Friday, January 21, 2011

Note to Self: Remember Tracy


I went to my last therapy session on Wednesday morning. I’ve been going for a little more than two years and decided to stop after my insurance raised my co-pay to $20 for each visit.   In an attempt to be financially responsible, I’ve decided to cut out therapy and see if I can put two years worth of sessions to good use – on my own. I’ve also secretly decided that if I pocket that $20/week, I can buy myself a fancy Garmin watch that will track my pace and distance while running indoors. I’m done with Nike.

For this last session, I was catching the therapist up on what significant events had happened since I last saw her and what events I was anticipating in the future.  I also voluntarily brought up that after the session, I’d have to go swimming. And the therapist asked me why I ‘had’ to go swimming.

“Well, because it’s written on a calendar,” I responded.

“Tear it up,” she said. 

“But, I have to do the workout and tell my trainer if it was okay,” I stammered, shocked that she could possibly suggest that I skip a workout or ignore a major item on the to-do list. Had she learned nothing about what makes me tick over these past two years?

Turns out, she has been listening.  And she wasn’t trying to keep me from working out. Nor was she implying that I should stop communicating with my trainer. But she did point out that I crave admiration. And if I don’t get the admiration … or if I don’t think that I deserve it … things start to feel like ‘have to’s’ instead of ‘want to’s’.  And then I’m back to being graded on my pulse rate (that’s a reference to an earlier blog entry).

I have some clients that are all about wanting to do things vs. being obligated to do things. Their belief is that the experience and the outcome are always better if you want to do something instead of feeling forced or obligated to do it. I wrote portions of their web site and focused on the concept of intention vs. obligation, yet, didn’t quite apply it to my own life.  Actually, in some small ways I did. This Christmas I made the decision to not bake 8 or 9 varieties of Christmas cookies. I stuck with five varieties of the family favorites. This still took a week of my life, but I made the cookies with less pressure and less tears. And most importantly, no one died because I only made 5 varieties of cookies. So, I modified the baking plan to make it more manageable and I had a better time baking. In fact, I didn’t burn a single tray of the 800 dozen cookies I baked – I was in the moment, I liked what I was doing and I didn’t bite off more cookie dough than I could chew.

Sadly, not all my decisions are as easy as thinning down a cookie tray. 

As I’ve mentioned in previous blog entries, exercise started as a distraction. And being the laziest, most sedentary skinny person in the world, any exercise was great because I just never exercised before. I didn’t have to. Even once exercise became more structured – specific workouts on specific days, each meant to help me achieve a specific goal – I still succeeded. The workouts were good and no matter how impossible they seemed initially, I managed to kick, pull and fartlek my way through them and couldn’t wait to report my stats / accomplishments to my trainer.  At some point, and I’m not sure what came first, I started working out for my trainer, not for me, and my success rate started to plummet. And she wasn’t aware of this change in my intention, nor is it something she created. Something in my brain told me I had to swim/run/bike for her.  I needed to live up to her expectation, not my own.

I think this tendency to please started in my childhood. With divorced parents and a whole lot of ‘steps’ for relatives, you learn how to behave differently for the different expectations of various people in your life. The upside of this is that as an adult, I feel pretty confident in a room of strangers.  I can assimilate into any group, figure out the dynamic and generally speaking, use my sense of humor to achieve a “we’ve known each other since kindergarten” vibe. The downside is that the desire to make other people feel comfortable or happy – particularly in situations or relationships that last longer than a cocktail party – frequently leaves me – Authentic Tracy – out of the picture.

Looking back, even professionally, I seemed to check myself at the front door of our office every day. I did well at my job. I had a good relationship with my employers, and was respected by my team and clients. On most days, I liked my job. But something felt like bringing the Authentic Tracy across the threshold and having the audacity to carry it through the cubicals into my own office and apply it in the way I managed my team to how I dealt with clients, well, that just wouldn’t fly. So, for eight years, I left me at the door every day. 

At some point, I decided that a marketing career wasn’t going to sustain me and resigned from the agency to become a stay-at-home mom. The reality is, I’m actually marketing again. I’m doing it on my own and while I don’t have anything that resembles a full-time client roster, I love what I’m doing. And the big difference is that I’m doing it as Tracy. I pick the clients I want to work with. I make it clear to them that they’ll never see me in a suit. Some of them see my inappropriate Facebook posts. And when the time is right, I can drop a few F-bombs with them. Oh, and I provide crazy good, comprehensive marketing plans that give clients the tools to do the marketing on their own, if they so choose.  Anytime I interact with a client, I’ve got Authentic Tracy with me. And that makes me not only love what I do, but makes me want to do more of it. By leaving me in the equation, I’ve taken the obligation out of my work.

And so it turns out, I took exercise … something that started out as something for just me … and I turned it into a job. Work. A timesheet. A yearly review. No wonder it’s been hard.

Moving forward, the workout plan I wake up to each morning will be a guideline and not a Pass/Fail situation. I’m going to measure the success of the workout not on how fast or how long it takes me to complete the workout, but on the effort I put into it. And that’s not a cop-out. I just need to rewire a few of those crossed circuits and remember that I’m doing this because I genuinely want to do it.

I feel pretty empowered with this intention.  After my session, I went to the Y to get in my workout, all the time in the car thinking about wanting to do it vs. being obligated to do it (and believe me, you can’t just switch your intention in a 10-minute car ride).  The idea for this blog started forming in my mind and it took everything I had to make the left hand turn onto Church Street to head to the Y instead of continuing down Crawford to Oakton – the speediest way  to get to my house – to start a blog entry.

At the Y, I ran into the Channel swimmer – swimming royalty, in my mind – in the locker room. She totally inspires me. Not that I’d EVER find the desire to swim The Channel, but her dedication to that goal is impressive. She’s also just very nice. And the last time I saw her at the pool, she gave me a ginger candy and told me to take it on deck when I swim – it helps her when she gets nauseous, so it might work for me, too. The Channel swimmer swims for four or five hours at a time, so she sometimes takes a thermos of soup on deck so she can get some calories in during her swim. I’m comforted in knowing I’ll most likely never have to swim long enough to warrant bringing soup on deck. So anyway, I see her, I know she’s put a lot of time in the pool already and I tell myself that my workout is only 45 minutes. Get in the water and just fucking swim already.

I got to the pool and chose a lane with a swimmer that looked like he’d respect sharing the lane and got to my workout.  The warm up was great. I took it slow and focused on my form. The first part of my main swim was made up of five 100-yards at a moderate pace, with a 15 second rest in between intervals. I did the first 100 faster than I should have, but managed to slow it down for the next four.  The second part of the main swim was to complete four 25’s (it’s a 25 yard pool, so one 25 is just swimming from one end of the pool to the other) at an ALL OUT pace. ‘All out’ implies that you’re swimming from sharks. After I completed the five 100s, I decided to allow myself a 60 second rest before starting the four 25s. While I was unwrapping the ginger chew, I looked up at the clock and couldn’t believe it – I was 30 or 35 minutes into the workout. This was the FIRST time I looked at the clock during the swim, and I only had another 10 or 15 minutes to go.  I felt amazing. And I launched into the first 25 like a bat out of hell, reaching the other end of the pool in 22 seconds. Not bad. Not bad at all.  I finished my workout and went back up to the locker room completely triumphant.

I did the workout my trainer wanted me to do. But something in my brain told me to just swim, don’t get freaked about time and in doing that, I think I was swimming for myself. I’m certain that when I started my hard 25’s, I was swimming for myself. I actually wanted to see just how fast I could go and I wasn’t playing it safe on whether or not I’d work myself into some kind of dizzy exhaustion – I just moved my arms and caught water as fast and efficient as I knew how.   22 seconds, baby.

Yet another short story made long by Tracy. Authentic Tracy. I’m going to work very hard at keeping me in my relationships, whether they are professional relationships, personal relationships or even my quirky relationship with endurance training. Let the better results begin!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Feeling It...Finally

So, after a lot of discouraging workouts -- or just skipping them altogether -- I ran today. I really, really ran.  A few things:

As much as I love Mr. Johnny Cash -- he's not a good running buddy. My lap counter showed that I was running significantly slower than normal. And then, Cocaine Blues came on and I took about 20 seconds off each lap. Problem solved. Johnny's Folsom Prison just isn't fast enough. You know who is fast enough? AC/DC.  You know who is too fast? Gogol Bordello.

Still recovering from a rotten cold, today wasn't an ideal day for a run. But I missed my Friday bike ride because my throat and ears hurt and I spent the day holding down the couch. Saturday was supposed to be my long run (45 min this week), but I couldn't make it because Carlo spent the day downstate and I was on my own with both kids all day.  So...I headed to the Y with Maggie and set off to do the run this morning, while Carlo took Paolo to his ice hockey game. 

It didn't matter how much water I drank. I was grabbing my water bottle almost every 5 laps and I couldn't hydrate. And I had such an overwhelming desire to get water in my mouth, but not swallow it. God! I wanted to spit. But I can't imagine the people I was sharing the track with would appreciate that! My nose, throat and even my torso felt like the Sahara.  Water wasn't helping. I told myself that I was allowed to stop after 30 minutes. And then, looking at my lap counter, I realized I was 5 or 6 laps away from completing 3 miles, so I decided to stick it out so I could at least say I ran three miles. And at that point (when I hit 3.1 miles), it was about 34 minutes into the 45 minute run, and I rationalized a few more laps.  I hit 52  laps (that's a straight-up 4 miles) in 45 minutes, which came out to about an 11'15" pace.  Not my fastest, but still faster (almost a minute/mile faster) than my run on Wednesday.

I finished tired, but not dead -- a good sign that I was working hard, but not killing myself.  I got my heart rate up and maintained it.  I left the track today feeling like I'll be able to take on the extra 10 minutes that will surely be applied to my next long run (next Saturday, I'm guessing). And I felt like once again, my brain was up for convincing my body it could do more than it wants to.

Hope it's up for it again on Tuesday, when I'm certain someone is going to suggest I run stairs for 20 minutes. :(

And on a totally unrelated note, after my non-nap, I made a killer French Onion Soup and Lyonnaise Salad for dinner. Poaching eggs isn't the hardest thing in the world, but getting it right, and breaking a yolky egg atop a bunch of bacon and greens is pretty spectacular.  It felt great to challenge myself in the kitchen again ... even if it was just trying out a new recipe and poachin' some eggs

Thursday, January 13, 2011

What's the Worst That Could Happen?

"What's the worst that can happen?" was a mantra for me during the last one or two years I worked at a marketing agency downtown. A very lovely woman -- and someone I don't see nearly enough anymore -- was retained by our principal for organizational development purposes. At some point, she was helping our teams do a better job at both delegating and being open to new processes. As one of the team leaders, I participated in a working lunch session with the consultant and two other team leaders about how to, well ... let go. The Reader's Digest version of this two-hour session was this: Before you say no [to a process or a person], ask yourself, "What's the worst that could happen?"

In the marketing and public relations arena, the worst that could happen
list looked something like this:

  • going over budget (you tell the boss the company may have to eat a few bucks, but the lesson you've learned is invaluable)
  • missing a deadline (you renegotiate the deadline and convince the client that the first deadline was bogus to begin with)
  • not seeing a typo, particularly those that include dates, dollar amounts and/or square footage, until after the piece had been printed 20,000 times at the printer (you fake a seizure)
  • typing a bitchy e-mail about a problematic client to your boss, and then accidentally cc'ing the client you were bitching about (you spend your lunch polishing your resume and then call in sick the next day so you can do some focused online job searching)


That's just a sampling of ...the worst...in a marketing agency. We confronted our worsts, threw caution to the wind and did what marketers do. We marketed. And we pr'd. Life was grand.

What's the worst that could happen?
has followed me -- nearly four years after leaving the agency -- into my daily life, and specifically, into my athletic endeavors. As I was reluctantly driving to the Y this morning for a swim workout (It's cold and there is snow on the ground, so the idea of swimming is just distasteful to me), what's the worst that could happen? flashed by me on the on-going crawl called my mind.

In any of my athletic endeavors, what's the worst that could happen
depends on the actual event I'm participating in. For running and biking, the worst that could happen is really all mental: do I have the willpower to run or bike through physical pain or exhaustion? If the answer is 'no,' then the worst that could happen is that I stop running or biking because it just hurts more than my brain will stand. While not completing the full duration of a workout is a drag, life goes on. All athletes have days where they can push through the pain, and other days when they want to find their childhood woobie and have a good cry.

In an actual triathlon, or a long-distance run, the worst that could happen
gets a little weirder. I worry about pooping. And when I say worry, I mean, I obsess about pooping. You can pee anywhere at anytime during a triathlon, and NO ONE will know. Pee in the water, on your bike (chances are, you're wearing bike shorts with really absorbent padding), pee while you run ... most won't know. Anything on your body that appears wet could just be sweat. Or water from an aid station. But pooping? Pooping is obvious. You can't hide poop. And I don't do any event fast enough to warrant me crossing a finish line covered in my own feces.

I'm a morning pooper. Not sure if it's the coffee I have as soon as I roll out of bed or the bowl of cereal I eat before I go to bed at night, but it is almost guaranteed that on each and every day of the week, I'm pooping sometime between 8:15 and 8:45 am. This fact of my life is pretty inconsequential on a normal day. But on a race day, I've got troubles, bubbles.

Triathletes typically arrive at a race at 4:30 in the morning to get set up in transition. Races -- weather permitting -- typically begin at 7 am, but depending on what wave you're assigned to, a 1.5 to 3.5 hour race (the approximate time it would take me to complete a sprint- and olympic-distance triathlon) may not actually begin until 8 am. Race anxiety, coupled with my Rainman-like GI system, partnered with a 7:45 or 8 am start-time, bring me horrifically close to my 'what's the worst that can happen'
scenario. Thus far, I've never had to confront the worst during a triathlon. Once I'm a few strokes into the swim, my mind and colon stop their conversation and I just focus on moving forward.

My mind and colon couldn't stop their conversation in the last extra
mile of the half marathon I completed in October. I say the 'extra' mile of the half because we learned after the race what we had figured while we were running it -- the event wasn't mapped out correctly. It was a little more than a 14 mile course, instead of the standard 13.1 miles. I remember waking up at 4 that morning (we had to leave the house by 5 am to drive to the far west suburbs), hopeful that the brown rice and chicken I had the night before might help me empty the tank before I left the house. While we were waiting for the sitter to arrive (our kids were asleep), I thought the Gods had smiled upon me in the nick of time, so I jumped from the couch and ran to the bathroom.

False alarm.

We stopped twice on our way to the race to use a public restroom. Two more false alarms.

A porta-potty visit just before the race started proved useless. And then I found myself in my wave and running. The first 10 miles of the race, I felt strong. I was running with a friend and we chatted most of the way -- the excitement of crossing 'half-marathon' off my bucket list took priority over my bathroom needs. The next three miles were difficult. We were suspicious that the course distance was incorrect based on what our Nike Plus devices were registering. Then it became clear that no one
knew how long the race actually was as we questioned the folks working the aid stations on the remainder of the course. Around mile 13, according to my device, we started walking. We were exhausted. It was raining. And we were in the woods with no sign of this so-called-13.1-mile race ending. Then it happened. My need to go hit me like a ton of bricks. Bricks that might be used to build a shithouse. I felt color drain from my face. A bead of sweat rolled off my brow. It was time and there was no way I'd ever make it to the porta-potty near the finish line, because I had no idea when - or if - I'd see a finish line.

With a pack of tissues and some hand-sanitizer tucked in the pockets of the bike jersey I wore that day (Note: Knowing 'what is the worst that can happen' can help you prepare for it, so the exercise of figuring out the worst thing in a variety of likely scenarios in your life is actually time well-spent.)
I maneuvered myself into the wooded area just about 5 feet from the course, popped a squat and did what had to be done. My friend moved up the course about 10 or 15 yards so I could have some privacy. The guy who we had passed about 4 minutes earlier on the course, however, was unaware of my detour. As I finished my dirty business, I looked up and saw him approaching. Standing, would be death. It had been drizzling the last 4 miles or so, and I knew that getting my rain- and sweat-dampened compression shorts up from my knees and over my thighs and hips would not be a smooth - or quick - action. In addition to not signing up for a 14 mile run, I also hadn't signed up for any full-frontals. So, like a child that has been caught with her hand in the cookie jar, I pulled my chin to my chest, stared at the top of shoes and waited until I couldn't hear his breath or his footsteps before I stood up and put myself together. That's the story. Now we know what Tracy and a bear have in common.

So, pooping during a long run? It's the worst that can happen and well, I survived it. This story could have had a far dirtier ending had it been a road race down the streets of Chicago and not one set in the middle of a state park. I digress...

What's the worst that can happen
in a swimming scenario, that which I was on my way to do this morning, has potential to turn into a bullet-pointed list. Swimming is hard, hard work. And bad, awful, painful things can happen in the water. And they have. And I can't forget them. I can't ... let go.

One of the worst things that can happen while swimming happens every time, to every swimmer. Getting into the water. And while the water in the 6-lane pool at my YMCA is heated, it is still cooler than I'd like it to be, particularly in the dead of winter, when I'm walking into the building with my core temp already three or four degrees below norm. It's a shocking discomfort that lasts all of 3 seconds. Dicking around by slowly entering the water from the ladder or walking around on tip-toes doesn't help. People who face the water with some frequency know enough to get in quickly and start moving instantly. Within 8 seconds the body adjusts to the water temperature. The worst that could happen is over. And then for me, it's time for my brain to move on to the other
worst things that could happen.

Vomiting is pretty high up there on the list of what's the worst that could happen while swimming. I've been in the 6-lane on more than one occasion where I've felt the hot burn of nausea connect my churning stomach to my color-drained face. It's usually the result of not eating properly before the swim. On different occasions, I've either eaten too much or too soon before the workout. Trying to follow an aggressive routine (pushing yourself to hit certain times for each lap) with a not-yet-digested stomach of scrambled eggs, a bagel and a whey protein drink is like adding baking soda to vinegar. I've been in the middle of the pool, looking down at the giant, tiled Y on the pool floor, and have felt a burp rising to the top of my throat -- the burp that I think will promise some relief, but ultimately signals that something down yonder is unhappy and wants out. Quickly. Vomiting in the middle of the pool above the giant, tiled Y would most likely shut the pool down for cleaning for the day.

I can't be the girl that pooped in the woods and
the girl that shut the pool down. So, that's one of the worst things that could happen. It hasn't yet. But it could.

Experiencing dizziness is right behind vomiting on the list of worsts. Dizziness always happens if I haven't had enough to eat before I start a swim workout. Dizziness lasts for about 45 seconds before the need to vomit surfaces. Dizziness makes 12 strokes to the end of the pool feel like I'm swimming The Channel (I'm guessing).

Although many think that drowning is one of the worst things that could happen while swimming, for some reason, it doesn't really bother me, at least not while I'm at the Y. It crossed my mind at my first open-water triathlon last season. After the event, I returned to the children's school the next week feeling quite cocky among my non-triathloning friends. "How far do you swim?" and "How cold was it?" were among the questions they'd ask me. I told them what a shock the murky water was when a friend asked, "How deep?" I responded that it was about 15 feet at the deepest end of the quarry. He grimaced at my answer and replied, "Yikes. That's where monsters live."

It is likely that the possibility of drowning and/or losing a limb to a deep-water-living monster might cross my mind at the next open-water race, but on a daily basis, swimming at the Y poses little concern for drowning or being attacked. Neither scenario make my worst that could happen
list.

Generally speaking, while swimming, my brain is so occupied with counting (One, two, three, breathe. One, two, three, breathe. One, two, three, breathe.
), that I have little time to let it get me into any other trouble. I'm too busy trying to breathe and not suck water to think, so it is rare that I meet up with the demons I encounter regularly on long runs during my swim workouts. After about 11 or 12 laps though, I usually fall into a pace that doesn't demand I focus on what my arms or legs are doing or whether or not I'm getting enough air. And during this period, with my arms and legs on autopilot, my mind sometimes wanders into the future and forces me to think about whether or not I'll be able to pull off the longer swims in the future events.

With today's swim, I can start to take the heat off myself about the 0.9 mile swim that I'll need to do at the end of June for my first olympic-distance race. I wasn't doing anything particularly speedy today, but I swam continuously (there was one 15-second water break) for 30 minutes, and hit nearly 3/4 of a mile. The first big race is five months away. I don't need to be the first one out of the lake, but as long as I know that I can swim continuously for up to 45 minutes, I should be fine. I know this now. I didn't know it this morning as I was driving to the Y.

What I did find today is that around lap 22 or 23, I was really starting to feel tired and uncertain of how much longer I could go on. My mind raced to the Half Ironman, a race I hope to cross off the athletic bucket list in the summer or fall of 2012, the year I turn 40. I didn't freak out about the distance of the looming swim (A Half Ironman, totaling 70.3 miles, begins with a 1.25 mile open water swim) as much as I panicked about losing interest. In less than three strokes, it hit me: What if I've been doing all this training and I make it through an olympic-distance race and I realize that I don't want to do it anymore? What if I want to finish racing after I've crossed the finish line?

That, it seems to me, would be the worst thing that could happen in my life
(excluding the death of my husband or my kids, which, I'd never be able to bear).

For today's swim, I made it to lap 25 before the nausea set in. I had been swimming for 30 minutes (I was supposed to swim for 45 minutes) and was satisfied with my distance and my effort, so I let myself off the hook and went upstairs to shower. Eight hours later, I'm coming back to why stopping after the olympic-distance would be the worst thing and I still am uncertain of the answer.

I mean, I really. Don't. Know.

What I'm guessing, is that if stopping before I finish a Half Ironman is what I believe now to be the worst that could happen, I should probably just not stop. Because once I've completed a Half Ironman race, I don't have to do a damn thing. I mean, I've already given myself permission to just get fat and old after that. I'm sure I won't go with the fat and old option. I'll probably commit to a different goal ... like running a marathon ... and focus on that. I mean, the leap from a Half to a full Ironman is insane. I've not yet been drunk enough to think that it would be fun to train for an Ironman. I'm not made that way. And I'm okay
with that.

Pooping. Vomit. Sea monsters. Quitting. That's the worst that could happen in my world now. The real shit happens when you have to call and apologize to a paying client for sending her an e-mail that calls her out as a psychotic control freak that should kick puppies and club seals on her own time, not yours (I'm guessing).

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

I Ran Today

So, after posting the manifesto on running last night, I woke up this morning determined to make up the run that I missed yesterday. Without any excruciating details of my craptacular morning, I ended up at the Y around 9:45 am, fully expecting to cry during the run. The need to cry had been sitting on my chest since I yelled at my son this morning for being a douche to the cat. I was terrified the need to cry would reveal itself while I was at the chiropractor's office (luckily, it did not).

The track was a complete clustercuss today. Not only were there about 8 people already on the track when I got there (including Mr. It-Leaves-The-Lotion-In-The-Basket and two side-by-side walkers (who aren't The Mabels, but are equally as bad as The Mabels), but a Move It To Lose It class of roughly 8 women showed up about 15 minutes into my run. Two kids, possibly belonging to one of the Move It To Lose It women, also made an annoying appearance on the track. To say the track was congested would be a terrific understatement.

I immediately decided that I was going to listen to music for the run and that I wasn't going to do the planned 15-minute stair portion of the workout. Aside: I went with the Garden State Soundtrack. It's moody and I felt like if I REALLY needed to cry, that music could get me to that point. I switched to Amy Winehouse for the final 10 minutes of the run as well as my cool down laps. My body needed to run. My mind needed to not tell me that my body had to stop moving after 30 minutes. Telling my mind to shut up is ... almost impossible. I needed to run for 45 consecutive minutes, no matter what. And if I could do that, I'd allow myself to go home, bury myself under the duvet on my bed and sleep until I needed to collect my children from school.

It was far from an exquisite run, but I did it. I'm tragically slow right now -- about a 12 min mile. Compared to what I was running in the fall -- about a 10'15" mile -- 12 doesn't feel good (I'm not under the delusion that 10'15" is fast. It just feels fast now that I'm plopping around at a 12 min mile.). And it's not like it was an easy pace either -- I worked for that 12 min pace! I totally forgot to take my sports beans after my first 'dose' at the start of the run and I wasn't hydrating as well as I have in the past. When I finished, my mouth was all gummy and weird. But I ran.

About 10 minutes before I finished, the Move It Or Lose It class moved to the side of the track, stood in a semi-circle and were checking their pulses. I had to laugh. I was wondering if they get charged more if their heart rate isn't within the acceptable range. I don't really care either -- no one was checking my ticker at the end of the run. So I just kept running.

It took me 45 minutes to run 3.69 miles. And it took the first 35 minutes for me to realize that I wasn't going to cry. I didn't need to. I actually started to feel better mentally, even tho my body was screaming for me to stop.

Not bad for the first run of the year. I'll count it as a success.

Monday, January 10, 2011

What I Talk About When I Talk About "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running"

The husband, at a friend's suggestion, bought me Haruki Murakami's "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running" for Christmas. It was a great gift: not too 'on the nose' with either of my two interests of late (exercise and knitting) and it allowed the husband to politely imply that I should read more than I actually do.

Full disclosure: I haven't finished the book yet, even tho it's a fast and compelling read and is less than 200 pages. I also haven't had a successful run since I picked the book up. I don't think there is any relation - I'm simply stating a fact: I'm slowly reading a book about a guy that runs for about an hour six days a week during the exact same period of time that I've been avoiding the track at my YMCA like I would avoid The Plague. Or Lima Beans. Or Republicans.


For any newbies to the daily activities of Triple T, about two years ago, I competed in my first sprint-distance triathlon (
Competed is a stretch. Only seven luckless bastards crossed the finish line after me. One was a woman in her late 60s and another woman needed the Tri Sherpas to come back onto the course and coax her across the finish line.). Then, last February, I signed up for a Triathlon Training Clinic at my YMCA. Since then, I've completed three sprint-distance triathlons, one half-marathon and I've sunk about $1800 into race entry fees and triathlon equipment. I've also hired an online trainer to essentially hold my swimming/biking/running feet to the fire and have set goals to complete an olympic-distance triathlon this summer and a Half-Ironman the year I turn 40.

Without putting a ton of thought into it, my reason for waking up in the morning centered around workouts. I accidentally tapped into Athletic Triple T some anomaly of my psyche that had never been acknowledged -- or even considered -- during the first 37 years of my life. Working out changed how I ate, what I drank (and what I didn't!), how I dressed, what I spent money on, what I posted on my Facebook page and what my husband and I talked about while making dinner. To the best of my ability, I was unable to stop myself from telling ...
anyone...the minutiae of my daily workouts. The enthusiasm about this new-found interest oozed out of me. And of all the disciplines, running is what I craved, because for every runner out there, you can find 25 others who swear they'd die if they ran more than six consecutive steps. To the billions of non-runners out there, running is badass, and the badass stigma -- with bragging rights to follow -- is pretty much what I need to carry my dead-ass through a workout.

Before hiring the trainer, I'd never run farther than 3.5 miles. And granted, those 3.5 miles usually followed a 10- to 15-mile bike ride, which was preceded by a 1/2-mile swim. To begin training for the half-marathon, I would run twice a week. One workout would involve schlepping up a hill (Chicago has few, and this one is at Montrose Harbor) or if weather was the enemy, running the stairs at the Y (this is as enjoyable as a pelvic exam). The second workout each week was a 'long run' -- a predetermined duration, to be taken at an 'ez' pace. The long runs started at 30-minutes (I'd come in at just under 3 miles in 30 minutes at my typical pace) and would increase by about 10- to 15-minutes each week.

The first time I broke 4 miles (it was a 4.11 mile run in 45 minutes -- I was over-the-moon excited with my accomplishment), I texted my trainer from the track to share my news. The next week, with 10 or 15 minutes added to the run, I went past the 5-mile mark. Each week, the duration and distance increased and Lance Armstrong (who lives in my phone on the Nike Plus app) would congratulate me at the end of my run. And then one week, the double-digit run! I cried the last 3 or 4 minutes of the run as I saw my Nike tracker creep it's way towards that glorious number 10. My daughter, who was stuck at the Y with me, quietly reading a Nancy Drew book while I ran, saw my tears and put her book down to run the last 2 or 3 laps with me. The drama on the track that day rivaled what most 'real' runners feel when they break the ribbon at Boston. But on that day, it was me, running in a circle on a padded, heated, indoor track for an hour and forty-five minutes. On October 13, I completed my first half-marathon.

Completing the half-marathon made me feel athletically invincible. I didn't do it fast, but that was never the plan. The plan was to finish. And that, I did. And I did it a full year earlier than anticipated, which added to the badass-ness that I craved. About two weeks after the half, I met an ultra-runner at a party which influenced me in the following two ways. 1) I decided that I would run a full marathon in the next two years and 2) I would consider running a 50-miler for my 50th birthday. Precisely two weeks after that, the wheels started to come off the wagon.

At first, I blamed it on the upcoming holidays. I insisted on painting the dining room right before Thanksgiving (A tedious job, mostly due to 100-year old, cracking plaster and enough molding to choke a horse) and no sooner had the paint brushes and rollers been put away before I was up to my elbow in a turkey cavity. With barely a minute to recover, I was then on to the daughter's three-day stretch of five-performances of The Nutcracker on Ice, the school holiday pageant, tending sick kids, Christmas shopping, shopping for Christmas trees, baking Christmas cookies, knitting Christmas presents ... blah, blah, blah. The excuses not to workout seemed to outnumber the reasons to workout and I was lucky to make two workouts a week (I'm scheduled for five each week). My confidence in Athletic Tracy started to dwindle. And then the husband gave me this book (which I still haven't finished).

Murakami is one hell of a writer. And I have to laugh as I read this book, because five years ago I would have never guessed that I'd be a runner, nor would I have imagined reading a book about running. Murakami - a far more experienced runner (and writer!) than I can claim to be now - came up with a few things that have triggered thoughts about why I started running in the first place, and why I need to get back on the horse. Or on the track. Whatever. I need to run again.

Wanting to run v. being obligated to run:
"Some people are more suited for marathon running, some for golf. Others for gambling. Whenever I see students in gym class all made to run a long distance, I feel sorry for them. Forcing people who have no desire to run, or who aren't physically fit enough, is a kind of pointless torture." -- Haruki Murakami.

To the unwilling, running really is a hateful, hateful experience. I remember being forced to run in high school gym class. I vaguely remember the expectation that the entire class had to run a mile in 8 minutes. Not only were we (that is, we the girls, the boys, the skinny, the fat, the athletes, the band fags, the geeks, the dopers, the sluts, the prudes, the AV nerds, the rich, the poor, the meek and the mild) expected to run the mile in 8 minutes, but at the end, we were stopped and our pulses were checked to make sure they were within an acceptable range.
We were being graded on our pulse rate. In what fucked up universe does that make any sense? The point, however, is that running was mandatory and every single stride of those eight minutes was pure Hell for me.

Roughly 20 years later, I find myself buying a pair of trainers so I could do some walking around the paved path at our beach and instead of walking, I started to jog. Something about moving lifted a weight off me. The anxiety -- and self-imposed cloistering -- of being a stay at home mom didn't exist while I huffed and puffed my way around the park with my iPod shuffle. The music carried my brain to another place, one that didn't recognize the word, "mom". Then last week, heavy with some family issues and a problematic cervix (
I have a gift for working my cervix into any conversation, by the way.), I hit the Y track -- deliberately without my iPod -- and began crying about 10 paces into my run. And to be clear, it wasn't just crying. It was gasping, heaving, snot-flowing, sobbing around the track, over and over, round and round.

Running started as a distraction for me. Running, now, however, has become the place where I have to confront my demons, and sometimes, my demons really screw up a good run. This is all happening, coincidentally, as I approach my last therapy session (I've been seeing a therapist weekly for a little more than 2 years). Every time my foot hits the track, I may have to deal with -- myself -- unless the playlist is really spectacular and I can focus on the words of someone else rather than on my own thoughts. I think the idea of using running as an outlet -- not a distraction -- will really help me turn a corner athletically and emotionally, but I'm terrified. And I'm guessing that my hesitation to run -- even for just 40 minutes -- is the
obligation. I have to confront those demons while on my run. And once I'm obligated, once someone is checking my pulse to determine if I've earned an A, I just don't wanna do it anymore. Seasoned runners, I'm told, use running as a way to deal with anxiety or depression. Seasoned runners, I'm told, can run out their anxiety into some void. The end result -- the void -- sounds dreamy. The process, daunting.

Excuses, Excuses, Excuses:
"If I used being busy as an excuse not to run, I'd never run again. I have only a few reasons to keep running, and a truckload of them to quit. All I can do is keep those few reasons nicely polished." -- Haruki Murakami.

For a stay-at-home mom, I'm pretty damn busy. I also, on a typical weekday, have about five hours to myself. On most days, I get to choose what I do during those five hours. A typical day includes dropping the kids to school, heading to the Y for a workout (they usually last 1 to 1.25 hours these days, if I actually do them), general tidying, laundry-doing, e-mailing and Facebooking, bill-paying, grocery getting and on some days, if I feel I've been productive in the morning, I try to squeeze in some knitting before I collect my kids at 2:45 pm. But once I pick up the kids my time is no longer my own. I'm homework mom. And making dinner mom. And by 7:00 pm, a where-is-my-glass-of-wine, mom.

At almost any given moment, I can make an excuse to not workout. I'm excellent at it. Let's face it, swimming right now is a fat pain in the ass. And I know some folks that are avid swimmers -- and even in training for the Ironman -- that really hate the idea of hopping into a tepid pool of chlorinated water on cold, snowy days like today. And as far as the bike goes, if my crotch is still bruised from the previous biking workout, I'll skip the current workout in a heartbeat. Short of straddling a frozen turkey, there is no way to take away the pain of bike crotch. But there is almost no excuse to not run. Even if you're on the couch writing about running instead of actually running (as I am now), it's still not an excuse.

My 7-year old son is sick today and stayed home from school. I can't go to the Y for my 45-minute run workout (15-minutes of which will be stairs) since he's sick and my husband won't be home until after 7 pm. As soon as I realized that he'd need to stay home, I did these three things: 1) I called my friend and asked if she could take my daughter to school, 2) I called the school to let them know my son would be staying home and 3) I e-mailed the neighbors in my condo to let them know that at some point today, I would need to run up and down our front stairwell for 15 minutes since I couldn't make my regularly scheduled workout. I apologized in advance for this activity which would surely upset the dogs of the building. It's been snowing most of the day and from my quick trip to our basement washer and dryer, a route which takes me outside for 15 seconds, I can tell it's cold. None of this bodes well for me leaving my house tonight to run at the Y. Or to leave the house tonight and run on partially shoveled sidewalks in the hood.

It's is 2:05 pm, and not a single bark has been barked all day.

I must keep my reasons to run nicely polished. I know what those reasons are. Strong, firm thighs. The satisfaction of my hair getting soaked with sweat or wiping salty sweat remnants from my brow and eyes. General badassness. Or, perhaps I should just sign myself up for the Chicago Marathon and spend the next nine months running on nothing more than the fear and anxiety of impetuously signing myself up for the Chicago Marathon.

Could I have been anyone other than me?:
"I know that if I hadn't become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist, my work would have been vastly different." - Haruki Murakami

So, back to my cervix. No, seriously. I had been having some issues for several months and ended up switching doctors and feeling a lot of personal anxiety for staying with a medical provider that was aware of the issues, but wouldn't run the right tests (more on this in a future blog post:
Are You Being Cervixed?). The short-story is that everything is fine, but there was a week in mid-November where I walked around convinced I had an advanced stage of pelvic cancer. And then the first week of January brought a lot of anxiety about an internal ultrasound which I was certain would reveal fibroids and polyps and possibly a cancerous mass containing three teeth and a toe. None of that happened. But, I spent a lot of time (I have those 5 hours every weekday to do whatever I want, remember?) thinking about where I was in life, why I am the way I am, and what would happen if something was wrong. Like really, really wrong. And all of this, of course, is happening while I'm avoiding my workouts. Here's where I landed...

Running has been a major part of my formative adult years -- those interesting years where I wake up in the middle of the night and realize that if I live to be 80, I'm almost half-way thru the game. What started as a distraction, has morphed into something bigger. Running challenges me and challenges how I perform all of my other duties each day. For instance, I try to get the workout in during the day, while my family is at school and work, because I don't want to be running in a circle at the Y when everyone is here at the house, surely watching movies and eating pizza and drinking wine and having a grand old time. Running has to get done on Tuesday so that I have Thursday to work on client plans and bios (and volunteer at the school and finish laundry). Running has to happen on Sunday so that I can re-touch the dining room paint and buy Paolo new jeans on Monday. The importance of running has elevated the importance of the other things in my life, some of which I didn't realize -- until the crummy cervix incident -- to be as important as they actually are.

Running pushed me out of my comfort zone. Quitting my job nearly four years ago and taking on the household full time also pushed me out of my comfort zone, I just didn't realize it while I was sitting on my comfy chair watching Gilmore Girls reruns. Hell, running has even made the Gilmore Girls important: if I run, I reward myself with an hour to knit and watch Rory and Lorelai turn Stars Hollow upside down. Running has helped fine-tune what I like about my life and how to prioritize so I can do the things I love the most with the people I love the most. Even though the past few weeks have felt wonderfully indulgent, knitting for 2 or 3 hours at a shot and getting the laundry done daily (even if the load is so small it could fit in a Ziploc freezer bag), I think I've reached the point where I need the challenge of the run. I need the challenge of making space for it. I need to get my badass back.

Not being okay with not running has shown me how important running actually is. And that, I think, is what I'll be talking about when I talk about running.

If you stuck with me this long, I should simultaneously congratulate and apologize for your efforts. Those were a lot of words to get to the basic point that I need to run again. Also, I think I ought to finish the book, just in case he dies at the end and I have to reconsider this whole 'running-is-a-good-idea' platform I seem to have so enthusiastically embraced.