Conflicting priorities – how do you decide?

I’ll be the first to admit that making decisions is not my strong point. I don’t think many people would refer to me as ‘opinionated’. I tend to see all sides of an argument or story, even when I’m actually trying to pick a side. When forced to make a decision, I first do a lot of listening, gather information, mull it over (usually throughout a few runs), chat about it, do a gut check, and then finally make a choice. I know life moves faster than that, so I can and do make quicker decisions, I’m just not that invested in them. I see this as a strength as I can change directions easily and with little fuss. As the wind blows…

However I do think about how I am supposed to make the “right” decision, especially when it comes to conflicting priorities, like work, family, and my own athletic pursuits. Here is an example I’m struggling with; I find longer tempo workouts particularly challenging on my own, and therefore I don’t do them as often or as well as I should if I want to realize my best results in races. I do however have a coach and group of runners to run with and push me on the exact day I need to do my tempos – Saturday mornings. But these workouts are across town and what I could get done on my own in an hour if I just stepped out my door could take me three hours if I meet the group. So then I’m stuck deciding… is it worth it? Three hours away from my kids and family on a Saturday for a better quality workout? I play it out over the long run – what could these workouts possibly lead to? Maybe 10-15 seconds faster in a 5K, 30 seconds to a minute in a Half Marathon? Do I care about that more than say going for a family bike ride or hike or library visit which we love doing together? But then, what if my kids are being ungrateful brats who are whiny and refuse to do anything (it sometimes happens) and I’m stuck with them for an extra two hours vs. doing something rewarding and energizing for myself? See what I mean? There is no clear answer as to what the “right” decision is. If I were completely invested in my running and results I would do the workouts. And if I didn’t care at all about running results I’d invest the time with my kids. My reality is somewhere in the middle.

I guess like most things in my life, I’ll probably just compromise. I’ll go to the workouts sometimes and do family time sometimes. I won’t be the best, most present parent, and I won’t be the fastest runner I can be. That’s just how it’ll be for now. Until the wind changes direction again and a new option pops up.

Gratitude Letter (of sorts) to my coach

A few months ago I took a mindfulness course. As part of it I was supposed to write a Gratitude Letter. This is a letter to someone who has had a positive impact in your life. You are supposed to write down all of the things you’re grateful for and then send it to them. I didn’t do this. But I did do it in my head. My person was my running coach who I started training with when I was 15; Ross Ristuccia. Since that first practice in 1991 when I showed up at Winston Churchill Park in my shorts, t-shirt and running shoes, Ross has been a steady, guiding influence in my life. He’s never asked anything of me, but I’ve always known that he will be there and eager to help me whenever I ask him. There is a lot to be said for unconditional, reliable support. Especially as you go through all of the torrent of changes which happen between the ages of 15 and 42 (there are a few). I often think about what Ross has had to hear from me over the years. Here is a sampling in chronological order.

“Ross, I can’t run today – I brought the wrong bra”

“Ross, I ate too much before practice and have sour burps”

“Ross, I know you said not to really run the Terry Fox 10K at school because I have practice today, but I kind of raced my friend, so now I’m tired”

“Ross, I’m tired from swimming and my shins hurt from wearing cleats for field hockey”

“Ross, my parents found a 2-4 of beer under my bed and now I’m in trouble”

“Ross, I know you tell me to slow down and not do too much sometimes, but I’m a teenager, so I’ll listen but I won’t really hear you”

“Ross, I’m injured”

“Ross, you know those shorts you once told me you don’t like because they’re not very professional looking for big meets? Big mistake. I will now wear them every single time. Just because I’m a teenager and we kind of like to test people and we’re assholes sometimes”

“Ross, do you think smoking would hurt my 1500 m time?”

“Ross, I’ll be working up north all summer and I might run sometimes if it works for me”

“Ross, I’m back – can you get me back in shape?”

“Ross, I’m leaving for university out of town. I expect to be able to show up at your workouts whenever I’m in town and it suits me though, ok?”

“Hi Ross, I’m back”

“Hi Ross, I’m back”

“Hi Ross, I’m back”

“Ross, I’m traveling. Don’t know when you’ll see me again”

“Hi Ross, I’m back”

“Ross, work and life are stressful. I just need the constant grounding presence of you and a workout”

“Ross I want to run marathons – will you train me?”

“Ross, now I’m doing an Ironman. I’ll show up for your workouts when it suits me”

“Ross, can you make me fast again?”

“Ross, I’m getting married! Ya, same guy you used to coach in high school too”

“Ross, I’m pregnant”

Long silence

“Ross, I’m pregnant again”

“Ross, not sure what I want to do with my life. Can I try coaching with you?”

“Ross, now I have my own business and my kids are busy. I can’t do it anymore”

Long silence.

“Ross – Thank You for Everything”

What it’s like to walk vs race a marathon

I’ve run (or I should say raced) many marathons. At least 10 I think. People have asked me later about some fact or other about the course or the scenery, and I’ve had absolutely no idea. When I’m racing, I’m extremely internally and process focused, and only register the outside world in fleeting glimmers. In Philadelphia I think we ran through a zoo, but I don’t recall one specific detail of that. In Chicago all I remember is seeing Paula Radcliffe at the start; I couldn’t tell you one thing about the course. In Sacramento I remember my friend cheering me on halfway through – that’s it. It almost seems pointless for me to go somewhere beautiful to race a marathon because that is not what I will take in.

But this year I decided to walk a marathon. The Catalina Marathon to be exact, which is on Catalina Island: 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. It is beautiful and scenic and contains over 4000 feet of total elevation. My husband was racing and it was point to point, and logistics proved that the best way to meet him at the finish was to walk there. Plus I would be accompanied by a very fun crew of people also walking it. What a different experience! Here are the pros of walking a marathon:

1.You don’t have to stress about getting enough rest and good nutrition in the days before. This worked out well for me with all the travel it took to get there. Also, once on the island I enjoyed a beautiful run, not worrying about time or pace, and finished with whatever I wanted to eat, including a beer.

2. You don’t have to wake up super early in order to eat and digest breakfast before the race. In fact, you can take your last bite of food and sip of coffee while walking!

3. You also don’t have to worry about warming up. You just start walking.

4. You can eat whatever you want at all of the aid stations because you can walk and digest at the same time (so wonderful)

My diet throughout the Catalina Marathon

5. You can even drink a beer at the beer station!

I’m sure it was after noon somewhere …

6. You can stop to pee whenever you need to (which, it turns out is much more often than when racing – especially if you’ve had a beer)

7. You can take in the beautiful scenery in every spectacular detail. You can even stop to take pictures!

I definitely paused to take it all in.

8. You can have great conversations with the people you’re walking with. You can ask insightful questions and respond with well thought out sentences instead of communicating in gutteral grunts.

Some of the amazing people I was lucky to share this experience with.

9. When you finish, you feel quite good vs. like a truck has just run you over.

10. You actually look forward to going for a run the next day.

I sure took a lot of footsteps – but they didn’t leave me feeling wrecked.

So would I walk a marathon again? Sure! But I’d have very different criteria from marathons I race. To walk a marathon it should have: nice scenery, good food on course (beer a plus), enjoyable warm-ish walking temperatures, changes and undulations in the course are appreciated, and I’d have to do it with good company.

To race a marathon I would like: lots of port-a-potties at the start, cool temperatures for racing, water/sports drink every 5km, scenery not a requisite but would like a flat, fast course, and any human bodies will do to run with as long as they’re running my pace.

That’s not all too much to ask, is it?

Running (and thinking) like a kid

As a parent it is hard not to see the world through kids’ eyes a lot of the time. Usually our role as adults is to guide them and re-direct them to see the world through the perspective which we have gained through experience. There’s a reason we are boring to them – we are grounded in reality. “No, you can’t wear a cape and ‘fly’ off the roof.” “No, you can’t eat glow-in-the-dark slime and become a radioactive superhero.” “No, you can’t shoot firecrackers behind a skateboard for propulsion.” You know, the usual. But in observing my son and his friends in sports, I noticed something we could all stand to re-learn.

My son is 10 years old. This year he decided that he wanted to learn to snowboard. It did not suit our family schedule (or budget) to get him lessons, so he was left to learn on his own for a few hours every weekend. I had never witnessed him in action, as I was either off cross-country skiing or reading in the chalet. However, he would regale me with tales of his carves and “wicked airs”. I knew that in reality he was probably spending a lot of time on his butt, but in his head he was basically Mark McMorris. He never got discouraged or lost confidence.

To you it’s the bunny hill. To them it’s Pyeong Chang.

My friend’s son is the same. Despite never actually having played football, he is such a keen fan and observer that he could “pretty much basically probably make it into the NFL”. My nephew is “basically the 11 year-old equivalent of Lionel Messi.” While watching the Olympics my son will muse, “I wonder which sport I’d like to go to the Olympics in.” Never once questioning that he might not make it.

I don’t think this is false confidence. They know that they fall and lose and drop the ball a lot. What it is is fantasy which fuels their action. They are doggedly optimistic and happy in their fantasy worlds, which is why they keep dusting themselves off. While they are out doing their thing, in their heads they are the best. They go all in with enthusiasm and joy and dreams.

I think I remember a time when I would run this way. When I was 15, in my head I was Uta Pippig (I know this dates me – today it would likely be Shalane Flanagan). I would run imagining the glory of being the fastest runner in the world. I wasn’t constrained by the boring reality of my actual split times or paltry training regimen. Fantasy fueled me and energized me and propelled me forward.

This is something I want to get back. To live and think a little more like a kid and allow my fantasies and dreams to excite me instead of being grounded in the mundane reality of my actual racing potential. Olympics 2022, here I come!

Sick Runners

When I go to my doctor if I’m feeling ill, whether I think it may be Strep Throat, Bronchitis, or some other malady, I usually say, “… and my other symptom is that my runs feel really hard.” Then she looks at me and I can see her thinking, “well, if you’re still running, you can’t be that sick.”

The thing is, with runners, going for a run is no barometer or indicator of how well everything else is going in our lives. We don’t wake up every day and decide whether we’re going to go for a run or not. That decision has been made. It doesn’t take willpower or mental energy. We don’t consider the pros and cons and then make the decision. We skip all that. We just go. That’s the only way we’re able to do it so consistently every day. We just know we are going. The only question is how the run will play out based on our physical and emotional states and the conditions. Some days obviously feel way better than others, but we don’t pick and choose based on a scale of how ‘good’ it will be.

I liken it to brushing your teeth. Once it’s a habit, you just do it. You don’t consider every night before going to bed whether you will brush your teeth or not. It’s just what you do. Missing a night won’t kill you, and you rationally know you won’t get cavities in one night, but you miss it and you feel more comfortable doing it.

So it is even when we are sick. My thinking process goes like this: “Well, I’m up. I’m making lunches for my kids. I have to get dressed and walk them to school. If I can put one foot in front of the other I may as well run.” No, these are not my ‘best’ runs. They are short and slow. But I’m pretty sure they don’t make me feel worse. Since I don’t have a decision making process, I don’t know how to decide whether to go or not. Unless I physically can not put one foot in front of the other, my default ‘habit’ is to go for a run. I also have to be extremely sick not to brush my teeth before going to bed. It’s the same logic.

I know this may look obsessive and unhealthy from the outside, but it is just two sides of the same coin. I don’t deserve kudos for having the ‘willpower’ to run every day because it takes no willpower, but I also have an ingrained habit which is powerful and hard to turn off. I have a friend who ran the Boston Marathon with walking pneumonia. Unlike some who might have thought he was masochistic and nuts, I understood. He had made the decision a long time ago. He was running Boston. How it played out might change, but the decision to run was not up for question.

So when people say “well, if you’re running you can’t be that sick” I always smile inwardly. They don’t know runners.

Still running…

Running Sucks

Running Sucks. Doesn’t that feel good to say? There’s something satisfying and cathartic in saying it. Let’s face it, even though we’re “Runners” and we know we’ll always be back, sometimes it just feels good to say “Eff this”. I mean seriously – it’s often hard work and a huge slog. Especially now if you’re training for a marathon through temperatures which are alternating between absolutely suckingly freezing, generally cold and dark, and cold wet rain.

Not an uncommon t-shirt to see. Obviously the message resonates.

Here’s the catch though, and as runners we all know this. Complaining doesn’t get you off the hook. You still need running for all it gives you and all that you get out of it. Your non-running friends will say, “I told you it sucks! If you hate it so much why do you do it?” And you won’t really have an answer. So you know you can only complain in certain circles; amongst runners who know and agree and say, “Ya, this is brutal. Ok, let’s go”.

There are times, maybe during a particularly cold and nasty run, or in the middle of a long, hard, unrelenting training block, or after a string of poor performances, or usually after a marathon, when you actually do say “I’m done. I do not need to do this to myself”. And maybe you actually do need to stop and take a break. I’ve been there. More than once which is how I know it’s not a permanent condition.

My last episode was in the middle of a race which I was using as a training run. I had been getting deeper and deeper into a state of fatigue and over-training by trying to “keep my fitness up” after training for and racing a marathon. I was in a good state of denial though. The weather was perfect for running (it was spring) and all my friends were running. Why would I take time off? I went through weeks of up and down performances and training sessions just getting more and more fatigued and deeper and deeper into a hole. Then in the middle of the race I just said it. “Eff this. I’m done” and stopped dead.

Socks I gave my husband for Christmas. We’re both good at embracing the suck, but also knowing when to say ‘eff it’

That was about eight months ago. I’m happy to say that I don’t currently hate running. In fact, I’m starting to kind of really love it again. I knew I would. I love so much about running and wouldn’t want to live without it but at the same time, it feels so good sometimes to just say “Running Sucks”. So go ahead and say it. Then get your butt out for a run.

What place?

“What place did you get?” I hear this question being shouted to each other by 8 to 11 year olds all around. It is their form of communication at the end of a day of cross-country racing. I see kids from different schools who know each other and haven’t seen each other in a while, and their standard greeting is “what place?” I cringe a little each time. I coach these kids and I don’t even ask them what place they came in. I cheer for them as they are racing and can see the level of effort they are putting in. I watch them finish and look down at the number on the little piece of paper they’ve been given. I can tell by their faces whether they are happy with their effort and the result it garnered or not. Then mostly I just say “great job, way to go, I’m proud of you” or in some cases “you were tough out there and you learned something for the next one”. Maybe they’re waiting for me to ask “what place?” I just can’t bring myself to do it because it feels like such a loaded question to me and I don’t have enough context. Some kids are thrilled with 88, others are in tears with 13. I have a friend whose son’s goal was to NOT advance to the third meet. So there’s no point in asking if I don’t know what it means.

But that’s one of the things I find so great and funny and refreshing about kids. To them, it’s not a loaded question at all: it’s a straight up objective number. In fact, to them it would probably seem rude and like you didn’t care if you didn’t ask. None of them asks, “how did it feel” or “are you happy with it” or “what was your goal”.  They just want the number. These are their social rules. I watch as the question gets flung around again and again, and no one seems put out by it at all. No one says “none of your business” or “I don’t want to tell”. Everyone shares openly and then goes and asks someone else.

 

Grade 3 is the first year they are given a place. Grades 1 and 2 compete, but aren’t yet ‘ranked’.

I’m not sure when this changes. Like most things it probably happens gradually. Kids learn that there are many layers behind what you see. Just as you shouldn’t ask someone how much money they make, your standard greeting after a race shouldn’t be “what place did you get?” Trying to explain this to a kid is hard. I’ll just go about my usual tactic of trying to lead by example and hoping they figure it out along the way.

A happy crew – and quite fine with each of their numbers.

My watch and I are getting to know each other

I came of age as a runner in my teens in the ’90’s. That’s when I learned how to run intervals, hills, tempos, long runs, and arguably, to race. I refined my knowledge and experience in my 20’s early in the new millennium. Then I had a couple of kids and ran haphazardly, but by the early 2010’s I was ready to see if I could match what I’d accomplished in my previous running years. One obvious difference between my earlier running years and my “come-back” was the technology. Specifically, gps pace/distance tracking capability. I had learned to run by going by time and feel. Apart from intervals on the track, everything was time and effort based, and an estimation of pace/mileage would suffice for log books.

Now you could have a watch which told you exactly how far you ran and give you your current pace at every glance. Great for newbies, I thought, but I already knew what I was doing.  I was now just trying to replicate what I’d already done, and I knew how to get there, so why did I need something new?

But every now and then I’d be curious about a hard effort I had to do, and I’d borrow my husband’s gps watch – just to make sure my mind and body were giving me the accurate information. Borrowing his watch once a week during a marathon build was enough for him to think I needed one of my own. So I am now the happy owner of a Garmin Fenix 5 – or as I call it: “the white and gold one”.

My new good looking “coach”

What has changed? Well, now I’m painfully aware of how slowly I actually run on recovery days – holy cow!!! Also, since it’s not as perfect about timing track intervals with recovery times (you just need a stopwatch) – I still use my trusty old Timex for those sessions. So now my watch thinks I’m a lot slower than I actually am. It’s constantly buzzing at me to “MOVE!” (even in the middle of a yoga class). Sometimes I hear a little buzz during a warm-up or recovery run and I look down to see: “Performance: -4. Fair”  Thanks for your input – Geesh! Its predictions for my race times are way slower than my actual race times. And I can’t help but notice that if I were concerned at all about calories then I wouldn’t be doing the right things to make myself fast. For instance, after a very tough interval workout (1600m, 1200m, 1000m, 800m, 600m) which left me proud and exhausted, it said I’d burned 200 calories. That’s ONE BEER! Almost not worth the effort. Then after a very humbling and slow slog of a recovery run the next day, it said I’d burned over 500 calories. I don’t track calories, and have no idea how many I burn or consume, but I think if they are viewed as a measure of effort put out then my watch is way off.

I’ve recently run 10K’s in the 37’s and a 5K in 17:59

The one thing I’ve become obsessed with however is my footsteps. Yes, it tracks these. And as I reach my daily goals, it raises them ever so slightly – to keep me on my game. Recently my daily footstep goal (as set by my ever-adapting watch) has been set to 14,000 steps. On days that I know I won’t hit it, I’m not ashamed to admit, I put the watch on one of my kids and get them to run around. That always does it. Two can play at this game Garmin Fenix 5!

So what’s the verdict? Will this fancy watch aid my training? I’m not sure. It definitely gives me more data, but whether that translates into faster running times is to be determined… Stay tuned!

(also, it IS pretty)

Listening to (or ignoring) your body

Listen to your body. That’s fairly common advice for recreational runners. I’ve even doled it out at times myself. But I hate it. It makes no sense. Let’s be honest: if you listened 100% to your body, you’d never get out for a run! Your body lies to you. It tells you it’s tired and that it would rather sit on the couch. Once it gets going, often enough it’ll start humming along, but a lot of running and training to get faster is your mind convincing your body it can keep going. I’ve learned that my body very often wants to slow down, or stop. It is lazy.

This mind/body dichotomy becomes even more pronounced when training for a marathon. Most human bodies are capable of running 5K, 10K or even a Half Marathon with little to no training (and I don’t mean run them fast – I mean they can just cover the distance.) But the marathon is outside the realm of what our bodies are naturally designed to do. That is why we have to train them. We do this with long runs which push the boundaries of what we’ve previously been capable of, and by running more miles than what feels naturally comfortable. To successfully train for a marathon, you have to do the opposite of listen to your body. You have to learn to tune out your body’s whines and complaints. The more success you have in doing that, the more success you will have in the marathon. UNLESS… Unless your body is telling you to slow down or stop because it is getting injured, or over-tired, or a little too stressed to be able to recover. Then, you’re supposed to start paying attention again. This is what I’ve found so hard about marathon training. We get good at it because we learn to over-ride our bodies’ complaints, but then when we get injured someone will invariably say, “Well, you should have listened to your body.” When exactly?? On that 30K run when it was trying to tell me to stop at 20K? At 5:00 a.m. on Wednesday when it said it wanted to sleep in instead of getting up to run intervals? After my 5th hill when it told me my legs were tired even though I had 9 on my plan? Of course not! I never listen to it in those instances.

“I’m not listening!”

Right now I am nearing my peak in my current marathon training build. My body is tired and creaky and cranky. Every week a different niggle seems to crop up. Maybe my body is telling me that if I won’t listen to one injury it’ll just rotate them around until I pay attention? But what can I do now? Suddenly start listening?? I’m not even sure what to pay attention to! I only know how to keep going and tuning it out and pushing towards my goal – even if it seems to be getting a little less achievable every day.

And this is where wise people will say, “Listen to your heart or your gut.” To be honest, I have even less chance of hearing these organs. So back to ignoring my body, and hoping everything works out for the best …

Running to stand still

I don’t mind running on my own on most days. I enjoy company if it works, but it’s usually easiest for me to address my own schedule and get out when I can for as long as I need to.  But one thing I need people around me for is for hard workout days. Once a week I run intervals, and I am so grateful for my group who show up with me and run just as hard back and forth along our marked route. Many of us have different paces, but knowing we’re all there, doing our best and cheering each other on is enough to keep me motivated and pushing my hardest.

Some of my amazing crew who I’m lucky to run with!

We have a range of paces within our group because we’re all coming from varying backgrounds, ages and running experience, and we’re often training for different races – from 5K’s to marathons. I love it when I see people of the same pace range who find each other and are able to work together on these interval days. Although having people running hard all around you is helpful, having one or two people running your exact pace is even better (at least personally). You can take turns sharing the lead and mental focus in different parts of the workout, and you’re more likely to get that little bit more out of yourself if you’re right with someone else doing the same. So I always find it an added bonus when I have someone to do workouts with who is running my pace. I use them shamelessly in order to get the most out of myself.

The thing I’ve started to notice however, is that people can become fit enough to reach my level of pacing, but they only stay there a short while before they sail right on by. As a woman in my 40’s who has been training fairly consistently for many years, I’m not expecting to make any huge gains or leaps in my times. I’m now training hard to continue to run as fast as I ever have. I will inevitably be soon starting the gradual slowing down of my times. There have been some men training with me who have started a bit behind me in fitness and ability, and gradually caught up as they became consistent with their training – I’ve enjoyed working well with them for a period of time. But then, they start to inch ahead. It starts almost imperceptibly at first. Maybe they’re just feeling strong one day, and I’m having a tough one. But that pattern becomes a little more consistent workout to workout. This morning, my training buddy was 3-4 seconds ahead of me in each of our 800m repeats (we did 8 of them with 60 seconds rest) until I couldn’t match his recovery times and we weren’t running together at all. I had a good workout though – I ran about as solidly as I could expect myself to. He is just stronger now. It makes sense – a man working at his top level should be faster than a woman doing the same. Younger women in my group will pass me soon too. I am totally fine with this – in fact I’m really excited for them and want them to achieve their best. I also like having people to look ahead to in workouts. It’s just funny watching and experiencing the conveyor belt of runners as they catch up to and then pass me.

Working as hard as I can to not slip backwards

I will always enjoy training with people, whether they’re faster or slower than me. When we’re all out there together we bring out the best in each other. And I won’t stop encouraging people to try to get fast enough to run with me – even if it is only for a short period of time before I’m seeing nothing but their tail ends.