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]