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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The Big Question

Posted on October 19, 2012. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

What do you do when you can’t run?  The obvious things come to mind:  Swim, bike, walk, join a gym.  But that’s not what I mean. Not exactly.

What do you do when you’ve been running for years, when running is as much a part of your day as brushing your teeth, when it’s become so rooted in your identity that you don’t know who you are apart from it. When losing the ability to do it feels like losing a loved one or a limb.

It sounds overly dramatic, I know. I used to be a non-runner and always thought there was something a little off about those people who lamented life when they were forced to stop running. Until I became a runner.  And then couldn’t.

When I injured my hip nearly 3 years ago and had to stop running, I lost a piece of myself.  I felt like someone I loved had died.  At first I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I cried daily. Sunk into a depression.  Sat at home alone, not wanting to see my friends or even talk to them on the phone.  I think I was startled as much as I was depressed. I truly did not know how much of my identity was tied to running until running was taken away.

Fortunately, I gradually worked through my injury and began to run again after more than a year.

But I was reminded of this loss lately.  A friend’s husband recently broke his leg so badly that, as my friend put it, his x-ray looked like the inside of a Lowe’s.  A lifelong runner, he now finds himself unable to run for at least the next 10 months. My friend’s eyes developed a distant look as she finished telling me his story, as if her husband had gone some place far, far away and she was trying to remember what he looked like.

Finally, she said, “What do you do when you can’t run?”  She didn’t expect an answer, and I’m glad. The only one I can think of is, you wait.

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Fall into Running

Posted on October 5, 2012. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

I feel like I’ve become a vampire runner since I’ve lived in Texas.  For what seems like 10 months out of the year (but is probably only 5), I run in the dark, before the sun comes up. It’s not that I think my body will burst into a ball of fire or disintegrate into an ash heap once the first ray of dawn touches my skin, it’s that with the Texas sun comes heat and humidity, and I do not like running in the heat and humidity.  I’m kind of spoiled that way.

I was born and raised in Michigan, where we have four distinct seasons. I love the fall. And I really miss it.  So I was absolutely THRILLED this week when fall began to sweep its way through central Texas.

To my horror, I almost missed it.

Fortunately, I got to run a lot this week.  I say “fortunately” now, but I didn’t feel so fortunate when the week began.  I’ve been diligent about maintaining a strength training program for several months now, which means I’m in the gym 3 mornings a week and running only 2 or (during good weeks) 3.   But this week I suffered from a puzzling injury that caused a great deal of pain when I raised my arm even just a little.  There went strength training out the door.

I solved the puzzle after only 2 days, but have had a hard time reducing the pain. The source of the injury?  Stress.  Seems I carry my stress in my shoulders and neck.  My muscles twist and strain like chords of twine worked into a braid, then bunch up into what feels like a knotted ball.  Literally. I could actually hear something in there bounce earlier in the week.

But rather than whine, I rolled out of bed and ran.  To my very pleasant surprise, outside felt like Michigan.  Cool, crisp air. The smell of early fall.  It changed my outlook entirely.

I even ran one morning after the sun came up.

And I didn’t explode.

Maybe by next week I can smooth out the lumps and put away the fangs for good.   Fall will likely be here, full head on.  I can’t wait.

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The Wonder Wall: or, I wonder why I hit that wall

Posted on September 7, 2012. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

There you are one early morning, in the pool swimming laps, on your bike cruising down country roads, or out for a long run through the backstreets. You had a plan, you set your distance, knew your route and were off. But half way through your workout, your arms stopped rotating like a windmill, your legs resembled the rubber chicken sitting on the corner of your desk, and your body slumped into something you liken to the compost pile in your backyard.

It’s happened. You’ve hit the wall.

This can be dismaying, to say the least, especially when you thought you were doing fine and felt like you were in great shape to be out there rolling.

What causes us to hit the wall and what can we do to prevent hitting it?  It seems to me there are three important factors athletes—yes, even amateur athletes like most of us—need to consider before we hit the dawn running.

Nutrition

If your body was like Janet Jackson, it might sing you a song: What have you done for me lately?  (And if your mind is like mine, you get a song stuck in your head whose words you either don’t like or can’t remember, but you sing it to yourself anyway, making up different words to suit your situation. Like what did you eat for me lately?)

The question is a serious one. What did you fuel your body with before your workout?  Before, in my mind, is not only the 30 to 60 minutes before you head out the door, but the long stretch of hours that lead into your workout, the night before if you work out in the morning or the entire day if you work out in the afternoon or evening.

I work out first thing in the morning.  I always eat a small meal 30 minutes or so before my workout, but I am also cognizant of what I eat the night before.  If I am doing cardio in the morning, I make sure I eat complex carbs with dinner.  And if I’m hungry before I go to bed, I eat.  Your body needs the right balance of proteins, fats, and carbs, complex as well as simple, to function at its best. Don’t deny it what it needs.

Hydration

If you feel thirsty, it’s already too late. You’re dehydrated.  What do you do?  Drink, drink, drink!  Drink before you go to bed, drink before and after your workout. Drink always, all day long.

Notice I didn’t include the middle of your workout as a time to drink. That depends on what you’re doing and how long you’re doing it.  I always have water with me when I bike, swim, and weight train. I drink frequently during all of these activities. But I don’t take water with me when I run unless I plan to be out there more than 60 minutes. I know there are some people who would say, so what? Take water anyway!  For me this is simply a personal preference. I don’t like holding things in my hands or feeling extra weight hanging on my hips when I run.

What do you drink?  Water. Lots of it.  Sports drinks are unnecessary for most people, unless you’re out there sweating profusely for long periods of time. If you’re training for a marathon or a triathlon, especially in summer in Texas, that’s a different story.  Kind of.  I prefer coconut water over sports drinks because sports drinks have a lot of sugar in them. Coconut water has none. It’s a great way to keep hydrated or to rehydrate.

Muscle fatigue

It could be that you hit a wall because your body is just plain tired.  Have you slept enough?  Have you over trained?  Does your body need rest for a few days? Should you stop what you’re doing at the moment, or should you push through?

That depends.

The way you get to know your own strength, to find out what you’re made of, and to improve your endurance is to push yourself beyond what you think are your limitations.  Sure, I can stop when my knees get wobbly or turn into lead pipes.  I may even have to stop. But at what point do I make this determination?

Ask Socrates. He’d probably say Know Thyself.  Part of training hard and pushing yourself to be better, stronger, faster than you were before (like the Six Million Dollar Man) is knowing your body well enough to understand what it’s trying to tell you and to respect it enough to listen. There’s a fine line between breaking through the wall and breaking your body.  The first is exhilarating. The second excruciating. Unfortunately, sometimes we learn to recognize our body’s queues through trial and error. When we err, it hurts.

Inevitably, at some point in training, you’ll hit a wall.  If you pay attention to your body, it will let you know why you hit it and what to do about it.  Listen to it.  Your body knows best. Almost like your mother.

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What Makes Us Ready to Listen?

Posted on August 3, 2012. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

This week my boyfriend decided he likes running.  He never really liked it before now for a variety of reasons, including debilitating knee pain, which would make me not want to run either.  But this week he thought he’d give it another shot.  What motivated him to try to run?  Not me.  (I know, can you believe it?)  Nope, it was timing.

Robert has a longtime friend who he doesn’t see much anymore, though they keep up through Facebook.  His friend absolutely LOVES to run, and posts about it regularly.  A few days ago, this friend posted something that caught Robert’s attention.

He said he runs because he can, and one day he may not be able to.

Now, I know this particular message has been out there in many forms from many sources for many years.  It’s one of those things we hear repeatedly, and maybe don’t pay too much attention to. But then one day something clicks. We pay attention.  We don’t just hear the message.  We process it.  Why?  Timing.

I don’t know what else is going on in Robert’s mind that made him process the message differently this time.  But that’s the beautiful thing about our subconscious mind.  It’s always working on something, secretly, even when we’re asleep.  I’ve taken to thinking of this part of my mind as a little cellar, dark and dank and growing all kinds of stuff, with little elves running around in there, creating things, or at least tending to the heaps of things already growing.  When the creation is ready, the elves crack open the cellar door and hand it out to me. Then, it’s up to me to do with it what I will.

What Robert chose to do with his reprocessing was to run, to at least give it another try.  Because it finally occurred to him that right now, he can.  Maybe in a year or two or twenty, he won’t be able to.

Maybe he realized that ability is a gift, a present of the present moment.  How wonderful to use it as it’s meant to be used.

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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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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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At the Core of the IT Band

Posted on May 25, 2012. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

I remember the first time I saw the Ice Capades.  This was in Dorothy Hamill’s day, and she was my idol.  I wanted to be a princess on ice, just like her, twirling and gliding, hair bobbing in the breeze.  I even had her haircut.  She was my star.

Until intermission.  Which was also the first time I saw a Zamboni.

While my brothers and sisters flocked to the snack stand to load up on cotton candy and Cokes, I sat mesmerized watching what appeared to be magic—a giant bulldozer-like machine gliding over the ice, smoothing over the cuts and scrapes left behind by sharp blades.   It was a thing of beauty, and suddenly my highest ambition in life was not to be a figure skater but to drive the Zamboni.

Making order out of chaos. What greater serenity could there be?  I have since found the same satisfaction I experienced watching the Zamboni in ironing and mowing the lawn.  There is something supremely peaceful in smoothing over creases, evening out irregularity.  Finding balance, perhaps.  Symmetry.

So you’d think I would find the same satisfaction in my foam roller as it smooths over the bubble-wrap tendon that has become my IT band.  Alas.  It is not so.

My IT band tightens pretty regularly, throwing off my body mechanics when I run.  It took me nearly 6 months of incredible marathon-training-stopping pain to figure out what my IT band actually does.  I experienced hip pain so devastating that for a while I could barely walk. (Did this keep me from limping out to the road every morning anyway to see if I could run?  Of course not.  Someone smack me in the head.)  All the research I did on running injuries related the IT band to knee pain, not hip pain, so I couldn’t figure out what was wrong.

I finally saw a doctor, who referred me to a physical therapist (the best, I might add, in San Antonio).  She solved the problem.  Sure, my IT band was a mess, she concluded, but that would be relatively easy to straighten out.  Simply foam roll regularly and see a massage therapist as often as I could stand it.  Easy enough.  I bought a foam roller and started massage therapy (lucky for me I found the best massage therapist, I would also add, in San Antonio).

However, the crux of the problem, my physical therapist pointed out, is not my IT band. My IT band transforming into bubble wrap is the symptom, not the cause. The real problem is at the core.  Literally.

A strong core is the basis of all good form, no matter what sport you participate in, including running.  Most runners I know, particularly women, seem to think that all they have to do is run to keep up the muscles that help them run.  In reality, you need strength training to help with speed and endurance.  But even strength training alone—if it doesn’t include core work—won’t get you very far.

My ongoing task has been to strengthen my stabilizers. It’s one I haven’t been very diligent about maintaining.  I seem to go at it in bits and spurts, a few weeks on, a few weeks off.  What reminds me to get back to core strengthening is both my foam roller and my massage therapist.  When a date with either of them forces words from my mouth that would make my mother blush, I know I’ve been neglecting my core.

What kinds of core exercises do you do to maintain stability?

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Sink or Swim

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

For as long as I can remember, I have been able to swim. I have no memory of not being near water, having grown up on a lake in Michigan and spending long summer days on or in the water until my lips turned blue and my fingers shriveled into prunes.

Even as an adult, I get to water as often as I can. I dive and snorkel and sail and most of the time would really rather be under water than just about anywhere else.  It’s so much more peaceful.

So you’d think that I would look forward to the swim leg of the sprint tri I’m doing in June, especially since it’s in open water.

Not so.

Even though I learned how to swim at practically the same time I learned how to walk, apparently I didn’t learn right.  Correct form?  What’s that? I simply jumped in the water and off I went.

The closest thing to training I ever had was at age 12 in Girl Scout camp.  Not freestyle, but sidestroke. Even now, the counselor’s words help keep my rhythm:   Pick an apple, put it in the basket.  Pick an apple, put it in the basket.  If I could make a pie for every bushel of apples I’ve picked I could have opened my own bakery by now.

Freestyle, however, the stroke most conducive to tri competition, is the worm in my apple.  I have watched countless swimmers glide gracefully through the water and have wondered how they can make it look so easy.  When I try, I’m worn out before I finish a couple of laps.  I feel like a wounded duck flailing around in the pool.

After two sprint triathlons and I won’t say how many years, it finally occurred to me that maybe I should take a lesson.  I did recently figure out, after all, that it’s probably a good thing to ask for help when you need it.

So a few days ago, I took my first swim lesson.  I spent most of the hour kicking myself.  Why on earth hadn’t I done this before?  In just one hour my stroke improved so tremendously that I was actually gliding through the water like a swan. And you know what? It was easy.

I came away from my lesson with a laundry list of things I was doing wrong.  More important, I now know how to correct them.  I can’t wait to get back in the water.  I think I’ll be swimming once again until my lips turn blue and my fingers shrivel into plums.

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If I Let My Mind Wander, Will It Come Back?

Posted on February 3, 2012. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , |

One thing I’ve always loved about running is the freedom and peace it brings me.  No matter what life throws at me, I’ve been able to catch it on a run, reframe it, shrink it, smooth it out, and move on.   When I’m outside and let my mind go, it seems to know where to run on its own.  Until recently, I’ve only associated that freedom and peace with being outdoors.  As a result, each time I lace up and move out, I get excited.  But each time I lace up and move in—to run on a treadmill—I get weighed down by dread.

Lately I’ve been running on a treadmill to heal an injury.   My task is to overcome muscle memory from years of running crooked, the result of a glitch in the spine and a pelvic girdle that swivels to the left like a broken bar stool, culminating in tremendous hip and knee pain.  Our bodies, brilliant as they are, adapt to our movements, however inefficient and “wrong” they are.  This is muscle memory.  Bodies unconsciously perform the way they’re trained to.  In trying to retrain my muscles to work right, I have to make a conscious effort to intervene and redirect them to reshape their memory.

Running on a treadmill where I can set my pace and forget both it and the terrain is something I should have been doing for months, but it took me that long to move myself inside, to face the deadening dread I’ve come to associate with treadmills and ceilings.

I’ve come to realize, however, that as much as our bodies have muscle memory, our minds do too.  What’s more, the two are linked.  Runners particularly seem to get this, whether they know they do or not.  Runners often feel the connection between mind, body, and soul.  When they are in harmony, we forget ourselves; we feel a runner’s high. When they are not, we feel everything, including pain.

Our mind’s muscle memory is at work all the time.  What we think, feel, remember is tied to places, people, events.  What we think effects our emotions; what we feel affects our body.  This explains why our stomach knots up when we enter a certain building or see a particular face. Our bodies have been trained by our thoughts to react in a certain way.  Muscle memory is part of the mind/body relationship. There’s no separating them.

Like our body, our mind can be retrained.   We can let our thoughts go out to wander while we run—such is the joy and peace of running—but how mindful are we of where they go?  We hold thought in our hands like a bird.  Is it a dove, sent out in hope of returning with the olive branch of peace? Is it a falcon, unmasked and driven to hunt down the answer to a problem?

Where your mind wanders is up to you.  You can choose to let it be contained, to surrender to dread, or you can choose to set it free and bring you joy.  If you let your mind wander, it comes back—but it will always wander out in the direction it’s been trained to go.

Now, I make a conscious effort to train my mind as much as I train my body.  Where my mind goes, my body follows.  And as my dad always used to say, wherever you go, that’s where you are.

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