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The hard part of the easy run

The running workouts are consistent and getting longer these days as I prepare for that Buffalo marathon experience next month.

Which also means my sense of panic is setting in pretty quickly at times.

Like on yesterday's 50-minute easy-paced run.

I both love and hate easy pace. By it's name, these runs are slow and steady and building up that important endurance base. These runs are the foundation of the running plan and ultimately the foundation of my race.

But they also are hard. Because nobody goes to a new house and says, "What a great foundation." No, usually, you fixate on the extras, the shinny things that catch your attention. The accessories that make the space look nice but really have nothing to do with weather the abode is structurally sound.

But we like shinny things. Even if we try not to, we like them. And so, while running easy pace, I often catch myself sighing. If I run like this, I will never finish the marathon. This is my easy pace and I'm kinda starting to feel fatigued already. What's up with that? This is my easy pace and my friends are running at least a minute faster than I am routinely.

Reminder No. 1: Stop comparing myself to other runners. I have a different plan. Doesn't mean it's better. Doesn't mean it's worse. Means it's different. And it's MY plan.  A plan I trust. A plan I know will get me not only to the start line but through the finish line. And I have a different goal. Why on earth would I compare my training for 26.2 miles to my friends who are training for 13.1 miles?

Reminder No. 2: I hate the first 20 minutes. Doesn't matter if I'm running 30 minutes, 50 minutes or two hours. Those first 20 minutes of running are 20 minutes of crud. Doesn't matter if I'm running slow or fast. It takes me about that much time to get into my body, to get out of my head, and to get into my flow.

Which, once I remembered my rule about not judging a run by the first 20 minutes, I had a pretty good session. It was cool, but not too bad. The sun was out. The sky was blue. I was relaxed.

Ah. All was right with the world.

Granted I still have my total panic moments. Even when thinking about tomorrow's half marathon run at Mendon Ponds Park, which features a hilly course. I start to do math in my head which is never a good sign. It either means I'm thinking too much or I'm about to bonk.

Considering I just had breakfast, bonking is not the issue.

Staying wrapped up in my over-thinking head is.

But if I just relax and look around and remember it all gets better after the first 20 minutes, I'll be just fine.

The house of pain

My family probably figures I jumped the shark over a year ago when I first announced I wanted to train for a triathlon.

Of course, I had no idea what they were talking about.

Until a few weeks ago.

I caught myself saying things like, "This looks insanely hard. Let's try it!"

It started with telling a friend about this cycling event in North Carolina called Blood Sweat and Gears. It's a 100-mile bike ride in Boone, N.C. in the Smokey Mountains. Let's just say that Lance Armstrong has been known to train for hills in this area. There is a shorter, 50-mile ride with less climbing. I was thinking about doing that one next year.

Then, to stay on the topic of hills, came the email from my coach about this weekend's Cats Half Marathon in Mendon Ponds Park outside of Rochester. "It's great. It's hilly!!" She wrote (and porbably threw in more than two exclamation points.)

A hilly 13.1-mile run? You bet. Count me in.

Then came last night's strength training workout with Sue.

Sue loves to take bits and pieces of training tips and exercises from other people who are successful -- whether that's an article by running great Deena Kastor or an athlete at her gym.

And so, she devised this circuit strength training routine that includes push-ups, exercise ball crunches, arm curls, step-ups and a variety of other core strengthing exercises.

She dubbed it "The House of Pain."

And I couldn't wait to try it.

We went through three circuits trying to keep a steady pace without a lot of rest. It was challenging. I had to make up songs about "Sue's House of Pain" to distract myself in that third and final set.

But we had a blast.

Granted, working out with a friend is always better. If that friend makes you laugh so hard while holding plank your lower abs are on fire, well, that's the best.

Sore, but that good kind of sore, after the workout, we stretched a bit.

"Sue, you beat me up," I joked with her.

"It will make us better," she deadpaned. "It has to."

Well, yes. That's the plan. That when I'm hitting the later portions of the marathon my lower abs won't be feeling sore and my upper arms and chest will be strong enough to hold my form for those final miles.

I have a feeling it will also help my mood if I can think of that laughter we shared.

Because you can't run poorly with a smile on your face. 

Eating and exercise

It was a wonderful display of gluttony.

On The Biggest Loser last night, contestants tried to find the golden ticket which gave them the power of elimination during the game. Only thing was, every time they looked for it, they would find a piece of junk food which they would have to consume. The 150-calorie bag of potato chips weren't so bad but the 300-calorie pretzels and 500-calorie cupcakes, well, those added up pretty quickly. And as they ate and ate  and ate in an attempt to gain control of the game several of them turned several shades of green.

It was a feeling the trainers wanted them to remember -- what eating this mass amount of junk food can do to your system. It was a message most of them got, particularly when they were put through a horribly intensive workout to try and burn off those calories.

Dealing with food issues is such a tricky thing. We all have to eat and eating right for our bodies can be simple and complicated all at the same time.

At the basic level, it's pretty simple: The more you eat whole, unprocessed foods the better off you are. Take a look at the ingredient list on a package -- the more stuff on the list, the more processed it is. This is one reason why some health experts advocate shopping the outer edges of the supermarket -- that's where the fresh food usually is.

But enter things like time constraints and constant dieting advice and it can get complicated.

Now throw in training and it can get more complicated.

The general rule is that you don't need to "refuel" after any workout lasting under an hour. You don't burn enough and chances are, that sports drink you just downed already replaced a good number of the calories you burned off.

But as training hours increase for endurance events -- like the marathon and triathlon -- eating becomes fueling. And what to eat, along with when to eat, becomes an issue.

I've noticed this in my training. It's a balance. I don't want to eat too much before a workout because that will make me sick. I also can't workout on a completely empty stomach. That tends to make me sick, too. The balance comes with fluids: Too little and I'll get dehydrated while too much gives me that sloshy stomach feeling.

There are some great articles from the sports dietitian on the Runner's World website which includes a general rule of thumb for eating before running. Big meals should be a three to four wait while a granola bar or pretzels are fine an hour before.

For a slightly more scientific approach, a sports nutrition article on the USA Triathlon website discusses eating the hour before exercise. 

The guidelines are general. I do pretty well before a morning run with a bowl of oatmeal  with a scoop of protein powder and some fruit an hour to 90 minutes before heading out the door. But before swimming early in the morning, I usually just have toast with a smear of Nutella or jelly, saving my oatmeal until after the workout.

Granted it took me the better part of a year to figure out what works for me -- and it's something I still toy around with, particularly when those workouts get pushed to later in the day, much like today's hour-long hill workout on the bike.

A shift in perception

A fresh few inches of snow on the ground leaves me comtemplating if I should do my run on the treadmill today or brave the outside.

Of course, I've done runs outside in worse weather. I've raced in worse weather. It's another one of those days where the dread is all in my head and getting focused on what's in front of me, well, I just don't want to do it.

So I went Internet surfing and landed on Chris McCormack's website. Macca (as he's known by) is an Ironman Hawaii World Champion who has won 11 Ironman races, seven World Cup titles and countless other honors, awards and records.

I stumbled on his page describing his core values which center on positivity. "Problems, dilemmas, even catastrophes, require a shift in perception. They are opportunities in disguise, chances to learn valuable life lessons."

Granted, the decision to run outside or inside today isn't exactly much of a problem. But thinking about perception and opportunities can change that process. Inevitably when faced with a decision, from as banal as where to run to more complicated life-defining moments, I am consumed with doubt. What is the right choice to make? Am I making the right choice? Did I just make the right choice? Should I have made a different choice?

Yeah. I can get my head and heart so confused so quickly it really is an art form.

But here's the rub -- there are few "right" or "wrong" choices. In fact, some would say there are no "right" or "wrong" choices. Only choices. And if the one we pick ends up not fitting us, well, we get to choose again. We might not have the same options available to us, but we have something else to pick -- even if it's just our state of mind.

My mother emailed me yesterday to ask what my 5K times were when I first started running last year. Turns out I was right around 30 minutes.

A friend of her's had just run her first 5K over the weekend. She finished in 37 minutes. She had to take a few walk breaks, but that was fine with her. She ran most of it. She finished. She wasn't last.

Her goals for the day were accomplished.

I smiled the biggest grin when my mom was retelling the story to me. The first-time 5K-er had only been working out for about a year. She started mostly weight training then took a liking to spinning. She then joined a running class through her gym to learn how to run. They've met only once.

So with only one real session of running, she completed her first 5K. And was astonished that she actually passed people on the route.

Of course she did. Because we are never as bad as we think we are.

I remember that feeling of the first race. Of crossing the line in a time much faster than I had expected. Of passing people. Of feeling .... accomplished.

It's a feeling I can lose from time to time as I set new goals for myself, as I expect new and better things.

In the end, it's not really about what I do but how I choose to do it.

Yes, it really is all about your attitude.

Now about that run outside today.

Let's bring it on.

Expectations

An April winter storm watch?

Seriously?

The weather forecast has snow and wind after we were all finally able to get outside?

It's not a complaint really. Just a big sigh. And a very strong desire to have the snow and wind move through quickly so I can do my 50-minute easy-pace run outside on Tuesday.

This week remains pretty consistent with what has been my basic training week. Monday is a light, easy spin on the bike. Tuesday and Thursday include swim practice and 50-minute e-paced runs. Wednesday is a climbing workout on my bike. Friday is a tempo workout on the bike with a 30-minute easy run. Strength training is scheduled for Monday although I do some yoga and core work almost every day.

The new part of the plan is to run a half marathon on Saturday. It's a 13.1-mile race in Mendon Ponds Park near Rochester. My coach explained it to me as "a hilly half-marathon you might want to do!"

And yes, she had the exlamation point.

Because a hilly half marathon? Sign me up. I just hope it doesn't turn into a snowshoe race.

While I have not talked with my coach about that race since she has been off racing herself at a 70.3 race in New Orleans I assume we're looking for two things: 1. A training run where I hold my paces and 2. the experiences of holding my paces, running my race, while in a competition setting.

But I also know that is not until Saturday. This is only Monday. I will save any potential freak out, be it positive or negative, until later in the week.

Until then, there is the women's basektball national championship game to enjoy on Tuesday night. In watching the semifinals on Sunday, I could not help but notice that the commentators were talking about several players losing weight.

Ashley Paris of Oklahoma? She lost 40 pounds.

Deseree' Byrd of Louisvile? She lost 20 pounds.

Jayne Appel of Stanford? She lost 20 pounds and the ESPN crew could not stop raving about her improved body for much of the first half.

I'm still not entirely sure why this struck me. On the one hand, it shows a determination and dedication by the players. They were not dropping weight for weight's sake but in order to become fitter and overall better basketball players.

On the other hand, weight and women always seems to turn into a tricky subject. Is the message that in order to be a successful basketball you have to look a certain way? That in order to be a success and compete and win you have to maintain a certain weight? And is weight always equated with body image?

It's a complex issue.

As women's sports gains more coverage in the national media and female athletes begin to take the spotlight, what do we expect of them?

The Science of Sport blog begins to tackle this issue, albeit by looking at race and the social responsibility that we place on our athletes and our heroes.

So what is it that we expect out of the sports figures we admire? Is it respect for their abilities, talent and hard work?

Or is it that they reflect something we believe about ourselves? Are the choices we make in athletic heroes and heroines a function of good marketing and public relations or does it touch us individually because their story, good or bad, touches off something unresolved in each of us?

Are the expectations we have for our sporting stars a function of what we wish we could be?

The dread of the treadmill

The plan called for a two-hour-15-minute long run. It was the same basic run from last week only with an additional 15 minutes at my marathon pace.

Sue and I had talked about the run all week long. We geared up for the long run. She and I discussed routes that would be flatter than last week's Chestnut Ridge run. We talked about how long Sue, still recovering from injury, could run with me before we dropped her back at her car where she would either go to the gym to continue her workout or follow me as my support vehicle.

But then the weather forecast came.

And while I want to be able to prepare for anything running in sustained winds of 40 miles per hour would not have been smart training. At least not for me.

So we moved the run inside to the treadmill.

I stood on my treadmill between Herm, who was running something like 20 miles, and Sue, who was doing a slow rehab five miles, and offered a deep sigh.

Running this on the treadmill. I was dreading it.

Perhaps not the best attitude with which to begin the workout.

It went OK. I set the treadmill for my 15 minutes of easy warm-up pace then took my hour and 45 minute block of marathon pace time and broke it up, setting the treadmill at first for 60 minutes.

That, too, seemed to go just fine.

Then came the next 45 minutes.

And it all felt like crud.

This stinks. I can't do it. I can't finish.

I bumped my speed down from marathon pace to something between that steady pace and my easy pace.

I held that for 30 minutes then decided to reset the treadmill again.

The final 30 minutes -- 15 at marathon pace and 15 at the increased tempo pace.

I started that final 30 at easy pace then built back up to my marathon pace. Time for the tempo pace. My plan was to increase every five minutes.

That was not going to work.

Sue, who had shifted from the treadmill next to me to the stationary bike in front of me, came back to check on me.

"Sue, I don't think I'm going to make it," I said. I wasn't being funny. I really questioned whether I was going to get through this workout.

"Yes you are," she replied. "You look strong."

"Really?" I replied. "I don't feel strong."

"No, you look very strong," Sue said. "It's all in your head."

Ah. It's all in my head. Herm confirmed that I look strong. Ok, I thought. Let's just keep going.

Keep going.

You are strong.

Why do you want to stop now.

Just run this five minutes.

The mantras were coming fast and furious.

My five minute increment plan didn't exactly work. I pretty much held just a tad stronger than marathon pace but never made it to tempo pace.

At the end of the workout, I shrugged it off.

Because I made it through the 195 minutes on the treadmill. I made it through the boredom and the heat and the lack of fresh air.

I made it through the negativity that swirled in my own head.

This is what I will face at various points at the marathon -- the overwhelming doubt that I can not actually finish.

Learning how to push through that barrier is perhaps just as important as training your body.

My coach is racing a 70.3 race (formerally known as a Half Ironman) in New Orleans today. In one of her reports from the race she offered this bit of wisdom:

"At some point we have a storm blow through. And we rebuild. And we shine brighter. I know in the past year or so that's happened for me. Maybe it's happened for you."

Post workout, those words seemed to hit dead-on to me. Just about the battle I had with the treadmill, but about all that has happened to me, around me, because of me in my life over the past eight months or so.

The storms give us an opportunity to rebuild.

The rebuilding can be hard work. Don't assume otherwise. But it reminds us that so much of our life is what we make of it. We create our own experiences. And when we have the opportunity to start fresh, to clear the clutter from a storm and build some part of our life, or even our entire life, from a new perspective, then we have taken that opportunity to grow.

And we will be better for it.

Secret training

Last week after my long run, my friend Sue bought me pancakes. Then she told me to go home and take a nap.

"That's what the really good Kenyan runners do," she told me. "It's part of our secret training."

Our secret training really isn't so secret. It involves strength and core training, occasional child-size ice cream sundaes, pancakes and now, naps.

I googled "Kenyan running training" and found that indeed, elite Kenyan runners spend their day running, then resting, then running, then resting, the running and finally, resting yet again. Although, their intense training has come under question after they once again failed to make the podium at the recent World Cross Country Championships.

Still, I'll take the naps after my long runs, thank you very much.

Sue and I have been planning Saturday's long run all week long. This one will be a 2-hour-15 minute run on a flatter course than last week since I need to hold my marathon pace for an hour and 15 minutes this time. Sue, who is recovering from an injury, can't run the entire distance with me, but she's planning on getting on her bike to help keep me company.

Now that's a running friend.

A year ago, I didn't know anyone who ran or did triathlons. Oh, I knew of people who ran locally and I became interested in triathlons after attending a Women's Quest camp run by former professional pro triathlete Colleen Cannon. 

But people in my circle who did such things?

Nope.

I started to meet fellow amateur athletes through my coach and the other athletes she works with. Then I looked for local groups to join, like the Buffalo Triathlon Club or the  Niagara Frontier Bicycle Club. There are other groups all over -- from the Checkers Athletic Club to running groups sponsored by Fleet Feet. 

Then there are informal groups -- like the women (well mostly women) who meet up at Runner's Roost in Orchard Park I don't know that the Ridger Runners are an official group, but every Saturday morning at 8 a.m. you will find a group of people to run the hills around Chestnut Ridge Park at whatever pace or distance you desire.

You get the idea.

In fact, there are so many groups, either formal or informal, who get together to train that I find myself wanting to do too much -- to try and check them all out.

But more importantly over the course of a year, I've found not just people to share training with, but have made new friends.

Some days, when life is coming at you in crazy ways, it's exceedingly great to bike, swim or run with people and not think about anything else but a workout or racing or training. It becomes therapy in a way.

And when talk of racing and training is done, you find yourself surrounded by fascinating people with interesting life stories, who are funny, who are kind, who are accomplished. It may be tri or run talk which brings you together in the first place, the common interest, but the friendships grow beyond that.

A year into my triathlon training I found I had amazing support from my family. I found people at work who were in corner, both in expected ways and in gratefully surprising ways. And I found a new circle of friends who keep me honest, keep me sane and most importantly keep me laughing.

They are truly my secret training weapon.

Don't go back to sleep

The bike beckoned.

At present, it is set up in my basement on a fluid trainer bequeathed to me by a friend (though I insisted I gave him at least some monetary compensation for it). I have a tiny TV with a DVD player in front of it, though today I decided that my iPod was a better fit for my mood.

Of course, my mood wasn't one that was looking forward to getting on the bike.

I was having a big sigh day and frankly didn't want to do much of anything other than curl up with a book on my couch and the day pass over me.

But while those thoughts of surrender floated through my head, my body ignored their message and continued to get ready for an hour hill climb.

Oh my body was tired and my mind definitely wanted a  nap.

But this was just an hour. Let's focus on this and then move forward.

During the warm-up I played around with my tunes. From Beyonce to Patty Smythe to Great Big Sea. I threw in a little Knack and the song "Let it Rock" for good measure. And I began my series of 10 minute climbs.

On the bike trainer, you climb by putting the bike in the hardest gear, then inch your way up every two minutes. Those final two are usually pretty darn tough -- and I'm paying attention to my heart rate zones which for this workout are meant to stay in a lower aerobic zone.

By the middle of the first climb I had forgotten why I was questioning getting on the bike in the first place.

I lost myself in the music, in the challenge of the workout. I was focused on what was in front of me, not what was behind me. Not even what was in the future or still on my to-do list.

This is one of those gifts of exercise and specifically of training for a goal (whether it be a 5K or a triathlon or roller derby tryouts). If you let go of all the stupid stuff that twists us around, you find that the moment you are in is perfect. Often it is perfect not in spite of its imperfections but because of those very imperfections.

Each day is a new opportunity to appreciate and grow in those individual moments. It's a chance to get stronger. It's a chance to be happier.

My friend Carolyn reminded me of a favorite line we have from the poet Rumi:

"You must ask for what you really want,

Don't go back to sleep."

What do I want for today? Because each dawn is new chance to wake up to the power of our lives.

Today, that includes swimming and running as I inch closer to my marathon goals.


Putting on the blinders

During the Beijing Olympics, American swimmer Dara Tores talked about her goggles. They were older than Michael Phelps and they still had duct tape on the side. Her coach had put the tape on akin to blinders on race horses -- so she couldn't see what was happening in the other lanes.

There are times in life when it's important to take the blinders off -- to see the big picture and take in all of the nuances around us.

But there are times where those blinders can be valuable.

In fact some times, they can keep you sane.

Perhaps it depends on your personality but for me, I often find myself struggling with comparisons. I compare myself to other people. I compare myself to myself.

And often those comparisions lead to doubt.

It happens to me in the pool all the time. I am not a fast swimmer. Heck I am still very much a new swimmer -- really only a year old in water years. But when I'm in my lane and working hard to keep up with the Red Group swimmers at masters practice, I sometimes wonder. Why can't I be as fast as them? And I'm wearing fins for crying out loud? And geez will I ever get faster?

It happened to me last weekend when I heard reports of my friends Karyn and Jessica doing a nice 8-mile run with a great pace. I joked that if I had joined them I would have slowed them down. Truth is, I would have been slower because their pace was too fast for me. Not too fast that I couldn't run it with them, but too fast for my training plan, which calls for the bulk of my off-day runs to be at easy pace which means slow with a purpose.

But I hear about them running a certain pace and well, I want to run that pace, too.

I get caught up in what other people are doing and use that to gauge myself.

This type of measurement almost always backfires.

There's a woman I know who is a pretty good runner. Only she doesn't think she is. Whether it's a training run or a race, she will see the other women around and decide before how far back she will be. Doesn't matter how fast the other women are -- she will finish the same distance behind. This means at times she's running faster, but she has predetermined that she is a certain distance slower or "worse" than someone else.

And so she always finishes with the same gap -- regardless of how fast she runs.

She is a better runner than she thinks she is. It's not necessarily running skills she needs to acquire but confidence.

In a way, she needs those blinders to not see what other people are doing and place herself automatically at the back of the pack.

I understand why does this. I do it all the time.

There are moments when seeing what others are doing can motivate and inspire us. In a race, seeing people ahead of me gives me an immediate goal to shoot for -- I try to pass them. Even if I'm unsuccessful in the pass, it gives me a drive to run or bike (or even swim) faster.

Then there are moments where I get too busy looking at what other people are doing and fail to recognize what I'm doing, what I've accomplished, what my plan is.

Sometimes those blinders are helpful. Because at the end of it all, we are only accountable to ourselves.

We are the only ones we're racing against.

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