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.