an outstanding time according to the times run on the regional, national, or international levels.  But, when you compare me to myself, my time was a significant improvement.  I finished the marathon in 3:23:14.  That’s 16 minutes faster than my fastest previous marathon time.  I ran each mile 38 seconds faster than my time at the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon in November of 2010.

How did I do it?  Many factors came together to make race day a success.  Race day conditions were ideal.  The weather was cool, which is unheard of for the Sunburst.  I was mentally focused for the race.  I was in tune with my body.  I was not spending energy on anything but the race as I ran it.  And, I tried a different way of fueling myself during the race.

Some athletes can run well in the heat.  I am not one of them.  If it had been hot and humid, my chances of running a good race would be next to zero.  My mental focus for the race had been building for months.  Hardly a day went by since last year’s race when I didn’t spend at least a few minutes thinking about the Sunburst.  I had signed up for the marathon last year, but only made it through the 13 mile marker because I was not prepared for the heat.  To prepare for this year’s race I started months in advance.  In November and December I ran 24 miles of the course most Sundays to get it ingrained in my mind.  During those runs I broke the course down into different stages.  I memorized the bridges I ran over and under during the second part of the race.  I made it more manageable in my mind.

In the two to three weeks before the race I realized that I was in tune with my body.  To me this meant that when I went out for a run it was effortless.  I finished most runs faster than I anticipated and still felt fresh.  I didn’t have any sore or tight muscles nagging me.  I was in tune.  In the five weeks leading up to the race I laid out a strenuous training plan.  As the days went by I realized that the plan was tiring me out.  I would be at work and every single cell in my body felt compressed.  I moved around so slowly.  I decided that is not how I should make myself feel leading up to the race.  I cut out a lot of the extra workouts and stuck with the running.

On race days in the past I drove to races with friends or family and had them along the course cheering for me.  I realized that running the Sunburst was something that I was doing for myself.  My friends and family had good intentions, but were not runners.  They did not understand the training I went through to prepare for the Sunburst.  They did not have my same mental focus leading up to the race.  By riding with them to the race I could severely throw off my mental focus.  I drove myself to the race and planned to meet up with them in the stadium.  I loaded my ipod with the songs I had listened to during all of my training runs for the race and put it on shuffle.  As I ran I had The Black Keys, The National, Arcade Fire, Coldplay, Regina Spektor, Metric, U2, Ratatat, Fleet Foxes, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Sufjan Stevens, and more pumping through my headphones.  Having the distraction of music helped me to stay in each moment and not divert my energy to others around me.  It also non-verbally gave the indication to other runners that I didn’t necessarily want to have long conversations during the race.  These tactics helped me channel all my energy into my running over the 26.2 miles.

My fueling plan was simple.  A coaching colleague helped me develop it.  I purchased some Hammer gels.  They have only 2 grams of sugar per packet.  This varied significantly from the Powerbar gels I had been using.  Powerbar gels have 10 grams of sugar.  The Hammer gels kept my energy stable.  I took one right before the race started and then every 30 minutes during the race and one after the race was over to help with recovery.  I only drank water during the race.  I took water at most of the stops.  The night before I ate chicken, fries and salad.  I also ate a Powerbar at about midnight.  For breakfast before the race I had coffee, water, 2 Powerbars, and then the gel pack.  Two nights before the race I made sure to get plenty of sleep.  I could not sleep all that well the night before the race because of the anticipation.  But, I trusted that my body functioned on a 48 hour cycle and the sleep I got 2 nights before would be sufficient.

When was the seed planted to run a marathon in my life?  I believe that it happened sometime between my senior year of college and the year I spent volunteering in Thailand right after college.  During my time in Thailand I didn’t have much opportunity to run.  I kept telling myself that when I had the chance to run I would run a marathon.  I moved to Elkhart directly following that year and started training for the Sunburst.  I had run in high school and college, but I was out of shape from my time in Thailand.  I could only run 30 minutes in September of 2009 before I was exhausted.  Day by day I slowly built up my strength.

A friend told me while I was training that year that there’s nothing like training for your first marathon.  I look back on those months and have to agree.  I remember Easter morning when I set my alarm clock for before 5 am in order to get my first ever 16 mile run in before Easter breakfast at the church.  I picked an 8 mile loop to run twice that morning.  It went out CR 18 and came back along Goshen Ave.  I remember watching the sun come up and surprising myself when I screamed in defiance of the pain in my body as I ran through the small pedestrian tunnel near Central High School.  I remember stepping into the shower and barely being able to keep myself from yelping from the severe pain the water caused when it hit the open wounds on my body caused by my clothing rubbing against my skin for 16 miles.

Through the months of training for the Sunburst I got to know the running community in Elkhart.  My job at the YMCA brought me in contact with many of the members of the former Y Running Club.  Those I met generously gave me information day after day about what I should do to train.  They told me where all the best running routes in Elkhart were.  They gave me books to read about runners and training.  They told me their own stories about running.  They inspired me.

Finally I geared up for my first 20 mile run.  I planned to do it on a Saturday morning, but my strength was not there.  By Tuesday morning I built up the resolve to do it.  I had my route planned to take me to Michigan.  I couldn’t wait to tell everyone that I had run out of the state!  I ran up CR 9, over the toll road and then all the way around Simonton Lake.  I ran up Cassapolis St. and when I crossed into Michigan I gave out a shout of joy–that was the 10 mile mark.  I ran down Redfield Rd.  By the time I was on Adamsville Rd. and heading back towards Elkhart all I could think about was water.  I saw a man loading his trunk and asked him for water.  He gave it to me and I was on my way.  I stopped by the Hospital to get another drink.  I didn’t even need the honey I had carried with me.  Once I returned home I screamed as loud as I could in triumph and shocked my friend and neighbor.  I had done it!  By June of 2010 I was on the starting line for the Sunburst–my first marathon.  I completed the course on the hot day with a combination of walking and running in the final 4 miles.  My time was 4 hours and 15 minutes.

I was motivated to try again.  I continued volunteer coaching at Pierre Moran Middle School for cross-country and track.  Running with the team each day kept my motivation high.  In November I ran the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon and qualified for the Boston Marathon by 1 minute.  I was thrilled!  During the drive back from Indianapolis my determination strengthened around the idea to run 10 miles everyday for 100 days straight.  I began that impossible stint on December 1st and didn’t tell a soul until I was already 6 and a half weeks into it.  I took the time running to explore nearly all of the streets of Elkhart and carefully highlighted them in my map book when I returned from each run.  I didn’t listen to any music during these runs.  I wanted to purify myself.  I wanted to get down to my true essence.  I journaled about each run and what I had noticed about the different neighborhoods and also how my body felt.  I didn’t run all that fast any day of this training, but I did it everyday for 100 days through the Elkhart winter.  By the time I was nearing 100 days my times had come down from about 9 minute miles to about 8 minute miles.  I had gained a good working mental map of Elkhart and even had a sermon preached about me when my pastor found out what I was doing.  Running 10 miles a day for 100 days was a rewarding experience, especially now as I can look back on it and the pain has faded away.

That spring I surprised myself by running my fastest 5k ever.  I ran 20:07 at the Two Rivers Meet in Elkhart.  My previous fastest time for the 5k was at the Little State meet in Indianapolis my sophomore year of college track.  I ran 21:00 that day.  Now, 5 years later I was running about a minute faster.  That summer I got a job coaching Girls’ Cross-Country at Central High School and began to test what I was capable of in terms of transferring my love for running and training to young people.

Running is a tremendously strengthening activity for me physically and mentally.  I am thankful that running exists. It gives me a way to creatively express myself that I couldn’t do any other way. I’ve found that running is worth it.  I am so thankful to all the runners who have believed in me and encouraged me along the way.  Running has made my life better.  My growing up years included so much transition that I did not understand how I fit into my family, my Mennonite background, and my North American culture.  I had lived over 5 years of my life internationally by the time I was 24.  I moved at least every 2 years since I was 10 years old.  I had traveled to 5 continents and had a fairly good working knowledge of 5 languages.  All of this along with being the 4th of 6 kids gave me a lot to process.  In Elkhart I have been able to find many resources to help me sort out who I am.  The discipline of running has kept me on track as I learn to navigate the world and find out more of how I fit in and what I can contribute.

When I came across the finish line at the Sunburst Marathon on June 2, 2012, I reinforced the idea in my mind that “I can do it!”  I can overcome obstacles and move forward in my life.  I can achieve goals I set for myself.  There is a place for me in this world.  On that morning it was finishing 9th in the marathon in a time of 3:23:14.  I want to thank everyone who made the Sunburst possible.  It was an important experience in my life.  Thank you!

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