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Welcome to taper week

This is taper week -- a week when my workouts are about keeping me fresh and rested for the Miami half marathon on Sunday.

Taper weeks are great. They're a reward for hard work and a chance to prepare for the race.

Frankly, I find them a bit frustrating.

Granted, I got to swim my normal workout this morning -- 2,500 yards.

But my run today? Only 30 minutes at easy pace.

Lately, 30 minutes has been my warmup.

Holding back can be difficult, but the idea is to rest and get energized so that on race day I am chomping at the bit to get going.

It's only Tuesday and I'm already starting to get the itch to get going, get the 13.1 miles over with.

This may be a light week, but it's already feeling hopelessly long.

A better quality long run

Reading the closed-captioning for the Today Show while on the treadmill at the gym, I learned about the FDA warning against eating peanut butter.

That was promptly followed by a commercial for, you guessed it, a brand of peanut butter for choosy moms.

I laughed out loud.

That's when I knew this workout wouldn't be as scary as I was anticipating.

For the record, Sunday's two-hour treadmill run was exactly the same as the grueling one the week before. And even though I survived, I was a bit intimidated by the entire process again, especially since in a mere seven days I would be running the ING Miami Half Marathon.

Yikes.

But staying focused on this week and this week only, I found an easy pace on the treadmill that seemed to work for me, so I plugged in that number and trotted along for the first hour. I took my "nutrition" about 40 minutes in, deciding that something called "Shot Blocks" by Clif actually work better for me than the traditional liquid gels. I had placed the open package on the magazine ledge that frames the bottom part of the treadmill display panel. But when the treadmill runs, the entire machine vibrates slowly and after two shot blocks, my package dropped, hit the moving belt and shot back to the next row of treadmills.

I hopped off quickly, grabbed the pack (with its contents still intact) and continued my workout.

I'm pretty sure I gave the women in the back row something to gab about. I thought my acumen at getting on, off and securing my all-important nutrition was impressive, though I kept that to myself.

At the top of the hour it was time to go into my five sets of speed intervals -- three minutes at a hard pace then four minutes at recovery. Last week, I did the hard intervals which got, well, progressively more difficult and frustrating and my recovery intervals got slower and more depressing. This week, my hard runs were hard but manageable and my recovery runs were all at the same, regular easy-pace.

This is improvement.

Those intervals left me with about 29 minutes left in my workout. I kept my steady easy pace going, with the exception of a brief emergency reset of the treadmill. Apparently this treadmill will only run for 100 minutes continuous. Go figure.

The idea from my coach again was to build speed at the end and finish strong. I bumped up with about 15 minutes to go then with 10 minutes to go I went up in speed in two-minute increments. I finished strong indeed, running at the hard pace that was featured during my speed intervals.

In the end, my cumulative distance wasn't any farther than last week, but was most important to me was that the quality of the run felt so much better. I felt stronger. I felt smoother. I felt more focused.

I felt positive.

This is the feeling I need to capture all week as I move into my first test of 2009.

Freezing out my own chatter

I was driving home from the gym last night where I did my 45-minute easy paced run on the treadmill and saw a man decked in running gear trotting along the edge of the road.

Yeah. No thank you.

Granted, some people can run outside in cold weather and if there is no wind a run on a crisp, sunny day can be a nice refresher.

But single digit temperatures is where I draw my personal line.

More so than the temps, my concern is also footing. Packed snow isn't a problem, but the sloshy stuff that ends up on streets and sidewalks has already caused me to miss a few days with a sore ankle and with the Miami half marathon a week away I don't want to chance it.

So I put on my iPod and went to the gym, set the treadmill for a very relaxed pace and a 0.5 percent incline and got to work.

And actually ... it was difficult.

Easy pace should be, well, easy right?

Physically, it was.

Mentally, it was a difficult exercise.

My goal was to keep myself at the easy pace for the entire 45 minutes. Why was this difficult? Because my mind starts engaging which is always bad. I found my brain wandering into that dangerous territory where I look at my pace and think of my goal time and realize this pace will never do.

During this run, however, I was able to snap out of it quickly. I am NOT running a race. I am training. I am running easy pace. I am running this pace so that I can run faster in a race. I am running this pace because this is what I am running today. I am joy in the moment.

I recently finished reading the autobiography of Lorraine Moller, a marathon runner from New Zealand. Throughout her book and career she had a nagging voice in her head that she called "Ms. Rational." This was often the voice of doubt or struggle or the voice that told her what she could not do and gave her reasons and excuses to fail or give up.

Moller went on to win the bronze medal at the 1992 Olympics. So take that Ms. Rational voice.

I think I need to name that pesky little voice that comes to me -- the one which judges and critiques and chastises. The voice that makes me second-guess myself, my abilities. The voice that makes me doubts my goals and dreams and my strongest heart's desires. The voice that trips me up.

I don't have a name in mind for that voice. Perhaps that will be my goal during today's bike workout. If the voice has a name then I can emphatically tell it to shut up.

Because there are many things that can get in the way of my dreams, of my heart's desires, of me wanting to become and step fully into the life I want to live. But I'm determined to not let the roadblock be my own doubt.

On a slightly colder note, check out the nuttiness of our friends in the U.K. who have the national cold water swimming championships this weekend. The swim in an outdoor pool. In January. Seriously.

Changing my expectations

The hardest thing some days is just getting in the water.

Sitting on the deck as I put on my swim cap and goggles my feet dangle into the pool. It's cold. I whine. Usually out loud. One of the guys who swims in the lane next to me dives in and starts to gently do some warm up laps.

I sigh.

I look at the clock.

I ease in.

For the love of all things holy, the water is cold. I shiver, take a deep inhale and push off, exhaling as I glide under the water.

There are about five minutes before the official timed workout begins and I very slowly make my way down the pool lane. I can feel the goosebumps on my biceps.

Still, I'm feeling pretty good.

I'm here. I'm in the water. And I've made a decision.

I am going to have a good swim.

For some reason, I start singing a refrain from a song I learned during religious education in elementary school, "I've got that joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart."

Yeah. I have no idea where that came from.

But I thought about swimming with joy this morning. Just enjoying where I was and what I was doing. I thought about swimming enthusiastically and I was ready to be amazed at what I could do.

There were four of us in the lane today, led by Bob. (OK, Bob isn't his real name. I have a tendency to forget people's names, especially when I'm water logged at 5:30 in the morning. But we'll call him Bob instead of "that dude.")

Bob is a pretty fast swimmer. In fact, he probably could move up to a faster group but he swims nice and steady with my group. I was second in the lane today behind Bob. I decided I was going to follow his pace. I tried to follow his bubble trail and draft off him. This lasted for about 25 yards before he would pull ahead, but still.

The first part of the workout was six 100 yard freestyle drills. I nailed all six of them, even getting faster at the midpoint. Bob commented that I was swimming really well today. I got "good job" from him a few times.

I swam those 100s and a series of 50s the fastest I ever have in a workout.

I was swimming joyously and enthusiastically.

And I was kicking butt.

I will never be a fast swimmer. I will never be first out of the water in a triathlon. It's not in my physical genetic makeup.

But that doesn't mean I can't be a good swimmer ... the best swimmer that I can possibly be.

Sport and competition is a balance between physiology and psychology. The latest post on The Science of Sport blog discusses mind and matter. It looks specifically at the breaking of the four-minute mile and how it was a combination of physical training and breaking down mental barriers. The mental aspect can be overstated  -- not everyone who runs can break the four-minute mile (or insert whatever time goal here) -- but it is a key component to success and dare I say happiness.

The authors write: "We can each improve in ourselves by reframing our expectations, by challenging our beliefs, by identifying our own mental barriers and then breaking them down."

If I believe I'm a slow swimmer, I will be a slow swimmer.

If I believe I can keep up with Bob, I will swim faster. I may not swim as fast as Bob, but I will improve.

If I expect my experience to be joyful and challenge myself to step outside my comfort zone -- become comfortable with the uncomfortable -- then a world of possibility opens up to me.

The dread of the treadmill

There was a certain amount of dread as I arranged my gear on the treadmill. I had my water bottle, my nutritional gels and my iPod all set to go.

But I needed to take a deep breath.

I was actually a bit scared and intimidated by this workout -- a two-hour run on the treadmill.

While the thought of running for two hours on the treadmill draws a deep "ugh" from many, for me I was more intimidated.

The first hour of my workout was spent running at an easy pace. OK. Not much problem here. I actually ran an hour at easy pace on the treadmill the day before. This I can do.

But in essence, this was my warm up.

After taking a very brief pause to reset the treadmill (surprisingly, the treadmills at the health club wouldn't let you program it for two full hours, go figure), take a nice sip of water and and ingest my apple-cinnamon flavored gel, I started on hour two.

This time, I was to run three minutes at a hard clip. The pace wasn't something that was completely out of my reach and the first three-minute interval felt not so bad.

Still, there were four more of those to go.

I had to do five three-minute hard intervals separated by four minutes at easy pace. After each hard run, my easy pace got slower, and slower, and slower.

This is not boding well.

My saving grace became two friends. Sue, who had already finished her 11-mile run outside earlier, came to do an extended cool-down walk on my right Herm, who is doing the marathon in Miami next week, ran his workout on my left. We chatted from time to time, but mostly I listened as they told stories and talked to each other.

On my final interval (which I announced to the entire gym) Sue told me to envision runners ahead of me. They are the ones whom I want to beat this year and in my mind, I'm running strong and relaxed and picking them off one by one. Her competition meditation helped. Otherwise I think I may have fallen off the back of the treadmill.

I had an extended recovery run then was supposed to gradually increase my pace until I was running my fastest clip ever at the end. My coach, though, offered some funky math, so I really wasn't sure when the increases were supposed to come. Since I had bumped my easy pace down so slow, I decided with about 20 minutes left in the workout I would start increasing my pace. Every two minutes I bumped it up.

I was finishing strong but realized there was no way my legs would carry me at the fast pace my coach had hoped would bring me home. In fact, over the final two minutes, I actually slowed the pace up a tad. It was that or straddle the treadmill and surrender. Finishing seemed to be worth it, so I gutted it out and announced how much time I had left every 15 seconds. Not the best mind game to play, but I didn't really care at that point.

Sue and Herm congratulated me.

"You looked strong," they said.

"I didn't feel strong."

"But you looked it," they replied. "And how you look is most important."

They were partly joking, of course, because appearances mean nothing. You learn that quickly when you start racing. If you glance around the start of a race and note things like body type or fashion sense and think you can figure those who will be fast, those who will be at your pace and those you will easily beat, think again.

Looking strong though was a reminder that indeed I am a stronger runner than I give myself credit for. I can take a lot more pain. I can see the wizard, move through his torture and survive. I saw the wizard on this run. It's the first time in a long time I caught up to the guy who turns workouts into the four-corners of hell. I didn't catch him but I did get pancakes afterward.

Personally, I was slightly disappointed with my workout. I didn't finish running as quick a pace as I had hoped or planned and those intervals were really, really, really hard.

My coach, however, was rather pleased.

She pointed this was the first time I had ever done this type of workout. This also was my longest run outside of doing a half marathon in Canada in September on a whim.

She also, I sensed, was a bit proud of me. See this past week was one of those rollercoasters that has you feeling like you have yet to evolve emotionally past the age of 15. If you've never had one of these moments you either deserve congratulations for being completely emotionally and spiritually adjusted or you are forever stuck at 15 and don't know the difference.

As I was an emotional wreck my coach wondered if she should adjust my training, particularly this hellish Sunday run. Sometimes she intervenes. Sometimes she sits back to see what happens, how I react, how I handle it. There were three ways it could have gone: I could have bagged the workout, I could have adapted it to a completely easy run or I could have plowed through it the best I could.

I ended up doing the later. Aside from some sore legs and a massive Sunday afternoon nap, I'm no worse for wear. Thanks to a great coach and some good friends I have the perspective I previously lacked on what it is I accomplished.

In two weeks I will be in Miami to run the half marathon. My focus for the next two weeks is on feeling and not numbers. The race, my coach reminds me, will take care of itself. I'm not to worry about numbers -- about paces and times and square roots -- just about what I'm doing. My coach told me to focus on this week and this week alone. I'm hoping to take it a step further and focus on each day alone, each task alone.

If I have any thoughts about Miami it's to be about the finish line.

Breaking through on the run

It was called the "breakthrough" workout. I'm not exactly sure what I would be breaking through -- A fitness threshold? A running pace? My sanity?

My Sunday run was scheduled for an hour and 40 minutes. The first 30 minutes were to be a warmup then I did 10 minute intervals -- 10 minutes at a hard pace then 10 minutes at an easy pace. I did that three times then had a 10 minute easy cool down.

With my laptop still packed up from the basketball game I covered the night before, I never checked the weather before driving to meet my friends Sue and John for the run. So when I got to Orchard Park and realized that it was a balmy 9 degrees outside, I realized that I had under dressed. Luckily Sue had an extra jacket in her car. This is yet another reason to run with friends, particularly those who are seasoned runners.

Sue and John run a faster pace than I do, but they trotted with me for the first of their 2.2 mile residential loop so that I could see where I was going. While it was a slow pace for them it was a bit fast for me for a warmup but I soldiered through, making sure I wasn't going too fast to begin with.

Saying goodbye to them as they went off to train at their pace, I went through my first 10 minute pickup.

I ran hard. I ran race pace. I looked at my watch. I had only run this way for three minutes.

Time may be fleeting but if you really want to know how long 30 seconds can feel, running intervals is a great way to develop a new appreciation of the measurement.

I survived and slowed down a very slow pace. In fact it felt like I was hardly running, but I took this opportunity for some nutrition (which in the endurance athlete's vernacular means one of those sweet, gooey gels) and a chance to refocus.

Next pickup I ran hard. I thought about my form. I thought about my breathing. When I was growing up I took piano lessons and began each session with warmup finger exercises that repeated the same refrain over and over. For some reason, I had one of those in my head, but it seemed to work, giving my a rhythm to run to as the sun rose. My next 10 minutes of easy paced weren't as slow.

By the time I hit my final interval of hard running I felt I had this down cold (and cold was the appropriate word of the morning).

When I plugged in my numbers at home, my average pace wasn't too bad, particularly when you consider that the majority of the workout was done at a slow pace.

I'm not sure if I actually accomplished the "breakthrough" my coach was hoping for, but I did learn that I have more left in my tank than I think I do. If I had to run another 10 minute pickup I probably could have.

Once again I'm faced with the lesson that I actually am stronger than I think I am.

Inspirational links

Looking for a bit of motivation to get some exercise in during the winter months?

Take a look a study from Stanford University which says that running increases life expectancy. The study began in 1984 with people in their 50s who ran (and many of them had started running in their 30s or 40s) and found that now in their 70s and 80s they have been able to fight off illness better than those who did no exercise.

Need some more tips? Check out this story from the Austin American-Statesman which gives tips and encouragement from several Texas-based athletes, including Olympic swimmer Aaron Peirsol, a 15year old triathlete and an 83-year old runner who began running in her 60s.

Reframing the issue

On the first day of the New Year, right in the middle of the morning, I had a pretty big nutty.

Yes, yesterday I wrote about trying to be a little less nutty, a little less anxious, as my New Year's Resolution.

And there I was. Day 1. Going having a bit of a panic and anxiety attack.

But I don't consider it a failure or a setback.

So often when we embark on new journeys in our lives we try to white-knuckle it. We try to go cold turkey to quit the behaviors and patterns we want to change. Sometimes that can work. Most times, it's a process of relearning new behavior, resetting attitudes and expectations and the way in which you look at life.

It comes in how you frame what you're trying to do.

In the most recent newsletter from Women's Quest the point is made to frame your desires in gentle, positive ways.

For example, the piece suggests changing:

"I NEED to lose weight to ... I want more lightness in my life. I want to feel vibrant and alive. I want to build my energy and vitality."

It's about framing what you want to achieve in positive terms as opposed to negative ones.

For me, yes I'd like to be less anxious and have fewer episodes of going nutty. But what I'm really looking for is peace. I'm expanding that confidence in knowing that whatever comes, I can handle it. That I'm worthy of all the good things in life I'm searching for.

Resolution 2009

My resolution for 2009 is to be a little less nutty.

Notice I said "a little less" because I'm not quite sure if you can take all the nuttiness out of me. At least not without severe withdrawal pains.

But surely it would be healthy for me to dial back the nutty factor. We all have a nutty factor -- it just manifests itself in different ways. For me, it has a host of ways of showing up but most often it comes in the form of anxiety.

There are lots of triggers for my nuttiness -- a bad performance at work, a missed or sub-par workout, the failure of a friend to call me the millisecond that I want him or her to be there. I get alone in my head and start making up stories, usually bad ones, about what that trigger might mean which can range from someone being upset with me to the catastrophic of unemployment, not finishing my marathon or being completely unworthy of love. I get all worked up over the story I have made up in my head and then end up in negative emotional state -- usually some sort of mix of panic and anxiety which fuels more made up bad stories and usually the need to start pacing, drinking or consuming chocolate.

Through a year of training, I've learned how therapeutic a run can be and in recent months I've come to understand the added bonus of training with other people, even if they are acquaintances. Yes, sometimes I really want to be alone, to get that release on the run by myself, but other times, the company helps keep me in the moment, focused on what is, what I have, not the sadness or madness or what I might be missing. I get to live in the present and look toward the future.

This is my New Year's Resolution. To try and stay in the moment as often as possible. To celebrate what is and not be consumed about what might happen. I can't control the "might" but I can control my reaction to what is going on around me. And I choose to be happy and confident and strong, even if things might seem like they are crumbling or ending. Because tomorrow, among the rubble, there will be the opportunity to build something stronger and more fulfilling.

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