Monday, January 16, 2017

Review: All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book does something unique: it makes you root both for the protagonists and against them at the same time. On one hand, you are rooting for Wavy and Kellen to end up together--after all, this is a love story. Even the most curmudgeonly reader wants, on some level, to see a happy ending. But then, the moment you realize that you're rooting for them, you're instantly horrified, because you understand that what you allegedly want to happen is for an 8-year-old and a 21-year-old (or however old they grow up to be, eventually) to have a successful romantic relationship. To put it mildly, it's a little too Lolita for comfort.

I liked this book. I liked the world Greenwood created: the dusty Midwest, full of women wearing too much makeup and not enough clothes, the men covered with tattoos and smelling like gasoline and cigarettes. The narrative compelled me from the outset: the tough little girl who wouldn’t speak, who desperately needed a caretaker, and who defied expectations. And I appreciated the nuances of the surrounding characters. However, I didn’t love the impromptu narrative shift to characters other than Wavy and Kellen; it struck me as lazy authorship not to be able to convey what these other characters thought or felt without diving straight into their heads. The jump between first and third person also threw me from time to time—something you definitely don’t want to do to a reader who is as engrossed in the story as I was.

Up until the “all is lost” moment, I was 99.9% sold on this book. I thought for sure I’d give it 5 stars. But then it started feeling like Greenwood was trying to jam in “everything but the kitchen sink,” and in spite of everything that was happening, I could already see how the story would end. I knew how I would end the story, but I also could tell, without reading ahead, how Greenwood was going to wrap things up. And frankly, I think tying things up so neatly was a missed opportunity. This was a complex issue he was exploring, with a lot of internal and external factors at play. To give it such a straightforward resolution did the characters and the readers—and the story, really—a disservice.

Endings are hard. I’d be interested to know how many endings Greenwood wrote for this book before settling on the one that’s in there. But, ultimately, I think he chose wrong. Hopefully he’ll do better with whatever he writes next—which I most certainly will read.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

"B is for Brains" – The Berlin Marathon Race Recap

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I’ve rewritten this race recap three times. Each time, I fretted over how much to include, what to omit, which events are "interesting," and just how honest to really be. In the end, it turned out longer than I'd like, but it finally says what I want it to say. I think.

I don’t know how other people do it, but when I prepare for a race, I set three goals. The first is the one I tell my friends and family–mainly the people who don’t know much about running. This “C goal” the “safest” of the three: the one that, barring any catastrophe, I should reasonably be able to hit. Typically, it involves running a PR–a personal best–by any margin.

The next goal is the one that, depending on my mood (and who’s asking), I may or may not tell my running friends. Like the C goal, it’s one I also think I can hit, but requires a little more hope and a lot more luck. If race conditions are good and I keep my head on straight, I have a very good shot. The B goal is usually the one I tell my coach.

And then there’s the A goal. In college-application-speak, this is the “reach” goal, and it’s the one I truly have my heart set on. I almost never share this goal with anyone, because yes, I’m a little superstitious, but also this A goal seems greedy. It reveals that I don’t think it’s enough to just PR; I have to PR by this much.

Pasta dinner "race faces."
Three weeks out from Berlin, I had my three goals in place. The C goal was to PR. The B goal was to run a 2:55 (three minutes faster than my last marathon PR). And the A goal was to run a 2:50. My racing season thus far had gone great, and all three felt achievable . . . right up until I ran the worst half marathon of my life. After that, I spent the next two weeks trying to convince myself that the race was a fluke, that I wasn’t a mental disaster, and that the marathon couldn't possibly feel that bad . . . could it?

Then, to make matters worse, the night I was scheduled to fly to Europe, my coach announced that he was leaving New York. By email. An email that I read on my phone at 9pm while standing in an extraordinarily long airport check-in line, stressing over freelance work I had not yet finished.

This is it, my overreacting brain announced. He’s abandoning you. The team you love so much is finished.

Of course, I knew that none of these things were true. But nevertheless, I proceeded to spend the entire equally long, equally stressful security line trying to convince any onlookers that, no, these weren’t tears, I was just having an uncontrollable yawning epidemic. All in all, not the best send-off.

Fast forward to Saturday, September 24th: the night before race day.

I’ve always known that I am part of a fantastic team. Everyone is friendly and fun, supportive and encouraging. But on this particular day, my incredible teammates and fellow running friends took it upon themselves to remind me how great they really are.

So much love!!!
Here I was, thousands of miles away, in an entirely different time zone, and all of these amazing people took it upon themselves to not just think of me, but to bombard me with Facebook, Instagram, iMessage, and WhatsApp messages wishing me luck and reassuring me "you can do this." And for the first time in two weeks, I felt more than just apprehensive. I felt excited.

So. On to the race.

There’s nothing interesting to say about the morning of my race other than the fact that once I finally reached my starting corral, I was surprised to discover that there were almost no women around. And I don’t just mean standing near me; there were almost no women in sight at all. (As it turns out, fewer than one in four people running the Berlin marathon this year were female!) Eventually, a tiny British woman standing nearby approached me. She introduced herself by way of saying, “Honey, you look about as nervous as I feel!” and we chatted about the lack of women in our vicinity. Then, twenty minutes later, the starting gun sounded, and away we went.

Here was my plan:

Run the first half in 1:28. This would average out to 6:43 per mile (which I calculated the night before).
Then, alternate 2 mile “workouts.” Run two miles of fartleks (i.e., 1-2 minutes fast at the beginning of each mile before settling back into an easier pace for the remainder of the mile), and then run two miles at tempo (i.e., an even pace).

With this scaffolding, provided by my very wise coach, I decided I’d try to decrease my tempo miles by each set. Therefore, my plan ultimately looked like this:
Me, trying to pretend marathons are fun.

Miles 1–13: Average 6:43/mi
Miles 14–15: 2 miles fartlek (2min hard per mi)
Miles 16–17: 2 miles tempo @6:30-40/mi
Miles 18-19: 2 miles fartlek (2min hard per mi)
Miles 20–21: 2 miles tempo @6:20-30/mi
Miles 22–23: 2 miles fartlek (1-2min hard per mi)
Miles 24–25: 2 miles tempo @6:15-20/mi
Mile 26+: Whatever’s left

Unfortunately—as every runner knows—races rarely go according to plan. Here’s how the race actually broke down:

The first half of the race felt like floating. Literally. I felt like I was prancing down the street, with absolutely minimal effort. This is exactly how I’ve felt at the start of every marathon I’ve ever PR’ed, so it was definitely a good sign. My goal at this stage was to stay in control: don’t get too excited, but also don’t lose focus and let the pace slip.

Around mile twelve, the ball of my left foot started to bother me. This has happened before in other races, but I never know when it will start or why. Halfheartedly, I prayed to the running gods that it wouldn’t get worse. Then, since I’d been running primarily on the left side of the street (where it was less crowded), I attempted to move closer to the middle in hopes that doing so would solve the problem.

I crossed the half in 1:27:32. So far, so good.

My first fartlek went better than expected, with each mile clocking in around 6:20. In fact, other than the foot pain, which was getting worse mile by mile, everything was going better than expected. Each mile of my first tempo came in in a tad under 6:30/mi, so I mentally rolled back each tempo set to the faster end of the range. If I could do 6:20s for my next set and 6:15s for the last, it would be a very good day.

Ah yes, there's the pain face.
The next fartlek, I knew, would be telling. Miles 18-19 are typically the “bonk” miles, meaning that if the race falls apart, it usually does so right around here. However, these two miles went okay, and in spite of choking at a water station and slipping on some of the plastic cups (yes, this race used plastic water cups, which we had to grab off of the tables ourselves), I still managed to average the set in 6:25/mi. I was starting to get tired, and my left foot felt like it was being smashed with a sledgehammer, but I wasn’t suffering-suffering. And on the bright side, I only had one fartlek left!

The next tempo was when fatigue really hit. My first mile was nowhere near the pace I had planned, and while I put in effort to pick up the second mile, even that one didn’t quite make it down to the 6:20 mark.

And that’s when I got scared.

This hurts, said the fear, and you’re not even running as fast as you should be. What if you try to go faster and blow up? You’ll be at Mile 23, dead as a doornail, with nothing to show for all these months of hard work.

But listen, continued the fear. You have this PR in the bag. Just hang on here. You can do this—just don’t try anything fancy.

This moment may seem like a turning point, a decision, but that’s not how it felt; it felt like a foregone conclusion. And even as I succumbed to my own mental demons, I already knew: no matter what the clock said at the end of this race, I’d be disappointed. I could have done better.

A few miles later, somewhere within the last 5k, a girl in a white and blue tank top ran by me. Part of me wanted to latch onto her and try to get back under the 6:40 pace I was running, but mentally it was just too late. Let her go, said the fear. Let her run her race. You run yours.

So I did. And off she went.

Team pride, right here.
Finally, we passed under the Brandenburg Gate and into the home stretch of the race. In the distance, I could see the broad blue finish line cutting across the sky. We had less than half a mile left to run, and that's when I saw her. The girl. The one in the blue and white tank, who had passed me earlier. Suddenly, my coach’s voice piped up inside my head. “Don’t get outkicked.”

It's been his mantra to me for a year or so, now, ever since I lost third place to another girl by no margin at all.

Don’t get outkicked.

So I kicked. I ran this girl down, crossed the finish line, and waited for the exhilaration of “winning” to hit. But it didn’t come. Instead, all I felt was a dull ache of disappointment. Sure I had put in a colossal effort, and sure it hurt. But I’d been capable of more, and I gave that up.

Here’s the bottom line: am I sorry to have run a 2:53 marathon? Hell no. It’s a nearly 5-minute PR, and I worked hard for it. Am I embarrassed by my 33rd place finish among 9,000+ women? Of course not. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that sort of statistic would ever apply to me. But could I have given more? Yes. I knew it in the race, and I know it now. I didn’t lay everything on the line, because I was afraid to fail.

My best, most surprising races to date have always been the ones where I took risks. These are the races where I told myself, “it’s okay if you fail—because you gave it your all.” If I'm honest, I haven’t tried this yet in a marathon. I’ve run smart, and I’ve run well, but I’ve never fully thrown caution to the wind and said, “Screw it. If I fail, I fail.” However, that day is coming. And when it does, I can only hope that everything I have in my arsenal—the training, the rest, the food, the sleep, my awesome coach and amazing teammates—will be enough to pull me through. After all, they've gotten me here.

Race Length
Finishing Time
Average Pace
Overall Place
Gender Place
Age Group Place
26.2 mi
881 / 45,066
33 / 9,263
9 / 1,434

GCR reunion in Berlin.

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.

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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.