Freedom at Forty Plan

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Adventure. Romance. Intrigue. These are the thoughts that come to mind when dreaming about world travel – whether backpacking through Europe, hiking through the Amazon, or braving the bone-chilling cold of the tundra to the north. These are the type of experiences that we typically have in our 20s, that decade full of existential crises in which we strive to identify who we really are and where we belong. Have your fun while you are young, because then it is time to settle down and be responsible.

Baloney. I, for one, have never done anything at the so-called developmentally appropriate time. While most people complete their bachelor degree in four or five years, I spent 15 years completing mine, fighting homelessness, illness, and trying to forge my way through the unknown forest of academia without enough social capital to weather the storm. At 36, I tell everyone I encounter that life is so much better this side of 30. I fought many battles and demons throughout my 20s and would not go back even if you paid me.

So while many people may have had the privilege of having a “gap year” or being able to travel extensively worldwide in their youth, I did not. It’s a little hard to contemplate world travel when you are trying to figure out how to get yourself to work everyday, hoping that you have a functioning vehicle and enough gas money to navigate the 12 miles between home and employment.

When I say that life is so much better on this side of 30, I truly mean it. In my 30s, I have finally grown comfortable in my own skin, I have figured out how to adult (sort of),  I finally completed not only my bachelor degree, but also graduate school, and have been able to meet life’s challenges and obligations with more confidence and grace than I ever had in my 20s. While many people may have getting a stamp in their passport as an item to be completed on their bucket list before the age of 30, I have get a stamp in my passport on my bucket list for age 40. If you haven’t noticed, for all my degrees and intelligence, I’m a little slow on the uptake on some things.

Here launches the Freedom at Forty Plan. As I approach my 37th birthday, I am looking at about 37 months to prepare to make this happen. I already have a passport. I ran a marathon in Canada right after the regulations tightened that required a passport for entry to and from Canada, before the invention of enhanced driver’s licenses for those living in border states. As many times as I have used my passport to go between Canada and USA over the years, Canada never stamps it. Plus, in my book, Canada doesn’t count. It’s our neighbor right next door. I’m looking for Adventure with a capital A.

While I have always had this dream of backpacking through Europe, it has been a rather big, daunting, and vague goal. I decided that if I am truly going to make this dream a reality, that I better pick a location, a date, and start planning and saving to make the trip happen. I chose my 40th birthday because I feel like I want to do something big to commemorate the passage from my 30s to my 40s since my 30s have been so significant, and frankly, the best decade of my life. When I go from 39 to 40, I want to do it with a bang. Practically, this also gives me about three years to try to save the money for a large trip. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people with a safety net or a strong support network, so I have to do everything on my own, and I have to work for everything I want. If I want to travel internationally, then that money is going to have to come out of my own hard earned paychecks and have to be squeezed somehow out of an already tight budget.

I began by researching airfare, so that I could get an idea of how much money I need to try to hoard over the next few years. Even after checking multiple cities in multiple locations, I have decided that Europe is way too expensive for someone with my income to be able to afford. Also, if this is going to be the first true week long vacation of my life (and it is), then I have ideas on what I want to be able to do during that week in a particular location.

I want to go surfing. It’s been years since I have been able to go ocean surfing. The past year or so, I have been landlocked to the Great Lakes. I want the big waves. While the Atlantic has been okay the past few years, it does not live up to my time on the Pacific Ocean. Plus, there are other oceans and waters that I have yet to surf.

With all the research I have done on airfare, activities, culture, and safety, I have settled on Nicaragua. Nicaragua has the beaches and is a great surfing destination. I also plan on going volcano boarding. Nica is the only place in the entire world where you can go volcano boarding. If I am going to spend money on international travel, I am going to do it all.

I am calling this my Freedom at Forty Plan, because I have sacrificed so much of myself, my relationships, and my life in the pursuit of my education, that I am now free to do whatever I want to do. I am no longer confined to a semester schedule or a particular geographic location due to classes. At forty, I will finally have the freedom to travel internationally, as I have so longed to do for many years, and hopefully attain that feeling of adventure, romance, and intrigue that I seek.

In addition to having three years to save, I also have three years to learn Spanish (again). Spanish is my fourth language, and I have not retained it, as it has proved to be the most useless of my four languages (probably hard to believe, but it’s true). While I am sure that it is probably possible to get around Central America without Spanish, I believe in being a respectful guest if I am going to visit someone else’s country. I also believe that knowing the language will empower me so that I am able to better keep myself safe (multiple food allergies remember – I don’t want to get caught in a major medical emergency in a country where I don’t speak the language), and better able to fully immerse myself in the culture and interact with the people in ways that is going to make this one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

If people do not travel in there 20s, or even if they do, most people envision being able to travel while in retirement. I want to travel as soon as possible while I can fully enjoy the experience. With all due respect, as I’m sure that there are octogenarians who do, but I do not personally envision myself still surfing in my 80s. Running marathons, maybe, but probably not still surfing.

That said, in addition to my Freedom at Forty Plan, I am also thinking about my retirement from the workforce in about 30 years or so. I have joked that I will be working until I die, but honestly, I don’t want to do that. I want to retire from the workforce and be able to enjoy life. So while I am trying to save for my Nicaragua trip, I am also trying to save for retirement. Again, I never do anything at the correct “developmental time.” I realize that I should have started saving for retirement when I started working 20 years ago, but life circumstances just did not lend itself to that reality.

I am also taking this trip to Nicaragua trying to figure out where I want to retire. I have already decided I am not going to stay in my current location. For one, I don’t want to be here that long term, and second, I can barely afford to live in my current location on my current salary; if my earnings are reduced in retirement, I definitely have to relocate.

Nicaragua will complete my bucket list item of having a stamp in my passport by age 40, and will hopefully be one of the more remarkable experiences of my lifetime. I also plan on going with the vision of retirement. In my research, I have discovered that it is sometimes cheaper to expatriate and retire in other countries than it is in the USA due to lower costs of living. Nicaragua has generous visa requirements for ex-pats from USA and Canada. Central America is one of two locations that I am seriously considering for that time when I decide to leave the workforce.

Freedom at Forty is a lovely three-year plan that may or may not also fit into my long-term life plan. If I decide not to expatriate, then I have lost nothing. I have completed my goal of international travel and I’m sure will have a phenomenal vacation. Yet, Nicaragua could also be a location where I decide to retire. I haven’t decided yet. I have 30 years to go before I get there. I’m just trying to keep all of my options open.

Adventure, romance, intrigue. My time is coming. Now that I have a location and dates planned, the hard part comes of pinching pennies, making good choices, and trying to live life while saving for my future. It may not be backpacking through Europe as I imagined, but I am sure that I am going to have the time of my life. I spent 20 years in college, working on one degree after another. Now, it is time to spend the next three years of my life trying to check an item off my bucket list.

My retirement from my career as a professional college student has truly given me the freedom to be the captain and navigate my own life unconstrained by the linear goal of achieving an education. I have many goals in life and many items on my bucket list. Freedom at Forty is just the beginning. Graduation from graduate school was not an ending; it is the beginning of the rest of my life.

Beauty in the Breakdown

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In 14 races, I ran my worst marathon this past week. It was wicked hard, but it was also an amazing learning experience. They say you can’t enjoy the good runs unless you know what it is like to have a bad run. Well, now I can appreciate the good runs more.

In this race, I learned what I like and don’t like in a race. I learned how to push myself way beyond my comfort zone. I learned to rely on my training. If I had not been adequately trained and prepared for the challenges I faced, then the outcome would have been a lot worse that what occurred.

As far as the race itself, this is what it taught me: I do not like small races. With only 3,000 runners, this was my smallest marathon ever. I usually do the large city races with 30,000-40,000 runners. In such a small race as the one I just did, there is not a lot of crowd support, and medical care is so stretched out that it’s scary. I am used to the big cities where thousands of people line the streets screaming each and every mile unless I’m running on a bridge. I am used to having a medical professional within eyesight for the entire 26.2 miles. The positives in running a small race and learning this, is that I was able to prove to myself that I can make it without those amenities. I was able to push through and finish the race without an iPod, without cheering crowds lining the streets, and without the constant presence of medical support. I can run a marathon without those amenities. Do I want to run a marathon without those amenities? No, I don’t.

I sustained an injury to the TFL (tensor fasciae latae) muscle in my hip somewhere between miles 18-22. If I had been on a course in a much larger city, medical professionals would have noticed the injury sooner and pulled me off the course. I would have been a DNF (did not finish). Instead, I pushed on to make the finish line. First, I did not understand exactly what was wrong or was happening, and second, I am one of those stubborn runners who push on just to get the medal.

I am fortunate in that I was adequately trained to be able to handle this injury in such a way that it will eventually heal and I am expected to make a full recovery. However, sustaining the injury has led me to a second reason why this was my worst race ever.

The course description was not accurate. Most course descriptions are not accurate. I have run marathons described as flat that were in fact gently rolling hills. I have run marathons described as gently rolling hills that were in fact downhill. While most race descriptions are not entirely accurate, they are usually pretty close to truth. This particular course was described as downhill, so I trained for a downhill race. What it was, in fact, was a hilly race. They were not gently rolling hills. They were not rolling hills. These were hills. There was a huge discrepancy in the description and elevation maps compared to reality. Sure, there were many course changes prior to the event, that required re-certification and new measurement, but there was a gross discrepancy in what was described and how I spent 5 months training.

After my injury, the medical personnel confirmed that the injury would have been much worse if I did not have the muscle tone that I have. I trained for a downhill course, and that was what I was prepared to run. A course that was extremely hilly put more pressure on my body that it could handle; I was not prepared for hills. HILLS. They were not rolling, nor were they gentle. I have run hill races before. I have done fine on hills courses, when that is what I have trained to run.

This race also taught me that the 2015 training season was my best training season ever. I was very well prepared to run a marathon. At my 18 mile split, prior to injury, I was on track to set a PR and within minutes of a potential BQ. At the end, it all fell apart due to injury and ended up being my slowest marathon time by over an hour. The important part was that I was able to finish and was not a DNF.

I have learned to do better research when looking into races to run. I usually try to choose established races so that kinks like this have already been worked out. This marathon was the 20th anniversary – I figure 5+ years to be my barometer for “established.” However, due to the drastic course changes that occurred in the weeks right before the race, the course I experienced was way different than the one for which I trained.

I will definitely be making changes and improvements to my training for 2016 to be able to strengthen the muscle currently injured. Right now, I am thankful that the surrounding muscles are strong enough to be able to support the one that literally took one for the team.

I am so thankful for every single day that I get to run. I can’t wait to heal and to come off the injury list to be able to run again. This race and this injury have taught me that I am so blessed to have been able to participate in 14 races so far. While I am looking forward to many more, I need to be able to continue to run smart.

I can’t believe that it took me 14 races to learn that I do not like small town venues. You grow through pain. You also learn so much about yourself once you go beyond your comfort zone. While this was my most challenging race in 14, I feel like I have learned so much about myself that is only going to improve my race decisions, training, and preparation for the future.

There is beauty in the breakdown. Without this experience, I would not have learned what I was capable of doing, or how adequate my training is, or what I don’t like. Sometimes knowing what you don’t like in life is as valuable as knowing what you do like.

I have been very fortunate in my running career thus far in that my good runs and races have way outnumbered my bad runs and races. This is pretty much only the second time in 14 races that I am saying, “I will never run that one again.” For the record, the other race I have said that about is due to logistics of the host city surrounding the race, not the course or race itself. This is the first time in which I loved the host city, but loathe the race.

I have learned so much through this negative experience than I have through my positive ones. The beauty in the breakdown is being able to take this knowledge to ensure that my race schedule for 2016 is amazing.

I’ll be on the injury list for the rest of the 2015 season, but I’m looking forward to the 2016 running season as being stronger, faster, and better. That’s the beauty of the breakdown.

Running Down A Dream

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Boston. It’s the Holy Grail of running. Every runner strives to earn a Boston Athletic Association medal. We throw around acronyms like BQ, PR, maxO2, and Gu. Ok, so Gu is a food group, but you know what I mean. Most likely when you meet a non-runner who finds out you run marathons, one of the first questions they ask is, “have you done Boston?” If you are in the Midwest, they probably ask, “how many Grandmas have you done?” referring to Grandmas Marathon, not your beloved senior citizen relative.

Everyone knows about Boston. Boston is the oldest, most prestigious, and has the strictest qualifying guidelines of any race outside of the Olympics. Qualifying standards for Boston are like Victorian chastity belts with a lock and key. Each year we look to see if the standards have changed, and pray for more birthdays so that we can change age groups to perhaps a less competitive one, or simply to get that extra 5 minutes to qualify. Many non-runners do not even know or understand that you have to qualify for Boston. You have to be invited. It’s like waiting for the fancy invite in gold calligraphy to be delivered to you by a guy in tuxedo tails wearing white gloves on a red carpet. You do not just “sign up for Boston.” It’s an elite club that not everyone can join. It’s kind of like a country club, except this one has lots of sweat and trail mix involved.

It is every runner’s dream to cross the finish line in Boston. It is truly the people’s Olympics. The finish line in Boston is the physical manifestation of everyone’s hopes and dreams as they sweat, train and run to achieve what less than 1% of the world population does – run a marathon. The magic of Boston is that in addition to all the professional runners who have 7 hours a day to train with professional trainers and chefs, it is also the housewife who rolls out of bed at 4am to get 15 miles in before the kids are awake and works in a supermarket that can qualify for Boston. You rip a training plan out of a magazine, and say, “I’m going to run a marathon.” Maybe your sister just got a cancer diagnosis, and you’re going to raise money and work with Team in Training (lymphoma and leukemia research). Maybe your mom just passed away from breast cancer, and you are going to run 26.2 with Donna (the marathon in Florida where all the proceeds go to breast cancer research). Maybe you ran a 5k with your kid and remembered how fun and free it feels to run and just “caught the bug” to run a marathon. Maybe you want to lose 40 or 60 or even 100 pounds, and start out just by walking around the block.

Whatever your story, wherever we come from, we are runners. We all have the same dream. The beauty of Boston is that the dream is attainable by any of us. Boston is not just for the people who have the privilege of making Olympic Dream Teams. Boston is the dream that many of us everyday people who have mortgages and kids and work 40 or more hours a week can make true.

Personally, I do not run fast enough to qualify for Boston. Maybe in a few years, once I reach the Masters category, and some minutes are tacked on to my qualifying standard, I will, but I’m not going to hold my breath. I would have to shave at least 40 seconds off of each and every mile to qualify for Boston. The full marathon is not my fastest distance. It is my most favorite distance, but it is not my fastest. Something happens between miles 22 and 26 where, even if I have been on track to earn my BQ, I completely lose my mind and blow it.

My best distance is the half marathon. I have qualified for and ran the Boston Half Marathon, which is how I earned my Boston Athletic Association medal. I don’t mind running half marathons. I do like to change up my race distances every now and again. The half marathon is not my favorite distance. The full marathon may be my most challenging, but is also my favorite.

As I have gotten older, and am approaching the Masters category in a few years, I still have a dream of Boston and getting my BQ. I am not going to kill myself for it. Yes, I can sit there and crunch the numbers and amp up my training, but what is more important to me at this point in my life than achieving my BQ is ensuring my health and safety to be able to run as long as possible throughout my life. Getting a BQ is not going to mean anything if I push it so hard that I sustain an injury that ends my running career. I have already overcome so much to be able to run marathons: a total of 10 broken bones, which includes breaking my spine in three places and spending time in a wheelchair, to 5 concussions, to a patella tear that almost did end my running career.

I am part of this magical community called runners in which we wave at each other as we pass on the trail, we help each other when we are struggling, and we line the streets to cheer for random strangers as they participate in their distance event and run pass. Yes, I am screaming for you, Random Citizen! You are not almost there, but you do look amazing, even if you are grimacing like a monkey humping a football because you are living your dream of running a marathon! That makes you look beautiful.

It doesn’t matter if you get a BQ or not. It does not matter if you come in first, middle or last. It doesn’t matter how many people have crossed that finish line before you, as long as you cross it. Many of us will never get our “15 minutes of fame.” But, you will get 1 second. That one second that your foot hits that finish line and clocks your time for completion, that one moment that you finish your marathon, whether it is your 1st, your 15th, or your 20th, that one moment YOU are the greatest athlete on the planet. That one-second is yours to own. You can say, “I did this.” “I ran a marathon.” Less than 1% of the world’s population can say that, folks.

Boston is every runner’s dream and it is always out there. For me, what is most important is not that I cross the finish line in Boston, but that I continue to keep crossing finish lines anywhere. We are all part of the same community. Boston is the oldest, most prestigious, and most beloved race. Even if you never achieve your BQ, that finish line belongs to all of us. It is the embodiment of all our hopes and dreams. If you never qualify for the bib, you can go spectate. You can still be part of the dream. Whether you are on the race course or part of the crowd, the magic that is Boston will course through your veins. A popular saying has been attributed to many, so it’s origin is uncertain states: “If you ever lose faith in humanity, go watch a marathon.” It’s true. Even if you never get your BQ, the magic of Boston can be experienced just by being there. Boston is every man’s dream.

As I approach medal # 14 this weekend, Boston is still my dream. Always was, always has been, and always will be. I chose one of the top ten fastest race courses in the country with a net elevation drop of 800 feet for my 14th race in an effort to qualify. Will I get my BQ? Probably not. But I will cross the finish line, and I will be able to train next year to cross a finish line somewhere else again. I will cross the start line. I will cross the finish line. I will run a good race.

Every April, whether we have achieved a BQ or not, the world watches with love and hope as people run the Boston Marathon. We are all running down a dream.