Humble Re-Beginnings

I fell over in yoga today, and it wasn’t even that tough of a pose.

I’m slowly getting back into a routine of exercising, and it isn’t going all that well. This is stuff hard. Really hard. Not that long ago that I was super strong at all this — I could run really far! And balance on one foot! And do more than one pushup in a row! And now I… can’t. Not yet anyway.

After training for three full marathons in twelve months, I burned out in a big way. The mental, physical, dietary, and time commitment of a marathon cannot be understated. 26.2 requires everything you’ve got. EVERYTHING. Your energy. Your social life. Your ability to make small talk with nonrunners. All of it. No excuses. You give your all, or you fail.

And I gave it happily! Well, mostly happily anyway. Running is (usually) fun, and training is (usually) a positive experience, and I (usually) like doing all of it. 2016 was a challenging year on almost all levels, and training gave me a constant space of control. I know how to prepare for a marathon. There’s a plan and an order and a spreadsheet! Whatever other chaos was happening in my life, I had this part down.

But everything has a limit, and I simply overdid. A hard reset, both physical and mental, was necessary. My muscles needed rest and my brain needed freedom, and now I’m fumbling my way through a new start. I’m doing a little running and some yoga and a few easy hikes, but my biggest struggles are my own expectations. I remember doing these same tasks recently and doing them well, and it’s humbling and frustrating to admit that right now I can’t.

So here I am, getting red-faced and sweaty after running only a few minutes and toppling over in yoga class. This is my reality. Today. Here. Now.

I’ve done this enough times to know that this feeling isn’t permanent. I’ll bumble through these awkward workouts and remind my body how to be a body. Like everything else, this is part of the process. Feeling weak now only reminds me of how recently I was strong, and that I’m capable of being that strong again.

But while I’m here, I’m doing my best to embrace it. Marathoning isn’t a personality trait or a genetic advantage or a predestined achievement. It’s a decision — a series of decisions, rather — to commit to a goal and accept a lot of discomfort in order to accomplish something bigger. I haven’t yet decided if I’ll run another full marathon, so for now I’m making my peace with where I am now — this sweaty, wobbly, frustrating, and entirely worthwhile place.

Hurts So Good

I run a marathon tomorrow. I know it’s going to hurt, but I’m not worried. If there’s one thing my Midwestern background taught me, it’s how to suffer. I grew up enduring 100 degree summers with humidity and mosquitoes, followed by bone-chilling winters with blizzards that just won’t quit. I cheered for sports teams that will never win a championship. I voted for candidates in a massive minority. I wore pants knowing the cuffs would get dirty and gross from snow piles, and I straightened my hair knowing full well it would frizz in 10 minutes. I knew my options, I weighed the odds, and then I sucked it up and lived with my choice.

I shook my Minnesotan accent not long after moving, but I’ve clung to my martyrdom for dear life. This has served me well with running.

Simply put, I run well because I suffer well.

Suffering is part of everyone’s life, regardless of how glass-half-full you insist on being. But even a crabby pragmatist like myself can acknowledge that if nothing else, suffering toughens you up. Here is a non-comprehensive list of other things I’ve endured as training for this marathon, intentional or otherwise:

  • Glamorous running side effects like blisters and chafing
  • IT band pain, cured by the trusty RICE method
  • A bruised foot after forgetting I left my laptop in my bed and sending it flying whilst pulling the quilt to make the bed. Fortunately nothing on my computer or  foot was broken! (just sore and ugly for a few weeks)
  • A lackluster social life caused by 5:00 a.m. weekend wake-up calls
  • Being jumped on by more than one dog whose owners refuse to believe that leash requirements apply to them
  • Jet lag on multiple occasions
  • Overly crowded MAX trains that result in touching people I wouldn’t normally touch
  • A mind-numbingly boring accounting class
  • Finding a coupon for a free burrito after it had expired
  • The first few weeks of a not-mandatory-but-you-reallllllllly-ought-to-participate work sponsored Bachelorette bracket contest
  • Putting my things in boxes and then taking them back out of boxes (twice)
  • Discovering the intense array of ways I can break my own heart
  • That weird stray hair that auto-generates on your chin once you turn 30
  • Accidentally farting during yoga in a class with no music
  • Finding cat puke on the carpet mere inches away from where the tile floor starts
  • Making eye contact with the bus driver who saw me running, but still drove away

Equal tragedies, every last one. Each left its own lessons and scars and calluses, making me better equipped for the next. Training, in all its forms, made me tougher. Now I’m ready. I’ve done the work, and I’m ready to enjoy the celebration of the marathon. I’m ready for the music and the signs and cheering. I’m ready for the adrenaline. I’m ready for the finish line. I’m ready for the medal.

Just like everyone else at the start line tomorrow, I lived through 100% of the things I faced this training period. After all that, what’s 26.2 more?

Unprofessional

A friend and I had an argument recently. I had set an early curfew for myself to be rested for my run the next morning, but when I started to leave my friend said, “You’re not a professional, you know. You don’t need to be this strict about everything. It’s not like you’re gunning for a Top Ten finish.” I left cold and furious. I’ve been serious about running for years, and I know what I’m doing. I know what my body needs, and I know how to train safely and smartly.

But my friend wasn’t wrong. I’m not a professional. Not even close. It’s not like I’ll qualify for the Olympics. I’ll never even qualify for Boston. Training is the primary deciding factor for what I eat, when I sleep, and what I wear, and I’m still barely cracking 12-minute miles. So what’s the point? Why even bother if I don’t stand a chance of winning?

Because that’s not what motivates me. I don’t run because I’m good at it; I run because I need it. I need the discipline. I need the structure. I need a reason to go to bed at a reasonable hour and eat healthful foods and drink more water than beer. I need clarity when I’m confused and catharsis when I’m angry. I’m better at training than I am at racing, and I’m better at living when I’m training.

My friend has since apologized for the world’s worst way of saying, “I’m having a nice time together. Please stay longer,” but there’s still a lot of truth in the original wording. As much as running means to me, I still need to find a balance in order to live my life. I’m drawn to running because it helps me tip the scales toward healthier choices, but it’s possible to tip too far toward obsession.

In just over a month, I’ll run my fourth marathon in Seattle. I’m not going to win. I’ve accepted my fate. I’ll line up with 20,000 other athletes, and 19,990 of us won’t be Top Ten finishers. The race will go as well as it can possibly go based on my training, the weather, and the will of the gods that day. It will be the capstone to this phase of an ongoing process, and I’ll  have as much fun as an amateur can possibly have.

 

Fresh Start

A new year practically demands introspection. As runners we tend to be focused on the road ahead of us, but it’s nearly impossible to begin a new year without looking back on the old one.

2015 was The Year of Significant Life Changes, and running kept me sane through the worst of it. During the past year I:

  • Got serious about hill training. Hills aren’t always fun, but they’re necessary. By forcing myself through the discomfort, I grew both physically and mentally stronger.
  • Figured out what fuel my body actually needs.  A temporary vegan experiment led to a permanent plant-based diet, and my health and speed have been better ever since.
  • Developed a training plan that actually works for me. By combining running, hiking, yoga, and strength training, I set massive 13.1 and 26.2 PRs without injuring my body.
  • Embraced nature and spent countless hours in the woods. Hiking became not only an important part of my training, but a primary method of coping. There’s no better metaphor than climbing a mountain — the effort, the struggle, the feeling that it will never end (even though rationally you know that it must). The only way over it is over it. There are no shortcuts in training or grief.
  • Discovered acceptance and forgiveness in yoga. Improving my strength and flexibility made me a better physical runner, and improving my focus and intention made me a better mental runner. Even in a group, yoga is a personal journey. You focus on your own practice without comparing yourself to anyone else. Every person has a different body, a different medical history, and a different amount of sleep last night. By learning to stop comparing myself to other yogis, I learned to stop comparing myself to other runners, which freed me to run my own race.
  • Started a new job and had to balance training with a new schedule and new responsibilities. The excitement of the change was combined with the challenge of finding time for everything.
  • Began grad school and added yet another ball to my juggling act. Lesson One: there is always enough time as long as you’re willing to do the work (and drink plenty of coffee).
  • Broke my own heart several times over, and ran, hiked, yoga’d, worked, and studied my way through it. The heart is a muscle like anything else. Most of this year it was sore, but hopefully going forward it will be stronger.
  • Found peace and strength on the trails, and a million other places I never expected.

Above all, I kept going, as we all did. 2016 will have its own challenges, and it likely won’t be any easier. My goal for the year is to run two marathons (Seattle in June and Twin Cities in October), and ideally break five hours. Training will be hard and life will be harder, but we always find a way.  Running keeps us sane. Running keeps us focused. Running gets us up in the morning, and keeps us always moving forward.

Here’s to better trails this year.

Heart Healthy

Running is good for the heart — this isn’t groundbreaking news. Running helps the heart pump stronger and more efficiently, it lowers the the production of glucose which can lead to diabetes, and it helps prevent heart disease.

But most people think of benefits in strictly biological terms. Running is good for your heart, but not just with regard to oxygen molecules in your bloodstream. Running helps my heart in every sense of the phrase, and it helps me become a whole person — sane, grounded, inspired, connected.

A few weeks ago I returned home to Minneapolis, and my heart was completely full of laughter and love and happiness. I reconnected with family and loved ones. I shared a meal with the woman who inspired me to run my first marathon, then the next morning I ran with the friend with whom I trained for that very same race.

My trusty spreadsheet dictated that I run 20 miles while on vacation, so I completed my longest training run on my home turf. I loved every second of it. I ran through my old neighborhood. I revisited trails I used to train on. I watched the sun rise over the Mississippi River, and remembered the joy I felt running when I was younger. I never felt fatigued or exhausted. Nostalgia is one hell of a motivator. 

The trip home was a shot in the heart, in the best way possible. I’ve carried that joy and inspiration with me during my two week taper, and I’ll carry it with me tomorrow as I embark on 26.2 miles.

As I mentally prepare for tomorrow, I find myself looking back. This will be my third marathon ever, and my second attempt at the Portland Marathon. Last year’s race did not go well, but I’ve trained harder and smarter this year, and I’m ready for redemption. I put my heart more into training this time — connecting with nature on weekly training hikes, connecting with spirituality during yoga, and connecting with myself during each run by staying mindful and being honest about what my body can and can’t do.

I’ll cross the starting line tomorrow with strong body, clear mind, and full heart. Training for this race has been more joyful and inspiring than anything I’ve trained for in the past. With no injuries and no excuses, I know I’m capable of redeeming myself from last year. When I face the inevitable wall, I can tap into the amazing memories during the training process, and use that as fuel to keep going. My heart knows I can do this even when my body says I can’t.

Crossing the finish line will not only mean that I met my personal goal, but that I’m connected to something bigger. I’m connected to the running community, and to the organizers and volunteers of the marathon. I’m also connected with a more honest version of myself — training for this event has gotten me out of bed on days when I wanted to hide under the covers, it’s kept me motivated to push forward when I wanted to quit.

There’s no doubt that running is good for the heart, but as I reflect on how much it’s helped me — this year more so than ever — I know it’s also good for the soul.

The Optimist

I don’t consider myself an optimist. Chipper affirmations are usually met with a wince and a heavy amount of side-eye. What may be intended as positivity is received as trite, simplistic, and belittling. Oh you have a problem? Chin up, sunshine. Everything happens for a reason. 

Life doesn’t just work out because we smile and think happy thoughts. Life works out because we put in the effort, give our best, and make good choices. (Or, as is more often the case, life doesn’t just work out, and we pick up the pieces and deal with it).

At the risk of being optimistic, training is going well. Really well. Knock-on-wood well.

My previous two marathons, I faced a combination of injury and life complications, and my perfect training plan went quickly off the rails. The first time I built in no buffer, and was (unsurprisingly) behind schedule almost immediately. The second time I learned and built in an extra two weeks, only to be out for a month with an ankle injury. This time, I built in even more of a buffer, and — miracle of miracles — haven’t needed any of it. I’ve only ever had time to train up to 18 miles, and this year I conquered 18 with 6 weeks to spare.

So now I can’t shake this looming sense of disaster. Something is bound to happen. Something always happens.

Rather than confidently riding my wave of good luck, I’m double-knotting my laces, looking both ways before crossing the street, and avoiding black cats, ladders, and broken mirrors. My main goal now is not to screw it up.

But maybe this time will be different. Maybe nothing has to go wrong. Maybe the doom and gloom is all in my head, and I’m actually going to finish my training as intended. Today I run 19, then next week 20, and maybe they’ll both go well. Maybe my plan finally succeeds and I finish a marathon with a strong and unbroken body. I’ve been through almost every setback imaginable, but maybe this is the year it works.

I’ll continue to be cautious and smart, and I’ll do everything in my power to arrive at the start line in optimum health, but maybe all my worrying is for naught. Maybe 26.2 isn’t so scary, and maybe I can do this after all.

Best Laid Plans

Plan A is lovely. Plan A is preferred. Plan A is the best intentions of our best prepared best self. There’s a reason it’s at the top of the list. There’s also a reason why we usually end up on plan B (or C or D…). Life is too messy for Plan A. The A might as well stand for Almost For Sure Not Going To Happen, or Are You Serious Right Now That You Thought This Was Even Possible?

I ran 15 miles today. Make that 15 miles with an asterisk. Instead of completing 15 in one fell swoop like my trusty spreadsheet implies, I actually ran 8, stopped and wanted to die, pulled myself together, ran 2 more, got frustrated, called it, drove to the gym, and ran the last 5 on a treadmill.

15* miles. I got there. Eventually.

Training isn’t just about setting a plan and sticking to it. As much as I love my spreadsheets, I know that the training process can’t be captured on the grid. Training is about keeping your focus on the end goal and making the necessary short term revisions. It’s about listening to your body and being willing to adapt. It’s about putting in the work when you don’t necessarily want to and learning to silence that toxic inner voice.

Too many times I’ve let immediate pride trump common sense. I’ve pushed through minor pain only to result in serious injury. Worse, I’ve committed the other extreme where instead of readjusting when a run starts getting difficult, I quit. Neither of these are healthy or smart or productive, but running and rationality don’t always go hand in hand.

I hit a serious wall 8 miles into today’s training run. Portland’s in the middle of yet another heatwave and the sun felt oppressively bright. The previous week I ran 14 miles on this same trail with no problems, but bodies don’t respond the same way from one day to the next. Today was rough and ugly. I thought about quitting at 8, and again at 10. But I didn’t. I assessed, reassessed, relocated, re-reassessed, and by the time I got to Plan D, I finally got the damn thing done.

My sights are locked firmly on 26.2, and I have a solid plan of how to get there. But every map has options, and my intended path is not the only way. I’ll keep moving forward and continue trying to make myself as strong and healthy as possible. My spreadsheet will help keep me on track, but each day will have its own unexpected challenges. I’ll adapt and adjust, and I’ll get there.

Plan D (or, let’s be honest, E or F if I keep going at this pace…) may not look anything like my original plan, but as long as I cross the finish line, it’s the path I wanted all along.