Resting is Hard Work

My training schedule calls for two “rest” days a week, on Mondays and Fridays. On these days we are supposed to limit the time on our feet, which means no cross training, no nothing. Relax, enjoy life; you know, rest. I am pretty faithful to keeping my Monday nights clear, but I’m lucky if I have even a fifty-fifty success rate for resting on Fridays. I get so busy, I can never seem to get all my runs in on the other five days. Which is not to say I inadvertently rested on a Wednesday, instead of on a Friday, but rather that I ran with the team on Tuesday, worked out with my trainer on Wednesday, walked two-plus miles home from work on Thursday, and all the sudden I’m out of days and I need to get one more run in for the week. There is something fundamentally messed up at being too busy to make time to do nothing.

I intellectually know that resting is an extremely important part of training (per the Team in Training guidelines, “Recovery days are mandatory!”). When we stop to rest, we let our bodies heal and are just that much stronger for it. I can think of countless times when the run after a rest day is particularly good. That should be evidence enough that it’s a good idea. But I think there is a the nagging feeling that chases many runners that if you stop and rest you wont start again. After all Sir Isaac Newton even came up with a LAW regarding being at rest:

A body that is at rest will stay at rest ~Newton’s First law of motion

But, then again, the guy came up with the theory of gravity laying around watching apples fall on his head, so I’m guessing he was not much of a distance runner.

Our bodies are actually very ingenious at getting what they need and they will take a rest day (or two, or ten) for you if you don’t take them proactively. Don’t take time off your feet and you are more likely to get sick (there goes three days of training). Ignore the need for healing and you are more likely to get injured (there goes three weeks of training). I would know, I’ve experienced both.

The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it. ~Sydney J. Harris

So, this season I’m working hard at taking my rest and relaxation seriously. My Mondays are, in fact, sacred, so I can count on getting at least one rest day each week. I have also reminded myself that nothing bad happens if you only run four days one week. And stopping to take a break now and then is not just good for running. How many times have any of us been banging our head against the wall trying to solve a problem and when we finally let go of forcing ideas, the solution presents itself to us as is by magic.

Don’t just do something, sit there. ~Buddhist Quote

I was walking home from the local grocery store a few years ago which included walking up a short, but steep, hill. A woman was about half a block ahead of me with two extremely full grocery sacks. It was obvious that her arms were heavy as she hauled them up the hill. About two-thirds of the way up she stopped in her tracks. I thought, naturally, it was because the bags were heavy, but she did not even set them down. Instead, she leaned over, planted her nose in a rose that was in full bloom along the sidewalk and took a huge deep breath and then went on along her way. You could have hit me over the head with a frying pan I was so shocked to see a real person actually stop and smell the roses. But the truth is if you don’t stop once in awhile and take in a big, deep breath, you will miss all the flowers.


Runner’s Rage

Every Saturday we start our practices with a “mission moment” in which we hear stories about how blood cancer has touched the lives of those we are raising funds for and their families. Each season I go into the practices thinking that I will not be as impacted as I was the first year, and somehow I end up being more affected than the year before.  There are the stories of survivors, memories of those who fought valiantly but ultimately succumbed, and hope for those still in the midst of their personal battle. Blood cancer doesn’t seem to discriminate based on age or gender and strikes children and grandmothers alike. For some reason, the stories that are the hardest for me to hear are those about the very little boys who are afflicted. This Saturday we heard the story of Joseph Boyle who was diagnosed when we was 2 and left this world for a better place when he was just 5 years old. Yesterday would have been his 21st birthday.We were all given laminated pictures attached to safety pins to wear on our run.

Standing in the cold and rain at 8am on a Saturday morning, it was honestly a little tough for me to totally absorb this little boy’s story. I was moved and saddened, but also distracted by the thought of running in the rain. And it was a rough start. My feet were like lead blocks that I struggled to lift with each step. Everything was stiff and I felt like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz in desperate need of an oil can. It was only a 40 minute run and I slogged and dragged my sorry self every step of the 20 minutes out.

But then I turned around and something happened. My legs warmed up, my joints loosened up, and I began to relax into the second half of the run. It was at this point that I started think of Joseph Boyle. What kind of fucked up cancer takes 5 year old little boys from this world??  What must his parents have gone through – so excited to have him join their family, only to have him taken away so soon. And it was not an easy life, considering his final years were spent with doctors and in hospitals. I started to get mad and the madder I got the faster I ran. Every footstep became my personal rage against this injustice.

Blood cancer – you are a ruthless, evil disease, and you don’t play fair. You are a thief and a cheat. I may not be fast but I’m determined as hell. I’m coming for you and the running trail is my warpath. Every dollar I raise is a nail in your coffin and I run for the day I can dance on your grave.


A Running (re)Start

I was on the phone with a client this past week who also happens to be a runner. I asked her how her training was going and she said not very well, that she hadn’t been running and was going to have to basically start over. We chatted briefly about how the “re-start” seemed to be a fixture for most runners.

There are those for whom running has become an ingrained fixture in their lives and they couldn’t imagine going more than a day or two without running. If that’s you, I’m both happy for you and hate you a little. I am not one of those people. It’s one of the reasons I train with a group like Team in Training. The group keeps me accountable and focused on my next endurance event. But I will tell you after my feet cross the finish line five months from now, the only running I’ll want to do is towards the sofa.

The price I pay for half a year of laziness is that I have to start over from scratch every Jan/Feb when I get itching to do another endurance event.  Here in the middle of February my body has figured out that things have changed… It’s discovered that those first runs were not a fluke and my hibernating muscles are being rudely awoken from their slumber. And like waking a sleeping bear, they are not happy about it. Things ache, muscles get sore, I get sore, I get sleepy. I probably have another good 2-3 weeks before my body settles back into the routine and ‘remembers’ what it’s like to be a runner.

I suppose my running life would be easier if I kept it up year round, if even just in a maintenance program of light running in the ‘off’ season.  But there seems to be something equally important for me psychologically of not running. I love doing the Seattle Rock N Roll half marathon precisely because it’s held in late June and am able to ‘take the summer off’ and save the very best of Seattle summer weather for whatever fun stuff strikes my fancy. That often includes being active – riding bikes, kayaking, hiking. But it also includes cloud gazing, porch lounging, and lazy Saturdays spent reading. I love being a runner and no matter how many times I leave it behind, I’m always drawn back into it. And I also can’t imagine a life in which there is no room for cloud gazing, too. I wonder sometimes if this time away is also part of the draw. I miss running which is what prompts me to sign up each January. It’s hard to miss something if you don’t have a little time and space away from it.

And other obstacles get in the way of our best laid plans. A runner’s life is inevitably filled with injuries large or small that take us off our feet for periods of time. Never mind life in general with work, travel, illness, family, weather, holidays. It’s easy to say those are simply excuses, and sometimes they are, but other times we have a few too many balls in the air and something has to give, and sometimes that thing is running.

The good news is there is much to be said for starting anew. I look forward to starting my training, meeting new people, seeing old friends again. The fun I get from these re-starts reminds me that you can get back on the horse. I have re-started so many times that I know instinctively that a break from running is far from a permanent situation. Success in running, or in anything really, is not about how many times you stop or fail, it’s about making the choice to start again.

Fall down nine times, get up ten…  ~Japanese proverb


Running in the dark

On Tuesday evenings I run with my Team in Training group around Green Lake and at this time of the year it’s still getting dark pretty early.  For tonight’s practice, we ran on the “inner” loop which has no path lighting. This means we run in the dark. I have a small headlamp, but it mostly just allows me to see the time on my watch and maybe 1 foot down the trail. And my eyesight is only good for staying on the path (generally) and not falling on my face (most of the time), but otherwise I have to rely on my other senses to keep my bearings. Because of my pace (faster than walking, slower than running – I call it “slogging”) I am quickly by myself for all but the very beginning and end of the runs. Despite being a ridiculously social person, I enjoy having my running time to myself. When you run in the pitch dark, you are truly alone with your thoughts. Mostly I focus on my breath and tell myself to relax into the run. Somehow, when it’s just me and my breathing and the darkness, relaxing comes easier. Tonight I ran a negative split (meaning the second half of the run was faster than the first). Running a negative split is about holding back and starting out slow to warm up, and then easing into a more steady pace for the finish. I will confess that I have never been very good at negative splits. It’s not that I start out too fast, it’s more that I start slow, warm up slow, and then finish off slow – I’m usually all about the even split. For whatever reason, tonight, running in almost complete darkness, I was able to focus solely on my running and finally achieve the elusive negative split.


Party’s over, now the work begins

Now that the glow of the Team in Training kick-off party is over, and I’ve gotten my first practice out of the way, it’s down to simply doing the work. Probably because I am such a social creature, I look forward to the group practices and I pretty faithfully attend every Tuesday evening and Saturday morning practice session. It’s all the runs I have to do on my own that are trickier. I am actually the queen of procrastination and come up with any number of reasons that it makes more sense to delay my practice to lunchtime, then after work, and oh, maybe let’s just skip today (I only have to run 5 days a week and I take every loophole I can in regards to making that math work out).  Before TNT, when I was training for half-marathons on my own, I told myself every weekend that I would do my long runs on Saturdays. Near as I can tell, that never happened. I always, 100% of the time, delayed until Sunday. And here was my typical Sunday thought process – I can’t run in the morning because I just had breakfast; oh now I’m hungry and I can’t do a long run on an empty stomach, so now I have to have lunch.  I’ll just watch this movie first then I’ll go… I would delay and dilly-dally until it was literally as late as I could get away with leaving and still finish my run before dark (and I pushed that so far that I often returned to the trail-head in deep dusk). It’s almost a miracle that I was actually able to complete my training and run in two half-marathons. I suppose it’s a testament to my stubborn nature.

The structure TNT provides is a huge help, but my procrastinating ways are still in full force on those days I am left to my own devices.  I had coffee with a friend at a nearby coffee shop this morning and as I was walking home the inner dialogue started. It was almost lunchtime, so maybe I should have lunch first (never mind the huge, late breakfast I had that morning). I stopped myself and decided to go home and simply change into my running gear, then I could weigh my options. Of course, once I put on my running shoes and leggings, I just sucked it up and got out on the trail. Now lest you think I have turned over a whole new leaf, while on my run I started debating with myself about whether or not I should do a run on Monday (here’s where that 5 day math comes into play).

No one held a gun to my head and forced me to keep signing up for these races. And I love the races – the excitement of the day, the sense of accomplishment. But that’s five months down the road. There really isn’t anything all that exciting about doing a 30 min easy recovery run on a cold and dreary Sunday afternoon. On the other hand, there really isn’t anything all that painful about it either. So why do I procrastinate almost to the point of absurdity?

I went to the source of all wisdom and knowledge…the internet. A search of “why do people procrastinate” turns up a bunch of pscyhology-based content that describes people who are afraid of success, unable to make decisions, or are uninspired by their goals. Well, I was pretty clear on my decision to sign up for the race in the first place, and running a half-marathon is in fact a very inspiring goal for me. I supposed I could buy fear of success if this weren’t my 4th half-marathon. I am already quite confident in my ability to succeed. I found another series of links for ‘Temporal discounting.’ This is a concept where our brains are warped by believing short-term rewards are more valuable than medium-term rewards. (In other words, I’m going to be happier by watching a movie now than I will by running 13.1 miles in 5 months  – which requires I run 3 miles today). That may be closer to my situation, but considering I always feel so much better when I do go for that run (i.e., it provides a short-term reward), the internet may just be a bunch of bunk.

I think the truth is that the time in between the kick-off and the finish line is work. It’s not painful or unbearable work and it’s a choice I’ve made for myself, but these weekly training runs are just something that needs to be done. Fundamentally, I know if I don’t do the work I won’t make it to the finish line and that is not an acceptable outcome for me. I ran today. I may or may not run tomorrow, but rest assured I will run five times between now and next Sunday.


Soul of a Runner

If you were to encounter me on the street, I hardly look like an endurance athlete. I’m on the brink of my 43rd birthday, short, and about 75 pounds overweight. Running is not generally the first thing one associates with middle aged women of my size. In fact, if you were to encounter me out on the trail, running looks pretty much like the last thing I should be doing. I am painfully slow (it’s not too hard to walk faster than I slog/jog), my face gets bright red, and I am generally huffing and puffing like a pack-a-day smoker. If I was being sensible I should be out walking, not pathetically attempting to do something that only barely resembles running. I have walked a half-marathon and I can extoll the many virtues of walking. The training is easier, you see more along the way, and if you have a good walking partner you save boatloads in therapy sessions. But regardless of all I have going against me and all evidence to the contrary, I can’t stop running.

There is something inside of me that simply yearns to be out running. I see other runners and it pulls strings deep within. The other day, I hopped on the bus and saw a couple out for their morning run. When I got off downtown and crossed the street, I saw them again. They had managed to run downtown in the same time it took me to ride the bus and I could see from their back-packs that they were running to work. As soon as I saw them, I didn’t think they were crazy or wonder how they did it, I just wanted to be them. I wanted to be the kind of person who runs to work.

I think the other thing skinny folks forget when they see us larger-proportioned athletes out there chugging away is that we can’t see what we look like. I don’t see the red-faced little plump girl. I only know how I feel from the inside. I hear my breathing and it reminds me I am alive. I feel the rhythm of my feet hitting the ground, and the cadence is comforting, if not mesmerizing. I feel the strength of my legs and am in awe of the distances they carry me. I feel strong, powerful, enduring. Or sometimes its more the way I feel after a particularly tough run. The running itself can be filled with aches, pains, and frustration, but when I have reached deep down into the reservoir I didn’t know existed and found a way to propel myself to the top of the hill, gone faster than before, or when my foot crosses the finish line, I feel like I am on top of the world. It’s not that elusive runner’s high, but the even more addictive drug of accomplishing your goals.

Why running?  I have no idea. Does anyone really know why we have the passions we do, and does it really matter? I have friends who find themselves through art, music, cooking, or raising their families. It is just this thing I do. I have gone years without running for one reason or another and yet I always come back to it. People ask me if I am going to do triathlons. Maybe some day I’ll take on that challenge, but I mostly think why would I want to do those other two things when I could be running. One of my favorite race shirts had this on the back – “Run.” I guess I love it so much because it was such a great reminder not to over-think; just run, period. Why do I run? Because I have the soul of a runner. Period.


Why Endurance Events? Why not..??

The training season is coming to a close. We’re in the tapering phase where we rest and heal our bodies in preparation for the big day. On June 25 I will walk 13.1 miles in Seattle’s Rock N Roll Half Marathon. I haven’t posted much this season and I knew going into the training that walking a half marathon would be a far different experience than running my first ever marathon. For starters, I have already completed a couple of half marathons, including the Seattle Rock N Roll Half back in 09, so I pretty much know what to expect. And last year was so monumental for me in accomplishing one of my lifetime goals, that this season has been a much quieter, calmer experience.

Many runners experience post-marathon blues after they complete their first (or fastest or Boston or…) marathon. I did not have this experience after my marathon – mostly I was filled with a tremendous sense of gratitude and the enduring knowledge that we are all capable of fulfilling any goal we set our hearts and minds to. However, I will confess to feeling a little melancholy as I approach this year’s event.  I guess it’s a little like climbing Mt. Rainier after having summitted Mr. Everest.  Maybe it is because the anticipation is gone. The fear that you don’t know the outcome mixed with the excitement that you are really doing it is not present.  You still have to train and work for it because nobody wakes up one morning and says I think I’ll stroll up to the summit of Mt. Rainier today, but it’s just not the same. Honestly, I feel a little ambivalent and even a little jealous as I watch my teammates fill with excitement over their first time at “the show.” Oh, it’s not stick my leg out and trip them jealousy. It’s more wistful and nostalgic and it brings back memories of when I was in their shoes.

So, why did I come back? I have proven to myself twice now that I can train for and successfully run a half marathon on my own. I don’t need Team in Training to complete this event and, frankly, I don’t need to prove to myself that I can do this at all. I could have stayed home and had a pleasant spring sleeping in on Saturday mornings. On the other hand, I can’t imagine myself not being here, not being part of this group. For one thing, there is still that pesky blood cancer that insidiously takes the lives of young people far too soon (and I include my 41 years young friend Gil in that group). Training with a purpose, training as a way to do something more than just 13.1 or 26.2 miles, is one way I can leave a positive ‘footprint’ in this world. Secondly, training in a group, with people cheering and supporting you, is far more rewarding than training alone – even if the act of running or walking is ultimately a personal one.

But that doesn’t really answer the question of why do endurance events. I’m not sure I actually know the answer. For whatever reason, they are simply in my blood. Or maybe I have a bit of George Mallory’s “because it was there” sensibilities. I have 2 weeks to go before completing this year’s event and I’m already asking myself what I think I might like to do next.  I just finished reading Marshall Ulrich’s Running on Empty (thanks Mark Maraia for the recommendation), which lead me to watch Running the Sahara on Netflix, about 3 men who run across the Sahara desert. Brian left the room mid-way through because it was too hard for him to watch how these men abused their bodies, but I could not peel my eyes away. I have zero desire to run 2 marathons a day for 111 days in a row (in the desert no less), but do I walk another marathon? Maybe next year I could run the half? Dare I even consider walking an ultra event?  There are no definitive plans at this point and I promised Brian the summer for the two of us to be active together, but come this fall I am sure I will get that unexplainable itch, tie up my laces, and go out on the trail again, chasing the next mountain – big or small.


Is Team in Training ruining marathons?

Photo courtesy of Larry Johnson

Here we go again with yet another article talking about how all us average marathoners are ruining the sport for the ‘real’ runners.  I was intrigued by this NPR article written by Asma Khalid, Marathons, Once Special, Are Now Crowded because it features an athlete, Rachel Couchenour, training for her first marathon with Team in Training:

After a sorority sister was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Couchenour decided to join the charity running group Team in Training. The organization raises money for leukemia and lymphoma research.

The article goes on to describe how Team in Training has had a hand in the growth of marathons:

“These training programs are the pipeline for this growth,” says Ryan Lamppa of the research group Running USA.

“They can take that new runner from unfit to finish a marathon in 3 to 6 months,” he says. “They opened up the sport to mainstream America.”

So far, so good. Team in Training is a great organization that takes people from zero to 26.2 miles and at the same time raises money to fight blood cancer. The article also talks about how more and more people are qualifying for the Boston Marathon as a result of these efforts, but it loses me when it gets to this comment about the dilution of the sport:

And while the folks who host the Boston Marathon are also happy that more people are running, they worry that as mainstream American joins the race, amateurs will dilute Boston’s prestige — especially if the fastest runners are locked out because they miss the sign-up.

The Boston Marathon requires athletes to run qualifying times which are no small feat to accomplish. If I wanted to qualify, I would have to run a qualifying event in 3 hours and 50 minutes. Given that it took me just over 7  hours to finish the last marathon I ran, I don’t think anyone in Boston has to worry about me ruining their race.

As I understand it, the article is saying that too many people are qualifying for this prestige event. In other words, groups like Team in Training are training their runners too well?  They make them such fast runners that they are taking up all the slots at the Boston Marathon? If you actually qualify for the event, how does that make you unworthy to share the route with other “real”  runners?

I understand that the Boston Marathon is a prestige event and I am in awe of the very few people I know who have qualified. And I am more than okay with events that have entry requirements. There are plenty of fun events for the athletes at my end of the spectrum. And to be sure the organizers of this event have a capacity problem on their hands and I don’t pretend to have all the answers to that, but can we at least agree that if you can meet the requirements to participate, that you should have just as much opportunity to be there as anyone else. If that is not acceptable, then change the requirements, but don’t blame the people who did what you asked.


Reasons why walking a half marathon is better than running a whole marathon

Don’t get me wrong, running a marathon changed my life forever and not much else is going to compare to that, but I have to say I am finding quite a few benefits to walking a half marathon this time around…

  • Your body is not in physical pain – this is a novelty that continues to surprise me, even 2 months into my training. I can walk for an hour or two and although I might be tired, I don’t have to take an ice bath just to get from sitting to standing and back again.
  • You can have a glass of wine (or two…) the night before your long training day without, well, any negative consequences. And, hey, I’m all about a training program that lets me have a glass of wine on Friday after work!
  • You can talk and walk at the same time. I know, I know, theoretically that’s supposed to be true when running too, but no one ran as slow as I did and I was too fast for the walkers, so there wasn’t really anyone to talk to…
  • No Energy Gel. Let’s face it, that stuff is disgusting. I learned to accept and adapt to it as it allowed me to go 26.2 miles, but I can’t say enough how excited I am to be functioning on Cliff Bars instead of Cliff Energy Gel (which, btw, I liked far better than Gu, not that that is saying much).
  • You’re not totally wiped out 100% of the time. The long training days actually energize me instead of totally ruining my energy for the next 2 or 3 days or all week.

The one thing that hasn’t changed from last year to this year is the young people suffering from Leukemia and Lymphoma. I’m still about $650 from my fund-raising goal and need your help in the fight to eradicate blood cancers. Please consider a $50 donation – if only 13 people gave that amount, I would have it!

Make a donation here.

 


Are marathon walkers actually athletes?

In July of last year, at the age of 41, I completed my first marathon and fulfilled one of my life goals/dreams. My intention was to run the event, but my version of a run is more like a jog and at a 13-min and up mile pace, many walkers out-pace me. I held my steady jog for the first half, then probably half-walked, half-jogged for the last half. My big claim to fame these days is that I finished my marathon 5 minutes faster than Al Roker completed the New York City Marathon.  There are those out there who would claim that neither Al or I are true marathoners.

I stumbled across this defense of the marathon walker on active.com. The author notes:

  • She trained herself to walk a 12:30 minute mile and IMO could clearly hold her own with plenty of joggers
  • In the two events she completed, the “true” runners complained that the walkers “ruined” the event for them
  • Endurance events like running, walking, and jogging are personal sports and as long as we all follow the rules, she wondered why shouldn’t walkers be able to participate?

Her post was, in her words, a rant. The idea that my measly 7-hour marathon was simply some bucket-list item to be checked off and not a real athletic event in some people’s eyes does make me a little angry, but mostly it makes me sad. Completing a marathon literally changed my life. It proved to me I could accomplish  absolutely any goal I put in front of myself as long as I was willing to let go of my preconceived notions of how I would get there. I sacrificed my time, pounding the pavement during hours of  training (and, by the way, I spent more time on my feet in training than the faster runner). I sacrificed my body, including a hip injury that took months to heal and almost prevented me from participating. Are those not the same sacrifices a faster runner makes? Does that not make me an athlete??

When I meet someone who has finished a marathon, I get excited because now we have something in common and I love swapping stories about our experiences. I tend to find these experiences are more similar than different. We all hit our own brick walls, we all fight off injury, we all have our own disappointments, and we all feel that surge of pure joy as we step across the finish line – whether it is our first or fiftieth event.  How does the fact that one of us finished in half the time of the other change what we both shared in our 26.2 mile journeys?

I consulted Merriam-Webster for their definition of athlete

a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina

It doesn’t say anything there about a person who “ran a marathon in under 4 hours.” I trained, I exercised my jogging skills, I applied 7 hours of stamina. Does that not make me an athlete? Well, it does for me, and for all those purist athletes who wish to diminish my participation as less than athletic, I have another label for you – poor sport.

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For the non-elite athlete in every one of you, please consider a $26 donation to Team in Training. They help regular people like you and me fulfill our dreams. Besides, the more support we give them, the more of us there are at these events to drive the purists crazy!