Back on Track

Tomorrow I run a half marathon – my first of the year, and my tenth ever. The race is a silly Halloween event, and I’ve already made my peace with not setting a PR. It’s just a fact that I won’t be as fast or as strong as I was a year ago. Last year at this time, I’d just completed three full marathons in twelve months, and I was in the best shape of my life. However, nonstop training took its toll, and I needed time to rest and reset.

Getting back into training has not come naturally. My attention is scattered, and I often feel frustrated with my body for not moving as well as it used to. Add to this the daily national hellscape, and motivation has been a struggle.

The world continues to break our hearts in more ways than we could have imagined a year ago, and we’re all coping best we can. Especially in the early months of 2017, I found myself turning to comfort foods and hiding under the covers. The mental and physical tolls of witnessing leaders disregard human rights (and always fearing something worse is around the corner) cannot be overstated. This uncertainty and fear manifests itself in anxiety, insomnia, or weight gain.

As health strategies go, perhaps “we’re all gonna die, so fuck it and eat the whole pizza” wasn’t my best approach.

Times are tough, but little by little, I’m trying to turn the ship around.

Training for this half marathon has been an exercise in focusing on what I can do. It’s easy to get swept away by larger problems, but every solution starts with ownership and accountability. I alone control how I treat my body. Of course there are external factors that pose limitations, but it’s ultimately up to me how well I eat and how often I move. Over the past few months, I’ve made a series of daily decisions to eat more vegetables, drink more water, and lace up my shoes several times a week, even if it means slogging through a slow two miles when I’d rather be napping.

It’s working — starting to, at least. I’m still not as fast as I’d like to be, but I’m getting closer. And more importantly, I’m still trying. The running community has been always been a wonderful source of positivity, and this year I’ve been especially grateful for the support of others when I haven’t wanted to  keep going. The most dangerous thing we can ever do is give up, and these days we need grit and perseverance more than ever.

Tomorrow I will wear a ridiculous costume as I join thousands of my neighbors and friends to celebrate our strength and community. We’ll cheer each other on as we work to achieve a common goal. It will simultaneously hurt and feel fantastic, and that’s the point. All the hours of strength training and early morning runs and boring, sensible meals will come together in one big thirteen mile party. After all, if we aren’t doing everything we can to be happy and healthy, what are we even fighting for?

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One Step at a Time

I’ve been awfully quiet lately. I haven’t been running as much and I haven’t been writing as much, and I certainly haven’t been writing about running very much at all. Priorities changed a few months ago, and recently everyone’s been focusing (correctly) on calling our senators daily and marching for our lives. Amidst all this, there seemed little I could say in this space that warranted anyone’s time. I mean, the Nazis are back and the icecaps are melting, so why would anyone spend their precious energy reading about a mediocre middle-aged runner? I admit I’ve had more than a handful of dark days where I struggle to find the motivation to get out of bed, lace up my shoes, and run.

Life is never going to be easy, but on occasion we get a boost from an unexpected source.

An acquaintance invited me to run a race together. She’s someone I know and respect, but we never socialize outside of our periodic chats about running. I was touched that she asked, and immediately reminded why I love the running community. Running requires individual strength, but thrives on solidarity. Each race is against yourself and the clock, so another runner’s speed doesn’t make you slower. Rather, we’re inspired by others and work to motivate one another. We’re all in this together.

That said, the individual piece of the puzzle cannot be underestimated. I need to do some serious work on myself, and no one’s going to do it for me. I registered for a half marathon in October, which means I’m starting the process of spreadsheets and training and being extra mindful of what I eat. It’s the same way we achieve anything — it seems impossible at first, but small daily steps (most of which no one else will ever even notice) eventually build up to a critical mass. Training will be a challenge. I can’t wait.

Registering for a new race gave me a jolt of motivation and perspective. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and no one survives alone. The world is scary, and we can only face it one day at a time. All I know is that we can’t give up. Whether you’re working on resistance training or training for The Resistance, we need to stay strong, and we need to stay connected.

Take care of yourselves. And take care of each other.

 

 

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.