Sunday, March 23, 2014

Anything but routine

Friday night we were invited to join some friends for Shabbat dinner, a novel experience for me. I didn't grow up in a religious community, and although my husband is Jewish, we've never observed Shabbat in our home. For anyone not familiar, this is the weekly day of rest (in Hebrew, "Shabbat" means "rest," or "cessation") the observance of which is a remembrance of the day of rest taken after the Biblical creation of the heavens and the earth.

I'd received two other invitations for Friday night, both of which I had declined. I've had an exhausting few weeks, between two important events at work, and major upheaval in my personal life (now nearly two weeks into our displacement due to a major flood in our condo). I'm doing my best to get in a short, head-clearing run every few days, and to spend a little time on the yoga mat on the hotel room floor on a regular basis, so I'm kind of holding it all together, emotionally speaking. But tired is tired.

When our friend extended the invitation to join him, his wife, and their family for an evening of eating, drinking, and resting, however, I didn't hesitate for a moment to say "yes." And I'm so very grateful. The matriarch of this beautiful family had prepared a feast of colorful dishes piled high with fresh and flavorful Persian fare. Drinks were flowing, children were playing, and some members of the family had driven for hours to be there. Just like every Friday night in this home. I was drawn in by the connection and engagement this family clearly feels with one another, and have been thinking about the experience nonstop.
On Shabbat we take a break from our mundane weekly activities. It is a time to regroup and pray, to eat and rejoice, to spend time with family and friends, to study and share - to indulge and pamper our spiritual side. (From www.chabad.org)
I'm a person with very little structure in my life. I work long and highly irregular hours, travel frequently, and tend to follow my impulses when it comes to how I spend my free time. Even while training for a marathon, I can't seem to keep to a schedule. I don't have a "gym day" or a "long run day," but rather create a schedule each week, fitting in the activities where I can find (or create) the space. This is very much by design, as I've always feared a life of boredom and routine. But I'm beginning to understand the difference between routine and ritual, and to appreciate the need for a little more ritual, a way of pacing my life such that there are built-in periods of conscious rest and reconnection.

I don't know how I'm going to pull this off. Honestly, I can't think of one single waking hour of the day or week when I could commit to doing the same thing on a regular basis, to holding firm and honoring some space that I've created for something or someone that is important to me. But it seems like an important thing to try to figure out. Could I get to a yoga class every Wednesday at noon? Commit to regular Sunday dinners with family and friends? Spend twenty minutes writing every morning? Perhaps I can make it happen and, once and for all, pin myself down and say with confidence, in the face of another opportunity "Sorry, I can't make it. Saturdays are my long run days."

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Take two of these, and call me in the morning


Twenty four hours ago, I was looking desperately for a good hole to crawl into. A cold and gloomy place to curl into the fetal position, and have a good cry. And I didn’t have to look very far to find one.

So far, 2014 is really sticking it to me. Upon recovering from a long bout with pneumonia, I set about trying to regain some strength and begin training for a spring marathon. I knew it wouldn’t be my best or fastest, but was glad to be moving again. A couple of weeks in, I could see that an unusually heavy load at work was going to challenge my training, but was trying to hold the bare minimum of a program together with duct tape, popsicle sticks, and the occasional cross-training session at the gym.

And then this week, all hell broke loose. To be more specific: a plumbing line in my upstairs neighbor’s condo broke loose, and our home was ravaged in a matter of hours, while we were at work. I’ll spare you the details, but it will suffice to say that we have been relocated to a long-term stay hotel while the demolition crews have been pulling up floors, cutting out walls, and gutting rooms. We still have no idea how long it will take for our condo to be put back together, but we do know that we’re in this for a good long haul. I own a particularly clever and destructive dog who cannot be left alone in a strange hotel room while my husband and I go to work every day, so we’re staying in the suburbs (about 45 minutes from my home and office) to be near my gem of a mother-in-law, who is able to keep her for us, as long as we can help out with the many miles of walking daily that are required. (Terriers, you know?) Life for the past several days has been a blur of packing, moving, commuting, meetings with plumbers and insurance adjusters, shuttling the dog back and forth, and – oh yeah – working. No doubt, we’ll settle into a routine eventually, but at the moment, it is pure chaos. It’s sad, disorienting, anxiety-provoking, and exhausting. The spring marathon? It was already questionable at best, and now it’s officially out the window.

Our hotel room depresses me to no end. I’m out of my element in every sense of the word, in a neighborhood I don’t know, surrounded by fast food and chain restaurants. I’m living out of a suitcase of clothes and a few boxes of personal stuff hastily thrown together late at night. And the wireless sucks. In the first couple of days, I was in a daze, still so busy with long days of work that I didn’t reflect too deeply on what was happening. I mostly just laughed about it, and ate a little more pie than usual. And then last night, with the workweek over, it all hit me like a huge sack of potatoes (did I mention that spring marathon was in Boise, ID?), and I started to get frustrated, whiny, and sad.

Hotel room veggie slaw
I woke up this morning still in a rotten mood, but after partaking in some free continental breakfast, took a walk in the warm sunshine over to my mother-in-law’s to pick up my dog for the day, and gave myself a pep talk. This is a stressful life event to be sure, but this is not a crisis. I’m pissed off about the marathon falling apart, but the fact that training isn’t feasible for me right now isn’t a reason to stop taking care of myself. Lay off the pie, Amy. I can surely squeeze in a few “mental health miles” a few days a week, and hey, I’ve been meaning to check out YogaGlo anyway. No reason I can’t roll out the mat and hold a few poses right here on the colorfully-carpeted floor of the Marriott Residence Inn. We picked up our CSA delivery yesterday, and now our little hotel fridge is packed with fresh local vegetables and fruit. I got “home” from that walk, dug out a cutting board, a knife, and a plastic bowl from the hotel room cupboards, and chopped myself a beautiful slaw of bok choy, cabbage, fennel, radish, carrot, and apple. I felt happier with the first bite. Maybe tomorrow I’ll lace up and go find an access point to the Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve, which I think is around here somewhere ... maybe that’s it, right there past the Carl’s Jr.?



Sunday, March 2, 2014

Living Largo

Well, the universe has certainly been challenging me to walk my talk so far in 2014. In my first post of the year, I wrote about how we need pain to provide limits and boundaries (this one), and shortly thereafter came down sicker than I have ever been in my life. You "need your pain?" Okay, how about we set your lungs on fire and make every muscle in your body ache for weeks on end? Let's see what you can do with this. Like just about everyone, it seems, I came down with that nasty flu in late December, and after a good long battle with it, was starting to make my way back. Just as I was starting to think "is this little nagging cough ever going to stop?" it all came raging back with a mighty vengeance, and the second time around it was pneumonia.

There's a little part of me that can sort of enjoy the one or two common colds I might get during the course of an average year, because it provides a legitimate excuse to take a day off (really off), read, drink alcohol during the day (it's a hot toddy! it's medicine!), maybe do a little writing. But this was something else altogether, and I was so knocked out that it actually scared me. I couldn't concentrate, couldn't stay awake, and even after I received treatment and some strong drugs, it continued to disrupt my life for weeks.

But here I am. Now it's March, and the world kept pace in my absence. I basically lost the entire month of February, since once I started feeling better there was so much work and life to catch up with that I continued to wander in a post-pneumonia daze for weeks. While I was "gone," I missed being able to run, which is probably fairly obvious. But more than anything, I missed having the energy and clarity just to think coherent thoughts. I lost my creative steam, couldn't connect ideas, and was pretty humorless. Never have I been so keenly aware of the relationship between my physical life and my internal one. As a pretty high-strung and anxious person, when my energetic metronome goes haywire, it's usually going up-tempo. I'm an Allegro kind of a girl, and really struggled with learning to live Largo

Now back at almost full-strength, I'm delighting in the ability to run a few comfortable miles again, thankful to get through a full work day with energy to spare. For a healthy body that can spring back from major illness, and for access to good health care and a comfortable bed in which to recuperate. But more than anything, I appreciate having my old brain back. It's good to be back back among the living. And the running. And the thinking.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Pounding the pavement

My running shoes have taken me a lot of places. Races around the country, vacations in interesting spots around the world, and of course they're well-used here in my hometown as I go about the tasks of everyday life. And this weekend, they took me to one of the most important places I've ever been.

During the last ten days of January, cities around the U.S. conduct what are called "point-in-time counts," to provide documented estimates of the numbers of homeless individuals living in that region, required for any city that receives federal funding for homeless services. In San Diego, our count is done annually, and also includes in-depth confidential interviews with homeless, unsheltered individuals, to better understand the issues. This effort requires collaboration among several local agencies, and the work of hundreds of volunteers.

I signed up to help out this year, because homelessness is a problem I care a lot about, and something that usually makes me feel pretty helpless. I spend part of nearly every day of my life running or walking in Balboa Park - a place where the issues of homelessness can't possibly be ignored. As I run among the manicured gardens, well-maintained trails, and cultural institutions, I also run among scores of people who slept there the night before. The joy of running in my favorite place is always mixed with twinges of sadness and frustration. But I'm an action-oriented kind of gal, and when things upset me, I'm compelled to find a way to contribute to the solution. And conducting street surveys seemed like something that I, a social worker who loves pounding the pavement in my running shoes, was pretty well suited to do.

I went to a training earlier in the month, to learn about the questionnaire we'd be using, and the goals of the surveys. And then on Saturday morning, I laced up and headed out to the meeting spot where we were "dispatched" in teams to go find homeless individuals who were willing to participate in the survey, and document what we could. Who are the homeless? Where are they staying, and how are they getting by? What factors led to their homelessness? What health, financial, or other challenges are they currently facing? I was thrilled when I was randomly assigned to go survey in Balboa Park.

It was interesting talking with my "walking partner," to find out his motivation for volunteering. He described moving into a new apartment when he first arrived in San Diego, and being furious with the homeless people who were out raiding his trash and recycling bins in the pre-dawn morning. But instead of getting mad about it, he decided to channel that energy into doing something about it. My people! We got to the park and had no problem quickly finding some people who were willing to talk with us. We had hygiene kits and $10 Subway gift cards to give to those who participated, but I found that everyone we approached seemed equally glad for the opportunity to tell their story, to contribute to the body of knowledge about homelessness.

I met some fascinating people that morning, bright and resourceful individuals with great insight into their problems, and the problems of those they see around them. Some were homeless due to catastrophic health events, some due to mental illness and chronic unemployment, and one was homeless by choice. I sat in the grass and talked with them, conscious of my feet warm and comfortable in my expensive running shoes, my stomach full of the toast and peanut butter I'd made in my kitchen that morning. We didn't just run through the surveys, but had conversation, connecting on subjects like the companionship of dogs, or a shared love of a hot cup of coffee. They have ideas about how these problems can be solved, and I hope we'll listen. All those faces that I run past in the park will never look the same.

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I thank the San Diego County Regional Task Force on the Homeless for this opportunity to contribute, and look forward to participating in future counts and surveys. For more information about homeless Point-in-Time Counts around the country, visit the HUD Homelessness Data Exchange website.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

"I need my pain!"

I'm going to nerd out on you for just one quick second here. I recently gave in, and started watching the BBC series, Doctor Who. After years of listening to several friends prattle on about it, I finally had to see what it was all about and was instantly, totally hooked. There are a lot of things that I love about it, but what struck me immediately was how much it reminded me of watching the repeats of the original Star Trek series and movies as a kid. Even from a pretty young age (my older brother made me watch it), I vaguely understood that the show was making important commentary on ethics, politics, and religion through the telling of short science fiction stories.

I was recently reminded of a great scene from Star Trek V, in which Captain Kirk has a confrontation with a relative of Spock who has the ability to heal a person's pain. (I promise, this post is going to have something to do with running, any minute now.) In it, Kirk rejects the opportunity to have his internal pain eliminated, as it is a requirement of being human:
"... pain and guilt can't be taken away with the wave of a magic wand. They're the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don't want my pain taken away. I need my pain!"  
- Captain James Kirk
I love, love, love this reminder. I need it frequently as a runner, and I need it always as a human. I believe strongly that pain provides critical boundaries around what we can and should (and can't, and shouldn't) do to ourselves, and we should listen. While I understand and appreciate the optimistic notion that "I can do anything I set out to do," and do in fact firmly believe that I have the power to manifest a lot of pretty spectacular things, I'm also a realist. And I know my limits.

To be more precise, I know that I have limits. The boundaries and limits are always moving, and when I hit them, I'm certainly willing to push up against them. But they're real. I'm never going to be a 3-hour marathoner. That is just a fact. Can I run a 6:52 mile? Yes. But it hurts, and I certainly can't do 26.2 of them. I wouldn't even try. I don't like pain, and while my tendency to avoid it probably limits my achievements as a runner and in life, it also makes me a pretty healthy runner, and a pretty happy human.

I'm planning to start training for my next marathon in the coming weeks, and so am fiddling around with different training paces to figure out what feels good, and to find out where it stops feeling good. That pace where the pain begins will surely be different this time than it was last time. Will it be faster, or slower? I don't yet know. (Fingers are crossed that it's faster!) But I do know that I'll listen to my pain, that I'll respect my pain, and that I need my pain.


My thanks for this rad, creepy photo go out to
Berkeley K. Austin.





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PS: This week marks the one year anniversary of my launching this blog! Thanks for all the reads, shares, comments, and love over the past 365 days. I'll try to keep writing weekly-ish, and if there are topics you'd like to read about or talk about (besides, obviously, the merits of Doctor Who and Star Trek), I'd sure love to hear it. Please feel free to send an email any time to amy@therunnershi.com, and let me know! XO

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Finding my new normal

Loved my time in the
Arizona "Hi!" desert
Three weeks have passed since I ran the Tucson Marathon. Not one blessed with a sharp memory, the details of the race are fading quickly, but I'll do my best to tell some version of the tale. Because although it was my sixteenth marathon, and you have probably read dozens of race recaps (hundreds, maybe, depending upon your interest in running), the mystery of the marathon experience never fades for me.

Strictly speaking, I was properly trained, having put in the miles to be able to complete the distance. But I was not well-trained, having really struggled especially in the final few weeks of training. As I wrote on Thanksgiving Day, I made a conscious decision to give up on the frustration and to instead be grateful for what it was my body was willing to give me. A friend wrote a nice message on my Facebook page the day I left town, wishing me "smiles every mile," and my new goal was established: to run comfortably and feel well enough crack a smile at least once per mile.

Tucson was a novel marathoning experience for me, in that the point-to-point course is run primarily along a small desert highway that is not accessible to spectators. As we examined the course map the night before, I realized that I was going to be on my own out there for hours, until I reached the first place that my husband could meet me on the course, around mile 19. (Don't misunderstand: there are aid stations, relay exchanges, and some local spectators all along the way. It's a really nicely organized course, and there's nothing desolate about it! But if you need big crowds to keep your energy up during a marathon, Tucson is not the race for you.)


We were bussed out to the start, a remote point halfway up Mt. Lemmon, at nearly 5,000 feet of elevation. Tucson was experiencing unusually cold weather, and we had 33 degrees and light rain when the gun went off at 7:00 am. The rain stopped within the first few minutes, but it remained good and cold all morning. I brought a toss-away old scarf that I didn't ditch until about mile 15, and it was still in the low-50s by the time I finished.

I'd pledged not to concern myself with pace, and my watch helped keep me accountable by inexplicably crashing somewhere around Mile 3. I ran the rest of the way with no knowledge of my pace, running only by feel. My splits indicate that I kept an almost exactly even pace throughout the race, and most remarkably of all, I ran the entire race in a state of ease, never breaking down from pain or fatigue. My husband caught me at three points along the course, and noted that he'd never seen me look so comfortable. I'm now convinced that the body knows better than any chart or piece of technology where the lactate threshold really lies.

I finished in 4:19 which is, notably, the exact same finish time from my last marathon in June, but with none of the pain or exhaustion. (Okay, with some of the exhaustion.) It's a long way from the pace I want to be running (and a long way from my PR), but it's a happy new normal and I'm glad to be there for now.

My awesome friends met me at the finish with a cold can of a good local beer. I always crave beer, and while some races have it at the finish, it's rarely anything good. Now it may have been the marathon that I'd just run, but I'm pretty sure that what you see me drinking there was actually the best single beer that has ever been brewed.

This race provided me with everything I love about running. I love the solitude of a long run, and had many quiet miles wherein in order to make my "smile every mile" goal I had to think funny thoughts to myself, because there were no crowds smiling or waving at us. The course is nice and hilly - mostly downhill - with a net elevation drop of about 2,000 feet. I love desert landscape, and enjoyed the ever-present views of the mountains and saguaro cactus. And more than anything else, this race reminded me of why I not only love running marathons, but why I love running. In its pure and natural state, running feels good. It doesn't hurt. It isn't struggle. If you pay attention, you can actually feel your body taking in the fresh air and making use of the oxygen. You can enjoy the intricate mechanics of all of those muscles and joints working together to keep you moving forward. It's nothing short of a miracle, and I'm forever grateful for the opportunity to enjoy it.

Tucson Marathon (December 8, 2013)
Finish time: 4:19:34

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Slow holiday

It's the holidays. And even for a person who doesn't really "do" Christmas, it's frantic. The holidays are a particularly taxing time of year in my line of work, and several years ago I realized that in order to enjoy the season, I had to bow out of a lot of it. I participate in a few gift exchanges, but mostly don't give gifts anymore. I love receiving holiday cards and photos, but manage to send out my own maybe every two or three years. I muster the energy for a Christmas tree with about the same frequency. I love these activities in the years that I do them, because I have time to be present while writing the messages in my cards, and while placing my few treasured ornaments on the tree. And in the years when I'm particularly pressed for time and these tasks feel like mere items on a holiday to-do list, I scrap them. (No kids and a Jewish husband. The circumstances of my life make it possible to do so with only minimal guilt and hassle from other people. I get that.) This leaves me time for the "stuff" of the holidays that I really care about: visiting, eating, and drinking with friends and family. I do lots of this, every year, without having to sacrifice my presence at work, sleep, or the joy of running.

The only way I can tolerate shopping in a mall
anymore is in my running shoes.
As always, I'm a work in progress, and while theoretically I carve out enough time and space for what's important, in reality I frequently realize that the day is over and I got done only about half of what needed to get done. It dawned on me yesterday morning as I pored over my calendar and lists that it was really my only available day to get my holiday shopping finished. I didn't have a whole lot to buy (see above), but still the thought of giving up a day to battle the traffic and crowds at the mall filled me with dread. We had a gorgeous 70-degree, blue-sky day, and I'm one week out from my last marathon in Tucson, so really wanted to get in a nice recovery run. So, I mapped out my planned stops, packed up my backpack, laced up my running shoes, and went shopping.

I do a fair amount of what I like to call "errand running," in order to get some fresh air and exercise while ticking things off of my to-do list. Running to the bank, running to pick up a few items at the grocery store, and once even running to the dry cleaner (running home with the dry cleaning: not as easy as you might think!). Getting my holiday shopping done on foot was a much greater logistical challenge, but I got it done, and it was actually really fun. It took nearly four hours, and I covered almost ten miles on a gorgeous late-fall day. 

About three hours into this adventure, feeling smug at my resourcefulness as I passed a line slow-moving cars filled with exhausted and grumpy shoppers, it suddenly occurred to me: this is kind of a weird thing to be doing. I caught a glimpse of myself as someone in one of those cars would have seen me: frizzed out hair, sweaty running clothes, and dodging heavy urban traffic wearing a giant backpack. And what struck me the hardest: I hadn't even thought about how weird this all was, how gross I probably looked (and smelled) until I'd already made about seven stops, in busy and crowded shops all over town.

Have I become a weird person?

At my final stop, I got out my phone and checked in with my husband, since I'd been gone for several hours and thought he might begin worrying. I shared my revelation with him, and he provided me with the following helpful reality check:























Ah, well. Weird or not, the shopping got done, I got in a great run, and I got to enjoy a scenic and serene side of Mission Valley (the congested home of several of San Diego's biggest shopping malls) that a person rarely gets to experience:

Stopped to admire the sunset on the beautiful San Diego River.
(Nine out of ten San Diegans do not know that this river exists.)





















However you're celebrating, and however you're "getting it all done," I wish every one of you a joyful holiday season!