Monday, July 10, 2017

Moving forward, together

by Stephanie Recob, guest blogger

“An inch an hour, two feet a day” –The Tragically Hip



Stephanie Recob, guest blogger and
proud Run 4 All Women supporter
Life has always been a struggle for me. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of my life curled up in a proverbial ball, not moving. However, I was blessed with a family that loved me so much that I was able to get sober a little over 14 years ago. Staying sober has been possible by living life 24 hours at a time, and sometimes one minute at a time. But more than anything else, staying sober has resulted from moving forward, one step at a time. 

I am a work in progress, and progress can be difficult. Sometimes progress is moving in the wrong direction, getting lost, and finding the path again. Sometimes progress is getting stuck in the weeds of life and eventually blazing a new trail. Two steps back is ok only as long as it’s followed up with one step forward again. But for me, moving forward is especially important if I am to keep ahead of the monster that is always behind me.

In this spirit of moving forward, I recently started running. The slug life had taken its toll, mentally and physically and I needed a change. I found that running cleared my head after a hard day. I started sleeping better, eating better, and feeling better. I’ll probably never be considered athletic but I’m out there on the ocean trail, or around the nearby lake a few times a week, ugly-sweating, red-faced and jiggling, but slowly moving forward. So much progress! 

The 2016 presidential campaign and election was hard on me. I felt a flood of emotions that I wasn’t expecting, and a lot of things that I thought were true turned out to be false. The future for me and many of my friends is murky. America feels upside down and really scary to me. The message of “Forward Together” obviously resonated with me, much more so than the other slogan of going backwards again and moving forward is exactly how I am dealing with these overwhelming feelings.

That is why I am running in the Run 4 All Women California event in San Diego on August 12th to raise money for Planned Parenthood, an organization that provides vital health services for women and men. The federal defunding of Planned Parenthood seems inevitable and many people will be drastically impacted.

I’m not running fast and I’m not running far but I am running forward. I have set a (somewhat lofty) personal goal of running 50 miles between July 1st and August 11th, my 50th birthday, with the hope that you will donate a dollar or two per mile to help all of us move forward. When you donate you can cheer me on by simply noting “50by50” in the comment section on the donation page: https://www.crowdrise.com/r4awca

One woman on an overgrown trail will make a tiny impact, but a lot of people on that same trail can make it so much easier for those that follow us through the weeds.

*****


Thanks to my sister, Stephanie, the first donor on our Run 4 All Women campaign, and my first friend. She is a constant source of inspiration, laughter, and support, and is always there when I need her.  ~ Amy







Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Anatomy of activism

Fitness empowers. Every time I put my body through a new physical challenge, no matter the result, I come away more confident in every area of my life. More sure that I've got the strength and the energy I'll need to make the changes I want to see in myself, and in the world. And more willing to try. 
After 30 years of running, there's no longer a single moment I can point to, an "a ha" moment when I found my personal power. I've finished marathons through injuries, weather, and illness. I ran a single-track mountain trail at elevation, while tethered to a donkey. I completed a #@&%ing Spartan obstacle race. I push myself for the pleasure of it, but also for the person it helps me become. I've had the courage to seek an education, start a business, manage a lifelong anxiety disorder, endure loss, fight injustice, and survive the first few months of a Trump presidency. Because no matter how loud the voice that tells me the mountain is too high, the problem is too big, or that I'm probably going to fail, the person who trained for and completed those physical challenges is always in there, too, and she's even louder. She's been keeping track, and she knows what I can do. And she's really bossy.
If every woman could tap into her own strength and power, we’d be unstoppable. Fitness changes lives, and people who have changed their own lives go on to change their families, their workplaces, their communities, their systems of government, and the worlds they live in.
Running may change the shapes of our bodies, but more importantly it will shape our minds. 
The anatomy of activism:
FEET that march, and take the leap.
LEGS that propel us forward into action. 
BALANCE that keeps us upright through adversity.
GUTS that can handle the tough stuff.
ARMS that raise up fists, carry signs, and sometimes carry others.
LUNGS that magnify our voices.
EYES that don’t look away.
HEARTS that set the tempo.
Bodies that rest, fuel, recover, heal. That sleep deeply, and wake up every morning ready to meet whatever new challenge the day will bring.
---
If you're interested in joining me and runners all over the country in grassroots activism in support of Planned Parenthood and women's access to essential healthcare services, please visit the Run 4 All Women website at www.run4allwomen.com, and sign up to receive email updates.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Elle-vation

March 8th is International Women's Day, and as you've surely heard by now, the organizers of January's Women's March on Washington are staging a one-day demonstration of economic solidarity, A Day Without a Woman. Although just a few hours without women sounds like my version of hell, I'm in full support of this idea. And while I'm not in a position to take the day off of my paid work (in a non-profit social service organization staffed entirely by women, whose striking would come at great cost to the families that we serve) I can certainly wear the prescribed red, and avoid spending money for the day. I've read a couple of good posts this week on what those of us who aren't striking can do to support this effort to recognize "the enormous value that women of all backgrounds add to our socio-economic system," and it's got me thinking about some broader changes I can make as a consumer, a citizen, a friend, and a runner, to live in more conscious support of other women.

Vivacity Sportswear
Buying from women. My city doesn't have a women's Chamber of Commerce (that I know of), but it's not difficult to find woman-owned businesses if you try. I can make the effort to seek out local, national, and online business that are owned and run by women, and support the other members of my local women's co-working community, Hera Hub. I can buy my running clothes from woman-owned, woman-run, and woman-positive companies like Oiselle and Vivacity Sportswear, and support businesses that promote healthy, positive images of women in their marketing messages. Buying from women also means supporting their art, and I commit myself to consciously consuming more movies, theater, music, art, and writing that are produced by women. Send me your suggestions!

Donating to organizations that support women. I've long supported several organizations that promote the well-being of women and girls - and I don't just mean through my annual purchase of way too many boxes of Girl Scout cookies. I donate regularly to a few charitable causes - and irregularly to many more - but because I'm a social worker, I think I've always allowed myself to feel a little "off the hook" as far as volunteerism is concerned. This year that changes, though, and I'll be spending my spring and summer serving as an ambassador for the #Run4AllWomen project, helping to raise awareness and funds for Planned Parenthood and women's improved access to healthcare services. Stay tuned for more updates.

Wilma Rudolph elevated women's
track and field by earning three gold
medals in the first televised Olympics
(Rome, 1960), and went on to become a
pioneer in the civil and women's
rights movements.
Know my history. I have a degree in Women's Studies (History), and am embarrassed to admit just how much I've forgotten since then. I haven't done enough to keep our history active, alive, and in plain view in my life, but this is something I can change. Every day this month, I'm highlighting a bit of women's history that's of interest to me through The Runner's Hi's Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts, and I hope it's of some interest to some of you, too! I've enjoyed researching some of these pivotal characters and moments in American history, and getting to know more about the women runners who shaped this sport I love so deeply.

Lifting up other women. I know how little it takes for me to feel raised up by another person, and how much I can do while floating on the steam generated by other people's engines. Countless crappy runs have been salvaged by a stranger's smile and wave hello, and many of my accomplishments in life can be credited to the encouragement of someone who thought I had it in me. I have a beautiful friend named Karen who does this better than anyone I know. Always there with a kind word, holding up mirrors to remind her friends of how strong and marvelous they are, attending their events, backing their ideas, honoring their requests, joining their teams, celebrating their triumphs, and comforting them in their defeats. I want the world to have more Karen in it, so I'm going to start with me. I'm dusting off my cowbell, and ladies: I'm ready to cheer you on. Let me know if there's something you need. Otherwise, I'll just be over here on the sidelines, hooting and hollering in your general direction.

Friday, February 24, 2017

When everything clicks

Have you ever turned a blind corner and suddenly realized that all of your decisions (seemingly significant and insignificant), the good and bad moments, and the collection of life experiences you're carrying along on with you on your path all made total sense? This week another leg of my own journey made itself visible, and I am fired up.

Event organizer Alison Desir.
Photo: @run215 
You may have heard about the group of women who ran from New York City to Washington D.C. last month, Run4AllWomen, raising awareness and funds for Planned Parenthood, and arriving on the day of the worldwide Women's Marches. Talk about inspiring.

This week I learned that this awesome group has been making plans to keep the momentum of their tremendous success going by organizing more runs throughout the country this summer. They put out a call for ambassadors to join them in this continued effort, and I honestly in this moment can't think of one single thing in the world I've ever been more well-suited to do.

Through my years of writing this blog, I've been approached countless times by race and running product promoters and marketers with offers to serve as a brand ambassador. This has never been of interest to me, as this blog is a simple, quiet labor of love for me. But this? This is something different. In reading that post, I saw my lifetime of experiences as a runner, a student of feminism and an advocate for women's rights, a writer, and an engaged citizen come together into one clear and more-complete picture. I want to help.

If you read this blog regularly, something you know about me is that I'm always game for a new running adventure. I've done a triathlon. I've tried obstacle course racing. I've even done a pack burro race in the mountains of Colorado, tethered to an 800 pound donkey. I've loved running marathons throughout this beautiful country, and enjoy sharing my love of this sport.

But what you might not know about me is that women's issues have been a priority in my life, from the time I figured out that our rights and protections are constantly under threat. I was lucky enough to grow up with a mother who worked in a reproductive health care setting, and absolutely no awareness that access to these services was something that everyone didn't have. That awareness shifted in college, and my path took a sharp turn. I double majored in Women's Studies and Sociology, and went on to earn a joint Master of Social Work and Master of Public Health degree. My master's thesis was on the subject of women and domestic violence. I've now worked as a social worker and health educator for nearly twenty years (what?), and women's issues remain front and center in my life.

So of course, I applied. Fingers toes, and shoelaces are crossed tightly.

I personally relied upon Planned Parenthood for my own primary and reproductive health care for over a decade, and have done my best to support them - financially and otherwise - ever since. I marched proudly in the San Diego Women's March on January 21st, and watched the Run4AllWomen runners make their way to D.C. with great excitement. And whether I'm selected as an ambassador or not, as they expand this effort around the country this year, I will find a way to help.

<click>


Friday, February 17, 2017

Earth, wind, and fire. (And water. So much water.)

It’s been over three months now since I ran the New York City Marathon, and it’s strange to still not have anything else on my calendar. I usually take a month “off” after every full marathon – still running, but just at whatever distances and paces feel good, and without letting myself think about what's next. A forced physical and mental break, during which time I tell myself that “I’m going to use this ‘down time’ to get back to yoga again,” and instead just read a lot of books.

This time around has been a little different, because even before I ran NYC I was signed up to do a Spartan Race at the end of January. So when my month-long break was over, the timing wasn’t quite right to sign up for another marathon, not being totally certain I’d still have full use of all of my limbs come February.

For those who aren’t familiar, Spartan is a brand of obstacle course racing (OCR) that bills itself as “The World’s Best Obstacle Race.” I have no frame of reference by which to judge this assertion, but let’s go with it. Spartan Race is much more than the race itself for most participants, who call themselves Spartans. It’s a community, a philosophy, and for many, a way of life. “You’ll know at the finish line” they say. I know it sounds cult-y and weird – and in some ways it totally is. (The CrossFit strength and conditioning program has essentially evolved as a means to train for Spartan races and other OCR activities. And we all know about CrossFit, amiright? I KID I KID. PLEASE CROSSFITTERS DO NOT TRACK ME DOWN AND KICK MY WEAK ASS.) When it comes to healthy living, far be it from me to criticize anyone’s methods. If you’re going out into the world on a regular basis doing something – anything – that makes you a stronger, healthier, happier person, then I am behind you 100%. Even if it’s a little cult-y and weird.

If nothing else, the Spartan experience
got me back together with this girl. Tracy
and I lived together in college, but
she's lived in Montana for the last 16 years.
My former college roommate, who now lives in Montana, reached out to me over the summer and told me she was coming to California for the SoCal Spartan (the "Super" distance), and suggested that I join their team. I had heard of Spartan Race, and assumed that if real people that I actually know have survived such a thing, then surely I could too. I’m a marathoner, for crying out loud! I did a triathlon once. I've even raced up and down a mountain while tethered to a donkey. Surely I can handle whatever this is that Tracy has signed herself up for. She’s also a lifelong runner. And a generally reasonable person. So sure. Count me in. 

Training for a Spartan Race certainly
changed my perspective on my
familiar running routes.
I joined the team and paid my not-insignificant registration fee, careful not to read the website or its indemnity clauses too carefully. I didn’t allow myself to watch any of the 7.5 zillion YouTube videos out there describing in living color exactly what Spartan is all about, knowing full well that if I did I would turn tail and back out of it. I trained for and then ran the New York City Marathon in a blissful state of denial about the upcoming Spartan Race, asking as few questions as possible. But by mid-November, it was time to face the music. I bought myself some training supplies (a bucket, some sacks of concrete, and a rope), signed up for a few group workouts, and started integrating weird new elements into my morning runs, to try to get a little stronger. Every mile or so, dropping and doing a dozen burpees. Swinging and hanging on the park jungle gym. Finding logs and rocks and carrying them up random hills, and doing jumps and lunges on the park benches. After a few weeks, I'd gotten a bit stronger, and had some nice calluses forming on my hands. I was in no condition to do something like a Spartan Race, but was reassured by my teammates' promises to help me over, under, and through anything I couldn’t do on my own. (Which would be everything.) So, I didn’t drop out.

Right on cue, flu season arrived, and with three weeks to go, I got knocked out. I was totally incapacitated for a week, and then slowly came back to life just in time to roll up on race morning in about the shape I was in before I started any training at all: able to run ten miles slowly but comfortably, and basically unable to do anything else. Spartan is all about being strong, agile, flexible, balanced, gritty, and resilient. I’ve got endurance and a demonstrably high threshold for pain, but not a lot else in the Spartan department. I can barely touch my toes, and couldn’t do a pull-up if my life depended upon it. But lucky for me, I had one heck of a team, made up of some of the strongest women I've ever actually known in real life.

Lots and lots of this. (And no, that's not the lake.)
If my Spartan Race experience were a movie, I would call it equal parts comedy, horror, and mud. SoCal Spartan weekend took place January 28th and 29th, which turned out to be a notable week in Southern Californian history, because it was the week – the very week – that our local six-year long drought was officially declared over, after weeks of torrential rainfall. The race was set in Lake Elsinore, a flat and usually-arid city in Riverside County (about an hour north-east of where I live in San Diego). It does, in fact, have a 3,000 acre natural freshwater lake, but as it turned out, the race organizers had plenty of other water to work with. Come Saturday morning, we had beautiful clear blue skies overhead, and knee-to-waist-high water pretty much everywhere else.

One of the unique challenges of Spartan racing is that you do not get information about the course in advance. I knew that the Super course would be 8-10 miles long, with 25-30 obstacles. There are a few obstacles that appear in nearly every race: wall climbing, spear throwing, rope climbing, barbed wire crawling, tire flipping, and fire jumping, to name a few. But otherwise, it’s anyone’s guess, and the organizers take full advantage of the natural terrain, building every unique course from scratch. I can only imagine their delight to find half of the land that the city of Lake Elsinore had set aside for our race underwater when they arrived.

The Spartan story is probably best told through photos, but of course I didn’t have a camera or phone with me out there (which turned out to be a good thing, since I wound up underwater twice). So my tale here is told mostly through official race images of people that are mostly not me.

First of all: would you look at this day? 

Mid-60s, blue sky, some dry Santa Ana winds, and a beautiful view of the snow-covered mountains. I had zero athletic deliverables for my team of visiting Montanans, but at least Southern California came through on the weather. 

Before the race even begins, the athletes jump a 4' wall just to get into the starting corral. My teammate Shauna was true to her word, and helped me with every bit of this race, starting with that very first hurdle. But when she tried to help me over it, my brain misfired. I jumped at the wrong time, and got nowhere. Off to a good start. I can only imagine what Shauna was thinking ... but she is the very definition of a good sport, and after a minute of laughing at me, we tried again, and things went a little more smoothly from there. Lesson #1: learning how to accept help. 

The early obstacles were mostly a series of walls of varying heights, with a few hurdles thrown in. Here's not-me scaling one of these walls the way one would if one were strong and awesome:

Me getting over these walls, however, looked more like this:


After the walls there were a few obstacles I was actually able to do on my own. (There were a few.)

The Atlas Carry, which involves picking up huge, smooth, round rock, carrying it a short distance, dropping and doing five burpees, picking it back up, and walking it back.

The Plate Drag, which involved pulling and then dragging a metal plate full of rocks through a trough of mud.

The Z-Walls. Kind of like sideways rock-climbing, but on walls that turn corners.

The Barbed Wire Crawl. Here's not-me demonstrating how that's done:


This is called the Stairway to Sparta, and was the first obstacle that I had to just scrap altogether:


Physically, I know I'm capable of that climb, but I am terrified of heights, and it was too much. I just walked up and touched it (which counts as an "attempt"), and then walked over to the "burpee zone" to start my 30-burpee penalty. Many have asked how many burpees I did during the course of this race, and I honestly can't even fathom a guess. The number was big. Huge.

A few more crazy obstacles that I could barely even look at would follow, including this ridiculous inverted set of bars that you were supposed to jump onto, scale up, and then climb over:


Here's not-me on "The Twister," which was like a sideways set of monkey bars with handles, that swiveled when you grabbed them:


Because monkey bars aren't hard enough? I MEAN COME ON. Just point me toward Burpee Town.

A sandbag carry:


This was a few miles - and a lot of burpees - into the race, and I was feeling it. Somewhere around here we encountered a big wall with a printed list of words and numbers. A memory test. The task was to look up your assigned word-number combination (based on your race #), and to memorize it. It wasn't clear when or where we'd be tested on that, but of course we dutifully ran on, each silently reciting our own code until it was committed to memory.

Oh, and on the subject of running: there's plenty of that taking place between the obstacles, too. Here's not-me doing some of that:


Our course was about 9 miles long in all, with lots of dirt and rocks, and a few mid-race miles that were nearly entirely underwater. Here's not-me in one of many very cold water crossings:


It was cold, slow, and really uncomfortable. But at least I couldn't feel my aching legs anymore. During one of the water crossings I got my foot caught in a root and fell up to my neck in that water. And so hey - for a while there I couldn't feel my aching arms, either! Thanks to a lot of help from my amazing teammates, it wasn't until about mile 5 (20 or so obstacles in) that I really started breaking down. Things got ugly in those final few miles, though, which included:

The Tyrolean Traverse: making your way along a taut horizontal rope, hanging upside down and using your hands and ankles. (The resulting leg bruises from this one were a thing of beauty!)

A set of inclining/declining monkey bars. Because, again, monkey bars are apparently just not hard enough? By this point in the race, Tracy and I had just gone ahead and named ourselves the honorary mayors of Burpee Town.

The "multi rig," which was like yet another set of monkey bars that are traversed via a set of hanging rings. Sure. Yes, let's do that.

The Bucket Brigade, in which you fill a construction bucket full of rocks, carry it for an ungodly distance, and then empty it back out. If you're cool, you dump your rocks into the empty bucket of a Spartan who's just approaching the obstacle, and save them a little work.

A SECOND AND MUCH LONGER BARBED WIRE CRAWL. This pissed me off more than anything else about the Spartan Race. And a lot of things about the Spartan Race pissed me off.

A crawl up and down a super-high cargo net. I gave it a try, but got too wigged out from the height and had to back myself down, leaving poor Tracy up there on her own. But she did it!

A tire flip. Which is harder than it looks.

The Olympus, an inverted wall to be scaled sideways, using holds, holes, and chains to grab onto, but nothing for your feet. Here's not-me demonstrating how one might do that:













A spear throw - hurling a metal-tipped piece of wood into a bale of hay. My spear didn't even make contact. <sad trombone>

A rope climb. This was the biggest bummer of the race to me, because I had actually learned how to climb a rope and I know I'm strong enough to at least have gotten most of the way up. (Unlike most of this other BS, rope climbing is done mostly with your legs, so it's one of the few things I can theoretically sort of do.) But it came late in the race, and by the time I got to it I was too tired and weak to hoist myself even into a starting position.

The Herculean Hoist, where you're lifting and then lowering a ridiculously heavy sandbag using a rope and pulley system. I was completely cooked by this point, so Shauna basically just stood over me and did it (after already having done it on her own, by the way) while I laid on the ground making vague pulling motions.

Somewhere in there, we got stopped and asked by volunteers with clipboards who made us tell them the codes that we'd been asked to memorize a few miles earlier. "JULIET 319-5877." It had been a while since I'd gotten through an obstacle without either help or penalty burpees, and in addition to being weak and inflexible, I also have a pretty poor memory (I AM SPARTAN!), so this little victory was sweet.

And a few other things I can no longer remember. We looked at the map afterward, and counted up 31 obstacles. So I know I'm missing a few things here. But you get it. 

The finale was a rolling set of three mud walls that we climbed up and over, into a waist-high slop of muddy water.  Wallowing around in mud is something I'm totally and completely capable of, and although it was disgusting, this part was actually really fun. Here's not-me doing some of that:

Unfortunately, when we slid down into the third of these mud slops, we found ourselves facing a big wooden wall. And the only way over it was ... under it.

(Also not me.)

After a final climb up and over the Slip Wall (so named because you're soaking wet and trying to scale a wall covered in mud), we found ourselves front of the famous final obstacle: the Fire Jump. Here's actual-me and my team, clearing the logs before making our way to the finish line:

Annie, me, Laine, Shauna, and Tracy. Note that I am the only one wearing a hydration pack. I was deeply concerned about being out there for several hours without access to adequate snacks. So, in the absence of any strength, skill, or ability to complete most of the obstacles, I instead contributed food, extra sips of water, and comic relief. 

“So, Amy, would you do it again?”

No. Absolutely not. Nope. I am not a convert. I really do understand the appeal of the Spartan Race and the lifestyle, and I wish I could say that “I knew at the finish line.” But this is not my sport. I had a great time out there with my friends, and am still laughing at some of the ridiculous antics that got us through it. The memories made with my old friend Tracy (even if they were made while crawling under barbed wire and doing burpees in rocky dirt) are gifts for which I'll be forever grateful. I loved watching the amazing things that strong human bodies can do. And in an era of so much unrest, strife, and struggle, it was awesome to see teams and even groups of total strangers coming together to solve problems and conquer obstacles. I get what people love about this stuff. But it’s not for me. I gratefully “unfollowed” the Spartan Race Facebook page last weekend, and have settled happily back into my life of long and leisurely runs, and occasional trips to the gym. I come away from the experience determined to improve my strength and flexibility, but with a goal of being a healthier lifelong runner, and not because I need to carry a damn bucket full of rocks. I learned a lot about myself out there, and am grateful that my brain, my heart, my body, and that superbad pack of ladies got me through the challenge intact. But I know where my happy place is. And it isn’t at the bottom of a mud pit.

~~~~~~~~~~

                                      
Team Health Habits dropping the mic. 


Not dead. Not injured. And also not ever doing this again.


The finisher's medal comes with one-third of a "trifecta" medal attached. When you complete one of each of the three Spartan Race distances within a year (the Sprint, the Super, and the Beast), you are said to have completed the trifecta. I kept my finisher's medal, but that little extra piece? RIGHT IN THE TRASH.

Dry clothes. Beer. All is forgiven.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Training with the 3-lb weights

I spend a lot of time thinking about health: my health, your health, and the health of people I will never know. I’m a geriatric social worker and public health educator whose current work is focused in the area of dementia care, and am of the opinion that, right behind global warming, the Alzheimer’s disease pandemic is one of the greatest threats that we face today.

Wait, isn’t this a running blog? Hang on, hang on. I’m getting there …

I’ve been running since I was a kid, but while I’ve always understood that running is “good for me,” its health benefits have never been my motivation. When I started, it was just something that I could actually do, as an awkward and uncoordinated kid who was bad at everything else I tried. And after so long now, running just feels like a part of my genetic code. It’s a habit I’m grateful to have cultivated, as a person who cares deeply about personal and public health, but it’s just one option among many paths toward good health. And let’s face it: the physical act of running alone does not a healthy body make. As I wade deeper into my forties, I feel this more acutely than ever.

Our diet matters. I naturally gravitate toward a plant-rich, and reasonably healthy diet, but now feel much more directly the impact of my moment-to-moment choices. One less beer when I’m out with my friends now means an easier time getting up for tomorrow morning’s workout, and a few less calories for this less metabolically-efficient body to burn off. Our strength and flexibility matters. My lungs and heart love me for my running habit, but three decades of doing little else has left me with arms about as strong as boiled spaghetti noodles (and leg tendons and ligaments that are about as rigid and brittle as the uncooked ones). And my balance? An embarrassment. As an aging runner, I’m trying to pay more attention to those muscle groups that are easy to ignore when we run, to improve my strength, bone density, and balance. And perhaps most importantly of all: the health of our brain matters. Our brains are our three-pound control centers, and quality of life, as most of us would define it, relies heavily upon their proper functioning. Running has well-documented mental health benefits for people who struggle with depression, anxiety, or sleep disturbance, but as with these other areas of overall health – running alone is not enough.
Your 3-lb control center.

I spend most of the waking hours of my days thinking about, writing about, and talking about brain health – and how we can best support the 5.3 million Americans currently living with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. There is currently no known cure, treatment, or means of prevention, and the effects of these lengthy and fatal diseases are emotionally, physically, and financially devastating to families, communities, and our health care system. We’ve got to do everything we can as a nation, and as the individual owners and operators of our own brains. And the keys to reducing risk, according to the limited data currently available, are diet, exercise, quality sleep, social engagement, and intellectual stimulation.

For those of us who love to run, our sport allows us to check off a lot of these boxes. But it’s the last one –  intellectual stimulation – that I’ve been thinking about the most. Training and racing is a mental challenge, but I would not classify running (at least at the level at which I do it) as an intellectual pursuit. Except for when I’m doing those complex pace and mileage calculations in my head in the rough late miles of a long run (How fast was that last mile? How much longer to go?), I’m not typically doing a whole lot of cognitive work out there. It’s mostly just a lot of heavy breathing.

I love throwing random challenges into
my daily runs, in preparation for my
upcoming obstacle race. I never noticed how
many logs and rocks there were on the trails ....
I recently signed up for my first obstacle race, which will take place at the end of this month. The training I’ve done so far (minimal, I admit) has required me to incorporate learning, problem-solving, and strategy into my daily runs, looking at my familiar routes in new ways. I’ve recently realized that I’ll not only have to gain strength and flexibility in order to climb a rope or hurl my five-foot self over a six-foot wall, but I’ll also have to learn how to do these things. Turns out, these skills don’t come naturally to me. 


I didn’t sign up for this race for the mental challenge; as with most things in my life, a friend suggested it and I just immediately said “YES!” without really knowing what I had gotten myself into it. But now that I’m knee-deep in bucket-carries and burpees, I’m keenly aware of the benefits that my body, my heart, and my brain are reaping. I’m still not convinced that I’m not going to die during this race – but assuming that I don’t, I feel confident that I’ll emerge from the training a stronger, more creative, and more engaged runner and human. These races are not designed for weak, inflexible, uncoordinated 40-somethings with a paralyzing fear of heights, and I know that I am out of my element, in every sense. It’s the first thing I’ve ever signed up for that I’m pretty sure I can’t actually do. But learning from failure is the ultimate cognitive challenge, and (at least at the moment), I’m game to try. Ask me again in a couple of weeks.

I'm still too afraid of heights to actually climb
all the way over this jungle gym near my house.
But I get a little closer every day.