reflecting on 2016

This year, there were two intentions upon which I wanted to focus. The first was commitment to distal goals. I wanted to feel active commitment; to engage with that life-cycle of working toward something incrementally. I feel like we, as a society, get wrapped up in instant gratification and the short-term. I wanted to challenge myself to dig deep for resilience and something different. The second was to nurture an undefended heart. Last year, my choir director told us that she wanted us to learn to sing with “an undefended heart.” The phrase resonated with me, because I could feel, in that season, that my heart was quite defended. My life was tortuously compartmentalized. I was working in a job that brought me no joy. I felt disconnected from my family life. Really, when I look back at 2014 and 2015, I realize how much depression and anxiety I carried, and yet refused to look in the eye.

I started out the year with a simple desire to run 1,000 miles in 2016. What developed as a result of working toward that goal, however, was unexpected and deeply satisfying. I experienced a great shift in my relationship with running—a deepening connection to the spirituality of the practice. I began to understand running practice as a friendship with the beauty of nature; an opportunity to listen deeply to the trails, to enter their sacred spaces, to respect and admire their dynamism through the days and months. Through the experience of adopting a regular running practice, I felt strengthened, both physically and mentally. My health improved. I became less susceptible to sickness, and I found a reliable outlet that helped me to re-calibrate mentally. I am proud of the metamorphosis. There were days that finding the motivation to run was challenging, but they were far less frequent than I would have guessed. I found, through this lifestyle change, that I picked up other habits, like regular walking. I started using my car less for errands. I found opportunities to get outside and move my body, even when it had nothing to do with running.

I think I made great strides toward nurturing an undefended heart. I pursued a career change that was sorely needed, and helped me re-frame my work-life balance. I found, as a result of this shift, that I was much more present at home. Being present at home helped me to feel comfortable at home. I slowed down. I scheduled less. I have started saying “no” to things, and valuing the unstructured time. The hidden time. I will be honest with you that the current state of national politics nearly broke my heart. It has been a painful month. The temptation to build a fortress around one’s heart, to simply block off emotions in their full spectrum of color, is ever present—perhaps now more than ever before. However, when I reach in and liberate the love, empathy, and hope in my heart, the result is unstoppable. I was at a rally two years ago, and a speaker framed love as a radical action. To love and to hope are courageous actions. To hate is cowardice. This is the dialectic I am working with, and intend to keep front and center in the coming year, as I believe a deep attention to present acts of loving kindness is power.

As I look to 2017, I feel that my intentions are less tied to specific goals (“Run A Marathon.” “Set A New PR.”), and more focused on sustainable habits. What I have learned from this year of experimentation, is that when the driving purpose is sustained, the other goals (both recognized and unexpected) are achieved. When we create a lifestyle that connects us more deeply to living, we make progress toward embodying our best selves.

standard time

Last night, I was reminded of the thrills of running in the early parts of headlamp season. The sensory deprivation pulls me into a focused and connected run. Without daylight, I become much more aware of my body. I feel like the bow of a ship, smoothly parting the waters as I move forward consistently, fluidly, continuously. My breathing regulates as my legs pump, feeling their power connected to my hips, my back, my lungs, my arms. My body, this intricate machine, propels me forward. Old well-known landscapes regain their mystery as they become shrouded in shadow and darkness. Only the soft glow of streetlamps marks the passage of distance.

October Recap

October was a nourishing month for my running practice. The goal was to reclaim the joy of running. I started out with some ambivalence toward running, particularly after an anticlimactic end to my marathon training, followed by a less-than-enthralling half marathon. Nevertheless, I got back in my routine, cast off any expectations for lengthy distance, and returned to running my daily miles.

November 1st is a sweet anniversary for me. It was this time last year that I began “streaking” my miles across the month. I finished October with a total of 85 miles, bringing my total for 2016 to 935. I am close to my 2016 resolution of running 1,000 miles.

Taking some time to enjoy this season of carefree headlamp running, while giving some reflection to what I’d like to focus on in the coming year.

so, you had a bad race

I ran my first fall race yesterday, the Bellingham Bay Marathon Half Marathon. Despite training all summer, I did not end up running a marathon. On top of that, I had a pretty cruddy run yesterday. My time was a 20 minute improvement over last year, but I struggled to run the race. My struggle was not physical—in fact, training for a marathon and then running a half marathon is a great way to go physiologically. However, I encountered many mental walls, including a general feeling of motivational malaise throughout the event.

My brief reflections as I revisit what happened yesterday:

  • This race is so familiar that it has lost all novelty. I run most every part of the route regularly. The scenery doesn’t captivate me.
  • Going from Chicago Marathon to hometown half marathon was what psychologists might refer to as a non-event. I was so focused on achieving a long-term marathon goal for so long, that yesterday’s experience was… well… a disappointment.
  • The etiquette at the start was terrible. I get grumpy when I spend the first two miles weaving because racers didn’t self-select into the appropriate place in the line-up. I was just ahead of the 2:00 pacer, and there were crowds of people running a 2:30 or so ahead of me.
  • I’m suffering under the tyranny of speed. I’ve gotten really competitive with myself, and when I knew I wasn’t going to come in at my goal time, I felt crushed. I know I am in a bad place, because a year and a half ago, I was thrilled by a 2:15 finish at the Whidbey half, and now I am kicking myself for a 2:02.

I think I need a reboot. I need to reconnect with running, and find its love and compassion again. I need a time out from speed goals.

My proposal is to run a trail half marathon next month. It’s a race I have never done before, and the sheer elevation gain will make it impossible to finish anywhere remotely close to what I am used to. It will be about endurance, the process, natural beauty, and making it through. Yesterday felt hollow. I did not feel reborn. I felt, a little less stellar than I do after a regular long run.

And why is that? Because, for me, when I start running for extrinsic rewards, for the approval of others, my soul is diminished. However, when I run from the heart, for nobody other than myself, I feel like I am flying. I transform.

This is where I am right now… figuring things out, trying to navigate how I want to approach running in the coming weeks and months. For now, I am focusing back in on the daily miles, and recovering joy from all paces.

runningtown, USA

I grew up in the city. When I started spending more time in my husband’s hometown at the beginning of our relationship, everything about rural country living seemed novel. The most noteworthy phenomenon was the degree of familiarity between residents of the area. Everybody knows their neighbors. Beyond that, the oral histories of entire families are recited by rote. Each farm and road has its accompanying story, usually a narrative that is darkly bittersweet. Churches and deer nearly outnumber denizens, and the event of the year remains a town parade and carnival in the middle of the summer.

We move on in life, and our sense of “home” acquires a multitude of meanings. As we explore our passions and seek out opportunities to engage, new communities emerge. As our children progress through their educational journeys, we join fellow parents among the ranks of the village. In our professions, we solidify networks of colleagues, and come to find, rather incredulously, that we begin to be called upon as institutional or organizational historians, able to reflect on a sum of experiences. And, if you run for a long enough time in your hometown, you begin to find yourself a place in that community, as well.

I see the same familiar faces on my Saturday morning runs. Some belong to people I know from other parts of life. Some are simply recognizable due to repetition. As I reflect on that observation, I begin to realize that a community of runners functions like a small hometown. We remember the races, year to year, and make jokes about the weather and other unfortunate variables. We feel relief upon encountering an acquaintance on a dimly lit trail, or motivated to run all the way to the crest of the hill when we know a fellow runner is watching.

Maybe I’ve seen you two other times in my life, but if we weave around each other, back and forth, over the course of a soggy and miserable road run, we may very well embrace at the end.

“Thank you,” is a common muttering we hear between strangers at the finish line, “you kept me going until the end.”

Running is both solitary and collective. While we bear the responsibility for our own feet and legs, we also uplift other runners through our example, words, and presence. Often, the thought of being that face for another person is the reasoning that pushes me over the hump of lacing up my shoes on an early weekend morning. To those just beginning, we are all strangers. Give it time, however, and we will become their people.

august recap

August was a fruitful month, totaling 105 miles. This brings my 2016 mileage up to 778 miles… creeping closer to the 1,000 mile goal! I took more recovery days to walk and do different types of exercise last month, and I focused many of my shorter runs on speed work. Happy to report that there was some pay-off, as I placed first in a 25K road race last weekend! I enjoy setting new personal records, but there was a unique satisfaction of being the first woman to cross the finish line that I will carry with me in the memory bank of “triumphant runs” for a long time to come.

I have approached September, and it is time to fit in one more long run this weekend before tapering. While I am still running an early fall marathon, there’s been a change of plans. My running buddy broke her toe, and needs a few weeks to heal and recuperate. We decided to defer our race registrations for 2017. Running Chicago without my friend would not feel right to me. However, I’ve put a great deal of effort and time into training this past spring and summer, and so I decided to run my hometown marathon at the end of this month, instead.

As the marathon chapter comes to a close, I’ve been thinking about what I want to do next. While it has been invigorating and adventuresome to ramp up my speed and set new records for myself, I feel a pull back to the basics of why running fills my cup. The high of competition is ephemeral. I miss the meandering solo runs through the woods… with no particular agenda other than to traverse and appreciate nature. I am giving some thought to pursuing trail running more intentionally in 2017… perhaps doing some of the trail races and mountain runs that are so plentiful in this corner of the country. I would like to broaden my horizons and tackle some new experiences.

origins

We all begin somewhere.

I was bitten by the running bug after I had my daughter, over five years ago.

Up until that point, jogging was an occasional activity.

When I gave birth to my daughter, and spent those first few tender months at home, I was consumed by depression. Taking care of a newborn did not come naturally to me. One day, I was a career woman with a busy schedule. The next day, I was sleep deprived to an extreme I did not think possible. I remember one occasion when we finally left the house to run an errand. In the light of day, my husband gently suggested that I might have a streak of baby poop on my cheek, and he wiped it with his sleeve.

I cried. I wept. I felt lonely.

I discovered, a few weeks in to this new life, that walking would be my medicine. No matter what had transpired the night before, no matter how demoralizing the patterns of the day, I could find salvation in walking.

At that point, we lived in a house in the woods—a good 30 minute drive from most hallmarks of civilization, including decent grocery stores. Nevertheless, the summer was relatively cool, and I spent many hours pushing a stroller around winding bends and pathways, exploring our community. Sometimes, the walks were the only time that the baby would sleep, and I could move freely, both hands unencumbered by the weight of flesh.

The walks became more frequent, and the baby also began to grow. As the summer petered out, my depression lifted, and I started to fall in love with my child. Somewhere in that span of time, the walks migrated toward runs. I left the baby at home with her loving father, and took off… exploring nearby lake trails and taking the daring risks of leaving pumped milk at home in exchange for an hour of freedom.

For me, running was born out of the growing pains of early parenthood. Each jog yanked my sanity back to earth, returning me home with renewed hope. My daughter grew in her early years, watching mama leave for runs and come back. The evening post-run shower became a ritual. First, to wash the sweat off my skin quickly before settling in to a nursing session. Later, I stumbled over rubber duckies and pitchers as my toddler sat at my feet keeping me company. These days, the bathroom door remains unlocked, and she will sit on the closed toilet lid, telling me about her school day while I rinse off my suds.

I feel pangs in my heart every year at this time, reflecting on the journey to this point. Fall has always seemed to me a time for renewal, despite the decomposition of nature’s greenery around me. Perhaps it is because I know that the hardest earned gifts often start from dark places.

We all begin somewhere.

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!