Mental Preparation

Posted on October 10, 2015. Filed under: Girls on the Run | Tags: , , , , , |

“I didn’t think I was prepared for Girls on the Run,” she said.

I looked down at the top of her head bobbing along beside me.  Between us bobbed her friend, who I thought at first was her sister.  Same round face, round glasses, mouse-colored hair.  They waited for each other to finish the activity after each lap so that they could run together.  On my other side jogged a girl with a bouncing ponytail.  All three, first-timers. Third-graders, maybe fourth.

We were half way through our 40-minute workout, the longest the girls had run.  Pace yourself, the coaches said.  Listen to your body, do what’s right for you.  The not-quite-autumn Texas sun beat down mercilessly on the shadeless field, where cones marked out our homemade track.

“This is a great place to run,” I said earlier as we ran through a patch of dirt and stones, kicking dust up past our shins.  The girls looked at me quizzically, looked down at the dirt.  “It’s soft,” I explained, trying to keep with the spirit of the lesson: an attitude of gratitude.  “Better for your joints than pavement.”

possibe & ableBetter for slowing down, I thought.  I have learned the skill of slow running, learned to pace myself with the girls.  It’s not as simple as it might seem, slowing down.  My trick is to bounce rather than run, the first verse of “The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers” playing an endless loop in my head.

What did you think you needed to prepare? I meant to ask the girl.

“My brother didn’t think I could do it,” she said before I could ask.  Her friend nodded vigorously. The girl with the ponytail leaned out to look around me sympathetically.

What does he think now? I started to ask, but thought better of it.

“What do you think?” I asked instead.

She grinned. “I ask him to run with me now,” she said, picking up her pace. “But he won’t.”

I nodded. She stooped at the final turn to pick up her water.

“That’s ok,” she said as she took a long drink. “I can do this. And I’ll do it again next time.”

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Time in Hand

Posted on September 27, 2015. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , |

Hold onto time.

Advice from an elderly man I read the other morning before I went out to run.

As if time were an apple to be held firmly in the palm and not a slippery fish to escape from my grasp.

I’ve never been one for fishing.  Never liked the feel of wiggling worms plucked from the soil or the smell of buckets of chum.  The casting of bait into water, wondering where it will sink, if it will be spotted and taken, hooked into an unsuspecting mouth.

I’ve always found it peculiar to peer over the edge of a boat and onto the water’s skin, only to see a dark and shimmering outline of myself, reflected back to me.

Eye to eye with the fish is where I’d rather be.  Diving through the reefs, pirouetting under water, a ballerina with a tank of air for a corset and silvery fish for a skirt. Leading and then following the curious fish as they hold my gaze, peck my mask, dart straight my way and abruptly turn aside. blue-banded-sea-perch-fish-wallpapers

The hardest skill to master is neutral buoyancy.  Sitting cross-legged grasping my fins, suspended inches above the ocean floor, controlling my buoyancy with my breath.  Inhale too much and I rise too high. Exhale too deeply and I disturb the bottom, kicking up silt. Breathe too fast and I fall over sideways, roll upside down. Falter. The effort is enormous. The trying and failing, shooting up and rolling over, muddying up my sight.

It’s not until I remember to forget myself that I can hover upright, completely balanced, and rest in the hand of time, the peacefulness of being.

Back on dry land and I struggle to regain that feeling, the relief of weightlessness and balance. Three months back from diving. Two months since I started a new training plan, ticking off every sliver of time as the days slip away.

I’m off on a mid-distance run, the elderly man’s advice ringing. Hold onto time. But I am aware of each moment, every breath, the skin taut across my jaw, the muscles recoiling with every step, the effort to get beyond the awareness of it all.

Then within two miles I’m sinking under, and the sound of breath and feet merges with the hum of breeze and birds and, finally, I am upright, completely balanced, resting in the hand of time, simply being.

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Scratch That

Posted on July 17, 2015. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , |

You’re starting from scratch.

Words I normally don’t like to hear.  They usually follow in the wake of a loss.  Corrupted data.  Missing spreadsheets. People leaving, taking with them their knowledge, talent, skills.

chicken in dirtI’m left feeling like a starving chicken scratching for sustenance in the dirt.

This week was the first day I’ve run in almost a month. Sidelined by project deadlines and a longer than expected illness, followed by a much needed vacation, I came to a fitness halt.  By the time my body was ready to run, my mind wasn’t.

You’re starting from scratch.  That dreaded weight.  I didn’t want to carry it alone.

Tuesday morning my running buddy, Amy, and I set out for a three mile run.  I hauled my legs like heavy water balloons, one in front of the other, stopping frequently to walk.  My breath rasped in my ears like I’d just run for my life from a pride of starving lions.  By the end of the run I was soaked enough with sweat to appear as if those lions had almost won, spitting me out at the last moment.

I’m starting from scratch.

gardenYet as we walked home, sticky with July in Texas, it wasn’t my throbbing legs and shallow breath I thought of. It was, instead, July in Michigan, many years ago.  An old farmhouse amid an older orchard, surrounded by apples and apricots. A plot of garden lush with squash and watermelon, plump tomatoes, beans longer than my hand, stalks of corn towering above our heads. My mom and brothers and sister running through the carefully hoed rows, laughing and playing, picking and plucking, then canning and preserving, stewing and baking. Creating our sustenance. Together. Starting from scratch.

Amy and I will be out again tomorrow, and then again next week. Together. Starting from scratch.

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Why I Run

Posted on June 19, 2015. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

I love to run. I know this in the same way I know that my eyes are brown, my second toe is taller than my big toe, and that the indentation above my right eye is a relic of the chicken pox I mercilessly scratched when I was three. Running is a part of me, of who I am and what I do. So much so, that sometimes I forget in much the same way I forget about the unique identifiers that make me who I am.

There have been plenty of mornings lately that I forget I love to run. Plenty of days when the alarm goes off and I turn it off, turn my back to the pre-dawn dark behind my blinds, pull the covers up around my shoulders and my dogs, and we snuggle in for one more hour of sleep. queequeg

On these mornings, I get out of bed grumpier than normal, scolding myself for missing my run, and as the day progresses I get plenty of reminders of why running is necessary, at least for me.

It’s not that it’s bathing suit season, although sometimes I tell myself that this is why I should run. What will people think when they see me bulging out of my suit? But then I come back inside from walking my dogs and realize I’m wearing the same t-shirt I’ve slept in, shorts I’ve pulled out of the laundry hamper that too often clash with my rumpled shirt, and that I haven’t yet combed my hair.  Apparently I’m not that concerned with what people think of me after all.

And it’s not that I worry too much about heart disease or diabetes or any of the other medical conditions that come from lack of exercise. I am blessed (and cursed) with a high metabolism, so sitting still for too long a stretch is nearly impossible for me, and I am constantly moving. Plus I’d rather be outside doing something than sitting inside doing anything.

Today is one of those days when I squandered my time by lying in bed instead of rolling out and running.

Here is what I miss when I don’t run:

  1. I want to be the person I am running when I’m not running. When I run I feel strong, capable, confident. I believe in myself, and believe I can do anything. This is not how I always feel when the running shoes come off.  On days I run—and sometimes for a day or two after—these positive feelings carry over into my work, my personal relationships, and I am more productive, kinder, wiser. Better.
  2. Running is cleansing. It clears my mind of all the noise and clutter that won’t go away just because I sleep. It creates space for order and solutions. It unclogs negative emotions like anger or sorrow or frustration or whatever else is weighing on me, so my heart is lighter when I’m done. I face the day happy, positive, ready to talk with people and listen more intently.
  3. Running makes me a better writer. Each and every time I run, writing happens in my head, whether it’s working out a problem in an existing story or a new idea that’s born. My writing is better because I am out in the street, moving. Forging the relationship between mind and body and spirit that happens inevitably when I run.
  4. Running brings me closer to God because I see Him everywhere when I run. My mind is thus prepared to see Him throughout the rest of my day, in the people I meet and the circumstances I am presented with. Plus, we talk, God and I, and even if I come to find I am not listening, He is.

I need to remember all of these things so that tomorrow morning when my alarm sounds in the pre-dawn darkness I won’t roll over and ignore it, but will instead roll out and run.

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Finding My Pace with Emerson

Posted on June 12, 2015. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

Charpentier/Leaf 2007 trip

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. So said Emerson. I know what he meant. I have been consistently cheating myself by running sprints on a treadmill, persistently thinking that the treadmill was pushing me to do and be my best. I ran as fast as the pace was set, and ran consistently, just a mite above my comfort zone.

But stepping onto a treadmill is like stepping into a river, a riptide. An average day of work. You get swept along by the current. The only decision you make is whether you will try to keep up, panic and flail, or step out.

All that you really learn about yourself is how long you can stand the ride.

So on Tuesday when Stephanie and I stepped onto the track to do our weekly speed work, I was nervous. 800s, five times, at just a touch faster than our mile pace. I established my mile last week, but didn’t know if I could sustain it—at a mite faster—for five half miles.

We warmed up, picked a lane, chatted about this and that, and then, in all earnestness, said go! I pushed my watch’s little red button, and I went. Fast. Thirty seconds too fast, a pace I could maybe sustain for one 800 but no way for five. So I slowed down. But too slow. Thirty seconds too slow, so that by the last 100 I had to pick back up into a sprint.

We went again. Same result. Too fast. And then too slow.

Each time we stopped to recover I was perplexed. How can it be that in all my years of running I don’t yet know how to find and maintain my own pace?

My focus has been on running long, where you can start slow, dawdle some, pick up the pace at the halfway point, give your muscles ample time to warm into what passes for a sprint in a distance run. That’s not the same as running short and fast, where you go and then you stay the course. All of your own accord. It requires an awareness, a mental and physical balance that I don’t usually step into until mile four.

Always do what you are afraid to do. That Emerson was a genius. I can’t wait until next Tuesday to do it again.

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Focus

Posted on June 5, 2015. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

A focused mind is one of the most powerful forces in the universe. So says the fortune tacked on the corkboard above my desk.  I believe this is true, which is why the tiny slip of paper is pinned there, a reminder.

If only I could remember to focus on it from time to time.

Geyser_SprinklerSo many projects, events, demands on my time and energy, so much noise in my head, that my mind often feels more like one of those crazy sprinkler toys you hook up to the hose than a laser. The head space required to work toward a goal is hard to find, more difficult to maintain.

For me this is true in running as much as it is in writing, work, the rest of life. The less progress I feel I make toward a goal, the worse I feel about myself.  The more I settle for what feels like mediocracy. I start to believe I am something I’m not.

My running plan ended in April. For nine months a grid containing my current race’s plan was tacked to the side of my fridge. Every morning I knew what to do, how to start my day. Where I was headed. From November through April I ran three half marathons, one 10k, and a ten-mile trail run, the most racing in the least amount of time I’ve ever done.

When the last race ended, I was almost relieved. My body was tired, my store of self-discipline nearly expended.  It was time to shift focus, away from long runs, toward building strength and speed.  But how?

For several weeks the side of my fridge was a blank white slate. No plan, no specific goal, no race. No focus. I took a stab at weight training, trudging early to the gym. Splashed around in the neighborhood pool a few times. Ran, some.

But without a sense of direction or a specific goal I’ve found it difficult to follow a routine, to regain the self-discipline required to wake up early and push myself to my limit. My pace slowed tremendously, and I before I knew it I accepted this as normal. I’m just slow, I conceded. I can’t do any better than this.

This is all I have, all I am, all there is.  fortune

Often when I sense self-defeat creeping in, I try to fix it on my own.  Surely I can pull myself out, change direction, self-motivate, self-charge, self-something. But that’s not how it always works.  Life is not self-contained.

On Tuesday morning two friends and I went out to the local high school track to do speed work. It wasn’t my idea. I hadn’t done speed work on a track since summer 2010. When I moved to San Antonio, a strange place where I didn’t yet know the lay of the land, I joined a gym and began speed work on a treadmill.

You know how it is. Once you get into the habit of doing something one way, you forget that there might be other—better—ways to do it. And sometimes you get bored, distracted, overwhelmed with other things and don’t do it at all.

Sometimes, it takes a friend to alter your environment such that you can change your sense of self.

I was nervous when my friend suggested speed work on the track, but at the same time excited. Relieved that here was someone who could show me a new way, someone who knew what she was doing. Someone to motivate me out of bed.

She set the day’s plan. A ladder, starting with a magic mile to see where we each are at the beginning of summer, then progressively shorter sprints with a progressively faster pace.

In theory, I said. Faster as we go shorter, in theory.

If I gave a mile my all, whatever that looked like, I didn’t think I could run faster as the distance decreased. I didn’t even know what “my all” meant. I was used to treadmills, where I thought I was running as fast as I could because there was no “cheating,” no slowing down.  Plus it had been a while since I’d done sprints even there. And I was slower. Out of practice. You lose so much so fast when you lay off running for a while, I thought.

But when she said “go,” I went, Tigger’s theme song bouncing through my head as I sped along the springy, flat track, focused on nothing but my form, my breath, and the next five feet in front of me.

johnson trackI ran my fastest mile. Ever.

I was stunned. This couldn’t be me. Couldn’t be my legs, my body, my breath pushing me along.

In amazement, I ran again, a 1,200, focusing on each stride, my pace a little faster than my mile.

I ran again, 800, faster and more focused, so that by the time we ran a 400 I felt like I was flying.

No matter that my legs turned to Jell-O from the kneecaps down and knotted braids from the kneecaps up. No matter that when I stopped my stomach clenched like a fist and nearly punched its way up through my throat.  I was elated, stunned, spent.

I walked away from the track rethinking not only my running, but my writing, my work, every area of my life. I’m not what I thought I was. I’m more. And I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t been shown a new environment, a new plan, a different approach on which to focus.

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Running Buddies, Part III

Posted on May 15, 2015. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

“You got this.”

She was waiting at the bottom of the hill just short of the finish line. The steep hill. The hill some genius thought would be a good idea to put right here, blocking the view of the end of things, but not the sound of people clapping, music playing.

“F*%@,” I said before I knew I would say it, the word escaping with my breath.

“I know.” She nodded. “Come on.” And ran me up the hill.

The YOSA 10k, my favorite 10k, the only race I really try to place in.  The course usually meanders through a neighborhood, across somewhat rolling hills. But this year it was moved to the River Walk, along a series of hills hugging the San Antonio River just south of the city, on the Mission Reach.

The 10k was a double out-and-back. I hate double out-and-backs. Races are mentally challenging already without having to repeat the same scenery, the same steep hill just short of the finish line.

1380749947000-SA-River-Mission-Reach

Not that it’s all bad, experiencing the same thing twice. The tuba player standing on the hill near the halfway mark belting out songs I’d never before heard done in tuba. The wildflowers studding the tall grass, waving in the breeze.

The breeze that blew at what felt like 25 mph, both ways.

My plan was to run hard but not too hard. I was running a half marathon the next weekend over the truly rolling hills in Luckenbach, Texas, and I wanted to save my legs.

But I ran hard anyway. I couldn’t help it. Once the clock started I was off. At the first turnaround, halfway through the first 5k, I found myself counting the number of women ahead of me. The second time around I was determined to pass as many as I could.

By the last half mile my legs were throbbing low and hard, like a tuba singing for me to stop already, or at least slow it down. I ignored them, kept my eyes down, and ran. Prayed that I would just make it to the finish line, just up over this low grade, long rolling hill, and around the bend. Then I would be there. Done.

Except I forgot about that hill. The steep hill just short of the finish line that some genius thought would be a good idea to put there.

When I looked up again, I saw the sharp incline first and knew I couldn’t make it. I was out of steam.

But I saw her second.

“You got this,” Stephanie said.

Just a few steps and we were up the hill. “It’s all you.”

She skipped back down as I ran toward the finish, knowing. It’s never all me.

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What’s Your Attitude?

Posted on March 6, 2015. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

“It’s so cold and miserable outside I have to go to the gym, do hills on the treadmill,” I complained to my boyfriend on the phone yesterday morning. “I hate the treadmill.”

I feel like I’ve been complaining a lot lately. So much so that I began to keep a gratitude journal last month. Each night before I go to bed I record five things from the day for which I am grateful. The next morning, I read that list to set my mind right.

Although I’ve always tried to practice in real time a recognition of “good” things that happen throughout the day—a stretch of green lights on my drive home, an item on sale when I didn’t know it, the rain letting up long enough for me to run errands or get gas—I am not always successful at maintaining a positive attitude. My negativity sometimes spills over onto others. My boyfriend. My mom.

It was at her suggestion that I began the journal-keeping.   struggle-gratitude

Last night after I jotted down my five, I quickly drifted toward sleep. But before I could get there I found myself wide awake, thinking about my attitude toward my morning’s workout.

If I am cultivating a mindset of gratitude, here’s what I should have thought instead:

  • I get to drive to the gym (in my own car, 10-years-old and long paid off, with a blazing heater and cushy seat-warmers, a working radio, and more).
  • I get to go to a gym (I have worked a membership into my budget without a second thought, foregoing other luxuries each month instead).
  • I get to go to the gym at 9am—or any time, really (I work from home, plan my own day, schedule my own time, and I can be up at 5:30am, working by 6 in my pajamas and slippers, hair uncombed, glasses askew, dog in lap, and then take a break when it suits me, my schedule, my day).
  • I get to run (Thank you, God. I am able to run.)

I slept more soundly than perhaps I otherwise would have, resting in the knowledge that I am luckier than I think.

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By the Numbers

Posted on January 16, 2015. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , |

My brother turned fifty-one last week.  Fifty-one.  A big number.  Not so long ago, turning fifty sounded like an impossible thing, a feat maybe other people managed, but not the people I knew, my family, my friends. Yet here we all are, there or nearly there, in a place that sounds different than it feels.

I asked him the question my dad asked me on each one of my birthdays:  How does it feel to be fifty-one (thirteen, sixteen, twenty)?

His answer to me was the same one I always gave my dad:  Just the same as it did to be fifty (twelve, fifteen, nineteen).

But you know, he said on further reflection, this one makes me think a little more. It didn’t bother me to turn fifty, but fifty-one is different. It’s into my fifties, one step closer to sixty, and sixty just sounds, well, old. It’s when people retire. I don’t feel old, he went on, I don’t feel like my age sounds.

I know what he means.  Turning forty was nothing. But forty-one, well, that was different. Into my forties, one step closer to fifty. And now even more steps closer. Yet I don’t feel like someone approaching fifty.

Twenty-five, forty, fifty-one, they’re just numbers. And who’s to decide how a number is supposed to look, how a number is supposed to feel?  numbers

A couple of days after my brother’s birthday, mile sprints showed up on my training schedule again. It’s been several weeks since I’ve sprinted miles, and I went to bed the night before a little apprehensive. A mile. It sounds so long.

I trudged early into the gym bleary-eyed and grumpy, not quite prepared to exert the energy I’d need to expend.  You can always just run three miles, I reasoned with myself as I grabbed a towel off the shelf. No one says you have to run sprints.

I climbed onto the treadmill to warm up, trying to wake up, deciding what to do. A mile. It sounds so long, too long of a distance to sprint. I could always run 400s or 800s. I could start slow and build. Or I could just dawdle here on this treadmill and continue walking at a nice reasonable pace for the next three miles.

But no matter how I sliced it, a mile is a mile. And, I thought, if I made the effort to get this far, to the gym and on the treadmill, then I guess I should probably run.

I thought of my friend Ceci and a conversation we had not too long ago about sprints. If you have any energy left at the end, she said, if you can go a little faster or do a little more, you’re not doing yourself any good. By the time you reach the end of the road you should have given everything you have to give.

A mile. A long distance to sprint. But as I approached the end of my warm-up, I shut down the mental calculations, the slicing and dicing of time and distance, as if math could change the nature of a mile. If I made the effort to get this far, by God I was going to run, not measuring a mile by numbers, but measuring it by how I felt.

I inhaled deeply, held my thumb on the Up arrow—and ran the fastest mile sprints I’d ever run.

This week, I ran them just a little faster.

And it felt good.

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Breaking Eggs

Posted on December 12, 2014. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

You can’t bake a cake without breaking some eggs.

I was scrambling eggs to make an omelet when the proverb came to mind.  I had run the Shiner half marathon the day before, and I woke up feeling good. The race was challenging—intermittent rain and wind, unexpected steep grades (who was the genius that decided to put a hill at mile 11?), two miles of mud—but I met one of my two goals, finishing in the top 10 of my age group.

A great race ended, another goal met, and I tried hard to be in the moment to enjoy the accomplishment that comes from hard work, a job done to the best of my ability.

Nevertheless, post-race blues were sinking in and about to be compounded by holiday-associated stress, the approach of the busiest four months of my work year, and a sick dog.

Maybe you don’t get post-race blues. It took me a few races to recognize them for what they are. When the thing I’ve focused on for 8, 12, 16 weeks or more is over and I look at the side of my fridge where my training plan hangs only to see a blank slate waiting to be filled, to start all over again. The promise of a new beginning, which is, and should be, exciting.

lemonmeringuepie_86114_16x9Yet any beginning emerges from an end. Creation is preceded by destruction. (Or as Wallace Stevens would say, “Death is the mother of beauty.”)

Before I let my emptiness cave in on itself—before Thanksgiving Day—I selected a new race, registered, and created a new training plan, ready to start December 1. But the long days of holiday-associated stress, the approach of the busiest four work months of the year, and a sick dog cut into my plan. I am not off to the best start. (Although, thank God, my dog is getting better.)

This week I stood in the kitchen beating eggs again, remembering when my mom taught us to bake. For a time my favorite was lemon meringue pie. It wasn’t the taste I so much enjoyed as the making of the pie, or, at least, the end result. So many eggs broken, vigorously whisked into tall, stiff peaks strong enough to stand on their own.

It was the beating that gave me qualms. Before they can peak, the eggs fold in on themselves, all mush and formlessness, unable to hold anything together, much less themselves.

Me, the past couple of weeks.

But you can’t bake a cake without breaking some eggs. Maybe it’s time to rise again.

 

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