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.

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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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13.1 Things I’ve Learned from Half Marathon Training

Posted on November 7, 2014. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Only two weeks left to the Shiner half marathon, a race my friend Amy and I have been training for since the first week of August. There is always something to learn—or to remember that I’ve forgotten—as the result of training.

  1. Never get a pedicure on long run day. It is not a way to pamper yourself. It is not a form of pleasure. Sharp objects pushing at your cuticles, snipping away bits of skin. A tool resembling the cheese grater in my utility drawer scraping off mounds of dead skin. Sometimes this is fun. On long run day, it is not. It is a form of torture for sensitive post-run feet. Ice baths, on the other hand, are a form of pleasure. ice bath
  1. Long runs are so much better with a running buddy. It took me nearly 15 years of running to figure this out. Not only do the miles go by more quickly, but I can’t think of a better way to get to know someone than by running with them. You meet each other at your best and at your worst, and you talk about things you probably wouldn’t if you had to look each other in the eye across a wine glass or coffee cup. 
  1. Drive somewhere to do your long run. I learned this from my friend Stephanie. When I started half marathon training coming back from an injury over a year ago, I mentioned how nervous I was to do that week’s long run alone—5 miles, longer than I’d run in more than two years. She immediately offered to pick me up that Saturday and take me running. I was nervous—not only about the run, but about having to pack up and prepare for the run. Which is, of course, the point in going away, Stephanie explained on our drive to the park. It simulates race day preparation: getting up early, packing your stuff, fueling properly, and generally getting yourself together. Great training. (Stephanie’s kindness and friendship was also my eye-opener to lesson #2. And she is the genius behind the ice bath process.)
  1. I love running in the dark. I already knew this, but it’s reaffirmed all the time. There’s something soothing about dulling one sense and heightening the rest of them.  It’s peaceful. Thoughtful. Joyful. Plus I seem to run faster when I can’t see how fast I’m running.
  1. But I should probably get a head lamp. This was also reaffirmed on a long run with Amy and the local Fleet Feet marathon training group, who’ve let us crash their early-morning parties a couple of times. New route, new potholes. Not very smart without light.
  1. Don’t short yourself on speed work days. I’ve taken to doing all my speedwork on the treadmill so I can’t slow down. 800s and mile repeats used to scare me, but now I embrace them.  They truly do make you faster.
  1. I don’t love tapering. That’s the phase I’m starting now. It’s hard to run fewer miles when you know your race is right around the corner. It takes a lot of mental discipline to rest, but it’s so necessary.
  1. I can go seven weeks without drinking. Not that I drank a lot, but I enjoy an occasional glass of wine with dinner, a night out on the town, a martini at the end of a long day. This current break started during the first of two high mileage weeks, when it occurred to me that it would be easier to get out of bed and run without any alcohol in my system. It was, so I did it again the next week. After two weeks, I didn’t want to break my streak. It’s been awesome to train alcohol-free.
  1. But I can’t go seven weeks without chocolate. I mean, really. Isn’t alcohol enough? Something’s gotta give.
  1. I am a genius. Just in this one thing: I chose a race that begins and ends at a brewery–before I ever thought about not drinking during training. Not just any ole brewery, but the Shiner brewery, some pretty awesome Texas beer. Knowing this is waiting for me at the end of the line makes lesson #8 a happier thing yet. shiner-spoetzl-brewery
  1. I am stronger than I feel and faster than I think. I only wish I could stop myself from feeling and thinking, at least about my perceived limitations.
  1. But that’s what Girls on the Run is all about: pushing yourself past your mental limitations, outside of the box you (and your surroundings) have trapped you in. I see the girls in our program differently during training. They always bring me joy, but during training they inspire me to make the seemingly impossible possible.
  1. There’s no reason I can’t run a marathon. I never have. But I am willing to try. Again. See lesson #12.

.1    I still have a lot to learn.

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Running Buddies, Part II

Posted on October 24, 2014. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

“Can we walk up this hill?” she asks, slightly out of breath, motioning with her chin to the incline ahead. “No wait,” she says before I can reply, “I’ll walk. You go on ahead.”

“OK,” I say, knowing I won’t. I’ll walk when she walks, stop when she stops. Run when she runs.

Not so long ago, I would have gone on ahead. Or, more likely, would have been out here alone instead of with a friend.

“No,” she says before we reach the hill, “I’m not going to walk. I can make it. I can push myself.”

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“OK,” I say as we run up the hill.

We’ve been pushing already, closer now to the end of this road, closer as well to the half marathon we’re training for, the Shiner.

We stop at the top of the hill for water, nearly done with our twelve-mile run, less than two miles to go. The sun is up and the heat settling in, even though it’s nearing the end of October. But this is Texas. Fall won’t feel like it’s here for awhile.

We’re both tired, elated, spent, happy to be out here running, getting stronger, faster with each passing week, following a training plan that started nearly three months ago. I can’t imagine, now, having had to run all the long runs alone.

This is what long runs are for. Endurance.

I think about the girls I observed just a couple weeks ago, preparing to run in circles around the playground, who threw their arms around each other at the thought of running with a buddy.

They instinctively knew what we so easily forget. The road is easier to endure when you’re on it with a friend.

 

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Running Buddies

Posted on October 3, 2014. Filed under: Girls on the Run | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

I recognized a face or two as they came into the gym, smiling, twisting their hair into ponytails up and away from their necks to escape the stifling, pungent air. Ninety-plus degrees and the air conditioner down. I stood against the far wall trying not to move, not to exert too much energy or breathe too deeply.

Such awesome girls, the head coach had told me. Never seen anything like it. They’re so innocent and sweet.

A new season of Girls on the Run, three weeks in. Many sites still in the process of bonding, coaching teams as well as girls. It can be chaotic, challenging. I dropped by this site to deliver shoes and had asked in advance if I could stay, just a bit, just long enough to help me remember why it is I do this.

I sat cross-legged on the floor next to the tower of empty boxes, away from the circle of girls. My salmon colored t-shirt appeared to have sprung stripes where rivulets of sweat had trickled down and settled during the flurry of shoe trying-on that preceded the lesson.

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The girls hadn’t seemed to notice either the sweat or the pressing heat. They hurried to change clothes, find and fill their water bottles, grab a granola bar, and form their circle, eager to get started. A lesson in negative vs positive self-talk, the same lesson our coaches had practiced in training. The adults had related, nodding in agreement as the lesson uncovered the ways in which we tear ourselves down, dismantle our uniqueness and achievements as quickly and easily as dismantling a Lincoln log house, and then separate ourselves into oneness.

In the very places the adults had nodded and their bodies slumped, the girls sat upright looking puzzled, oblivious as to what the coach was talking about. I chuckled, amused but mostly relieved. They hadn’t yet started that conversation with themselves.

C’mon, a coach waved me in as the girls stood up, moved on to their warm-up. You’re here. You might as well join us.

Join? I hadn’t been a joiner. But how could I say no in the face of this? High knees. More sweating. Yet the girl on the far side of the circle smiled broadly as if she had just been crowned princess instead of standing here in this gym, hiking up her knees, excited to go outside and run circles around the small dirt playground.

At last we filed out the door and I inhaled the fresh air and warm breeze. I hung back as the team walked out to the shade. Several girls held hands, vied to hold the coaches’, leaned in sideways touching bangs as they talked.

Most hadn’t known each other when they started, yet here they were sticking together like buns in a pan, oblivious to each other’s imperfections, or their own.

You all ready to run? the coach asked as she resumed the lesson. A twitter rippled through the team.

Oh! Oh! A hand flew up from the center. Can we have a running buddy? As if on cue, each girl turned to her neighbor, and they hugged.

The coach caught my eye and smiled. Never seen anything like it.

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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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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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