I'm in...again

I signed up for another season with Team in Training! This time around the race is the NYC Half marathon, March 18, 2012. It's the day before my birthday, and will mark 365 days of healthy living. What a great gift to myself!

I have a couple goals in mind for this race:

1. Train to run the entire thing.

I trained for my marathon doing a series of run/walk intervals. While it was great and helped me get to the finish line, I'm ready for the next challenge.

2. Train to enjoy the race, jot just to finish.

During the marathon, I hit one hell of a wall, and this time around, I'd like to be able to enjoy the last part of the race more, instead of just making it to the finish line.

3. Stay injury-free.

This means listening to my body, following my training plan, and not trying to overdo things. I have coaches for a reason.

I am so excited for this new chapter in my running/training/endurance sports story. I've come such a long way since I started running and can't wait to see where it will take me.


On lifelong fitness and the relativity of achievement

One of the goals I set for myself when I signed up for the NYC Marathon was to learn to run properly so that I could develop a healthy habit that would, ideally, last a lifetime. This was one of the smartest moves I could have made. The last couple of weeks, I have continued running, slowly, surely, and have surprised myself at the leaps I have made in my personal fitness. It's so exciting to have faster paces, and personal continuous-running records  but by Saturday evening, I was feeling a good amount of discomfort in my knee and knew I was overdoing it. I missed having coaches to talk to about my training, both the aches and pains as well as the fitness breakthroughs.  It felt counter-intuitive to remind myself that I was still very much a beginner - hadn't I just done a marathon? - and that I wasn't invincible and needed to make slow, steady increases, not large (exciting) jumps. It was hard to go back to two and three mile runs when I had been logging 12+ miles every Saturday morning, but I realized that there are so many layers to the enjoyment of running. There is the physical benefit of it, which almost always gets me out of bed in the mornings; I always feel so much more awake and capable after a morning run, even if it's only two miles. And then there is the exhilaration of pushing yourself past your capabilities. But more than anything, I've been reminding myself that I'm not out there for that run as much as to develop lifelong habits that will keep my body and mind healthy for decades to come, and pushing myself to the point of potential injury does nothing to further that goal. It's a difficult balance to find - how do you find a way to push yourself but still take care of your body?

Another goal I am gearing up for in 2012 is to complete the NYRR 9+1 program to guarantee myself an entry in the 2013 NYC Marathon. Yes, that's right, I'm already excited to do it again! I want to get enough conditioning under my belt so that, instead of hitting the proverbial wall, I can challenge myself to keep going with a smile on my face. In short, I want to enjoy the experience. I'm so excited to have these NYRR races to keep my focus, but I have been concerned that it could get repetitive, and that I could get frustrated if I have a string of great races and then, for whatever reasons, don't. But so many aspects of the race can be great without any sort of focus on the time - even the most difficult struggles can be the most rewarding. And just as I was able to do for many parts of my marathon training, I think it will be a tremendous opportunity to challenge myself mentally as well as physically. I have dealt with so many fears in the past six months, some of which I have written here. That has been, and continues to be, one of my biggest struggles. I held so much fear for the unknown what-ifs that sometimes I would become paralyzed or even retreat to escape the hold that those fears had over me. One of my biggest fears was disappointment: disappointing others and myself. The biggest irony was that, through all of my worrying and fear about failure and disappointment, I would often become consumed by it, and lose sight of my goals. It has only been recently when I have been able to give my goals the attention that they deserve - no more and no less - and develop the confidence in myself to keep working towards then despite nagging doubts, that I have been able to make significant strides forward. On one hand, this might seem fairly depressing - why work for something at all if it is going to cause you so much difficulty? For me, this question can be answered by the beauty and value of each difficulty we encounter:

"When a butterfly emerges from its cocoon, there is a great struggle. If you were to cut open the cocoon in order to spare the new butterfly this struggle, it would never thrive. The struggle to get out is needed to build the wing muscles. Without the struggle, the butterfly will never fly." 


The Journey to the center of Manhattan

It was 4:35 am when my alarm woke me up on November 6th, and I stumbled out of bed, flicked on the bathroom lights, and stood, dazed, for a few moments before it hit me: today I would run a marathon. The next time I would stand in this spot and look at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, I would see the reflection of a marathoner. Twenty-five to five was far too early for these kind of thoughts, so they just stayed in my head and directed my final steps of preparation. "Nothing new on race day," I thought to myself as I made my toast and almond butter, the same thing I had eaten every morning for the past five months. I pulled on my shirt with my race number already attached, and then it began to sink in. Today I would run a marathon.

My mind was a steady blur as I boarded the bus for Staten Island. Crossing through New Jersey seemed to take forever, and I stared out the window at the world going about their typical Sunday morning. The sun began to peek above the Statue of Liberty's silhouette as she stood in the harbor, an epic reminder of the journey still to come.

We finally arrived in Staten Island and joined up with the other 46,000 or so runners making their way to the starting villages. Huddled masses, indeed. After what felt like endless walking, showing our numbers, and more walking, my group of fellow sojourners and I sat down in our village to wait for the start. And wait for the second start. And wait some more. Finally, the third and last wave of runners was called to find their corrals. This was it....after more shuffling. Soon, the race officials began shuffling the throngs of runners closer and closer to the Verrazano Bridge and as I approached, I could hear "New York, New York" blaring from the speakers. Only a few minutes of shuffling more, and then I was there. At the starting line of the New York City Marathon. And a moment later, my race began.

The Verrazano Bridge is the longest suspension bridge in North America, and also the starting point of the New York City Marathon. It also means that the entire first mile of the race is spent going uphill, and after 10 minutes of marathoning, you start to wonder if your conditioning is going to last you another (what you hope to be) 5 hours and 50 minutes (if you're me and have a goal time of going under 6 hours). At least, that's what was going through my mind. As soon as we were off the bridge, there were crowds of people lining the streets holding signs and yelling "Welcome to Brooklyn!!!!!"

Brooklyn is often described as one giant block party, and with good reason. I made my way down streets lined with people having cookouts, sitting on lawn chairs, blasting stereos, and offering the runners water and encouragement. I kept hearing people cheer "GO EMILY!" as they read my name off the front of my shirt, and felt a solidarity with this city like never before. I felt strong and was keeping a comfortable, steady pace. I can only describe the miles in Brooklyn as a 50,000-person surprise party. The energy was unbelievable, and the groups of cheering spectators grew larger and larger as we got closer to downtown. I couldn't believe I was there, in the thick of it - these people were out cheering for me.

Once I hit about mile 9 or 10, the cheering crowds died off a bit, and I kept thinking "get me the hell out of Brooklyn." I kept my eyes out for two friends who lived along the course and spotted them around mile 12, waving and hugging then getting back on the road. The Pulaski Bridge marks the halfway point in the race. As it came into my sights, I was filled with a mixture of excitement and nerves - I felt like I had been running for hours (and I had - three, to be exact) and I was only halfway?! I had been keeping a fairly steady pace and hit the halfway point at 2:59 - right where I needed to be, but with no room for error and my body starting to feel the effects of three hours of running. Not to be too discouraged though - I had friends waiting for me in Queens with signs and excitement, which was just the boost I needed to make it through my third borough at a steady clip and push through the Queensborough Bridge. I was so excited to run up First Avenue after watching the runners back in 2007, and the crowds didn't disappoint. As I came to the bottom of the Queensborough Bridge, spectators had huge signs that said "10 more miles to go!" Ten miles - piece of cake, right?

About halfway up First Avenue, my legs started to feel a little heavy. And my stomach started it's long aria of discontent. And I kept pushing forward, through mile 17, and 18, until all I could think was "I just want to sit down." I was so tired physically and mentally, and by mile 19, I started walking. As I kept walking through Manhattan, I looked down at my watch and realized that although I was walking, I wasn't losing any speed. I had figured that I would hit a wall at some point and so had incorporated quite a bit of walking into my training. And so I pushed on, up and over the Willis Avenue Bridge, into the Bronx.

Most people think the Bronx leg of the marathon is the most difficult borough, and with good reason. If you're going to hit a wall, it's hitting you full force at that point. The crowds are much thinner, and there are a couple of jaunty little hills to keep you on your toes (literally and metaphorically). But personally, I have the best memories of the Bronx. Between miles 20 and 21 I found a part of myself that was stronger and gutsier than I had imagined. I had been on my feet for nearly five hours. I had an hour to go. Every joint in each of my legs was ready to just sit down. And yet, every step I took was the furthest I had ever gone.

The next five miles were a blur as I willed myself to keep going. I would run for a bit, then walk, and my body ached as I made my way down Fifth Avenue, through Central Park to 59th Street and down to Columbus Circle. I powered through every bit of energy that I had until the entrance back into the park got closer and closer, until I was back in the park and coming up on the 26 mile marker. Just one more turn, one more hill, and I would cross the finish line. And so I ran. I ran back into the park, over the hills, like I had done so many times before. I pushed forward as hard as I could. And then I saw the finish line. It came into sight, then closer and closer until I was crossing it myself.

I had finished a marathon: 26.2 miles in 5 hours and 58 minutes. Words and emotions failed me at that moment, but looking back now, over a week later, I find myself getting choked up as I comprehend what I have accomplished. My journey to the center of Manhattan was finished.


Notes from a Marathon

I am a marathoner. It feels amazing.

I'm still processing a lot of the emotions and excitement of the day, and am a little in awe of this unbelievable accomplishment. I did it.

Thank you to everyone for all of your incredible support.


On Running a Marathon

In just about 72 hours, that's what I'll be doing. I'm ridiculously excited and after re-reading some of my older blog posts, have realized just how far I've come. Not just physically, but mentally - I have tackled so many things that scared me in the last five or so months, sometimes it's hard to believe. And I've been fortunate to have an unbelievable amount of support from family and friends throughout this process. Thinking back a year ago, or even six months ago, the challenge of running this thing was daunting and overwhelming! Running a marathon seemed like a crazy, impossible feat! And it is! But one of the downsides of all the months of hard work is the realization that your goal is attainable - barring any sort of catastrophe, it's going to happen. The transformation from taking on this enormous task and wondering how the heck you'll accomplishment to getting to the point where you can and will finish takes a huge amount of time and energy. And it seems just a little less special and amazing - if I can do it, what's stopping anyone else from doing it, too?

The answer to that is nothing. Anyone who wants to make the time and commitment to train for a marathon can run it. But making the sacrifices and pouring everything you can into the commitment to that goal - that is what makes it truly special. Knowing that you have had the courage to stand up to unknowns and pit yourself against each challenge that comes up along the way without a guaranteed outcome has chipped away at the impossibility at the task at front of you until all of a sudden, it looks reasonable. One of my first blog entries referenced a quote by Henry David Thoreau that said "if you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them." I so vividly remember what compelled me to write that entry - I had just signed up with Team in Training to try to secure a marathon spot. I had built my castle in the air, and was giddy with excitement. Looking back, I think about each day that laid a foundation: each practice, whether it was in the 98 degree heat, the morning of a hurricane, in a torrential downpour, or the beginning of a freak October snowstorm, about all the aches and pains, and runs on sore and tired legs, all of the runs where I felt amazing, and all of the runs where I felt terrible or had to cut it short. I thought of the disappointment and frustration I felt at so many times. And I thought about how, each time, I got back up and faced my fears and frustrations, and what a scary, uncomfortable feeling that was. That's a bit how I feel now, the last few days leading up to race day. But I know I will be able to handle it - I know I can get through it. And I know that when I cross the finish line, I will have done so with courage of which I didn't realize I was capable, and resolve that I didn't know existed.


The Final Countdown...!

In two weeks, I'll be going to bed, waking up the morning of November 6th, and running the NYC Marathon. In two short weeks, I'll be running my first marathon. It's hard to believe that it's so close. Training for this marathon has changed me in so many ways - I can't believe the person that ventured so timidly to the back of a group of runners in early June, the person who could barely run four miles, the person who dreaded each long run has become the person who got up and ran 20 miles with a smile on her face. I set out to train for a marathon, not knowing what was in store for me. What I found was confidence and determination from so deep in my gut I never knew it existed. I never realized I could be as strong as I have shown myself I can be, time and again. With every challenge I've faced, I haven't backed down. With every setback, I worked through it and came out mentally tougher. With every opportunity I had, I pushed myself to become a stronger version of myself. I sacrificed time, sleep, and eventually, coffee (...who gives up coffee in the middle of marathon training??!!) so that each week I could run purposefully, deliberately, and thoughtfully. And I loved every minute of it. I have been given a tremendous gift and I could not be more thankful for it. In two weeks, I will accomplish a goal I have had for nearly my whole life, a goal I never thought I would be able to meet. In two weeks, I will be a marathoner.


What's a little friendly competition?

Not so friendly, it turns out, if it starts to get in the way of your goals. I'm a pretty competitive person. I knew I would have a tough time learning how to run without some sort of ultimate goal towards which I could work. I also really really don't like exercising unless there's a purpose to what I'm doing. Going out for a run "because it's good for me" has never really cut it. This past month has been a stressful one and as a result, I ended up sitting out most of the week with a nasty cold. I was feeling very frustrated about not being able to get my training in, and have had a handful of bad runs back to back to back. I felt discouraged, and really started getting down on myself. Did I think I could finish the marathon in under 6 hours? Did I think I can finish at all?

Sometimes it's good to remind ourselves that we are only human, and our goals are only markers to which we, as humans have given some sort of tangential significance. They're great to have if you need a target, but if they are holding you back and stressing you out where you feel trapped and paralyzed by the fear of not making them, what good do they do you? This was where I found myself the last few days; agonizing about everything that wasn't good enough.

Good enough for who?

Good enough to what?

Good enough to satisfy all of the nagging insecurities that plague us, as human beings, each day, and that push us to better ourselves in the innumerable ways possible? So that we can be perfect?

And what is good enough? That thought really hit me. I thought to myself, "if I could someday, maybe in a few years, run a marathon in under 5 hours, that'll be good enough. I'd be happy with that." Then it hit me what I was saying. I've been training for this marathon for four months, and I'm already setting up a cutoff for myself to define what's "good enough"? Part of my reason for signing up for this marathon with Team in Training was to establish a baseline level of fitness and proper form that I could use to maintain a level of activity for the rest of my life. I wanted to learn to run, and to run, walk, crawl, finish a marathon to show myself that I can do it - that I can be stronger than any negativity or any trap I might set out for myself. And I wanted to do that in tandem with raising money for a cause in which I believe in so strongly. And all of a sudden, I was telling myself that this wasn't good enough? That I shouldn't be happy to be where I am right now, because I can do better, and be better? That's crap, and I've been telling myself this crap for too many years now. It's time to stop. It's time for me to go out for a run just because it's good for me. I don't have to be fast. I'm not fast now, and regardless of whether I get faster in the future, it won't last forever. That doesn't mean I should stop doing something I enjoy - whether it's running or swimming, or any sort of exercise. Being a good runner will in no way improve my quality of life, but finding enjoyment out of the fitness that comes from regular exercise, and to a degree, the exercise itself, absolutely will.

I don't know what will happen on November 6th. But I know where I'll be: at the starting line of the New York City Marathon. And anything past that, I'm trying not to let into my head. As long as I finish, I'll be happy. Or as Edmund Hilary once said, "it's not the mountain we conquer but ourselves."


Frustration and Motivation

I've been back in school for two weeks now, and it has completely thrown me off balance. I think my training has been the thing that has suffered the most from my lack of equilibrium, and I'm trying to keep myself positive and work through. I keep having to remind myself what I'm doing:
1) learning how to run properly so that it can be something I can do for the rest of my life
2) becoming less of a headcase and finding a balance in my life that involves exercise
3) becoming healthier
4) taking the time to work through some old cobwebs and cleaning them out, so to speak
5) running the NYC Marathon.
Doing this involves less of me beating myself up and more of me relaxing and taking things in life as they come. I'm noticing that my training has been pretty cyclical, and when I'm pushing through tougher parts of it, I tend to blog more, but that's what the blog is here for. I started out with a lot of fears and anxiety about my training, and wasn't terribly consistent. Then I hit my stride and began making significant mental and physical gains. Now I'm back to fear and inconsistency, but I'm trying to keep it in perspective. I've had a bumpy last few weeks - I had my 13 miler that went bust on the Brooklyn Bridge, then a 14 miler that I finished but was not particularly pretty (and took me a while to recover from), and then last weekend's pacing disaster. So it's little surprise to me that I've been a bit anxious for this weekend - at most, I'll end up doing 16 miles, but more than anything I want to be strong and consistent throughout my whole run. On reflection, though, I think that's the essence of training - forward progress, finding yourself in uncharted territory, overcoming fears and anxiety about said territory, and then making more forward progress. I will get back into balance, this is just another hill that will make me stronger.


On Believing in Yourself

When working towards a goal, there is, if you're lucky, a magic moment in which your goal ceases to be an inspirational figment in your mind and transforms into something doable - something real. It's kind of like a new pair of shoes: at first, they look fantastic, but the fit is a bit uncomfortable. It takes a bit getting used to to get the fit just right. Sometimes there's some trial and error. Sometimes there are blisters. But once they fit just so, they may take you places you've never been.

When I first signed up for the NYC Marathon, I had no idea in hell how I was going to follow through. It had been a long time since I had followed through with any sort of goal I had set for myself. I never would have guessed that that snap decision in March would lead me to the place I am in my life now, but I am grateful it did. I remember the exact moment in which the marathon stopped being a nebulous date, time, and distance, and  became reachable - the choices I made each day would directly impact my outcome, and I knew I could finish. But looking back, I realize that I've been writing this narrative for most of my life.

At age 12, I started swimming year-round. In order to gain entry to the first tier of selective swim meets, one must meet the minimum age-group qualifying times in three events. In my first meet, I missed my qualifying time by several tenths of a second. I was bummed, but got up the next meet and made that one, and one more. Once I turned 13, I remade those qualifying times in my new age group, but couldn't quite get the third. And not for lack of trying. I still remember one ill-advised decision in which I stayed several hours after the conclusion of a meet in the Arizona summer (about 112 degrees at 3 pm) to time-trial the mile swim. While it was gutsy, I didn't make the cut. Nor did I make it the next meet, or the next. I spent the entire summer swimming the mile (1500 meter freestyle) and 100 meter butterfly over and over, each time missing the qualifying cut by a matter of seconds. Always close, but never close enough. Then, one morning, towards the end of the summer, I had had enough. I was going to make that damn cut if it killed me. I had missed the 100-meter fly cut in the event the previous day, so my only possibility was another time-trial. I showed up the morning of the time trial and quietly readied myself for my race, steadied myself on the blocks, and at the starting gun, I was off. There was nothing different about the first 50 meters, but I distinctly remember the moment as I pushed off the wall on my turn to my final lap when I dug deeper within myself than I had ever done before and powered to the finish, smashing the qualifying time by a couple of seconds. 13 years later, I still remember  the feeling when my goal had become a reality in my mind, and then was translated into my actions.

As I became more serious about swimming, my goals became more focused, and I became fiercely attuned to  what it would take to achieve them. And for the most part, achieve them I did. If people told me that they didn't think I'd make the cut on my high school swim team (and they did), I'd not only make the team, but be the only freshman to score points at the state meet. If no one thought I could achieve Junior National time standards, well, I'd just have to prove them wrong. And I did. All through high school, much of my identity hinged on the persona I had developed over the years as the scrappy underdog, and I thrived on it. Until one day - the first weekend in November, at State finals, my senior year in high school. So often, the things that change the course of your life aren't what you'd expect. For me, one bad swim had the perfect storm of elements to take the wind out of my sails. Looking back, I realize that after that swim, I didn't achieve a single goal I set for myself - not athletically, not academically, not personally. To say I was stuck in a rut would be an understatement, unless that rut was the size of the Mariana Trench. I stayed in that rut throughout college swimming, where I drifted around, rudderless, directionless.

Moving to New York gave me a chance to leave behind all of the athletic highs and lows I had been carrying around. It felt good to get away from that part of my identity, and reinvent myself as someone other than "Emily the swimmer," or "Emily the good swimmer," or increasingly, "Emily the swimmer past her prime who doesn't really care any more." But I still couldn't shake the feeling that something was missing. When I started running, I promised myself that my ultimate goal - beyond performance, beyond accomplishment - would be to enjoy it. I needed to enjoy the process of getting into shape, and allow myself to maintain it. I want to be able to do this for the rest of my life, and I am realizing, over and over, that to do so requires a significant amount of control. While swimming, there was never such thing as doing too much. There was always a faster person to catch, or a time standard to reach, and when striving to reach high and higher standards, I lost sight of the long-term goals I had for myself. There became only this dichotomy between what I could do and what I was doing, and I was always chasing a carrot that never fully materialized.

Anyone who has participated in competitive sports will tell you that once nothing becomes good enough, you cease to be satisfied with anything. And when you fall short, a lack of satisfaction quickly morphs into a destructive cycle of "should have" and "not good enough." The drive that once pushed you to improvement has ceased to be productive, and now holds you back, because nothing is good enough. You become captive to your goals, because anything else beyond that ceases to exist. I've fallen deep into that hole before, and I know how destructive it can be. So when I reread my entry from yesterday, I realized that it was not my  training that necessarily needed to change - clearly I am improving, and - let's face it - that's awesome. That's what I'm supposed to be doing. I'm trying out new things, and seeing what works. It was my attitude that was following the same well-tread path I had been down before.

Destitutus ventis, remos adhibe - If the wind will not serve, take to the oars.

One of the amazing things about life is that, as it goes on, we are gifted with a tremendous amount of perspective and clarity. If one path does not work, there is no rule preventing me from turning around and changing course, changing my habits, and most importantly, changing my attitude. Sometimes, I forget that I need to cut myself a little slack. At the same time, I need to remember that the long-term goals I have for myself - to be a healthier and happier person, not to mention completing a marathon - supersede any sort of disappointment and frustration I may feel about one or two workouts. If I let that bring me down, I'm preventing myself from changing direction to find a way that works. Yes, it may be uncomfortable. But sometimes the wind is not always blowing in your favor, and sometimes we need to stretch ourselves to get where we want to go. And this may lead us to our desired destination, or to somewhere we may not have dreamed we would end up. The important thing is that we are not stagnant, we are not letting ourselves be dictated by the wind, but that, as uncomfortable as it may sometimes be, we have to take to the oars, and take charge of our course.


On Improvement

Last weekend I had my first really disappointing run. Even though it was a lower-mileage week, I found myself five miles into what I had planned to be a 9-10 mile run, completely wiped out. One of the things I have loved about running thus far is the freedom it gives me - I can go out, pay attention to my route only enough to stay on it, and just tune in to my breathing, the rhythm of the ice clunking in my water bottles, and my feet. After a mile or two, I tend to hit a steady pace where I feel like a train, just chugging along with a solid rhythm, and I can check out for a while. But not Saturday. I haven't really paid attention to pace, because my pace was pretty much just slow. My focus was on making sure I got my mileage in, keeping my form strong to prevent injuries, and to enjoy myself. And up to this point, I've been pretty successful in all three.

After my first big breakthrough last month, I have thrown myself into the next phase of my training - hills. Instead of letting myself get intimidated by the challenge of hills, I've taken them head-on. Instead of doing any sort of run-walk with my shorter weekday runs, I've been pushing myself to run the whole way, first two, then three or four or five miles at a time. It's been a tremendous breakthrough for me both mentally and physically. But as I have gotten stronger and my overall fitness has improved, I've found myself not knowing what to do on my long runs. All of a sudden, I have different paces, and I feel strong and I'm chomping at the bit to do more, go faster, and push myself - because all of a sudden I can. It's an exciting feeling. But it's significantly less exciting when I my legs feel like lead and I haven't even hit six miles. Ever since I finally realized that I can actually do this marathon, my excitement has reached a fever pitch. But this weekend, for the first time in many weeks, some of those doubts started creeping back in. I feel so much less confident now than I did a week ago, and can't help but wonder if maybe I took on more than I can handle. I feel like I'm in limbo - I'm reticent to give up that amazing feeling where I let my legs just go, but I know that I need to reel myself in big time, and get back on track - figure out my pacing and stick to my schedule. I keep reminding myself that I'm training for a marathon - I have a very specific training plan to reach a very specific goal. Yet I just can't shake that nagging feeling from the past weekend. I know I've made tremendous improvements in the past three months but I can't help but feel like my path to my goal has gotten a little rocker, both mentally and physically.


On Camaraderie

Everyone has those days every so often - the days where you wake up late, disorganized, and cranky, and by the time you get out the door, the last thing you want to do when you're met with the day's heat and humidity is set out on a long run.

A few Saturdays ago was that day for me. As my alarm beeped mockingly at 5:15, I fought off sleep, and groggily cursed the fact that my morning run loomed ahead of me. After a week-long "staycation," I felt sluggish from too much good food and good wine, and wondered how the hell I was going to get through the morning. I just wanted to get this run over with. Not the greatest way to approach double-digits mileage I suppose, but I was too rushed to keep myself in check. I was already running late as I left our apartment, and hopped onto the world's slowest A train to get to our group meetup spot on 51st and Park Ave. By the train pulled up to my stop, I was already late for the group run, but twenty minutes, four blocks, and a heated argument with an untoward cab driver later I was seething. By the time I got to the bag drop the group was long gone and one of the coaches mentioned that I looked like I was ready to kill someone, which pretty much summed up how I felt - flustered, frustrated, and defeated - and I hadn't even started my run. 

I set out still inflamed at the morning's events. As I tried to walk off my frustration, I had no idea how I was going to get through 11 miles that morning. Although I'm not a big talker on runs, I very much enjoy the company and camaraderie that the group brings. I didn't realize how much I needed that motivation until I found myself facing down two and a half hours of solitary running. About a mile and a half in, I heard a runner coming up behind me. "GO TEAM!!" he shouted as he grinned at my purple Team in Training shirt. For the first time that morning, I cracked a smile and waved back, glad to have the company, if only for a moment. 

The morning's course took advantage of New York's Summer Streets program, in which Park Ave is blocked off to cars from 72nd street all the way down to the Brooklyn Bridge. My route took me from our team tent at 51st street to the bridge and back up to Central Park, through the lower loop, and back down to the team tent for a total of 11 miles. Three miles into my run, some of my faster teammates had already made the bridge loop and were heading back uptown. As they passed me - first one or two, then larger groups - many of them waved and yelled "Go Team!" or "Keep it up!" as they went by. Pretty soon, a steady stream of purple shirts was going past and I found myself waving and exchanging our enthusiastic greetings. By the time I reached the Brooklyn Bridge, I had worked out the tension in my joints and was hitting my stride. I carried those words of encouragement through each mile, and before I knew it, I had finished 12 miles - more than I had planned to do, and one of the greatest runs of my life. What had started out as a terrible morning turned into a tremendous accomplishment.

The following weekend, I had a completely opposite experience - I was up and ready to go, excited to hit 13 miles and ready to run across the Brooklyn Bridge. I felt unstoppable, despite a slight upset stomach that had been plaguing me for the last 24 hours, I was ready to rock that mileage. As soon as I started running, I knew something was wrong. My feet were barely making forward progress, and it took every ounce of mental energy I had to inch forward. My brain began telling me to slow down, then to walk, then to hold on to the railing of the Brooklyn Bridge for dear life. I felt dizzy and nauseous and began to get disoriented. As much as it killed me, I knew I had to turn around barely a mile into my run. Slowly, I made my way back to the bag watch feeling defeated. I had such high hopes for this run, and I felt like I had failed. But as the day went on, an incredible thing happened. It would have been so easy for me to take something like this and use it as an excuse. Honestly, there was a time in my life where that would have been completely in character  for me to do so. And yet, it didn't. It was one run, one setback. One day. It would not dictate the rest of my training unless I let it. For the first time in almost a decade, I refused to let myself become a victim of circumstance. Shit happens. It happens to everyone. Move on.

So why are things so radically different now, as opposed to every other time in my adult life when I have let a setback (either real or perceived) dictate my outcome? I can only attribute it to my support system. The people I train with week in and week out, whose attitudes affect me as much as mine affect them. Teammates, mentors, and coaches from all walks of life, who have faced obstacles both similar to mine and far more difficult. The people who make me look forward to running an ungodly amount of miles at 7 am every Saturday. The people I watched run up 1st Avenue that blustery November day in 2007, when I thought to myself that I would love join them someday, and simultaneously, that it could never happen. These past few months with Team in Training have changed me in ways I could not imagine. I have faced fears that have plagued me for far too long. I have challenged myself physically and mentally to train for a marathon - something I have always wanted to do - and I am well on my way of doing it. But more than anything, I have found a sense of belonging rooted in a community of people I respect and admire. I have found a group of people who are more than the sum of their parts. I have found a team.

"Lift your eyes upon the day breaking for you. Give birth again to the dream...Each hour holds new chances for new beginnings. Do not be wedded forever to fear...Here, on the pulse of this new day, you may have the grace to look up and out, and into your sister's eyes, into your brother's face, your country, and say simply, very simply, with hope, good morning." - Maya Angelou, "On the Pulse of Morning"


I am a runner.

It's funny how such a little phrase can have such an enormous impact on my identity.  I am a runner. I look down at my legs, leaner and more muscular than before, and think of the strength and potential they have - to carry me on paths I have never explored and routes that were, at another point in time, not even a possibility. I think of my body working in cooperation with my mind, and together pushing me, challenging me to keep going. Because I am a runner.

Because I can.

I haven't had much to write about this past week because, honestly, there hasn't been much to say. Like the hill repeats we do every Tuesday, I have been able to take on my training with minimal struggle. On good days, I go to bed tired and satisfied, and wake up renewed and ready to take on the day. My muscles ache with a soreness that tells me I'm doing what I need to do - no more and no less. And on a bad day, I know that nothing will stay miserable forever. I can still smile because I'm out there, running, challenging myself, taking care of myself, doing something I never in a million years dreamed I could, or would do.

I'm moving forward, step by step, and breaking free of whatever has held me back for so many years. The gaping chiasm between "I want to," "I will," "I can," and "I am" has been bridged, and I can look out over it, knowing its depths, knowing the tears and struggles and sheer misery it took to pull myself out of it. I think back to the fear and trepidation of several months ago, when I had absolutely no clue how I was going to step up to this challenge. And as the days and weeks progressed, training for the marathon became a euphemism for so much more; it stood for the courage to face failures in my life, and to own them. To validate my struggles over the years, because they have forged me into a stronger, more determined, more courageous person. When I see myself as a runner, I don't see the fastest, or strongest person out there, but I see this new facet of my identity and a new confidence in my ability to look the unknown in the face and say "I can do this."


Riverside Drive 5k - an exercise in patience

I talk a lot about fear in this blog. A lot of that has to do with the fact that excuses are borne out of fear, and fear is what allows us to hold ourselves back from pushing towards our full potential. A self-defense instructor in high school once told me that "I can't means I don't want to or I don't know how." This has always stuck with me - whenever I think to myself that I can't do something, I assess whether it's because I don't want to, or because I don't know how to do it. If I don't want to, why not? More often than not, I'm afraid of some aspect - afraid of the challenge, afraid of pain, afraid of not doing as well as I had expected, afraid of finding myself in a frightening place of doing too well, and raising expectations on myself to a level which which I was unsure I could maintain. And if I didn't know how, well the only way to remedy that is to make an attempt and learn from it.

Last Wednesday around 6:30 pm, I found myself wandering around Riverside Park in Manhattan, looking for a race for which I had hastily signed myself up the night before. It was an impulse decision, and not well thought out beforehand, and I waffled mightily about whether or not to even go. Ultimately, obviously, I dragged myself out of the house and to the train, all the while trying to convince myself that I'd be glad I did. Even as I was swiping my metrocard, a little voice was telling me that I could go home, and all sorts of ridiculous excuses started popping into my head.

What if no one else signed up and I'm the only one there?

What if I'm the slowest person there?

I don't want to embarrass myself.

What if it got cancelled? Am I wasting my time? I never got a confirmation email.

I'm so sore, and so tired. Will this be good for me? Can I finish? Will it be torture?

And then...

Do I just not want to, or do I just not know how?

I definitely wanted to go, in theory, I was just so nervous - and all of those things going through my head were just going to hold me back. I took a deep breath and hopped on the train. If nothing else, I told myself, I would learn something from this race.

When I found the race - it hadn't been cancelled (silly excuses) - I saw a cluster of lean, limber guys doing stretches that looked like overcooked string beans, and some men and women around my age, of (it looked like) varying abilities. There were some high school kids, and a number of middle-aged folks who took their fitness seriously. I admire them. I found a bench for my bag, and took a deep breath, letting my shoulders relax a bit.

It has not ceased to surprise me how much of this challenge - or any challenge, really - is mental. How much of it isn't just the last mile or two, pushing yourself to get to the finish line, but backtracking from there - getting yourself to the starting line, letting your head clear, but still being mindful of your breathing, your form, your posture, making sure you slept and ate right the night before, and the day before that, so you would have a productive workout....and on it goes. Your mind becomes a cocoon of focus so that when the time comes to break free of  that cocoon, all the work has been done. In college, I struggled immensely with the mental games swimming presented for me. Looking back, I realize that so many little pieces were missing, and there were just so many pieces in general, that I never took the time to start the process of building mental stamina over again. I was so impatient to pick up where I had left off in high school that I didn't take the time to remove myself from all the noise I had created around me and just find the quiet starting place in my mind. I could never find that place where goals are formed, when you conceptualize exactly what you want, and you realize that you will go for it, no matter what it will take.

I just didn't want to, and didn't quite know how.

And that's okay. Out of some of our hardest struggles and our lowest failures grows the understanding of our capabilities as people. So often we look at failure as leaving without getting what we wanted, but really, failure is stretching your mental capabilities in the opposite direction - you know the depths of frustration, and the disappointment of something that you want so badly, but you just cannot have. You now have a better understanding than ever before of what it will take to make that goal, whatever it might be.

That's how I found myself in Riverside Park last Wednesday. This 5k was going to be a test of my mental stamina, because if not now, when?

And it was hard. I hit hills right off the bat, and they never quite stopped. In the middle of the second mile, I had to smile at how ridiculously unpleasant the race was. And then I had to smile because I was in the thick of it. I was pushing through, no matter how long it took me to put one foot in front of the other. I had faced a few nerves, and they hadn't bested me this time. Physically, the race sucked, but mentally, I felt like a beast. I had taken all sorts of reasons for "I can't" and turned them into "I can," "I will," and "I did." My marathon finish just got a tiny bit sharper in my mind, and that is the kind of motivation that doesn't fade quickly.


My aversion to strength training, or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Do Lunges

I have a confession: after four years of strength-training-intensive college swimming, I have only recently learned how to properly do lunges. And squats. Seriously. I have poor balance and I would always fall over. I just couldn't do them. And I had never taken the time to learn how to do them properly, and therefore develop those specific muscles. And maybe I just wasn't built to do lunges anyway. At least, those were my excuses.

In high school, my training (all swimming) was very yardage-heavy. It was not unusual to do 8,000 yards a practice, or 11,000 yards a day (an hour and a half in the morning and two hours at night). We would occasionally get into a medicine-ball routine, or have a season that included a lot of crunches, but there was no definitive dry-land program that was implemented. So naturally, it was a big shock to me (and my muscles) to begin very intense strength training in college. Prior to this, I had managed to get pretty strong through just swimming - I knew that heavy yardage worked for me, and was prepared to do more of the same in college. However, that was not the case. College swimming relied on a thrice-weekly routine that involved calisthenics, medicine balls, and weight lifting sets to the point of failure. This was wholly unfamiliar to me, and I constantly felt like I had something to prove. I was supposed to be a fast recruit, and was already not living up to my potential for a number of reasons: college is a tremendously difficult transition in itself, and I don't think I allowed myself enough leeway to adjust; I was also having a difficult time staying healthy and was plagued with sinus infections from the start, and was still burnt out from certain high school struggles...and of course, that same boyfriend still plagued me. But I continued to be hard on myself, and didn't allow myself any leeway to adjust - I had to show everyone I was the best, even though I didn't really feel like it, and eventually, didn't really care.

For all of the time I had spent in the water, I was not very good at lifting weights. This embarrassed me. I wanted to show everyone how great I was. I wanted people to see that in me,  because I didn't feel all that great myself. So I pushed myself, but not effectively. I pushed myself, and then would pinch a shoulder, or get sick and lose strength. I found more and more excuses to avoid weightlifting, because it made me feel even worse than I already felt, both in and out of the pool. And so I fell more and more behind the rest of the team as the season progressed. If I had been insecure about my strength levels before (well let's face it, I had been insecure about a lot more than that), at this point I felt defeated. And then I just felt nothing. I didn't care about swimming, about practice, about the team, about the rest of the season, about how I did. I found every possible excuse for my shortcomings, and for the first time in my life, had accepted failure as not just a possibility, but as the only available outcome. I no longer viewed myself as someone who could push herself to accomplish a goal, but someone who had given up and accepted that going through the motions was an acceptable alternative.

Fast-forward one year to another season, at a different college, on the other side of the country, with a different coach. But the same fears and insecurities still haunted me.  My drive was inextricably broken but I could not find the strength to fix it. Much like my arms during practice, the wheels in my head spun out of control, but got me nowhere. But back to strength training. I had built a tremendous amount of muscle my freshman year due to the strength training routine my previous coach had implemented. I don't know how much it benefited me at the end of the season - by then, my attitude had so deteriorated that no amount of training would have been sufficient. (It should also be said that I also spent a significant amount of the season being sick with various sinus infections and persistent bronchitis. How much can be attributed to this, and how much of my weakened immune system was tied in to my mental state, I don't know.) But the fact remains that I had now put on quite a bit of muscle, and then proceeded to take five months off from athletic endeavors in general. My newer, more muscular stature became additional fuel for my burgeoning insecurities, and I convinced my new coach that I needed more time in the pool. I knew that I had had previous success from minimal weight training and heavy yardage, so that was what we did. But still, things were off - I would struggle with fatigue, and lose my motivation quickly. It was not the training that was off, it was me.

As college swimming came to a close, I felt an inextricable sense of relief and disappointment. No part of my college career had gone the way I felt it should have, or how I had hoped, and much if it felt like an empty attempt to recapture what I had once had in high school. I failed to see the experience as unique in its own set of challenges and opportunities because I was stuck in this mindset that I had failed myself once, and therefore would continue to do so no matter what I did. There are ways to see every opportunity as a setback, just as there are ways to see every setback as an opportunity, and I had entrenched myself in the former. So what does this have to do with strength training? To me, my aversion to strength training served as a metaphor for my resistance to free myself from the traps I had constructed for myself. Instead of looking for new implementations to become stronger, I reached for old excuses to let myself fulfill my predictions of inadequacy. These are not happy sentiments to type, but looking back, I recognize these experiences as opportunities from which there are tremendous lessons to learn. A negative attitude is a huge obstacle to overcome, but once you have, you realize how much littler things are in comparison.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said "You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do." For me, that was learning how to do lunges. I had borne witness to huge setbacks, both within and outside my control, for too many years. But those setbacks had given me an irreplaceable gift - I knew the discomfort, the uneasiness, the disappointment those setbacks brought. And I knew the courage to get through them. I had done that, and lived to see another day. Finding the courage to wrestle with your fears is the only way to learn that they will not break you.

My training thus far, including my little strength circuit, has been immensely rewarding because it has given me a chance for redemption. I have learned some hard-fought lessons, and now I have an opportunity to turn what I have long seen as my past failures into success - not in time, or in distance, although those tangible measurements allow me to recognize my progress, as well as my path ahead. I find myself with occasion each day to face my fears, to test my limits, to accept each challenge with a clear head and a ready smile as the gift of opportunity.


On Goals

Goals are funny things. I am a goal-setter by nature; I like the ability to measure my success in finite amounts. Goals can be wonderful - they can push you to uncharted territory and allow you to accomplish things you once never dreamed possible. But goals can also cripple you when your focus becomes too narrowly defined by the end point that you aren't paying attention to the road that will get you there. One of the hardest things for me to overcome thus far in my marathon training has been to trust that the steps I'm taking will eventually lead me to my goal. It's not easy.

The first thing I had to do was start laying down a foundation for my fitness level, upon which I could build my training to get myself to the start of the marathon. A lot of my posts talk about fear, because a lot of this journey has involved realizing, facing, and overcoming my fears. I have spent a good part of the last few years being nervous, tepid, afraid of taking risks, of pushing myself, of failure, and moreover, of taking myself into uncharted territory. My training has been just as much mental as it is physical. I've had to develop an acute awareness of my thoughts and attitude, and how I allow them to affect my actions.

Even though I had committed to running the NYC Marathon with Team in Training, and had raised a good chunk of money towards my fundraising requirement, I have been plagued with a nagging fear for the past few weeks that I would not actually be able to complete the entire marathon. 26.2 miles had taken up this nebulous, ethereal space in my head where I couldn't conceptually grasp what it would take to finish. I had no idea how I would feel on mile 12, or mile 18, or mile 25, how I could calm my nerves at the start, and the kind of elation I could possibly feel at the finish. I've had a lot of goals in my life, but it's been far too long - almost too long for me to remember - what it feels like to commit 100% of myself to a challenge. My goal had taken hold of me, and was shaking me to the core. Every workout came with a nagging sense of dread, and manifested itself into knots in my stomach. I didn't know what it was that I was doing that would help me move forward; conversely, I didn't know if, or what, I was doing that was inhibiting myself from taking control of my goal. Much of my training felt like an effort in shuffling through a set of motions - left foot forward, then right foot, now walk at the beep, turn around and head back up that hill, I can't wait for this to be over.

And then something clicked for me this week. Somewhere in the depths of my brain, a steely, energized person began to form from within my doubts and fears. Somewhere, that person grabbed a hold of my goal, and said, "this is mine. I can do this." Where I had previously slogged through training, or skipped workouts, I attacked each training opportunity with surprising zeal, embracing the tension in my muscles and grinning through my sweat. I pushed through a circuit workout, got up the next day, and did it again. Then, I faced an interval set on Wednesday that scared me a little bit. And well it should have - it was easily the most challenging running workout of my life. But then I got up on Thursday and did another interval set. And the knots in my stomach began to harden into a settled feeling of resolve. For the first time in years, I felt in control of my goal, and was ready to navigate my way to the marathon.

On Friday, one of the hottest days in New York on record, I debated how to address my long training run on Saturday morning. Of all the elements of my training, the long runs have induced the most fear for me. I had developed a pattern where I would push myself one week, only to return the next week and back down in fear of what it would take to go further than the previous Saturday. My previous long run had pushed 6 miles. I had wanted to do 7, but it was hot, and I was tired, and I had a sunburn, and in the end, I had allowed my excuses to dictate my training. Now I was still unsure whether to do 7 or 8 miles, unsure of whether I could do either, and had been cautioned not to push myself with the barometer likely to top 100 degrees. And all of a sudden I found myself in Central Park, gathered with my teammates, all of us pouring sweat at 7 am, and heard myself saying to my group that I was going 8 today for anyone who wanted to join me on a second full loop. I was going to run 8 miles, and no heat, no fear was going to stop me.

As I started my second mile, the oppressive heat seemed to dissipate around me. With each step I gained confidence in my choice - I was going 8 miles and I'd be damned if I was going to stop myself. Our group stopped at every water fountain in the park; no matter how strong my resolve was, those miles weren't going to happen unless I stayed properly hydrated in that weather. And as we pushed through mile 5, then mile 6, I felt a strange feeling of comfort as my tired feet moved forward, one, then the other, tapping out a rhythm in time with my breathing. Not physical comfort, but for the first time a concrete realization that I can finish my marathon. That was what it would feel like - a partnership of comfort and discomfort cancelling each other out, so all that was left to do was to keep moving. I know I can keep going. I can do this. I had taken hold of my goal, and allowed myself to push toward it, circumventing my fear - fear of what? I didn't even know any more - and proving to myself the mental and physical strength I had within me. Little by little over the past week, I had broken down a barrier that loomed over me, and used those pieces to take steps toward my goal. My marathon.


Holy breakthrough, Batman!

I'm sure that plenty of you have heard about the heat wave that is currently baking making its way across the country, so being that I am both fair-skinned and heat-averse, I've opted to take my workouts indoors for the week. Monday is usually my "ease into the workout-week with some strength training" day, so I did my usual running circuit:

2x15 squats
15 lunges (this is impressive since two months ago I couldn't even do one)
15 side lunges
1 minute wall sit
1 minute front plank
10 pushups
50 toe taps (to strengthen my ankles and prevent shin splints)
50 calf raises
50 bicycle crunches

It felt surprisingly good! Usually I'm not sore until the next day, though, so I fully expected to wake up Tuesday morning to a pair of very stiff legs. Not so much! I had a project to finish for class that night, however, so I opted to stay indoors and do another round of the circuit instead of my run and call Tuesday my rest day instead of Friday. This is fairly uncharacteristic of me - usually I'll find any excuse to skip a workout (and stretch it into three... or four.... months....) but I surprised myself with my new-found motivation. 

Today I got to the gym, and after patting myself on the back for having an air-conditioned place to go when it's 90+ degrees out, I hopped on the treadmill to do my first interval workout.

The workout itself was great:
10 minute fast walk warm-up
4x2 minutes max effort, with 1 minute fast recovery walk in between each,
2x3 minutes also max effort with 1 minute fast recovery walk in between,
5 minute walk cool-down

 But first, a confession: I've had a few interval workouts on my schedule already, but I've been too intimidated to do them. I didn't know what my mental block was... until about 30 seconds into my first hard interval. I realized that I felt exactly the same as I did after the race on Saturday - more or less in pain. Not musculoskeletal pain, just exertion beyond my comfort level. And then it hit me: that was the key. That was what I had been avoiding, and had been so afraid of for so long. So I pushed through my first interval (probably too hard, because I had nothing left for the last 10 minutes of the workout), and then stepped it up again for the second. That struggle - that discomfort - is exactly what is going to get me to the finish line in November. It's not going to go away, but it will make me stronger. That is as much a part of the physical challenge, the mental preparation to be uncomfortable, and accept it, even embrace it, and train your mind in every practice to feel the way you're going to feel when you race. I felt ecstatic. After the first set, I was so tempted to take an extra minute walk break before I pushed through the last two hard runs, but then I remembered to embrace the pain, not put it off for another minute. And I did. Although my speed slowed down a bit by the last two runs, my effort level stayed pretty consistent. The endurance will come, the more I push myself.

Slowly, but surely, I'm embracing the real challenge of the marathon - not necessarily developing the physical strength to run (or even run/walk) for 26 miles - the human body is capable of incredible things. The challenge is developing the mental tenacity to embrace pain, and overcome discomfort for the pursuit of a goal. As Aristotle once said, and a wise college teammate then screened onto our yearly t-shirts, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit."


My mantra for the day.

My body is the trophy of my perseverance.
Polished by my sweat,
sculpted by my hard work,
and given to me for my achievements
to remind me every day
to treat it with care and respect
and to use it to better myself
because I have been given the most valuable award there is-
my health.


Live Your Goals

On Sunday, I watched the Women's Soccer World Cup match against Japan. As anyone who watched the game knows, the US women scored twice, only to have Japan promptly tie the score immediately after, and then lose in a 1 on 1 shootout in overtime. As the cameras panned over the heartbroken USA team, the announcer blithely announced that it was "a heartbreaking loss...one that will take them a very long time to get over."

What had struck me a few moments prior was a little patch on the sleeve of Team USA's jerseys that said "live your goals." As I watched the final moments of the game play out, part of me was empathizing with the women for coming so far, only to face a disappointing loss. On the other hand, I recognized how gutsy their performance as a team had been. You could see the crush of disappointment on each woman's face as the Japanese team celebrated - a disappointment that only came from the culmination of every iota spent in the pursuit of a goal. What braver thing to do than pour 100% of your time and effort into a pursuit, let alone the pursuit of something so great as a world title, with no guarantee of the outcome, and no one upon which to rely except yourself. The kind of confidence one must have in oneself, and the kind of hard work required to inspire such confidence, should be inspiration enough of their accomplishments. Would the USA women rather have won? Of course. But to make it that far - to reach that level of skill - they have truly lived their goals. They have every right to the disappointment they surely feel after a loss of that magnitude, but I hope that they disprove the commentator's prediction, and that they are able to reclaim the fire that they showed in that game and continue to love their sport. But to me, the lesson hit close to home. It reminds me of one of my  favorite quotes of all time:

"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."
-Teddy Roosevelt

How often am I my own critic? How frequently am I guilty of reflecting not on my accomplishments, but my slip-ups, and imprisoning myself within unrealistic, or even impossible, expectations? Being self-critical has its place - it helps us discern the good from the bad, and build on that good to improve ourselves, both in athletic endeavors and in all other aspects of life. But sometimes that voice has to be pushed aside to remember that we are only human, and part of being human means accepting that life, more often than not, has less than perfect outcomes. There is a distinct difference, however, between perfection and accomplishment, and that is the difference to which our 26th President refers.  Perfection is arbitrary and elusive where accomplishment is the inevitable result of unbridled perseverance. Accomplishment is the outcome of aspiration - the mental state that does not allow one to make excuses or take shortcuts but pushes oneself beyond preconceived limits.

Accomplishment is living your goals.



This morning was my first race as a part of Team in Training - 4 miles in Central Park. I had a plan, a pace, and a goal: run 2 minutes, walk 1 minute for the whole race; try to keep my miles under 12:30 per mile, and finish under 50 minutes (12:30 pace). I woke up early, anxious that I'd sleep through my alarm (which I've never actually done - no clue where the fear of that came from), got ready, and headed out the door. Central Park on race days is awash with people in running gear, and today was no exception. The herd of participants crept forward to the starting line, and finally, it was go-time. I started my watch and moved forward, fairly confident in my pacing and the energy of the surging crowd of people that would pull me through the first mile. By the second mile, I was feeling a little bit tired, but I knew that was going to happen - I had put in a solid week of training, so I knew I was right where I should be, even though it was a little uncomfortable. As I turned into the third mile, I was really thirsty, and it was starting to get pretty warm out. I fell off my pace a little bit, but stuck to my race plan, but I noticed that all around me people started to walk. I kept telling myself to just keep going, and I would get to the end soon. About halfway into the fourth and last mile, I made up my mind to gut it out and push myself to the end - no more walking. And as I turned the final corner, I saw the finish line, and all of our coaches cheering madly, I got a crazy grin on my pace and upped my pace a little more. For the first time in years, I felt like I was actually racing. Crossing the finish line, I was so wiped out, but felt great. If this is only a microcosm of what the marathon is going to feel like, I can't wait.

Suffice to say the race was successful. I even-split my first and second half, and finished just under 48 minutes, with a per-mile pace of 12:00 even. Goals were met, and I was happy with the way I had set up my race. However, I still have this nagging thought in the back of my head - that was only 4 miles. Will I really be able to finish a marathon?

There are two prongs to my marathon goal. The first, and most important, is to improve my health and fitness levels. This means that any step forward is progress, but that I'm not just going to limp through the finish. I'm going to consciously structure my lifestyle to fit my training needs for the next few months. This has already taken a lot of discipline and time commitment, and I want to see it through to the finish. I knew that taking on this challenge would be big, and would change me, but I had no idea how big, or how much - I'm only now realizing that. But knowing that will make my accomplishment that much greater - knowing that I have made seismic shifts in the manner in which I conduct my day-to-day life in order to train, and that all of those changes and sacrifices have allowed me to push myself mentally to a place that I have never been before. I know I will have more anxiety and more nerves as the season progresses, but right now I just need to remind myself that I am doing the right things, and when the time comes, I will have the mental toughness to gut it out. The second prong is to actually finish the marathon, ideally under 6 hours. Now I have a deeper sense of what it's going to take to get me there....and it's going to likely be one of the biggest challenges of my life. And I am going to take on that challenge.


Stoking the Fire

Earlier today, in an attempt to write a paper for one of my summer classes (which did get finished, mom!) I was procrastinating, and stumbled on a quote from Muhammad Ali. (I'm not sure how I got from researching New York housing issues to Muhammad Ali, but such is the nature of the procrastinatory beast.) It said: "he who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life." If you've been following this blog, you'll know two things about me: 1) I am definitely not a risk-taker, and 2) I have a deep-seated fear of failure.

In my previous post, I talked a little bit about my struggles getting back on track after a failure, or a setback. When I signed up for the marathon, my original goal was to run this thing in under 6 hours. That breaks down to about a 13 1/2 minute mile...for many, many miles. That's still my goal, but I've had so many doubts creeping into my head about whether I can make it. This was something that plagued me all through my college swimming career - I would set goals for myself, but always allow a rabbit-hole for times like this when doubts crept in. This always gave me an excuse for not ultimately achieving what I had set out to do. This self-sabotage, upon recent reflection, definitely stems back to my disappointment in high school. But just because you know the problem is there doesn't mean it's easily fixed. I found myself in that quandary today, about 15 minutes into my 2 mile timed run. My goal for the run was to do two miles under 24 minutes (faster than a 12 minute mile). About 15 minutes into it, I was gassed. This week I've stepped up my training a little bit and my legs were feeling it. I was also getting a little pinch in my left knee, so I slowed to a walk to catch my breath. The first thought that came into my head was "well might as well walk the rest of it, since I'm not going to make it under 24 minutes anyway." But about a minute later, once I had gotten sufficient oxygen back to my brain, I realized how ridiculous that was. Just because I am not performing at 100% doesn't mean I can't push myself to try to get to 90% or 85%....and so I started back up with a 2 minute run/1 minute walk. I shortened my stride a tiny bit, and that adjustment got my knee back into alignment. Now, I was pain free and once again moving forward. After the first two minutes, I slowed to take my walk break and thought to myself, "ok, I can do one more of those," and after that one, "push it strong to the finish." And what do you know, I made it in at 23:58 - even with walk breaks - right where I wanted to be. Even the little victories are sweet.

Does that mean I'll be able to make my marathon goal now? No. But it does mean that I'm finding a little more balance between the push of the challenge, and some unknown fear that's holding me back.

Going after a goal is scary. You're putting yourself out there for the world to measure your actions against your words, and if you fall short, now what? Do you get back up and keep going, or do you look back and think of all the times you cut corners so that you could prepare yourself for an inevitable letdown? I know I'd like to think that I get up and keep going, but in reality, I've been scared of taking on a challenge like this for many, many years. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to silence the nagging thoughts in your head and listen only to the fire in your gut that tells you to keep going.

And I still don't have the magic answer that will get me to the finish line in Central park, or get me through my next four months of training. But I have a fire in my gut - even if it's only a few glowing embers right now - and when you want fire, that's where you start.

[reposted from my TNT blog 7/14/11]

On Failure

Last week was the first week that the initial marathon momentum started to wear off. My motivation sagged. I plodded through a couple of workouts, and had an incredibly difficult time getting myself up for Saturday morning practice. The reality of my goal had set in, and doubts began to creep into my mind. I started to play with all sorts of easy ways out - I was SO tired, and the house was messy, my fundraising had lagged, and I hadn't done all my weekly workouts so I shouldn't push myself too hard on Saturday, and who was I kidding, anyway? I'm not a real runner. I fought all week to get that spark back, that infectious motivation that drove me to make this crazy goal, and actually go after it. I spent a number of days wondering what the hell was my problem.

And then a few things happened: I got a facebook message from an old friend who mentioned that my blogs here had been inspiring her. I perked up a few notches. A little unexpected support from the universe can sometimes change your attitude in a big way. And I read a few passages from a blog written by Sarah Peck, a friend and college teammate of mine that reminded me of some old baggage that was likely at the root of my current struggle. Sarah and I were weight partners on the Denison University swim team, where I swam my freshman year. Sarah, a junior, was as nice as she was initimidating, and I distinctly remember a morning medicine ball workout where I, loopy from not enough sleep, failed to catch the medicine ball she had lobbed at me with my hands. I did, however, manage to stop the 8-pound ball's momentum with my face. Stunned, I managed to retrieve the ball, as Sarah called out to me, "well, are you going to throw it back or what?!"

At the time, I was pissed, but more or less unhurt by the ball. More than anything else, I wanted to try to use the time to milk my injury, minor as it was. But looking back, it was such an important thing to remember - when life throws you a very heavy ball, and it ends up in your face rather than your hands, you reset and keep going. But sometimes, we get so stuck in our fears that we can't reset - we get stuck in this loop that holds us back. And often by the time you realize it, it's been running for so long, it's so ingrained in your person that it's easy - subconscious, even - to continue to let it run. I realized this weekend that I had been stuck in a loop for nearly nine years.

When I was 17, I was at the peak of my swimming career. I was undefeated that season in high school. I got faster literally every week when I got ready to race. And then, at the State championship meet that year - my senior year – I faltered. I failed myself. I slipped physically down a flight of stairs. I slipped mentally, and lost my focus for one day. One crucial day, the day that I had worked for and focused on for the last four years. My boyfriend was at the meet, so I spent the afternoon of finals with him, instead of preparing for my race. And I lost. By 0.01. One one-hundredth of a second. And just like that, my swimming career was over. Not that I quit, mind you, but I never got over the disappointment of that race. I continued swimming into college, but it was never the same. The passion I had up until that fateful day in November had dissipated. I felt like I was no longer whole. I ached that I had given up my beloved sport for a few more minutes with this boyfriend, who neither appreciated or deserved it. Not that I meant to, but it slipped away from me – slipped through my fingers and I didn’t realize it had happened until far too late.

I let that failure define me. I dwelled on it, and wallowed in it, and used it as an excuse every time things didn't work out (which, with that attitude, was often). Not once in almost 9 years, until I ran four miles with the Team a few weeks ago, did I feel like I could once again accomplish something - safely, competently, and wholeheartedly. That whole week, I feared that the four miles was a fluke. I was so nervous showing up to practice the following week, and the week after. But then I did six miles. I kept wondering when the bottom would drop out. When would I screw this up for myself? Which brought me to this past week - I had become so unsettled with my ability to take on each week's challenge that I psyched myself out. I was too terrified of what I could do if I tried - even if I tried and failed - that I couldn't sleep.

So this week, I'm finally trying to locate that damn reset button. I'll never get back those moments that could have been, but I can be a little gentler on myself. I'm ready to get back on my feet and start moving forward.

[reposted from my TNT blog 7/11/2011]

More than I could be

Over the past few months, I have been asked what prompted me to sign up for this challenge; specifically, why I was dedicating countless hours of my time to training and fundraising with this specific organization. For me, the answer has many layers. To keep it short and sweet, I often answer that running a marathon had been a life goal of mine, and the stars seemed to align this year so as to make it possible. Additionally, when I moved to New York and first witnessed the NYC Marathon taking place past the front door of my apartment, I found myself inspired by the event, and further specified that my goal would to complete THIS marathon, above any others. As I am getting married exactly one year from the day of the marathon, there are always the “gotta fit into my wedding dress!” tongue-in-cheek remarks to be made. Not least, the personal fitness goals that one sets – voluntarily or involuntarily – when undertaking the challenge of marathon training creates a great incentive.

However, an event took place in my life that, upon reflection, refined and clarified my priorities. My mom’s brother – my uncle – passed away unexpectedly in December 2010 from complications of diabetes. His passing was difficult for me to process. My uncle had lived with an incredible zest for life. When we gathered with his friends to memorialize him, stories were exchanged about how, despite his physical illness, he and his brother went downhill skiing for his birthday weeks before, and on the day he passed away, he had participated in a game of ultimate Frisbee with friends. His exuberance for the challenges each day brought were tangible in the room through the memories shared of his adventures. In the days, weeks, and months following his passing, I struggled with my grief, my family’s grief, and the precious, delicate gift that is life. I had just come off an extraordinarily difficult semester in law school, and felt mentally and emotionally drained. My plan to run in the 2011 NYC marathon had been shelved because I just didn’t think I could do it. I hadn’t been training, I didn’t have the mental energy for it, and I didn’t even know if I would have the time. But as time forged ahead into 2011, I came to the understanding that the very root of a challenge such as this pays homage to the gift of life. And so I undertook that challenge.

Marathon training has changed my perspective – each workout every day must be approached deliberately in order to stay healthy, injury-free, and on track to finish. No part of this race is a given, but every sweaty, breathless, uphill mile, every side cramp, every morning when I wake up to stiff muscles and aching legs gives me a chance to remember that I have the opportunity to push myself to do something memorable. Saturday June 11th marked the first official training session for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s 2011 NYC Marathon team. Although sometimes I have a hard time believing it, I am a part of that team. As we gathered together prior to our workout, one of the coaches stood up and told our group her story. She was a Leukemia survivor, and although “not really a runner,” (her words), participated in as many Team in Training events as she could, because it was this group that had gotten her through her fight with cancer. She had stood before her teammates then as she did that morning, reaching out for the strength of this group to carry her through lonely and difficult miles that she would otherwise face alone. As we clapped and cheered, we heard music in the background, voices resonating off the concrete of Bethesda Terrace and unifying in harmony. A small group of high-school age kids had gathered together for choir practice that Saturday morning in the middle of Central Park, and as we grew quiet, their song continued:

You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains,
You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas,
I am strong, when I am on your shoulders,
You raise me up, to more than I can be.

As we listened to their voices, you could see a shift on peoples’ faces from nervousness to determination. Our group was silent; each person reflected on their own personal mission that had brought him or her there. As the choir shifted keys and their voices soared around us into a crescendo, any doubts or fears I had had up to that moment dissipated. The choir’s final notes hung in the air like glass ornaments - shimmering and delicate – as our group stood quiet and focused. It was a transformative moment. I had become part of a team: a team whose mission brought strength and inspiration to innumerable lives, a team whose members live out those lyrics sung so beautifully that morning, a team that asks all of its members to reach out and carry anyone whose burdens are heavier than our own regardless of personal obstacles faced.

I run in honor of my uncle, who lived a full and active life despite his struggle with a debilitating disease, and for my family, to help live out his legacy. I run alongside men and women who have faced battles with cancer, and people who honor a family member or friend’s perseverance in the face of tremendous odds. My original goal was to complete the NYC Marathon. But now, I hope to push myself so that I can offer a hand to those struggling and be strong enough to raise us both us to stand on mountains. I run to raise up my team, and myself, to more than any of us alone could be.

[reposted from my TNT blog 6/15/2011]

Building Castles

Anyone who knows me knows that I am an inveterate planner. If something exists in life that could potentially be put onto a schedule, you know I’ll put it there. Being ridiculously organized has always been a quality I appreciate in both myself and others, but being a planner has one tremendous drawback – it makes me tremendously risk-averse.

I can count on one hand the number of gut decisions I have made. Those decisions are so significant to me not because there are so few of them, but because each one represents a great leap of faith on my part; each one represents something great and life-changing that has shifted the course of my life into uncharted waters, challenged me, and refined me into a stronger person.

When I arrived in New York, I knew one person in a city of over 8 million. Before I moved, I had never made a snap decision of that magnitude before, and I found myself in uncharted waters. Living here has challenged me in ways I never thought possible, and I am grateful for those challenges because they have made me stronger, more motivated, and more self-aware. Theodore Roosevelt once said: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” For a planner like me, that was a daunting challenge, because I often feared taking action until I had mapped out the courses that various options could take. Often, I allowed myself to be challenged more by the logistics of doing anything than by taking on the task of any one thing and not looking back. Like I said – risk averse!

Two weeks ago, when I called the Team in Training office to get some general information about the upcoming New York City Marathon (something I have planned to do for many years, but I was not sure when), I was put on the spot by the staffer who took my call. After I had asked my myriad questions (that I had previously written out, of course) he asked me if he could sign me up then and there.
“As in RIGHT NOW?” I asked.
“Yup!” he responded.

I thought for a split second. My stomach flip-flopped, and my brain was firing madly. This was something I had contemplated, sure, but taking that first step seemed terrifying – like a wobbly toddler finding his balance, or Alice falling down the rabbit-hole. I didn’t know what would happen! I hadn’t planned to sign up TODAY!

“Let’s do it,” I said, “sign me up.”

The feeling of nervous exhilaration when embarking on an exciting and unknown adventure had taken hold of me. I couldn’t sleep and was relishing this incredible new path I was forging for myself. I was nervous, but thrilled. This was the first step – I had made the call and was now accountable for everything to come. Was I scared? Well, I had just signed up to run a marathon, and agreed to raise almost $4,000 in addition to running over 26 miles. I think that if I wasn’t scared, there would be something very, very wrong! But over two weeks later, I can say with confidence that I still feel that nervous exhilaration. I am doing this. This is happening.

I have always said that if or when I run a marathon, I would run for charity. In the past year, I have had several people close to me face battles with cancer that have inspired me to run for them. My choice to affiliate myself with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society was a deliberate one – few other organizations provide the resources they do to cancer research, while at the same time turning people with a goal, such as myself, into people with a mission.

Words cannot accurately express how grateful I am to those who have supported me as I start this adventure. Your encouragement and donations reaffirm the mission I have undertaken. Thank you. I am excited to pursue such a monumental goal, and tremendously lucky to know so many people who have already gotten behind me.

Today, as we start a new month, and as spring starts to bring us all out of the doldrums of winter, I am reminded of the words of Henry David Thoreau:

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

Thank you to all of you who have helped me begin my foundation.

[reposted from my TNT blog 4/1/11]