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.

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.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Review: The Hopeful

The Hopeful The Hopeful by Tracy O'Neill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a word, this is a book of obsession. And I am frankly unsure if I've ever read a book so clearly voiced by the character with the obsession. Alivopro's voice is indisputably teenage, and yet O'Neill takes us so far inside her head, without constantly beating us over the head with "telling" us what she's thinking, that she could be anyone, with any obsession, and we the reader would feel the same.

It's been a long time since I felt so emotionally affected throughout the process of reading a book, but I felt every page of this one, for worse or worser. I know nothing of figure skating other than what I've seen on television during the Olympics, and yet through Alivopro's eyes I saw the sport intimately--all without the seemingly inevitable info dump that authors often find necessary to introduce an ignorant reader to a foreign sport. I understood her descent into drug addiction, just as I understood her disappointment in her adoptive mother and father: I've never been addicted to drugs, nor have I been adopted, but O'Neill writes with such poise that neither of those things matter. I could have been Alivopro, for how I felt as she was going through those experiences.

This is not a book "about figure skating." So while I would be quick to recommend it to any athlete who has ever felt obsessed with his or her sport, I would more strongly recommend it to anyone looking for a genuine teenage voice that does not pander to the formula of the YA genre.

View all my reviews

Friday, February 5, 2016

Goofy Challenge 2016, Race Recap Part II

(In case you missed Part I, go read my half marathon race recap!)

If you count the actual races, then the Goofy Challenges is made up of two parts: the half marathon and the full marathon. But if you count in terms of distance, then the Challenge is really three parts: the half marathon, the first half of the full marathon, and the last 13.1 miles.

I met D____ on marathon day, around mile 14.

Up until then, I'd been having a blast basically just goofing around. (Yes, pun intended.) Since I'd started near the front of the race--I intentionally moved to the back of my corral, but it was still corral A--I was surrounded by a whole bunch of talented runners. How did I know they were talented? Because runners are amazingly friendly people, and a few of us started chatting around mile 3. The guy on my left had a 2:53 PR, but he hadn't trained seriously for this race, so he was hoping to run sub-3:30. The woman on my right had run five Boston marathons and was training to run it again this year.

So like I said: talented people. Fast people.

It crossed my mind that, having just raced the day before, maybe I shouldn't be trying to keep up with these fast people, but the fact was that I felt pretty good, and my goal was to run this race by feel. So when I settled in with the 3:15 pace group, I figured I'd just hang there until it felt too tiring to keep up, and then I'd fall back. Plus, I was going to stop for photo ops, so surely the group would eventually get too far away. When that happened, I would just look for the next pace group to come along and fall in with them.

What actually happened was that the photo ops ended up being more like accidental pick-ups. First, I'd see a Disney character in the distance. Because I was running with a pace group, I was among people who were racing for a time, and therefore unwilling to stop for a photo with Snow White or Jafar or Pumba. As a result, no one was ever in my way, taking their picture with Snow White or Jafar or Pumba. So I'd just run off the course, straight for to the character; pose; wait until the photographer's flash went off; and then sprint back onto the course to catch up with the pace group.

In the Magic Kingdom alone--the first park we ran through--I must have done this with at least 6-8 characters. It got to the point where, as I was running back onto the course after posing with a Johnny Depp lookalike, one man called out, "Jesus, how many times do I have to get passed by the same girl? I think she's stopped at every one of those cartoons, and she's still in front of me!" Words cannot describe how good that comment made me feel. I must have been grinning my head off.

Now, fast forward to mile 12. We were just about to enter the Animal Kingdom when a girl came cruising up to the pace group.

"I'm just taking the first half easy," I heard her tell the man beside her, whom at the time I assumed she knew, since they appeared to be running together. "I want to hold back, because you never know how it's going to go."

Hold back? I remember thinking. If that's the case, this chick's going to be blowing by us any minute.

However, she stuck with the group for another few miles, by which point the characters were appearing fewer and farther between, and I was beginning to trip on the heels of the runners in front of me.

Should I really get in front of these people? I wondered. I'm not trying to run a sub-3:15!

Ultimately, the annoyance of having to shorten my stride to keep from stepping on people won out, and I darted through until I was out in front of the pack. I found myself running beside two girls, one of whom was the "I'm taking the first half easy" girl. She'd either dropped her guy or he'd dropped her, because she was alone and trying in vain to strike up a conversation with the other girl beside her.

When that other girls' teammate showed up--and I know it was her teammate, because the woman was clearly waiting for her on the side of the course and was wearing an identical New Balance outfit--I decided to test the waters with "first half easy" girl.

"Hi! I'm Allison. I heard you back there when you caught up with the group. You're looking really strong!"

The rest, as they say, is history.

It turned out that D____ was running her very first marathon. She'd run a number of half marathons (her PR, if I remember correctly, was around 1:24), and her husband ran lots of marathons, so she'd decided to do this one as her first. Needless to say, I was extremely impressed. We were already ahead of the 3:15 pace group, and D____ wasn't even breathing heavily!

When we reached mile 16, just outside ESPN Wide World of Sports, I took stock of how I was feeling. I was breathing and talking without much effort, my legs felt reasonably loose, and I wasn't feeling hungry or thirsty.

I'll stick with this girl for a few miles, I decided. I didn't know how long I'd be able to keep it up--we were running in the low 7's now--but I figured I'd just hang on as long as I could, for the companionship if for nothing else, and then cheer her on if/when she decided to pick things up.

Two miles later, we hit mile 18 rounding the baseball field inside ESPN, and I could hear her starting to breathe. Meanwhile, I could breathe just fine, but the bottoms of my feet felt like someone was hitting them with a sledgehammer every step I took.

"This point in the marathon's always the worst," I told her. "It's the next few miles that you really just have to get through. Then it's all guts and inertia to the end."

"I'm so glad you're here!" she replied. And that's all I needed. I can do this, I told myself. It's hurting, but I can totally pace this girl to a great first marathon. She can do this. And I can help.

And thus began the part of the race I'm most proud of: the part where I tucked into myself, set my legs to what I felt confident they could do, and pep talked D____ at every mile.

"We just ran 7:10!" Mile 20.

"We're at 7:08!" Mile 21.

"Oh my god you're amazing! 7:06! I cannot believe this is your first marathon." Mile 22.

"How are we still dropping time?" she gasped.

How indeed? I wondered, looking at my watch in shock.

When we hit mile 23 in 7:03, I calculated the rest of the race. If I could run the last three miles at just around 7 min/mile, I could break 3:10! But how did I feel?

Breathing was definitely labored, but not panting. Legs were supremely tired, but turnover still felt ok. Feet were hurting a lot, but I figured if I was getting blisters, they were there already, and slowing down wasn't going to help. Mouth felt a little thirsty, stomach a little unsettled, but nothing I hadn't run through before.

"I'm going to pick it up a little bit," I told D____.

"I'm dying," she told me. "You go ahead."

"Aw, come on, you are doing great. You can do this!"

Between miles 23 and 24 she fell off, but then I saw the Genie up ahead. As I posed, I looked back and saw her rounding the bend.

"Come on!" I mouthed, waving my arm and sprinting back onto the course. We'd made it to Epcot, the final park. I cruised through France, Morroco, Japan, China. At one point, I stopped for one last picture with Aladdin and Jasmine, but D____ never appeared, so I hunkered down and started choosing men to try and pass.

This one with the neon calf sleeves. 

That one, who looks like he just got out of the shower.

At mile 25, I knew it was going to hurt, but I knew I had it. And when I crossed the finish line, it was glorious. Another first in the books. And man, how I love my firsts.

Walt Disney World Marathon 2016
 race results:

Race Length
Finishing Time
Average Pace
Overall Place
Gender Place
Age Group Place
26.2 mi
71 / 19,851
9 / 10,327
3 / 1,796

And now, for those of you who have managed to read this far, here's a fun slideshow I made of my Goofy Challenge race pics!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Goofy Challenge 2016, Race Recap Part I

So. Goofy. (Or, as it’s officially known, the Walt Disney World Goofy’s Race and a Half Challenge.)

First, let me say up front that if it weren’t for R___, I’d never, ever have done this event. Up until now, I ran races for the following reasons: 1) Trying to PR; 2) As part of training for a PR; 3) To support a teammate; 4) To earn points for Gotham City Runners. Running a race—never mind a marathon—simply for “the experience,” simply hasn’t been on my agenda.

However, one morning back in April 2015, R___ texted me the following:

R: Hey, so I think I’m going to sign up for the Goofy Challenge.
Me: …???
R: Yeah people are talking about it at work. I think I’m going to do it.
Me: You know that’s a half AND a full marathon.
R: Yeah. Registration opens at noon.
Me: When is the race?
R: January. And then we can go to Disney and stuff.
Me: Well . . . ok. I guess if I’m going, I’ll do it too.

And that was that. Four hundred dollars later, I was signed up to run 39.3 miles the weekend before my 30th birthday.

From the outset, I knew I wasn’t going to race both the half and the full back-to-back. Therefore, when it came time to start thinking about training, I needed to decide: did I want to focus on racing the half marathon or the full?

The half was scheduled first (Saturday) and the marathon second (Sunday), so ultimately I decided that I’d give Saturday my all and then just hope to finish the full without falling apart. Knowing how sore I typically feel the day after racing a half marathon, I was a tad worried; I just hoped that since my coach has previously trained the charity team for the Dopey Challenge (which consists of a 5k, 10k, and then the Goofy Challenge) and has run the races several times, he’d know how to train me.

I should not have worried.

Here’s how the morning of the half marathon went:
2am wakeup. Get dressed and grab pre-packed breakfast, gear bag, and fiancé; out the door by 2:30.

3am arrival at Epcot parking lot. Set alarm, lay back driver’s seat, and sleep until 3:45am.

Blink through eye drops to revive super-dry contacts. Gather gear and head to the “athlete village.” Stop along the way so R___ can buy a $2.75 paper cup of coffee. Debate about wearing my throwaway shirt to the starting line or packing it in my gear bag for tomorrow. Take shirt off. Put shirt on. Pose for cameraman but then realize that my bib number isn’t showing. Take shirt off. Watch cameraman walk away to take pictures of runners dressed as the seven dwarves. Put shirt back on. Check gear bag and meet back up with R___ to discuss post-race meeting spot.

Start mile-long walk to starting corrals. Try not to feel frustrated that I can’t use this distance to warm up; there are just too many people wearing too many costumes to do anything resembling running.

Bid fiancé farewell so he can head off to corral J. Turn in the other direction and head to corral A.

Start warming up. Use porta potties. Continue warming up. Stand in growing porta potty lines a second time, just for good measure. Then stretch and check watch about a hundred times.

Squeeze awkwardly into the front corral, wondering yet again whether I belong here.

Watch Micky, Goofy, and Donald count down to the start of the race. Fireworks go off. Race begins.

Since I do my best to "tell it like it is," here is the complete and utter truth: the first two miles of this race were extremely mentally tough. The weather was foggy and warm and sticky and humid, and I was already sweating by the time I began running. I knew I needed to focus on one race at a time—that today’s race was today, and if I was going to have any chance at all to do well, I absolutely must forget about the marathon tomorrow—but in those two miles, I couldn’t stop wondering what I was doing, trying to race this thing and then go run a full marathon the very next day.

I went out around 6:20 for those first miles, and it didn’t feel easy. My coach had told me that, if possible, I should try to bank time on the highways, because the parks were full of quick turns and slippery painted pavement. The first miles of the race were out on a long, straight highway, yet here I was, running slower than the average I would need to maintain to PR. At the same time, I didn’t want to go out too fast and dehydrate and die . . . but how was I going to do this if it already felt so hard?

Somewhere between miles two and three, I came upon a woman in a Lululemon outfit. (That’s really all I remember about her, because I was so wrapped up in my own brain.)

“How’s it going?” she asked as I pulled up alongside her.

“I don’t know,” I told her honestly.

“Well, you look good,” she responded, “and we’re pretty close to the front. I think there are only four or five women ahead of us.”

“Really.” Four or five??!! How was that even possible? We hadn't even gone out very fast!

She told me she was “just doing this as a training run” and to go on ahead, so ultimately, that’s what I did.

A few miles later, I was a little bit more “on pace.” Part of me felt excited, because if that woman was right, I was somewhere around third or fourth woman, but at the same time, I was feeling no better, physically, about the race. We went through the Magic Kingdom, and it wasn’t as slippery as I had feared, but I also hadn’t banked much time on the highways, and my legs weren’t feeling very peppy, so it was going to be a close call to PR. Then, I came upon a girl in a crop top. I crept up gradually, and the closer I got, the more fit I could see she was. Tan, muscular, very well controlled form. When I pulled up beside her, I could see that she clearly had her race face on.

So now I had this physically fit, intense girl running right beside me, and I wasn’t sure what to do. Should I say anything? Encourage her? Keep running beside her? Drop back a little so it wouldn’t mess with me mentally? Try to forge ahead and risk blowing up?

We ran side-by-side in silence for a little while, and then she solved the issue by speaking up.

“Hey, do you know Randi Mastrioni?”

I almost tripped and fell over myself. Yes! I do!

“I recognized Gotham City Runners on your top, and she runs for them. I went to high school with her.”

This ice breaker was all we needed. We chatted a bit more, albeit sporadically because we were both breathing pretty heavily, and then we settled in side-by-side and ran together.

I cannot stress how different it feels to run with someone than to run against them. In both cases, you are running beside (or just in front of, or just behind) the person, but the mental space is just so incredibly different.

When I’m running against someone, my self-talk goes like this: I’m right here, bitch. You’ve got this. You can do this. You can hang with her. Oh god but it feels so awful. She isn’t even breathing hard. Listen to that! She’s probably not even trying yet. What if she’s just doing a tempo or something? If this isn’t even a race for her? What if she pulls away, and you can’t keep up? What is she thinking? Does she even notice you’re here?

It’s like a seesaw. And you can fall off a seesaw. Easily.

Whereas when I’m running with someone, my self-talk goes more like this:              .

That is, my brain gets much, much quieter. Words are inadequate, but it’s like my mind steps out and starts running right beside me, rather than gripping my brain and twisting it, and squeezing it.

It’s all perception, of course. But at least for this race, it made a world of difference.

We cruised through the middle miles of the race, settling in with various men at different points, and running down at least one other woman. Then, around mile 10, right past a water stop, I suddenly realized that the girl was no longer beside me. I didn’t dare look back, but I couldn’t hear her breathing, either, which was strange. Did I just drop her? And if so, was I in third place???

Mentally, I now felt more confident. I could hold this pace for a while longer, and then all I had to do was focus on the final mile. After another mile of highway, I saw a woman in the distance. Number two! Could I catch her?

I chipped away through mile 11, and by mile 12, I reasoned that as long as she didn’t have a significantly faster gear stored away for the final mile, I could catch her. It took me about a quarter mile more, but I caught up, on a slightly inclined ramp, no less (one of the few “hills” in the race). As I ran by, I briefly worried that I was kicking too early, but I could also tell that I wasn’t yet at absolute max effort, so if she passed me back, I’d still have a chance when we reached Epcot.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Instead, I had another first-time experience. As soon as we entered Epcot, a woman wearing an orange vest and neon yellow reflectors appeared out of nowhere on a bicycle and started riding just in front of me. For a split second I thought, Gosh, this can’t be the lead runner cyclist, can it? But then I realized that there were literally no other runners in sight. Except for this woman, I was entirely alone on the course. Thank goodness she was there, because with the number of twists and turns through the park, I’d almost certainly have gotten lost or, at the very least, become uncertain and slowed down enough to make sure I didn’t get lost. Instead, I just homed in on her and battled my body as it began to shoot me major distress signals.

Stop! cried my lunges as I tried in vain to suck more oxygen out of the damp air. Slow down! protested my aching, burning legs. If you don’t ease up, my digestive system informed me, you are going to be very, very sorry. And that is no exaggeration; I spent the entire final 800 meters worried that I was going to spontaneously pee, poop, throw up, or some combination of the three, before I made it to the finish line. (Spoiler alert: I made it without incident.)

When I crossed the finish line and realized that not only had I come in second place, but I had also PRed by almost 30 seconds, what I felt was more shock than anything else. I had just run a solid half marathon PR in November, and expecting another one so soon had seemed greedy. Plus, I was going to run double this distance again tomorrow! But I guess tomorrow would bring whatever it would bring.

In the meantime, I was escorted to the VIP tent, where I kept warm(ish), noshed on free food, and ogled Paula Radcliff from a few meters away. Then I reveled in the glory of accepting a giant, twenty-five-pound Donald Duck trophy, found my fiancé, and returned to our hotel to recover for Sunday's adventure. (Recap coming soon.)

Walt Disney World Half Marathon 2016 race results:

Race Length
Finishing Time
Average Pace
Overall Place
Gender Place
Age Group Place
13.1 mi
27 / 21,504
2 / 12,311
2 / 1,765