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Monday, June 25, 2018

If I Could Just

If I could just wake up without pain

...walk without limping

...take the stairs this time

I swear I'd be grateful.


If I could just run

...for more than five minutes

...without paralyzing fear

I'd be appreciative beyond belief.


If I could just catch my breath

...keep up with the others

...go faster than this

I wouldn't complain, I promise.


If I could just finish the workout

...add more miles

...run the way I used to

I'd feel more confident, I know it.


If I could just hit that time

...and then go a little faster

...and then a little bit faster

Then I'd be satisfied.


Wouldn't I?

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Obstacle is the Way, and Other Impossible Mindsets

Every year, usually at least twice a year, my fiance R___ goes on a self-improvement binge. Now, I'm not complaining, because these endeavors usually benefit me in some way. Maybe he wants to get fit (hey sexy guy!). Maybe he wants to learn a new skill (cooking, anyone?). Maybe he wants to be a better partner (helloooo date nights . . . and swiffering!). However, his most recent episode has involved a "get tough and get Buddhist" attitude that, for reasons I will explain, makes me want to scream and punch things on a daily basis.

Decidedly NOT running.
What irritates me isn't the attitude itself, because honestly I admire it and wish I could adopt it myself. What irritates me is that he somewhat arbitrarily "decided" to adopt this mentality and, seemingly overnight, is now cruising along with the serenity and can-do mindset of a monk. I, on the other hand get to watch him fast, meditate, and walk around without a coat while simultaneously seething and/or trying not to cry at my own shortcomings. Not that this is a competition; I understand perfectly well that we can all be better versions of ourselves at the same time, and that this is not a zero-sum game. But he seems to be making all of these personal strides while I sit on the couch eating Chex Mix, feeling like a sub-optimal version of myself.

So here's why I'm such a mess: on December 31st, my right knee started hurting when I went up and down stairs. Thinking it was just some arbitrary tightness left over from my snowy run that weekend, I foam rolled and went running the next day . . . and came back hobbled. Ever since then, my sneakers have been gathering dust, and the only running I've been doing is running up a credit bill for physical therapy visits.

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love running, and the longer I go without it, the clearer it becomes that I have woven this sport into the fabric of my life. Without it, I no longer have a weekly schedule (because my runs dictated that); I no longer have a daily social life (because seeing my friends on runs pretty much was my social life); and I no longer have any desire to look at social media (because if I see one more person post their weekly mileage or daily workout paces, I actually have a psychotic episode).

Now, I must acknowledge that R___ is perfectly sympathetic about all of this. Just because he's zen about life doesn't mean he expects me to be. The problem is that I expect myself to chill out and take this in stride. Practically every runner I know has been injured in some way, at some point. And despite how important it is to me, running is not my whole life. I have a partner who love me whether I run or not. I have a business that is independent of the sport. I have friends who barely remember I run, and friends who are willing to hang out even if we can't run together. So why can't I just accept that this "is what it is" and try to make the best of it? Or, even better, "How can I take [shitty thing that has happened] and turn it into the best thing that has ever happened to me?" (Thanks for sharing that nugget of wisdom, R___.)

After weeks of stewing, I have come to the conclusion that there's no way I'm going to feel like this is "the best thing," or even a remotely good thing, until I'm safely on the other side. So for now, I'm trying to come at the issue from an academic angle. In no particular order, here are the potential silver linings:

I've lost the compulsion to run, but retained the desire. For the two weeks after my last marathon, when I was supposed to be "resting," all I could think about was the fitness I was losing--fitness I would need to build upon if I wanted to run any faster in my next race. All I could think was, Why am I not running? I should be running! Well here I am now, stripped of my fitness, with no sign of getting it back anytime soon. After two weeks of panic and a few weeks of sadness, I'm stuck with a big cold dose of reality: those time barriers I was so anxious to break? They're gone, gone gone. I won't be seeing them, if at all, for quite some time. Yet I still want to run. It sounds cliche, but I dream about running at least once a week. I miss the feeling of power and control over my body. I miss the freedom of stepping outside and just going. So the love of running is still there, and despite the trials of the moment, that simple fact is comforting.

I'm swimming more than I have in almost a decade. Inherently, this is not a good or bad thing; it is just a fact. What's lucky is that I enjoy swimming. Also, it reminds me of the self who persevered for years, despite being the worst on the team, and still found satisfaction in working hard and seeing incremental progress. I like that self. Plus, these days, I mostly swim alone, so I have no one to compare myself against. I follow virtually no swimmers on social media, so it's sort of this pure thing, with no pressure or expectations. I know I'll never be a top-level swimmer, no matter how many hours I put into the pool . . . but that's okay. That's not why I do it.

My upper body is getting stronger. With no real lower-body exercise options (except a few PT-approved movements), I've taken to doing push-ups and planks on a much more regular basis. That's not to say I neglected these things before, but I most certainly did not do them every day. As a result, I'm up to 3x15 push-ups and 3 pull-ups, which I fully acknowledge is no great feat, but it's more than I've done before, so I'll allow myself a smidgen of pride. And who knows--maybe it'll help my running down the line. Crazier things have happened.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Grateful

I'm trying really hard to be grateful.

Grateful I've stayed healthy for so long.

Grateful that my injury (if it had to happen) happened now, in the cold slippery winter, and not during a big summer training block.

Grateful I have a coach who is also a physical therapist (as well as one of the calmest humans beings on earth).

Grateful to have health insurance.

Grateful I can still swim.

Grateful to have so many friends who still care about me, even when I can't run.

Grateful I don't equate self-worth with running fast.

. . . but let's not fool ourselves. I still want to run fast.

Just have to heal, first. And then, I guess, we'll see.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Which Matters More: Talent or Hard Work?

So I have this friend, T___. He's a former professional triathlete who completes Ironmans in the time it takes me to explain what that race is. He also works as a firefightera physically demanding job that has an extremely erratic schedule requiring long hours and sleepless nights. Needless to say, I have a lot of respect for this guy. Therefore, when he asked for my input as he developed a podcast, and then when he asked me to be an early guest on the show, I was very flattered, but also a little nervous. As a writer, I've interviewed other people before, but I've never been the one in the hot seat!


Luckily, a few days before we were scheduled to record, T___ gave me a list of questions. There weren't many, so I decided to practice my answers with my fiance, R___.  Then, during the interview, T___ asked me nearly all of the questions on his list, but he did omit one . . . and of course it was the one for which I had prepared what I considered my best answer. The question has stuck with me ever since, so, I want to lay out my thoughts on the matter.

Which matters more, talent or hard work?

In a nutshell, I think the importance of talent compared to hard work depends upon where someone is in their pursuit of an activity. In the very beginning, I think talent matters more. After all, if you show no aptitude for an activity, why would you want to pursue it? The way I see it, once you realize that you're "actually pretty good" at something, that's when you start wanting to put in the hard work to get better.

Once you're past entry-level, however, that's when hard work increases in importance. Let me give you an example from my own life: I used to play the flute. I started in second grade, and by the time I joined the concert band in middle school, I was simply better than everyone else. By then I had stopped taking lessons, and although I rarely practiced the music, I was good enough at sight-reading to earn myself first chair and stay there all the way through junior high school. However, once I entered high school, I came up against a girl who was working a heck of a lot harder than I was. She took lessons, she practiced, and lo and behold: she was better than me.

Now, in this particular case, I could have risen to the challenge. I could have hired a teacher and taken my flute home every day and worked on my vibrato and double-tonguing and all of my other technical and artistic shortcomings. But I didn't. So she moved into first chair, I took second, and that was that. Hard work wins.

Now it should be pointed out: neither of us went on to be professional flautists. (I believe she's an English teacher somewhere, and I'm a freelance writer and editor; I would bet neither of us have picked up a flute in years.) But had we attempted that career path, I truly believe that talent would have elbowed its way back into premier "importance." Because look at how many professional musicians are out there. They're all working hard: practicing, fine-tuning their instruments, improving their skill and artistry. But the ones getting first chair in symphony orchestras? They're the ones who work their asses off and are still better than everyone else. Professional runners who win World Majors? Of course they're working hard, but so are all of their competitors; they win because they're talented. (And because they have a bit of luck, and a great support system, and all of those other factors that play into great single-day performances.)

So, to wrap up my opinion on this matter in a nice little bow, I think talent matters most at the very bottom and very top of the performance spectrum. But that huuuuuge space in between? That's where hard work comes into play. And that's where most of us live out our life passions. I love running. I love it for lots of reasons, but I found that love because I saw fairly rapid gains early on and wanted to see how fast I could get. Now I'm firmly planted in the "hard work" stage, and that's where I'll stay. I'm never going to be at the level of Shalane Flanagan, or Molly Huddle, or any other superstar who performs in the top 1% of the sport. But I can put in hard, smart work. And then, with a bit of luck and a lot of support, I will push my own limits just a little bit farther than ever seemed possible.

*If you want to hear Tim's and my actual discussion, you can listen here!
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Thursday, October 19, 2017

Portland Marathon Recap #3: The Win

Okay, so honest truth: given the size and past results of the Portland Marathon, I knew there was a possibility that I’d be able to place in the top 5, maybe even top 3 women. However, every time I’ve gone to a race with “placing” in mind, I’ve stressed out and am almost never satisfied with the results, no matter if I live up to my own expectations or not. Therefore, I approached this marathon as laissez-faire as I could. After all, the only factor I could control was my own race, so that’s what I wanted to focus on. If I hit my time, that really was winning enough for me.

Of course, that’s not to say I didn’t want to race other women at all; I just wanted to save my competitive drive for the last few hard miles. Therefore, my race strategy—compliments of Coach J—was this: Whatever you do for the first 13 miles, don’t panic. If you run 6:35s or even slip into 6:40s, who cares? You’ll run the first half of the course uphill, so on the return trip, you can make up time. Bottom line: Don’t go out too hard. Then, get to mile 23, and in those last three miles, race.

This was a great strategy, and it worked . . .  at least for the first two-thirds of the race. I spent the first several miles cruising along comfortably, paying little mind to the fact that I was in third place. (Just to be clear: when I’m talking about “place,” I mean third/second/first place woman.) Honestly, I thought there would be more women in front of me at that point, especially considering that the half and full marathons started together. However, only one half marathon woman appeared near the front of the pack, so already at mile two, I found myself running down Natio Parkway behind just two tiny Japanese women and a bunch of men.

I was still marveling at how good my body felt—6:30s didn’t feel like work yet!—when I caught up to the second-place woman. We were somewhere between miles six and seven, just having turned onto a long, straight industrial road that would lead us to the one major hill on the course. She and I ran side by side for at least a mile, maybe more, and all I can remember thinking is, This lady is breathing way too hard for this early in the race. By the time we hit the hill, I could no longer hear her.

The next seven or so miles passed fairly uneventfully; I mostly spent them watching the pink shirt of the lead woman and the orange flag of the accompanying bicyclist bob up and down in the distance. This was the residential stretch of the race, and lots of spectators were out there cheering for me to “go get her.” It was surprisingly encouraging, especially because we all had our names printed on our race bibs, so people would shout, “Go Allison!” as if they knew me and really wanted me to catch the leader. (And, notably, this is where three of the four spectators who actually knew me were standing—so they probably did really want me to catch the leader!) However, I had no idea what that woman had in store for the rest of the race, so I was content to keep hitting my paces. If I could still see her at mile 23, I knew I’d be ready to “go for it.”

Unfortunately for me, that’s not quite how things worked out. Instead, I caught up on St. John’s Bridge, around mile eighteen, and by the time we made it back down the hill, I couldn’t hear the patter of her footfalls anymore. I was on my own. And when I say I was on my own, I was on my own. From that point through the end of the race, I think I passed three, maybe four men running the marathon; everyone else I caught up to was walking the half marathon. (The two race courses were essentially layered on top of one another—see my earlier blog post for further details.) Basically, the point is: when I got to mile 23, I had no one to race. It was just me, dodging walkers over uneven asphalt and slippery train tracks. So this is where it was easy to get defeated. Where was I going to get any adrenaline? How was I going to find the grit to finish hard when every part of my body was already hurting?

Luckily for me, I had practice in this setting. During this past training cycle, due to a wide variety of circumstances, I wound up running most of my long run workouts alone. As a result, I came up with all sorts of dumb tricks to convince myself to "keep going" when the going got tough. One trick: hypnotize yourself with a mantra. In this case, I co-opted one that had been offered by my friend T___: “Today’s the day.” Today’s the day. Today’s the day. Today’sthedayToday’sthedayToday’stheday.

Trick number two: use your arms. I originally learned this from my first coach, as advice for climbing hills when your legs are tired. My current coach took it one step further and showed me how “using your arms” actually rotated your core to generate more power with each stride. I don't often remember to focus on this, but when I do, it really works. And I remembered this time.

The last trick was arguably the hardest, but it was also the most effective, and that was ignoring my watch. At this point in the race, seeing a 6:45 mile wasn’t going to help me adjust my pace any more or less than seeing a 6:15, other than to make me feel defeated and give up on the PR I wanted so badly. Now was the time to buckle down and pour out whatever I had left; however that showed up on the clock was how it would show up.

So with my mantra and my arms, and without my watch, I bobbed and weaved my way through those last few miles. When I finally made it to the finish line, it was almost exactly like any other marathon finish I’ve ever experienced. I saw the time on the clock, I passed under the banner, and I felt that gush of relief that it was all over. There was no tape to break, no flashing lightbulbs, no paparazzi. I wobbled along on unsteady legs, up to volunteers who wrapped me in the standard finisher’s poncho and hung a finisher’s medal around my neck. A  few moments later, a woman came up to me and led me over to a photographer who took a picture of me shaking her hand (which, ironically, never made it onto the race website or into the Portland newspaper article, although the men’s winner and both half marathon winners are on there!). Then she handed me a surprisingly heavy black box containing a glass trophy, asked me whether I had someone waiting for me in the reunion area, and sent me on my way. And so I went on my way, almost as if nothing had happened: one more day, one more marathon. That's the irony of it all—life is very much the same, glass trophy or not. There will be a new PR to chase soon enough.

2017 Portland Marathon Race Results


Race Length
Finishing Time
Average Pace
Overall Place
Gender Place
Age Group Place
(F 30-34)
26.2 mi
2:50:25
6:30/mile
14 / 2,927
1 / 1,460
1 / 234