Monday, January 26, 2015

Filling up the tank

Having recently resolved to "beware the barrenness of a busy life," I've been focusing less this year on what - and how much - I am doing, and more on who I am being. Fewer items on the calendar each day. More space for spontaneous fun, creativity, and the occasional necessary dose of quiet. Less pre-registering, and more last-minuting. Now four weeks into this new year, I find that I'm making good progress at not making progress. There have been more movies, dinners, and good bottles of wine for no reason with my husband. Short-notice running dates, afternoons absorbed in art projects, and many happy hours curled up with books. I realized on January 10th, with exactly eight days of notice - and exactly zero training - that I'd registered for the Carlsbad Half Marathon a few months prior and then promptly forgotten about it. (How's that for evidence of an over-scheduled, stretched-too-thin existence?) But I rolled with it and made a happy long Sunday run of it with friends. And hey, since I had nothing else on my calendar for that day, there was time for a leisurely brunch afterward with my friend and running muse Kate! Last week's five-day cross-country business trip didn't even phase me. On the final leg home, I had a few hours of work I was planning to get done, but I didn't resist when the nice guy in the seat next to me struck up a conversation (like I usually do). Instead I gave him one of my free drink coupons, we chatted from Atlanta to San Diego, and I made a new friend. Less doing. More being. Nailing it.

What could possibly disturb this new blissful state of being? Nothing! I've nailed it! Nothing but balance and harmony, from here on out. Oh what's that up ahead? It looks like some kind of ... tornado? A swirling mass of sweaty t-shirts, spreadsheet entries, and protein bars, leaving a chaotic mess everywhere in its wake. Wait a minute ... I know what this is. I remember this! This is marathon training.

It started today. In 18 short weeks, I'll be heading to Boise for the Famous Idaho Potato Marathon.
A sack of potatoes for every finisher?
This one's been on my "list" for a long time, and I'm excited! This weekend I did all the things I normally do as I'm getting ready for a race. I sketched out a training schedule, looking at weeks that I know will be tough with work and/or travel, and figuring out the necessary adjustments. I bought a cute new pair of running shorts, and stocked up on my favorite training food. And as I contemplated how to integrate the additional hours that training requires into my newly pared-down life, it occurred to me: the hardest thing about marathon training (at least at the level at which I compete) is not the actual running or cross-training. The hardest thing about training is managing its impact on my life. And this time, I'm determined to do it better.

I've made peace with the need to stop working on a task before it's complete, or skip the occasional night out with friends in order to get to bed early. I know by now what those 20-mile training runs feel like, and that I need to plan ahead and block off most of the day for them. My husband is well-accustomed to my dietary preferences, and knows that there's a lot of whole wheat crust pizza in his future. I've got the essentials pretty well dialed in. But it's the interstitial "stuff of life" that often trips me up, and this is where I can improve, creating a little more time and space. I can spend a couple of hours on the weekend menu planning and shopping for the week, thereby avoiding my usual daily trip to the grocery store. I can fold the laundry as soon as it's out of the dryer, and spend less time ironing (and by "ironing," I mean "searching the closet and drawers for something that's reasonably wrinkle-free to wear to work, instead of ironing"). I can spend a few minutes each morning thinking through the logistics of the day more thoroughly, so that I leave the house with everything I need, and do less back-tracking.

This weekend, I practiced being the kind of person who gets themselves organized on Sunday evenings for the week ahead. I know you people exist. I'm related to several of you, so I'm hopeful that with some practice, I can coax awake its dormant genetic expression. I grocery shopped. I filled up my car with gas. I picked up the house, and ironed some clothes (for real). And when I left the house for work this morning, I had a full tank, literally and figuratively. These are the spaces in my day where marathon training can happen. I don't have to get sucked into the tornado. I don't have to give up the important stuff. So let's do this, Famous Potato. You're on.

My Monday morning armload.
Marathon training takes a lot of planning.
And it also takes a lot of bags.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

My great undoing

I'm definitely a resolution-maker. I know it's falling out of fashion, but I still love cracking open my notepad every January 1st, thinking back on the year behind me, and focusing my intentions for the year before me. These musings are usually a colorful, chaotic affair, not a neat or organized list. There are usually several colors of ink and pencil, lots of lines and arrows and doodles, and I have been known to sketch out a pie chart. 

"The big pieces of the patchwork quilt
that is my life are solidly in place,
but it's in the seams and intersections
where things tend to get a bit wonky."
I have my foibles, but am generally a pretty "together" person. My marriage, and my relationships with family and friends are happy, healthy, and solid. I put myself through many years of schooling for a career with great personal meaning, and started a business ten years ago of which I am immensely proud. I'm healthy, with reasonably good habits when it comes to diet and exercise. A marathon runner! Must be doing it at least most of the way right. Right? On paper (or rather, on whatever electronic media you're using to reading this) it all adds up fairly well. The big pieces of the patchwork quilt that is my life are solidly in place, but it's in the seams and intersections where things tend to get a bit wonky. My days and weeks are over-scheduled. I struggle to focus at work. My house is always a mess. I have dozens of interests (besides running) that I can't ever seem to make time for. I haven't figured out the meaning of life. And am I saving enough for retirement? Like most prone to introspection and self-examination, I'm eternally off-kilter, on an endless quest to figure out the things I need to do differently.

Do, do, do.

I may not construct my annual list of resolutions in a linear fashion, but I'm nonetheless a compulsive daily "to do" list-maker. I'm always running off of at least three different lists - things to do today, things to do this week, and things to do this month. And odd as it may seem, I can't say I even get any satisfaction from checking things off of those lists. I never finish them, and don't really try. I just re-write them each morning, leaving off the things that either got done, or that I've decided can be moved or eliminated. I've never once ended the day with a completed list, but from those daily checklists I can eke out a vision of what I would look like if someday I really, truly had my act together. The current vision goes something like this: I'd work enjoyable 8-hour days (or maybe shorter!) while my business thrived. I'd be fit and fast enough to qualify for - and run - the Boston Marathon. I'd occasionally be able to see the bottom of my laundry basket and I wouldn't have to hurry and clean my bathroom every time someone was coming over. I'd be active in my community, and volunteer for causes I care about. I'd visit family and spend time with friends often, and be the kind of person who reads two books a month, travels frequently, blogs weekly, crafts and sews things for fun, remembers everyone's birthday, and knows how to play that dusty mandolin I bought fourteen years ago. I would be awesome, you guys. And I'd never miss my eight hours of sleep.

What I'm finally starting to figure out, after forty years of doing, is that what I'm really after is not a check-marked list of things I have done. What I'm really after is that vision of who I could be. I finally know that I can't really do all of those things - at least not all at once. I am just not cut of that cloth. I'm no introvert, but I still need time to be quiet and reflective, and an occasional day with nothing on the calendar. And I need some space in my life for spontaneity. Recently my best friend from high school found herself in San Diego at the last minute for a couple of days of work. There wasn't one single unscheduled, unobligated hour within those two days that I could slip away and meet my old friend for a cup of coffee. While those two days were surely filled with many of the things I want to do in my life, I realized sadly that they weren't making me into who I want to be. The individual squares of the patchwork quilt were lovely, but it was sewn together all wrong.

So this year, my resolutions aren't about what I want to do (or not do) in 2015. Today I'm spending that time thinking about who I want to be. It's going to take some doing to undo my habit of doing. But I can do it! Wait, no ....

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Doing just fine

I am a big fan of the day spa concept. I've never been one to splurge on things like clothes, jewelry, or cosmetics, and pedicures and massage are rare indulgences that I usually see as more of a "treatment" to cure my running-related ailments. But give me access to a sauna and the opportunity to spend a few quiet hours lounging in and around a few pools of water, and I am all in. My version of heaven definitely includes a eucalyptus steam room.

A beloved friend is in town this week, visiting her hometown of San Diego from her current home of NYC, and seeking as much Southern California sunshine and relaxation as she can soak in while she's here. (She is the mother of two young children, owns and runs a bustling business, and, did I mention that she lives in NYC?) It has become something of a tradition for me to steal her away for an afternoon during these visits and for the two of us to hole up at the spa at the Rancho Bernardo Inn. We lay around like lizards in the warm desert air, eat fresh and delicious food, and catch up. And today she talked me into getting a massage.

We got checked in, and as my massage therapist helped me get situated in the treatment room, she asked the question that will be familiar to anyone who's been a first-time student in a new yoga class, or who has ever had deep tissue massage: "Any pain or injuries that I should know about?"

I've noticed two major changes within myself now that I'm in my forties. One: I say things like "now that I'm in my forties." Two: at any given moment, something somewhere on my body usually hurts. I was starting to feel this in my thirties, sure, but now it's become fairly constant. Even if I'm not dealing with some kind of a running-related overuse injury, or recovering from damage sustained doing something stupid (like fracturing my foot jumping out of a boat ... it happens), there's probably some large muscle group or joint somewhere that hurts. I've been sitting at work, and my hips are tight. It's a cold morning, and my left knee (operated upon 20+ years ago) is reminding me that it's missing a little cartilage. I sat on the floor working on a project for too long, and oh, my aching back! I'm not talking here about the challenges of living with the chronic pain of a condition like arthritis or spinal stenosis. Just the daily creaks and aches of living in a changing, aging body.

So when the massage therapist posed this question, I did a quick mental scan of my body, looking for "the thing that hurts today," so I could warn her to be careful there. And I was completely taken aback when I came to the conclusion: nothing hurts! I couldn't remember the last time that nothing hurt. No injury. No residual soreness from yesterday's workout. Not even a nagging cough. (I have very reactive airways, as they say, and frequently have to ask massage therapists not to use aromatherapy, or to reposition my head in a way that won't make me cough. I'm a mess, you guys.) "Nope," I said. "I'm doing just fine." I crawled onto that warm table, and laid there for the next hour in a state of blissful appreciation for the miracle of this crazy tangle of 206 bones that are all currently working in perfect harmony. As the Thanksgiving holiday weekend draws to a close, a fitting endnote to this happy runner's very long list of the things for which I am grateful.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Let it begin with me

I love Christmas music. I don't usually get too wrapped up in the frenzy of the holidays, and some years I simply opt out of the Christmas "thing" altogether. But I will always sing along to a classic carol. (I will also always eat a Christmas cookie, when presented with the option. But this post is not about cookies. Stay focused.) I'll admit it: I occasionally even tune in to the all-Christmas-music-all-the-time satellite radio station in the car. But never before Thanksgiving. Never! I do what I can to stay present, and count myself among the many who protest the "Christmas creep," that force of economic nature that would have us decorating and shopping and putting peppermint-flavored syrup in everything as soon as the Halloween decorations hit the recycling bin.

"Seasons Greetings," from Ferguson, MO
This year feels different, though. The events of this week in Ferguson, Missouri have shaken me to my core, and have me grasping for anything that will bring a bit of comfort. Don't panic: this is not a political post, any more than it is a post about Christmas cookies. I have not formed any personal opinions about that grand jury's findings, and when I do, I won't share them here. But it's hard not to be moved by the unrest in Ferguson and beyond. These Americans feel so marginalized and disenfranchised that they are lashing out in self-destructive violence. They perceive themselves as being so beat down by the political and socioeconomic systems in the U.S. that they have given up the good fight for social justice, and instead have launched an ill-fated battle they can't possibly win. I tried to read and watch the coverage last night after the verdict was announced, but was overwhelmed by such sadness that I literally shut down, and could barely muster the strength just to crawl under the covers and put myself to bed early.

I woke up this morning still in a bad frame of mind, made worse by the morning's news. In a moment of weakness as I drove to work, I did it: I tuned in to the Sirus XM "Holiday Traditions" station, even though it's still two days before Thanksgiving. Never say "never," I guess. Seeking a cheerful dose of Bing Crosby or Burl Ives to pull me out of my funk, I instead received a well-timed message that has been with me all day: "Let There Be Peace on Earth."

Let peace begin with me
Let this be the moment now.
With every step I take
Let this be my solemn vow.
To take each moment
And live each moment
In peace eternally.
Let peace begin on earth.
And let it begin with me.

Someone at that satellite radio station was clearly having just as crappy of a day as I was. And God bless 'em for trying to do something about it, instead of just crawling under the covers (like I did), or ranting in anger and judgment about it on social media (like everyone else did, it seems). In that moment, the whole point of the song unfolded: peace that starts from within can spread to others. The station programmer who selected that song did something to create peace with a simple choice. And I can create peace with my own simple choices. I can start my day tomorrow with a run, instead of the news, to flush out the cortisol and elevate my mood. Perhaps that elevated mood will make me feel like smiling and saying hello to a stranger who would otherwise feel isolated and disconnected. Perhaps those lower cortisol levels will provide the calm I need to be present and focused during my work day for someone who needs it. (Have I mentioned that I'm a social worker, surrounded by others' chaos and difficulties, day in and day out?) Maybe that morning run will be my first dig at a little well of peace. And maybe it will spring a leak.


What could you do to create a moment of peace in your life today?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Subpar for the course

No complaints. If I have to be on the road for
five days, the Loews Ventana Canyon is
not the worst place to be.
I've just returned from a work trip that took me to Tucson for several days, staying at a lovely resort hotel at the foot of the Santa Catalina Mountains. I've served on this Board of Directors for two years now, and I know that these annual meetings are long and intense. I don't get as much sleep as I need due to the meeting schedules, and my diet is much heavier than I'm used to, so after a couple of days I usually feel pretty run down. But this year I was determined to get some exercise every morning, even though it required being up at an ungodly hour, figuring I would not only feel better, but I'd have more brain power, too. I've been recovering from last month's marathon and triathlon, and am still not running heavy mileage, but in addition to wide and scenic desert roads to run on, I had access to a lap pool, miles of beautiful hiking trails, and a yoga studio, so each day I challenged myself to do something different.

One day I got up early and took myself out for a morning walk along the Parcourse. Raise your hand if you know what a Parcourse is!? Those of us of a certain age will remember that these outdoor "fitness trails" were all the rage a few decades ago. And those of you of certain other ages have surely seen them and wondered what they are (and who uses them). These dirt paths lined with "obstacle stations" were constructed in urban areas all over the U.S. in the 70s and 80s, and usually contain between 10-20 different pieces of wooden equipment for upper body, lower body, climbing, jumping, and balance exercises. Each station has signage to instruct the user on the apparatus, or just a cleared space if the activity doesn't require equipment (e.g., jumping jacks or toe touches). You walk or run between the stations, which are staged to provide a thorough workout, including stretching. The stretching stations are all at the beginning of the Parcourse, though, because that's how we rolled in the 80s. I saw the signs for the Parcourse outside of my hotel, and thought to myself smugly that it would make for a fun and easy workout, and also that it would be sort of hilarious to do all these old school exercises. I only wished I'd packed some Dolphin shorts. Raise your hand if you remember Dolphin shorts!?

The balance beam
The trail
The "touch toes" station

As it turns out, the Parcourse was no joke. I learned two things that morning: 1) this old exercise methodology is still very relevant, and 2) I am ridiculously unfit. Almost all of the obstacles were really hard - like the log hops, rings, and vault bars. And some of them I couldn't do at all, like the chin-ups. Even the ones that seemed easy - like sit-ups, jumping jacks, and the balance beam - were challenging in the context of the full 18-station course. I was seriously dying by the end, and am still sore, three days later. It was a great workout, and it was also really fun.

I naturally had to Google the history of the Parcourse, and wound up deep in a rabbit hole of early 20th century physical education theory. Parcourse was invented in Europe in the late 1960s, and was designed to promote physical fitness in the "Natural Method" of Georges Hebert, a French physical educator who designed sessions that were
... composed of exercises belonging to the ten fundamental groups: walking, running, jumping, quadrupedal movement, climbing, equilibrium, throwing, lifting, defending and swimming.
Nothing new under the sun. Today we have "functional fitness" taught to us in private gyms, and we compete in "gladiator" obstacle races. No doubt the field of exercise physiology and the fitness industry have made many important advancements, but I'm struck by how much good sense Hebert's theories still make. He believed in a method that promoted "organic resistance," developed one's internal energy and courage, and directed the "moral drive" in a "useful and beneficial way." And he was among the first to advocate for the benefits of exercise in women, believing it important that they develop self-confidence, athleticism, and will-power through physical pursuit.

My own self-confidence is still a little shaken by my humbling 45 minutes on the Parcourse, and it's abundantly clear to me now that I need to work on some basic strength and integrate some plyometrics into my routines. I'm getting soft in my middle age! And believe me, soft does not look good in Dolphin shorts.

All I wanted as a kid was Dolphin shorts.
My mom never relented. And for that I say:

Do you have any favorite "low tech" strength, balance, or plyometric exercises? Would love to hear your ideas! And if you've got any thoughts on improving my quadrupedal movement, I'm all ears ....

Monday, October 13, 2014

Remembering when ...

I've always loved this quote by the great women's distance running pioneer, Kathrine Switzer. Having spent countless hours of my life training for, competing in, and recovering from the beautiful beast that is the marathon, I've never not broken out into tears at a finish. It never fails to humble me, surprise me, make me laugh out loud, hurt me, nurture me, break my confidence, and then fill me with pride - all in the span of just a few hours. I look inward, of course, but I also look around in that finisher's area and see hundreds or thousands of others who were with me on that journey, and am overwhelmed by what we all just accomplished. Just because millions of people run marathons every year doesn't mean that it's not completely amazing.

My first marathon was the San Diego Marathon (today called the Carlsbad Marathon, since it's technically in the city of Carlsbad, and San Diego has since created its own much larger, much more famous, and much louder production). That was nearly 16 years ago, and to date there have been 17 finishes. Seventeen adventures in 17 different cities, with a great cast of characters keeping me company on the course, and on the sidelines. Over time, my recall of the early races has faded. (We didn't have running blogs in the late 90s, and I've never been a faithful running journaler.) I've got the photos, the bibs, and the official times. A few of the tshirts are still around. Each race has its memorable moments - a high or a low, a great meal, a funny anecdote - but on the whole, my catalog of experiences as "a marathoner" is beginning to blend together. I think deeply about running, and talk and write about it often, but in some ways it's become so much a part of who I am that the details are fading from my awareness.

This weekend, I was gifted the opportunity to experience the marathon for the first time, all over again. My brother-in-law Ian completed the Chicago Marathon on Sunday, his first time doing battle with 26.2. I'd helped him as best I knew how through his training (mostly remotely, as about 2,500 miles separate us), cheering him on as he reached new running milestones, and hassling him a little when he needed it. With great excitement, I flew out to Chicago to join him and our family for the weekend. You think I was going to miss this? We had fun at the pre-race expo, and I tried to answer his questions and quell his anxieties. I ran the Chicago Marathon in 2005, but realized as we pored over the course and spectator maps that I had almost no recollection of it, and little to offer in the way of any course-specific advice. I've always remembered it as one of my favorites, but I'd honestly forgotten why.

As I answered his questions about what to expect out there, and doled out advice on wide-ranging topics such as fanny packs, outerwear, and hydration strategy, I tried to remember how I felt the night before my first marathon. The memories have faded, but the one thing I am sure of now is that I most definitely had no idea what I was in for. As we talked, I found myself wanting to try to prepare him in some way that I had not been prepared. But I eventually realized that other than shaking him by the shoulders and yelling "It's going to be reeeally hard!" which didn't seem like it would be terribly helpful, I didn't have much more to offer.

So, we made our way through it together. We mapped out a spectator route that would have us (myself and his parents, a.k.a. my in-laws) perched at strategic points where I thought he'd benefit most. He got all of his gear organized the night before, and we swam through the early-morning sea of 45,000 runners, and got him to his corral. I gave him a hug and a high five, and he was on his own. We got to see him at four points along the course, and it was amazing to watch him going through all of the familiar physical and mental ups and downs, and yet hanging so incredibly tough throughout. In this era of ultra-high security at the Marathon Majors (of which Chicago is one), I couldn't get to the actual start or finish lines, but I had an opportunity to see him as he rounded his final turn, just after the 26-mile mark. He was in his home stretch, in a familiar-looking state of discomfort, but smiling ear-to-ear. Oh, that feeling! Suddenly I could remember finishing my first marathon, with crystal clarity. 

We met him at the runner meet-up area, where I saw the familiar tears of pride and fatigue, the zombie-like gait, and the dazed look of disbelief: did I really just do that? I watched his parents beam with pride, listened as they asked him to recount the details, and remembered how great it was to have my mom there at my own first finish line. We gave him ice and ibuprofen and high-protein snacks, and our permission to lay around and drink beer for the rest of the day if he wanted. I waited for his Facebook posts to appear (again, we didn't have social media "in my day," but you can bet sure I would have been posting from the finish line if I did!), and remembered fondly how much fun it had been to talk to everyone and anyone who asked about it. I was damn proud, and I hope that he is practically bursting at the seams.

Of course, I also remember how I couldn't walk down stairs the next day. I remember that bruised-up second toenail that was never the same. And the chafe. Oh, I remember the chafe! But for now, I'll just keep those memories to myself.

Big, huge, happy congratulations to my new favorite marathoning hero: Ian! And to anyone and everyone who's conquered their first marathon: thank you.



The Chicago Marathon Expo: like nothing I have ever seen.
This race means business, people.

The packet is picked up, and the countdown is on! Sixteen hours 'til go time.

Sunday 7:30 a.m. Perfect racing conditions, and all the
makings of an epic first marathon experience.

We ran for a bit together at mile 12, in the West Loop area. All smiles!

The energy in Chinatown was amazing!
(And so was lunch. Yum!)

My mother-in-law Karen and I did some serious hustling
to get ourselves to the spectator points. She was so proud
to watch her boy in this great endeavor!

Running south from Chinatown, around Mile 22.
Ian was feeling it pretty good right about now, but was tough as nails.

The very picture of marathoning awesomeness!
Recovering in the runner meet-up area.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

With both feet

Last year I wrote with great excitement about my brother-in-law's decision to train for his first marathon. He reached out to me for some virtual "coaching" and support, and it was deeply inspiring to watch him getting stronger and faster, and learning to appreciate what running added to his life. Unfortunately he was derailed by both a particularly harsh winter, and then an injury, and had to back out of the Pittsburgh Marathon. He'd been so excited to race in his hometown, and for his son to watch him cross that finish line. Making the decision to run a marathon was just one of many big changes he had made in his life, and (since I'm prone to this kind of heady thinking) represented to me the beginning of a whole new way of living. 

Encouraging him to stop training was a very difficult thing for me to do, for fear he wouldn't be willing to pick it back up, that old ways of living would seep back in. I know how easily it happens. And selfishly, I was worried about losing a running buddy, since I no longer have any other runners in the family. (My brother used to run, but stopped several years ago. He's since become quite a yogini, though, and continues to inspire me.) Having someone to talk running talk with during family gatherings, and to get up early to run with on the rare occasion that we find ourselves in the same city, had been a lot of fun. I was concerned - for both of us - that his injury would feel like a betrayal of sorts, that he'd say to himself that "running just isn't for me," and turn his back on this sport that I care so much about.

As usual, I was overthinking it.

He took my advice and stopped training, let himself get healed, and got some new shoes. He signed up for the Chicago Marathon, and before I knew it, he was back! All of that worrying I did for him? As usual, a waste of my energy.

Training hasn't gone smoothly for him. He's wrestled with the challenge of fitting long workouts and adequate rest into an already-full life. At the peak of training, he developed a respiratory infection. All the normal stuff of life that conspires to make marathoning harder than it already is. But he stuck with it, and even though he didn't get in all of the mileage that we'd hoped for, he never once lost his way. As we adjusted his goals and expectations, he remained excited about the experience, and confident about race day. He continues to appreciate everything that running has done for him, physically and mentally, and although training for another marathon is probably not in his very near future, he's already signed up for some half-marathons in 2015. He doesn't line up at that start until tomorrow morning, but as far as I'm concerned, he has already completely and totally nailed this thing.

I had so much to learn this past year about perseverance, and maintaining confidence in the face of disappointment. Being a part of my brother-in-law's process was a huge part of that journey. I learned the value of getting out of my own head, and just getting into my running shoes. Thanks for an important lesson in being fearless, and jumping back in with both feet. You don't really know yet just what you're in for out there on the streets of Chicago tomorrow, but I do. And it's going to be awesome. Because you're going to make it awesome.

"You can't be that kid standing at the top of the waterslide, overthinking it. You have to go down the chute."
-Tina Fey

Got my spectator guide, and I've touched down in Chicago. Ready to spectate! Go Ian GO!