Happy Holidays from Arizona. As you can imagine, Bill and I are thrilled to get out of the snow of Washington and visit his mom in Sunny Peoria (where the Mariners have their Spring Training facilities). It’s only been between 55 and 65 degrees, but I’ll take what I can get given what everyone in the Seattle area is wading through just now.

We flew out of Bellingham into Las Vegas on Friday. Then we rented a car and drove to Peoria on Saturday.

Before we left home, Bill located a 30K for us to run while we were here as one of our final training runs before we do the Wakashio Marathon in Tateyama, Japan. Sunday morning we woke up early and traveled about 20 minutes to Surprise, a town to the West of Peoria. This race was sponsored by the Arizona Road Racers, a large running club in the area.

Mornings aren’t my favorite time of the day. I usually feel cranky and groggy until about noon. As I stood in line at the port-o-johns at about 7:30 am, I eavesdropped on some of the local club members talking about the race we were about to run. The woman in front of me said, “I’m just using this as a training run. I won’t be racing this one.” Then she added, “I’ll probably do it in nines.”

Since I can hardly run one mile at nine minutes, let alone 18.6 miles, and since it was 7:30 in the morning and I felt irritated, I silently rolled my eyes and thought, “Show off.” Glancing around at the small cluster of runners congregating at the starting line, I guessed there were only about fifty runners (turns out there were 95 people in the 30K). I’d be at the tail end, as usual.

Fortunately, there was absolutely no chance of my getting lost in this race as I have so many other times when I bring up the rear. This race was to be an out and back route. And I mean we’d go OUT in a straight line, turn around, come BACK. The whole course was on the Bell Road, a street that sprawls with malls, gas stations and mini-marts for miles on end through Peoria, Sun City and Surprise.

When Bill first told me where the race was going to take place I wasn’t thrilled to run for more than three hours along this exhaust-filled path of retirement suburbia. We’ve spent the holidays in this area of the country before, and Bell Road is one of those avenues concentrated with outrageous congestion during the holiday season.

Once we were at the starting line, however, I was surprised and delighted to discover that the Bell Road hasn’t been developed past the town of Surprise and that our route was going to take us parallel to the White Tank Mountains, right through the best of the desert. There were no shopping centers or housing projects on our route whatsoever, just pristine red soil and Saguaro cacti looking on as we made our way out to the turn-around point.

Indulge me as I relive it. I know I’ll be home next week, and I’ll try to do a 22-mile run in the slush and the mud and the cold. I know I’ll cry when I’m finished and then stand in the shower for an hour trying to warm my bones, so I want to keep this little 30K with the Arizona Road Racers in my memory and my heart as long as I can.

When the foghorn went off and I heard my chip beep as I crossed the official starting line, I noticed right off the bat that the road was at an incline. The first nine miles rose very gradually. The grade was so slight it was undetectable at certain points. The sun lit up the White Tank Mountains and their sienna hues were a perfect contrast to the cloudless blue of the sky. I squinted up into the brightness and visualized vitamin D wafting in through my nostrils and spreading through my limbs and into my bones. I breathed in dry, warm air and heard my lungs cheer, “Yes!”

Absolutely nothing eventful happened during this race. The temperature was perfect (about 60 after 9:00). The view was soothing and filled me with reminders that spring will come even to Western Washington. And the course was simple. My body felt light, buoyed by the knowledge that if we ran UP hill the whole way out, we’d be running DOWN hill on the way back.

I waved to Bill as he was running in the opposite direction at about mile eight (for me) and reached the turn-around at approximately an hour and thirty-seven minutes after the gun had gone off. Once again, as I have noted of late, my pace was faster than I expected it to be. Somehow, I’m stronger and faster without being miserable and without pushing myself much harder than I’ve ever pushed.

The way back was just as full of meditative ease as the way out had been. The sun was in my eyes, low in the sky. I noticed shadows from the mountains smile their blessings on the succulents over which they kept watch, and I let gravity pull me forward down the gradual decline. There were two inclines on the way back I hadn’t remembered the first time through, but I had the energy to push up them without much complaint from my quads.

I crossed the finish line at 3:13:07. I think I ran negative splits in the last nine miles.

Bill wasn’t there to cheer me over the finish line as he usually is. I knew this meant he wasn’t expecting me yet, so I went in search of him and found him waiting to receive his first-place award in his age group.

Just before we packed up to come home, we spent a little time chatting with a man Bill had run with for the first half of the race. “Joel” won third in his very competitive age group and fourteenth overall. As we walked with him back to his car he told us how he had tried and failed to finish the marathon distance nine times. We listened to him recount his disappointments (each a gruesome tale of ending up on the side of the road in ignominy and grief) and wondered at how such a strong runner could get so stuck and so discouraged. Bill and I waved good-bye to him and agreed, as we got into our car, that Joel was a victim of Perfectionism.

Once again, I’m reminded that the best way to run (or to love or bake a pie or write a blog) is imperfectly. My philosophy only strengthens with experiences like these: Run only as hard as you want to and let gravity help when you can.

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