Archive for July, 2012

Too Many Crutches, Too Few Legs

Posted on July 27, 2012. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Last week I wrote about my sister’s legs, specifically how their tremendous strength has aided her in running and biking, and that because of what I have seen her accomplish I have changed my routine.

Even though running has been my focus for years, I have incorporated strength training into my routine in fits and starts. I’ll get on a weight lifting kick for a few weeks or months, decide that it’s taking valuable time away from running, and eventually peter out.  After a month or two of running, I’ll decide that I need to give strength training a whirl again, so I hit the gym once more in an attempt to work in a new weight routine.

I’ve always gone in, however, knowing that it wasn’t for the long haul, that I’d probably be tapering off again soon. And I’ve always gone in with the intention of working primarily on my upper body, to keep it toned. Now, I like Batman, but that doesn’t mean I want big ole bat wings hanging under my arms, flapping around in the breeze (or causing the breeze) every time I raise a hand.

Focusing on my upper body means that I’ve laid off strength training for my legs.  Until the past few weeks, that is.  As I’ve seen my leg strength increase and, ultimately, my running, biking, and swimming improve, I’ve wondered why the heck I haven’t done this before.  I realize now how much I’ve rationalized leaving my legs out of my routine.  Here are some of the “reasons” I’ve given myself for not strength training:

  1. I am recovering from an injury and don’t want to aggravate it.
  2. My leg muscles get worked out enough when I run.
  3. If I work out my legs, I will be too sore to run for a day or more afterward.
  4. I already do sprints, which work muscles in a different way than simply running, so I don’t need extra strength training.
  5. I usually have to take a rest or easy day the day after sprints; I can’t afford to take more rest or easy days after strength training too.

Here’s what I now say to all that:  poppycock.

While it’s imperative to listen to your body and let yourself heal properly as you recover from an injury, at some point the fact that you were injured might become an excuse that keeps you from reaching your full potential.  At least that’s what happened to me. I was injured almost two years ago. And while I still experience pain from my injury from time to time, I have learned my limitations. If a particular exercise hurts, I simply don’t do that one.  But for the moves I can do, I now lift as much weight as I safely can, always pushing myself beyond what I thought was my limit. I have been shocked in the past few weeks to see how much weight I can actually lift with my legs.

It’s taken me a couple of weeks to realize how much strength training has actually helped rather than hindered my running.  I still do sprints. And now I work my legs. I have figured out a way to minimize downtime:  I do sprints and legs on the same day.

This, of course, was my sister’s brilliant idea.  It actually has turned out to be pretty brilliant. On this combo day, I start with a couple of sprints (400s) followed by a leg circuit on six machines:  squats, calves, quads, hamstrings, deadlifts, and side step with a leg raise. Then I immediately do another sprint. I can hit the circuit 4 times, and I usually end up doing a total of 6 sprints.  I am getting faster on the sprints and am able to lift more weight each week.  And I only had down time the first week.  Now, instead of running the day after legs and sprints, I swim.

The thing I’ve found about rationalization is that it is often irrational. That’s where excuses come from, crutches, to keep us from reaching our full potential.  What drives the rationale?  Fear, usually, at least in me.  I now realize that I have 5 crutches and only 2 legs.  Somewhere, something became unbalanced. It’s time for me to lose the fear and gain the strength.

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Who’s the Chick with the Legs?

Posted on July 20, 2012. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

That’s the question a group of women asked after our last Girls on the Run 5K.   That chick is certainly not me.  It’s my sister.

Marika has the hardest—but the best—responsibility at our 5K events.  She’s the course monitor.  It is her task to run the course in circles, ensuring that each girl sticks with her running buddy.  When Marika encounters a girl running on her own, she asks where her running buddy is.  If the girl points behind her and says, somewhere back there in the dust, Marika pairs her up with the nearest buddy team keeping the girl’s pace.   If the girl is alone because she’s too tired and discouraged and ready to quit, my sister encourages her along, refusing to let her stop.  For the last half of the race Marika runs the quarter mile before the finish line, back and forth and back again, like a pinball ricocheting between two levers, guiding every girl and her running buddy to the finish line.  I have seen her take a number of girls by the arm or around the waist and virtually carry them just short of the line, where they cross on their own.

I have seen her do this—and more—because I have the second best responsibility at the race. I get to stand on the other side of the finish line and help the coaches put medals around the girls’ necks as they finish the race.  Think you can’t run or that there’s not much rewarding about doing a 5K?  Check out your local Girls on the Run council’s next 5K. I can almost guarantee you’ll walk away completely uplifted and probably in tears.

But I digress. We were talking about my sister’s legs.  My sister is assigned the hardest job—running in a very short time more than double the 5K—because she has the strongest legs.  I wish you could see for yourself, but Marika is modest and refused me permission to post her picture.  What you would see is quads like braided bread.  Something like this:

Well, maybe not quite like this, but you get the picture.  Marika didn’t get those quads from running.  She has been running for almost 3 years.  I have been running for 10.  For years, I tried to get her take up running, but for years she refused.  Each time I brought it up, she pulled out her arsenal of studies demonstrating the damage running does to the body, particularly cartilage and joints.

Marika chose, rather, to strength train, and has been doing so consistently for 5 years, intermittently for maybe 3 years before that.  For years, she tried to get me to take up strength training, but for years I refused.  I wanted to focus on running—what did I need muscles for? My leg muscles would be just fine, thank you very much, from the workout I gave them on each day’s run.

Or so I thought.

When Marika finally took up running in 2009, she did so for much the same reason I did.  She was trying to work out a problem and needed fresh air to help her think, so she went out walking.  Some issues are too big to be confined by four walls and a ceiling, and they need a large expanse of sky and open space to be properly taken out and turned over, mulled through and examined.

It was during one of her walks at dusk in the late fall that she was caught in the rain about two miles from home. It wasn’t a nice Texas mizzling kind of rain, part drizzle, part mist.  It was a cold, pelting, stinging rain that she wanted to escape.  The quickest way to get home was to run.  Somewhere in that two miles, something clicked.

Two weeks after Marika ran, I was set to participate in a half marathon, for which I had been training.  She thought she’d give it a try too.  She had been running for only two weeks, mind you, before she entered this half marathon.

She beat my time by 5 minutes.  I couldn’t decide if I was awed or ticked.

(What’s the difference between friendly non-competitiveness, healthy competitiveness, and the urge to pummel someone to the ground?  I don’t know either, but I’m working on it.  When I figure it out, I’ll write about it.)

Granted, Marika has a strong cardiovascular system.  There is no way she would have been able to complete a half marathon without one.  But I am convinced that her strength drove her along.  She has been running ever since—and running fast.

But that’s not all.  I finally convinced her to enter a sprint tri with me.  We trained together for 8 weeks to compete in the Gator Bait race just last month.  She whined the whole time we trained.  Although she had a bike, she hadn’t actually been on it in a couple of years and couldn’t remember how to shift gears. The first two times out, she wiped out and scraped her knees and, we think, broke a bone in her hand.  Swimming was even worse.  Although we had grown up on water, Marika had never swam laps in a pool.  Half way through a lap, she was sputtering for air.

Don’t worry, I told her, I’ll teach you everything I know about biking and swimming. It might not be much, but it will get you through the race.  Do it for fun.  This is only about fun, not really competing, and not winning, but only to see if you can.

I knew I was in trouble on our fifth or sixth bike ride when she powered past me up a hill.  I could see her quads pumping like a freight train, while I was wheezing my way up.  She barely broke a sweat.

And then she did it again.  Come tri day, she beat me.  By 7 minutes.

(How do I feel about this?  See the above parenthetical.)

I tell you about my sister and her legs and her accomplishments to make a point.  Probably several points, but here’s the one I’m sticking with:  Strength training is imperative to performance.  It doesn’t matter how much cardio you do, how many miles you run or swim or bike, your muscles must be in prime shape in order to serve you to the best of your ability.

Strength training is important for so many other reasons—including preventing bone loss, especially in women, as you age.  But I won’t go into all that now.  I simply wanted to tell you about my sister.

And what she’s done to my training.  Since the sprint tri, my focus has not been on cardio or mileage, but on strength training. I’m in the gym at least three days a week now, and it’s paying off.  Last weekend I went for a long bike ride and found that the monster hill at the end of my route is getting easier.  Maybe one day soon I’ll be able to power up it myself, and pass my sister.

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Outpacing My Pace

Posted on July 13, 2012. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

It’s official:  I’ve stopped wearing my watch during races.  Why time myself when there’s a chip and a big clock to do that for me?

Actually, I’ve decided to stop wearing my watch for a really good reason.  I run faster without it.

It might sound crazy, but it’s true.  I’ve always had this idea that I am a 9 minute miler.  My watch has been witness to this truth.  On good training days when I push myself hard, I may be an 8:45 minute miler, and on harder days when I’m still pushing myself, I might be a 9:13 minute miler.  Any way I’ve calculated it, I’ve averaged out to 9.

For the past couple of years I’ve been mostly ok with this. I injured my hip training for a marathon two years ago, and for too many months I couldn’t run at all.  When I started to run again, I was happy to slide back into 9.  Just like before.

I wear a Garmin to track my mileage and my pace, though I don’t really need to track my mileage. I know all the routes that lead from my front door and can turn around (or not) when I hit my mileage mark.  But I like to track my pace. Because I’d like to get faster.  (Which is why I started doing sprints again after taking a few weeks off.)

One recent morning I was out for a run, cruising along at a pretty good clip.  I felt good, like I could keep that pace for at least a couple more miles.  Since it felt faster than usual, I thought I should check to see how fast I really was running.  I was astonished to find that I was running—and holding—a 7:48 minute mile.

I was so astonished, in fact, that my mind made sure my britches didn’t get too big, running so fast.  Whoa, it said, slow down there, princess.  Who do you think you are running so fast? You’ll never maintain it. You’re a 9 minute miler, not a sub 8!

(No, my mind doesn’t really call me princess—it doesn’t call me anything.)

And what did my body do?  It obeyed, and slowed me right back down to the “right” pace.

A couple of days later the same thing happened.  I felt like I was running faster than usual and verified my pace: I was running an 8 minute mile.  This time, however, when my mind told my body to stop, I intervened.  When my mind said you can’t maintain this pace, I said why not?

As it turns out, I can.  If this is true, then why haven’t I?  It seems I have done in running what I do in life—what most of us, I would argue, do in life.  We tell ourselves that we are (or are not) a certain kind of person or that we do (or don’t do) a certain kind of thing. We often unconsciously create an image of ourselves—good, bad, or indifferent—and we become that image.  We set the standard, the pattern, the status quo, the place we “belong,” and allow that space to become our comfort zone.  Often, we stay there.  Rarely do we stray.

We are what we think.  We do only what we believe we can. No more, no less. In other words, we are limited by our minds.

I have run only two 5Ks in the past year+, 14 months apart, one with training preceding it and one without.  For the first 5K I forgot my watch and kicked myself during the whole run.  I must have kicked myself pretty hard, because I ran an 8:07 minute mile.  For last weekend’s 5K, I intentionally left my watch at home.  I ran an 8:12 minute mile, proof to myself that I am not what I thought I was.  Happily not.

Now my task is to figure out how to monitor my pace to become faster without actually monitoring my pace.  I’ll have to learn to run with a watch but not look at it.  Maybe I should strap it to my ankle.

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Running to Freedom

Posted on July 6, 2012. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

In honor of the 4th of July, I’d like to share a story about my dad, who loved America and, consequently, loved the 4th of July.  It’s not a story about running in the literal sense, but it is nevertheless a story about running.

My dad was a Freedom Fighter in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.  Hungary at the time was Communist; the revolution was designed to overthrow Communism and establish democracy.  Like most revolutions of its kind, it was short lived, lasting only 10 days, and it was led by the country’s youth.  My dad was one of them, barely 16 years old, when the tanks rolled in to Budapest to squelch the uprising. It didn’t take long for the Communist army to put down the revolt.  By the end of it, if you were one of the organizers, one of the fighters, you had a choice:  Spend the rest of your life rotting in a horrible prison (that is, if you weren’t killed) or run.  My dad chose to run.

He left his home—his mother and little sister—in the middle of the night.  He didn’t tell them he was leaving.  He knew his mother would beg him to stay and he’d not be able to resist, so he wrote a letter instead and left it in the mailbox.  He didn’t say where he was going, exactly, partly because he wasn’t quite sure and partly because he realized that the less his mother knew, the better.

He took most of the money he had saved, leaving a good chunk for his mother, and wheeled his bicycle quietly away. His girlfriend, Marika (which is, coincidentally, my sister’s name), who was even younger than him, waited in the shadows outside her own house. They stole through the side streets and alleys, out of the city, and into the open fields in the general direction of a train they hoped would take them to Austria, where they could begin to find freedom.

My dad’s flight out of Hungary was harrowing and with enough drama to fill a book.  In a nutshell, although he made the train, he was forced from it in the middle of nowhere, where his money was stolen and his girlfriend betrayed him.  He was left with virtually nothing, but eventually managed to make his way to Michigan, where he tracked down his father.  My grandfather too had been forced to leave Hungary, right after WWII, and my father hadn’t seen him, his own father, in a decade.

My dad told me his story of escape more than once before he died in 1993.  I think of it often, yet there are two images that stick with me.  When he was forced from the train in the dead of the night, my dad found himself in a field pretty close to the Austrian border.  Hungary at the time had a vested interest in keeping her citizens to herself; the borders were surrounded with armed soldiers with shoot-to-kill orders.

So when my dad left the train and trudged through field after field and finally saw the border, when he knew that if he made it, he’d made it to freedom, he ran.  Of course the soldiers did what they were ordered to do:  They fired.  This is the image I carry with me.  A young boy running across a field as fast as he can, supported by thin, tired legs nearly spent from lack of food and water, but suddenly so wired by adrenalin that they do what human legs are designed to do.  They run.  They carried him away from danger, away from the machine guns exploding around him like a string of firecrackers and toward safety.

Sometimes when I am running, my mind takes me to this place, this field showered by machine gun fire and a boy running for his life, and it leaves me breathless. I am thankful it is I place I can only imagine and not a place I have lived.

The other image I carry with me is this.  My dad lost everything on his journey to America. When he arrived here, all he had was a paper bag containing a tie and 2 oranges.  He was so happy to be here that before he stepped onto American soil he put on his tie and gave away his oranges.  I picture my dad, a gangly pimple-faced kid in crumpled clothes, adjusting his tie, smiling huge at all the strangers passing by.  It makes me smile too.

I am thankful that my dad’s love for America was contagious.  I suppose it is no wonder I would become an English professor who taught American literature.  It is stories, after all, that make us who we are and shape us into what we will become.

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