Friday, September 23, 2016

Berlin Marathon Training: A Season in Review

I'm a sucker for firsts. First love, first kiss, first time having, er, . . . So our culture loves to emphasize romantic firsts, but those aren't the only exciting kind. First time driving a car. First time living abroad. First time running one mile. Or two. Or 26.2.

Nothing will ever quite replicate the exhilaration and pride of finishing my first marathon. However, each marathon season has brought with it a number of other firsts, and this season has been no exception. Some of them have been good, some of them have been bad, but all of them have been memorable.


First time racing abroad. Technically this race hasn't happened yet, but I think it deserves to make the list. I've never even run a race in Canada, never mind on a different continent. After Sunday, I can check this feat off my bucket list!

First time running more than 70 miles in one week. I have a teammate who ran 80-100 training for her marathon, all while working (and traveling for) a full time job. I've decided she's superhuman. Meanwhile, I work from home and have fought the urge to nap so desperately in my life.

First time breaking the tape. Just to put this in perspective, I didn't WIN the race . . . but I did come in first in my age group heat at the Fifth Avenue Mile. The fact that I crossed the finish line first in a one-mile race was surprising enough, but what was even more astonishing (to me) was the fact that I did this at the end of a 70+ mile week of training. Bodies really can do amazing things.


First time worrying that my recovery runs were too slow. I never used to think twice about recovery runs (i.e., runs meant to accumulate "time on my feet," as opposed to structured, speed-based workouts). I'm a big believer in "running by feel," so what used to happen during my recovery runs is I'd step outside, feel like death for a mile or two, and then everything would loosen up and I'd start running at a "normal" pace again. This time around was different. I'd walk out the door, barely able to lift my legs, and for the entire run, my watch would read 8:15, 8:30, 8:45, 9:00 per mile. My body felt like it was fighting against giant, invisible rubber bands, and I had to learn to be okay with that feeling, put my head down, and trudge forward. Easier said than done.

70+ mile week foot. Gross.
First time looking backward to move forward. About midway through training, I suffered a crisis of confidence. I had a god-awful workout (was I getting slower?), started worrying that my prescribed workout paces were increasing (was I getting slower??), and couldn't seem to run a recovery mile under 8:30 (I was totally getting slower!!!). Also, for whatever reason, I was starting to feel neglected. Had Coach given up on me? Had I given up on me? Was I actually going to be in shape to run a PR at this upcoming marathon? My logical brain said, "Shut up, Allison. You ran a half marathon PR, just a few short months ago I might add, minutes faster than the last time you trained for a marathon. You're fine." Meanwhile, my emotional brain was still panicking. "Maybe you are mis-remembering everything. You have a terrible memory for numbers. Maybe you're not one step faster than the last time you trained for a marathon!" So I caved and looked back at my old training log. I just wanted to see: were my newer workouts harder? Was I running more mileage? Was I in better shape? Of course, the answer was yes. And then, as if he has a sixth sense (which he very well might), Coach called me two days later. So much for feeling neglected.


First time walking in a race. I like to think of myself as a decent racer. On most occasions, I can push through pain, not give up, and eke out a respectable performance. This particular half marathon was not one of those occasions.
I started off with my first mile already fifteen seconds behind pace, so I tried to be okay with that and stay in control as I waited for my body to loosen up, find its rhythm, do what it knows how to do. It never did. Instead, I went from mentally chanting "relax" to insisting "you're fine." When that failed, I started making deals with myself. If I could just get halfway, I could eat my Gu, and that would change things. Got halfway, ate the Gu, and nothing changed, except I started feeling sick. So then the goal became finishing without walking. Eventually, that goal also fell apart, making way for, "If you make it to the last 5k without walking, you can have one walking break," followed by, "If you make it to the last mile without walking more than once, you can have one more walking break." Never have I struggled so hard just to finish a race. And never have I felt so undeserving of an award–because, ironically enough, I was the first female to cross the finishing line (thankfully there was no tape to break). But sometimes life reminds you not to take these things so seriously. On the car ride home, I finally looked at the trophy I'd received, and what did I discover? They'd given me the "1st Place Male" by mistake. Go figure.

As you may be able to tell from the length of each item in this list, the "bad" items are weighing more heavily on my mind lately. But that is the curse of taper, right? You sit back, put your feet up, try to ignore the latest aches and pains, and hope that all the work you've put in for the many days and weeks and months leading up to the race will do its job.

So here's the bottom line, which I am writing as much for myself as for anyone who reads this: I know, in my heart of hearts, that I am not the same athlete now that I was eighteen months ago. Whether or not everything clicks on race day, and the clock and I emerge as friends, I've absolutely made progress. And that counts for something. It counts for a lot.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Review: Swimming Studies

Swimming Studies Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really loved this book. Not all of this book, but most. And I absolutely think it's because I grew up as a swimmer. So I will start this review with a disclaimer: To all childhood competitive swimmers, read this book. Everyone else . . . take your chances. Because I cannot speak to the experience of reading this book without waves of recognition and nostalgia and the desire to point and shout, "Yes! I did/saw/smelled/felt that, too!" However, I suspect that without those feelings, I would probably not like this book nearly as much, and that suspicion is due to the fact that the parts of the memoir that I didn't like were virtually everything that fell outside of the realm of competitive swimming–namely, Shapton's art career and her never-ending tour of strange and exotic swimming pools.

That is not to say that I did not appreciate the inclusion of Shapton's artwork throughout the book; in fact I adored it. The change in medium and, consequently, in pace, really made the memoir a thought-provoking experience rather than just a story. However, anything she had to say about painting I almost entirely glossed over, just like every time her adult self climbed into a random Italian pool, I started skipping paragraphs.

Her accounts of swim meets, however, of practices, of not wanting to swim yet feeling the insatiable compulsion, of the agony of jumping into cold water in the dark hours of the morning . . . all of those things were so spot on, it's hard to believe I never wrote these depictions myself. The tone of the book as a whole is self-reflective and slightly subdued, as if Shapton herself is submerged as she writes it, in the shaded part of a cool, shallow pool. She recounts her feelings of ambition and competitiveness by showing us how she visualized her races while she waited for her breakfast to finish microwaving. Yet we don't feel the rush of adrenaline, of antsy competitive spirit so many athletes have when they talk about their sport. Shapton is calm, analytical, viewing herself with adult eyes, eyes that have already seen herself come short of the mark and be forced to accept that reality.

I will reiterate: any and every childhood competitive swimmer should read this book. You will find gems inside that will conjure up habits you forgot you had and rituals you forgot you followed. You will find yourself missing your stiff, chlorine-bleached hair and the simplicity of counting against a clock. But it's always there, the pool, and Swimming Studies reminds us that, if we choose to, we can jump right back in.

View all my reviews

Monday, July 11, 2016

How You Feel

Recently, I have been running into the phrase “it’s not how you look, it’s how you feel” over and over again. When I first started seeing these messages, I thought That’s nice. It’s great to see someone standing up to our culture’s overwhelming focus on appearances, especially a woman. Still, something didn’t sit quite right with me, and the more I saw of these messages, the more my gut kept saying No. Wrong.

Finally, as I was soldiering through my long run this past Saturday, I realized what it was that bothered me. I agree that your self worth shouldn’t be based on how you look, but it shouldn’t be based on how you feel, either. In fact, deriving one’s self-worth from feelings can be very, very dangerous. Because no one—and I mean no one—feels great all the time.

Some days we don’t feel like getting out of bed. Other days, we don’t feel like we could possibly run a single step, play a single note, type a single word. We’re tired. We’re sick. We’re sad. We “can’t.” And yet we do. Because no matter how we feel, the truest parts of ourselves believe we can do these things. And so we do them.

Ultimately, what we believe about ourselves becomes our reality. If we believe we are worthy of love, others will love us. If we believe we are kind and compassionate, we will act kindly and compassionately. And if we believe we are capable—of running this marathon or writing that book, of starting a new career or approaching a stranger—then we will take the necessary actions to accomplish these things.

No mater how we feel.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Going For It: An Airbnb Brooklyn Half Marathon Race Report

This spring, I didn’t train for a marathon; I trained for a half. The Airbnb Brooklyn Half Marathon, to be specific. What follows is a rather gruesomely detailed race report, so consider yourself warned. And since every race actually starts during taper week, I begin my tale on the Thursday before the race.

Me and my teammates!
Two days out, my a.m. teammates and I did our standard pre-race workout: one mile close to race pace, followed by six quarters a tad faster. Of course, it felt awful. Taper always feels awful. And, of course, the usual voices of doubt bubbled up, just like they always do. If one 6:10 mile felt that bad, how the hell are you going to run twelve more of them? You’re out of shape. You were panting after those quarters. You should be able to run those paces in your sleep. What is wrong with you?

Fortunately, those taper week demons and I are already well acquainted. I’ve proven them wrong often enough that—knock wood—I’ve become semi-comfortable feeling uncomfortable. So I let them natter on, while my inner self said, You’re in shape. You know you’re in shape. You’re ready for this. You’re going to do this.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that when the conversation turned to projected race times, I didn’t estimate conservatively. After all, a PR is a PR, so as long as I broke my last half marathon time (a low 1:22), I’d honestly be happy. And barring any last-minute weather- or health-related issues, I was pretty confident I could do that.

Through the course of the conversation, I learned that my morning coach believed I could run a 1:21 (yay!), and also that a guy who trains at the track at the same as us had volunteered as a pacer for the race. When we asked what time he was pacing, he responded,

“The 1:20 group.”

What? Come again.There was a 1:20 pace group???

“Yeah, it’s the fastest one. Honestly, if you’re going to run a 1:20, I don’t see why you need a pacer, but they asked me to do it, so that’s the sign I’ll be holding.”

So this guy was going to run 6:06/mile for 13.1 miles while holding a sign. Unreal.

“See you guys on the course, maybe,” he said as we gathered our stuff to leave. Impulsively, I replied,

“Ha! If I see you on the course, I’ll buy you a beer.”

Ironically, I now owe him a beer. But he totally earned it.

Ran my midday 30-minute shakeout alone. The demons of doubt were still yammering away, this time pointing out how much I was sweating, how dry my throat felt, and how I still couldn’t breathe through my nose. I continued to reassure myself that none of that mattered. Then, I made a deal: no matter how the first eleven miles of the race went, when I got to those last two miles, I would "go for broke." After all, why not? I’d trained for this race for months. There was nothing to lose.

Ate pasta. Packed my bag. Set my 4am alarm. Went to bed.

Saturday – RACE DAY
I've probably written this before, but when it comes to racing, I get really selfish. I love warming up and hanging out with my teammates all the way up until the gun goes off, but when I step over the starting line, it’s all me, all the time. I don’t want to think about what pace anyone else is running; I don’t want to hear how heavily they’re breathing; I just want to run my race, by myself.

Of course, that’s not to say that races happen in a vacuum. The beginning of the Brooklyn course has this quick little out-and-back, so you get to see runners who started before/after you on the opposite side of the course for about a mile. I absolutely love this. It’s such a rush to see your teammates and give a little cheer and a wave as you pass them going in the opposite direction. Plus, it’s the beginning of the race, so everyone is smiling and feeling good, and it takes your mind off of those early race jitters. Am I going out too fast? Taking it too easy? Why are all these people passing me? Oh look—there’s one of my teammates! Hiiii!

The first part of the race circled and then entered  Prospect Park. This part of the race was all about control. Cruise the uphills, relax on the downhills, don’t take things too easy, and try not to tie yourself up in mental knots. Luckily, this part of the race was convenient to spectate, so I got to see my teammate cheer squad not once, but twice within the first six miles, plus a bunch of other folks I recognized along the course. Seeing people I know screaming my name will never, ever get old. It’s an instant confidence boost and a welcome distraction from the mental daisy plucking that is simultaneously going on in my head. (My body loves me…. It loves me not.)

Then, suddenly, the hill was done. We were out of the park. Trees became concrete. Ocean Parkway. Halfway done.

Now, I’m no mental math savant (I have another teammate who gets that title), but by my rough estimation, I was so far executing according to plan. Cross the half in 40-42, I’d been told by my coach. Then start hammering the parkway. With half of the race still to go, I didn’t want to kill myself, but I knew if I didn’t settle into a slightly faster rhythm now, I might never get there. So I picked a guy who seemed like he was running a fairly consistent (faster) pace, settled in behind him, and . . . well . . . ran.

Several yards before the Mile 7 sign, my watch beeped. 6:01. Uh oh. This is not what I had intended to do. I’d been thinking more like 6:05-6:08ish, and that’s certainly what it had felt like. There were so many more miles to go. I checked in with my body: my breathing wasn’t horribly labored, and nothing else was acting wonky. Yet. So now it was time to decide: should I back off, let this guy run away, and hope I could pick up the pace for the last 2-3 miles? Or should I try to hang here, at this pace–in vastly unknown territory–as long as I possibly could?

I decided to go for it. After all, what I did I have to lose? It would be super painful at the end, and my body might start failing me. But at least I could say I went for it. And thus began my mantra: At least you can say you went for it.

About to cry/throw up/pass out.At mile 8, when my Gu was not going down right: At least you can say you went for it.

At mile 9, when I saw a former of teammate of mine walking on the side of the road, face dejected, clearly no longer on pace to hit the 1:19 he’d said he was going to run: At least you can say you went for it.

At mile 10, when a red-headed girl I had passed earlier sped by me: At least you can say you went for it.

At mile 11, it was time to execute on the deal I had made with myself: when you have two miles left, go for broke. But no matter what mental games I tried, my legs felt stuck in gear. Granted it was a pretty good gear, but I had clearly lost all semblance of control. At least you can say you went for it.

At mile 12, when I saw the race clock, I realized: I had this! All I had to do was maintain my pace and I’d break 1:20. I’d break 1:20!!!

However, my bodily functions were starting to go haywire. My bladder gave out almost exactly at the mile marker, and I was starting to feel nauseous. You only have a mile left! cheered the supportive part of my brain. A six-minute mile. You’ve run these in practice. You can totally do this. Then I made the mistake of checking my watch. You’ve only run a quarter of a mile, and you are literally about to die, announced the demon doubters. It feels like you’re slowing down, doesn’t it? And you may have passed that red-headed chick again, but she’s obviously right behind you. . . .

At that moment, I glimpsed the 1:20 pace flag bobbing up ahead. The guy from the track! What was he doing up there? He’d started in the corral behind me, and I was on pace to break 1:20 . . . at least I thought I was. Had I calculated wrong?

Boy was my stomach feeling unhappy now....

Then, for whatever reason, he looked back and saw me. “Hey!” he shouted. “Come on! Let’s go!”

With 400 meters left, I finally made it to his side.

“You’ve got this,” he cheered. “Go catch that CPTC girl!”

I could see her, in the orange-and-blue crop top, just a few steps ahead of me. I could do this. It was just 400 meters. Time to kick, right?

“When your legs get tired, use your arms,” I could hear my coach say. “Don’t get outkicked. This is why we sprint when we’re tired.”

Yep, can't breathe.Tired doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt. I have never been so scared that my legs would collapse under me in my entire life. I’m pretty sure they were actually wobbling, and the uneven slats of the boardwalk didn’t help.

I'd studied the map. I knew that when we turned onto the boardwalk, the finish line should be right there. And it was. Yet no finish line has ever seemed so far away.

When I finally crossed, I was too out of breath to do anything but wheeze. Also, I was scared of falling over. And vomiting. I’m pretty sure it took me ten solid minutes to feel confident that I hadn’t suddenly developed asthma and that neither of those other two things was going to happen.

But I had done it. I had gone for it . . . and it worked. 1:19:33. It felt like someone else's time.

Later, at the bar, one of my teammate asked, “So, what does running 1:19 feel like?” When I described it (in only slightly less detail than I have here), her response was, “Oh. So it feels just like running 1:40.”

Yes. Yes it does.

Airbnb Brooklyn Half Marathon 2016 Race Results

Race Length
Finishing Time
Average Pace
Overall Place
Gender Place
Age Group Place
13.1 mi
152 / 27,409
14 / 14,716
7 / 3,510

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Stuffed or Starving: A Conversation from the Split Personality of Every Freelancer

(Okay, maybe not every freelancer. Maybe just me.)

I’m a planner. I work best when I have a series of actions that I can execute one step at a time. In part, that’s why I like freelancing, and it’s also what I liked about school: every assignment can be broken down into actionable, time-stamped steps. Need to write a paper by the first of the month? No problem—just schedule research for this week, first draft next weekend, revisions the following week, and wah-la: a finished term paper! Plus, what’s even better about both school and freelancing assignments is that no one cares when, where, how, or even whether you perform any of those steps. They just care about two things: the deadline and the final product.

So scheduling and executing . . . not a problem. This means that, as work is rolling in—the “feast," as it were, because freelancing is nothing if not feast or famine—I am fairly successful at keeping the internal voice shouting Ohmygod you’ll never get this all done to a dull roar.

Because really, it all comes down to living by a saying my father loves: How do you eat an elephant?

One bite at a time.

And I can definitely do that.

Unfortunately, it’s when there are no bites left that I start to panic. Like, for instance, right now, when I’m sitting here blogging, trying not to think about the fact that I have gone thirteen days without working a single billable hour. Sure, I’ve written some emails about lining up potential work. I’ve had phone calls with a few prospective employers. I've even gone on job sites and applied directly for projects. But earned any cash money? No. Which leads to what I can only describe as an argument between the two sides of my Split Freelancer Personality. The exchange goes something like this:

All the work has dried up. No one will ever hire you again.

Untrue! We had tons of projects last month. Just wait it out.

Yeah, okay. Keep waiting. You know what they say about people who wait? They starve to death.

I don't think that's the saying. [pause] But yeah, I know, I should be doing more. Pitching more magazines. Researching more university writing departments. Looking for more freelance assignments. Networking. [shudder]

Orrrr you could just start looking for a fulltime job. Because that’s what you’re going to have to do, anyway, when this little endeavor of ours spectacularly fails.

Just because you’re scared doesn’t mean I have to give up already.

Scared? I’m realistic. Remember all those people who told you that writing is not a viable way to make a living?

Working 40+ hours a week at a job I hate isn’t making a living--it’s making a salary.

Let me know how those platitudes taste next month, when you're eating rice and water out on the curb.

Don’t be dramatic. I can pay the rent for several more months even if we don’t get any more work. And I will get work. I’m qualified. The work is out there. Other people are doing this.

Yeah, other people with advanced degrees and resumes that include NY Times bestselling authors.

Okay, fine, I might not have a MFA or a PhD in editing--do they even have those?--but I’m good at this damn it! Or at least I think I am. Some people have told me that I am.

Sure they have. If you sucked, would they have said anything?

Well. No. But I wouldn't have repeat clients if I sucked. And Professor X requests me personally!

One professor. Wow. Way to go.

Hey, we're just starting out. Be patient.

We've been at this for almost a year.

Ten months. And I like it! I like the work, I like the lifestyle. I feel way more fulfilled now than with anything I was doing before. And I don’t care if I never make six figures. That has to count for something, right?

Never making six figures and barely making five aren’t quiiiite the same thing.

Oh shut up. I’m going to go back to brainstorming articles to pitch.

Or you could take a nap. Because do you really want to spend all those hours researching and writing and revising, only to get paid $50 a pop? Plus, they might just reject you outright.

… or I could take a nap. Okay. You win. For today.