Tag Archives: running

Focus on Form

A reflection about running, and also more than running.

This past weekend I was in Comfort, Texas, celebrating my brother’s recent marriage. As part of my training for an upcoming half marathon, and the Houston Marathon in January, I had a track workout scheduled for Saturday. I drove to Comfort High School a little before dawn to run some fast-for-me miles around the track (pictured above).

Speed workouts, like long runs, are a test of psychological strength as much as physical endurance. Around the 3/4 mark is when my energy and motivation always start to flag. I’ve learned a variety of mental tricks to keep going, and I needed them Saturday too. I was mentally thumbing through my list of favorite mantras and slogans when I remembered something I’d heard on a running podcast:

Beginning runners focus on the pain.
Intermediate runners focus on the mileage.
Advanced runners focus on form.

It’s definitely true for me. When I first started running several years ago and the going got tough, all I could think about was my burning lungs or stinging quads. (Pro-tip: focusing on the pain is not a good recipe for endurance.)

As I gained more experience on my feet—as an intermediate runner—I would focus on the miles: how far I’d come, how far I still had to go. If I was feeling good, that could be motivating: More than halfway through… Two-thirds done… Just a mile to go! If things were going poorly, however, it was a motivation-killer: You still have seven miles. You’ll never make it. Loser. Focusing on the mileage can be brutal in a race, especially if you’re a middle-of-the-pack runner like me: Lots of people have already finished, and you still have miles to go. And look at all these people passing you.

As for being an advanced runner, I don’t know whether I’ve achieved that milestone yet, but on Saturday morning I decided not to think about the pain, or where I was in my workout, but to focus on form.
Shoulders back and down.
Torso tall.
Quick feet.
Easy breath.
Arms bent at 90 degrees. 

It helped! The miles were still a tough effort, but I focused on myself—on what I could control, and the countless small adjustments that would make the remaining laps more bearable.

Later I pondered how this concept applies to life in general. When we’re in the midst of deep adversity, or even just an unexpected detour, what do we do? 
Do we fixate on the pain and negativity, until that’s all we can see?
Do we obsess over external factors beyond our control?
Or do we turn inward, breathe deeply, and focus on what we can change… namely, our own response?

This week’s shooting in Las Vegas—the most deadly in modern history—has offered an enormous, heartbreaking opportunity to practice this approach.

It’s natural and understandable to feel the full impact of that pain—to empathize with the 59 lost and 527 injured (so far), and their families and loved ones. I myself find it hard to turn away from the stories. But I also know that to focus on the pain to the exclusion of all else will consume me.

It’s also understandable, like the intermediate runner, to focus on the miles… to look around at our culture of violence, the sorry state of gun safety legislation, the dearth of mental health resources for people in need, or all of the above. Many of us wonder why the United States has such a shameful track record compared to other developed nations, and whether our political leaders will display any political wisdom or courage to make a change. I’ll be honest; I don’t see much reason to hope for progress right now.

What, then, is left? To focus on form. To care for myself and the people around me. To look inward, and make sure I am acting with the most integrity, wisdom, and compassion. To tend to my breathing. To do what’s mine to do. In my case, that means giving money and writing letters and making phone calls to Congress… and also showing up to work each day, and reading nourishing books, and eating food that’s good for me and for the earth.

To focus on form means to “run the race that is set before us,” as the author of the book of Hebrews wrote to the early church so long ago. I wish the terrain were different—less treacherous, less painful for body and soul. But the race is ours to run nonetheless.

I’m glad we’re running it together.

Fight back with beauty,
MaryAnn

Note: This message was sent to my email newsletter this morning. If you’d like to receive twice-monthly reflections right to your inbox, subscribe.
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Want to “work on your form,” as a runner or as a human being? I do running coaching and personal/professional coaching as well. Learn more here.

Go Until No

The Steeple Chasers, 2015

It’s September, which means it’s Ragnar Relay time for me. Ragnar is an event in which teams of twelve people take turns running for some two days straight, through day and night, rain and shine, cold and heat. As I write this, our team is preparing to run next weekend from Cumberland, MD to Washington DC, a distance of 200 miles. Each of us will run three legs for a total of thirteen to twenty-plus miles. (I’m somewhere in the middle at eighteen.) As each runner completes their leg, vans carry the other runners to the next checkpoint, along with a considerable amount of gear. When the previous runner reaches the checkpoint, that person passes along the metal bracelet to the next runner, and off they go.

This is my fourth year to captain a Ragnar Relay team, and as I prepare this year, I can’t help but remember two years ago, when we made our race preparations with one eye on the Weather Channel. Hurricane Joaquin was wreaking havoc on the Bahamas and threatening the mid-Atlantic—exactly where we’d be running in a few days’ time. Forecasters were having a hard time predicting exactly where Joaquin would go, but it was looking more and more like we were in for a soggy race.

Rain we could handle, but what about winds? Flying debris? Flash floods? One member of our team was blunt: “I have serious concerns about doing this race.” Another quickly jumped in to agree. Others weren’t sure. They were willing to try it, but this is a team event, and they didn’t want to appear to be strong-arming the reluctant folks. Besides, wouldn’t Ragnar personnel cancel such a large endeavor if it were unsafe? They were certainly watching the weather at least as closely as we were!

Finally, as captain I felt I needed to make a call. “Anyone who feels uncomfortable with moving forward is welcome to back out with no hard feelings,” I said. “We’ll miss you, but we’ll muddle through. But as a team, we are going to proceed until it becomes clear we shouldn’t. We don’t have enough information to make the call to cancel. Things could work out fine. Or we may reach a decisive point at which it’s unsafe (or no longer fun), at which time we will stop. I trust that we’ll recognize that point when we get there. Until that time, we are moving forward.”

So we packed our vans, just like we’d planned, and we headed to Maryland. Only one of the 36 legs ended up being canceled due to water. The rest were soggy, and some were cold. But we completed the relay. One foot in front of the other, one runner at a time, with a van leapfrogging our path, we did it.

I have since come to call this approach “Go until No.” It happens often in life, that we have to make a decision without having the whole picture. My natural inclination is to stay put until I work out all the details so I can make a risk-free decision. Or I pre-emptively say no to an exciting possibility if there’s a chance it won’t work out. But sometimes we don’t get the full picture until we commit ourselves and take a step forward. As has been attributed to St. Augustine, “solvitur ambulando”: it is solved by walking.

Go until No requires you to trust that your intuition will tell you what you need to know even if it hasn’t yet. It requires you to have faith in the future—not that the future will work out the way you hope, but that it will provide the clarity you need to either keep going, change direction, or turn back.

We’ve had plenty of people come and go on our Ragnar team over our four years together. But I think it’s significant that of those twelve runners in 2015, fully seven of them have been back every year since, and an eighth one is only missing this year’s race due to a family conflict. Certainly, doing something crazy under adverse conditions—and living to tell the tale—bonds a group like few other things do. But I also like to think we grew closer because of our commitment to “Go until No.” What we did was take a leap into the unknown together—and we not only survived, but we thrived. For 200 miles.

Note: This message was sent to my email newsletter this morning. If you’d like to receive twice-monthly reflections right to your inbox, subscribe.

Here are my recaps about the 2014 and 2015 Ragnar experience.

Monday Runday: Montclair Sprint Triathlon Recap

Yesterday Robert and I competed in the Montclair Sprint Triathlon, my second sprint tri and his first.

It was a hot and humid day, but the race was superb. We had a great time, and it turned out to be a significant race experience for me:

That’s a third place medal. What???

More on that later.

Race Logistics and Review

This is my first Revolution3 race, and I was very impressed by the communication and logistics of this race. I got a personal call from the staff the week of the race, asking if I had any questions and thanking me for registering. The 10-minute race preview video was helpful, and the athlete guide was very complete.

This would be a great first race for a new triathlete, especially one in the DC area–Montclair is south of Woodbridge near Quantico, so it’s convenient. There’s also a Splash and Dash for kids, which makes for a nice family-friend festival atmosphere. The Montclair community seems to take a lot of pride in hosting this race.

And the swag! Participants got a t-shirt, hat, and Rev3 neck gaiter (yes, we’ve got a long hot summer to get through, but then it will get cold enough to need a neck gaiter again). The participant medals were nice. You also get a latex swim cap, color-coded for which type of swim start you do. That isn’t really a race premium, but it’s nice to have backup caps.

The swim is 750 meters in a lovely tree-lined lake. Athletes seeded themselves based on 100yd pace and entered the water two by two, except the speedy speedsters who did a traditional wave before the rest of us. The race is small enough that you don’t have to worry about being mowed down in the water, though I did have a guy t-bone into me while doing the backstroke. (Backstroke? Really?) Buoys are large and plentiful, with lots of safety patrols in kayaks. The swim concludes on a sandy beach, but then it goes to grass, so by the time you get to transition your feet are mostly cleaned off.

The transition area was spacious enough, and the racks are labeled with athletes’ numbers AND names, which is a nice touch. People were friendly and helpful, though I find the intimidation factor to be high in triathlons. Something about the expensive bikes and bullet-shaped helmets make me feel totally out of my league, what with my basic swim unitard, and also Clifford the Big Red Bike, my serviceable but un-flashy ride that a friend gave me as a hand-me-down. And unlike running races, there are no costumes, nor even amusing shirts. I get that swimming makes a tutu hard to wear, and you can’t fit a jester hat over a helmet, but you kinda get the feeling that the tri community isn’t here to play. All well and good, just different.

The 12-mile bike ride consists of a double loop. It’s hilly, but the hills are mostly gradual, and anyone who trains in northern Virginia would be well prepared for them. The bike begins with a nasty uphill, and the race announcer made a point of reminding people to park their bikes in a low gear, which was a friendly thing to do. The route was shady most of the way, which made a huge difference in comfort level.

The 5K run is also hilly, but again mostly shady. The first half was on the sidewalk alongside part of the bike course, and someone had written various jokes and sayings on the sidewalk in chalk. Thinking of 15 words that rhyme with “run” kept me mentally occupied for quite a while. The second half of the run course is on neighborhood streets as opposed to the main drag. There were at least two water/Gatorade stops, and perhaps a third if memory serves.

The finish chute is on the beach, and the announcer read each name as the person finished. I love when races do that. Crowd support was sporadically placed but enthusiastic, with neighborhood folks offering signs and encouragement.

Post-race amenities included various packaged snacks, plus thick French toast with little packages of syrup. This race also had several computers set up where you could print a receipt with your race time and standings. This was so cool, and I hope more races move to this. It did create a little drama for me personally, which I’ll explain in the next section.

Overall I’d give this race an A. I’m already excited to come back next year.

Personal Goals and Recap

I hadn’t done a triathlon since last August. I hoped to get a PR, but my main goals were modest and tactical:
1. To do freestyle for the majority of the swim segment. I had a goggles fail in August, which meant I had to breaststroke the whole way. And I’ve really been working on FS endurance.
2. To cut down on transition time
3. To push myself on the run leg, which despite being my main sport was the weakest of the three legs last time, at least in terms of relative standing in my division.

How did I do? Well, I did freestyle the whole time and felt strong–but ended up swimming the same pace as I did doing breaststroke last year. Which could mean that my breaststroke is comparatively fast… OR more likely, I need to work on freestyle form, considering I learned as a kid and have never really worked on technique.

I cut way down on transition time by picking a shirt with wide arm holes to throw on over my unitard suit, and slipping on my running shoes while keeping them tied. (I don’t clip in. I’m a big weenie on the bike.) I also borrowed a race belt for my bib, but I lost some time when I stepped into it and the bib ripped. Had to reattach it using diagonal holes. Later Robert said, “Don’t step into it, just put it around you and then hook it.” Duh. This is why you practice transitions.

As for the run leg, I used every mantra I knew to keep going in the heat. I ended up with a 3-minute PR overall, thanks to faster transitions and a faster run leg. I definitely have room to grow–in all three legs, really–but one of my mantras was “as good as I am,” and yesterday was as good as I could be that day.

Regular readers know my angst over whether to register in the Athena category, which is for athletes over a certain weight. Ultimately I decided to go for it. I love that recreational athletes come in all shapes and sizes, and it felt good to take a small stand for positive body image. The race had all the Athenas racked together in transition, and they were funny and badass.

When I printed out my finish time, they had sorted me into my age group rather than as an Athena. They got that figured out, but then it turned out they hadn’t categorized any of the Athenas properly. While they were sorting that out, I printed a result that said I was 3rd out of 6 in my division. I was excited to see that 3–that meant a podium award–but I knew there were more than 6 of us. So there was a long time of waiting and wondering whether another Athena would knock me off the podium, and practicing the art of holding outcomes loosely. Something I kinda stink at.

Finally they got things worked out and I printed my final result:

And that’s when I started to cry.

I have never won anything athletic in my life. My body was the thing that toted my brain around, and that was about it. I was the last kid picked for the team. When I played softball in middle school, I was a passable second base player on the last team in the league. Even today, I am a mid-pack runner on a typical day. And yesterday it was so hot, and I was so tired. And yet I had done something that for me would have seemed impossible even 7 years ago.

The podium finish was bittersweet. Very few triathlons have an Athena category, and I only have one more race on the calendar this season, and it’s not an Athena one. And I may not even qualify for Athena much longer–I’ve been slowly losing weight over the last several months, and unless I stubbornly plateau, I’ll be knocked out of the division next year. Which I have mixed feelings about, to be honest. I love the Athenas I race with, whether we call ourselves that or not.

But either way, I’ll still be there on the starting line of Montclair next year. It was a great race. Though I wouldn’t turn down a cool snap that day…

Monday Runday: On Being an Athena

When I was a little girl, and even into my teens, I spent inordinate time thinking about this body part.

Yes, that’s Wonder Woman. GO SEE IT.

Body image stuff shows up in many different ways. Some people (most of them girls and women) obsess over the flat stomach, or the “thigh gap,” a term that didn’t even exist when I was younger, thank goodness. For whatever reason, the focus of my attention was on the hamstring tendon.

Do you have Visible Hamstring Tendon? I do not. I could feel it when I flexed my knee, but it has never been visible, no matter how much weight I lost, nor how fit I got. I am within normal BMI for my height, and arguably the healthiest I’ve ever been, and certainly the strongest. I run close to 1,000 miles a year while pursuing two other sports. I ran three half marathons within three months earlier this year, each one faster than the one before. But still, that stupid hamstring tendon remains buried under a thin but persistent layer of fat.

(If you say, “Why on earth would you care about that?” I guess you’ve never been plagued with body image issues. Congratulations.)

Athena. More about her later.

I’ve been thinking about VHT (a condition I just acronymed myself) as I prepare for this Sunday’s Montclair Sprint Triathlon, my first triathlon of the summer. When I went to register for the race, I was given the option of registering in my gender and age group, or as an “Athena.” I’d never run into this before, but a few races do it–a designation for people who weigh more than a certain amount. I’m not way over the line, but I’m definitely over it.

(By the way, the designation for the gents is called Clydesdale. Let’s just say I’m really glad the women’s category has a different name. A friend who loves horses insists that Clydesdales are beautiful, strong, graceful animals. Certainly. But God love her, I doubt my friend was ever the tallest and broadest girl in her grade. Clydesdale has way too much baggage.)

I went back and forth about whether to register as an Athena. I’m a confirmed mid-pack athlete, so the whole point of running has always been to compete with myself–to “beat yesterday.” Why does it even matter what category I’m in? Would I actually be competitive against other Athenas? Possible, but unlikely. It also seems a little simplistic to lump all of the Athenas together, the 5’9” ones like me with the 5’2” ones.

If I’m honest, a part of me sees it as a bogus designation. That’s the voice that says being overweight (or even fat) is a choice, a matter of willpower, even a moral failing. That voice isn’t the loudest one–it’s a minority voice, to be sure–but it’s there, and I’m not sure it will ever be completely exorcised. Certainly not as long as our society beats that drum so insistently. Things are better culturally than they used to be, but fat is still seen as a personal defeat, rather than a complicated byproduct of yes, some choice, but also genetics, circumstance, economics, and privilege.

This is all on my mind as my kids begin a new swim season, their first in a new swim league. Reston does competition and team points differently than our former league. There are three divisions in which kids get sorted based on their times in different events. So for example, if an 8-year-old boy swims a 25-meter freestyle in less than 28 seconds, he’s in division A. Between 28 and 37 seconds, division B. Slower than that, division C. There are points awarded for first, second and third place in each division.

I can hear the scoffers now. “The top three swimmers should get the points, full stop,” they might say, and inevitably start pontificating about how everyone-gets-a-trophy is the downfall of American culture. I assume most of the people who think that won the genetic lottery, and probably have Visible Hamstring Tendon. But I’ll tell you what I saw at Saturday’s meet. I saw kids at all levels, who swam their hearts out, and were given the chance to contribute to the overall success of their team. How is that a bad thing?

So… did I register for the Athena category? Damn right I did.

Is it because I worked out my body image issues? No, not completely–though it stands to reason that someone who swims, bikes and runs with 165 pounds is doing more work (or at least, different work) than someone who does it with 120. And VHT is stupid, I get it.

No, what made the decision for me is this:

I love Athena. I always have.

My Facebook friends have been treated to a weekly Athena for the last month or so, as I remember how much I adore that character. Wisdom? Courage? Justice? Democracy? Heck, throw knitting and crafts in there too, she’s got time on her hands.

Athena is a complete and utter badass:

Basically, any time things look really damn bad, your girlfriend is in the hands of a horrible monster, your family is held hostage by an evil king, and your only chance of salvation lies in being able to single-handedly kill a dragon made out of lava, and you’re just sitting there staring at the ground hopelessly thinking what the fuck do I do now, Athena is the goddess that materializes out of nowhere with a lava-dragon-slaying hand grenade, a winged horse, and a motherfucking ham sandwich and tells you to get your shit together, suck it up, and be a goddamn hero.  This goddess is legit, folks.

Some favorite Athenas. I call this gesture goddessplaining:

Just do it my way already.

Check out this gun show:

And she has an owl! And I went to Rice!

In reading up on the Athena category, there are plenty of women who qualify for it but don’t register as such. In triathlons, athletes get marked in Sharpie with their race number. Athenas get an additional A with that number, and some women feel self-conscious about being branded a big girl. I get it, and people should do what they feel comfortable with.

As for me, I’ll wear the A proudly. There’s no hiding this body of mine, and I don’t want to. She wouldn’t:

She’s here to kick ass and chew gum, and they didn’t have gum in ancient Greece.

UPDATE: Here’s a recap of the race.

Monday Runday: For My Health, For Women’s Health

You may have heard that “Defund Planned Parenthood” protests are in the works for February 11. Planned Parenthood has asked supporters not to counter-protest, but to stand with them through donations and other shows of assistance.

IMG_2409I’ve gotten together with a group of friends who know one another primarily through running. We’re showing our love for Planned Parenthood by asking people to sponsor us as we run purposeful miles over the next couple of weeks. Some of us are scheduling a training run especially for this purpose. Others are doing a Valentine’s race the weekend of the protests–I’ll be doing the Love the Run You’re With 5K, and trying for a PR (because why not?).

We invite you to cheer us on with your dollars, which will support high-quality, affordable health care for women, men, and young people.

We stand with Planned Parenthood, and we run for Planned Parenthood. 

I’ll be running in honor of my friend Kelly Gregory, who has been kicking cancer’s butt for five years. She has written many times that Planned Parenthood saved her life, and that’s no exaggeration. (It doesn’t hurt that she’s a fierce dame. If I were cancer, I wouldn’t want to cross Kelly Gregory.)

Here is a link to Kelly’s public post on Facebook, in which she says, “Be pro-living. Be pro-Planned Parenthood.”

Our team has set a goal of $1500, and my personal goal is $250. I reserve the right to raise my goal as you guys respond, and I know you will, because you’ve come through to support my running before!

Go to our page to learn more about our fundraiser, read some stats about Planned Parenthood’s work, and show your support today. Thank you.