Mental fortitude and training for a fall marathon

Mental fortitude and training for a fall marathon

When I set out to train for my first marathon over twenty-one years ago, I thought a fall race presented the best opportunity. Even after my second marathon – a spring race – I still believed it was easier to train through the summer than the winter. Of course, I was in my 30s and heat didn’t bother me as much as it does now.

As a coach, and with the experience of having completed eight marathons (four fall and four spring), I will, whenever possible, steer my clients to a spring race. Training through the harsh conditions of winter, I have learned, provides a better opportunity for building what my coach referred to as “mental fortitude.” This is so necessary for staying focused and pushing through in the final miles of the 26.2-mile trek.

Some will argue that training in the heat and humidity of summer also provides the needed training for the mind. It does, but not in the same way. Training through extreme heat and humidity can deplete the body of valuable resources, leaving you drained for the next run. “Pushing through” in these conditions, may be the worst thing you can do. The lesson for the mind here is to know when to stop.

While I would strongly suggest that first-time marathoners do a race that would provide the best opportunity for optimal training conditions, many first-time marathoners have their heart set on a particular race. For many of us that’s a big city race close to home; for New Yorkers and Chicagoans, that’s a fall race. And who am I to talk anyone out of doing a meaningful race?

Some must reads for summer training:

“Marathon Training in the Heat and Humidity,” Runner’s World

“How to run and train through a hot summer,” Competitor Running

“Electrolytes for Runners: A Definitive Guide,” RunnersConnect

Building mental fortitude for a fall marathon is more about developing the discipline and focus to train smart. Training smart I would argue is more critical than training hard. Training smart means staying hydrated; not just during your runs, but consistently throughout the months of training. It also means paying attention to nutrition and making sure you maintain an appropriate balance of electrolytes throughout your training. It means scheduling long training runs at times and locations that will provide for the coolest conditions – for example early morning on a shaded path.

Training smart also means knowing when to stop; knowing when conditions aren’t right. The risk of “pushing through” extreme heat and humidity far outweighs any benefit that could be achieved of completing the last couple miles of an 18 or 20 miler. It’s okay to stop at 16 when you’re feeling overwhelmingly depleted. This is where your head must listen to your body! This is not the same as thinking “this cold and wind really sucks” and running anyway. Heat and humidity can present life threatening issues.

And no, don’t try to make up the miles on your next long run. Rest. Hydrate. Get your electrolytes in balance and strategize how to maximize success on the next long run. It’s necessary to get out and get your body ready for running in the heat because you may encounter heat on race day (especially in Chicago), although you don’t have to do every long run outdoors. I can tell you from experience, a 20-mile run on the treadmill does build mental fortitude no matter when your training.

Lakefront Trail offers a nice breeze, but little shade without some cloud over. Chicago, Illinois. August 2018


Fleeting moments surround the empty nest

Fleeting moments surround the empty nest

This past weekend was Lollapalooza, which has become a tradition. Two years ago, my daughter and I, along with her friend, made our first trip together to Chicago for the acclaimed music festival. My daughter’s sweet sixteen present was four-day passes, round-trip airfare, and hotel accommodations (and a chaperone) for her and her friend.  Last summer they had jobs to pay (most) of their own way and talked me into getting the hotel again (thankfully, I had points to use).

This year, they had a free Airbnb, 30 minutes from downtown – our new apartment! They added two more friends to the mix and drove from New Jersey. Just as I was about all unpacked and starting to feel somewhat settled here, four teenagers descended onto my new home – while I was on a short business trip for my new job (part-time as Chicago Metro Regional Director with Let Me Run). I came home to chaos and I was so happy to see them.

One of the things I didn’t realize I’d miss so much when I wrote my list of things I would miss about New Jersey, was these kids. Our house felt, at times, like “headquarters” – the meeting place before going on to some bigger plans. I embraced the role of chauffeur. I was always willing to drive the kids anywhere at any time. And even when they started driving themselves, they still often met up at our house.  Sometimes our house was just the cozy living room in which to watch a movie.

I knew moving would change a lot of things, but we were surrounded by change that was going to happen no matter where we lived. I welcomed them with open arms last week and put up with their mess knowing that when the weekend was over, they’d be off and at college in four different states in a few short weeks. The days of kids popping in and hanging out, making s’mores by the firepit, and waking to wonder who slept on the couch last night, were gone.

Even the dog will miss having these kids around.

I felt such a wave of sadness when I walked back into my empty, quiet, messy apartment yesterday morning after seeing them drive away. Empty-nesting, I realize is about mourning the passage of time as much as it’s about missing the kids. As teens and young adults, we are on the fast track, constantly looking forward to what lies ahead, and probably taking for granted the fleeting moments we will come back to in our minds, over and over again longingly, decades later.

As older adults we are all too aware of time slipping away and the milestones that mark a life now forever changed – even as we embrace opportunities and new adventures, and the revised roles we get to play. I had a conversation with my brother while I was in Ireland about this. We agreed we missed our children as they were when they were small. We talked about times when we felt too tired to give them the attention they wanted and how we were glad we did it anyway; that we would give anything to be asked to give that time now.

I got tickets to the White Sox-Yankees game on Monday night to just hold onto the kids for a little while longer. I have no doubt that they are already planning Lollapalooza Weekend 2019. And until then, I will miss them…I will always miss the children they used to be.

The last night in Chicago for these kids…this trip. 
2018 Rock ‘n’ Roll Chicago Half Marathon Reviewed

2018 Rock ‘n’ Roll Chicago Half Marathon Reviewed

I ran the Rock ‘n’ Roll Chicago Half Marathon on July 22. I had run the event’s 5k and 10k last year. I did the Inaugural Rock ‘n’ Roll Dublin Half Marathon 5 years ago. This has been my only experience with the Rock ‘n’ Roll Series races. I’d like to do more. From my experience, I can say they are well organized events with great amenities and some really awesome bling!

The expo/packet pick up was at McCormick Place. Parking is easy and this venue has a lot of space for a comprehensive expo and this one was filled with lots of vendors and fun stuff to see and buy. The coolest was perhaps shirts that included all participants names! All men were included on the men’s shirts; women on the women’s – perhaps problematic for anyone who might have wanted the shirt for the gender that didn’t include their name.

Highlight of the expo for me was the opportunity to meet Kathrine Switzer. She certainly opened doors for women runners with her courage and many of us owe our ability to participate in marathons to her. She was there promoting 261 Fearless, a “global supportive social running network which empowers women to connect and take control of their lives through the freedom gained by running.” Go Kathrine!

Although this was only my second Rock ‘n’ Roll Half, it was my 44thHalf Marathon overall and I will say ranks toward the top. I heard someone say in the starting corral that the course offered all the best of the Chicago Marathon course. I wouldn’t go as far as saying it offered all the best parts of the Marathon course, but it included many worthwhile points of interest.

The Start.

The start was on Columbus Drive, same as the marathon. The Rock ‘n’ Roll Half turned right onto lower Randolph and around to Lower Wacker.  Having the cover of the roadways like this in several spots on the course was beneficial to the runners and also provided shelter from the rain for some of the bands that lined the course. There was a lot of diversity in the sound provided by the 17 bands along the course.

The Course.

As the course winds through downtown, it makes a couple passes over the Chicago River and around the stunning architecture for which Chicago is famous. Runners pass the Chicago Theater, Daley Plaza, and The Lyric Opera. Only the final two and a half miles are in the park. The only negative on the course at this point was the pass-through McCormick Place. It’s a service tunnel. Nothing nice to see. Not a great road surface. Although it did shelter us from the rain. I’m not sure why anyone would design a course this way when there’s a much more scenic, open, lake-view option.

For me, having done both the Chicago Spring Half and the Soldier Field 10 in May, this mostly-city course was a nice change from those courses that included mostly Lakefront Trail. If you are not going to run the Chicago Marathon, this course is a good way to tour the city while running. And did I mention the bling?

The finisher’s medals included a rendering of the Chicago Theatre. I liked it, although maybe not as elaborate of other medals I’ve received. Maybe I needed to run the 5k the day before for bigger bling. The Rock N Roll race series certainly does a nice job of encouraging participation by offering special incentive medals for multiple races in the same weekend or numerous races with in the series in a specified time frame. For more information and picture of medals for inspiration (assuming you’re motivated by that sort of thing), visit their website.

The only issue with this race is that it can be pretty hot in July in Chicago. We were treated to a cool overcast day. And rain. Lots of it at times. It was refreshing for the most part. Last year it was hot. As we runners know, the one thing we can’t do much about is the weather. Although signing up for races in months with potentially hot or cold conditions is a choice.

My final word – or lesson learned – don’t run a half marathon on a broken toe! Although because of my stubbornness, I can – for the first time in 286 races – include a review of the medical tent. Although my toe became excruciatingly painful at around mile 8, I didn’t seek medical attention until after I crossed the finish line. I figured if my toe had actually fallen off as I felt like it had, my shoe and sock weren’t going allow me to misplace it completely and I was sure it could be reattached. Besides there was no blood. The medical staff carefully removed my shoe and sock, applied iced, wrapped it up and let me sit for about 20 minutes (while I posted to Instagram).

I hobbled back to the car in a deluge of rain, changed into dry clothes, and signed up for next year’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Chicago Half Marathon as soon as I got home. So yeah, all good. And I vowed to take better care of my feet between now and then.


Home is where the heart is

Home is where the heart is

I decided to take a vacation last week…my first week off from the blog in almost a year! The move…as well as four airports (twice each!) in a week’s time…finally caught up to me.  After spending a full week in my new Chicago apartment – trying to get as settled as I could in that short period of time – I flew back to New Jersey.

My sister was getting married in Ireland. It was an event I wouldn’t miss. When I booked the flight in January, it only made sense to fly out of JFK. That still worked out well because my daughter was back in New Jersey. And during my 30-hour layover, I was able to reconnect with a few friends with whom I hadn’t exchanged proper farewells before I left the first time. That was nice.

From the very first time I traveled to Ireland to meet my (biological) mother and some family members over 20 years ago, they referred to it as “coming home.” This time was no different. Except that this time, something very special happened. We were all there! I am (biologically) one of Teresa McElroy’s thirteen children. Because my older brother and I had been adopted out – and I all the way to America (read about that here) – this was the first time that all of us were in the same place at the same time. Ever! Kudos to my sister, Jacqueline, for staying on everyone’s good side so this could happen.

Good morning. Galway Bay. Salthill, Galway City, County Galway. July 2018.

My daughter and I basically spent the weekend in Ireland, flying back from SSN to JFK on Monday. Another overnight layover in New Jersey, a flight from EWR to ORD and here I am back in Chicago (after spending four days with me, my daughter is back in New Jersey already because of plans with friends and a paying job).

So, four airports, two times each in less than a week. A small price to pay for time with family and time with friends. Now, embracing my new home in Chicago (with the love of my life and my daughter – soon to be here fulltime), pieces of my heart remain in New Jersey with special friends and cherished memories. Another piece of my heart has remained in Ireland all my life only growing bigger as I create memories with my family there.  If home is where the heart is, I am fortunate to have three places I can rightfully call home.

Goodnight. Lake Michigan. Chicago, Illinois. July 2018.


My running through all this has been sporadic. In spite of the lack of training, I did complete the Rock ‘n’ Roll Chicago Half Marathon (my 44thHalf!) this past weekend and will provide a review in next week’s blog.

A shop teacher’s legacy

A shop teacher’s legacy

It was when I was running every street in my little New Jersey town last summer that I began to notice the Adirondack chairs. I just figured they were a popular item that looked nice on residents’ front porches or lawns. After all, I had two plastic ones I purchased at Home Depot myself. I did estimate that the ones I was noticing were wood and a much higher quality, however.

One day after returning from one of those runs, I found an email from George Chrisafis, the high school shop teacher, telling me that my daughter’s Adirondack chair was at the school and needed to be picked up. Hmmmm. I didn’t even know she had made a chair in shop class (she never tells me anything). Although…a glimmer of a memory from Back-to-School Night? Perhaps.

The next class. Ramsey, New Jersey. June 2018.

I finally got over there in August to get it before the new school year was to begin and it would have to be discarded to make room for the next class. It wasn’t finished (how she passed the class, I’ll never know). The arms still needed to be attached and three more slats needed to be added to the front of the seat. I took it home and there it sat – unfinished – on the back deck the rest of the summer. It was moved to the garage with the rest of the patio furniture by November. Still unfinished.

The fall was election time and my volunteer role with a local political campaign had me knocking on doors all over town. I came face-to-face with 100s of these Adirondack chairs. Some were brightly colored. All were proudly displayed. You could almost accurately guess how many children had passed through the high school from any given household by the number of Adirondack chairs a home had. I vowed that one way or another we’d finish ours!

When spring arrived the patio furniture came back out. Finishing the chair was put on my to-do list along with all of the other things I needed to accomplish before our move. We (and I exaggerate a bit here) finished the chair and painted it a dark green to match the trim on our beloved home. When we moved last month, all the patio furniture was left for the new owners, except for our special Adirondack chair. It will be a cherished reminder of our time in our little New Jersey town, a symbol of the mother-daughter team work that had carried us through the last four years, and Mr. Chrisafis’ legacy like all the other Adirondack chairs sprinkled around town – and maybe around the country.

A new home. Vernon Hills, Illinois. July 2018.