Nobody but you can decide what you can do…

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: nobody but you can decide what you can do.

A few months ago my exercise physiology professor said I “don’t look like a runner”. It was a brief stereotype. Then he asked in reaction to my frown: “well are you a runner”. And then when I said I had run my whole life and was getting back into it after having a baby, that most runners looked “emaciated”. Was that his polite way of telling me that my postpartum belly fat was acceptable as long as I didn’t run?

But I do run. I ran when I was six in Texas and 14 in Wyoming and I ran even when I was a smoker and drinker in college. I have taken time off and of course had a baby but I always return to running.

And you know what? No one, not your mom, not your dad, not your partner, sister, friend or exercise physiology professor can tell you what your body can do.

When I was in high school I remember observing other girls with really long, slender legs and thinking I wasn’t enough of the body ideal. But I was one of the fastest girl on my cross country team. Sure I wasn’t number one and I was on Wyoming, but I was right up there doing something pretty well and beating some of the long legs and feeling pretty good about it.

And I’m feeling pretty good about it now. I’m training for a rugged half marathon up a freakin mountain in September and after that I want to run a marathon and maybe after that I’ll run an ultra. Because why not? This is MY body- my shape, weight, age, condition. I’m finding my health and balance again- in body and time- as only a postpartum mom can do. In some ways, after having a baby and being through the life experiences I’ve had since my first half marathon in San Francisco five years ago- I feel mentally stronger and physically wiser than ever. This is MY body and I know what it can be and what it can do.

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Trail of tears and joy

I’ve been training for a half marathon in September that may sound a long way off but it has a few things going for it that I have never dealt with in a half marathon race before:

1. Lots of incline (I run up a freaking mountain)

2. Lots of elevation (the Taos ski valley and Fraser Mountain- which we run up- are higher in elevation than most Olympic training centers)

3. Lots of rocks and roots and debris to get snagged on

So what I know is this isn’t going to be the half marathon I ran in San Francisco with music and hecklers and a few road hills. I won’t be running 7-minute miles (I don’t really do hat anymore anyway) or even running parts of it… more like crawling with tears.

I hiked up the first part on a rocky route that I’m hoping isn’t on the official course map and the hike alone left me huffing and puffing and moving slower than my Nana’s old poodle when she fed it too much bacon. Point is I need all these months to train and this is what has to change as I transition to trail and my first race as a 35 year old (my god how did I get to be 35?)

What I need to know (and what you need to know) as a runner transitioning to serious trail running status:

  • First of all you do not have to win. Unless you’re a professional and you need sponsorship from Saucony or Brooks, you really can just take your time. Worst case scenario you’re so slow that everyone leaves before you finish and you just chill with some birds and squirrels for a few hours before you take your time returning to normal life off the mountain with a few beautiful photographs for Instagram
  • Rocks, roots, trees, leaves: these are all going to be doing their best to knock you on your ass and it helps for traction and peace of mind to get good trail shoes with grip. My favorite for my feet used to be montrails masochist until Colombia bought them and they changed shape entirely. Now I run in Salomon Speedcross (a half size larger than street shoe size for swelling) and they’re perfect. Likewise, it’s important to wear your contacts or glasses so you can SEE the roots/leaves/rocks, and lift your feet.
  • On trail, as on road, you have to be mindful of others. On the road you have to avoid careless drivers and pedestrians and on the trail you have to avoid trees and hikers and careless mountain bikers. In a race you’re saved from bikers just as you’re saved from drivers in a road race, but you still have to put safety first. This means plan ahead: aid stations or not, bring water in a camelback, hand held bottle, and/or hip pack. Water is essential. Being able to see well is essential. Wearing wicking layers and socks for sweat, and the optimal clothes (you can always shed layers) for the elements, and even some snacks (a couple espresso gu gels maybe). This may not be a survival race in the Australian Outback but you’re going to be in the trees, mountains, cold or hot climate, and whatever you have to face needs to be visualized, prepared for and ultimately respected. “Don’t fuck with Mother Nature” is my mantra and it’s a relief when you put her first and your race goals second.

That’s it I guess. Trails are more fun. Cities are fun but stopping for red lights and speeding trucks can be a drag. Getting covered in dirt and leaves feels like a return to your roots- literally. I like taking pictures in far off enchanting lands, next to my dogs, steep cliffs and hundred year old trees, and sharing them on my smart phone to the world that doesn’t leave their homes and offices enough. Makes me feel like Shackleton on the Endurance except with more food and less hypothermia. Or just like a badass. A postpartum, 35-year-old, mama in yoga pants, pigtails and compression socks badass.

I have known runners (and I’m mostly going to only get into women runners today), who have been extremely down to earth and humble. And then I have known runners, from high school to working at a running shoe store in the Bay Area, from grade school track stars to professional marathoners and ultra runners, who just have this incredibly annoying blend of humility and arrogance. An old ex would call it “fake humility”. It’s where they write articles and give speeches about teamwork and positivity and the inclusive nature of pushing the limits, exploring trails and competition, and then they dismiss actual attempts “average” runners make to reach out, to share a story, or make a connection. I get it. One woman I knew in California was an Olympian and a badass. Why respond when I reach out to compliment her Western States achievement? I’m not on her level.

Bullshit.

I just read this awesome book by Deena Kastor, “Let Your Mind Run”. What I didn’t like about it: it’s co-written and it feels a little too careful for that reason. Like in order to appeal to a wider audience she needed to be tamed down. I love the raw voice of the runner, and wanted that uninhibited by over-editing. However that aside, the book is honest, quizzical, introspective and sharp. Deena (who’s actually interviewed in the recent May issue of Women’s Running magazine), has a gentleness, down-to-earth charm, a true humility and an authenticity that is rare in the competitive sports world. She’s broken records in everything from 5k to marathons, and isn’t afraid to analyze her own mental blocks, negative patterning, and lifelong evolution from self-conscious novice to mom-badass-tough-elite-athlete with a penchant for baking.

I’d love to say I’d love to run with her but she’s way too fast for me. I would love to see more women read her book though, and learn that kindness is a strength and running- even in its solitude- inclusive. That’s why I always loved cross country more than track. It leans toward people like Deena. And she reminds us that running is about the journey, not the outcome. It’s about finding focus and staying present, and through that it’s a joyful experience, as is connecting with others of all backgrounds, shapes, running distances, speeds, experiences and levels.

Of course we see the gamut of inauthentic behavior- self-importance to aggression to fake humility to aloofness- in everything every day. We see it in overworked baristas, apathetic teachers, snobby coworkers- I mean everywhere in a variety of people and jobs and places, Oval offices. What we know is it doesn’t matter who you are, and what you know or can do or can’t do. You DO have a choice to be open, present, grateful and kind. The best athletes in the world, ultimately, will respond when someone they know reaches out and compliment them on their performance. They will connect with kids even off camera and out of the limelight. And they’ll listen to everyone- elite or not- to keep growing. That’s how we learn, develop and live. That’s how we let our minds run.

Now I’m reading another running book- “Running Man” by Charlie Engle. He wrote this all himself and it’s gritty as hell. He lays it all out on the line: addictions to drugs and alcohol, relapses, and ultra-running as his higher power and the passion that taught him how to live and how to believe in himself enough to break the addictions. Deena is like a cupcake if Charlie is a, I don’t know, bottle of moonshine, but both runners have one thing in common: a contagious thirst for life. They want to experience life in its purest, deepest, truest form. That’s what makes running so appealing, as it brings people into the moment- kind of like transcendental meditation- without relying external substances that inevitably disassociate the mind from the body. Running has the ability to transport you from the humdrum of existence while keeping the mind very much still connected to the body. I love this about running. This is what makes it entirely inclusive among real runners and by real I mean people who get past the gu gels and special tights and bras and compression socks, and just really run, not for splits and awards, but for the feeling of being out there, doing it. The feeling of being free.

Running reminds me of the Velveteen Rabbit. The stuffed rabbit became so worn out by the hugs and kisses and all the love of a little boy that it was transformed into a real rabbit. The moral was that love made him real. And running, in its purest form, is love. It wears you down but it makes you real. It hardens you, but it makes you soft, if you allow it. Because it shows you how to see, how to listen, and how to go beyond your own nose. It’s very solitude incites inclusivity when the runner is paying attention. It’s not about the medal or the PR, at least not entirely. It IS about some concept of ultimate reality. It IS saying, “hey old friend, thanks for thinking of me….how have you been?… you are ALSO a badass old friend… cheers”.

Image: running with my bestie on a rocky trail in the Carson National Forest, Talpa, New Mexico.

Corpse Pose

I started the morning in aikido but the professor was in New York, so a sub- who happened to be head of the massage department- led a two hour “yoga” class except it was a lot of savasana (“sha-va-sa-na”)- “corpse pose”, where you lay on your back and act dead- and just standing around mildly waving our arms and rolling our heads around. It was ridiculous. I’m used to hot yoga and headstands and leaving the room glowing and mildly nauseous. He acted like raising my heart rate could potentially kill me. He kept saying things like “don’t stress your body”, “take it easy”, which I understand from a therapeutic standpoint but please don’t come in with a pot belly and track sweats and gloat about your 25 years of yoga experience. Anyway.

This afternoon I ran 7.5 miles which is the longest I’ve ran I awhile. My camelback chaffed my right arm so I’ll have to figure out more clever ways to carry water and my iPhone. I also want a Garmin to track miles so I don’t have to carry my phone but it’s nice having Runkeeper right there and Spotify music and a camera in case I run into mountain goats- which I did a few days ago.

Besides the chafing and a minuscule cramp that surfaced briefly in miles five and six, I felt pretty good. The temperature and wind and clouds were in perfect alliance and only one annoying Taos dog barked me across the street. I looped through no one, not two, by four town parks, and didn’t take a straight out and back course but rather gauged an easy trek around a library and town and even past my house to the soccer field a mile away. It was overall a good experience that left me feeling positive about the half marathon trail run I’m signed up for in August. What unnerved me most about it was half marathon is the longest race I’ve run- only once in San Francisco- and running on a steep trail will be like twice that distance. But then I think about people like Dean Karnazes waking at 3am to run a marathon for fun before breakfast and run 100 mile ultras followed by a marathon and I think- ok, I can do this.

It’s really easy for people to immediately turn into giant babies. We may not wear diapers- probably- but a lot of adults I know need to be pampered- with compliments, pharmaceuticals, wine, gossip, haircuts, selfies. What about getting out of the insular, pampered cave and into this real world of sweat, dirt, trails and tears? It’s ok to get dirty. It’s ok to hurt. It’s good. It means we’re ALIVE. Get out of savasana, get off your ass, and get going.

PS- and then get back into savasana; you deserve it

Photo- a little post-run sauna break

Why do I run?

There’s the whole getting healthy again and back into shape after having a baby. There’s the clearing my head and getting into an introspective, solitary and quiet headspace. There’s the exploration across cities and towns and country trails. I run for many reasons and I think the top reason is that I can have more control over my life.

My husband is in rehab in Santa Fe. I don’t know if he’ll stick with it, or if he sticks with it, if he’ll get a job after, and start cleaning and being a good husband. I don’t know if he’ll get sober for a week or a month or several years or just another day because he’s relapsed so many times and gone off the deep end in every respect that I can’t have any faith in him at all. I can’t control him or direct what happens next but I can have some element of control over my own life. And that’s where my marathon training and calorie-tracking come into play. I have to focus on this and my healing and my daughter and dogs, or else my heart will break.

My own cozy, homemade void…

“All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says.” ― Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

When I was six, I ran a 10k with my dad in Dallas, Texas. I ran it again with him the next two years. He wouldn’t let me walk at all, it was hard and I remember partly loving it because I was small and proud, and partly hating it because it seemed really long and made my feet hurt.

Then I ran track in grade school and cross county in high school. And then I stopped running. I would run around the dorms a little and later in Korea when I taught English. When I moved back to the states and took classes in Portland, I videotaped the Portland Marathon and remembered thinking “I wish I could do that.” But I also smoked then and spent more time going on walks with a coffee mug, playing with my cat, and biking on sidewalks.

When I moved to New Jersey for a summer, I ran around multilingual streets and took a bus to the city to run through Central Park and finish with a night cap. I moved to the Bay Area and worked at a running shoe store and quit smoking for awhile. Then I learned all about pronation and “toe shoes”, and ran three San Francisco Half-marathon and Bay to Breakers. And then I went to grad school and smoked again.

After I graduated I moved back to my hometown and ran under the Grand Tetons and through Yellowstone. I drove to geological masterpieces and ran around geysers and lava and bison and elk. And then I got pregnant. I had preeclampsia and was on bedrest and I gained more weight then I thought possible. And I looked in the mirror and thought, “this isn’t me…this can’t be who I am now”. I watched the Olympics marathons from my hospital room and I thought, “I wish I could do that”.

Fast-forward 20 months. My daughter will be 18 months old tomorrow and I am training for a marathon. I guess one morning I woke up and I thought “I can do that. Maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow. Fuck maybe not even in three months, but I CAN do that”.

I downloaded “Aaptiv” and ran a 5k training program with pretty terrible music playlists and then a 10k, 30-day training program with even worse music. Then I downloaded the “Runkeeper” app and started tracking the distance and locations of my runs.

I KNOW how to run, and all about the shoes and cross-training. I know about diet, and mental preparation. So here was my mental reminder: I CAN do that. Someday, soon, I can. And I will.

Today I ran five miles from my house to Fred Baca Park, and a little loop on the park and down a country road and back to the park and to my house. There were two annoying Taos dogs barking behind fences, several large trucks and a couple of bewildered faces behind steering wheels wondering why anyone would be running, but it was mostly an exhilarating run, with high desert winds almost blowing me over.

I took Freyja my mini Aussie, and the only one of my three dogs who runs mostly with me and not wildly around me (like my pit mix) or dragging behind (like my chihuahua/terrier mix). Freyja mostly listens and when she doesn’t she’s easy to reel in so together we ran to my own carefully crafted playlist and I thought about the marathons I want to do. Maybe I can’t control my husband (he relapsed on meth again and is staying in a motel right now) or this marriage, and maybe it’s all pretty overwhelming and almost impossible to get the time as a practically single mom right now to just get out and run, but I’m doing it and I can do it, and I will do it.

And why the hell do I want to? Because I can control this: my diet, my training, my mind. I can keep going. I can get better and run longer and faster. I already am and I’m feeling alive and in my own body again. Days like today, with strong gusts of wind and the sun flowing down beneath thick clouds, thee days are full of energy and I’m IN them and feeling them fully, and that’s what life is all about. That’s what I love about running, and how it makes me feel more like a warrior capable of managing the seemingly unmanageable. I don’t think a psychiatrist could teach me that.

Walls and Walls and Walls, Oh My!

There are many walls that crop up when someone gets back into running. I read in a recent issue of Runner’s World about these walls and I’ve resigned to combatting them wildly until I feel I’ve got a good working knowledge of how they manipulate my success. Because like I said many walls crop up when you gets back into running, and the more serious you become, the more you integrate it into your life, the more you can differentiate between these walls and how to conquer them. For instance, the injury wall. If I hadn’t chosen to talk abut running I would have immediately chosen yoga. I’m not sure of the research behind it but I am certain every long term successful endurance runner practices a form of yoga as well as strength training. And if they don’t- like they just love to run and that’s all they ever do- they’ll eventually crash. Because as rejuvenating and anti-aging and exhilarating as running is, it’s also really hard on the body. It’s constant pounding into the ground and light on your feet or not, if you don’t stretch before and after you’ll build up lactic acid in your joints and become stiff like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz. And who wants to be the Tin Man? Nobody!

Other walls to detect and conquer: the porta-potty wall (every runner feels at some point that they have to pee, just don’t let it consume your race); the weight wall (to freak out or lose motivation when you plateau or don’t lose weight the way you envisioned is counterproductive…again be realistic about the calories you burn, and try not to let the difference between the calories you burn and the number you eat a day be greater than 500 in either direction). A lot of novice runners make the mistake of training too hard, too fast, which leads to immediate plateaus and injuries, or thinking “since I ran all that I can eat all these extra calories”. In reality, that’s why runners interested in weight loss often are disappointed. That’s where the weight wall arises. First it’s likely they’re developing new muscle, which can add weight, and if they’re eating a lot more and not working out hard enough then the calories burned could pale in comparison to the calories they think they burned. For the sake of injuries and plateaus, and to spur along weight loss for the runners looking for it, it’s essential to get rest. It sounds counterintuitive but it’s crucial to healing the body and building muscle between another essential element: strength training and speed work.

Then there’s the mojo wall (pick a goal you’re genuinely passionate about so you don’t burn out), and the mental wall (willpower requires rest and self-belief). One of the greatest things about endurance running is how many times you have to test your own fortitude. I guess if you like the idea of fighting in a battle, running for your life from a tiger, enduring the elements while stranded in the wilderness of northern Canada, then you will probably love distance running. I know I do. And it isn’t about what you’ll look like in the latest yoga pants at your barre class, or how ripped your abs will be in two months. Is entirely about getting dirty and getting tough. I like that. I did track in high school because I’ve alway had a special talent for running in circles. Now I run to break my cycles and to feel free..

*photo: Went on a run to lower Salto falls with my old dog Lady and a guy on a 4 wheeler said I was supposed to pay to be up there bc apparently an old Spanish family owns the mountain and, well, NOBODY FUCKING OWNS A MOUNTAIN MY FRIEND, IT’LL BURY YOUR ASS IN A FEW DECADES.

Heart- opening, lung-expanding, completely present peace of mind

“The Hopis consider running a form of prayer; they offer every step as a sacrifice

to a loved one, and in return ask the Great Spirit to match their strength with some of his own.”  

-Christopher McDougall

Speaking of healing, running is like Al-Anon in my life. While he’s a great dad and a creative soul, my husband is also an alcoholic. He’s relapsed again and I’m just sick of the lies and thinking maybe this is it; and it’s been a roller coaster ride marrying and subsequently having a daughter with someone very controlled by addiction. It also has, at a time when I needed it most, made it hard to have the time or the willpower to get up and get active. And as hard as it was, I’ve managed to do just that, with some new wisdom along the way. Before I add any research into the equation, I can just say from personal experience that it takes a lot out of you but it also makes you a rest bullshit detector and gritty person to grow up with a recovery alcoholic and a control freak (my dad), and then to marry someone with similar chemistry only adds to the concoction of grit an athlete needs to excel. I know, after this experience, as I learn to rise above it and be strong again, I will be stronger than ever. It’s just a matter of knowing what makes me forget in the first place how to look after myself when I need it most. A huge aspect of Al-Anon (a group for family members of alcoholics) is learning to let go and focus again on yourself as opposed to the addict. Instead of resenting or blaming or trying to control the addict it’s about finding a higher power- whatever that is for you- and letting it guide you inward. For me that higher power is nature and being in nature. Often that means running in nature and the mental stillness that invokes.

“Running is my private time, my therapy, my religion.” -Gail W. Kislevitz

Nothing compares to the heart- opening, lung-expanding, completely present peace of mind you get after a long run, or the bliss when you’ve crashed through a mental barrier and you’re still running, faster, into a place all your own. It’s just you, your dog, and the sound of the wind in the trees. That’s zen, and that’s what I lost and rediscovered as I found another addict play a leading role in my life. I believe the Universe was telling me how I could get out of resentment and self-pry and feel alive again and it wasn’t by being the best journalist in town, or the most well known photographer, or the most successful wife. It was by letting go. George Foreman once said to his kids that they weren’t going to be the strongest or most beautiful or fastest… but they could be the nicest. That being nice is a true treasure. And when you run, and push your own limits to the extreme, you can’t help but climb out of your ego and feel fully aware and touched by the world. And that makes you nice. That makes you a true treasure. Running makes me feel less like killing someone. That’s what all the struggles- at home or in a race- are ultimately about.

*photo from yesterday- a tempestuous day that required some indoor treadmill work

I’m not healing anyone before I heal myself…

I guess the reason I’m a runner who also loves ballet and yoga is I see grace in running as there is grace in dance and zen in running as there’s zen in yoga and meditation. A fit runner will move like a gazelle or a deer. They’re light on their feet and agile like Muhammad Ali in his prime. Especially trail runners. When you run trails you have to watch for rocks, and ditches, and occasional cliffs, so you have to be quick but all the time seeing the big picture and staying relaxed. Sometimes trail running reminds me of the grace in the ballet La Bayadere. Sometimes it reminds me of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s fateful Trans-Antarctic expedition on the Endurance. There’s nothing like the clarity of mind from a long outdoor run in nature. It’s partly the boost of endorphins and seretonin, and the surrounding tranquility, but to escape the tailgaters, arrogant preachers and chickens running around with their heads cut off in society, and to immerse every part of your self in this otherworldly reality will tune you into a higher frequency like an intense meditation. And it is a form of moving meditation, albeit with overly expensive running shoes and polar fleece.

So yoga- as an extension of my running regimen and a wholly natural way to improve my health and posture- ranges from 30 minutes to an hour and a half daily. It usually has a converse relationship with my running schedule, meaning that I keep the yoga more relaxed when I’m ramping up mileage. The strength and flexibility that I’m redeveloping on the mat- in the core, quads, hamstrings, and hip flexors- helps me run more efficiently and avoid injuries. While it might be more common among yoga enthusiasts than one might think but I admittedly find an absurd amount of joy in locating out of the way places within 30 miles proximity of my house, and practicing my yoga moves. While my dogs run around like the three stooges in the southwestern sagebrush and juniper trees, I try to improve camel pose, warrior poses, backbends and headstand. There’s always downward dog, where you have your hands and feet on the ground and you’re shaped like a triangle. Other favorite poses include half moon pose to lengthen the side body, eagle pose (arms and legs are twisted together as you stand on one foot) which is good for everything from metabolism to balance, and standing bow, which is again on one foot, holding the other foot behind you and sort of soaring forward. There are many poses that, painful or calming, just make me feel like a glowing goddess after a few repetitions.

I believe yoga is the poor man’s fountain of youth. My favorite yoga phone app is the Berlin-based Asana Rebel, which mixes aerobic exercises and yoga. It has 10-30 minute workouts with a warmup and cool-down and names like “beach body” and “whole body toner”, and always end in shavasana or “corpse pose”. My toddler Dakota crawls underneath me and makes various sound effects until I stop and pay attention to her. Sometimes I’ll be in the middle of pigeon pose and she’ll throw her bottle on the ground from her crib and I’ll pause my workout and pick it up and give it back to her and she’ll drink milk for a minute and in the middle of warrior II Dakota will throw her bottle down again and we’ll repeat the process. This is mommy yoga which I love because at the end of it, in shavasana, when I’m sweating and lying down staring up at the ceiling, she’s usually either asleep or smiling at me. In shavasana, everything from the workout integrates and the body, mind, spirit come into balance.

My body seems to also know when it needs a break. After a day of endurance running and an hour of yoga (by this I mean a mix of vinyasa flow, ashtanga and Bikram), I woke the next day feeling slightly nauseous, stiff and tired. My husband went to work early and of course with a two year old I’d already been up for hours by then. When he left I put on one of her favorite Netflix shows on my laptop and placed it by her crib, then I slept for three hours. I woke feeling refreshed and ready to move. So this was my body wisdom telling me to put in more recovery time. It’s something we moms sometimes ignore only to feel years down the road when high blood pressure and back problems override our inborn habits of nurturing our young more than ourselves. This massage program I’m in has reminded me that I’m not healing anyone before I heal myself. My mom- retired Air Force Captain who usually worked 12 hour day and night shifts, up at 5 am and rolling me off at a large Colombian family’s house two hours before school, and who binge ate snickers to relax and had Type 2 diabetes, never learned to take a real look at herself and give herself the time and self love she needed. I didn’t want to make that same mistake. It wouldn’t do my daughter or husband any good, and it would slowly kill me.

*me in my new kicks on the rowing machine before a run

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