Monday, December 31, 2012

Open To Injury: Everyrunner's Story

The will to win is nothing without the will to prepare.  --Juma Ikangaa

     If we could imagine an Everyrunner--our running community's version of Everyman--then Everyrunner would periodically be hobbled by injury, with the actual frequency governed by wisdom or luck.  Anyone who regularly laces up running shoes knows this.  But as it turns out, injury harbors its own teaching.

     My own story goes something like this.  I fell too in love with racing in my second year of running, and raced far too often for my level of training and weekly mileage.  I ignored small injuries and pains because all I could think about was running fast--and I was very good at denial.  And then I ignored a meniscus strain not long before the San Jose Half Marathon on October 7.  I ran, with pain, and still achieved a P.R. at 1:36:32--which only encouraged me to race more.  On October 14, I paced the back half of the Nike Women's Marathon.  And then, on October 21 came the coup de grace--I attempted the Humboldt Half Marathon, even though I had been in pain that week.

     The race started, and immediately I knew I didn't have it.  My pace dipped from 7:30, to 8:00, to 8:15.  The teammates I'd anticipated running with left me in their dust.  I resigned myself to a training run.

     And then, at mile 7, a searing pain shot through my right calf.  I was well and truly done, unable even to walk the rest of the way.  The dreaded season-ending injury had arrived, cutting me out of all remaining races for 2012.  

     It was three weeks before I ran again at all, thanks to the guidance of a wise friend and coach who convinced me not to run in the presence of any pain, however small.  The injury didn't settle in my calf--it stayed in my meniscus, which was scary.  I decided that I finally needed to listen to the wisdom of those who'd been telling me I was weak in the hips and core.  That weakness opened me to injury and I had to fix it.

     But I had to change my orientation to my body first.  Being open to injury meant that I had to think more deeply about why I'd gotten hurt if I truly wanted to heal completely.  I realized that while I am a no-shortcuts, focus-on-fundamentals person, I hadn't used that approach with running.  I'd tried to race too frequently, on too few miles of base, with completely inadequate stretching and strength training.  I was fast, but I was weak and lazy too (harsh but true).

     So I found a personal trainer and started twice-weekly kettlebell and barbell workouts.  And I got treated by my chiropractor and sports massage therapist.  It helps that everyone on my personal team understands and supports my running goals.  I also resolved to build my mileage slowly and carefully to 40 miles per week by the time my team starts training again on January 22.  So far, so good.

     I got injured because I failed to understand both the harsh calculus of competitive running and my own current limits.  But failure is a powerful teacher.  I also failed because I tried to do things I couldn't yet do, and that is the best kind of failure.  You can grow stronger at the point of injury.  My injury was physical, but it was also mental and spiritual.  Opening a pathway from mind to spirit to body was necessary if I wanted to begin learning how to listen deeply to my body.  And so being open to injury has meant rededicating myself to getting stronger, faster, and better by doing the hard work of the everyday.  

     Because one thing I learned is that competition is only partially about racing.  Even more, competition is about showing up every day.  Competition is every drill, every 5:30 a.m. alarm, every mile in the rain, every deadlift.  It's every time you think you can't go any further, and then you do.  It's about strength of body and mind.  It's about purpose and intention and even love.  And it's also about knowing when not to run, which is perhaps the hardest learning of all.

     Everyrunner carries this knowledge in her body.  Now I do too, and I'm grateful.

Monday, October 8, 2012

A comedy of half-marathon errors; or, the newbie chronicles

**UPDATE** Thanks to the impeccable race management and service orientation over at SJ Rock N Roll, I actually do have an official time--1:36:32.  Somehow, they went back either to hand-timing or to the cameras and pulled it out for me. Thank you SJ RNR for the official PR!

Chugging away through the streets of San Jose, I looked down at my feet at mile 5.  Just that fleeting glance was enough to inform me that my half-marathon race had just turned into a remarkably well-organized and pre-routed training run, with support included.  Though it was race day, at the Rock 'N Roll San Jose Half Marathon no less, I lacked one small piece of plastic that would make me into an actual racer: my D-tag.

But you know, after I had a good laugh over that, I realized that really it was par for the course.  Yesterday was a great day to learn a large number of lessons, among them:
  1. It's a little hard for the race to give you a time without that shoe tag.  To the mental checklist: shoes, singlet, shorts, sunglasses, add: d-tag, number.  Two short steps for race prep, one long step for official finishes.
  2. Might not be the best idea in the world to run a half-marathon after a tough training week.  Next time you do a half, remove at least one of the following from your prerace routine: Presidio Hills cross-country race; ten-mile "recovery" run with a speedy friend; killer Impala track workout, with sprints o' plenty, just two days later.  (DUMMY!)
  3. Yeah, and next time you might not want to attend a benefit in Marin the night before a race in San Jose.  Just maybe.
  4. Here's a good one: when your legs feel like cement blocks would feel if they could actually hurt intensely (from mile 1, to boot), don't forget that cement blocks can still move.  If you yell at them enough, they'll even move at a decent rate of speed.  Just don't let the legs win.  And no, you're not allowed to quit in the middle of a race, even if you won't get an official time. Nice try though.
And hey, there were so many great things about the day.  Here are two: my Impala teamies Verity Breen and Megan Kossar.  The always-amazing Verity rocked it, placing tenth with a time of 1:22:44, and Megan had a great day with a PR at 1:36:07.

The weather was spectacular--practically custom-ordered to be clear, sunny, not too hot.  And especially considering how many thousands of people ran the half, the organization was terrific.  Though I was in pain and struggling from mile 1, I still managed to pick up the pace in the last 5K just by force of will.  And though I didn't get an official time, I know my Garmin time, and it would have been a PR at 1:36:xx (I'll get it next time!).  This newbie feels tremendously lucky to be healthy and able to run 13.1 in 96 minutes.

And as a final note,  you gotta love my race number--F16.  I enjoyed being a fighter jet for the day.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The House at Pooh Corner

 Today is my daughters' last day at preschool.  After our vacation, they'll leave our immediate sphere and start their long walk away from us and toward the horizon.  It's a walk we've worked very hard to prepare them for, with love, and hugs, and lots of reassurance.  All the same, my heartstrings are stretched to the breaking point today.

Today, my babies leave the House at Pooh Corner.

Christopher Robin and I walked along
under branches lit up by the moon.
Posing our questions to Owl and Eeyore
as our days disappeared all too soon.
But I've wandered much further today than I should
and I can't seem to find my way back to the wood.

Last night, both girls asked for the rocking chair.  It's been months since we rocked at bedtime, but they are, understandably, regressing a little.  So we snuggled up and rocked, one at a time, and they told me how sad they are to leave their teachers.  I reveled in the little arms clinging around my neck, and remembered our first days together in that chair.  For a long time, I could rock both of them at once, one behind the other, two babies spooning on my lap.  Their dear sleepy heads would lean against each other into my chest, one blondie and one brown, drifting off into baby dreams while cuddled into their twin.

My baby girls are far too big to do that now, but they never stopped hugging each other and I hope they never will.

So, help me if you can, I've got to get
back to the house at Pooh Corner by one.
You'd be surprised there's so much to be done,
count all the bees in the hive,
chase all the clouds from the sky.
Back to the days of Christopher Robin and Pooh.

In May of 2009, we crash-landed into San Francisco in an emergency move prompted by my mother's very serious illness.  Those days are now a blur.  I had transferred offices within my large law firm and had to take the California bar exam about two months after we got here; my husband was initially gone in Massachusetts half the time working on his Ph.D.; my girls were barely two; and my mother was very sick.  It was a real challenge to hold everything together, and I often worried whether the chaos and stress would harm my girls.  I remain convinced that St. Paul's Littlest Angels preschool, where there were fortuitously (miraculously?) two places available that terrible May, has played a tremendously significant role in ensuring that my girls came through that era as unscathed as they could be.  For over three years, the same teachers--absolutely no turnover in that time--have nurtured our girls, played with them, comforted them, and loved them.  I'm thinking about them today, with a heart overflowing with gratitude for their steadfastness, humor, and caring, and for being there for us all this time, day after day, with smiling faces to greet them every morning.  We will all miss you.

Winnie the Pooh doesn't know what to do,
got a honey jar stuck on his nose.
He came to me asking help and advice
and from here no one knows where he goes.
So I sent him to ask of the Owl if he's there,
how to loosen a jar from the nose of a bear?

Since they were babies, I've always read Pooh stories to my girls.  They just love Pooh Bear, and they know I do too.  Pooh is good to have around in a pinch, even if the "pinch" results from him eating too much at Rabbit's and getting stuck in the door on the way out!   Mostly, Pooh is a great friend.  He loves people without judging them, and always shares his honey.  Among the lessons my girls learned during these peaceful, beautiful preschool years, I hope that's one they keep.

My talented, brave, kind, precious little ones.  Watching you leave your preschool and walk away from the House at Pooh Corner toward the amazing and unpredictable lives that await you is at once one of the saddest and one of the most inspiring moments of my life.

It's hard to explain how a few precious things
seem to follow throughout all our lives.
After all's said and done I was watching my son
sleeping there with my bear at his side.
So I tucked him in, kissed him, and as I was going,
I swear that ol' bear whispered "boy, welcome home."
Believe me if you can I finally came
back to the house at Pooh Corner by one
and whaddya know there's so much to be done
count all the bees in the hive
chase all the clouds from the sky
back to the days of Christopher Robin
back to the ways of Christopher Robin
back to the days of Pooh

--Lyrics by Kenny Loggins

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Race brain: flow and the art of running

Calm, float, detachment, immersion.  One foot in front of the other, again and again, in the predawn mist.  Given that it's been many years since I was last a competitive athlete, and in a different sport, I'd forgotten what race brain is like.

From the points race at the 1995 collegiate national track cycling championships, I'm left with a vivid memory of sweeping from turn 3 into turn 4 just before my teammate Thia and I successfully attacked and stayed away for the rest of the race.  I knew the crowd was roaring, but I couldn't hear them, and I didn't see them either.  I didn't feel any pain or fatigue.  The shape of the race in front of me carved itself into my brain.  I felt both a hundred miles away and everywhere in the pack at once.  My eyes found my teammate's.  Everything was still for a moment.  And then we jumped.

I call that "race brain."  It never operates during training, when I'm often subject to fatigue, mental reservations and self-doubt (I don't think I can make it!), random pains, distraction, you name it.  I almost never have the "perfect" training session that I've heard other athletes talk about.  On the bike, I used to struggle up hills.  On my feet, I struggle to complete a 14-mile run at 9:30.

But put me in a race, and suddenly my everyday brain flips off and my race brain comes online.  Race brain is exceptionally calm, in a strange way both removed from the immediate environment and preternaturally aware of it.  Race brain calculates pack placement, looks for holes to move up, monitors heart rate and breathing, evaluates pains (race brain somehow knew that the sharp calf pain I felt at about mile 5 of the SF half-marathon would resolve if I backed off a bit on Lincoln Hill, and remained unconcerned), reminds me to take water at the stops, reassures me that my arm warmers alone are enough to defeat the fog and wind on the Golden Gate Bridge before dawn even though I'm shivering.  Under the influence of race brain, I ran a 1:40:58 first-half SF marathon and took second in my division, in my second half marathon ever, and almost never felt out of breath.  That's not to say I didn't work hard:  it was a very difficult race, and I'm not sure I could have gone any faster.  But it felt controlled and smooth.  Race brain was in charge.

 Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has a more elegant term for race brain: he calls it flow.  The "flow" state is characterized by immersion, absorption, and complete attention to the moment.  It resembles mindfulness practice.  Faced with a very difficult task, you must focus, engage creativity, and reject fear, even when fear feels like an insurance policy.

I remember what it was like to let go of fear on the bike.  Bicycle racing is not for the faint of heart.  It's dangerous, sometimes extremely so, and to keep yourself in one piece until the finish-line sprint takes self-possession and a good dose of calm.  For me, the key was not to think about it: "don't look where you don't want to go."  That's not to say that I didn't think about technique, pack placement, trajectory, and line; you have to think about that stuff to avoid crashing in corners and flying off cliffs.  But you have to transform a lot of that into subconscious calculation, reserving the conscious brain for several dimensions of strategy.  And then the conscious body just feels, and deeply, the joy of efficient movement.  It feels as close to flying as we get in this world.

Letting go of fear is really different in running, but you still have to do it.  Certainly, you can't crash, and we may feel relief in that.  But on the other hand, unlike cycling, in running you can't coast; you get no rest.  That means if you miscalculate and go out too fast, you can be cooked for miles.  But if you go out too slow, you've lost your chance at peak performance.  So letting go of fear means letting race brain take over and tell you how fast to go.  No fear--just you, flying and flying.

Now if only I could figure out how to access flow in training...let me know if you have any hints!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

In memoriam William Whelen Biddle, 1930-2012

I read this remembrance of my friend Bill at his memorial service, St. Mark's Cathedral, July 21, 2012.

            I met Bill in a way that will be instantly recognizable to all of you who know Bill as an adventurer of the mind.  Bill showed up in an upper-division Romantic poetry course that I was teaching at the University of Washington in 1996 and proceeded to entrance everyone with his enthusiasm for George Gordon, Lord Byron.  When we got to that part of the syllabus, I’d arrive in class, get everyone started, and then hand it over to Bill, who would stand up and declaim the day’s Byron reading to a classroom full of rapt teens and twenty-somethings.  It took me about an hour after meeting him to realize that Bill was the truest enthusiast of the imagination that I would ever know.
            I think one of the clearest signs of that enthusiasm was Bill’s utter authenticity.  He strove to uncover and understand the heart of everything he truly loved.  It wasn’t enough for him to just read Byron.  Bill wanted to walk where Byron walked, striving with every step to understand the workings of the poet’s mind.  Bill actually attended conferences all over the world where he delivered his own papers about Byron.  That is the act of a true enthusiast, and what’s amazing is that Bill extended the very same enthusiasm to his pursuit of vintage Mustangs, single-malt scotch, wooden canoes, cross-country skiing, the weather, and, most of all, the hundreds of people in his immediate and extended circles.
            I think Bill loved people–all kinds of people–more than he loved anything else beyond his family.  I was constantly amazed by how instantaneously Bill could make a true friend.  Everyone and everything interested him.  When a friend old or new would mention a new pursuit to him, his eyes would just light up and he’d lean forward and demand to know every last detail.  And then he would remember them
Because Bill truly knew how to pay attention.  He missed nothing, particularly when it came to his natural surroundings and the people that he loved.   John Hanron describes the way Bill saw the “incredible, infinite beauty within each tiny flower” that John brought with him on his visits.  All of us know how closely Bill listened to us, how he shared our joys and sorrows.  “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,” Mary Oliver writes in her poem “The Summer Day.”  “I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down / into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, / how to be idle and blessed. ... Tell me, what else should I have done? ... Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” 
            Bill chose to live his wild and precious life in exploration and learning, in the company of friends and nature, in the meadows of the Methow, on the trails of the Pacific Northwest, in the streets of Paris, on the isle of Skye.  He loved, he explored, he never stopped learning.  He followed the vein of his wild and precious life into its very heart.
            I close with the conclusion of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, Bill’s poem if ever there was one.
The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow'd wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

To run like water

And I want to tell you something about the elites on my team: they run like water. Not like loud surf, or like rushing springtime snowmelt. No--more like the quiet summer run of water over creekstones--the kind that veils its own remarkable speed within a disciplined quiet. You don't realize how fast until you look again, with more focused attention. It is a gift in many ways.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Consolatio naturae

     In Consolatio philosophiae, the great medieval thinker Boethius considered the mysterious presence of evil in the midst of a world governed by the ultimate good--God.  In prison awaiting trial and eventual execution for treason while he wrote the book, he had occasion to meditate on the nature of happiness, the fickleness of fate, and the presence and faithfulness of God.  Seekers will not find happiness in wealth or worldly fame, he wrote; happiness lies only within the heart.

     Philosophy perhaps offers less comfort in the modern world, disrupted as it is by tweets and blogs and constant emails and the never-ending bombardment by data.  Though we all are destined for the same end, we have so little time to wonder about our own significance--or lack of it--and so little opportunity to meditate on what happiness is to be found here.  In the midst of life, we are in death.  Boethius knew it.  And it means that striving for happiness and peace is our ultimate end, however complicated and data-driven the modern path.

     In one era of my life, I spent all my time thinking about literature and philosophy.  I can't do that anymore, so lately I have substituted consolatio naturae--the comfort of nature--in the form of a daily run through Golden Gate Park.  This simple act has a way of calling me back to myself.  I strive for calm; I so often fail.  But in the early morning sunlight, the towering redwoods cast the sun into a haze of taffeta rays that looks exactly like the presence of God feels.  The mist breathed out by meadows seems to embody their abiding peace.  And sometimes the fog blankets the park in an audible quiet.

     But the cathedral of trees, blessed by the misty sun, most calls out the presence of God to me during my everyday ritual.  I am alone, uninterrupted, running: the most basic and grounded motion the human body can perform.  And daily I am reminded that the chaos of the mundane has no power to blot out our ultimate identity with the natural world, or the peace that lies at its heart.