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Taking a punch

When I was first learning to swim, my coach and I talked about the importance of core training.

By the end, she joked, I'd be able to take a punch.

We laughed.

But turns out, I can take a punch, so to speak. And it has nothing to do with the increased strength of my mid-section.

Over a 36-hour period negativity was knocking on my door -- wearing several different masks I might add.

It started with comments alluding to the fact that excitement over the Women's National Invitational Tournament and St. Bonaventure's run was misplaced a bit. It was, I was told, only the NIT after all.

Huh.

Then came a series of random negative comments questioning my job performance.

Huh.

Then came the group email from my coach which noted that "Seasons are not built from April to June. They are built in the months when the son doesn't shine."

Uh-oh.

Welcome to the recipe for sending Amy into a downward spiral of negativity, self-doubt and fear.

But something different happened over this span.

Instead of taking each hit personally, I absorbed the punch.

Not a boxing expert by any stretch of the imagination, I have still watched a few fights to know that often taking a punch pushes you back, but only slightly. At times, it puts you in a position of strength, either wearing out your opponent or giving you the ability to setup to counter punch.

The negativity I faced momentarily set me back, but didn't knock me down.

I took the punch. I kept standing. And I felt pretty darn good.

Prior to the St. Bonaventure women's basketball team's WNIT game against South Florida, I had the chance to talk with senior center Ashley Edwards. I don't believe I have ever heard anyone utter the phrase "personal challenge" more in a 10-minute conversation -- and with such conviction.

"It's not the change that affects you, it's how you react to it," Edwards said.

As negative comments came my way, I thought about that bit of wisdom.

There is a school of thought that believes everything we experience in life we create for ourselves, sometimes consciously sometimes unconsciously. Even the bad experiences -- pain, misery, negativity, trials -- are all brought to us because we attracted that situation for a reason. The tough experiences are what give us the opportunity to grow, the chance to see what we want, who we want to be and what we want to create in our lives.

Those difficult situations and those negative comments? I can take it as a personal challenge if I feel it's appropriate fuel. Or I can take it as a gentle push, a lightweight punch that after a year of training I've come to realize I can take standing up and easily brush it aside.

So why did I include my coach's comment about having built my season over the winter in my string of punches?

Certainly not because my coach is negative. She is exceedingly positive. The spirit of her remarks was to encourage her athletes that we have all done the hard work -- put in the hours during the darkness and kept plugging at it -- and that soon we would be reaping the benefits of that commitment.

Good stuff.

Only to me, after taking a few punches of negativity, I heard that I have less than two months until the marathon. And I start to wonder if I've done enough.

This, of course, is a fiction created entirely in my head. The doubt was easily accessible to me after taking a few hits in the previous hours.

But I kept standing.

Because I still have two months. I have a plan. I have a coach I trust.

And most important, I trust myself.

In the face of negativity and doubt, I kept standing.

And soon, I might be in a position to throw a counter punch.

Keeping coffee in my training plan

The very first thing I do in the morning is grind my coffee beans.

Oh, I am not a coffee snob nor an aficionado and while my personal sense of social justice leads me to buy fairly traded coffee for my home, I will gladly enjoy a cup from Dunkin or Horton's or (gasp) even Starbucks.

The point is -- I pretty much need coffee in order to function as a normal human being.

When I first entered the world of triathlon I noticed that many, many had the same addiction to the coffee bean as I did. It made me feel rather welcomed in this brave new world I was entering. At least I will have my coffee and can drink it, too.

But the more I trained, the more I became aware of how things acted in my body. For instance, I have learned that while I lived on diet cola through my four years of college (this was before my coffee drinking days) the artificial sweeteners now kind of make me sick. If I'm really in the mood for soda pop, I'll take the fully loaded one. And yes, this means having high fructose corn syrup which, despite their best public relations ads, is something I try to avoid. And it means extra calories. But it's a rare enough occasion that I'm not too worried about it.

Coffee hasn't caused me as many problems, but I did become slightly concerned. Caffeine is supposed to have a dehydrating affect on the body -- something I could ill afford during long workouts. So I made a move to limit my consumption to one cup before a morning workout. And now, only on occasion will I have coffee late in the afternoon or evening -- at least the full-leaded version.

Then I went to a lecture given by Dr. Monica Spaulding at the University at Buffalo on performance enhancing drugs. Turns out, she said it's nearly impossible to drink enough coffee to cause a positive test for stimulants.

And then there was the article in last week's New York Times which said that caffeine does help athletic performance and coffee before an event can actually help you.

It's more food for thought as I begin my 11-hour training week

Because food is always an issue for athletes, particularly for endurance athletes who are trying to figure out how many calories (usually through various sports drinks, gels and bars) they should consume during an event in order to properly fuel their muscles yet keep from having their stomachs shut down from the combination of carbohydrates and intense and constant motion.

A fan of sports nutrition articles and research, I admit it's all overwhelming. Information is contradictory. And often confusing. And those with the best intentions often end up giving up.

Every week I try to write goals for myself. This is not a to-do list but rather things I want to achieve or attitudes in which I want to approach the week. And every week without fail good nutrition is on my list.

Good nutrition I believe is different for each individual. For me, it includes making sure I am getting enough protein, drinking plenty of water and eating fresh foods as much as possible. It means paying attention to portion sizes and listening to my body. Am I hungry? Or just anxious? Or stressed? Or bored? Or lonely? Or even just thirsty?

And as I listen to my body in the morning, it says it would like its cup of coffee.

Right now, it would like a second cup.

We have a lot to do today. I'm not so sure the coffee is needed to help me perform well during an easy, recovery bike ride in the basement.

But apparently, it couldn't hurt.

Taking the hill one mailbox at a time

I ran from mailbox to mailbox.

This became my survival strategy. Because if I looked too far ahead, well, welcome the doubts about not only this run but finishing the marathon.

And that was not a mental option I was providing for myself this day.

This was my long run of the week -- two hours worth of running. I was to run different pace times based on the VDOT formula. (Disclaimer: The previous link is not my personal VDOT.)

This broke down to 15 minutes of easy pace to warm up, 90 minutes worth of marathon pace and 15 minutes at tempo pace, which is probably the fastest pace I'll ever run in training.

I decided to do my long run out at Chestnut Ridge park and join the Ridge Runners who gather there every Saturday, year round, for runs of all speeds and distances. I began my run early in hopes of finishing my easy-pace warm up then hooking up with some other runners, but it was a thin crowd with a busy race schedule this weekend and the bulk of my two hours was spent in solitude.

Which actually was just fine.

Because it made me get out of my head all by myself.

I was doing fine through that first 20 minutes of marathon pace.

Then I hit Scherff Road.

I believe that loosely translated, Scherff means "a long, steady, grueling, doubt-inducing climb." Once, my vision of hell was eternally driving during a snow storm, at night, on the country roads between Buffalo and Olean. Now, I believe hell may be eternally running up Scherff.

The road is pretty much universally dreaded by regular runners at The Ridge. This was just my second time running it. And I was trying to hold my marathon pace.

Granted, I was warned not to be too concerned with my pace on this hill. Don't get discouraged, regulars told me. It's a tough hill and your pace doesn't mean much.

Just keep going up the hill.

Just keep going.

So if I can run to that mailbox ... then to that mailbox ... then to that street sign.

It became slightly manageable.

And I renamed the road "Smurf Road." Really, how dangerous and threatening is a Smurf? Don't they just make you smile? Kinda like My Little Pony. But that came later, on Cole Road, when I found myself looking face-to-face with a horse.

"Hello there Mr. Horse," I said.

Yes. I said that out loud.

Because at that point I consciously thought about relaxing my shoulders, relaxing my mind and taking in the beautiful morning. I cherished the fact that I could run. So many of my friends are sidelined with injuries that taking running, no matter how slow, for granted seems terribly selfish.

And as I let go, my pace picked up.

It didn't feel much faster. At this point my legs were pretty pounded from the pace and the climb and my concept of how fast they were moving had pretty much escaped me. But I was armed with a Garmin (gifted to me by my now former colleague Sharon, to whom I am eternally grateful) and trusted that I was running faster than I thought.

As the 90-minutes of marathon pace came to a close, I started to smile. I then planned my route so I could finish strong with my fast pace while running downhill. (Gravity assisted? You bet!) I picked it up and felt amazing. Of course my last three minutes of tempo pace came running back uphill into the park which slowed down the average I wanted to hit in the final stretch.

It didn't matter.

I finished strong in my longest run since the Miami half marathon. And I felt good. Tired, yes, but my legs were fine.

Physically, I took the challenge of the hills and kept a pretty good clip.

Mentally, I took the challenge of the hills and went to happy places -- whether it was smurfs or horses or playing the mailbox game -- and felt an increasing amount of strength and power with each passing marker.

Sue, who spent two hours on the stationary bike, listened to me relive my run and bought me pancakes.

Blue sky. A good run. A good friend. Pancakes.

The simple things are pretty darn good.

Now it's time to see what I can do next.

Lessons from St. Bonaventure

It was hard enough to believe the first time, but I was there in Olean to witness it.

The St. Bonventure women's basketball team didn't only win the first postseason tournament game for any local Division I college.

The Bonnies came back to win after being down 14 points.

That was last Saturday, when the Bonnies beat West Virginia on their home court, The Reilly Center.

Thursday seemed like it would be a completely different story.

They were playing Wisconsin -- a bigger school in a bigger conference -- in Wisconsin.

Listening to the game on the radio, once again, the Bonnies found themselves down 14 points at halftime.

But this time it was on the road. It was against a team that they probably should lose to.

But they didn't.

They came back again and again won the game placing them in the quarterfinals of the Women's National Invitational Tournament (WNIT).

That, my friends, is just crazy stuff.

They didn't just erase a really bad first half of play once. They did it twice. And once on the road.

It leaves you shaking your head in disbelief and your mouth open in awe.

And it completely gives me food for thought.

What's the key to this team's success?

Head coach Jim Crowley talks often about how much the team has faith in each other and how much they love playing and want to keep playing.

There are only 112 teams out of nearly 400 that get to play in either the NCAA or NIT tournaments each March. To be one of them, especially for the first time ever, is an honor and a privildge.

But being happy to be there wasn't the attitude of the Bonnies.

They wanted to see what they could do. They wanted to challenge themselves. They wanted to keep playing.

By watching this team, I've learned some valuable lessons which I will likely ponder some more on my two-hour long run this morning:

Live in the moment: Miss a shot? Give up an easy basket? Play a first half that sets the sport back 30 years? It doesn't matter. Because you can't change the past. You can only deal with what is in front of you at that moment. There is no 14-point shot in basketball. To overcome a deficit like that you have take it one posession at a time. It's not rocket science that if you think of things in smaller pieces, big projects become more manageable whether it's a work assignment, cleaning your house or running for two hours. What's right in front you?

Play within yourself: Coaches of team sports often love to talk about this. It's about not trying to be something your not. It's about sticking to the game plan. If you're not a 3-point shooter, don't take a 3-point shot. If you're job is to rebound, focus on the things that help you do that well. Stick to the plan. How does this help in running? I'm not a fast runner. Perhaps one day I'll be faster, but if I try to run a pace that I can't sustain, I am either not going to finish or I'm going to get injured. In a triathlon if I put too much emphasis on the swim and the run, I am forgetting that my strength at the moment is the bike. This is not to be mistaken with putting limits on yourself. It's about playing to your strengths. It's about being who you are. And realizing just how far that will take you.

Enjoy the process: The St. Bonaventuare women's team is filled with a bunch of talented seniors. Their freshmen year, the won just nine games. Each year, they got a little better. Each year they set one more program record, grabbed one more historic marker. It didn't happen overnight.

Have faith: The Bonnies trust their teammates but they also trust themselves. Few outside the program (and a few bandwagon fans) thought they could beat Wisconsion on its home floor. Fewer still thought it was possible after they went down 14 points. But all that mattered was what that collection of women believed was possible.

Play from within: Like many mid-major Division I schools, the women's basketball program remains invisible, overshadowed by the men's program. Traditionally at St. Bonaventure, the men's team will draw around 4,000 fans (often even in bad years) while the women would be happy if close to 400 showed up for their games. Last weekend, over 2,000 people were at the Reilly Center to watch their WNIT game and another record crowd is expected on Sunday, when they host South Florida. And while the players love the fan support and feel their energy during the home games, they play exactly the same way whether there are 2,000 fans or 200 fans in the stands. They play for themselvs and for each other. They deeply appreciate the support and the enthusiasm of the school and community, but as it is for everyone, outside accolades will quiet eventually and all that's left is you and the mirror. If you can't be happy with your success in private, in silence, in obscurity, the victory will be hollow when all the cheering dies down.

The Bonnies host South Florida at 1 p.m. Sunday in the Reilly Center in the WNIT quarterfinal. They're worth the trip to Olean to check out ... and garner a little inspiration from.

In the meantime, join me over on the Campus Watch blog at 10 a.m., Monday, March 30 for a live chat to discuss women's basketball

Pulling a big number

These days, most of the television I watch revolves around college basketball but occasionally there's a TV show that draws me and compels me to watch it.

Yes, I have been sucked in to The Biggest Loser.

Granted, I don't always see the end since it often airs well past my bedtime and I don't have digital recording to make sure that I don't miss once ounce of drama. But there's something about watching people try to transform their lives and create game-playing-voting-people-off-the-island that draws me in. It's like a health and fitness version of The Real World.

There are things about the show that tend to bother me. Like the obvious paid for product placements. Or the meanness. Or the over-sensitivity.

But I never really stopped to think about some of the messages of the show until I read a post from registered dietitian Nancy Clark on how horrible she thinks the show is. To Clark, the message of the show revolves around deprivation and punishment. Eating is seen as the enemy and exercise as torture.

Her points are interesting. And while the show wants people to lose weight to be healthy, there certainly is a bent on being thin for an alluring physical appearance.

After all, is mere weight loss the goal? The highlight of each episode is the weigh-in where contestants stand on the scale to see how much they lose and discover whether they face elimination from the competition. The show does use percentage of body weight but contestants are always concerned about "pulling a big number."

And that can be disconcerting.

Now, I have found several stories of people on The Biggest Loser compelling. And if the show helps people lead healthier lives and inspires them to appropriate weight loss, more physical activity and better food choices, I'm ready to give three cheers.

But there can be more to weight loss than just the numbers.

In fact, often the numbers are the last important thing about weight loss.

Because at the end of the day, it's about feeling good about yourself. About who you are. About what you've achieved. About what you dream about.

From personal experience, I've learned this doesn't come with a number on a scale or through a smaller dress size. Because you may get to be that "perfect size 6" and yet ... you still aren't pleased with your body. You are still critical of what you see in the mirror and can be quick to continuously point out figure flaws.

But usually, you are the only one who sees the figure flaws. Or at least the only one who fixates on them.

And if other people in your life fixate on your flaws, well, then, perhaps it's time to evaluate the type of people you have in your life.

The numbers provide good boundaries. Numbers -- whether they indicate weight or dress size or your 5K race pace -- give you guidelines. But they don't tell you how to feel. And if you're not happy with who you are, losing 100 pounds isn't going to make a difference. At least, not a lasting difference.

Oh, I'll still watch The Biggest Loser. I want to see the drama that is not my own. I want to get some insane workout ideas. I want to see people succeed.

But more than that, I want to see weight loss as a springboard to something bigger -- something more meaningful than just pulling a big number.

When you look in the mirror, who do you see?

That's all that really matters.

Passing the bike test

The last set of instructions I received warned me not to write the following words in my training log:

"Is this good?"

Wednesday was my bike test. I would warm up for about 25 minutes then begin a 20 minute time trial where I would pedal as hard as I could, building momentum until the 20 minutes were up. That was followed by a cool down.

The key component was the 20 minute time trial. That would determine my Lactate Threshold.

For a more specific discussion of what Lactate Threshold is and how it's determined, you can find plenty of good sources on the web including performance training systems and Triathlon Beginner. Basically, it's working until your muscles can't clear the by-products of exercise from the body and it's used to determine your heart rate zones.

The goal of Wednesday's bike ride was to do a test to see where my target heart rate zones should be which in turn will help me train more efficiently.

But I was to do the test, not think about it. 

"The biggest thing I want you to get out of this is working extra hard and for once ... not placing any kind of personal value on results," my coach wrote to me.

What's a good lactate threshold test number?

Your own.

The number is what is and has no value to anyone but me. It's value is in a training tool -- something which will help me progress and keep me healthy along the way.

Ok. I get it.

So on to the bike.

I was all ready to hop on my bike affixed to the trainer in the basement when ... my iPod decided to act dysfunctional.

Um, I can run without an iPod. I can not bike in a bleak basement without an iPod. Or at least music of some sort.

So I quickly stuck a blank CD into my laptop and hastily burned the mix I planned to listen to in order to motivate me through an extra hard workout.

On the bike, the first 17 minutes of warmup went just fine .... until I learned that the CD didn't burn properly and only recorded the first 5 1/2 songs.

Crud.

I had to reset my heart rate monitor anyway to being the 20 minute time trial, so I restarted the CD, again hearing Beyonce sing "Single Ladies" and Cheryl Crow encouraging me to "Soak up the Sun."

Down in my aero bars (which again, sadly, have nothing to do with the Canadian candy bar) I pedaled consistently and increased my effort. Should I have put myself in a tougher gear, I thought?

Naw. I've got 20 hard minutes ahead of me.

And sure enough, five minutes in, I started to feel my quadricep muscles.

I kept at it, closing my eyes, lip synching almost unconsciously and focusing on the bike, the bike, the bike.

By 15 minutes I was certainly feeling it.

Finally, 20 minutes.

Sweat dripped everywhere and it gave me rather a feeling of satisfaction. It's one of those tangible signs that indeed, I worked hard.

Unable to hear Beyonce another time, I went without earphones for the 15 mintue cool down.

Then I sent in my results to my coach.

"Did I pass?" I asked her.

"You passed," she replied. "Good work."

My coach updated my heart rate zones in my Training Peaks profile -- the online training log we use to plan and track my workouts.

My zones are different. Does that mean better?

Well, it means different.

Does that mean I'm more fit?

Of course I'm more fit, my coach reminded me. That isn't a question. Consistent training will improve your fitness and I've made some pretty solid gains over the past year.

But this isn't about placing personal value on my numbers.

They are what they are.

This is part of the science of training. This is for the data-driven people and while I'm not big on understanding the math (I'm sure there are square roots involved somewhere) I do like knowing what I'm supposed to be doing and a bit of the why.

Building an aerobic base is a key to endurance sport success. This is one of those tools which will tell me if I'm working too hard ... or not working hard enough.

Those are parameters I've never been very good at detetcting. Am I doing enough? Working hard enough? Am I having a good enough balance? Am I killing myself for no reason?

Sometimes, we need the numbers to help us get our own rhythm back, that intuitive feeling that we are exactly on target.

For a while, the numbers will be my guide to teach me how to listen to my own body and help me teach my heart to trust what it knows to be true.

Short term gains, long term unhappiness

On my way to the University at Buffalo I couldn't help but sarcastically wonder to friends it Dr. Monica Spaulding would be bringing free samples to her presentation on performance enhancing drugs in elite sports.

You know, a few handfuls of things to help build strength and endurance?

As my friend Scott, who lives in the mountains of North Carolina pointed out, all the EPO in Spain wouldn't help him at the moment.

But all the EPO in Spain also wouldn't make me want to take the stuff.

Erythropoietin, or EPO, helps stimulate the body's production of red blood cells. The more red blood cells you have, the more oxygen your heart and lungs and muscles get -- an important component for endurance athletes which is why EPO is popular among cyclists.

It's use, however, thickens the blood and increases the likelihood of heart attack and strokes.

Yeah, that's not so much for me.

But it got me thinking, would I ever cheat to win?

First of all, I'm too scared of my long-term health. I got involved in sport in large part to be healthier physically, mentally and emotionally. This would run counter to that core belief of mine. Among those core beliefs is to see how strong I can actually be. What type of improvements and results am I capable of achieving? On some level, the training and competition reveals who I am to the most important person that counts -- me.

Elite athletes have different goals. The athletic journey for them is a job one with financial risks and benefits. There are appearance fees and prize money and sponsorships and endorsements.There is the ego and the glory and the fame.

Heck, it's like any other job, any other business, where there is big money to be made. We've seen countless examples in the news about business and banks using questionable practices to continue their artificially high level of financial success.

And while we aren't all corrupt or greedy we all do cheat from time to time. We all have episodes where we have a skewed sense of our own importance -- or of the importance of things in our lives. We choose things outside of ourselves to not only validate who we are but to define who we are.

Yes, triathlon and running have helped me discover things about myself. It's part of who I am. But there are times when a goal, be it a time or race, become defining.

It's not the result that makes me who I am as an athlete. It's far less tangible than that. What makes me an athlete is the attitude I bring to my training and races -- my desire to try my best, then try a bit harder. An attitude of why not try? Why not dream? A lifestyle that can bring me balance and health and strength which carries over to every other area of my life.

When I get caught up in results, I cheat myself of those intangibles that make up the heart of who I am and who I want to be.

Having specific goals? Good.

Being tied to them and defined by them? Bad.

It's what leads people to cheat. It's what leads people to sacrifice long-term happiness for short-term gains.

Working without a plan

True confession time -- I am a logistics obesessor.

The best way to describe what this means is to consider my fears when I travel. I'm not afraid of flying. Or driving long distances. Or taking planes. Or even boats. I'm not afraid of diasters, natural or otherwise.

I am afraid of how to get ther, where to find things and what to do when I get to my destination.

I worry about getting to the airport on time in order to make it through security and get to my gate. I mean, I get to the airport hours earlier than needed. It's about my comfort level, I rationalize. Then, I'll worry about ground transportation -- the bus or car rental or taxi or train. I will research how to find it and time schedules. I will have maps printed out, and get more maps once I'm there.

Granted, I've eased up a bit on my logistical obsession when traveling with other people. But when it's just me, I like to know where I'm going, why and exactly how I am going to get there.

This is why training this week is difficult.

Not because I'm traveling in a literal sense.

I'm traveling in a figurative sense. Without a destination in mind. Without the next step laid out before me.

My coach did this on purpose this week. In scheduling my workouts, she told me she would only reveal one workout at a time to me. Perhaps two, but that's it.

So while on Sunday night I can usually see the entire week and start planning when I'm going to fit in my workouts and ponder what they mean in the grand scheme of getting me to the marathon and my later triathlons, this week .... I can only focus on one day at a time.

This is the goal of the exercise -- to keep me focused on that workout and not worried about how this particular workout, this particular pace, will help me in the marathon. It's to get me out of my head and back into my heart.

Whether you favor the scientific or the arts, we are all creative individuals and our minds are capable of creating amazing scenarios. The cliche of the self-fulfilling prophecy is a cliche because it's true. If you think you will never be able to, say, run a 5K then chances are you won't. Or if you do, you won't feel very good about it.

My mind can be vastly creative -- but harnassing it for good instead of evil takes some practice. Because while I can dream up goals that ignite passion in my soul, I can instantly think of reasons why those goals and dreams are impracital or how I should perhaps lower my expectations because I can't possibly achieve all that. When my heart is engaged, I feel alive and happy even through pain and hard work. But the fear of the pain and hard work becomes a limiting factor to what I'm willing to risk, or willing to try. The fear is created by my overactive mind. It's all a creation of my own. And while yes, you learn through experience that touching a hot stove burner will burn your hand, you also come to learn that sometimes the burner is not turned on. Not every stove will burn you.

So what to do? Focus on what's in front of me now. What aligns with my goals and dreams? What has this particular moment brought me? What is my workout for today? Yes, the marathon date is creeping ever so closer, but what do I have right now?

In searching for some inspiration to live in the moment, I went to one of my favorite websites and found an article on moving beyond limits that are holding you back. It's something to think about instead of obsessing about how today's 50-minute run with tempo intervals is going to help me for the marathon.

Instead, I'll have the time and energy to think about what I really want, why I want it and realize that wherever I end up is exactly the place I need to be. 

The day the gadgets died

All of my gadgetry failed.

I started out on a long run which included different pacing -- 30 minutes of easy pace, 30 minutes of marathon pace, 15 minutes back to easy pace and to finish it off 15 minutes at marathon pace.

Strapped to my one arm was my heart rate monitor watch while the corresponding wireless strap was under two layers of cold gear. Meanwhile, I had borrowed a low-end Garmin from my friend Sue, which was strapped to my other arm.

I was going to have a data-filled run.

At least, that was the plan.

The universe had other plans for me, though.

Since Sue is still in a boot while she heals an ankle injury, but itching to be part of a run, she wanted to be my support vehicle. Armed with water and encouragement, she would drive ahead down my route, park and wait for me just in case I got into any trouble. She served as sort of a mobile rest stop.

I started out just fine, feeling rather groovy when I looked down at my heart rate monitor and noticed it read "0". Crud. I hastily tried to adjust the strap to get the signal going to the watch. It started up. But read "34." For the rest of the run it would bounce around from "0" to "34" to "85" to "156" and back to "44." Clearly this measure was not working properly.

But I had Sue's trusty Garmin. The Garmin, and other gadgets like it, work with a GPS system. While it can do many fancy things, the point of this experiment was to allow it to track just how fast and how far I was running. It would tell me my pace as I was running it, so I would know if I was at my easy-pace or my marathon-pace.

Closing in on the first mile I felt good despite the chilly, dark morning.

I glanced down at the Garmin.

The screen was blank.

Oh no!

I tried to turn it back on, but I couldn't get it.

Sue was parked just up ahead and I ran over to the car.

"It stopped working!"

I gave her the Garmin and continued to run. At the 30-minute mark I was going to grab some water and take a nutritional Shot Block before turning around to start my marathon pace. Maybe she could fix it by then.

But a battery mix-up meant the power source had died. No cool new training tool on this one.

No trusty old training tool either.

All that was left was to run on feel.

So that's what I did.

Sue paced me, measuring out approximate miles on her car odometer. It's not an accurate way to measure a run but it gave me a ballpark idea of where the miles were. And at least my watch was still working.

I picked up the pace. I knew that marathon pace is not my fastest pace. It's ideally the pace I will run the marathon in -- a strong pace that I can hold for 26.2 miles -- so I wanted to be working hard but not chasing the wizard.

As I spotted Sue's car each mile it looked like I was in relatively good shape for my pace. By the time I hit that second mile, I relaxed a bit and just thought about running.

In the end, I did nearly nine miles. Using the mapmyrun.com tool and my watch I figured I hit a pretty good pace for those 90 minutes.

More importantly I felt good. I felt so good that I wanted my coach to increase my pace time.

Whoa, Amy.

Not so fast. I have to be able to run that many more miles. What I can do in the first 10 is nothing compared to what that pace will feel like after mile 20. Try to run too fast, too soon for too long and its a recipe for injury. That's one of the reasons we train at different paces to begin with.

Once I turned my brain off from paces and numbers and math (and why am I trying to do the math anyway?) I got back into what the run felt like in my body.

Because at the end of the day, no Garmin or heart rate monitor or pacing chart is going to get me through a run or through a race or to the marathon finish line. It's all going to be on how I feel and what I can push through. And that variable will depend on the day.

I ran again with my friends Karyn and Jessica on Sunday morning. My heart rate monitor worked this time, but it didn't matter. I was just enjoying being on the run with two cool women, chatting about this and that and keeping a steady pace.

My pace and heart rate? They were just fine.

But I didn't even really care.

I was outside, running, with friends and training properly for a goal.

In the end -- whether the workout is supposed to be an easy recovery, or a moderate effort or finding the wizard until you feel almost sick -- what matters most is how I feel.

And this weekend, after each session, I felt great.

And ready to start a new week.

Fight for Joy

Somewhere, Joy was smiling.

I knew she had to be. She loved St. Bonaventure. She loved women's basketball. She loved competing.

And so when the St. Bonaventure women's basketball had a dramatic come-from-behind win over West Virginia to earn the first Division I era postseason win for a Western New York women's basketball team, well, that would have sent her into over-the-moon happiness.

Joy was a classmate of mine back in college. I was the manager of the women's hoops team and she was a reserve forward. Which meant she didn't play a lot. But that didn't matter to Joy. She played and practiced with heart, with passion, with love for the game and love for her teammate regardless of how few minutes she played in the game.

She counted me among her teammates, too. It's something that stuck with me as my weight exploded in college and I felt on the periphery of life so many times. To Joy, it didn't matter that I washed her practice gear and uniforms for work study wages. I was part of the team.

We both got our first jobs in Olean, she as an assistant coach at St. Bonaventure and me as a general assignment reporter at the Times-Herald. We didn't have much spare time, or many spare dimes, but we we would frequently get together. She encouraged me as I changed my eating habits and starting working out more. Joy would take walks with me (while I'm sure she would have rather run) and offer support as my weight slowly came down and my fitness slowly increased.

We lost touch as college friends often do. She got married had a son, and then was diagnosed with an aggressive form a rare cancer. I got back in touch with her for a while, before she ended up losing her battle a few years ago.

As I watched the student section storm the court at the Reilly Center Saturday afternoon to celebrate a women's basketball win (which is goose-bump inducing on its own for long-time women's sports fans) I couldn't help but think of Joy.

No person on this planet was ever more aptly named. Because she lived joy and brought it to all those around her. In big ways. In small ways. Just being alive, just being herself, made anyone around her a bit lighter, a bit happier.

She would be amazed at where I've come on my own health and athletic journey. For me to have completed several sprint distance triathlons, numerous 5Ks and two half marathons? And now to be training for the Buffalo marathon?

She would be pumped.

I can hear her calling me by one of college nicknames with enthusiasm, "I knew you could it do it Amy H."

Now, it's matter of knowing myself what I can do.

It's about taping into that strength I never thought lived inside me. It's about trusting that everything I need is already present for me -- in this very moment -- and that whatever I may need five minutes (or five miles) from now will be available to me.

It's about celebrating the strength and passion and love that I already have and choosing to live from that place each day.

It's about living joyously.

When she got sick, her family members and close friends wore rubber bracelets that said "Fight for Joy."

Some days, it seems, we do have to fight for joy.

But one thing my friend taught me, is that if you merely live joyously, you find more strength, passion and happiness than you thought possible.

And I'm pretty sure those are the things that will get to the start line of the Buffalo marathon, through those 26.2 miles and on to the finish line.

It will be all those things I already have inside. It's nothing I need to develop. Just qualities I already possess that I need to trust and perhaps fine tune.

I will get myself across that finish line.

And somewhere, I'm sure, Joy will be smiling again.

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