being with running, reclaiming myself

It’s been some time since I last updated this blog. There were certainly topics I wanted to write about, but finding the opportunity was a challenge. In the half year since I wrote, I defended a dissertation and earned my doctorate, took maternity leave, returned to work, kept two humans alive, and found my way back to running.

1

After my son was born, I was immediately thrown into the intensity of defending my dissertation while sometimes going more than 24 hours without genuine sleep. My postpartum anxiety monster gnashed its teeth intensely, often appearing at one or two in the morning. Sometimes the tension and creaking of my own jaw would keep me from resting my head completely on the pillow. Like most (or perhaps every) new mothers, I held solitary nocturnal vigil. Wide-eyed and unmoving, I would listen to the baby breathing. After nursing, the hourglass would reset, and I would battle insomnia through the despair of hoping for another 90 minutes of “sleep” before the next feeding. My saving graces in these months were two rituals. First, I left the house every day, sometimes more than once a day, and walked outdoors with the baby. It was not uncommon for me to walk for 8 or 9 miles a day. The movement and fresh air was an anchor that kept me present in the here and now of the natural world; ushering me in to a safe space of familiarity and reflection at a time when it was challenging simply to converse with other people (let alone take on the entertaining we are often left to haphazardly burden ourselves with as new mothers receiving guests). Second, I started attending an antepartum support group. Every Thursday morning, I’d walk myself and my baby to the neighborhood women’s health collective and observe the sacred 90 minutes of sharing without judgement or advice. It was the medicine I needed to stay well.

As the summer began, the fog started to lift, and I slowly began to feel myself again. My sleep became more regular; the anxiety subsided, and I returned to some normalcy. Going back to work was a positive shift. I found renewed energy and space for family and friends. The baby became more interactive. I had more time for my oldest, time for the one-on-one connections and activities that were snatched away right after the arrival of the second. I feel so well and complete again; balanced and empowered. And my running practice reclaimed its position in my priorities, once again a welcome routine.

2

Motherhood is hard and exhausting. Time soothes the aches, but at its own pace. And although I feel strong and capable of handling the daily trials of work, family, and everything else, I am aware of how easy it is to become overwhelmed by commitments and tasks in a society forever praising us for being busy and thinly spread. I especially reflect on this conflict as a person who craves involvement and participation, who seeks to learn by doing. Some days, many days, I feel like there are not enough hours. And, I often remember that I am still operating from a position where sleep may be scarce.

As I launch into the school year, my calendar replete with volunteer obligations, my activities, and my daughter’s activities; the schedules of an elementary school, a daycare, a university, and my partner’s Ph.D. dissertation looming on the horizon, I am especially grateful for my running practice. Because, unlike many activities, I feel that running is a “being” rather than a “doing.” I feel that running creates the space and time for myself rather than taking away from it. It is self-care that provides me with an escape. To simply move through beautiful surroundings, one foot behind the other, hearing my own breath and my own heart.

3

During some seasons of my practice, running has been a “doing”—extremely goal-oriented, athletic, and competitive. However, as I ride the wave through the rest of this postpartum year, running is simply the place I go when all other aspects of my life appear full to capacity (or perhaps even sloshing over the sides). I keep moving forward.

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Postpartum Update

snow walk

I am writing you from the other side of the pregnancy journey—our baby boy made his appearance three weeks ago on Groundhog Day. I was able to experience another natural labor and birth that was thankfully free from complications and relatively easy-going. Labor itself was more of a marathon than a sprint, with prodromal labor for days leading up to the birth, and everyone expected the real deal to move quickly. Instead, I spent the night at the birth center with an active labor that kept starting and stalling. I dilated to almost 9 centimeters without my water breaking, and the baby’s head couldn’t move down and engage. As the sun rose, my husband and I ended up taking a walk around the neighborhood and getting coffee. When we returned without any changes (other than bagels and mochas), I elected to have my water broken. About one intense hour later, Ruben emerged from some fast and furious pushes. I was relieved to be done with pregnancy and birth!

I learned from my older child that the first week postpartum is the true test of survival. Therefore, I took it very easy this time. I shunned away visitors and stuck to my bed. Even so, I had an itch to get fresh air every day, and by the end of the week, I was doing a little mile loop around the neighborhood. As I continued to heal, I resumed my walking practice, and now I am happily up to my pre-birth daily mileage. When I head out to walk, baby snuggly resting in his carrier, I feel like I am putting on an oxygen mask. It is soothing to connect with nature, get my blood pumping, and return to my favorite hobby—observing the minutia of the changing seasons (we’ve had everything from sunshine and blossoms to snow storms the past two weeks).

I am finally starting to feel up to testing out a return to running in the coming days. I plan to ease in with short distances, and a run/walk combination. In addition to walking, I am working on rebuilding core strength (especially after pushing out a 9-pound baby). I feel like my body is gradually falling back into place. I put myself to bed very early, and sleep when I can. The experience of birth is often described as a fog, and I find the comparison to be quite accurate. Day by day, the misty cloud cover dissipates, and the surroundings come into a slightly clearer view. The newness becomes normal, and a return to routine is found. I continue to feel as though an active pregnancy and postpartum recovery (as soon as I was able to return to activity) facilitated a much easier transition this time. I look forward to running some miles in the very near future!

Active Pregnancy: A Retrospective

running retro

At 35 weeks pregnant, with the baby the size of a honeydew melon, I truly feel as though I am in the home stretch. This pregnancy was different from my first in a number of ways. Most of the “you’ll see” advice about second pregnancies feeling less monumental I received turned out to relatively valid; I felt, and continue to feel, more excited about the baby at the end of this journey rather than my changing body. However, this experience has been punctuated by moments of grounding myself in and truly appreciating the fascinating process of growing a human life. Despite the aches, pains, and exhaustion, I find myself quite proud of my changing body, the work it has undertaken to sustain me and the growing baby.

I started out this pregnancy with the intention of remaining as active as possible, and I am glad that I maintained this norm throughout. During the first trimester, running felt almost unchanged; I adjusted now and then for energy levels and bathroom breaks, but remained relatively steadfast in my daily miles. During the second trimester, I continued to run, but started to incorporate walking and hiking much more intentionally. My hips and pelvis were starting to widen; and as my organs shifted around, I found that running lost some of its comfort. When I began to face diminishing returns on those feelings of freedom and euphoria during a run, I knew it was time to slow down and taper off. By the beginning of the third trimester, I was ready for a hiatus from pounding the pavement. Almost organically, and perhaps in exchange for scaling back my running, I experienced a second wind in my mental focus. By writing every day during the months of November and December, I was able to complete a full draft of my dissertation by the year’s end. I continue to walk at least 5 miles a day (more on the weekends), which has been an amazing gift to my health, fitness, and mental stability. I have found other ways to encounter the joy and connection with nature that sustain my resilience. Last week, I ended the year by walking a trail half marathon. For me, this experience reaffirmed that my body and brain are strong and capable, and that the return to running is out there, waiting.

My midwives have provided encouragement and listening ears through my seasons of active pregnancy. They understood that my temporary disengagement with running is, at times, bittersweet. I ache to run, deep in my bones. I see other runners and I want to spring forward and join them. This is a time of recognizing that absence does make the heart grow fonder. Perhaps some of the most affirming words during this time, came from one of my midwives who encouraged me to visualize my life after birth. “Just think,” she said, “after your body heals from the birth and you creep out of that newborn fog, there will be buds and blossoms on the trees. The days will be longer. The birds will be chirping. And you will be running again… what a wonderful time to start.”

I straddle the present and the future. As I continue my daily walks in the woods, through the dreary January rains, I focus on the beauty of nature surrounding me. I feel a connection to this cycle of nature, of turning inward and hibernating, of doing the invisible work, underground, only to emerge in several weeks’ time with a fertile openness. And in quiet moments, especially in the dark hours of the early morning when I am inexplicably unable to sleep, I soothe my mind by imagining the sound of my feet and the roll of the jogging stroller along my backyard trails, under the pink hue of cherry tree branches and the gold catkins of the alders.

august update

running

A little update about running and this pregnancy. At 16 weeks, I am feeling really good—pretty much my normal self. I am glad to experience higher energy levels and endurance once again. I am back to running 4-5 times a week, which is of great benefit to my mood and my body. I try to fit as much movement into the day as possible, even with a desk job. Even before this pregnancy, our family made it a goal to be in the habit of walking after dinner, and that routine continues to keep me feeling good through the evening. Running itself is more comfortable in the last few weeks, as my physical body acculturates to pregnancy. Earlier on, I carried a lot of bloat and running felt sloshy and off-kilter. Now that my bump is actually uterus, my body mechanics feel more coordinated. I am paying close attention to drinking a lot of water, eating a well-rounded diet, and getting as much sleep at night as I can (it is really difficult for me to nap).

My running practice has always helped to pull me, a very future-oriented person, into a greater appreciation for the present. In this sense, the ability to run more lately is bringing me a sense of harmony with this season of pregnancy. It is tempting and natural for me, right now, to want the fast-forward button. Though infants bring their own challenges, I have, admittedly, felt impatient this time around. For several weeks, I mourned a perceived loss of body autonomy. I am less process-oriented with this pregnancy and sometimes anxious about external expectations to emote/demonstrate/perform differently. However, running cools those flames of worry and also, perhaps most refreshingly, reminds me that I am still the woman inside of me. In a society where pregnancy is often contextualized as medical, delicate, essentially feminine, and perfectly acceptable for objectification, running brings to the forefront several antidotes: strength, resilience, ownership of self and body, independence, and health.

The wildfire smoke haze that dominated much of the month is gone, and last night I woke up to the sound of an unexpected nighttime rain. The breeze touches the skin with a hint of crispness. Dead, dry leaves line the trails, but the ones attached to their branches are starting to redden. Shortening days usher in an earlier golden hour of sunset. I find myself smiling nearly every run these days, because I am here in this movement, and because I am here in this space between seasons.

Happy trails!

july update

13 weeks 2

Here I find myself, pregnant with my second child, and continuing my running practice. The past several weeks have been both exciting and exhausting; challenging in ways I can foggily remember, but also novel in their own unique season. I remain curious and appreciative about what seeing my running practice through a pregnancy will bring. Reflecting on the first trimester, I am very thankful that I knew to keep moving in whatever way I could. Some weeks, running was too unsavory. Even through that slump, I could still find joy in long walks. However, as the flu-like symptoms of early pregnancy subsided, I began to regain my tolerance for running. And then, just as I resigned myself to several months of a more complicated relationship with running, in a fortunate turn of events, running began to feel both joyful and fun again.

I feel like my running practice fits so well with this pregnancy for a few reasons. It brings me strength and clarity during a time when other parts of my biology sometimes feel out of my control. Especially recently, running provides me with that really wonderful combination of endorphins that makes me feel happy and comfortable. This time, pregnancy feels so much less process-oriented; the details and the concerns of the first time are not present, and would also seem almost repulsive at this time. I find I want to just be, and to be peaceful. In my life, a run or a walk in solitude equates to a gift of peace.

In a practical sense, as I near the end of gestation with my other baby, my dissertation, running gives me that mental space to play with ideas. I am particularly grateful for the creative and intellectual energy spun up through locomotion. I am finding and focusing on renewed hunger for zooming in, being present, and grappling with my projects and goals day-by-day. In some ways, this change in my physiology is shifting my mental habits to be more thoughtful, less decisive, and increasingly open to variation.

I do not have grand expectations or ideas of how the next 6 months will unfold, but I am pleased with the balance I currently have. My intention is to honor the practices that make my body and mind feel healthy and strong, even if those evolve from running to something else. In one way or another, many miles and milestones to go.

while you were sleeping

morning run

Image description: Morning sun ray shines through tree branches. A crow flies above.

I woke up early this morning. The light was fading into my eastern-facing bedroom window by 5:00 AM. I was up even before that, mentally busy and reflective. I remembered how, six years ago, I would watch the dawn slowly creep into the house as I listened to my sleeping newborn, soaking in the precious stillness of the time between night and day. The days were lonely and the nights were tiring, but the in-between would always bring a smile to my face. This morning, stirring from the covers, I turned off my alarm, trudged to my closet, and grabbed some running clothes. I could either be awake and horizontal, or awake and on the road. I decided to ditch bed and greet the morning on foot.

There is a great peacefulness in leaving a slumbering house at daybreak. The roads are clear of cars, and the crossing lights turn immediately in my favor, as though my fingers shoot out electricity. The dew glistens on grass, the clouds part away to frame slanted sun rays, and the birds indulge in the day’s first mating songs. As the run progresses, I encounter a handful of other runners. They are smiling, too. We share a secret euphoria. No troubles from the day are being hashed out or replayed; they simply haven’t happened yet. Traversing the streets of a quiet town evokes the euphoria a child feels on a snowy morning; that sense of stillness; that sense that my surroundings are my own private treasure.

Eventually, I glance down at my watch, and realize it is time to head home. The morning begins to ripen. Car doors open and shut and silhouettes are seen in kitchen windows. The neighborhood is waking up. I return, quietly, through the back door. Gently removing my shoes, I softly walk back up the stairs to my daughter’s bedroom. Sitting down at the foot of her bed, I watch her slowly stir from sleep. Her bright green eyes flash open. She takes her warm hand, placing the palm on top of my knee. “Mama! You’re home.”

Nourishing the process

Yet, we have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate… It is what the sailor holding a tight course feels when the wind whips through her hair, when the boat lunges through the waves like a colt—sails, hull, wind, and the sea humming a harmony that vibrates in the sailor’s veins… Contrary to what we usually believe, movements like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience)

Self-esteem…is something completely different in the incremental system. It is not an internal quantity that is fed by easy successes and diminished by failures. It is a positive way of experiencing yourself when you are fully engaged and are using your abilities to the utmost in pursuit of something you value. – Carol Dweck (Self-theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development)

tunnel

Image description: Spring green foliage peeks through a dark sandstone tunnel.

The quest for Optimal Experience is a hunger that I share with many of my closest friends and family members. As an introvert who is completely at peace with introversion, I do not require many in my circle to feel connected and uplifted. However, when individuals radiate intrinsic motivation, I am immediately attracted to their presence. Striving to achieve something in the long-term as an incremental journey is at the core of how I stay motivated. Living in a society that worships instant gratification, short-cuts, and quick fixes, it is sometimes challenging to find opportunities to nurture the internal locus.

When we watch the flames of a bonfire lap up, curving around the logs and branches, they seem chaotic and impulsive. But as Judy Brown reminds us, “the flame that knows just how it wants to burn can find its way.” The seemingly fickle fire is, in many ways, a metaphor for motivation. We often describe motivation as a finite resource, something that is either earned or depleted—or, in a broader extension—the overall label of an individual’s value. “He’s completely unmotivated!” is a phrase I’ve heard rattled off numerous times during my career as a higher education professional. We identify motivation as a quantity, as a measure of judgement. I challenge this assumption through a belief that motivation is an intrinsic and malleable asset we all possess. Like many other dimensions of personality, ranging from grit to empathy, motivation is muscle that must be exercised intentionally and regularly for the purpose of building its strength.

Given that belief, I turn to the idea that motivation, like the flame, finds its way. As stewards of our minds and bodies, we maintain some control over how we stack the logs and feed the fire. We also develop, through patience and observation, the retrospection and experience to understand that obstacles are not failures. Usually, when I am building a fire in the back yard (especially on a windy spring afternoon), it takes several attempts to get going. Then, after the fire establishes itself, it still requires care and attention in its infancy. Each fire is different, depending on temperature, the air, and the moisture of the wood… and while it is tempting to douse a dying flame with lighter fluid, the magic of combustion is short lived. Slowly but surely, the fire becomes a great experiment, as the creator identifies the nourishment that is needed.

Therefore, one cannot claim intrinsic motivation without keeping a watchful eye on what various dimensions of that motivation require. There is a gap between aspiration and practice. Those of us who are future-dwellers may mistake a lofty and distant idea for an exercise in incremental growth. Setting our sights on a hard-earned achievement is futile without daily dedication to the path leading to it. In my life, this often amounts to finding different portals for engaging with my goals. For example, I use this space to reflect on my running practice. Of course journaling is different from logging miles. If I only wrote about running but never laced up my shoes and went running, then I would be deficient in my running practice (and you would likely wonder what I thought I was doing!). However, if we flip the situation, if I ran without reflecting, then I would still lose. Why?

Because for me, writing and pondering is how my running fire likes to be fed. I do not always have time to publish my reflections on this blog, but I frequently journal about the spiritual and emotional dimensions of running. It helps me connect those dots in my mind. Like other humans, my brain works tirelessly to craft a narrative, to find purpose, and to understand the relationship between experiences. These are the building blocks of motivation. Through making meaning, we find it.

I believe it is worth it to reflect on how we are successful in certain ways and why. Remember, our society maintains an extremely myopic definition of success. Think about what produces pleasure, satisfaction, fulfillment, and brings you back time and time again, even when there are episodes of difficulty. Even when not everything works out perfectly. A few examples from people in my life I admire:

-Hand-weeding and tending of a restorative habitat garden

-Regular composition of poetry

-Lifelong practice of Bach’s solo works

-Writing soap opera scripts (for personal enjoyment) for more than a decade

-Recreating and preserving folk quilt patterns

-Regularly participating in a bowling league

-In-depth and ongoing study of maps and geography

These long-term journeys, nourished through intention, appreciation, and hard work, are the successes. It is easy to feel discouraged, to feel left out, and to feel cheated that we haven’t “arrived” at some grand conclusion of happiness and success. As I reflect on these feelings, however, I realize that the process of listening to what fuels my endeavors and passions is the true reward. Here’s to the incremental, the slow, the steady…  to knowing we can find our way.

ALL GUTS!

SnohoWomen'sRun2

Image description: Picture of me running and sweating, from the waist up. I am wearing a dark green tunic, white cap, and a bright yellow backpack.

A few years ago, I participated in some weekly track workouts through the local running club. I was newer to running, and wanted to learn a few tips before embarking on my first marathon. Though my interested in repeatedly circling the rubber university track eventually waned, I did pick up a basic vocabulary of running, some valuable information about form, and a newly formed love/hate relationship with planks. The takeaway that remains with me to this day, however, is the concept of “all guts.”

I’ve written about this on the blog before, but there is a certain point where intellect, calculation, risk awareness, and planning fail the runner. This is usually during the last stretch of a run or a race. Picture this familiar scene:

You are rounding a bend at a slight incline for what seems like the hundredth time during the race. Sweat has accumulated as salty patches at your hairline and on your upper lip. All you smell is salt and your own sweat. The sun is starting to beat down more strongly. The chill of the morning is dissipating. The arches of your feet are starting to feel the effect of miles of friction. Your fingers are starting to tingle. Your lips are gummed up with stringy mucous. You pass the penultimate mile marker, gearing up for the last stretch…

This is precisely where “all guts” serves me so well every time. Good running is about mindfulness and clarity of mind, but those methods of mitigating the noise lose efficacy over time and distance. Beyond that, particularly in a race day situation, there are so many other variables pulling at the brain for attention. Stimuli, time goals, self-imposed expectations, these are all in play as one powers through the corridor of bystanders tinkling cow bells and cheering you on. Sometimes it is too much. Sometimes, often, you want to crash. That last terrible wall looms, the one that cheats you out of a strong finish, the one that cheats you out of a time goal. That wall is self-doubt, and it amounts to folding when you have a perfectly good hand.

When I get to this place, I start to whisper cheer to myself “all guts, all guts, all guts.” Sometimes I say it under my breath as I run the last mile. I was introduced to this concept during mile repeats at track workouts. We were encouraged to run the fastest mile we could, as a way of setting a base personal record. Finishing the third lap, there was this one coach who would yell “all guts!” as we curved into the fourth a final lap. He said it kindly, but excitedly. And each time, this reminder was very effective. It was a cue to shut of my frontal lobe, embrace my primal humanity, and simply run hard.

I was running a 10K race yesterday, and feeling strong throughout. I knew I was averaging somewhere between 8:15 and 8:30 a mile, and that is pretty speedy for my body at that distance. Shortly after hitting the 5 Mile marker (and running for a few miles up to that point in relative solitude), I turned the corner to crowds of race volunteers and people. The appearance of all of this broke my focus and I was suddenly aware of my own exhaustion. My legs, spoiled from my penchant for trails, realized I tricked them into a road run. I really wanted to slow down and take a long walk break, but I didn’t. Instead, I kept running and did a brief body scan. Was I feeling sharp pain? No. Did I have a side cramp? No. Was I short of breath? No. I was feeling that overload at the end of the race… I was feeling the last wall creep up. “ALL GUTS!” I shouted in my head, “ALL GUTS! ALL GUTS!”

And I shouted that all the way to the finish line until I crossed, looked up at the clock, and realized I set a new 10K race PR.

April Recap

Image description: Full pink blossoms and green leaves on a tree branch with blue sky in the background.

The month started with the emergence of blossoms, and it concludes with nearly full leaf cover, bright green fingers on the edge of the evergreens, and the thick smell of pollen in the air. I enjoyed running in a few different locations, including during my two trips to Oregon. As the trails came alive with new growth, I cherished the gift of taking long walks through the arboretum during my lunch hour. I ran my first half marathon of the year, and it was really enjoyable and comfortable. I am feeling energized about my running practice as the days continue to lengthen and the weather warms. My daughter and I are now running together regularly. I had my annual destination race adventure with my number one running buddy. Overall, April exceeded my expectations.

I am looking forward to the slide into summer. To waking up early in the cool dawn, before the dew evaporates from the pavement. To extended golden hours in the evening. To trekking and running through the many natural beaches mere miles from my house. To continued changes in my own life as I delve deeper into the final push of my dissertation and support my family through growth and love. I feel a sense of peace and excitement.

I am also very pleased to be approaching a summer that does not involve marathon training. While marathon training is a labor of love, I do not feel the drive to shift my running practice in that direction. Rather, I continue to enjoy my intentions of pursuing sustainability and reclaiming excitement. There is something absolutely thrilling and invigorating about leaping out for a sunny evening run, with no particular agenda other than to find joy.

High Desert Hopes

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Image description: A tray of ten beer samples on a wood table next to tortilla chips.

Bend Half Marathon weekend is upon me! I look forward to a road trip with my running buddy and some new scenery. Destination races are always exciting and provoke some anxiety. Sleeping in a different bed, eating different foods, being away from the comfort and supplies of home… Nevertheless, I always make great memories racing somewhere else, and celebrating post-race with food and drink as a tourist is quite appealing!

When I am packing for a race, I almost always over pack. In the case of a road trip, I think this approach can’t hurt. I like to bring at least a spare set of running clothes, including socks and bra, for race day. I also make sure to bring a few different options for weather, including a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, warmer layer, and did I say spare socks? Because I am nearly legally blind without my glasses or contacts, I make sure to bring extra contacts. Finally, when I am going to run a specific race for the first time, I pack along my own fuel. This necessitates bringing a hydration pack, belt, or some other type of carrier to store items for the run. If you are doing this in the future, make sure you’ve practiced running with that pack/belt/carrier. I think the discomfort of adjusting an ill-fitting fuel belt is far more infuriating than dealing with a food blister. Honestly.

Every race brings with it a different intention. This time around, I am going for the experience and to enjoy running in new surroundings. Between factoring in altitude and my more relaxed training schedule (running several times a week, but a bit less aggressive with sequenced long runs), I am taking a no-pressure approach to the Bend event. I approached Wenatchee similarly this time last year, and I felt like I got a good pay-off. I was able to enjoy my two hours of running without worrying about setting a personal best. I am hoping for a similar experience this time around.

As with any long distance run, staying up and moving both before and after is a gift for the muscles. I plan to get plenty of walking in on Saturday, and plenty of walking in on Sunday after the race. Much of the stiffness and soreness felt after a half marathon may be proactively mitigated by keeping plenty of blood and oxygen cycling through the body. I find that destination races invite this recovery quite naturally, as there is typically much to see and do after the racing events of the morning conclude.

More than anything, I look forward to sharing this time with my running buddy and best friend. There is no richer bonding experience than sweating, agonizing, and achieving together. Off to the high desert!