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Running through doubt

While my training includes swimming and biking, the focus right now is my running.

Jan. 25 I will be joining my friends Sue and Herm in Florida for the Miami marathon. Well, Herm is the only one running the marathon. Sue and I are running the half marathon (that's 13.1 miles for the mathematically challenged) as part of our training for spring marathons.

The goal time for the Miami half is under 2 hours and 15 minutes. Since I finished the Run for the Grapes half marathon in 2:17 in September, this is a very attainable goal and one that will help me prepare for my first foray into the marathon when I run Buffalo in May.

Today's training session was a long run. With my program based on time not distance, I was to run 90 minutes at a pace that's more difficult than easy but not my race pace. The 55 degree morning was great -- though the wind was tricky to negotiate. I felt good running and practiced my nutrition as my coach asked me to, taking a gel at 35 minutes then at the top of the hour.

But about 50 minutes into my run, my mind started to kick in. See, my mind has a really bad habit of over thinking things. Sure, it's good to think things through, to be rational, to examine different angles. But at a certain point, you have to turn the chatter in your mind off. Because my mind started to go into over analysis mode. I tried to compute my measurements -- pace, time speed -- and compare that to what I want to do in Miami and ultimately in Buffalo.

Panic and doubt quickly settled on me.

I have no chance of hitting my goal times if I run this pace. I know that running this pace is good for building my base and my endurance and that will carry me a lot farther come race day than trying to hit my time on this training run. I know the doubt and pain I feel now (and for the record, the majority of the pain was emotional, not physical) will help me reach my goal.

But that goal feels so far away right now. And the doubt is so strong. And maybe I should just quit now and live with the guilt of selling myself short.

I am not exactly sure what triggered me to stop that thinking as quickly as possible. The mind plays games with itself and suddenly I was in a mental argument with myself. My positive voice, my drive and will to live my best life, started chanting "Faith, Hope, Love."

That is how I will get through this run (which, for the record, was going well). This is how I will get through the rest of my training.

This is how I will reach my goal.

Sport is often a metaphor for life. How many times in other areas of my life have I simply given up because the goal -- what I really, truly wanted -- was overshadowed by the work I needed to do to get there? The pain and doubt is momentary. Living the goal, living my dreams, living big, that's what sustains me.

They say the greatest risk is not taking one at all.

I choose to take risks, to live big, to believe that faith, hope and love will get me through the difficult patches to the joy that is on the other side.

Good enough

The workout looked horrible.

Really.

The swim workout didn't have total yardage on it, but it did have a monster set of 40x25s. That means swimming 25 yards 40 times. It was broken down into different groups -- some with drills, some freestyle and a few with various strokes. But 40 of them?

So much for the holiday spirit.

But as my lane worked its way through the set at masters swim practice it became clear this was a gentle workout -- the time intervals for those 25 yard "sprints" were generous and rather easy to make. Oh to be sure we worked hard, we just didn't have to leave our last breathe in the pool. It was a workout that got the job done and allowed us to be around other like-minded people -- those who are crazy enough to swim at 5:30 in the morning.

My coach is very insistent that this time of year no one is to stress about training. This is a time for family and friends and not stressing about getting in an hour bike ride. My week remains basic this week and next. There are no crazy speed workouts or intervals or peddling with one foot on my trainer. From a training standpoint, it's about keeping up my basic fitness and staying immersed in joy.

Joy, kindness, forgiveness. Those are qualities we talk about a lot this time of year. They are qualities though, we need in our lives throughout the year, particularly with ourselves. The other day was the winter solstice -- the shortest day of the year. Traditionally it's a time for introspection. I'm a big fan of introspection but there are times when we overdo it. When we no longer are learning about ourselves and what we want, but using it as a time to judge ourselves and beat ourselves up.

From personal experience I can say I've learned there are better ways to spend my time than judging myself.

I judge myself in plenty of ways in all areas of my life -- as a daughter, sister, friend, reporter, writer, teacher.

In my training, I judge myself as an athlete, wondering if I'm really dedicated enough, focused enough. If I should be doing better nutritionally and shunning the holiday cookies and glasses of cheer in order to achieve my goals. If I'm good enough.

I believe asking the questions means I am dedicated and focused already. I believe that living life means being allowed to make mistakes -- and if a anise cutout cookie and a glass of wine is a mistake, then I really need to loosen up the rules on myself.

This is a time of year to be gentle with ourselves and realize that indeed we are already good enough just as we are. Once we realize that, we don't have to try to "do better." We just begin living what already exists inside us.

Insufficient perspective

Like most of Western New York, I spent Sunday snowbound in my home. My workout called for an hour on the bike trainer, which logistically I could have done but the Achilles tendon in my right ankle was sore -- probably from running on the slushy winter streets, so I took the day off to heal.

Huddled on my couch (in large part because I was icing my sore ankle for 20 minutes at a time, I plowed through a majority of the book "On the Wings of Mercury" by Lorraine Moller.

Lorraine Moller is a runner from New Zealand who became a marathon specialist and won the bronze medal at the 1992 Olympics. She was inducted into New Zealand's national sports hall of fame and was a founder of the Lydiard Foundation which works to keep the running philosophy and teaching of Arthur Lydiard in tact. At heart of Lydiard's running philosophy is to build a huge base of aerobic conditioning. The bigger the base, the higher the peak.

I had the privilege of meeting Moller back in 2005 at Women's Quest retreat in Colorado. She told her journey, a hero's story, of continuing disappointments (including her nemesis -- fifth place finishes at international competitions) and of finally achieving an Olympic medal.

While her story is entertaining and inspiring, there was one quote I came to which really struck me:

We constantly think we are shortchanged only because our perspective has insufficient distance.

How many times do we think we're in an impossible situation? Or think the stars have lined up against us? That fate has dealt us some horrible hand? Countless times for me, particularly in the last few months.

But perhaps I'm looking at the situation too closely. I'm not giving it sufficient distance because if I saw it whole against a dark sky, I would see its beauty, even in the pain or sadness. I would see the entirety of the situation, I would have sufficient perspective, so that the chaos of the moment would shrink in importance against what the universe has in store for me.

Moving forward

The radio began to cackle and that's what ultimately woke me up.

Uh-oh.

I grabbed the clock close to my face. It was 5:15 a.m.

You know you're a triathlete when you wake up at 5:15 in the morning and you're already late.

A very loud expletive deleted shot out of my mouth to no one in particular.

I had accidentally adjusted the tuning on my radio alarm, hence did not hear it go off to wake me up in time for master's swim practice.

There was no way I'd make it to the pool in time.

Big sigh.

But here is where I know I've achieved personal growth: I didn't panic.

Granted, I had a flexible schedule which involved working at night, so I could afford to oversleep.

Instead of the panic of missing a master's workout, I merely went to the pool later in the day, shared a lane with a friend and pounded out one of the 3,000-yard workouts my coach has constructed for those who are not in an organized swim program.

Problem solved.

So much of life is about controlling how you react to situations.

Do you dwell on the negative? Do you embrace your mistakes? Sure there are lessons to learn but it seems the more I learn about myself the more I understand the importance of letting go and moving on.

It was a theme that was echoed by Linda Hill-MacDonald, the women's basketball coach at the University at Buffalo. The Bulls had just let another second half lead slip away for their second-straight loss. But the problem wasn't heart. The team played hard for 40 minutes. But, as Hill-MacDonald pointed out, it wasn't a lack of effort that was an issue. It was a lack of focus. More specifically, a lack of being in the moment.

Sure the other team would make shots. Sure your team would miss shots or miss rebounds or turn the ball over.

What was important wasn't being perfect. It's not about making the fewest mistakes even. It's about controlling how you respond to the mistakes. Do you let the past define you? Or do you learn and move forward? Do you go on to the next play? Do you stay in the moment?

I am not striving for perfection. I merely want to keep moving forward. I will build upon my past but I won't be defined by it. I will take what I've learned and continue to grow.

I will make the most of the present moment and live there. Life is too short to stay stuck.

The power of the smile

Part of me felt like I was wimping out.

Yesterday wasn't just windy, it was down-right gusty. The mental chatter in my head included thoughts of, "Well, what if it's gusty during the Buffalo Marathon or Muskoka?" But it also included thoughts of "This is December."

So instead of doing my hour-long run outside with a group of friends, I went to the gym to do my run on the treadmill.

And I hated the first 15 minutes.

Of course, I generally dislike the first 15 to 20 minutes of a run. I think that's why I have trouble sprinting a 5K -- by the time I'm warmed up the race is over.

Plus over the weekend I had such a fabulous time running with a group of friends. I did my longest training run to date -- seven miles in about an hour and 15 minutes. And those first 20 minutes were tough. But Sue even noticed that while I looked strong for the entire run, I looked even stronger on the second half. At this point, it's not about changing my running style, but learning what fits me best and clearly slow starts and strong finishes are the base on which to build my races.

Afterward there was a mystery fun run with a group of Sue's friends which we started, but couldn't finish. We were pretty much whipped from our training run, but we joined the group back at one of the runner's homes for a great holiday breakfast -- waffles, eggs, bagels, juice and a bit of eggnog.

The camaraderie is the best part of sport. And despite the fact that I had to take a long afternoon nap (was it the extra long run or the carbohydrate food coma?) it was an amazing morning of running and new friendship.

Which made the treadmill contrast all the more apparent. I was there solo, with my iPod, trying to bring myself back to center as my mind would wander away. I'm starting to think about what it would be like to be running the Buffalo marathon and, more importantly, the Miami half marathon which I'm running next month. What will the race be like? What will crossing the finish line be like? Who of my family friends will be there greet me? And exactly how much will I cry?

It was during one of these bouts of focused daydreaming that I remembered Chrissie Wellington.

The two-time Ironman World Champion is kind of known for smiling during the race. In fact, after she got a flat tire at Kona this October, the NBC coverage showed two of her competitors talking about it and noting that she was probably still smiling.

Actually, when she passed for the lead, she had her game face on.

Which quickly turned into a smile.

I started to smile on the treadmill.

Once I did that, my body immediately felt lighter. Running felt easier. And any questions of whether or not I could do this disappeared rather quickly.

Sara, an overweight mom who decided to train for her first Ironman, sent me a link to her blog, IronmanMakeover. Her most recent post was about smiling during a race and the power a smile has on her.

Some athletes are serious or focused and don't smile in competition, either because they don't think about it or perhaps they are philosophically opposed.

I smile all the time. At times it's sheer joy (for instance, joy at finishing the swim), at other times it's to humor myself and still other times it's to encourage someone I see struggling.

But I have a bit of a new attitude toward the smile now. It helps me relax and it helps me focus. More importantly, it helps me stay in the moment.

Because in the end, whether your training, racing, going to the grocery store or reading this blog, all you have is this moment -- what's in front of you right now.

There are plenty of times life will make you frown.

I'll take all the smiles I can get when I can get them.

Becoming

Let's be clear: I love my bike. Seriously. Not in a materialistic way, but in a best friend way. My bike, my silver Specialized Allez, was my first adult bike. Bought in the fall of 2005, it has been my constant side kick as I vastly improved my fitness level. My bike has been to Italy and see me through my very first triathlon.

My bike and I, we have a bond.

But I also know that when I purchased my bike I didn't exactly go about it the right way. I bought it with the thought of trying some duathlons (where you run-bike-run since at this point in my life story I didn't swim) but the shop I bought it from at the time did not do a bike fitting. I simply road around the neighborhood on a few different sized bikes, decided which felt best and went with that.

So I ended up with an "extra-small" men's bike.

Which didn't fit me.

Over the summer, a friend's husband, with intimate knowledge of bike fitting, helped me adjust my bike. I looked like Wonder Woman on the bike, not because I was a superhero but because I was too outstretched. He changed my seat post and handlebar stem, both of which served to shorten the length of the bike for me (since, like a Smurf, I am only about three apples high) and adjusted the seat height so that my pedal stroke was more productive.

Last week was the final piece of tweaking to retrofit my bike.

I got aerobars.

It was almost mandatory by my coach and while the thought of "aerobars" momentarily put me in a haze of thinking about the chocolate bar, sadly this had nothing to do with great Canadian candy.

Aerobars are the part of the handlebar that lay out in front of you. Think of time trials or pretty much any professional triathlete you've ever seen. The idea of the aerobar is that it puts you in a more aerodynamic position. You are resting forward and tucked in and frankly, it can be pretty darn comfortable.

In addition to the aerobars I also had brand new regular handlebars installed on my bike -- ones that were women specific. The other ones were too big for me, which is probably why my shoulders could feel sore after getting off the bike or why my wrists hurt when I went down in the drops. (Hey, I never said I was all that bright.)

To try out my new setup, I hopped on the trainer to turn my road bike into a stationary one. While not as good as chocolate candy bar from Canada, the aerobars felt good. Granted I didn't have to do anything -- like turn, shift or brake -- but getting accustomed to the position is the first step.

I did my first aerobar workout in front of the television, watching NBC's packaged presentation of the Ironman World Championships, which were held in Kona back in October.

Talk about a motivating distraction.

I have to say my wish is that I can train and compete like two-time women's winner Chrissie Wellington -- always with that broad smile on her face. In fact, smile may be one of my new happy places.

And then there were the motivational stories -- the ones of people who had to overcome childhood illness or the loss of legs. There were stories of the navy seals and of a 70-some year-old woman who was the oldest competitor to start, and the oldest to finish, the Hawaii Ironman.

By the time NBC was showing the age-group (read: non-professional) finishers, I was off my bike, on my exercise ball and crying.

Seriously, look at these people. Look at what they've just accomplished.

In sport, particularly endurance sport, the physical preparation is just one part of the equation. The majority of it is mental. And perhaps an even bigger part of it is spiritual.

What do you know, in your soul, that you can do?

What is it that you want to become?

What kind of person do you want to be?

That's what triathlon and endurance sport has begun to reveal for me. The answers are different for each person, which is what makes the community of runners and triathletes so special. And what turns the journey into the destination. 

The holiday joy of play

Officially, I refuse to discuss much about Christmas or the "holidays" until Thanksgiving. Call me a traditionalist but the season begins when Santa Claus makes his annual appearance at the end of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. That's when my holiday spirit begins. I'm not much of a decorator (It took the help of a friend to hang my wreath on the front of my house yesterday, but we were successful) nor am I big on the holiday attire. But that doesn't mean I don't enjoy holiday cheer or get into the spirit of giving, receiving with graciousness and, most importantly, rekindling that childlike spirit.

For me, the little kid comes out most holiday time in music.

Which of course means the ditty from The Chipmunks. It also includes, in heavy rotation, The Partridge Family Christmas Album, which I believe has the best arrangement ever of "Jingle Bells."

My own personal holiday mix (which includes seasonal tunes by Britney and Mariah) was installed on my iPod the other day and I decided it was the perfect mix for my 30 minute run, which was relegated to the treadmill in light of icy and slushy road conditions. I do have a tendency to lip sync when I run with my iPod and generally do it a tad more when I'm using it on the treadmill. But with my Christmas tunes, I couldn't help myself. Heck, I may have even been singing out loud at one point. (Which would explain why several people in my vicinity quickly ended their workouts when I was nearby).

Normally, I'd be a bit self conscious about it.

This day, I wasn't. Didn't care. Oh, does it look like I'm talking to myself? You mean you can seriously listen to David Cassidy rock out to "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" and not move your lips?

I'm just having fun.

I had a smile on my face the entire run ... and a smile on my face the rest of the day, wreath hanging difficulties and all.

Recently, I picked up the book "Journey to the Heart" by Melody Beattie which contains daily meditations. The readings are short and simple and basically just a good reminder of things I already know, but sometimes need refreshers on, especially at the start of my day.

Today's entry was about making time to play:

"Play as much as you can. Find time -- take time -- to play. It may give you the energy you need."

I thought of this when I was swimming at 5:45 this morning. Is practice work? Sure. Do I need to focus? Yes.

But play takes focus, too. Remember when you were a kid and you were playing and so engrossed in what you were doing that you completely lost track of time? That's some focus, isn't it? Forgetting about everything else and just being absorbed in the moment? Isn't that pure joy? Isn't that also the space where really cool things happen -- like learning and improvement? When we're in the moment and joyful?

There's no better time of the year to connect with that little kid you once were, the one who still lives inside you who wants to go play. Maybe your tastes in the kind of play has changed, but the need to abandon all else and enjoy the moment and play, well, that's what gives you the energy for all the hard, grown-up stuff.

The holiday economics of triathlon

Recently a friend sent me one of those fun email forwards that lists funny, disturbing and sadly true reasons to knowing that you are a triathlete.

There was one I could have added to the list, however.

You know you're a triathlete when ... your Christmas list to Santa is dominated by requests for training gear and gadgets.

Sure, I don't need a fancy Garmin watch to train for, and hit, my goals for the Buffalo Marathon, the Muskoka 70.3 race and the other events in between. But if holiday gifts are at least in part about want and desire, than the $400 watch goes on my list.

Of course, I'm pretty sure Santa is feeling an economic pinch this year, too.

But apparently, while the U.S. has been in a recession since last December, the sport of triathlon has been doing rather well.

An article posted on RunnersWeb.com notes that triathlons seem to be recession-proof. At least for now. Membership in the national organization, USA Triathlon has grown and so too has the number of races held during the year.

As triathlon becomes more popular, the number of races increases. That means less travel, and fewer expenses, to participate. Heck, think of Western New York. Off the top of my head, there are five races you can get to with a same-day drive (not even counting ones in Canada) and if you're happen to concentrate on running, you can run a 5K pretty much every weekend, even through the winter months.

While I balk at the use of the term "luxury sport" in the article, there is something to be said for the investment in triathlon. You do have to fork over some money for gear, but you don't have to get crazy. And I'm guessing that there are others, like myself, who see the sport as an investment in your health -- physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. As my one friend said, "I started doing triathlons because it was cheaper than therapy."

While Santa is busy getting ready to deliver toys to all the good triathlon girls and boys, those who get cash for the holidays may want to wait until February to spend it, if they like to try out new kicks.

Under Amrour recently announced the launch of a line of running shoes. The six-shoe line will be unveiled Jan. 31.

So perhaps at least the shoe companies won't need an economic bailout anytime soon.

Finding the balance of energy and emotion

There has been a lot of talk from my coach the past few weeks about motivation. Perhaps because it's the off season and difficult to focus. Perhaps because it's 17 degrees outside and who wants to leave their house let alone go for a run?

But in trying to find some books to recommend to her athletes about the mental and emotional side of training, she stopped dead in her tracks.

All that we need to succeed, she reminded her athletes, is already part of us.

We can want to be successful athletes or go back to school, or learn to play the guitar .

But the drive it takes to get there -- the intangibles if you will -- each of us already possesses.

It reminds me of the Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy is trying desperately to get home. Little did she know she had the power the entire time. All she had to do was learn how to use those ruby slippers.

Of course, everything isn't as simple as wishing it were so. There is work to put in. There is even hard work to put in. But that desire and determination and mental clarity to do that work and achieve your goal? Well, we're all pretty much born with that.

One of the great things about my job is watching college sports. And Sunday, I was able to watch the St. Bonaventure women's basketball upset No. 21 Michigan State. The Bona team has been impressive the last few years, growing as a group and putting itself in a position to turn some heads in their Atlantic 10 conference games.

Sure, the Bonnies are talented, but they're not the most talented. Heck, Michigan State probably had better pure basketball talent on its team than the Bonnies.

What made the difference was the way in which the Bonnies approached the game.

They played a total team game -- allowing each individual to contribute her strength. Collectively, the whole is stronger than the player. They had confidence in themselves and their teammates.

Most notably to me, they had the ability to play with energy without getting sucked into an emotional roller coaster.

Playing (or racing or competing) with emotion is a key component of success. But it's a balance -- it's easy to get caught up in emotional swings and get too high or too low during the course of a game, a race or even a season.

It's not a magical formula, finding that right balance of energy and emotion. But that ability lies within each of us.

We just have to tap into it.

Race Report: Reindeer Run

I have a new respect for people who run with a gimmick.

I also have a new idea how to make money at holiday time -- create a wicking Santa hat. Granted, it wouldn't be a large market and I haven't googled "wicking Santa hat" to see if someone else already has the idea, but my experience on Sunday tells me there might be a market for athletic-minded costume wear.

Because I am here to tell you that running in a Santa hat is kinda hard.

Why you may ask? First, it got rather hot. And I already was having issues with how to dress for Saturday morning's Reindeer Run at Medaille College. The temperature would be in the 20s. The roads would be a bit slippery from the pile of snow dumped on Buffalo the night before. How many layers to wear?

After much public consternation, the decision was to wear my long-sleeved underarmor cold gear top and a heavy, lined running jacket, removing my lighter running windbreaker shell.

I still ended up being hot. And the Santa hat? Well, it trapped the heat and retained moisture.

There was one other problem with the Santa hat -- it can be a tad heavy on the head. In shopping, I merely went to the closest drug store without really thinking. The length of the stocking part of the hat, along with the heft of the white fuzz ball, pulled the hat toward the back of my head, leaving my ears exposed to the cold wind and forcing me to smile and pull the hat back down. Perhaps if I had trained with the Santa hat I would have had an easier time running as Santa's helper.

But the point was not to train. Or have an easy time.

The point was to have fun.

My coach had mandated that I wear a Santa hat for the race. (For the record, she also requested bells on my sneakers, but the drugstore didn't have them.) Why? Good question. My theory is that she wanted me to have fun. To enjoy the run. To enjoy the holiday season. To not get all wrapped up in times and paces.

There will be plenty of opportunity for me to concern myself with speed work and getting faster and pacing and in-race nutrition as I prepare for my first marathon.

But if you can't have fun while doing all that work, what's the point?

Yeah, running with the Santa hat was hard work.

But I caught myself smiling a lot more during this race than in past races. Even on the incline through Forest Lawn cemetery I could smile. The words to a song I once heard in a spin class came to mind:

I'm alive and I'm free and who wouldn't want to be me.

Well, at least I know the alive and free part is true.

It was a slow race for me, not just because of the Santa hat. It was cold and while the course in the cemetery was attended to by the Medaille race staff, there were some slick spots. Watching your footing isn't going to help you set any PRs.

It was an enjoyable run and in the end, it was a respectable finish.

And once again I learned that having fun is one of the keys to long-term success.

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