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Friday, June 9, 2017

Review: The Girls

The Girls The Girls by Emma Cline
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm somewhere between 3 and 4 stars with this book, so since I'm in a generous mood (and since the last few books I read weren't exactly mind-blowing), I'm going to round up.

The writing in this book is good. Emma Cline is a master of details (both sensory and otherwise), being intentional and precise with what she says and doesn't say. Her words paint a vivid picture of specific characters living in a very tangible time and place . . . at least in the portions of the book that tell the story of how one young girl came to be mixed up in what I suppose is a hippie cult. The real story of the book. The only story that I cared about.

I've read a lot of books that flip between past and present, some which do it effectively, and some which don't. I fully understand Cline's decision here to couch the "real" story being told in flashback; she must do so in order to allow her narrator, Evie, to reflect on the events with insight. However, the "present" story is not compelling at all, and each time the story jumps between past and present, the reader is left to flounder for a few sentences, trying to find their footing in the chronology of whichever story is now being told. For me, these awkward moments jerked me out of the story, and it always took a few pages for Cline to pull me back under her spell.

Nevertheless, I did find the core elements of this book--a coming-of-age story; a story of confusing adolescent desire bordering on obsession; a story of loneliness; a mystery where the perpetrators are known, the act is implied, and so the true mystery is in how these things came to happen; a story of a cult--very compelling. And so, for any readers who also enjoy these elements and are willing to be patient in order to reap the rewards of good, literary writing, I would definitely recommend this book.

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Review: The Endurance Diet: Discover the 5 Core Habits of the World's Greatest Athletes to Look, Feel, and Perform Better

The Endurance Diet: Discover the 5 Core Habits of the World's Greatest Athletes to Look, Feel, and Perform Better The Endurance Diet: Discover the 5 Core Habits of the World's Greatest Athletes to Look, Feel, and Perform Better by Matt Fitzgerald
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

I came across this book via a podcast (it was either Running on Om or Running for Real; I forget which one), and whatever I heard Matt Fitzgerald say in his interview clearly made me want to check out his book. Unfortunately, after reading the first chapter-and-a-half, I concluded that his ideas probably could have been fit into an essay. However, I was ready to soldier on, in case there were more meaty ideas later in the book, but then I came to a half-baked argument that was so unscientific in nature that I simply stopped reading. (Essentially, the argument claimed that the diet was what made the difference in athletic performance, entirely ignoring the multitude of other factors that could--and mostly likely did--impact performance.)

For anyone seeking firmer evidence-based guidance on diet or nutrition, this book probably is not worth your time. (Of course, I could be wrong, seeing as I didn't even read through the first hundred pages.) I would love to read a book on this same topic, however, if there is one out there that has more rigorous science backing it up--so if anyone knows of such a book, please send me your suggestion!

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Friday, May 19, 2017

Brooklyn, and the Seed of Self-Belief

The Brooklyn Half Marathon. The largest half marathon in the United States. And of the twenty-odd halves I’ve run, it’s probably my favorite . . . which is why I’m running it for a fourth time this year.

2012, first timer
Every year has been tremendously different. The first year I ran it, I hadn’t yet discovered coaching, or Garmin watches, or Gotham City Runners. I wore a cotton tank top and a wristwatch from Target. I had a blast.

The second year I ran, I was coming off of having run the Boston Marathon a few weeks prior. I didn’t even really want to run Brooklyn, but my coach convinced me that my fitness would pull me through to a PR. He was right. I was elated.

The third year—last year—was probably the best race I’ve ever run. I started smart, and when everything started hurting and the pace on my watch looked scary, I didn’t let the pain or fear win. The race photos are proof.

2016, barely standing
So now here we are. Year four. A lot has changed in the last few months. I went through some rough patches this winter, and despite miraculously PRing the B.A.A. 5k last month, I don’t feel like I’ve had the training season I wanted. It’s pretty simple, really: the miles in my training log over the past few months are not of the same caliber as the miles I put in at this time last year.

This concerns me.

I say “concerns” and not “worries” because I’m not worried. This race will turn out however it turns out, and I don’t have to prove anything to anybody.

. . . but, that’s not entirely true. I have to prove to myself that I am mentally strong when it counts. And that’s why I’m struggling with what to let myself feel, and what to force myself to think going into this race. Because us distance runners, we can’t fool ourselves. We can sing platitudes from the rooftops, we can psyche ourselves up at the starting line, but we can’t run 13.1 miles (or 26.2 or 50) on smiles and adrenaline alone.

What I need is a deep-seeded belief about myself. It must be one with roots that can’t be yanked out by one bad run or a scary weather prediction. But a belief needs many weeks of training—both mental and physical training—to grow, and I didn’t have that this season. Now, too soon, I’m in taper week, and I don't know what my belief is. And that’s why I feel so uncertain.

I know what needs to happen next, because I’ve done it before. I know that in the days leading up to the race, I need to coexist with this belief, whatever it is. I need to let it sit beside me and take the time to recognize it.

I know that when I reach the starting line, I need to lift the belief up to eye level and let it fill my vision. And then, the moment the gun goes off, I need to let it go. If it's real, it will take hold inside of me and become my strength. But if not, and I grab onto it and try to force it inside, I risk turning it from a belief into a demand. And demands are harsh. They’re unforgiving. They feed the voice inside that says “you could have, should have, would have.” They feed the idea of failure before the race has even really begun.

I have less than 24 hours until I step up to the starting line, and I still don't know what my belief is. I’m continuing to sit with it, attempting to identify its shape, its texture. I’m trying my best to be patient, even as time winds down, because I know that I can’t bully myself into running great race. I can’t even bully myself into running a “good” one. But I also can’t act like it doesn’t matter, because it does. I know that much about myself.

It matters, and so I will keep trying to find that belief. And when I do, I will run with it.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Review: Marlena

Marlena Marlena by Julie Buntin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Curiously, this book felt more like a memoir than a fiction novel . . . and I think that's a compliment. Ultimately, Marlena is one long character sketch that--as any good novel-length character sketch should-- reveals more about the narrator's character than the one being sketched. It also walks the fine line between YA and adult fiction, and does so successfully without being too nuanced for the former audience or patronizing to the latter. That in and of itself is impressive.

I can't say I actually "liked" the book, because it's so very gloomy from start to finish; even the happier moments are bittersweet, because you know how it's all going to wind up in the end. As such, I think the novel was genuine and true to its characters, but it also felt like one long drawn-out road to the inevitable.

One thing I did like, however, apart from the authentic, multi-dimensional characters, was how the setting felt almost like a character itself. It established the tone and mood perfectly: the feelings of desolation and utter boredom, tinged with just the faintest undertone of danger.

Buntin is clearly a talented writer, and while I can't say this was on my top 10 list of favorite books, I look forward to seeing what else she produces.

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Monday, May 1, 2017

The Breakup

I hate this post. I’ve tried to write it no fewer than four times. Here’s number five—hopefully the last.

I fired my coach.

There. I said it. Now you know.

Not that I’ve been keeping it a secret, but it feels like a secret. It feels like I did something wrong. Even though I know it wasn’t wrong, it was right . . . and absolutely necessary.

Damn, though, it was hard. It still is.

I’ve never broken up with anyone before. Not a coach, not a boyfriend, no one. So while I’ve watched others do it numerous times, I have never had to experience the process myself: the anger, the sorrow, the paralyzing indecision.

There were just so many factors.

There was the fact that I knew J, my coach, was going through a number of life upheavals, between quitting his job and then moving across the country to a place where he knew virtually no one. I’ve made that move myself. I know how jarring and lonely it can be. Then, there was the fact that I felt frustrated—furious, really—at my own inability to perform: something that, coach or no coach, I knew was still up to me at the end of the day. And finally, there was the fact that J has brought me farther than I ever, in my wildest dreams, imagined I’d come.

Four years ago, I was a 3:21 marathoner. I did no speedwork, took virtually no rest days, had never eaten a Gu, and thought that running around a track sounded “boring and torturous.” Then I met J, who, after meeting me twice and IMing me a handful more times, said to me one day, “I could help you shave six minutes off your half marathon time.” Um, yeah right, I thought at the time, 6 minutes off of 1:30? I doubt it. But I was intrigued, and eventually I decided why not? I could try this coaching thing, and if I hated it, I could just quit.

Fast forward to 2016, the best racing year of my life. I PRed every single distance I raced, from the 5k all the way through the marathon. I broke the tape at my first race ever. And that six-minute promise he made? Well, I’ve dropped that and some, running under 1:20 in May.

That kind of progress is impossible to ignore, and even harder to walk away from. We had a track record together, a proven track record, and there is no chance—I repeat, no chance—that I could have dropped even a fraction of that time on my own.

And yet, coming into 2017, things were just not working. An absence I had felt vaguely throughout the last year became even more pronounced when he moved hundreds of miles away, and no matter how hard I tried to upend the pattern, we just seemed to be going in circles. Running was feeling worse and worse, and I was starting to wonder if this was the end of the road for me. Maybe 2016 was it. Maybe this big dream I had decided on, of chasing an even faster marathon time, was foolish. Maybe I didn’t really want it.

But I did. Deep inside, where we keep the truth protected from everyone and everything, even from ourselves, I did want it. I just didn’t know how to go after it.

I was stuck, and something had to change.

So I wrote, and I thought, and I wrote some more. Hesitantly, I reached out to runners I respected, and talked with coaches who were (and were not) willing to take me on. Eventually, I found someone—a new “J” in fact—who seemed like a good fit. He was local, coached only a handful of athletes, and had very definite, very different ideas about how to train. It wasn’t until we were sitting across each other and I was listening to him describe those ideas that I realized what I really wanted was a complete change. If I was going to make a change, I wanted to go all the way and change not just the coach, but the whole philosophy, too.

So finally, I did it: I had the hard conversation with J1 in person, when he was in town, and the next week I started paying J2. I have no idea if J2 was the “right” coach to choose or not—time will bear that out. But what I do know is that within a week or two, I already felt better. And, no surprise, I’m already running better again, too.

To speak in metaphors, when I look over my shoulder, the path behind me looks unimaginably long . . . it seems impossible that I could have covered such a distance. When I look ahead, I can’t see where this road goes, whether it climbs uphill or swoops down, whether it twists or turns or just keeps going on for endless, endless miles. I can’t see the finish line, but I’m not looking for that yet. Right now, I’m focused on a spot, a few yards ahead, where I can still see the seams in the pavement. I have a plan to get there, and I am going to focus on executing that plan. This is how I will proceed: a few yards at a time, little by little, step by step. Baby steps. But they’re still steps. And they’re moving me forward—exactly where I want to go.
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