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Not So Random Writings

Destination Desperation

I’m a little bit psycho…a little bit you don’t know what you’re made of until you’ve tasted your own guts, until you’ve helplessly felt all will and mental control being ripped away by your body’s physical instinct to survive. When I first started running, I didn’t know my limits and it took a while to get a grasp on knowing when to push and when to quit.

My first experience with this was when I got a stomach ulcer from running too far without food or water. I didn’t know why the pain was so awful, but I had four miles left and no other option but to keep going – I don’t know how I made it home. One time I went out in a heat wave, and somehow drank more water out of my Camelbak than I put in. Once, I tried to quit a run early, feeling that if I pushed to the end I wouldn’t be okay. But it turned out, I wasn’t okay anyway and Kyle had to come pick me up from the roadside. I spent the evening vomiting Pepto Bismol and listening to him say, “If you throw up one more time, I’m taking you to the ER…” Another time, I finished my run 1/2 mile from home. I stopped to walk, but I couldn’t and I realized I only had a short window of time to get water before it would be too late to avoid an IV. I didn’t have time to call Kyle and wait for him to come get me. I stuck out my thumb and all I remember is an old beat up mustang and a guy with a backwards baseball cap. He drove me the short distance back to my apartment where I again, spent the evening vomiting.

I’ve run myself into the ground far too many times, more than I care to admit. They aren’t circumstances that I’ve tried to get myself into or that I’m proud of. In fact, all of them were pretty stupid/dangerous. But when I find myself that desperate, it humbles me in a way that could only be described as knowing I am not enough.

Distance running is undeniably a spiritual experience – whether you are an atheist, believe in God, cling to a religion, or claim to be label-less. Mind, body, and soul we go out and inevitably separate and re-join the three when we push our limits, giving us a whole new understanding of ourselves.

So often in the running community do I see and hear people talking about “faith” and “trusting God.” After a success story they “thank God” and begin to preach the prosperity gospel – that if we have faith in God, He will give us what we want. Bible verses like Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” are thrown around as inspiration. Honestly, I have a hard time cutting through all of it. It makes me hesitant to speak up about my beliefs because I don’t want to be thrown into the middle of that. The link below explains what I think on the matter pretty well.

https://athletesinaction.org/underreview/why-philipians-4-13-does-not-mean-what-you-think#.W-SFWZNKjIU 

I believe running is a gift and I’m thankful for the ability and opportunity to pursue it competitively. But as a Christian, I am not promised worldly success. It’s not about me. My life is a tiny part of a bigger picture that I can’t see. I believe the Bible is God’s Word and that it’s true, but no where in there does it say we will have health and wealth if we follow Him – actually quite the opposite.

The other side of the prosperity gospel is that YOU are the one doing good works and helping (saving) yourself. But the Bible says our “good” works are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6) and there is no one righteous, not one (Romans 3:10). We are incapable of being enough.

It’s a hard sell, right? No guarantee of earthly success and you can never measure up to be good enough. Well it’s not a selling point. There’s nothing to sell, because you can’t buy it. God’s grace is a gift that only requires acceptance. Our “good works” are only out of response to a changed heart.

 

 

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Unleash the Beast

Your focus is the moving target ahead. All you see is the gap between, all you hear is the sound of your breath entering and exiting your chest, and all you feel is hunger – the hunt is the only thing on your mind.

Racing is a part of running that I really enjoy, which is funny because I used to think paying to run was idiotic. I had zero drive to compare myself against someone else doing the same thing. One could probably dig deep psychologically to find out why, but after spending a few years in the local racing circuit, I think I know.

Especially for women, being competitive is looked down upon. Admitting you want to beat someone else seems to send you flying into a whirlwind of labels that say you’re a poor sport, mean-spirited, and a witch with a capital B. This underlying ideology has swung us so far in the opposite direction that I feel like racing has almost become a taboo. It’s thrown into the realm of tearing down and discouraging others. Real women don’t race against each other.

Yes we do! I’m calling you out, and I’m unashamedly saying that I love to compete and race against other women. I get that women stereo-typically compare themselves to other women and make a list in their head of why they themselves are better for whatever reason. We’re terrible people. But we don’t have to stay terrible. We can control what we do and say and forget about silly comparisons.

In the women’s running community, it has become pretty noticeable to me that there’s a weird vibe among competitors. Those that wish to actually race, try to hide behind a “girl-power-for-all-women” front, and some feel they have no right to say they want to race because they’re no where near the top finishing times.

Racing is a sport. That’s the whole point. When everybody wins, the sport dies. It doesn’t have to be left up to the elites and the big races. Getting 12th over 13th is meant to be fought over. Respect the sport, give it all you got, and run to “win.” You can race for age groups at any level and you can simply choose to race that person who is just 10 yards ahead of you. You paid for shameless racing in your entry fee, to be chip timed against everyone else.

Plenty of people enter races for the effort alone, without a time or placing goal. Maybe they just want to run with friends, or maybe they only want to “compete” against themselves and their past time. I’m not saying any of that is wrong or dumb. If that’s what you want, then that’s great. But it’s also okay to want more than that. It’s okay to want to compete against each other.

There are some guidelines that I try to stick by when I race, that I feel keeps my mind in perspective.

  1. Don’t be so serious pre-race. It’s okay to smile, or even start up a conversation.
  2. When the gun goes off, flip the switch – you’re out for blood.
  3. During a race, when you come upon an opponent, DON’T say anything. This is kind of a big one when it comes to respecting the race. Of course you shouldn’t say anything negative, but saying something positive sounds like you don’t really view them as a real “threat” and are mocking their efforts. For example, I was once in a race where I was in 2nd at the halfway point and 3rd came up on me. As she was passing, she looked back and said “Nice job hun” and sailed on by. While she did eventually leave me in the dust after we leap-frogged, I felt it was rude to make a comment like that, especially when you’re in the top three spots. BUT there are a few exceptions to this rule, one of them is if you’re on a team and you’re encouraging a teammate. The other is when it’s clear that a race between the two of you definitely isn’t happening that day (i.e. they’re way ahead on an out-an-back, you’re racing different distances, etc.).
  4. If you are challenging an opponent near the finish and you win, it is YOUR responsibility to initiate a handshake and encouraging words. After all, they are the reason why you pushed yourself so hard. If they don’t respond well, leave it at that and keep peace.
  5. When you lose (because you can’t always win), lose graciously. Congratulate them on their victory.

Racing is my kind of fun. I love the adrenaline rush, the mind games, and that extra kick you find in yourself when you thought you had nothing left. I know I’m not alone. But you do have to know how to flip the switch. When the race is over, it’s over.

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YOU

You frustrate me. I can’t even begin to tell you all the goals I have in mind. Does it matter? What is it worth to you what I do? I’m not special. I don’t have obvious, natural ability – far from it. But why do you care enough to say I can’t? Just let me run, let me try. I understand my efforts may seem futile, but this is a passion I’m choosing to pursue.

There are layers to why I run. On the surface, it’s because I enjoy it as a way to stay active, healthy, and fit. It’s the simplest form of exercise and relatively inexpensive. Psychologically, I need the chemicals activity produces. It clears my mind and is good for my brain.

The second layer is because running is HARD, and improvement and growth in the sport feels limitless. I was never great in the sports I played growing up. As much as I wanted to be really good, I wasn’t. Eventually I lost interest in them because I never had the drive or dedication to be that kind of good – not like the way I do now, to know what fast feels like. I love learning about all the different aspects of running, and how to be the most efficient. It’s one thing to read all about the “right way” to run, train, eat, etc. but when you actually get to feel the progress and your body changing and adapting, working how it’s supposed to…it’s incredible. I love to tinker with theories and formulas and look at all the difference factors that affect running performance and keep us human. We will never be a machine (naturally and clean) but I love the thought of seeing how close I can get. I’m chasing after perfection, even though I know I will never reach it. The clock is ticking as our bodies age and deteriorate. For me, it’s a race to see how far I can get before time runs out and I start to decline.

The deepest layer is unknown even to me. I don’t really know why I was made to like hard challenges, or why I have a burning desire to prove you wrong. Nor do I know why specifically distance running gripped me like it did. As I’ve mentioned, it’s not like I’ve been set up for it – not the genes, no head start in track or cross country, no natural flow to form. The odds of this ever working out are slim. Even if it does, even if I “make it” to the professional level, there’s not a lot of glory or money in it. The USATF is nowhere near the level of fame and fortune as the NFL, NBA, or even MLB. All I can tell you is that so far in my life, there have been three things that I’ve felt an in-explainable, irrational, but irresistible pull towards. And being a competitive distance runner is one of them. I don’t have to know what the underlying purpose is right now. Maybe I never will. But for the time being I have peace knowing I’m doing what I should be doing, and that’s enough for me.

I cannot ignore the other side of this. I ask you why you care, but I must ask myself why I care that you care. The fact that what you say bothers me is probably more frustrating. Is your lack of faith in me that disheartening? I’ve always been good at self-motivating, not needing much spurring. Peer pressure isn’t something that holds much power in my life. So why does your judgement get me worked up? Do I really need you to believe in me? Don’t get me wrong, discouragement is always hard to hear. I’m not trying to tell you I’m a robot and remain indifferent and unaffected by what you say. But what you think does not dictate what I can or will do. You may hinder, you may help, but at the end of the day the task is still mine to accomplish. Knowing this, I couldn’t understand why it bothered me so much to see and hear your doubts. Then one day I was walking home from a workout and I realized something. Maybe I do need something from you. Maybe it’s not about you believing in me, but about you believing in you – because I am you.

I think a lot of people end up choosing to do what comes easiest or what they were born into, not necessarily what they want to do. Their passions and true potential become a dream, an “if only,” or sometimes just a hobby. But if I can do this then so can you. If I can make a go of this without a “leg up” or head start, without being born into it, what’s stopping you from pursuing what you truly feel passionate about? Without reservation, without hesitation, what if you pursued your passions with more than you have to offer, with more than what the world thinks you have. What were you born to become?

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The X-Factor

The sport of running, particularly road racing, fascinates me. Not necessarily keeping up with all the latest and greatest, but the human performance side of things. I’ve always been interested in nutrition and physical fitness, but when I got into distance running is when I began to look deeper into how the human body actually works. I’ve observed, read, listened, and taken note of all these factors listed below over the past seven years and this is what I’ve come up with:

You have controllables and uncontrollables – things that you can and can’t change that affect your performance.

CONTROLLABLES

  • Adaption – how long you stick with the sport
  • Diet – what, how, and when you eat
  • Training/recovery – depends on where you’re at, where you’re going, and general life habits, how much time and energy you allot to running
  • Form – how efficient you run on the outside (efficiency is also an inside factor that goes with adaption)
  • Want/attitude – how serious you take it and how much you really want it
  • Injuries – though I consider these controllable, they’re also inevitable
  • Breaks – taking several years off, having kids, etc.

UNCONTROLLABLES

  • Genes – running specific genes. A lot of people don’t believe it, but I think it’s obvious in the running world that if you had parents and/or grandparents that were runners you have an advantage.
  • Track/XC background – if you’ve had experience in middle school, high school, and/or college, and how far you got. I put this as “uncontrollable” because at this point either you did or didn’t. You can’t go back and change it.
  • Body type – different than running genes. This goes down to bone structure and healthy body composition ratios for you to train optimally without injury. Rake me across the coals, but there IS a perfect body type for optimal performance. It’s impossible, but if you somehow took two runners that had identical factors except body type, one of them would out perform the other. However, because there are so many variable factors for a distance runner, I don’t believe body type can keep you from competing, even at the elite level. But you do see this start to matter at the elite level (with some exceptions). At the amateur and even sub-elite level body type seems to matter less.
  • Time – how long you’ve been running and how long you’ve got before you inevitably start declining. Everyone is dying, and at some point you will personally peak. It depends on when you start. Some people start at age 40 (the master’s level) and they end up peaking at 50! Others who have been running their whole lives, see themselves declining in their late forties. There’s a reason why 40 and over is a whole new category. Again, there’s always exceptions.

I’m sorry it’s so hard to read, but you’ll get the idea.

  1. The left side (in red) is the age at when you started running. It goes from top to bottom because…
  2. The right side (in green) is what level you have the ability to reach before your performance starts to decline.
  3. The bottom (in blue) are the uncontrollables and how many you have. Obviously you can mix and match, but that was too complicated for me to put on the chart.
  4. The top (in pink) are all the controllables, which makes your progress go up and down – hence the pink squiggly line over top of the first graph line.

Note: These thought patterns are specific to distance running, if you start and then continue on until you turn 50, give or take a few years. Everything of course is individual.

Taking all those factors and figuring out what works best for you to help you reach your full potential is complicated and frustrating – but also fun! I understand that most people don’t really care to dig into it this much. But I find it helpful in my own training and it gives me a better angle in how to approach accomplishing those big goals I have, even ten years down the road.

In conclusion, and to explain the post’s title, I don’t believe there is such a thing as the “X-factor” – that thing that somehow makes an athlete greater than the greatest, one-in-a-million. I think it’s a matter of having all those uncontrollables and then being able to work out the controllables. Take a look at the top elites in distance running.

 

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Not So Random Writings

Cycle of Lies

I came across this book while browsing through an online bookstore. I never really followed the story of Lance Armstrong as it all was happening, so it piqued my interest. But like a juicy, scandalous novel, I couldn’t put it down…

This book has nothing to do with running, right?….RIGHT?!?! I had no idea how involved the sport of cycling as a whole was in substance abuse. Reading this book really opened my eyes to professional sports and drug use – especially endurance sports. How many professionals dope or use some other form of illegal performance enhancements? Lance and his team had such a smooth system, how do we really know the current drug testing really works. What about political gains? We may be better at testing these days, but we also have to assume drug users are also getting better at hiding the truth.

The author, Juliet Macur, did a wonderful job telling the story from an objective standpoint with a variety of sources. Honestly, after reading the entire story, I feel bad for Lance. He had a rough start at life, and didn’t have the best of influencers. He had a disrespectful attitude toward other people even before he really started competing. But none of that mattered after we figured out that he was good, fast, strong – the best in the U.S. He was a poor sport, but that didn’t discourage his fans or sponsors.

Lance wanted to win because he loved fame and he loved money. We wanted him to win because he was American, then we wanted him to keep winning because he overcame cancer. We wanted a representative. But in order to compete and win at a world class level it was obvious he had to use drugs. I’m not saying he was forced to pull the trigger, but did we load the gun? Did we give him too much glory he couldn’t let go of? We put him on a pedestal that made it impossible to be honest and come out unscathed. He was not alone in all this, and yet we let the sport use him as a scapegoat – probably because we felt fooled, angry, and hurt that he lied to us so much and he wasn’t a very nice person. But that doesn’t mean everyone else, his teammates and sponsors (especially you know who), should have gotten off so easily.

What Lance did was wrong, and I would never condone illegal substance use, but I think it is worth noting that we are all fallible. Lance claimed if anyone else was in his situation, they would have cheated, too. I don’t think that’s true, but it’s a fair statement. We can’t really know what we would do when faced with that kind of pressure and temptation. But a big part of Lance’s downfall was his lack of hope. He felt it was hopeless to try to train and compete clean. Though I am more wary now of how clean professional runners really are, I have hope that illegal drug use is fading. Maybe I’m a fool for thinking so. But if I get to a place where I have to choose between winning and racing clean, I pray I choose the latter.

My husband once asked me if, “If you could take a pill (legal) that would guarantee you’d win the Olympics, but die at the age of 60, would you take it?” “Of course not,” I immediately answered. “That’s like…that’s like taking away my cake!” My years of training, sweating, struggling, growing, failing, and learning are my “cake” (chocolate). Racing is my buttercream frosting. Winning, and running fast…that’s just my rainbow candy sprinkles. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE rainbow candy sprinkles, but they don’t taste so great by themselves. I think what I hate most about substance abuse is that it steals away the hard work, dedication, and natural talent that athletes have, and you end up competing against lab science and wealth.

I didn’t mean for this blurb to be discouraging. I apologize if it came across that way. It’s healthy to question, but dangerous to doubt. There will always be cheaters in the world, but they don’t have to outnumber those that play fair. On a side note, the book really is interesting – a good read for a plane travel or a taper period. I’m sure you can find it on Amazon, but I got mine from bookoutlet.com for pretty cheap. Anyway, moral of the story, don’t let cheating and/or cheaters bring you down. Running fast doesn’t have to mean running dirty.

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The Dirty Downhill

After spending a few years in the racing side of running, I have seen an influx in downhill road racing among my peers, mainly in the distance field of marathons and half marathons. There are a lot of different opinions floating around out there on them, ranging from “it’s cheating” to “it’s harder to run downhill.”

Let me start off by acknowledging that running downhill, uphill, or on flat ground all produce a different level of workload to your muscle groups. They all use quads, hamstrings, and glutes (there’s more, but for simplicity…) However, the ratio between which muscle groups actually depends on what your form looks like. I think this might be why some people believe it’s harder to run downhill.

Gravity is a powerful force. All of the downhill races that I have seen advertised market that they have a FAST course with a high percentage of Boston qualifying times. Though you might feel more pain or be more sore the next day from a downhill course, you do have a pretty big force pushing you forward. It’s irrefutable. Statistically, downhill races get you a faster time than flat or uphill courses. This is where you have to be real with yourself. Is your PR on a downhill course? Uphill races, few as they are, statistically give you a slower time. Do you not give yourself a little break if you don’t hit your goal time? This is why we have come up with labeling courses as “easy,” “hard,” or “fair.”

I want to be clear. Racing a marathon or half marathon is never easy, and I understand why labeling a course with your PR time on it as such is offensive – you trained hard, you raced hard. If you’ve raced downhill, I’m not trying to take anything away from you. If your main running goal is to get a specific time, and you don’t care what kind of course it’s on, go for it, get it, and don’t let anyone take that pride away. But unfortunately, what I see quite often happening, are runners that get huge PRs on these downhill courses and then don’t understand why they didn’t improve their time on their next race, which wasn’t a downhill course. If you really want to gauge time progress in a way that is fair to yourself, then you’d have to run the same course year after year.

Sometimes time goals aren’t the end game. Maybe you want to win. Maybe the timing and location is convenient. Most of the downhill courses I’ve seen around also advertise a scenic route. Perhaps you’re looking for a nice long run through nature, or you’re building a vacation around the race. There are so many reasons to choose a downhill course, a lot having nothing to do with the benefit of elevation loss.

There are many ways to gain time advantages in a race. Drafting, staying in a pack, choosing a race with a later start time (or earlier if you prefer), weather advantages, etc. I’ve done two Abbott Marathon Majors so far and I PR-ed at both of them. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s easier to run in a pack. (Side note: This is why I don’t think Boston should have given any prize money to the non-elites who had faster chip times. Bite me.) If you wanted to, you could analyze, argue, and asterisk PRs in a long list of ways.

There’s a reason why both men’s and women’s marathon world records (and several other records) were run in London. Some courses are harder than others, but they are all hard. If you are training for an Olympic Trial qualifying time, then be aware that the course has to be USATF-certified, USATF-sanctioned, and more relevantly, cannot have an elevation loss of more than 3.25 meters per kilometer, which is a little more than 450 feet. The world record cannot be broken on a net downhill course. These rules have to mean something, right?

I encourage you to be aware of all the possibilities downhill courses could bring. Be fair to yourself, and remember that not all courses are equal. Don’t let other people’s standards for themselves rob you of your pride in your own accomplishments, AND vice versa. Be kind to others, and know that their goals are probably different than yours.

 

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The Fire in the Flame

Can you tell Bones was one of my favorite TV shows? If you don’t understand, then never mind.

I N F L A M M A T I O N. It seems to have worked its way into the athletes four-letter word category (despite its twelve-letter length). Coming out of an injury, inflammation has been on my mind. I’ve always been skeptical of all the health and wellness information out there, and it’s one of those areas in my life where I won’t jump on the band wagon just because there’s research and “facts” to back up whatever it is someone is telling me. Mainly, it’s because humans are so diversified and continue to diversify even more as time goes on, but also because one could find research to back up whatever they want these days.

You’ve at least heard by now that inflammation is at the root of almost all diseases, and most people won’t argue that. I however, am not most people. Let’s back up to simply defining what inflammation is – the body’s natural response to fight off infection or heal a tissue trauma. Because I’m mainly talking about sports and athletic health, let’s focus on the latter. Inflammation increases blood flow to the traumatized area(s) to bring in more nutrients from the food you ate to help heal the damaged area. So when I’m injured, why would I want to stop this process?

Ice, ice, baby. I hate the cold, I always have, but that’s not why I stay away from icing aches, immersing in ice baths, or take part in the latest cryotherapy chamber trend. After intense exercise, I jump into a hot bath to relax fatigued muscles and yes, increase inflammation because I’m also making sure I’m eating nutrients my body needs to heal, recover, and build. I want those nutrients to get where they need to go quickly. And that is why I don’t believe anti-inflammatory foods (another hot topic) are a real thing. Could foods labeled as such simply contain the nutrients necessary for healing and coincidentally reduce the need for the body’s inflammatory response?

GREEN LEAFY VEGETABLES. BEETS. SALMON. WALNUTS. COCONUT OIL. BLUEBERRIES. TART CHERRY JUICE. PINEAPPLE. BROCCOLI. CELERY. BOK CHOY. CHIA SEEDS. TUMERIC. GINGER. FLAXSEEDS.

We do things and eat foods everyday that initiate an inflammation response – even the quality of the air we breathe and the lack of sleep we get. We counteract all these daily stressors by eating good food. Chronic inflammation and disease occur when the body consistently doesn’t get the nutrients it needs.

I’m only offering you my thoughts on the matter. Continue to do what you think is best, and what seems to be working for you. My only plea is that you think twice before you follow any health and fitness advice, even if it’s mainstream.

NOTE: There are emergency circumstances where inflammation really is bad for your long term health (i.e. spreading a localized infection, swelling cutting off circulation to another body part, etc.). Also, I would say that sometimes taking NSAIDs or painkillers would put your body through less stress in the long run than letting it suffer through pain. It’s an individual threshold matter.

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The 5 Stages of a Runner’s Injury

1. Denial

Nope. You’re not injured. You just have this weird tightness on one side of your body. It will be gone by the end of the day…or maybe tomorrow…or the next day. But you’re totally fine. You’ll just spend a few extra minutes rolling. You’re definitely NOT injured.

2. Anger

Hell hath no furry! How could this have even happened?! Not only are you experiencing endorphin withdrawals, you’re being told that you’ve lost control over that “thing” you had total control of. AND, you don’t have time to be injured.  Your only solace is making it to the 99th level of the Fly Swatter Game.

3. Bargaining

Okay, you’ll take a few days off. But that’s ALL you’ll need. You reconfigure your training plan and make the extra time off “okay,” just before searching the internet for magic remedies and witchcraft herbs.

4. Depression 

It’s hopeless. All is lost and the world is over. The seriousness of your now defined injury has set in. You throw your dream journal in the kitchen sink and light it on fire. You’re never going to be able to run again.

5. Acceptance/Recovery

You’ve gained some perspective. Everyone has setbacks and disappointments. But that is all this is for you. You’re taking the necessary steps for a full recovery, and soon you will rise again. You spend your down time reading books like Born to Run and Netflixing inspirational sports movies.