Do You Recognize Improvement When You See It?

Posted on February 21, 2014. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Picture of sand dune in the Sahara desert of Morocco.

Two weeks ago, I stood at the bottom of Temple Hill, the steep half-mile hill with the false top three quarters of the way up, my hill-repeat nemesis, and stared up. It was cold that day. Windy. But it was the last day for hill repeats in this round of training, for this particular half marathon, and Carrie and I had just finished our series of repeats. I wanted to mark the hill in my head. Remember the grade, the cold and wind, the burning that did not transpire in my lungs or quads. Not this time. We had improved.

Improvement can be such an elusive thing. Often not because it doesn’t happen, but because it can be so slight it’s almost imperceptible. If we don’t pay attention, we miss it.

Take, for instance, this hill. We were finished and walking back to our cars before we realized some small things.

  • We did five hills—and chatted up and down the entire time.  Previous training days were silent affairs, the loudest and most extended sound often the gasping for breath.
  • Once we reached the top, we turned around and ran down.  Not so on earlier runs.  We breathed too hard, then, and had to walk a good quarter of the way down until we could even begin to run.
  • And once we hit bottom we turned right around again to run back up, no down time in between.  On earlier runs, I would have preferred to camp out at the bottom for awhile. Build a fire, maybe. Roast some marshmallows.  But there was no need to this time. We had improved. And we almost missed it.

Did it make a difference on race day? Training always does. We ran the Austin Half Marathon, the hardest course in my half marathon experience so far because of all the hills.

We finished the race knowing we ran well and could not have done anything different. That’s the best feeling after a race. When you’ve given it your all.

And the second best feeling is knowing that your all is an improvement.  Carrie PRed. I ran my second fastest half marathon time.  It’s the small things that matter. Put enough of them together and you get something big.

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Hill Repeats, or why dog poop can be your new best friend

Posted on December 13, 2013. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |


Carrie and I are at it again. Another half marathon, another training plan under way, working toward the Austin half marathon on February 16. We are using the same training plan that got us through the San Antonio Rock ‘n Roll half marathon just a few weeks ago.

Which means we start with hill repeats.  Temple Hill.  The nearly half-mile, pretty darn steep monster hill we conquered last time around. Only it doesn’t feel like a conquest. It feels like an initiation.

Monday. Four to five short hills were on the schedule. Half way up Temple Hill, or the equivalent of six lampposts.

We braced ourselves at the bottom, walked in circles, mentally preparing for the trek. I leveled my gaze on the ground in front of me as we started the first repeat. We chatted two-thirds of the way up, counting lampposts.

On the second repeat, I noted objects to guide me. Look for those markers, and I don’t have to count. A rust-colored sign at lamppost two, a screw in the middle of the sidewalk between lampposts three and four. A pile of dog poop at lamppost five.

I grimaced when I first saw it. Some poor soul had already imprinted his shoe with it, and I was immediately angry. What kind of moron let’s their dog poop smack in the middle of where people walk?

By the third repeat, I was breathing too heavily to be angry with the pile or its owner’s owner.  I remembered it was there, looked for it, ran around.

By the fourth repeat, I was almost glad to see it, sitting there near lamppost five, not so far from the end.

By the fifth repeat, I actively sought it out, raised my head in anticipation. Why is it taking so long to come into view? Is that it up ahead? No, that’s a leaf. Where is that darn poop?

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, there it was, like an old friend waiting patiently for my arrival.  I was never more happy to see something so foul, so repelling, yet so close to the finish that I wanted to sing. Instead, I breathed deeply and smiled in relief as I crossed the line.

That wasn’t so bad, we said as we bounced down the hill, instinctively avoiding the pile. We did it, we sighed. We reached our goal.


Tomorrow is Girls on the Run of Bexar County’s Fall 2013 5K, the culminating event for our season, where our girls get to experience first-hand what it feels like to finish something they’ve worked for 10 long, hard weeks to achieve. The excitement is palpable, among the coaches as well as the girls. We hope that the confidence the girls gain when they cross the finish line travels with them to every other area of their lives, for the rest of their lives.

I know they are nervous going in. If I could offer them just one bit of advice, it would be this.  You don’t have to embrace the dog poop you encounter on your path, but you don’t have to fear it either. For all you know, that pile of poop could very well be the harbinger of joy and relief, of much better things to come. Step around it. The finish line is waiting.

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The Journey Up

Posted on September 20, 2013. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

The Angel Moroni stands erect, head high and horn to lips at the tallest point on Stone Oak Parkway.  I’ve marveled at this golden statue perched atop the San Antonio LDS temple for the past few years.  The temple itself stands at the pinnacle of one of the highest hills in the area.  You can see both the temple and the statue from quite far.

This hill has been my nemesis, my nightmare—my dream, my goal—for years.  Each time I’ve driven it I’ve thought that maybe one day, maybe one, if I was lucky (or crazy), I would maybe give it a run.  And, if a miracle happened, I would make it to the top.

Until now, I have trained for nearly every half marathon alone.  My friend Carrie is training for her first half, and we are using the same plan, one that calls for hill repeats as one of its two days of speed/strength work.  We are both trying something new:  Carrie, a half marathon.  Me, a running buddy.  We don’t run together every day. Just the hard ones. The longest of the long runs.  The hills.

The hills. We figured if we’re going to run hills, we might as well run Hills.  So we chose temple mount.

Last week, our first hill week, we stood at the bottom of the mount and looked tentatively up.  We couldn’t see the top from the bottom, could barely see a jutting temple corner and the Angel Moroni heralding the dawn.  Four to five short hills is what our plan directed.  Our goal was to get as far as we could, maybe half way, for each repeat.

For the first repeat, we counted five lampposts, about a third of the hill, and stopped, excited.  Maybe it wasn’t so bad after all.  For the second through fourth repeats, we counted eight lampposts, somewhere around half way.  We struggled for breath, lungs searing, and made a fifth repeat, five lampposts.

We went home thrilled with ourselves (though we would barely be able to walk the next day), determined to come back and try again.

This week, we met at the bottom of the mount.  Three to four long hills, our plan said.  Long.

Let’s start where we left off, I suggested.  The first repeat to lamppost eight. Then we can shoot for the top.

Carrie looked at me sideways, hands on her hips, looked up the hill.  I think, she said confidently, that we should go all the way up the first time.  Get it over with.  Then if we feel like it, we can do it again.

So we took a deep breath and began.  We started up the hill in complete silence, eyes dead center on the cement in front of us.  At lamppost eight I was breathing hard, lungs tight but not searing, and we kept going, up and up. Before we knew it, we were at the top, over the last steep hump, the end in sight. I eyeballed a fire hydrant where the sidewalk leveled out, my stopping point.  Carrie bounded past me by two cement squares and stopped at the crosswalk.

We smiled, barely, and looked out and around.  Lights twinkled for miles in the distance, the sky predawn gray.  We sucked in air, high-fived, and jogged back down the hill.  It seemed to take much longer going down than coming up.

The thing about doing something hard once is that in having done it you have proof that you can.  It doesn’t seem right after that to not do what you just did and what you know you can.  It seems that if you do not put in your best effort and repeat your success, you are only cheating yourself.  And if you have a buddy, you are cheating her too.

Eight lampposts thus seemed like a silly goal for the second repeat. It was all or nothing.

This time rather than keeping my eyes trained straight in front of me, I glanced up from time to time, looking for the angel with his horn.  I could see him at the peak, gold and shiny, beckoning me.  I ran and glanced and ran some more, and before long the sidewalk leveled out and the fire hydrant appeared.  Carrie bounded two sidewalk squares past me again.

The third time, I didn’t count lampposts, nor did I seek out the angel.  I paid attention, instead, to my legs that did not hurt, my lungs that worked hard but were not searing, and my arms and hands and head that felt light as we ascended, and I thought how strange, it’s almost as if our altitude is increasing, like in the mountains, but my ears did not pop.  And I remembered the hill at mile 12 of the Austin half marathon, how I cursed the idiot course planner for the giant, steep hill right there, and how this part of temple mount felt like mile 12 then, but now I was not cursing and thinking, as I was then, who does this kind of thing? Who actually pays to torture their body and run like this when they could be in bed with coffee and the newspaper?  No. Instead I was running up and up and again, nearing the top, across the last stretch, fire hydrant in sight. And then I bounded past it, with Carrie, to where the sidewalk ends.

On the way down, that again seemed so much longer than going up, I told Carrie that if it wasn’t for her I would never have made it all the way. I would have quit near the top, would not have pushed myself until my arms and hands and head went light as a feather and I flew the rest of the way.

This is a much better plan than all my previous ones.  Hills are so much easier to ascend with a running buddy.

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Who Gave You Permission to Rest?

Posted on March 1, 2013. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

I’ve had what my brain considers to be some very lazy days.  The taskmaster part of my brain, that is.  The part that creates my schedule, absolutely loves to-do lists, demands focus, and keeps me on-task, in work, sleep, fitness, and even fun.

I hate that part of my brain.

Particularly when my body and the rest of my brain are clamoring for free time.  Enough already, they scream, so loudly sometimes they keep me awake at night.

Why can’t I be like normal people and take it easy from time to time?  Assuming, of course, that’s what normal people do.

Since I completed a half marathon nearly 2 weeks ago, I have not gone out for a run or in to the gym for strength training.  Instead of waking up before the crack of dawn, I have let my body dictate when it wants to rise.  I still wake up (briefly) at 5 am, then roll over and promptly go back to sleep.  When I do get up, dawn has cracked.

I know that it’s good for me to take a break from routine of any kind.  It helps me to come back fresh, strong, whether I’m training for an event or tackling a work project head-on.  Mental and physical breaks are a necessity, at least for me.

Plus, it’s not like I’ve done nothing. I’ve gone to a few Pilates classes, done some Yoga.  I’ve focused on stretching and have resumed the daily core work my body needs.  I’ve started a new work project and tied up some loose ends. I’ve even set a date to begin whatever it is I’m supposed to begin:  March 1.  A nice, round number.

So why does the OCD part of my brain keep picking on me?

Wednesday morning I caught myself staring uncomfortably at my refrigerator. No, I was not trying to invoke any x-ray vision gifts I might have miraculously been given by trying to see the stacks of Girl Scout cookies in my freezer. I already broke into those.  Rather, I was noticing what was posted on the side.  My half marathon training schedule, all penciled in.  My race bib and finisher’s medal.   A race bib and 2nd place medal from a mid-training race.

I took them down and put them away, leaving an empty white space in their stead.  My OCD-brain breathed a sigh of relief. Order restored. A clean, white slate waiting to be filled.  The fist between my shoulder blades unclenched.

There is promise ahead. But first, at last, there is rest.

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Making History at the Livestrong Austin Half Marathon

Posted on February 22, 2013. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |


I made history on Sunday, February 17, 2013.

Well, maybe not earth-shattering, life-altering, textbook-worthy history, but my history.  I PRed at the Livestrong Austin Half Marathon.

My goal:  Under 2 hours.  My official chip time:  1:56:21.

It was an awesome race, but a much harder course than I remember.  Who put all those hills in the last 3 miles? Can we fire them?

I was–and remain–ecstatic, mentally if not physically.  For 2+ days my body felt like it had been beaten with a stick. My legs hurt, from the bruised tip of my left middle toe all the way up to my lower back. I don’t recall ever feeling like this after a race.

Regardless, I wouldn’t trade Sunday for anything, not even a barrel of Cadbury eggs. Which I LOVE, and which my boyfriend gave me as a post-race gift. (Not a barrel full. Just one. Perfect.)

Concord grapes

Every race is a learning experience. Here is what I learned from the Austin half:

1.      I need more hill training.

2.      A perfectly normal toe going into a half can look like a Concord grape coming out.

3.      Running buddies save the world (or at least your run).

I will write more about running buddies in a future post, but let me just say here that Katie from Houston was a God-send. We ran the first half together to keep each other on pace.  We didn’t talk much after mile 3, and we lost each other somewhere around mile 6, but sharing the beginning of a race with someone else makes or breaks it, in attitude and time.

4.      Gatorade is not my friend.beverages-caution_0

I never drink Gatorade and stopped drinking any sports drink a few years ago. I prefer water, plain and simple.  Most sports drinks contain too much sugar for me, particularly Gatorade, which has always made me nauseous.

Additionally, I learned recently that BVO, a synthetic chemical originally manufactured as a flame retardant, has been an ingredient in many sports drinks and sodas, including Gatorade, for years.  All the more reason for me to avoid it.

However, somewhere around mile 5 I cruise into a water stop, grab what I think is a full cup of water, and down it.  To my dismay, it’s Gatorade.  Almost instantly, I am nauseous.  And, since the BVO news broke, I am more than just a little upset.

For the next 8 miles I am having two simultaneous conversations with myself.  One is a rational discussion laying out all the reasons why I cannot take the time to stop and vomit until after I cross the finish line.  My stomach churns for the remainder of the race as small streams of lemon-lime shoot up the back of my throat.

I never do vomit, even though my stomach will not feel normal until sometime in the late afternoon.

The second conversation has to do with BVO.  Last week I mentioned the importance of mental distractions in seeing me through long runs. Usually, the distraction is music–not a real iPod, but the iPod on continuous loop in my head.  On a particularly good long run recently, Sugar Ray’s “I Just Want to Fly” helped me to.  On a particularly hard long run, Train’s “Calling All Angels” got stuck in the loop.

Sometimes movie scenes replay in my head, a little bit reworked.  Like during my 11 mile This Is Spinal Tap long run.  I envisioned my interview with Rob Reiner, who ran along beside me as we discussed the fact that every other runner might stop at 10, but not me.

ROB:  Why don’t you just make ten faster and make ten be the top number and make that a little faster?

ME:  [pausing and looking down at my legs] These go to 11.

The BVO distraction, unfortunately, was not as fun.  At least, I kept telling myself, if another meteor hits Earth and Austin explodes into a fireball, I’ll be safe.  Me and half the runners.  Austin may burn, but we’re flame retardant.

At least I got that goin’ for me, which is nice.

And I got my PR.

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The End in Sight

Posted on February 15, 2013. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

girl daydreaming

In a little more than 48 hours I will have PRed the Austin Half Marathon.

It will be cold Sunday morning, somewhere in the mid to upper 30s.  When my alarm goes off I will already be awake, half dreading getting out from under the warm covers so blasted early.

I’ll sit on the living room floor like I always do, cup (or 2) of coffee in hand, and stretch, not necessarily because I need to stretch promptly upon awakening, but because it’s a nice excuse to sprawl out on the floor and half-doze instead of crawling back into bed.

My dogs will look outside at the still dark sky, and then at me like I am crazy, burrow into a cozy nest in the throw on the couch, and go back to sleep. Like they always do.

But this Sunday won’t be like any other running day.  No stalling on this cold morning with endless coffee or straightening up. This day is going to rock.

I have visualized race morning for weeks–waking up and getting ready for the race, driving to Austin, walking to the start line, warming up.  I know what I will eat and when, what my clothing options are for any kind of weather (this is Texas, after all–the thermometer can fluctuate 40+ degrees within hours).  I have reminded myself to press my Garmin’s ON button as soon as I cross the Start line.

I have visualized what my negative split will feel like, particularly the second half, fast and hard to the Finish line.

Most important, I have repeated in my mind’s eye crossing that line. Finishing strong. My best run ever.

Strangely, perhaps, visualization comes so easily for me that it often resembles daydreaming.  Especially on long runs. Maybe my mind needs a distraction in order to let my body alone to do what it will. Or maybe I am simply determined to get the result I want.  Regardless, I have seen the end of this race, over and again, and I know it won’t be good. It will be fabulous.

I can’t wait.

Come to think of it, I haven’t. I’ve seen it.

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Half Way to Austin

Posted on January 11, 2013. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

half way

I’m over the hump.  This is week 7 of the 12 week training plan I’m following to get to the Austin Half Marathon on February 17.

Training for a half marathon was not one of my 2012 goals.  It hadn’t even crossed my mind.  I’ve completed 9 half marathons, but an injury in 2010 sidelined me, and until this past summer I hadn’t run farther than 6 miles. And I’d only done that once.

In September, I realized it was time.  What was the deciding factor?  There were a few.  Competing in a 5-miler next to a friend reminded me of the fun, social side of running.  Winter was approaching.  I’m convinced that I have bear blood in me.  Once the thermometer dips below, say, 40, all I want to do is curl up in a ball under a pile of blankets with a bag of Julio’s and a plate of cookies.  Now that’s hibernation.  And the holidays make it worse.  Maybe I’m part slug, part bear.  I didn’t want a repeat of last year’s near-comatose holiday season.

But the overwhelming reason was simple.  I was tired of being afraid.  Of injury. Of failing.  Of facing the possibility that I could no longer run distance.  I finally realized that if I didn’t try, I had already failed, and I would never run farther than 6 miles, period.

And here I am, ending week 7.  It hasn’t been easy to stick to the plan.  I was on vacation week 2, ending the Girls on the Run season week 3.  It was Christmas week 5 and New Year’s week 6.  I’m on my way to a conference during week 8.  There’s always something. But such is life. There always will be.

Knowing I would miss training days here and there each week, I did, however, commit to not missing particular runs:  intermediate and long runs, and speed work.  It’s paying off.  Here are some highlights of my training so far:

  1. I ran 7 miles.
  2. I ran 8 miles.
  3. I came in 2nd in my division in last week’s 10K.
  4. I’ve cut one minute off my mile.

Tomorrow I get to run 9 miles.  I am both nervous and excited as I see the distance grow each weekend.  But I am no longer afraid. Instead, I celebrate every moment.

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