before dawn, lately

It’s 5:10 AM and the buzzing of my phone alarm beside my pillow signals it is time to get moving. I shuffle out of bed, put in my contacts, feed the cat, and start warming the kettle for my pour over coffee. By 5:45, I am out on the dark quiet sidewalk, starting my miles under the stars and the moon, if I am lucky. Sometimes I greet clouds or fog. An overcast sky is incredibly striking when lit by the streetlamps; the eerily punctuated ecru disappearing only as the sky itself brightens with the coming dawn. As the fall settles herself in, there are the mornings of bluster and rain. And certainly, more rain and wind to come…

Over the summer, I became an early morning runner. It started as a way to beat the heat. I figured if I could get in a run before 7:00 AM, I would enjoy some of the coolest and freshest air of the day. At first, it felt challenging to run so early. I had to fine-tune the amount of time I needed between waking up and lacing up my shoes. Rushing made me flustered, but too much time tempted me to stay in my slippers and drink another cup of coffee. I had to rewire my brain circuitry to reclaim the joy of running during a season when I had just returned to reliably uninterrupted nights of sleep. Despite all of these factors, I found the results of running before the rest of the day’s noise, panic, rhythm, and people to be irresistibly fortifying. The mornings, which I, as a working mother of two, had grown deeply accustomed to experiencing as frustrating, harried, and overwhelming, became, over time, a sanctuary for my own silence and movement.

I write, now, as a full convert to the daily morning run. I still enjoy my walks in the woods at lunch during the work week, and my long runs on the weekends and days away from the office, but the early morning miles are a particularly potent balm to mitigate stress and angst as I begin the day. And my mindset has changed from hoping that I can squeeze in a run after work, to returning home with the satisfaction that I am actually quite finished with the labors of the day, able to retire to the evening routine with my family. I joke with my dearest ones that morning running makes me less of an asshole when I get to the office. I am partially serious. In a new position with increased responsibilities from supervising to teaching, my days flow best when I begin with a full cup of empathy. Personally, running practice has always afforded me the quiet stillness, deep inside, from which to bloom thoughtful, productive, and loving sentiments.

running

This summer I really felt a transformational leap in my running. I learned new trails, ran and hiked new mountains, and have found new approaches to maintaining a high weekly mileage without injury or burnout. Life is comprised of seasons, and the intensity of a running practice waxes and wanes. For the time being, I find returning home to a slumbering house after an entire adventure under the cover of the night’s last hours to be exactly right in this moment.

mt baker

June recap

June was a high-mileage month for me. I went into the month knowing I wanted to do a long solstice trail run from my house to the top of Chuckanut Mountain, so I was a bit more disciplined about adding in weekday miles, since I did not want to injure myself by being under-trained for a longer trail run. It was also an incredibly busy month for me until around the solstice, given that the university was in the last weeks of the academic year, and my work demands were at a fever pitch. I found that turning my focus toward running really helped get me through the month with a stable frame of mind. I experienced much more energy getting through the final weeks of the term than I have earlier this year, and I felt more relaxed about the outcome of situations, even under pressure. Another significant change in my life that has made space for more stamina is my reunion with uninterrupted sleep! Yes, the baby, now nearly 1.5, is finally night weaned and sleeping in his crib. My amazing partner does the nighttime parenting, if needed. After a 9 month pregnancy riddled with insomnia followed by a 16 month period of nursing on demand, including all night long… I am so forever grateful for my precious sleep. Oh, how I have learned to function convincingly under little-to-no sleep; how I prefer to function authentically with plenty of it!

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In the middle of the month, I ran the Berry Dairy Days half marathon, a local small town race the county over. It was the first time I have finished a half right around the 2:00 mark since early 2017. Even though my time was relatively speedy, I had a difficult time enjoying the race while I was running it. I think I was too exhausted, mentally, by that point to get excited about the 13.1 in front of me. It was a Sunday of a week that had me working all the way through Saturday. Waking up on a gloomy June morning and driving a half hour to Burlington was a bit painful as I longingly considered homemade waffle bar and another press of coffee with the family instead! Despite all of this, I did have some great miles from around mile 8-the finish. I think I needed an hour and some change to get into it.

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Toward the end of the month, I celebrated the solstice with a run (as is my annual tradition). This year, I decided to do something a little different and plot out a long trail run (around 20 miles a few thousand feet elevation) from my house to Lost Lake, up on the ridge of Chuckanut Mountain. I started the morning at around 6:30 AM by running to Arroyo Park, about a 7 mile route. Then I met a friend there for the Chuckanut portion of the trek, since I was feeling uneasy about running alone in the woods early on a Saturday morning (and once a seed of anxiety like that plants for me, I can’t enjoy my run). Luckily, Suzanne to the rescue! So we sauntered up the side of Chuckanut at a speed walk and then enjoyed a wonderful run on the ridge-line and along the lake and back on the Interurban to Arroyo. I was originally going to run a full 27 miles and complete the entire loop back at my house, but given burnout I had been feeling just the week before during the half marathon, I decided to end on a high note and ride back to town from Arroyo.

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Since then, I’ve been enjoying the temperate start to summer and lots of long runs in the woods. There is something so soothing about the greenery of ferns along a creek bed, the moisture protected and cooled by the shadows of Douglas firs and sandstone boulders. At the same time, there is a wildness to the abundance; more rustling in the branches than any other time of year. The deer linger with curious expressions in their eyes, rather than darting away. The baby rabbits scurry from one side of a blackberry corridor to the other hungrily. Even the birds are particularly strident as they retreat to a more natural lair. It is here, enveloped in this all, that my chest feels open, my heart bright, my feet delighting in the dance that seems only known to us.

a seasonally affected race day and other tales of winter blues

Over in Western Washington, we lovingly referred to the weather last week as Snowmageddon 2019. Indeed, after false hope that the extreme meteorological predictions were exaggerated, the snow started falling the weekend before last and proceeded to shut down the city for a good 48 hours, followed by days of terrible road conditions and over a foot of snow that was in no mood to melt (as I type this, some still remains on the ground). The half marathon I had been training for was scheduled for Sunday morning, and I was hopeful that after a week of frigid wintery weather, the thaw would have ample time to prepare the course for runners. The emails from the race director were cautiously optimistic—everyone seemed prepared to move forward with the event, even if there might be a few challenges along the route. The hopes I had for a successful race day were significantly hampered when I went out for a relaxed tempo run the morning before the half marathon. Even with Yaktrax on, I only made it three blocks before turning back home. The compacted snow was stubbornly transformed into large sheets of ice, punctuated by slippery bumps and grooves poised to twist ankles and trip feet. By Saturday afternoon, the email cancelling the race seemed almost inevitable. Disappointing outcome, but one that could not be avoided given the circumstances with weather and road conditions.

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This has been a bleak month in some ways. Beyond the fact that we are in the running for the coldest February on record in this region, my universe seems to be giving me difficult situations to digest. The baby was sick for much of the first half of the month, and the long hours of illness (with the accompanying sleepless nights, tired arms, aching back from carrying, cabin fever) blended into more than a week of school closures. My daughter struggled with a lack of routine. My best friend and original running buddy accepted an amazing job across the country and will move in a few weeks. While I am really excited for her, this is a big change and one that bring some sadness, as we adjust to a long distance relationship. Two coworkers with who I really enjoy working (one of whom is a mentor of mine) are retiring this summer. I find myself a bit untethered imagining the possibility of tackling the next academic year at work without them. My partner is about to take the comprehensive exams for his Ph.D. program, and the process of preparing creates a distinct stress that creeps its tentacles into every cranny of family life (I say this from a place of deep empathy, as I remember preparing for and taking my comps two and a half years ago, and it is incredibly taxing).

I was feeling overwhelmed by all of this yesterday morning. I felt that uncomfortable heaviness, when you desire more than anything the catharsis of tears, and yet the control mechanisms on my emotional filter were clamped down so tightly, I could not begin to cry. Without any other appealing option, I laced up my shoes and pushed myself out the door. And I ran those miles I could not earlier in the week; I once again returned to the comfort of breath and locomotion. Slowly, the swirling thoughts softened and lost their sting. The angst lessened and the weight lifted off my heart.

I came away from that run and some further reflection afterward with a new understanding. I am noticing opportunities in my life for development. Variables are shifting, and while there are new challenges, I am strong, smart, and good-humored enough to both persist and shape these opportunities into excitement and renewal. I was trained and prepared to run 13 miles two days ago. What a gift! Another race will present itself in the near future. My family will continue to strengthen by channeling empathy and curiosity as we meet the busy weeks ahead. My friendship enjoyed the rare benefit of nearly a decade of spontaneous in-person togetherness, but from that foundation, a promise of a new and adventurous chapter (including lots of travel) lies ahead, along with the organic departure from the immediacy of parenting a baby (as he and his sister both grow older). I see the work at hand as a charge to wade into the next several months equipped with my most successful tools. Yesterday reminded me that even during the bleakest darkest days, running remains one of those tools… and I was so very thankful for it when I returned home yesterday, hugged my children and partner, and reset my thinking about the future ahead.

milk & miles

one

Running and breastfeeding are compatible activities that I have had the opportunity to enjoy with two babies. Each time I’ve learned something different, especially given that I did not start running regularly until my daughter was almost one, but I went back to running only a few weeks after giving birth to my son. In both cases, I learned how to keep the balance of logging miles and making milk for babies at different stages in their development and nutritional needs. I thought I would share a few insights in case it might be useful to a fellow mama runner (or friend/partner of one) in the future.

In the first six weeks of life, a newborn’s stomach is very small and breastmilk is metabolized quickly. Furthermore, so much of nursing fulfills needs far beyond nourishment. Hormones catalyzed during nursing sessions accomplish tasks ranging from bonding to shrinking the uterus and helping internal organs shift back into place. Skin-to-skin contact is important, the mother and baby should really smell one another in the holistic sense to keep these biochemical changes progressing. There are very few people who could jump up and go for a long run right after giving birth anyway (most of us are still in our adult diapers scarfing lukewarm meals one handed while crying over everything), but, needless to say, I think this is a time when breastfeeding should really take priority over any type of routine exercise.

During the fourth trimester, the first three months of a baby’s life, breastfeeding begins to hit a more routine stride. With my son, I started to really pursue running once he was about 2 months old. At this point, I could tank him up with milk before a nap, leave him snuggled with his dad, and enjoy 3 miles around the neighborhood without worrying. I planned to go back to work with both kids, so I began pumping pretty early on. As the months progressed, I felt confident going out for longer runs knowing that my partner could always give the baby a bottle if I wasn’t there.

two

In my experience, by about 7 or 8 months, a baby is getting nourishment from some solids/table foods in addition to breastmilk, although breastmilk comprises the majority of the diet. This is when I felt like I could really enjoy longer runs without the pangs of worry about missing a nursing session. The challenge during this period for me with both babies was maintaining ample milk supply in the context of working and pumping. So I was pretty intentional about nursing both before leaving for a run and when coming back to keep my body in that routine (breastfeeding is, at a simplistic level, supply and demand). For longer race days, I’ve found that a small hand pump and cooler bag stashed in my gear bag has provided relief and or peace of mind when I need it. By the way, I have seen many nursing mothers pump before the start of races (you start to see it when you’ve done it!).

With babies and toddlers one and older, daytime nursing becomes more infrequent. I stopped pumping at one year with my daughter, and plan a similar schedule with my son, with the commitment to nurse at night/when I am home as long as we are both enjoying it. As a runner, I look forward to this chapter of the nursing journey because I inevitably earn back a lot of bodily autonomy and the logistics of pumping and nursing become nearly inconsequential. Keeping up good hydration and nutrition is the key to maintaining a milk supply for as long as is desired.

three

Breastfeeding eats up about 500 calories a day, and quite a bit of fluid. I find it is much easier to become dehydrated when training and breastfeeding, so drinking a lot of water is really important. I start the morning by drinking 16 ounces minimum, right off the bat, before any coffee or other beverages. I also eat a lot of nourishing calories frequently through the day. Protein is often elevated to star status when we talk about diets for athletes, but carbohydrates and fats are foundational for both the glycogen stores one requires for regular running (especially distance running) and the ability for a body to make and sustain milk supply. Some of my staples in addition to complete meals are homemade banana bread with peanut butter on it, Greek yogurt with granola, hummus and pita, avocado and corn chips… you get the idea. I am constantly snacking, especially at night before I inevitably spend a few of my wake-ups nursing.

There is anecdotal data out there about how running changes the taste of milk, or how one should shower before nursing because the smell/taste of sweat is somehow a barrier to the baby nursing, but I’ve never experienced any issues. Supportive and comfortable sports bras are always important, but especially for a lactating runner as underwire or constriction can cause clogged ducts and other minor (albeit obnoxious) complications. Most of my running shirts already have a quarter zip at the neck, so nursing in my gear is usually simple. By the time a baby is approaching toddlerhood, they are usually too busy to demand nursing right away, anyway. Lately, I have enjoyed that transition as I now come home from my runs and cherish, with gratitude, the fact that I can take a hot shower uninterrupted before doing anything else.

four

Running has made many things, including motherhood, so much healthier and more enjoyable for me. There is no reason why breastfeeding should be a barrier to maintaining a running practice; in fact, best practices for proactive self-care when nursing perform quite a bit of double duty for keeping a runner healthy and happy, as well.

return to distance

I am settling back into the routine of training for a half marathon after taking a year and a half away from distance running to be pregnant, give birth, and recover. There were a few races sprinkled in there, with running at shorter lengths comprising an increasingly regular part of my exercise schedule for the past year. I have to say that I am both glad I waited to embark on distance training, and that I am also filled with joy about being back to this beloved journey of gradually building endurance and physical strength to go long.

I have always framed running practice as a long-term relationship; there are seasons of life when other responsibilities and activities take priority over training, and then there are the openings that present themselves to return to a deeper commitment of time and energy. After a challenging fall of colds and sickness; one that required the patience to rest (admittedly something with which I struggle), I started to enjoy that natural paradigm shift, that changing orientation to possibility. The reward of returning to regular long runs is tremendous. I missed the self that emerges only during those solitary journeys—I missed that old friend inside of me. I missed the quiet—oh, the quiet! I love my children, but I think most mothers of young kids would agree that there is nothing like an uninterrupted thought. I missed the nothingness, the plateau of hitting the zone, when time and effort recede to the background hum, and the flight of the body becomes one with the mind.

I am revisiting a half marathon I ran three years ago, when I was at my fastest speed. I do not expect to touch this record. Bodies evolve and goals shift. I desire two things: to run the entire course, and to finish. And while the final outcome of race day excites me, I have to admit that the process of getting there is my prize this time around. One foot ahead of the other, breath locked in relaxed rhythm, the changing landscape ahead welcoming me along.

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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.

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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.

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!