A Cow And A Deer

This past summer, Pam and I celebrated our 15th anniversary by spending time with our friends BradAmy, Howard & Ellen in Italy. Being a cyclist and having ridden there before (on a trip with Mimi, my wonderful mother-in-law – a story that deserves its own post), I was excited to show her the beautiful Tuscan countryside by renting road bikes for us and pedaling our way through the rolling vineyards to burn off all of the wonderful meals we’d be having.

It turned out to be a big hassle to rent the bikes. Faced with the prospect of coming back from vacation ten pounds heavier, I begrudgingly joined Pam on a run on our first morning there. Nothing major, a slow jog 20 minutes out and 20 minutes back. Let me establish that this was a big deal. I have spent 46 years on this earth loathing running. Remember field day in elementary school when even the fat kid won some sort of ribbon for an event? Not me. Not once, ever. Eye-hand sports always came easy to me but I must have been absent the day the angels gave out speed as a skill-set. I remember one of my high school coaches required us to run a seven-minute mile (not a difficult task for a healthy active teenager) to be on the team. Each year I’d spend the entire summer full of anxiety over this annual crucible. I vividly recall failing a number of times and watching my teammates chuckle as I tried over and over again until I cracked the magic 7:00 mark.

I spent my twenties and thirties hanging on to team sports to stay in shape (anything to avoid running). I’d play in men’s basketball and baseball leagues and even started playing ice hockey in my thirties to avoid spending my winter excercise on some machine in a gym and feed my competitive fire. Like most aging team sports jocks, injuries started to pile up. Shoulder surgeries ended baseball, achy knees & ankles killed my beloved early-morning hoops games at the Y. Remarkably, ice hockey is a low impact sport on the joints and I expect to be lacing up the skates with my pals for at least another decade.

I also fell in love with mountain biking when I moved to Idaho and soon after discovered road biking. I’ve spent the last decade getting most of my aerobic exercise on a bike. Working out each morning has always been like oxygen for me: miss a day or two and I start to feel like crap, both mentally and physically. A few years ago, after watching my good friend Decker decimate the filed in the Spudman Olympic Triathlon, I got the bug to try that too. Never a swimmer, I took a few lessons from him, learned some technique and turned myself into a decent enough swimmer to complete the frigid swim at Lucky Peak in a decent time. The bike was a breeze, I passed dozens of bikers and wasn’t passed once. The run? It broke me. Despite only being 10K, I hadn’t trained for the run enough (basically because I hated running) and it crushed me, both physically & emotionally. The only thing that kept me going was the breeze caused by so many people passing me. I swore that day I’d never run another mile in my life and until that fateful morning this summer, I hadn’t.

Fast forward to Italy. I actually woke the 2nd day and went on another run with Pam. The weather was perfect, the scenery was sublime and despite the labor, I really enjoyed talking with Pam she ran at my snail pace. It was on one of these morning runs that a picture entered my mind of what we must look like running together, her barely touching the ground as elegant as a deer and me trudging alongside her like a cow during an evening roundup. I joked with her that I was going to start an apparel company for running couples with the logo of a cow and a deer running next to each other.

By the end of our stay, our runs stretched to a six mile loop with some steep hills. The aches and pains were subsiding and I was secretly enjoying myself just a little bit. I’ve always envied runners with their sleek builds and descriptions of their mystical “runners high.” I daydreamed of going on morning runs when I traveled instead of figuring out how to get a decent sweat in a cramped hotel fitness room with six outdated pieces of equipment. I even dared to imagine joining Pam in running the Zeitgeist 1/2 marathon this fall, a beautiful run through Boise’s back roads with some super steep climbs. I was so proud of her taking up running a few years ago and also admired her adherence to training and her desire to learn all she could about making herself a better runner. Watching Pam cross the finish line last year in 2:09 and beating her goal of 2:10 (10 minute/mile average) was a huge thrill for me.

So on the plane ride back from Italy I told her that I was going to train for Zeitgeist. I had 2 1/2 months and committed to giving it a go. I found a training schedule and starting running Hull’s Gulch with Pam. She’d talk to me about my stride (god-awful heel striker), my breathing and my rhythm. For the first few weeks I’d get frustrated and not understand what she was talking about. HOW can I land on the ball of my foot? I don’t get it! She was patient with me and pretty soon I was doing the beautiful 5.2 mile loop on my own every other morning before work. I started adding a half mile here and a mile there and then one morning it happened. I was coming down a trail called Freeway in the Hull’s loop and the sun was rising behind me over the mountains. The glass in the city’s buildings glowed orange and I felt it for the first time, effortless running. It was though I was gliding. I distinctly remember that moment the first time I felt a runners high. The endorphins had kicked in and it was a pretty amazing feeling.

About six weeks ago she took me on a nine mile run in Boise’s military reserve. It was the first time we would run with water and some nourishment. I followed behind her like a puppy. She kept a brisk pace on the steep dirt trails and I somehow managed to keep up with her. Soon after I traveled to New York City and Boston for work and went for long runs (11 miles in Boston’s Blue Hills and 9 in Central Park). I also ran in Boulder, Salt Lake City & Tucson. Four weeks ago we did our first “Double Hulls Gulch”, running 10.4 miles with the second climb searing our quads. The big test was two weeks ago when I did the Zeitgeist course on my own and completed the 13.1 miles in 2:17. It was a terrific feeling even though the last two miles nearly killed me. I knew I could finish.

Moments after finishing Zeitgeist 2011

Yesterday race day was upon us. Our good friend Brad Feld (who we stayed with in Italy and gave me so much encouragement through the last two months) came to run the race and spend the weekend with us (he blogged about it here). Brad’s an incredibly accomplished runner having completed 20 marathons in his quest to run 50 in 50 states by the time he’s 50. We woke to a chilly morning (28 degrees at the start and not much higher at the finish) and before I knew it the countdown started and we were off. I started off strong and was surprised to still feel good after the first big two mile hill. I saw Pam and her girlfriends at mile 6 (when I stopped for a pee break) and caught back up to them on the last big hill (I’ve discovered that I’m a strong uphill runner but have poor technique going downhill – something to work on). I had about a 100 yard lead on her at the top but shortly after we began the long descent, she passed me like I was standing still and never looked back.

I worked hard to keep her bright pink top in my sights. When we reached the bottom of Pierce Park and had 1.7 flat miles to go, I was gassed. I had a short talk with myself and decided that I’d leave the race with no regrets. I ran as hard as I physically could in what felt like an all out sprint for the last 1.5 miles in an effort to catch her so we could cross the finish line together. Heart pounding and legs burning, I had her in my sights as we approached the last turn but it was too late. I saw her cross the finish line about 30 seconds before me. I broke into a huge grin, I was so happy for her. Despite our efforts to not be competitive about this, it was lurking in the background. I know she was giving it her all to keep me at bay and I was incredibly proud of how she dug deep down to do it.

At the starting line, I had decided not to look at my watch at all during the race. I told myself to just enjoy the experience and my time would take care of itself. I was thrilled when I saw 2:03:39 as I crossed the finish line, much better than the 2:10 I had set as my goal. Seeing and hearing all the people cheering and then spotting my brother-in-law Ben, my newphew Harrison and lots of other friends and family right after finishing was so awesome! At 46 years old, I had completed the first running race of my life and enjoyed every second of it, even the tiny pebble in my shoe that made me think of the princess and the pea from mile 4-6, the jelly bean that got caught in my throat for 5 minutes and the cold, tired and sore body that ensued.

It feels great to have accomplished this and even better to now consider myself a runner. Pam and I are already looking into marathons for next year and despite my inability to get my arms around 26.2 miles right now, I’m going to follow Brad’s advice and remember that it’s all about “just putting one foot in front of the other.” I hope this inspires others who don’t run to give it a shot. I never imagined this was something I’d do and it proved to be yet another example for my kids that people can do anything we set our minds to…

Showing 6 comments
  • jhfran

    Great inspirational story! Thanks for sharing.

    • Mark Solon

      Thanks Jim. Your extraordinary exploits definitely helped inspire me to get off the bike and give this a try!

  • Chris Cooper

    Congratulations, Mark! While I agree that Pam is indeed a deer, I cannot fathom how it is you see yourself as a cow. (Channeling Senator Lloyd Bentsen) “Mark, I served with the cow, I knew the cow, the cow was a friend of mine. Mark, you’re no cow”. As you know, I really was a cow (weighing in at 270 lbs. in 1999) and this little hobby saved my life. 10 years later I’d wasted away to 180 lbs and finally qualified (barely) for my first Boston Marathon. Perhaps you, Blake and I should join Brad on his quest? I submit that we should do a 100-miler in 2013! (There’s a good one in Idaho btw)

    • Mark Solon

      Whoa Coops, let’s see if I can do this 26.2 thing before we get carried away! Seriously though, thanks for the encouragement. Talking to folks like yourself inspired me to give this a try. Looking forward to St. George with you next fall!

  • Decker

    Mark. Big grin on my face – excited for you! Congrats. Since ZG was rewarding, you (and Pam and Brad) really should consider Robie. Will be great prep for the marathon of your choice later in the year. Am hoping to get my Robie on again this year.

    • Mark Solon

      Decker, I’ll never forget our first ride on the dump loop when you practically had to drag me up the hill on Cartwright! Thanks for being such a huge inspiration to Pam and I to take our fitness to another level. You rock!

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