Saturday, December 27, 2014

Top 10 lessons in 10 years of running

In all the craziness of this past year, I forgot that 2014 marks my 10 year running anniversary. I started running in August 2004 and ran my first marathon that December. I walked through every aid station and had the time of my life in that marathon. I remember celebrating every mile over 20 because it was the farthest I had run in my entire life. I qualified for the Boston Marathon in that first marathon and was told that this indicated I might have some talent. I'm glad I have continued to run and push the limits of my training to see how fast and strong I can become.

I have learned a ton over the last 10 years and have chronicled about half of that in this blog. I decided to try to summarize some of the top lessons in this post in countdown fashion.

Lesson 10. Know your weaknesses. 

Acknowledge them, but don't beat yourself up about them. These may be cravings that keep you from making your goal weight for your big race or mental weaknesses that crop up every time you do a tempo workout. I have found that it helps to face these things and figure out ways to deal with them. One thing I like to do is remind myself of the bigger goal. Say I am craving that bag of
Lindt candies sitting out on the counter (this would be a real craving, btw). When I reach a point in my work where I want a distraction and can't stop thinking about the candies, I will make myself wait 10 minutes and during that 10 minutes review my racing weight goal. I don't tell myself how horrible a person I am or how fat I will be if I eat those wonderful chocolates, I just try to delay the action and remember why I care about not eating the chocolate. It isn't fool proof, but it mostly works, especially if I do this often. For that dreaded tempo workout, I often have trouble just getting out the door. Once I'm rolling, it doesn't seem to be a problem. So, I try to find ways to get myself out running without thinking about the tough workout I have planned. I often make a running date with someone for an early morning run and run the warm up with them. Since I'm already out there, it is easier to just roll into the workout.      

Lesson 9. Chunk it up.

I decided early on in my marathoning career (at the age of 38!) that I wanted to try to qualify for the
CIM '04. Walking thru
the aid stations!
Olympic Trials (OT). I was a 3:20 marathoner at the time. Rather than be overwhelmed by the massive gulf between my then marathon PR and what I needed to run (a difference of more than 30 minutes!) I decided to chunk it up. That is what I call breaking it down into smaller, bite sized chunks: something I can fit in my mouth and digest. I first set a goal to run a 5k race at the goal marathon pace I needed to get the OT qualifier (6:22 pace at the time). Then, I ran a 10k at that pace, and a 10 miler and half marathon. This took about 5 years. Over that period of time, the standard changed from 2:48 to 2:46, so I had to adjust my pace goals for my races, but I was finally able to take a shot at running an entire marathon at that goal pace. It took me two tries once I was ready to run that pace, but I finally did it in 2010. I use this same approach in workouts and races. It's a simple way of making a big hairy goal doable.

Lesson 8. Run with people (and dogs) that you like.

My running crew
This one might actually be more of a life lesson, but somehow it really sunk in for me once I became a runner. I spend a lot of time running, and I like to run with people for most of it. Well, to be truthful, I really like to run with my dogs, and I treat them like people, so that counts too. I run with a variety of people but they all have one thing in common: I feel good when I run with them. We may not run the same pace all the time, but I try to be respectful of their paces when they need a recovery day and then (politely) excuse myself when I need to run a faster workout. I have made some terrific friends through running, but I have also had to let a few go because they didn't make me feel so good. Of course, I met the Genius through running, and will be forever grateful for that.  

Lesson 7. Be a good sport.

US wins gold in World Mil. Marathon Championships!
Athens, 2010.
This refers back to Lesson 8, actually. I refuse to run with people that are disrespectful to me or make me feel badly. I think my tolerance for acceptable behavior has narrowed as I have gotten older. I value my time too much to turn something that I love like running into a negative emotional cistern. The "one steppers" and runners that can't run a workout without trying to "beat" everyone are just not acceptable training partners to me any longer. Instead, I look forward to spending time with my running partners. I also love the camaraderie that running offers through team membership and competition. I have competed as a member of the Impala Racing Team for the past 6 years and was a member of the US Air Force Military Marathon Team for a few years at the end of my military career. What on the surface seems like an individual effort or accomplishment becomes so much more meaningful when it is run as part of a team.  

Lesson 6. It's okay to be slightly undertrained but don't overtrain.

If you want to accomplish big things in your running, you need to push your physical and mental limits. I had the good fortune of being able to train and race hard for 6 years straight without a running injury. I had wonderful coaching during those first 6 years to attribute some of that to, but I also think I was lucky. When I had my first brush with injury, I was pushing my limits. I was clearly overtrained and needed to back off. My coach was sending me messages in bold type with exclamation points telling me to stop!!!!!! I remember telling her that I wanted to know my limits. I felt like I wouldn't know how far I could push myself until I had gone too far. Luckily, that injury only took me out of action for a month or so and I was able to cross train like a maniac to stay fit. I ran my OT qualifier 6 months later. While injury was an important thing for me to experience as a runner and as a coach, it has continued to be a partner in my running since that first injury.

One of my coaches used to tell me that it is better to go into a marathon slightly undertrained than overtrained, and I don't think I really understood that until I overcooked myself a few times. Recovery from overtraining takes FOREVER! Even if you have a good race, if you trained really, really hard and went into the race slightly overtrained, you can take 6 months or more to recover from the damage of that training cycle. This is okay I think when you're trying to do something big like qualify for an important race or run a big PR. However, you need to understand the sacrifice you're making when you cross that line. I do everything I can to try to keep the athletes I coach from overtraining. I know from experience now that you are much better off being able to train consistently over a longer period of time than throwing everything you have into one training cycle and going for broke. Overtraining doesn't just occur as a result of too much running, either. It is affected by so many other aspects of our lives including life stress, lack of sleep and even excessive strength and cross training. You only have one body and all of these things add stress to it. The key to becoming a stronger and faster runner is to cycle stress and recovery in a way that is anabolic rather than catabolic over time. You can easily become overtrained off of a relatively low volume of running if the other stresses in your life are too great and your body cannot recover.        

Lesson 5. Know your body.

One of the first important lessons I learned about my running body was that I needed more iron than the average bear. I ran for 3 years, slowly depleting my iron stores until one day, my body just
I heart iron
wouldn't move any longer. I was lucky to have a coach at the time who recognized my symptoms and suggested I get my iron stores tested. They were non-existent. What I have learned about my body since then is that, if I don't take iron daily in the liquid form with a vitamin C chaser, I can't keep up with the iron I lose in training and everyday life. That was important to know. I have also spent a lot of time trying to figure out what helps me recover most quickly; what fueling concoction keeps me going in races and workouts; what shoes work best; how I feel under different taper regimens; and on and on. I have found that the best way to quickly figure things out is to pay attention and take good notes. I keep track of a lot of "stuff" in my running log: how I feel in my workouts, what supplements I took; how much strength training I did; what hurt that day; what I thought about the workout; what shoes I wore and how many miles they had on them; etc. Maybe this is too much stuff for most people, but I find it immensely useful when something goes awry and I need answers. I keep a Google spreadsheet with formulas and fancy calculators, but I also like writing in a training journal. I like to say that the spreadsheet is for my left brain and the journal feeds my right. Even with all of this information, I know when I need to cut it out. I know when a pain is no longer something I should run through and when a cold has become more than just a nuisance. These are things you learn about your body over time. There is no substitute for experience.                      

Lesson 4. Build a team of body workers.

Doc Ball's handy work.
I have learned a lot about my body and why it does the bad things that it does from a group of awesome practitioners that have helped fix me over the years. During my first 6 running years, I had some little niggles here and there and found a few good local practitioners to keep me on the roads. In 2010, I became seriously broken and I cycled through the local practitioners until, eventually, none of them could help me. I then wandered to the Arizona desert and found Dr. John Ball. I spent over a week in his care and came out running pain free. What Dr. Ball wasn't able to do was keep me from making stupid mistakes with my training. I spent the better part of 2010-2012 injured on and off, making the same training mistakes over and over. I have been back to see Dr. Ball twice more with similar positive outcomes, but he is in Arizona and I am in California. I am not a professional athlete and can't afford the trip to Arizona, so I have worked to develop a team of local practitioners that help keep me on the road. I have learned something really valuable from each person I have worked with over the years. On my last trip to see Dr. Ball he gave me hip mobility exercises and glute strengthening exercises to keep me out of trouble and they have worked! I also roll my legs with a lacrosse ball and this tool regularly and get a massage from Jen Walker at CMT Sports Therapy every 2-3 weeks. When I start to feel something a bit more serious crop up, I have learned to rest it and get it worked on right away.        

Lesson 3. Believe in yourself.

So much of our running success is mental rather than physical. We are learning more every single day about the complexities of mind and body and how to maximize our training to benefit both. In some ways, it was so much simpler back when I was new to running. I was constantly improving and learning new things to apply to my training. It seemed like everything I did helped me PR in the next race. I PR'd for years in every distance, well, until I didn't. I not only became injured, chronically, but I found both my physical and mental limits. While injury is a physical manifestation of overtraining, I think the mental aspect is the hardest part to take. You're this runner person who thrives on thrashing your body with these ridiculously hard workouts and are used to watching it bounce back, ready for more. Then one day, your body says no. Not gonna let you do that again. I'm gonna hurt. I'm gonna
hurt for a few weeks. In fact, if you try to do that again, I 'm gonna hurt a lot worse, maybe not even let you walk. The emotional roller coaster ride is obnoxious as hell and you start to lose faith in your ability to run fast ever again. I have watched runners succumb to this and never recover. But there are also many great examples of runners who continued to believe in their ability to come back and end up running even faster and stronger. It is that fundamental belief in yourself that keeps you going when you face the worst. I have experienced the worst health issues of my life in the last year and have begun to train for and had to stop training for 4 marathons in that time because of it. Giving up is always such an easy answer, and I really wanted to at the worst of times. But, I have this megaphone in my ear telling me that I can run faster than I ever have if everything comes together and I believe that. I think back to that 3:20 marathoner who wanted to run in the Olympic Trials. I made that happen. I worked hard and I believed. I can do the same now and so can you.  

Lesson 2. Get a coach.

I have been fortunate to have some wonderful coaches over the years. I tried the self coaching thing for a very short time and realized that I am prone to running myself into the ground without the guidance of a neutral third party to point out how silly some of my ideas are. I like having a plan to follow and someone to bounce ideas off of. I do believe I have learned enough at this point to know that I need to first and foremost listen to my body and take a conservative approach to my training. However, I will always have that drive to want to do more and a good coach tempers that. I am currently coached by Jack Daniels through the Run S.M.A.R.T Project and feel very lucky to have his guidance. I have not been injured in over a year though I have had some serious health issues, as I mentioned in Lesson 3 and have written about profusely for about a year. Despite those health issues, I have been able to keep training and am so excited to finally get to finish a marathon training plan and race in March at the Napa Valley Marathon! To be honest, at this point, I don't much care what the time outcome of that race is. For me, getting in a quality block of marathon training and running a strong race are my goals. That doesn't mean I'm not going to go for it and try to qualify for the Olympic Trials if I feel as though my training justifies that, but for now, I feel grateful to be training consistently and feeling good.          

Lesson 1. Don't give up on your dreams.

If you made it to this final lesson, I hope you can see that they all tie back to this one. Sometimes the pathway to my dreams seems to be paved with excuses and the faces of a few ugly people who want me to fail. However, when I can see my dream and really believe in myself, those things are simply small pebbles in the path and I can easily step over them (or crush their faces under my feet!). The foundation of the path includes the hard training that I have put in over the years and everything I have learned about myself. It includes the hardships I have faced and overcome as well as the stories of others who have accomplished amazing things in their lives. It includes my huge support system--those people (and animals) that help me on a daily basis to keep moving forward, one chunk at a time. If I choose to focus on the larger goals and the positive, then the dream remains alive.

Keep the dream alive people!!!