Sunday, August 29, 2010

My new mantra.

Believe, believe, believe and never stop.

That's what I"ll tell myself everyday, every moment, from this day onward.

On happiness.

This is part of my favorite trail. It smells like bay leaves... because those are bay trees. Love it.

So, it’s official: I’m living the life I’ve always wanted.

No, really, I am. It just hit me (while running per my usual) that wow, I’ve actually accomplished something far greater than a well-paying job or all the material wealth the world has to offer: I’ve lived the perfect day. And not only that, but the days leading up to it were-- while not perfect-- not so bad themselves.

So what is my perfect day, you ask? I’ll quit restraining myself and tell you (and live its sweetness all over again.) Sigh.

I woke at 5:45 am to make tea and re-read fellow graduate essays before lacing up my running shoes and heading out into the young dawn light. I chose a route called the King’s Canyon loop, adding two miles to the trek to make a total of 10 for the morning. The air was crisp and with the slight chill of autumn lurking in the shadows of over-hanging bay trees; the leaves on the maples are already changing from green to an oxidized rust color. Rabbits and squirrels stared as I ran by. And me, I felt free as they are since I was unburdened by my Garmin watch which ran out of juice six minutes into the run.

The reservoir was still and smooth as glass as I wound my way up and down the hillside, in and out of groves of scrub oak and bay trees. The tall grasses-- now colored gold-- looked like the Elysian fields have in my daydreams when I’m whimsical and imagine the hereafter as a gigantic field used for frolicking.

When I returned to the house, I typed responses to the essays I’d read that morning and then did some reading of my own (a novel by Norwegian writer Per Petterson that I’m quite enjoying). I stretched, did my hip flexor strengthening exercises and a series of core workouts while listening to the news.

Then I showered and readied myself for my FIRST DAY as a graduate student at Saint Mary’s College in their Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Nonfiction writing. As I sat in a room with not-so-many other writers from all over the United States of all ages and demographic backgrounds, I felt like-- oddly-- I belonged. Ideas for essays ricocheted from every angle inside my head. I was going to write about running, the outdoors, my life at Tahoe, my sister, Steve; I was going to write it all and I was going to be able to train. I nearly drowned in all the optimism that unexpectedly came dripping out of me.

We had a brief lunch and I met Vanessa, a mother of two from Brentwood (an hour and a half away) who’s also in the Nonfiction program. And Kelsay who drove with her father all the way from Michegan and who met another MFA’r while visiting his hometown of New York City. Mallory, a cute petite who’d befriended me on Facebook months before, turned out to be a first-year poetry student from Mississippi. There’s even another Tahoite, Sven, who came from somewhere out East and spent a year in Tahoe, just like I did. Torrey is a blonde guy who also runs and wants to run in the same marathon I do this upcoming December.
Hours passed. We chatted about craft, writing, and the unlikely paths that led us here. It seems like-- well, a lifetime ago-- since I’ve done that. (OK, not a lifetime, but the fall of 2009.) Gone are the days of me sitting alone at the end of the bar in tears while everyone at the other end talked about skiing, the depth of Lake Tahoe and the way to tweak boat engines so they run correctly at altitude. I’m leaving behind those lonely winter days when I truly thought I was the most boring and worthless person on the face of the earth.

Gone-- for now-- are those days I was trapped on the treadmill in the only gym in Tahoe City, looking out at the Lake while I did 16 mile runs without actually going anywhere. Or days when I stared out the window at the store where I once worked watching the large white flakes fall and accumulate, wondering if I would find myself still staring in that same spot in twenty years.

And then I came home from the MFA orientation, changed, and ran an easy 6 miles in the golden afternoon light. I’m a bit sore from my workout on Saturday: I did 2 mile repeats again.

I can’t help but jump up and down about them. Finally, my running legs are getting stronger. I ran my first one in 12:20. The second in 12:03. And the third: 11:49. When I saw my watch after running 8 laps on the track for that final interval, tears started streaming down my face. I never ever imagined I could ever run two miles faster than twelve minutes. I always told myself I was too fat, and that I was unworthy. But I did it. I actually did it; and maybe if I do that, then maybe other things that I thought were so impossible are not actually so out of reach.

Maybe--- oh, just maybe-- I have dreams and goals that could materialize and could actually happen. I was so afraid of taking a chance and attending Saint Mary’s, just like I was always so afraid of wanting to train for the Olympic Trials because I don’t “look” like a runner. But I have to say that I am so happy-- and so grateful-- that I’ve set my mind to doing both.

Friday, August 20, 2010

A bit on running and body image: an unpleasant topic

Me at the California International Marathon in 2008 doing what I love best: running and kicking ass (in a skirt)! :)

I know, I know: I don't usually stray too far from my two chosen topics: training for the trials and writing, but you know, there's a conversation-- or a snippet of one-- stuck in my head that I just can't get rid of. Do you ever have those-- you know-- things people say to you or around you that just get caught in your head and swirl round and round in there like a sock in a dryer? Well, it just so happens I've had this thought chasing me for days and no matter how many miles (and double days) I do, it just sits there, stuck. Even now, it leers at me, as if to say: "Go ahead. Blog about me, biatch."

And it's not even a topic I particularly like or that is unique enough to write another blog about. But it's clogging my cognitive, creative genius so I have to get it out of me. Apologies, readers, if this post really sucks the big one.

So the other morning, I was strolling across Saint Mary's campus as the fog rolled over the hills to the West. To my right was Marty, the head coach of the XC team there (and therefore, my boss.) On my left, the Athletic Director writ large, who'd met with us to discuss the possibility of starting a track and field program at the University. We were walking back to our offices after the meeting and out of the blue, Athletic Director turns to us and says: "I want you both to watch for eating disorders with our female athletes. It's been a problem in the past. I don't know why, but it has." And then the subject changed. But, me being female and body-conscious like most of us, the comment lingered. Why are we-- especially female runners-- more prone to ruining the sport of distance running (or our experience of it anyway) for the sake of an unattainable (and let's face it, ridiculous "ideal") physique?

I admit: I'm guilty (to a degree) of this. As of late, I flinch every time I have to meet a new face in the running community. I know I'll meet someone who is tall and lean. They, on the other hand, will meet me who is neither tall nor lean despite my current 70-mile per week regimen. My coach put it best when he graciously described me as having a "gymnast's physique." At a mean 5'2, I fit comfortably not only in Southwest Airline seats, but perhaps the storage compartments above the seats as well. But joking aside, I still feel that "pang" of dread when I'm about to meet another runner. I wonder: will they think I don't look like a runner because I'm not thin? Are all runners thin?

I know the answer to that last question: heck no! For anyone who's attended a marathon recently, "runners" these days come in all shapes and sizes. So, what's the big deal?

[And now I"m tap, tap, tapping my keyboard because, you know, I don't know.]

[While I'm thinking, I'll share a digression with you that might be related (but probably isn't.) I heard on the radio while driving to Moraga that a new study shows 80% of women would rather be thin than have good sex. If this has any connection to this topic I've chosen, perhaps I will never understand the vast majority of my gender.]

I suppose it boils down to how much emphasis of a sport is placed on its aesthetic rather than its successes. What I mean is this: has marketing of running trumped running itself? Is winning not enough-- do you have to look the part? Granted, one must train for these sorts of events and the training in part sculpts a certain body type (again, to a degree.) The more fit you are, the more "fit" you look. And yet, there has to be a certain point when an athlete trains regardless of outward appearance, but rather, because they want to win.

I mean, that's why I train. I want to be faster-- and optimally, win as much as possible (and of course, qualify for the trials.) Logically, I know I'll never win a major marathon, but that doesn't mean I can't train my brains out as though I were attempting to, right? And it's not a bad thing to train hard and look the way you do. I hate to say it, but I'm proud of my accomplishments so far. They might not mean much in the large arena of distance running, but they've changed my life. Before I started running, I was depressed and occasionally smoked Lucky Strikes while downing hard liquor with other equally depressed writing friends. Now I wake up every morning and run and look forward to it. I have no idea if I've lost weight, since I don't--and haven't-- weighed myself.  But most importantly, now I  like the person I am and the skin I'm in, even if I have the awkward moment now and then when I'm like "eh-- do I look like a runner?" Which, lately, lasts all of two seconds.  If me and these other runners-- whomever they may be-- go for a run together, they'll see: I'm a runner regardless of the wrapping paper I'm tucked away in.

So, I'm not sure to what conclusion I've come on this topic. I suppose I want to say I'm really sad for athletes who succumb to an eating disorder (or just general body-malaise) because, really, there is so much joy to be found in what we do. There's those sunrises most people miss, or the way you get to be in tune with your body-- its rhythms and cadences that are lost in the humming dim of office machinery. Or, the way you just feel so fit (more fit than you'll be doing anything else) and the way you can run and run and run (for 20 + miles) that most people can't even fathom doing. The vistas you see. The mountains you climb. And then there's the joy -- for me anyway-- of the look on peoples' faces when I DO win. They're like: "But she doesn't even look like a runner."

And then I get to say: "Oh, but I am. I am a runner."

Sunday, August 15, 2010

I finally understand overtraining.

I did another tempo Saturday that made me cry. It didn’t make me cry because of the pain-- THAT’S something a distance runner has to endure-- but rather, because try though I did, my pace hovered a mere seven seconds faster than I’d run it two weeks before on the same course.

WTF, I thought, as the acidic-feeling in my stomach churned like a vat of butter, is wrong with me? I’m following my two-week cycle (with four key workouts) like I was told to: I sleep 8-9 hours each night, I drink water like a fish and there’s no way I’m not eating right. WTF, I repeat.

And so, I did what any marathoner would do with a cell phone and an overwhelming need to sob but not in public and certainly not at work: I texted my coach in spare language that the Trials are just not (NOT EVER I thought) in my reach:

Me: I have theory. Im out of shape, not tired. 8 mile tempo @ Tahoe @ 6:43 p. Last tempo: 6:50. Im getting worse. So far from 6:19. :-((

Coach E: Chill out. Sounds roughly comparable to me.

Me: [Sniffle, sniffle. Wiping nose. His next text arrives.]

Coach E: It is not 6:19. You r not where u want to be. How does a rational being react to this information?

Me: [Sniffle. Blow nose. Tear.] I think about saying I need to work harder. I need to train more. But again, (I’m not a very fast texter) the phone vibrates again.

He brought up the triathlon I did in late July. “You put a marathon effort in the middle of your training,” he texted me. And I was about to text him back, to say: “no, the tri was definitely NOT a marathon,” but then he called.

He, like, NEVER calls me. It probably has something to do with this quirk I have (is it due to my writerly persona, I wonder?) which favors, in times of crisis, what I call a necessary melodrama. For instance, two months away from comp exams and graduation of a Master’s program in French, the department emailed me the night before a big race to inform me I wouldn’t be graduating as planned that semester and I would receive no more funding. I was in shock. And then whatever lies beyond shock. I left him a shaky voice mail and an hour later, he called and called until finally I answered, admitting I was curled up in my empty bathtub taking swigs of cheap red table wine from the bottle wondering where on Earth I’d gone wrong. Though to be fair, I placed third in that race with the fastest pace I’d had in a race, to date.

But enough digression. “You have to be strategic about your training,” he said.

And I of course responded, “But I HAVE!” And honestly, truly believed that all these months of miles and cross training sessions would make me fitter, and therefore make me a better runner and capable of a 2:46 finish in December. But I was about to learn that no, the human body is not exactly like a rechargeable battery. A regrettable mistake, since that’s how I’ve trained for the past three years.

(However, I haven’t exactly done poorly on this philosophy, either. But I have come to realize there is an insurmountable difference between a 2:54 marathoner and who I want to be: a 2:46er.)

“Let me tell you a story,” he said and finally Coach E was speaking my language. Maybe, long last, we’d understand each other.

He told me he once coached an incredible athlete. Who won, like, practically every 1500 meter race she entered. And she had finally gotten to the point where she was ready to train for the Olympic Trials, with a nearly guaranteed spot on the USA Olympic Team. And that summer, prior to the big races early that winter, she begged him to do a 10k in Boston where she thought she would win money. She begged and begged, he said, and though he knew it would be a bad idea, he let her do it.

She ended up 5th, with little money and her legs wasted, but as Coach E said, no lesson learned. Two weeks later, while he strolled onto his porch for a morning cup of joe with the local newspaper, he found she’d competed in another local 10k, making a new (local) record and winning first. “As though she thought I’d never find out,” he scoffed.

The training weeks which followed, he said, where worse than mine have been: she couldn’t complete a track session and would stop mid-way in tears. Tempos were flat, unimpressive times for such a promising elite. She was, he told me, just tired and in need of recovery.

Recovery which, unfortunately, blew her chances for the trials and the Olympic team.

And so, I looked across Lake Tahoe, speechless, my cell phone to my ear. What could I say? I cleared my throat and I said what I’ve confessed to all of you: my intentions are to be the best I could be and I believed the triathlon-- with it’s demand I cross train yet to continue to run high-volume weeks-- would make me stronger.

But no, that’s not how it works. In recent days (hours even!) I’ve realized the body is such an amazing entity that it adapts to everything you do and will be there when you ask it to be, if it’s strong enough. And for athletes, that’s the problem: you want to do it all, you want to be the best. Perhaps that’s the humility in sports: you can’t always be first. At a certain level, you have to literally pick and choose those victories and forgo the rest though “fun” or “lucrative” it might be.

Lucky for me, my VERY IMPORTANT race is in December and I still have months to train, to improve. And yet, I wonder if, standing on that starting line December 8th, I’ll have that tiny voice in the back of my mind wondering “What if” I hadn’t discarded a month back in July for a triathlon that, in terms of my career as an elite runner, meant very little?

I can only say-- now-- that I do not regret competing in that triathlon. I was afraid of swimming: now I’m not. More importantly, however: before a life without marathons terrified me: it was a life that appeared meaningless. However, I know now that there is an athletic life that waits for me when the day comes that I can no longer run 70-100 mile weeks. And that makes me, well not happy exactly, but less anxious.

And the rest makes me wise. A good combination, one I couldn’t have planned.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The best run EVER.

Sorry for my e-absence, but I just returned from yet another hasty dash to the Bay where I began my duties as Assistant Cross Country Coach for Saint Mary’s and continued the needlessly complicated process of relocating. (I never realized how much stuff I didn’t know I needed until I started moving. But isn’t that how it always works?) I’m done with all the “heavy lifting”-- from here until the start of everything (running camp on the 18th; the academic semester on the 29th) all I need to bring is the rest of my wardrobe and Jacques, the Maine Coon cat.

I know I should offer readers a better transition between paragraphs, but I just have to go ahead and say it: I’m falling in love with the landscape there. Though Tahoe’s no ugly duckling when it comes to places to run (in the summer anyway), the East bay has it beat, hands down. There are bike path paved trails ideal for tempo runs; trails from the fire-road size to the single-track. And landscapes that change with (excuse the odd metaphor) nearly every stride.

This morning I headed out early-- 6:30 or so-- into the low-hanging fog and ran what I discovered is an 8.5 loop that begins and ends with my house (how amazing is that??) There’s only a mile or two on pavement-- the rest, an undulating fire road that borders a huge resevoir lined with a species of tree I just learned are “Bay Trees” (from which the bay leaf that flavors your soup comes.) I was drenched from the moisture in the air by the second mile, but it wasn’t cold enough out to notice. Up and down I ran, listening to the sound of my footsteps and the rustle of dry grass and undergrowth around me, wondering if the warning for mountain lions was something I ought to think about.

And yet, despite the natural beauty which surrounded me on this run, this is not the run that I will remember for years to come. Rather, the one that occurred two days prior on a not-so-remarkable trail (the bike path between Saint Mary’s and the city of Lafayette) holds this distinction so far.

For those who’ve been reading, you might recall a post I wrote in May, detailing my first encounter with the SMXC team. For those recently joining my crazy endeavor to qualify for the trials, I’ll offer a brief synopsis: two women from the team ran with me back in May when I was first hired. Both had piss-poor attitudes in that they tried to “leave me in the dust” in the first mile. As any distance runner knows, it’s easy to run the first mile of your run “fast”-- the challenge (and the proper challenge) is to increase your speed in the final miles. Of course, they didn’t do this and at the time I’d been wondering what I got myself into as they panted themselves to normality. Well, a few months later and I’m back and one of the athletes happened to have time to run with me.

Immediately I was impressed: instead of trying to break five minutes per mile, she started at a conservative pace. Enough so that we could talk. She asked how I was. We updated each other on our training. She told me, when I mentioned the first race of her season will be on September 4th, that she was “really nervous” for the event.

“Don’t be,” I said.

“But I am.”

The pace seemed easy enough, which was in part because the trail is entirely downhill on the way out. And yet, I had set a goal for us both: that our return trip to campus would be faster than the trip out, despite the hill. I know I should have told my athlete that, but I decided, instead, to see what she would do if I increased our speed on the way back just a little bit. If she couldn’t do it, we’d hold a steady pace, if she could, well, I would just keep pushing.

(Btw, I don’t know if any of this is good coaching. In retrospect, maybe I should have said something, but I didn’t.)

And so, we turned and began the three mile trek back up the hill. Our conversation dwindled, then stopped, which was enough to tell me without looking at the Garmin on my wrist that we were working harder on the way back-- my goal. It wasn’t until around mile 5, however, that I glanced at our pace on my Garmin.

“We were doing 6:30 pace,” I said between breaths, surprised. I hadn’t thought we were running that fast.

“Really?” she didn’t seem to believe me. “I thought we were doing 7:30 pace, maybe.”

“Nope,” I said. “6:30.”

The hill reaches its steepest point right before it levels out (as hills tend to do) but I have to say, she impressed me. It was getting difficult for me to push harder so much so that I might say I saw the world tilt for an instant, or that I understood in a non-linguistic way, the nature of all things and my place among them. I was loopy, in other words, but she was, too, breathing hard when we came to the final stretch of road before us.

When we returned to campus, I stopped the Garmin and waited for her breathing to calm.

“We averaged 6:41 pace,” I said.

I wish I’d had a camera with me in that instant to capture the smile on her face. It’s the kind of smile that comes after a hard effort (a summer’s worth of training and self-evaluation and revision) when you surprise yourself. It’s the smile I seek every time I head out for a training run; it’s the smile I hope to wear after every race.

“You just made my summer!” she said, and she meant it.

And because I’m me-- sort of goofy, like a Basset Hound-- I said: “You have nothing to worry about on the 4th. You’re going to kill it.”

And you know, she probably will.

I have to say it was an amazing feeling to bring that awareness to another athlete-- of what they are capable of accomplishing because of the hard work they have put into their own training. I’m not sure what it means in the scope of my own goals... perhaps I’m realizing I have a certain mental maturity that can hold onto pace like a fly on dog crap. Or maybe, when the time comes, I’ll have this memory to push me through those final marathon miles to surprise myself the way I surprised my athlete.

Either way, I’m doing my best and that’s all you can do. And you know: it’s so cool when you realize the limit to “your best” is a long ways off.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Nature of Talent and Necessity of Motivation

While slowly building my mileage this past (and very, very white) winter, I chanced to pick up a copy of Jack Daniel’s Running Formula, apparently one of THE books on training. Though most of his recommendations for workout schedules and the duration of various types of runs has been forgotten, his opening chapter which discusses “types” of athletes has, oddly, remained with me. Perhaps it’s because his message (or my digestion of it) can be applied not only to athletic training, but to life.

In fact I’ve imagined plenty of scenarios in which a young collegiate athlete approaches me, wanting to know if he or she “has what it takes” to become a great distance runner. No expert myself in these wistful daydreams, I quote Daniels readily, offering them, first, his rubric of athletic personality types (which follows):

According to Daniels, there are four essential “types” of athletes: those who are talented and motivated, those who are talented but not motivated, those who are not talented but motivated and those who are neither. The latter he discards immediately, explaining those are the sort of people who’d never step foot on a track (or college campus, or open a book, etc) to begin with anyway. And so do I, in my dream, say: And so, we know that you are not unmotivated and untalented. What remains to be seen is what you are of the three remaining options.” (Apparently when I daydream, I speak sort of like a stodgy logics professor. Or maybe someone who’s had too many gin and tonics.)

And here is where the athlete might interject: “But what if I’m not talented?”

It’s the question every person asks themselves in those moments of doubt that interject themselves into whatever you’re trying to accomplish. I know I often ask myself the same thing: “What if I’m not talented? How on earth will I ever qualify for the Olympic Trials? How will I complete an MFA program, if I have no talent for writing? Why would anyone ever want to marry me-- I have no talent for life.”

Pre-Daniels, I would have been in a quandary and my daydream-conjured athlete would be, too. I mean, what do you do sans talent? For whatever reason, it seems we’ve (or I’ve) been trained to think that without it, the possibility of accomplishing anything worthwhile is nil. I might have quit, in other words, if I thought I had no talent for running, no talent for writing and no talent for life. However, post Daniels with a smidge of what might be called stoicism has recently brought an entirely new response to the question of talent to light.

Recall that Daniel cited three additional types of athletes: and even for the one he deemed most likely to succeed (those with talent and motivation), it’s interesting to notice that talent is only half of the equation. To be great, he seems to say, you need talent, yes, but you also have to be willing to work hard to obtain the desired outcome.

Athletes that are talented with no motivation, or that are motivated with no talent are more or less on the same playing field-- or are they? At first I thought so-- those are the people who might succeed if they work harder than the folks blessed with both attributes. And yet, let’s take a closer look at this.

Imagine this scenario: three women toe the line to do a 100-meter sprint. In lane one stands an Gold-medal Olympic medalist who has trained for this event her entire life. She’s one of those athletes that’s naturally gifted, and yet, she follows a strict training regimen, evidenced by her high level of fitness and overall health. In lane 2, an athlete stands, a collegiate great who never had to work very hard to win anything. She hardly ever trains and drinks heavily until the wee hours most nights. Her motivation-- if she has any-- has more to do with social status than with the sport itself. In lane 3, another athlete stands: fit and composed, she is not “gifted.” To achieve her level of fitness, she has had to work very hard-- but she does this, without regret-- in fact, she does it with a certain measure of joy. Now, who do you, reader, think will win this race?

The Olympic medalist, you say. Perhaps. But let me interject and reveal that all three are equally fit; that the only difference which rests between these three bodies has to do with the mental determination to complete the 100-meter sprint. Then who, do you think, will be victorious?

Suddenly it becomes less apparent who is the better athlete-- is it the medalist, or the athlete who has worked very hard? What is apparent is that the lady in lane 2 is by no means “in the running.” Though she might win, she has no reason to. Her lack of motivation is her obvious shortcoming. But the athlete who has trained hard-- without “talent”-- has developed not only her fitness, but also a mental strength the talented athlete lacks (because she’s never had to work--or wanted to work-- for her successes.)

Of course, this is a contrived example: one can hardly find three individuals who fit nicely into Daniel’s model. But (and here comes the stoicism) his model is telling. It seems Daniels suggests that talent is a wild card-- one is either talented or one is not. What is under one’s control, however, is the other element: motivation. It hardly matters, in other words, if you are talented. If you work hard for what you want to accomplish, it’s the hard work that will get you there and that will teach you the lessons needed to sustain that success.

And so I say to my imagined athlete: it’s pointless to worry about what you cannot control. What you have complete dominion over is your ability to wake each morning and go for a run; you have control over your diet, the amount of sleep you get, your hydration. You have control over your emotions when it’s the final stretch of a race and you would rather curl into a ball than finish because your legs and lungs burn.

And so, I say to myself: keep training. Keep believing. You'll only fail (without question) if you stop.

This rubric applies to writing as in life: talent, is in many ways a detriment. To be a great writer takes a daily practice of reading and writing. To be “good” at life you need not necessarily win the lottery, but you need to wake up every morning and give the world your best in whatever it is you do.

And THAT, my friends, is motivation. One needs little else.