why i run

When I reflect on the concept of spirituality, it becomes clear that it is a phenomenon which provides two main experiences: an anchor which grounds us to the small gifts and blessings of our existence, however pedestrian it may seem; and a portal through which to transcend the daily habits of living and click in to a soulful and almost celestial sense of interconnectedness across time, people, and place. I think about this a lot, because I am a nonreligious person… although there are times that my spirit is well watered and fed by the simplest of things. One of these sources is running quietly in nature. The primal ingredients of enduring a long run thrust me fully into my own humanity. The expansion and contraction of my lungs and heart surface awareness of my own mortality. I marvel at the finely engineered machine that is the routine and familiar sensation of bones and muscles propelling the body across surface, through space and time. Running practice provides both the gifts often hidden by the mundane (a drink of water from a park fountain becomes a cool and sweet elixir), and the ability to transcend the stress of the day and return home with a renewed appreciation for deep peace and organic exhaustion.

I think a lot of people around me misunderstand why I run. “You’re so dedicated to your health and fitness,” they will comment. Or, perhaps the daily miles are shrugged off as a trifle obsession. I find I care less and less about the opinions of others. From my perspective, running is my old friend. She is there to comfort me when I am sad, and to uplift me when I feel defeated. She has seen me through months of sleepless nights with a young child, and has helped me to overcome deep waves of worry and stress. She is patient with me, and allows me to engage her in a number of different ways. She does not judge me when I do not perform as I desired. She celebrates me when I exceed my expectations for myself.

One day, I might not be able to run comfortably. There are a myriad of reasons why I might have to cut back or take a hiatus. While there would be sadness in that change, the gifts of running will never leave me. I have learned that the dedicated practice of nurturing the mind-body connection is deeply enriching to life, and to the spirit.

now

On Saturday I ran 13.1 in under two hours. I haven’t accomplished that time since February, when I ran the Birch Bay Half. Unlike my experience in February, however, I was not incapacitated by couch potato-itis the rest of the day. Instead, I came home, showered, drank some coffee, ate some lunch, and drove down to a wedding.

Comparing these two runs interested me because they are almost exactly a half of a year apart. Although it seems like Birch Bay was just a few weeks ago, many months have passed. It is a congratulatory reminder that my dedication to a running practice of regularity and frequency is not short-lived. It is also reassuring that, even during the long days of marathon training, I can still pull off a sub-2:00 half marathon.

Sometimes training foists a complicated set of expectations upon a relationship with running. The pure enjoyment of the experience of running is muddled by the formulaic necessity to achieve a certain amount of designated miles and long runs per month. The activity can seem obligatory and monotonous. A three mile run, easily accomplished most any day, is suddenly Homeric and cumbersome. The feet and legs threaten to halt to a walk, even though the lungs and heart are capable of going further. These difficult runs do crop up, and perhaps more noticeably given the increased amount of time that is dedicated to the task.

In the midst of this reality, I am grateful for the recent memory of a triumphant and beautiful long run. A run that contributed toward my perceptions of my own efficacy and esteem. This was a small but significant reminder that I have improved… that six months of nourishing my practice has made a difference. As a parent, a professional, and an athlete, I have come to cherish the following mantra: Something is better than nothing, but that something doesn’t have to be everything. While my instinctive urge is to dwell on the future, I am reminded of the gifts of meeting the present with open arms. I am also reminded of the metaphor which has carried me for many years through distance running… that of a jug filling with each drop of rainwater. Some drops are harder won than others, but the jug fills nonetheless.

 

 

on treadmills

As a runner, I don’t generally consider the treadmill a necessary evil… there are lots of ways to maintain a solid running practice without ever using cardio equipment or walking into a gym. Most of my running has, and hopefully will continue to be, outdoors on roads and trails. I find, however, as a working professional and parent, that the hour I need each day to get in my miles (assuming it’s just a short 3-4 mile run) isn’t always feasible in the evening before dinner or the morning before work. Furthermore, when I am at work, it is really nice to have access to a shower after I exercise, so I can return to my office feeling clean and refreshed. Enter: indoor running. I would say that running, either on the treadmill or on the indoor track, now comprises at least one run a week for me. This summer, for example, I use the treadmill on Thursdays during my lunch break, because I prefer to spend Thursday evenings attending concerts in the park with my family. A fair trade-off, I’d say.

The following are my guidelines/tips for treadmill running. Once again, I am an irregular treadmill user. I know some runners use a treadmill almost daily—all the power to them—but I have to work hard at it to make it enjoyable. Here we go:

  • Television? Music? Check. I use the treadmill as an opportunity to indulge in daytime cable that I would otherwise never get the chance to watch. Although I have lots of choices, I am usually drawn to the lunchtime Star Trek TNG marathon on BBC America. I’ve got the captions going so that I can read along, but listen to my music.
  • Run/run intervals. Always wanted to run that 7:30 mile? Well, the treadmill gives you god-like powers to do so, given that it’s got a belt more or less pulling you along. I do what I would describe as run/run intervals. I will run an 8:00/mile on the treadmill, and then turn the intensity up to a 7:30 mile for 3-5 minute intervals throughout the 30 minute run.
  • Adventures with a slight incline. The treadmill is a great place to practice patience with a gentle uphill. Usually I turn the incline up just slightly (+1.0) at the beginning of the run, and totally forget about it. It doesn’t really feel the same as a real-life hill.
  • Brain dump. No cars to watch for, intersections to cross, or tree roots over which to avoid tripping. Yep, there’s not much going on during a treadmill run (besides Captain Picard’s steady gaze). I use these runs as a time to try and empty my brain of all preoccupations.
  • Not too long. I rarely go beyond 30 minutes on a treadmill. I love distance running, but not indoors. At this point, a half hour is enough to get the miles in and a good sweat going. The bonus of being in the gym is that I have a little extra time and can tackle some of the things that I need to be doing, such as lifting weights and stretching.

Those are my thoughts on the treadmill! It definitely does not have to be a dreadmill, although, admittedly, it is my least favored way of getting the miles in. Speaking of which, I completed July with 116 miles for the month, and August is off to a good start.

Happy trails, roads, belts, beaches, and whatever else you might be running on!

welcome, august

Today marks the beginning of August, a month of turning inward and preparing for the marathon. I believe this will be the month that will be comprised of the highest intensity of training. I plan to give myself a generous, yet active, tapering before the early October marathon. August, another long month. Like July, but different somehow. I woke up today and the clean sunlight filled my room. The air was crisper than it has been, almost bereft of humidity. I could smell the bay, but very faintly. The breeze was sweet and cold. The drive along the water’s edge to work, I observed the trees flirting with the idea of changing their hues… the assorted yellowed leaves, dried from the hot sun mixed with the vibrant green ones, shyly admitting the slightest red pigment. The blackberries are ripe and juicy, the wasps are aggressively finishing the season’s business, and the fat September spiders are beginning to spin their dewy webs off the fence posts, branches, and behind the compost bin. We take our cues from nature. These are the days to stretch; to accomplish what we can in the final weeks of the long warm days. Fruit is ripening, and so do we. Running becomes a meditative prayer; the routes and distances too familiar to cause bother. The trails which were once entirely verdant and overgrown are now brittle and painted by new colors. Late summer metamorphosis.

June & July Recap

Here comes the mega update for the summer. Apologies for a stop-out in blogging, but it has been quite a busy season! I left off at the end of May, single parenting while my partner survived his first Ph.D. residency. Right after he returned, I started working on comprehensive exams for my doctorate. During the first week of my exams, I was invited to interview for a job I had applied to on a whim. I ended up accepting that job a week after my interview, while finishing my comps and dashing off to present research at a national conference. Also, somewhere in there I agreed to co-author an article for publication. Between all of the stress, transition, and travel, I was hit with a pretty bad cold. Nevertheless, I finished out June with 95 miles… and I am very proud of that!

July marked the beginning of my new position. I did not realize how much stress my old position inflicted upon me on a daily basis until I left. It was like a boulder was lifted off my chest. I started sleeping. I got my appetite back. I enjoy my family time. I come home, and I play my cello almost every evening. I have tripled what I like to consider my head and heart space for academics. Suddenly, my dissertation not only seems doable, but also indulgent. An opportunity to explore and write about something that is core to my purpose in higher education. A place to channel my deepest desires to promote broader access to education for marginalized students. And, as a qualitative researcher, this work is a platform to honor the co-inquirers who will inform my perspective with their voices.

In terms of my running practice, July has provided bountiful opportunities to balance consistency with challenge. I am currently at 95 miles for the month (652 total for the year), which is pretty good. I anticipate exceeding 100 miles. I’ve participated in two trail races, and I am keeping up with long runs. I am quite happy with where I am in marathon training; just under three months until race day in Chicago, and I am running 5-6 days a week. I am keeping my pace steady at around a 9:30 mile, even on the solo long runs. I hope that as I increase distance, I can stay below or right around 10:00/mile.

In some ways, I cannot believe that July is drawing to an end. In other ways, I am excited to finish my semester of coursework and spend the month of August taking some deep breaths, reading some new fiction, and spending the last weeks with my daughter before she becomes a full-fledged KINDERGARTEN STUDENT (what?!). I am especially ready to reap the rewards of some downtime after recently learning that I have passed my comprehensive exams with flying colors and finalizing my article submission. Achievements unlocked!

So, there’s the update. A year ago, I was sick with mono, weighed down by job-related anxiety, and feeling some aimlessness in my studies. Now, I am healthy, fit, happy, and ready to write.

Happy trails!

May Recap

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May was a great month for running. I was able to run 100 miles this month, and I am very proud of that. Over the last week, I’ve had the added challenge of accommodating runs while parenting solo (no, I don’t have a treadmill at home) and I spent a few days fighting a cold my daughter brought home (honestly, I am still dragging a bit). However, I succeeded with my mileage goal! I had some flexibility to space things out at the end of the month because I front-loaded in the beginning. I am starting to think that’s the ticket with a monthly mileage goal.

My total for the year is now up to 462. In addition to running, I have been very intentional this month about walking as much as possible. Walking helps us to recover and keep our blood circulating. It is also a wonderful stress-reliever in a completely different way from running. Most importantly, however, walking provides me with a wonderful opportunity to connect with my daughter. We spend a lot of time walking to parks and playing at playgrounds. It is nice to be able to move, talk, and enjoy our time together.

June is underway. And I’m just about four months away from the Chicago Marathon… not that I am counting down or excited or anything. One of my intentions was to become comfortable running 14-16 miles before June. I can honestly report that I am feeling really great about these distances, especially after a very even and sustainable 16 mile long run early in the month. I am ready to spend June slowly increasing the distance of my long runs. 10-12 mile distances are feeling much more like medium runs than long runs, which is great.

June will also usher in a return to racing. I have at least one race coming up during the month, and I am especially excited because it is a short one (5 miles). I plan to run the 5 miles to the race start, run the race, and then do the 5 miles home. It will be a great way to spice up a long run.

Happy Trails!

in the kitchen

I am taking advantage of my stint as a solo parent by experimenting with cooking and food prep. I have two intentions for my cooking during these few weeks. First, I want to use whole ingredients as much as possible, meaning few things out of packages or boxes. Second, I want to eliminate meat as much as I can get away with. To clarify, I am happily an omnivore, but I am increasingly weary of “ethical meat” and I know that there are a lot of loopholes manufacturers can follow in order to get certain certifications on products. Fortunately, this is a great time of year for produce, and I have been able to add a lot of great vegetables in to my repertoire. The star of the week so far has been the garnet yam. My trick with yams is to bake them in their own skin (brushed lightly with olive oil) at the beginning of the week, after which I score their skin and put them away in the fridge. This way, throughout the week, I have tender roasted yam, easy to peel and ready to eat. I find that ingredients like yam offer a nice filler where meat would usually be used. Mashed yam, for example, can be used as a type of glue for veggie patties, enchiladas, and other types of recipes.

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Yesterday, I used a yam to make some stuffed peppers. I stuffed two bell peppers (four halves) with a mixture of cooked yam and quinoa, seasoned to my liking. Before baking, I topped all of the stuffed peppers with a nice layer of chèvre. After around 30 minutes in a 350 oven, they were cooked to perfection. I am a big fan of the flavor combination… and the quinoa along with the vegetables and cheese is quite filling and energizing.

Happy Cooking, and Happy Trails!

walking in the woods

13288579_1109377945785321_1834034607_oOn Sunday, I went for a hike with my running buddy/adventure mate and my daughter. We hiked a trail out by where I used to live, in the woods east of town. I spent many afternoons hiking the same trail when I was pregnant
with my daughter, five years ago. The diverse greenery and dramatic ravines never fail to amaze and delight me.

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Over time, frequently traveled trails become the oldest of friends. They bear witness to the seasons of our lives, just as we tenderly observe their cycles of transformation. The moss carpets the ground, creeping between the shoots of buttercups, nettles, and ferns. Branches bow and bend asymmetrically. Old logs, showing their sepia-red innards, nurture creamy supernatural fungi. A chartreuse and emerald canopy stencils out dappled sunshine, while the birds and wind play their symphony.

lessons from singing

I am singing my final concert of the year tonight, and I wanted the opportunity to reflect on how my musical journey influences my running journey. Here are a few things I have learned as a singer that really help my running practice:

Breathe into the back and side of the ribs. We are often tempted to either breathe into the throat (shallow breath), or into the abdomen (classically described as a singer’s breath). Our lungs are protected by the rib cage, and pretty darn flexible, when it comes to organs. They are coated by a kind of viscous material. If we direct breath to the back and side of the ribs, we expand the capacity of our lungs. I have found that breathing into the ribs is an excellent way to combat side stiches and other cramps during long distance runs. By keeping the ribs in mind as an anchor point for breath, I often feel like the top half of my body is more engaged and supportive while my legs are doing their thing.

To get through the passaggio, don’t think about the passaggio. The passaggio is that magically awkward gap between vocal ranges. Mine is right at a high E. A passaggio can feel like a brick wall, and when we become aware of it, the natural inclination is to clamp down the throat and struggle through. This is painful, and doesn’t sound great. My vocal teacher gave me a wonderful trick I still use when I am singing in a higher range… which is, put your body off balance when approaching the passaggio. Yes, I literally pick up one foot (discreetly), which engages my core and my mind in the act of balancing. The end result is a seamless transition to the higher register. I am sure there is a lot of physiological science behind why this works, but the simplest explanation that I can give is that balancing on one foot creates a diversion, and causes the body to tense up somewhere other than the vocal chords and airway. Throughout the course of a long distance run, there is usually some kind of passaggio (some might think of it as a wall or a threshold). I find the comparison of these concepts to be helpful because, just as a singer knows to anticipate and work through their passaggio, a distance runner becomes aware of their walls. When I set out for a long run, I know that I hit a threshold sometime between four and five miles. If I can overcome that, I am solid for the rest of the run. Although I do not physically shift my balance to get through the wall, I shift my mental balance by employing a few different tricks. I listen to upbeat music. I pay extra attention to my natural surroundings. I focus my thoughts on working through a research or work problem, and take my mind off of running for a bit.

Hydrate and eat properly. Neither a runner nor a singer want to burp up the spiciness of yesterday’s burrito or suffer from cottonmouth. So, we plan accordingly.

Do a physical warm up. If you walked into the beginning of one of my rehearsals, you would think you were at an unusual yoga class. We stretch, swing, wiggle, and literally pound (lightly!) our lymph tissues before singing. Blood circulates oxygen, which is required by our brain and our muscles to perform. Before singing or running, I’ve developed the habit of briskly massaging my rib tissue, armpits, upper sternum, hips, and thighs. It’s a mental signal to remain present with my whole body during the activity. It also stimulates blood flow to different areas of the body.

Practice the challenging parts frequently and with intention. We all want to sing the stuff that is fun… the melody, the easy and delightful sections. However, as tempting as that is, this approach misses the deeper learning that occurs as a result of diving into the challenges. Sometimes, a conductor will guide the musicians by flipping the rehearsal so that the piece is worked on from the end to the beginning. This is one method of making sure that the beginning of a piece isn’t perfected over and over again, only to ignore the tricky components later on. The way I relate this to running is by reversing my routes, so that the hills are not in the same place every time, and focusing my attention on running the challenging parts of a route, even when it might be most appealing to walk. My running buddy excels at self-regulating in this fashion, and will often strive to run up every hill, and take walk breaks during the easier parts of the route. It is less fun in the moment, but the payoff is huge… just as it is when you can perform those challenging intervals or rhythms with ease and artistry.

Never lose sight of the artistic endeavor. At the end of the day, music is not what is written on the page. Neither is a run what is marked on the map. Our embodiments of these experiences are living moments that are unique to each individual. The achievement that feels best is when we are finally able to let go of the intellectual considerations, and truly feel what we are creating.

Happy Trails!

on body positivity

Women are socialized to have distrustful relationships with our bodies. A friend of mine was shocked the other day when her eight-year-old voiced a concern about being fat. The objectification of the female body inundates us, and our children. It is tough to block out the messages and invest the time in building a health relationship with ourselves. As I reflect on this topic, here are a few of my initial thoughts…

meme

Fitspiration/thinspiration can be really divisive and damaging. I love seeing a picture of the view from a buddy’s run/bike ride/hike… but I could live well without the body shaming memes.

whole 30

The latest diet or cleanse is a trend for some, but a stone’s throw away from orthorexia for others. I am part of a few running and health support groups, and I am saddened by the reported feelings of failure and anguish by members when they are not compliant with whatever plan they feel pressure to be on. It’s okay to be on a plan, but it is also okay to say “screw plans, I am going to eat what I want.” Health should be built on a sustainable foundation. It is important to realize that there is an entire industrial complex designed around controlling the food women eat, and making them feel inadequate.

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This is a picture of me wearing clothes that I find comfortable for running in warm weather. I am not intending to be provocative. And yet, I second guess my outfit choice every time I wear something like this, because I am worried about being catcalled. And, on plenty of occasions, I am. This attention is objectifying and unwanted. It usually ruins the rest of my run.

media example

Fit, healthy, and athletic look completely different depending on one’s body type, and yet there is a predominant norm for what it means to look like a female runner in the media. Finding alternative images of runners often involves digging deep, beyond what you will see in your newsfeed or a magazine. It is also incredibly difficult to find runners of different shapes and sizes not affiliated with an inspirational weight-loss trope.

I’ll wrap this post up on a positive note… I am deeply grateful for running blogs for providing an outlet to discuss many of these issues and to challenge the stereotypes and messages perpetuated regularly by mainstream media. It was by reading the writing of regular people, just like you, that I found my inspiration and encouragement to stick with running. Your stories are important—they help people around the world connect and relate. So readers… keep running, and keep blogging!

Happy trails!