Mindful running

As a marathoning psychologist who identifies strongly with both roles, I'm often searching for ways in which my experiences overlap. I've found an intersection in the construct of mindfulness. It refers to the heightened state of awareness in which stimuli are attended to and accepted without assignment of a positive or negative label. Overly optimistic and overly pessimistic thinking can draw one out of the present moment and impede performance. The ideal state of mind for peak performance-- in athletics and in life-- would not be half empty or half full, so to speak, but rather mindful. These are my musings on mindfulness applied to running and lessons from running applied to life.

10.05.2014

Would you rather break 2:50 in the marathon or see the Orioles win the World Series?


"Would you rather break 2:50 in the marathon or see the Orioles win the World Series?"

Someone asked me that recently. The answer is easy. I'd take a World Series victory for my hometown team over a 75 second PR in the marathon any day of the week. It's not a selfless decision. I believe that a World Series victory would make me happier. This isn't to say that running a PR in the marathon wouldn't make me happy or that it happens too frequently to warrant extreme happiness. Realizing the rewards of years of discipline and pain brings a blissful, even euphoric sense of accomplishment. In all likelihood, it's a feeling that a runner will only experience a handful of times over the course of a lifetime-- possibly the same number of times he will see his team win the World Series, depending on the team. I've never seen the Orioles win a World Series, at least not that I can remember. I was 2 the last time it happened. I do know that watching your team win postseason games brings pure, childlike pride, excitement, and joy-- joy that's compounded by the fact that you can share it with loved ones and strangers alike. It's a jump-up-and-down, hug-strangers, smile-until-your-cheeks-hurt kind of feeling. I can only imagine how powerful this feeling would be following the final out of the World Series. 

Admittedly, the decision would get more difficult the more time you shaved off my PR. I could make the decision about a 75 second PR in 1 second. A 500 second PR, enough to put me under the Olymic trials qualifying standard? That decision would take at least 500 seconds, and probably wouldn't have the same outcome. I'm not sure. Maybe part of what makes the decision more difficult is that I know that the achievement of qualifying for the trials isn't guaranteed. I feel very confident in my ability to break 2:50. The probability of it is much greater than that of the Orioles winning the World Series or of me qualifying for the Olympic trials. I think sub 2:43 is possible, but I'm not as certain about it. The decision between two equally unlikely but very positive (or very negative) things is a hard one. Ask Sophie.

This week my love for running and my love for the Orioles were pitted against each other as I struggled to balance an intense week of training with inconveniently timed play off games (and a full-time job in which productivity and quality of care are very important to me). Amazingly, the Orioles and I both had one of our best weeks yet. I did a tough Michigan-style workout on Monday: 3 x 1200 @ 5k pace with 90 sec jog between straight into 45 min at maintenance pace (7:10) straight into 3 x 1200 @ 5k pace with 90 sec jog between. 11 miles of quality. This is the kind of workout where you have to sit down immediately after-- no matter how many times you've heard that walking around is better for recovery. On Wednesday I was scheduled to do 50 minutes at marathon pace. I ended up averaging 6:26 for 8. I felt like I could've continued for another hour at that pace.

On Thursday night I met up with some of my favorite people- friends, family, and complete strangers- to watch the Orioles absolutely crush the Tigers in the first game of the ALDS. Unlike the other two playoff games I attended in 2012, this one was never in doubt. The Orioles led from the first inning before breaking it open to 12-3 in the 8th. I slept for 4 hours, ran, went in to work for a few hours, and headed back to Camden Yards 13 hours later. Game 2 was a different but even more thrilling experience. This time the Orioles trailed 6-3 heading into the now-customary 8th inning onslaught. Lower odds mean more stress but also a greater payoff. This game was a natural high like none I've ever experienced.

Then on Saturday morning, veins still coursing with competitive spirit, Dusty and I waged a "friendly competition" for our long run. He planned to run 22 miles, and I was scheduled to do 20. As we were figuring out logistics, we realized that we'd both be back in about 140-145 minutes. Why not make it a race? I was hesitant because I know that running long runs too hard puts you at a huge risk for overtraining. But I don't have that much self-restraint, especially since I was still riding high on the Orioles comeback win. I took it out fairly conservatively in 1:11:20 for the first 10 (7:08 pace). But I was in no way giving up on the competition. I wanted to go to the bathroom but didn't want to give up precious seconds, so I didn't allow myself to stop. On the way back I got carried away, imagining Dusty on my shoulder and J.J. Hardy sliding into home plate. I ended up running too fast in 1:07:10 (6:42 pace). Dusty didn't finish for 3 minutes because, unlike me, he is a sane person who allowed himself to go to the bathroom. The amazing thing is that our overall running times (excluding the bathroom break) were only 8 seconds apart- 2:18:30 for me, 2:18:38 for him. How's that for Orioles Magic?


9.11.2014

Eat a Cheeseburger

I'm sure most female runners have heard the "Eat a cheeseburger" line a few times. Last week I heard it one too many time...

The following exchange took place at work:

Stranger: Boy, she's a scrawny one.

Professional acquaintance (shooting a glance in my direction): Yeah, she needs to eat a cheeseburger. 

The stranger's comment was excusable; I suspect that he has dementia and therefore no filter. The second comment got under my skin. I stood there for about 60 seconds mentally vetoing potential responses. By that time the pair was halfway down the hall and I was left wondering: what is the appropriate response to an inappropriate comment made more inappropriate by context?


It's true that I'm "small-boned" and am at the lower limit of normal for BMI, but if you're implying that I have an eating disorder, you're wrong. See, you don't know me well enough to know this, but I'm a marathon runner. I run anywhere from 50 to 100 miles per week, which means I can indulge my appetite for healthy foods to the fullest without gaining a pound. As a health care professional you should know that you can't diagnose an eating disorder by looking at someone. Your recommendation for red meat isn't entirely off the mark, as thin women often suffer from iron deficiency anemia, but the combination of red meat and dairy is counterproductive because calcium impedes absorption of iron. So if you're offering a cheeseburger I'll take it sans cheese. 

Professional. Clinical. Congruent to context. The problem with it is that I shouldn't have to explain myself. Explaining myself suggests that I feel the responsibility to defend my body size. I don't. Objectification of a woman's body has no place in a workplace.

I have an idea! Maybe you could start giving me your cheeseburgers and then we can both move a little closer to the 5 lb weight window society deems acceptable for women!

I could never say this. Thin-shaming and fat-shaming are different, but both are hurtful and equally inappropriate. Comments about weight in either direction perpetuate unrealistic standards; striving to reach those standards is what creates obsessive calorie counting and / or disordered eating. There is an imaginary line separating what constitutes a healthy weight from an unhealthy weight. In college I actively strove to come as close to this line as I could without going under it.  It was an inverse game of limbo, but the goal remained the same: avoid falling over. I wasn't trying to fit with some societal standard of beauty but rather to run faster times, which ironically had the opposite effect. I'm certain that my pursuit of a leaner frame through caloric restriction contributed to frequent illness and injuries. Thankfully I did not experience lasting or profoundly negative consequences from my behavior, and I feel fortunate that the experience taught me an important lesson: my natural weight, where I fall when I'm eating the healthy foods that I crave until the point of satiation, is my ideal weight-- in terms of health, well-being, and running.

Ha ha!

For a second I thought about providing a courtesy laugh to diffuse the tension but could not bring myself to do it for the same reason I couldn't bring myself to defend my body. I shouldn't have to. Also, it's not funny.


Last night I had a dream that a cheeseburger was eating me!

If a friend had made the cheeseburger comment, this might have been my response. Assuming the friend was making a (thoughtless, not funny) joke, I might get creative in diffusing tension, allowing for the possibility that the comment came from a place of misguided concern. As I see it, the one exception to the rule about making negative comments about a person's weight is if the comment is coming from a place of genuine concern, and the person is trying to intervene. But I'd estimate these situations constitute 1% of all the comments on weight. The rest are likely motivated by jealousy, insecurity, mean-spiritedness, ignorance, or pettiness.

Ultimately I'm happy with my lack of response. My silence was by default- I was left speechless- but I feel that it was the most appropriate response given the context. All I can do is carry on eating obscene amounts of peanut butter at work, striving to feel both satiated and secure in my skin. I'll eat a cheeseburger when I want to eat a cheeseburger, thank you very much!

8.02.2014

Eugene MAraTHon Race Recap

More so than any other race, the marathon is about math: using a regression model to predict performance and set race pace, determining what percentage to reduce your weekly mileage to maximize the taper effect, making mid-race calculations to determine how much you can slow down and still meet your goal, etc. Here is my Eugene Marathon experience by numbers:



10- Number of hours of sleep I got in the two nights before the race- combined.
9- Number of Clif Shot Blocks I took during the race.
8- Number of marathons I've started.
7- Number of months since I started training with RunCoach.
6- Number of years since I finished my last marathon.
5- Number of marathons I've finished, including Eugene.
4- Number of minutes I finished behind my PR.
3- Number of minutes I finished ahead of my first- and slowest- marathon.
2- Number representing my second fastest marathon time.
1- Number representing my first successful "away" marathon.


Left to Right: 2006 Frederick Marathon-2:58:14; Not pictured 2007 NCR Trail Marathon- 2:57:57; 2008 Frederick Marathon: 2:56:14; 2008 Marine Corps Marathon- 2:51:14; 2014 Eugene Marathon- 2:55:20.

While these numbers are factually accurate they don't tell the full story because at the heart of a marathon is not math but passion and courage. In some ways the narrative for my race is probably more authentic, though I recognize that it is less reliable. Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus made a career out of demonstrating the inaccuracy of episodic memory. According to Loftus, after information is processed, encoded, and retrieved, comes a fourth stage in the memory process- reconsolidation. During this stage, new and inaccurate information is unintentionally incorporated into a memory. Each time a story or event is recalled, new information may be added, making a more colorful but less factual story. Without this process to alter the memory of a marathon people might not run a second one, but with each reconsolidation the memories of the pain are watered down and the glory is magnified.

The memories of the euphoria and self-actualization I experienced after my first four marathons are what drove me to revisit the distance after several heartbreaking failures and assaults to my self-confidence. It's hard to convey to non-runners the depth of the experience of loss involved in training for a marathon and being unable to finish. Stepping off the course and allowing the energy and focus poured into months of training go down the drain calls the entire process into question. How could the ends possibly justify means this devastating? The marathon is undoubtedly a cruel, draconian beast; he is arbitrary and severe in his punishments. Minor issues that might go unnoticed in a 5k, even those that are outside of your control, are magnified exponentially, often leading to disaster: It's 10 degrees warmer than the average temperature for race day? No PR for you! You ran 15 seconds faster than goal pace in the first half? Off with your head! Adding insult to injury, unlike a 5k, your next chance for redemption won't be for months, after you've recovered and repeated the process of base-building, speed-work, and tapering. That is, if you can summon the courage to repeat the process, knowing that the payoff is never guaranteed.

With my most recent experience behind me I can say this with certainty: the ends do justify the means. Each failed attempt has added to my appreciation and respect for the distance, making it all the more sweet to finally conquer it. Perhaps this is an effect of memory reconsolidation,but it seems that my first four marathons came fairly easily, each one faster than the last. It came as a shock when things stopped coming easily, and I began to stop trusting that they ever would again. Even heading into the final weeks before Eugene, I began to experience doubts about my ability to finish, let alone run fast. Having an established program like RunCoach, as well as guidance from Tanner Whisperer Coach Tom McGlynn and my personal marathon guru Heather Tanner, was critical to overcoming these doubts. Knowing their confidence in me made it relatively easy to let go and trust my fitness, though I did experience moments of panic in the final few days. Probably the scariest moment came on Friday night, two days before the race. Our connecting flight into Phoenix was rerouted due to a dust storm, meaning that we wouldn't make it to Oregon until Saturday-- if at all. While sitting on the grounded plane in Las Vegas, I talked myself out of various cognitive distortions and turned on the guided mindfulness meditation app on my phone. Gradually the fear melted away.

Aside from this issue, the final week heading into the race went well. Cutting back my mileage had the desired effect of making my legs ache to run. With Tom's help, I devised the following race plan: start with a deliberately slow 7 min mile, drop to 6:40 for the first half, reassess at mile 14 and again at mile 18, dropping to 6:20 if I felt comfortable enough. My goal was, first and foremost, to have a positive experience. Having only started training semi-seriously in January, I hadn't had a long enough build-up to reach the kind of mileage that would allow me to PR (2:51), but I felt certain that I could run faster than my first marathon (2:58). This left me with a goal in the 2:53-2:57 range.

On the starting line I knew it would be pretty difficult to run a 7 min first mile. I was in the elite corral, and most of the other women were aiming for the Olympic Trials Qualifying standard (2:43), which translates to a 6:13 average. Still, I did my best to hold back, letting them gap me in the first 200 m. Even running what I felt was a jog I hit the mile mark at 6:35. I pulled back the reins, settling into 6:40s. In spite of the fact that I wasn't able to fully open my stride due to the restraint I was exercising, this pace felt fairly comfortable. I enjoyed the sights of the Eugene neighborhoods, quirky houses set against a backdrop of green mountains. I was passed by many men in these first few miles, but I would eventually catch most, if not all, of them. The difficult part of running an evenly paced marathon is that you will be running alone; in the first half you will be passed by droves, and in the second half you will pass them back, making them feel like they're standing still as you blow by. I know this because this is what one man told me as I ran past him at mile 24. Running alone was fine with me; I was prepared for it, having done all but one long run by myself.

I came through the half in 1:27:24, right on schedule. Around mile 14, I felt a sharp wave of nausea. It was the first and last time I would experience doubt about my ability to finish. Instead of allowing myself to wallow in discouragement, I was able to draw upon past marathon experiences to remind myself that these feelings of nausea and fatigue would come and go. I remembered having second, third, fourth, and even fifth winds in previous marathons and rode out the wave. Still, I decided not to drop the pace, knowing there was still much race to run. I held steady through 20. The back half of the race is run on a scenic but windy bike path, snaking along a river. The sharp turns make it somewhat difficult to maintain rhythm. I also noticed that I must not have been doing a good job with the tangents because my GPS watch was no longer in synch with the miler markers. I was feeling fatigued but evaded hitting "The Wall" by slowing down ever so slightly to ride out waves of fatigue. Even still, my slowest mile was only a 6:47, 6 seconds off my average. At mile 25 I finally allowed myself to unleash, something I'd been waiting to do for 2 hours and 45 minutes. In doing so I passed 2 women, likely fallen soldiers from the march to the OTQ. As we approached the famed Hayward field I felt a burst of energy. Drawing from the spirit of the crowd, I began to kick, covering the last half mile, the last 200 m of which are on the track, at 6:08 pace. It was a glorious feeling, well worth the 6 year wait. I crossed the line and immediately saw Dustin, who had finished in a PR of 2:30. We hugged and relished in the shared accomplishment, an especially rare gift from the fickle marathon beast.

Looking back, I see that I ran a conservative race, leaving some room for improvement. However, I believe that I ran as well as I could within the constraints of my goals. After so many failures it was critical for me to finish this race and to have a positive experience. Next time I'll be able to take more risks... maybe I'll start to pick up the pace at mile 20 instead of mile 25. But for now I want to celebrate this experience without looking too far ahead.


In the immortal words of Puff Daddy, "Yo, the sun don't shine forever. But as long as it's here then we might as well shine together."


7.13.2014

Racing is the fun part



Moving unearths mementos from the past and with them the bittersweet combination of dust and nostalgia. Among outdated textbooks, pictures of college parties that were spared Facebook infamy, and a 2 lb GPS watch, I found this 2008 article from the D.C. Examiner, which profiles my preparation for the Marine Corps Marathon. Six years have passed since the article was published. I'm finished with graduate school and living in a different city. I'm still training for marathons and have similar goals, but my approach towards meeting these goals is slightly different.  In preparation for the 2008 Marine Corps Marathon I ran multiple 100 mile weeks and averaged 70 per week on the year. However, a great portion of those runs, maybe 30%, was at shuffle-jog pace. I was interested in the cardiovascular benefits of "time on your feet" rather than building speed and running economy. This plan worked out remarkably well for me. I finished in 2:51:14 and captured 3rd place.

In spite of this success, evolving circumstances have called for an adaptation to my training program. This time around, under the advisement of Coach Tom McGlynn and the RunCoach program, I've focused on quality over quantity. I've maxed out at 70 mpw, but each and every run has served a purpose. I've done higher quality long runs than ever before and consistently worked out twice a week. In addition to a different training philosophy, my mileage has been lower because I've had to gradually dig myself out of a hole left by untreated anemia and four years away from the road racing circuit. The plan is to continue increasing my mileage in the next cycle, though the emphasis will remain on quality over quantity.

My mindset is also somewhat different heading into this race. Like my self-expectations for Marine Corps, I have high hopes for myself going into the Eugene Marathon. Where I differ is that I no longer consider finishing a victory. I know that I can go out and finish a marathon tomorrow. This is not why I race. I  have tiered goals. In other words, "I would be over the moon if I ran X time," "I would be happy if I ran Y time," and "I would be satisfied if I ran Z time." Anything outside of those times would be a disservice to my long-term goals. Finishing a marathon when you feel sub-par, for whatever reason, is a mental victory. But it's a trophy I've already earned. My sights are set on new challenges and new accomplishments.

I feel as physically and mentally prepared as I could be with two weeks to go. As Kara Goucher said, "Racing is the fun part; it's the reward for all the hard work." I can't wait to let loose and have a blast in Eugene!

6.23.2014

Moving versus motion

Last week was the first hiccup in this training cycle. The last 6.5 years of my life have been pretty transient. I transitioned from being a graduate student to a pre-doctoral intern to a full-time professional, moving 6 times and living in 3 different states in the process. After going through so many moves, I've pared down rather than accumulated things. It was for this reason that I so grossly underestimated how difficult my most recent move would be. Almost every waking hour of this past weekend was spent doing some sort of manual labor. On top of that, or perhaps because of it, I became physically ill, taking a break from lugging boxes to vomit. Training suffered, too. I had to take my first unplanned day off and only managed 6 miles on the day I was supposed to do my long run. I squeaked out 45 miles for the week, when I was supposed to do 60. Life happens. I felt better on Sunday night, so hopefully I can resume normal training this week. And return to my usual policy of using my arms as little as possible. Change is good and I'm happy with my new place, but next time I'm hiring movers.
The new 'hood.

6.18.2014

The Art of Making a Marathon Playlist


Creating a good playlist is a lot like running a marathon; it's hard work, and whether or not you succeed depends on tempo and pacing. Putting a Norah Jones lullaby between 2Pac and DMX makes as much sense as dropping a 5:30 mile when you're cruising at 6:20s. I submit for your review my pump-up playlist for the Eugene marathon. Naturally it includes 26 songs, one for each mile of the race. I took into account tempo, variety of musical genres, song order, and lyrical message, striving to come up with the perfect musical  representation of the race I intend to run.

I start with Bleachers' peppy but controlled anthem "I Wanna Get Better." In a marathon you want to start out conservatively, so this earnest, humble message of self-improvement is preferable to adrenaline-pumping, ego-stroking self-congratulation, which will come later. I continue on the modesty train with the Candlebox ballad "Far Behind." It's a slow-paced reminder not to get too excited; there is still a lot of work to do, and the finish line is far, far away. The Mowgli's "San Francisco" says "Hey, you came all the way out to the west coast to run this race. Let's have some fun!" The next seven songs take me through mile 10, rounding out the beginning portion of the race with peppy but controlled beats and inspirational messages about perseverance. 
Song #11 is "Started From the Bottom" by Drake. It is at this point in the race that I'll begin to shift my efforts from holding back to holding steady. The shift will be difficult. I'll need a musical reward in the form of Drake's relatively mild, self-congratulatory smugness. Normally country music, with its self-pitying laments and languid pace, would be reserved for the beginning portion of a marathon. "Fastest Girl in Town" is not your everyday country song. It has a rather aggressive tempo and a heavy-handed message, making it more appropriate for mile 12. I'll be maintaining a hard effort in the race, but I'll still have to conserve some energy for the final few miles. Through song 20, the tempo of the playlist stays pretty high, but messages of omnipotence are titrated with messages of modest perseverance. My favorite of these songs is #15, "Handlebars." It talks about the relationship between power and control and is a good metaphor for a marathon. The narrator gradually assumes more and more power, until he spirals out of control, as one would if he got greedy and tried to maintain an overly ambitious pace in a marathon. The line "I can make anybody go to prison just because I don't like him" resonates. Every good racer is at least a little bit sadistic, deriving pleasure from making competitors hurt. On a different note, I also really like "Kick, Push." The song is about a skateboarder but could easily be applied to a marathoner. "So let's kick... and push... and coast..."
And finally we get to the final 10k, where the race begins. If the first portion is about holding back, and the second portion is about holding steady, the final portion is about holding on for dear life. This kind of anguish requires the most aggressive beats and self-indulgent lyrics to sustain momentum. "Remember The Name" starts things off right. The lyrics use some fuzzy math (10% luck + 20% skill + 15% concentrated power of will + 5% pleasure + 50% pain + 100% reason to remember the name = 200%), but at the 20 mile mark of a marathon nobody's doing any math. "F.U.T.W.," in my opinion, is the best and most underrated track from Jay Z's Magna Carta album. "Don't be good my nigga, be great..." Word. "Pour Some Sugar on me," my longtime personal pump-up anthem, is perfect for the final two miles of the race when I'll be fantasizing about being doused with a cooler of Gatorade. Coming through the final mile, making my way into the famed Hayward Field, I'll be channeling Steve Prefontaine. And DJ Khaled's "All I do is win."

I'll be listening to this as I try visualize the race. I figure I should be doing some mental preparation to complement all of the physical training.

F.U.T.W.


6.07.2014

Long runs have more to love

I live for long runs. No other way I'd want to spend a weekend morning:-)