A tale of life as a runner.

Building a house in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador meant something entirely different to me because I am a runner and running at altitude is really hard. And when we spent a full hour diving head first onto a mat during Kung Fu to practice our offensive roll, everyone woke up the next day sore all over; except me and my sore-all-over were in the middle of marathon training.

The year I fell out of bed and broke my little toe put me in a different sort of awkward when it happened just days before the Marine Corp Marathon, and a few years later when I helped establish a health clinic in the Rift Valley of Kenya, it was precisely because I am a runner that I was afforded the opportunity to run with a Kenyan elite runner on the same roads where the world’s best runners train.

Running with an elite runner in Kenya, the view from our home in Cuenca Ecuador, and that’s me sporting a finisher’s medal from the Marine Corp Marathon. . . and a broken toe.

This year marks my 10th year of competitive running, and looking back on these ten years I can see the tremendous impact running has had on my life. Standing at the starting line of a race takes courage, no matter the distance. Finishing a race builds confidence, and that confidence gives you the courage to do other things outside your comfort zone – to live life fully, to take risks. Cases in point. . .

I took up Kung Fu six years ago to build a stronger core for racing, and in the process realized I really like Kung Fu and Tai Chi. The following summer I took up cycling to build stronger legs for running. I was so nervous about riding a bike in these mountains that my husband went with me the first time to show me I could do this. Cycling definitely helps my running, but it wouldn’t matter. I love cycling.

A few years later, I realized there were classes at our local community college that taught hiking, paddling, and climbing. It scared me to death, but I enrolled myself in school. I was 54 years old, and discovered I loved hiking, paddling, and climbing. All of these helped my running that year, but more importantly running had made me fit enough to survive school.

Before the summer break our instructor wrote the fall classes on a white board at the back of the classroom – a sort of advertisement for attending one more semester of school. In a moment of unwarranted confidence, I blurted out right there that I would take the Swift Water Rescue class. I was a nervous wreck every day I went to that class, and came home more energized (and exhausted) than ever before.

Our instructors were clear that it was only after we had learned to save ourselves that we could be in a position to save someone else – a lesson I remembered every day of class, and every day since. I don’t know that Swift Water Rescue helped my running, but I discovered I really enjoy search and rescue, and that class changed my life.

In a consultation with my instructor at the beginning of summer break, we discussed what I wanted to be when I grow up – a conversation we didn’t even pretend wasn’t ill-timed on my behalf. He suggested I take the upcoming EMT class, and in another unwarranted moment of confidence-laden naivety, I signed up. That class gave way to a trip to Africa, and I realized I love working with children and medicine.

It has been three years since I became certified as an EMT. I have not saved one soul, never administered CPR, and when the doctor suggested I could take out my husband’s stitches from surgery last year, I nearly panicked. Being an EMT has not helped my running, but it has made me a better person. It has given me confidence that I can do things I never dreamed.

Running has definitely changed my life more so than any other sport I’ve taken up. But the most rewarding part of running really was when I started this blog so I could write about life as a runner.

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True to my corporate upbringing, the first thing I did after establishing this blog was to give it a name, a defining tag line, and a mission statement: to encourage others to pursue their passion, whatever that may be.

It is said that passion is a state in which the soul is in some sense rendered passive; thus the name passion, and while passion may cause havoc in the soul, the absence of this emotion has been found equally damaging.

Steve Jobs (2011):   We believe that people with passion can change the world for the better.

I was in class last week to begin my re-certification as an EMT when one of my instructors described his work week. He is a substitute grammar school teacher (because that’s what his degree is in), an EMT instructor, a climbing instructor at the community college I attended, a Paramedic at the local rescue squad, and he’s learning to be a fire fighter. His goal, he explained, is to have a different job every day of the week that he loves doing.

Life is so much more exciting when you discover those things you love to do, and then go do them. Yes, I think passion is a wonderful thing.

Passion is energy. Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites you. – Oprah Winfrey

Bringing New Light to an Old House

A well-conceived electrical plan is what makes a house shine, quite literally. Maybe that house has loads of character, good bones and a fabulous design, but who would know this if you can’t see it – if its most excellent features aren’t highlighted? With this notion top of mind, I went about the job of deciding exactly how our lovely old home should be lit.

sun_houseFor several days I researched and studied the home’s architecture, envisioning how I would re-interpret its interior decor for the way we live. We walked room by room where walls have been stripped bare of out-of-date outlets, wiring and fixtures  – rooms which now patiently await a grand plan that will allow them to carry on a bright, new life in a modern world.

Perhaps there comes a time when we too are like this lovely, old home finding ourselves out of date, out of touch or generally stale. That point where we ask ourselves, what now? What is our grand plan to carry on in a new, modern world?

The question came about in my life two years ago. There wasn’t a definitive answer, but rather a decision to be open to anything. That anything turned out to be school.

A full year was spent learning new skills and pushing myself to new limits – mentally and physically. I discovered I was a tough, old broad afterall. Then I graduated.

As a student we are protected, guided. There are classmates, counselors and instructors that provide support. In the real world, it takes time to develop this infrastructure – it’s downright scary. All winter I struggled to answer the question again, what now? I’ve tried new things, crawled back home and vowed not to try anything new ever again, kicked myself in the butt for being a coward, tried new things again…..

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I’ve done an exhaustive search on what exactly is required to reinvent oneself, thinking perhaps I’ve missed a step. I read everything I could find on what makes us humans happy. Finally, what resonated for me was a quote by Abraham Maslow, “What a man can be, he must be.”

Maslow, an American psychologist, used this line when describing a person’s perceived need for self-actualization – the desire for self-fulfillment, to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be. It was not Maslow’s view that self-actualization determined one’s life; rather, he felt it gave the individual a desire, or motivation to achieve budding ambitions.

Quotation-Abraham-Maslow-life-rest-inspiration-Meetville-Quotes-813This gave me comfort and a bit of confidence to once again strike out on new adventures. It gave me the courage to do something with the skills I have learned.

Still, it’s scary to try new things. But to grow, we must risk being vulnerable. It is this process of risk, growth and self-actualization that makes us truly shine; to be the best we can be, and ultimately happy.

And, if this lovely old home could speak, I feel certain she would tell us she feels naked, scared and vulnerable. I would tell her to be patient and brave. When the plan has been fully executed, her light will once again shine bright – quite literally.

 

Brain Games You’ll Want to Play

Conscious decision-making is actually a rare condition of the human brain. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any repeated behavior into a habit because habits allow the brain to conserve effort. By conserving all that energy, the brain has become oblivious to the wretched havoc it dispenses onto our poor bodies.

This oblivious, unconscious behavior called a habit can be defined simply as a ‘chunk’ of behavior.

"The Power of Habit" by Charles Duhigg
“The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg

First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical, mental or emotional. Finally, a reward, which helps your brain understand if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop — cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward — becomes more and more automatic. It’s hard-wired into our brains, and consciousness is the smallest part of the operation.

Studies have proven the reward sensory will appear on cue – before the routine is performed. The mere anticipation of the reward sends us into a happy dance. Craving, as it turns out, powers the habit.

It would serve to reason then if you wanted to change a habit, something within the three-step process much change. An afternoon break from work may change from having a soda to a cup of tea (the routine changes), or you may silence the chime of your phone to avoid checking email a gazillion billion times a day (change the trigger). But, what if the goal is to create a new habit? This calls for a brain-teaser of a different variety altogether.

There are three things that must happen at the same moment to cause a new behavior: the motivation to do it, the ability to do it, and a trigger to remind you to do it.

The trigger can be any existing habit or behavior; so long as you establish the new habit that will follow the trigger. This process is used to essentially “stack” habits.

Inspired by BJ Fogg and a TEDxTalk, Benjamin Spall wrote about his own experience of stacking habits to add flossing, stretching, push-ups and meditation to his morning routine:

“I immediately got started, first stretching like I’d never stretched before (which isn’t too far from the truth), before jumping on the ground to do 10 push-ups. I could have done more, but I knew the only way I was going to have a fair shot at sticking to this habit was to allow myself to get a taste for it, a taste which would then lead me to wanting to continue with the task. After each flossing, stretching, and push-ups session, I drank a glass of water and sat down for five minutes of silent meditation. Five minutes slowly became ten, which soon morphed into fifteen.”

This was also the approach used by coach Bob Bowman to get Michael Phelps to an Olympic Gold starting block. “There’s a series of things we do before every race that are designed to give Michael a sense of building victory,” says Bowman.

Anyone who watched Phelps during his streak of gold would remember the calm routine he executed before every race.Phelps2

Two hours before the race he began with stretching, warm-up laps, squeezing into his LZR Racer, a bodysuit so tight it required twenty minutes of tugging to put it on, and finally those headphones playing the hip-hop mix he always played before a race. When the announcer said his name, Phelps stepped onto the block, then stepped down, as he always did. He swung his arms three times, as he had before every race since he was twelve years old. He stepped up on the blocks again, got into his stance, and, when the gun sounded, he leapt.

The actual race was just another step in a pattern that started earlier in the day, and winning was a natural extension of the pattern.

phelps3Another key component of Phelps’ training was visualization – creating an image in his mind of success. That vision of success powered the craving to win.

If you’re five weeks into the creation of a New Year’s habit – like a billion other folks around the planet – don’t get discouraged if that habit is proving difficult to form. The brain is powerful, but lazy… unyielding, but not hopeless.

“Habits – even once they are rooted in our minds – aren’t destiny. We can choose our habits, once we know how.”
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

N=1

In 1954, the world was stuck at a 4:01.4 minute mile. It seemed improbable anyone could or ever would break the 4-minute mile. John Landy tried 6 times in an 18-month period and came within 3 seconds of doing so before he proclaimed, “The four-minute mile is a brick wall, and I shan’t attempt it again.”

A medical student, Roger Bannister, takes to the track in Oxford, on May 6, 1954, and runs 3:59.4. Six weeks later, John Landy runs the mile in 3:58.0.

Mark McClusky wrote the book “Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science Is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes—and What We Can Learn from Them” where he concludes that the high-performance sports world approaches problems in a way that goes beyond winning games and can provide everyone ways to optimize other parts of our lives.

These things that we can learn from athletes are quite simple actually – the way most important lessons tend to be.

imageLots of little things become big changes is the cornerstone of Dave Brailsford’s career. No British cyclist had ever won the Tour de France, and Brailsford was asked to change that.

His approach was simple…. a concept he referred to as the “aggregation of marginal gains” whereby he implemented “a 1 percent margin for improvement in everything you do.” His belief was that if you improved every area related to cycling by just 1 percent, those small gains would add up to remarkable improvement. They optimized everything from the nutrition of the riders and the ergonomics of the bike seat to testing for the most effective massage gel and the best pillow to sleep on. Nothing was excluded from his scrutiny and the 1% improvement. The goal was to win the Tour de France in five years. They won it in three.

Almost every habit we have – good or bad – is the result of many small decisions over time that can be corrected as a result of many small decisions over time.

Peter Drucker said, “What gets measured gets managed.” Athletes are some of the best at measuring and tracking everything under the sun: pace, distance, VO2 Max, watts per hour….. on and on. The theory being that people change their behavior – often for the better – when they are being observed or measured (which is why it’s sometimes called the observer effect). The makers of our techno-gadgets understand this, as do organizations such as Weight Watchers. One of the first things you’ll be advised to do in a weight-loss program is to write down everything you eat during the day.

One could correlate breaking the 4-minute mile barrier to this same phenomenon.

Landy had done all his 4:01s in what were effectively time-trials. He was isolated and alone, and working harder than he might have with the support of pace-setters or the spur of rivals. Bannister, on the other hand, used pacers to set the race up for his final lap, and they pulled him through three laps in just outside 3:00.

Ironically, when Landy eventually broke the 4-minute mile at 3.58, he not only had a pace-setter, but he had one of Bannister’s pacers for company – not as a pace-setter, but as competitor who pushed him all the way through the bell.

In a scientific paper, N stands for the number of participants, or the sample size. Generally speaking, the more subjects – the bigger the N – the better.

Doctors, coaches and professionals use these scientific studies to develop programs that will apply to a broad spectrum of the population. Doctors develop treatment or rehabilitation programs, coaches create training plans. I have used what I call “off-the-shelf” training programs for years quite successfully. Once in awhile, however, they don’t fit.

Even when I find exactly what works for me, chances are it will be all wrong for you. The one consistency I have found in sports is that we are all very individual – in every way. The coaches, the books, the training plans work very well as a guide to get us started. Eventually the time will come that we must learn what works for us, what makes us tick.

That’s what athletes do quite well; they learn what does and does not work for them. We make mistakes, and we learn from these mistakes. We keep a log of our training and watch hours of game film to isolate exactly what got us into trouble. Slowly but surely we figure out what we’re good at, what we need to improve on, and the methods that culminate in success.

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Most have said Sir Roger’s success came because he, better than anyone, perceived the battle for the 4-minute mile was fought in the mind, not in the body.

Bannister reduced the race to its simplest common denominator – 400m in 1:00 or multiples thereof. He trained until running 400m in 1:00, 24 km per hour, became automatic.

Exacting change in our life and pushing ourselves to new places is scary, overwhelming until we break it down to the most common denominator. Then we realize it’s the simple things that create success: making small changes that can be maintained every day, measuring our progress and telling someone our goal – allowing them to push us, encourage us. Perhaps most important is that we remember that we are the individual test subject in our own study of life….N=1.

When I told my husband about this topic, his response was, “Motivation comes from good marketing. Success comes from N=1.” That nets it out fairly well, actually.

The Pendulum Effect

We have decided that when I fell out of bed eight weeks ago during the taper, I did not just hurt my little toe, I may have broken my little toe. My husband researched the symptoms: tender to the touch, fever, bruised, swollen….eight week recovery.

For six weeks I could only fit this little toe into three pair of shoes from my closet. This week I have added three more pair of shoes and my choice of dinner outfits has increased exponentially.

When I suggested a spring marathon my husband said, “First, you will have to fix that little toe.” That little toe has partners in crime.

The cramps that nearly crippled me during the marathon continued for four more weeks – maddening bolts of lightning that ripped through my abs, calves and feet. I am still at a loss regarding their cause. The pulled muscle in my calf healed completely in about five weeks and both ankles eventually became sore before they too subsided.

Meanwhile, I have enthusiastically pursued my new core strengthening exercises…. perhaps too enthusiastically. I think I have pulled a muscle in my hip. This is not a good way to begin marathon training, but it is not the injuries that worry me the most.

No matter which marathon training program I consider, both the 17- and 18- mile runs occur during the 9-day intensive back country rescue course in early March. And, whether I choose to run one, two or three 20-mile runs this semester, a 20-mile run occurs during the weekend I will be on a 3-day backpacking trip with the rest of my Land Based Activities class. I have repeatedly questioned why I wanted to complicate my life.

Last week I drove down to visit my Mom and Dad. My Mother has been sick for a while but my sister and I convinced her to let us take her for a pedicure – her first one ever. We were like three school girls laughing and telling stories. It was the sweetest moment in time.

Many years ago when my son was young, he and I drove down to visit my parents every six weeks. It was a simpler time in my life and I have such fond memories of those trips. But, I transferred to Chicago and the visit every six weeks ended.

On the drive home this week I thought about the analogy I frequently use – the pendulum effect. Life seems to be perfect for barely a moment when the pendulum is at its most vertical position, before it begins its next move to the far right or left. I think this can be seen in the climate, politics…..in life.

As I was longing for that simpler life, I noticed the imaginary hands of the clock. Suddenly I see that if the pendulum remains vertical, the clock stops.

Possibly each time the pendulum swings we explore new ideas, new routines….we expand our lives. During the swing back to center we net out the best of these new things and settle into a new perfect.

If not for the venture onto the far side, we would not grow….our clock, our progress would stand still.

The pendulum of my life is ready to move. I have enjoyed what has felt like a perfectly calm period. Maybe this new routine will feel chaotic at moments. Maybe I will not choose to continue some things while other things will become part of my new normal.

This semester I will take a glimpse of who I will become – a test drive so to speak for what one day may again seem like the most vertical, perfect position of life.

Change what you can….accept the rest.

As of this day, I have survived six weeks of insanity and the battle is almost over.

When I wrote the post back in August about completing six more weeks of construction, I didn’t realize just how close to insane I might become. But today the laundry room is complete and I have saved a week’s worth of laundry to do in my new washer and dryer for this afternoon.

You may have thought the story of firewood was long ago finished as well, but it was not.

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Nick and I hatched a plan for getting the wood from the driveway below to the wood shed up above that did not include me pushing it up the winding path in my wheelbarrow.

He threw the wood onto the back of his truck and then he threw it to the yard up above. I threw it a few more feet inside the woodshed and stacked it in neat rows. We both had nightmares about throwing wood but finally it is all finished.

There have only been two more sources of insanity that would have to be resolved to officially end the six weeks: Dylan and The Ivy.

The word we say in this house most often is “Dylan!”. This is, of course, the name of our manic standard poodle.

I have tried to write about Dylan on many occasions only to realize I was venting, like a mother weary from a week of rainy days and bored children. Dylan is a beautiful dog excited about life…. on steroids. I want him to be Dylan, but a slightly more subdued version of Dylan.

So, today Dylan goes to the Doctor and gets a little snip, snip. Yes, he should have had this surgery years ago and somehow we never got around to it. I was opening a store, then we were moving to Ecuador, then moving back and here we are four years into his life regretting there was never time.

The Ivy can not be fixed by the doctor. It covers the entire property and being a little OCD myself, I can not stand that it is out of control.

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Friends come over and admire the ivy. I ask them to take it home with them. Some of them do and we fill buckets and buckets with all we can dig up. It still consumes my life.

The lesson I have learned from these six weeks of insanity is to accept that which we can not change and change what we can.

I announced to my husband last weekend that from this day forward I will accept the ivy. I can trim it and keep it within its boundaries but I will no longer attempt to eradicate it from this yard.

It has been a difficult six-week period. I have cried, screamed and pouted about the house being a wreck from the construction, not having any privacy because of the construction, not being able to sleep in because of the construction, and Dylan gets crazier than ever because of the construction.

Finally, I have reached the end of this chapter and have a few good lessons in my bag:

  1. Get your dog snip, snipped before he becomes a terror,
  2. Limit construction projects to less than a year at a time,
  3. Let the ivy grow…..change what you can, learn to accept the rest.

Keep Calm and Carry On

If you are a parent, you surely remember the very first poopy diaper. Even though the nurses warned me, nothing on earth can prepare you for that experience. There’s not much point in preparation really…you just have to get through it on your own.

When we moved into our home in North Carolina, I left an empty box in the corner of the kitchen. I had unpacked as much as I could and then left to spend the summer in Newport, Rhode Island with my husband. When I returned and picked up the box to throw it out, what seemed like hundreds of baby snakes fell out of the box.

I screamed in horror as they squirmed and scooted all over the kitchen floor. It was my worst nightmare. But it was very real and I had to face the unimaginable – that I alone would have to get these snakes out of my kitchen.

I wanted to cry, but there was no time. I thought about slamming the door and leaving them. But in the end, with no other obvious option available, I pulled myself together and figured it out.

I found the broom and began dragging each one of the little creeps to the door, sweeping them onto the porch and off the edge. It was one of the most horrifying things I’ve ever had to make myself deal with.

Everyone has these moments.  Maybe you can’t imagine how you’ll make it to the end of a run, or finish that race, or the dogs come out chasing you, or you need a porta potty NOW.

I’ve been 8 or 9 miles down the road and stopped in despair because I did not want to keep going. But what are you to do? You pull yourself together and figure out how to just keep moving.

Those snakes were  ringneck snakes – a nice little black snake that wouldn’t hurt a soul but eats up all the things you don’t want around the house. The really bad news is that their mommy has made our house her delivery room of sorts – since forever. The previous owner says he dealt with them too (although this was never disclosed before closing!).

So every year we wait on the baby snakes to arrive and one by one we usher them out to the unknown of our yard. I dread them all the same but it’s one of those things I’ve come to live with – as unbelievable as that may sound to most folks.

The same is true of the bats that sleep under the eaves every summer and the little bird that builds a nest for her babies on the porch – every year the same cycle of life.

The moral of this story is that sometimes we must do things we absolutely don’t think we can do. It happens in life, it happens in running, it happens when you get old…..it just happens. Pulling ourselves together and figuring it out is what makes it easier to get through next time.

My son bought a poster years ago. It was one of those times that you see something and know it was meant to be yours. He framed it and hung it by the front door of his apartment. His buddies laughed at it. Years later the words or derivatives of those words were everywhere.

I think of his poster sometimes and say the words to myself out loud:


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