Surviving a 10K – How I Became a Runner

Back in another life, I used to take our large, powerful dog, a malemute (Alaskan sled dog) out for evening walks. With Juno’s long legs and body built for pulling, it quickly turned into a trot (for me), and then a run. Once I came home breathless and told my son, Alex, “I just ran a mile!”

An outrageous statement for me. I grew up in a house completely filled with cigar and cigarette smoke. Anything more energetic than sitting, and I was breathless.

His reply: “If you can do one, then you can do one and a half.” Shrug.

His logic was irrefutable.

Several evenings later, I came home and announced, “Juno and I just ran a mile and a half!”

“Cool.” Another shrug. “If you can do a mile and a half, you can do two.”

You get the rhythm.

My daughter is a runner. She’s crazy about it, and gets crazy if she can’t do it for a while. But she and her brother were in their twenties then. I wasn’t.

When I reached three miles, I started exploring on line. What did runners really do? I knew they closed down streets now and then. That was about all I knew.

Then I saw an ad for the Run to Feed the Hungry, to help the local food bank for Thanksgiving. Wow. 6.2 miles (10K) sounded outrageous! Sure, I ran around the neighborhood with the dog, occasionally slowing to a walk, but 6 miles? Six miles!!

But it was for a good cause. So I signed up.

Juno and I ran every evening, and once in a while, I’d go running and leave her home (she stopped a lot). I ran in jeans and sweats; I knew nothing yet about ‘real’ runners. I worked more than full time, and was dealing with very messy estate work from two different estates. That’s more than a full-time job right there. Every moment of my day was spoken for. Running became my escape.

Alex was going to Spain for a climbing competition, and returning the evening before the run. But when I mentioned that I’d signed up for it, he said “Sign me up, too.”

Really? The morning after a 12-hour transatlantic flight? I would have been a zombie. But he seemed sure, so I signed him up.

Thanksgiving morning. I put on my jeans, my T-shirt, flannel shirt and big white sneakers (I really didn’t know anything about running!). I woke Alex, who had slept in his clothes after his late-night arrival, and off we went to my very first road race!

I had grave misgivings when I saw the huge crowd assembled at the Start. Thousands of people! High-energy, running types, in their Spandex and turkey costumes — all clearly better informed than I was!

Trepidation battled with excitement as the gun went off! It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. All those people, just trying to be better! Out there to help people, by the thousands, single-minded and having a blast.

For me, it was anything but fun. I gasped, I struggled to breathe. It was all new — the jostling crowd, the bands playing to cheer us on, the crowds of onlookers, the Porta-Potties — I’d never done anything physically competitive in my life. I was out of my element.

Alex ran alongside me, and told me about Spain. As I gasped for air, trying to ignore the pain, he talked about his adventures. I couldn’t imagine how he could breathe enough to talk while running! His tales were fascinating. He entertained me with descriptions and anecdotes as he ran backwards in front of me,  alongside me, in circles around me, occasionally zigging or zagging up someone’s lawn.

He became my single focus as I forced myself to keep going. When I knew I couldn’t manage one more step, I’d look at Alex and try to picture him having the adventures he was relating. When I needed to stop, he stopped with me, carried my sweaty shirt, kept up his recounting of the week before. I made myself focus on his words.

When we passed the halfway mark, I still didn’t think I’d finish. I can’t count how many times I might have stopped, had my attention not been on something besides my physical misery. I couldn’t breathe. My feet hurt. My knee hurt. I was too hot. The waistband of my jeans was digging into me. My sunglasses kept sliding down my nose. This wasn’t fun.

Somewhere between the fourth and fifth mile, something changed. I still followed his voice, still couldn’t breathe. But my own footfall began to replace his voice. I listened to it instead of my ragged breath. Suddenly, with a clarity I’d never felt before, I knew I’d finish.

When I glimpsed the finish line, several blocks ahead, I realized my life had just taken a sudden turn. I had no idea where it was going to lead, but I knew there was no going back. I was a runner. I’d have to buy some real runner’s clothes, some good shoes. There was probably — certainly! — lots more I needed to know. But I’d just learned the really important stuff — I could do this.

Who knew what else I could do?

I’ll never know for sure whether I would have finished if I hadn’t had Alex’s voice to follow the whole 6.2 miles. Maybe the stubbornness — or is it tenacity? — I’ve since discovered as a rock climber would have surfaced then and saved the day? I’ll never know.

But I’ll always be grateful for that voice.

Music, my friend and solace

Music is my oldest friend. Life has ebbed and flowed, changed me so much that I hardly recognize who I used to be. Friends and family have come and gone, moved in and out of my life, died. But music has always been there.

A number of threads make up the tapestry of my life — and woven through it all is music that has stood the test of time. Groups, singers, popular and folk music — they all have their place. Some of them have moved me to tears, woven their way through parts of my life. But the music that supplied the underpinning of my whole life has been around a lot longer than all of them.

The first sounds to move me were the old Polish folk tunes and dances that I heard at home, on the piano, the accordion, and sung around the piano. Through them, the minor mode always had a power over my emotions that major-mode sounds can’t duplicate.

I learned to play those by ear when I was 5, but once I started learning to read music, at 7, I discovered that those old guys — like Chopin, Schubert, Mendelssohn and all the others whose company I enjoy — all wrote down secret messages to me! Okay, not only to me — but they tell me, in their own words written on their music, how to play the notes they wrote. Their suggestions in this secret language come to me over the centuries, and help me understand how it should sound. Magic!

256px-Keyboard_of_grand_piano_-_Steinway_&_Sons_(Hamburg_factory)Music has always been my solace. When I was a teen and things got tough between my mother and me, I’d retreat to my piano, often for hours, and pound away my frustrations. When adult life ganged up on me, the piano welcomed me and listened patiently. My survival, my sanity, has often depended on it.

What do you do, to survive life? I find that next to a journal, a piano or other musical instrument is the best therapist. Working on a Chopin Nocturne, figuring out the sounds, the fingering, how it should sound — how he wanted it to sound — can take you into what the modern media call ‘the zone,’ or ‘the flow.’ Once there, cares, problems, trauma cease to exist. Or rather, they exist outside the universe you’re now in. Outside your zone.

My son often mentions in his interviews that state of flow that he gets into when he’s free-soloing. And although my daughter doesn’t often talk about it, that ‘flow’ is most likely the reason she can’t seem to live without running. It’s compelling, addictive even — but in an oh-so-healthful way.

As I get older, climbing and running will no doubt fade away. But music, my oldest friend, will always be there, my one, immutable solace, always ready to listen and give counsel.

What more could you want from a friend?128px-Black_Piano_Acccordion

Food for Thought

Here’s some

Food for Thought

for a

Happy Valentine’s day!

Here’s a Valentine’s Day gift from me to you!

My original short story, “Food for Thought,” won 1st prize in the National Writer’s Association’s Short Story Competition. I can’t publish it here, because it’s for sale elsewhere.

But if you’d like to read a short story that will leave you smiling and feeling good, go down to the Comments section and leave me this comment (just copy & paste it):


Please email me my free copy of the award-winning short story, “Food for Thought.”


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Swapping Leads

     In climbing, “swapping leads” means that the leader and the follower switch roles as they climb a multi-pitch route (“leap-frog” up the wall). When I climbed with my son the first time, we switched roles that way, and our dynamic changed, forever. 

This was my first published climbing essay. about climbing a route called Munginella, in Yosemite, with my son. It appeared in “Climb” Magazine, in the U.K. Enjoy!


Swapping Leads:

a Climb of Epic Proportions


“See that, Mom?” my son Alex shouted down to me from his belay ledge on the rock wall near Yosemite Falls.

Not only had I seen the lightning strike he pointed out, I’d noticed every one of the seven or so earlier ones. Not a big fan of electrocution, I pondered the wisdom of continuing our three-pitch climb, but Alex assured me we had plenty of time. Since he practically lives in Yosemite Valley for part of the year, I deferred to his experience — against my own better (parental) judgment.

My peripheral vision caught another flash, on the opposite side of the Valley. A storm had been slowly rolling around the Sierra peaks for over an hour, rumbling like an empty stomach.

I squinted upwards. The flake I was arguing with stood out from the wall about a foot or so at its gaping bottom. Too wide to reach around, too high to step over, too everything. I stood there and talked to myself far longer than my son had the patience for, I knew, although he never said so.

I tried again. Fell again. Another raw knuckle to ignore. The damn flake was beginning to make me doubt my meager credentials — if I couldn’t get over this little thing, I was no rock climber. I was fooling myself; I didn’t belong out here. No matter which angle I tried, which movement, the next holds were just centimeters out of reach.

Crack! Another bolt, on our side of the Valley this time.Version 2

“Come on, Mom, you got this.” His voice was a study in control. Was he trying really hard, for me, or was he always this nice to every newbie gumby climber he happened to be saddled with?

Crack! Blinding this time, right next to our climb!

In a few seconds that I have absolutely no memory of, I was over the flake and moving really fast. I was rock climbing. All it took was an act of God.

A feathery, insistent rain followed me up the rest of the pitch. At the belay ledge, as we exchanged gear for the last pitch, it tickled our faces, chilled us. I didn’t voice any of my fears about the possibilities, unwilling to make them real.

As I belayed Alex up, the rain slackened. The worst is over, I thought as I balanced on the fast-drying sandy ledge.

Did I say newbie?

As I followed him up the last pitch, the sky blackened and rain began pelting my back, drumming on my helmet. After a few holds that turned out to be less slippery than I’d feared, I thought, Okay, I’m wet, but this is easier than I expected. I can do this. No biggie.

Once I reached the top, my instinctive choice was to just curl up tight against the wall and wait it out. Then another bolt struck nearby. Alex had no trouble convincing me to try the walk-off, even though it was now a rushing river of mud.

I come from a place where summer rain is soft, inviting, a tease to the senses. This was icy whips that startled and battered. We slithered slowly down the trail, as much on our butts as our feet, grabbing whatever we could to keep from sliding off.

After a few dozen meters, I thought, I can do this. This is okay. I pictured standing on flat ground again.

Then Alex stopped. I couldn’t hear what he said over the pounding, roaring rain. He pointed ahead. The wide granite slab that the trail crossed gleamed under the rushing water that covered it. Completely. No question of getting across such a waterfall.

Dead end.

“We’ll have to rappel,” he shouted over the roar.

I couldn’t believe I’d heard him right. Was it safe to rappel in driving, freezing rain? I was too new to know. I’d just learned to rappel, had done it once. I looked straight down; definitely too far to scramble through the brush. We’d only descended about one pitch. Another loud Crack! helped make up our minds.

While Alex anchored us to a pair of rappel rings, I tried to keep my teeth from chattering too hard and to remain vertical in the rushing mud we stood in. I did try to get my harness ready, but my hands were shaking too hard to be of any use. The rest of me wasn’t good for much either. I just stood there, like a clueless toddler, as Alex attached the rope to my belay device. I vaguely remember apologizing. I knew I should have been doing something, but couldn’t get my fingers to cooperate.

“Okay, Mom, you go first.”

Me? First? Did he really know what he was doing? I couldn’t get my chattering teeth to form the words, so I just followed his instructions.

He’d found a relatively empty, straight section of wall for us to lower down, secured my rope, checked my knots, done everything. He was good. All I could do was shiver as if I was going to shatter. All I could think was, My son does this all the time. Just another day at the office.

“You know what to do?” he shouted against the wind.

I nodded, grabbed the rope, turned around and stepped off. The one time I’d rappelled hadn’t prepared me for this. My feet skidded around in the mud. Each time I braked the rope, water spurted up from the sponge that the rope had become. Icy water tossed in my face did not help my concentration.

By the time Alex reached the ground beside me, the rain had stopped. Chastened, humbled and exultant, I waited for him to untie and coil the rope, and we headed back to the base where we’d left our packs sitting between a tree and the wall.

I saw red as we approached. And green, and black. Some kind of long, vivid-colored snake had curled up on the wall to dry out — right above our packs.

Neither of us knew what it was. Neither of us wanted to find out the hard way whether it was
poisonous. Alex went first, dashed between the tree and the IMG_7903 copywall, grabbed his pack on the fly and kept running. Really fast. The snake didn’t move. I followed. We stopped, breathless, and put on the packs for the walk down.

When he’s home, Alex still calls me Mom, and still follows some of my rules. But we both know who’s in charge when we go outdoors together