Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Art of Easy

(In my mind, this post is intimately connected to my earlier post titled "Purpose with a side of cheese fries."  I am not going to make that connection explicit; you need to do the work.)  

Last night while running, Renee and I had an interesting (and, honestly, ironic) conversation about going easy. 

If you have ever met me, you might have noticed that I do not naturally tend to take things "easy."  I tend to be a total spazz about everything, and typically overextend myself to the point that something (physical or mental) snaps.  And Renee makes me look relaxed.  (Seriously, it's scary.)

This conversation was particularly ironic because of all the other conversations we have (like, at the beginning of our run yesterday for example) about running ultra-marathons, and doing crazy things (we particularly like to imagine ourselves climbing distant snow covered mountains, or surviving on bugs in the African savannah while we save baby cheetahs and elephants; things like that).  We read stories of people doing impossible things and think "Oh, I could totally do that; I'm gonna start training tomorrow.  And while those sorts of discussions are sort of ludicrous, we do have a tendency to do some pretty not-easy things on a daily basis. 

Although our lack of "easy" permeates our lives, it is easiest to describe in terms of running.  Mostly, that we are always doing it.  Renee and I have talked about how we don't really "believe" in being hurt or getting sick.  We have both shown up for runs on some pretty awful days.  Renee, for example, will run in ANY weather, even when it is thundering and I am pretty much screaming at her that we are going to die (which, FYI, just makes the run more fun).  I tend to run through more physical challenges (okay, hangovers).  But no matter what happens the night before, if we say we are going to run we do.  Even when we probably shouldn't.  Like, this winter when I slipped and landed on my head (because my arm was already in a cast, so I couldn't use it to break my fall), and definitely had a concussion--3 miles into a 10 mile run that, yes, I finished.  And that is just the most recent example.  (I am sure there were other things before the blow to the head, but I can't seem to remember any of those...) 

I am not saying all this to point out how bad-ass we are (but we are).  I am saying all this to set up the irony of this conversation, or maybe to illuminate the weird maturity we came to suddenly. 

Because yesterday we started talking about taking things easy, and about how important it is to have easy days.  It started with my saying that I have learned to listen to my body.  I know that sounds like nonsense to any of you who are not runners, but it is actually an essential part of being a life-long runner without being a constantly side-lined-by-injury runner.  The hard part is learning how to listen, and learning how to tell the difference between general whiny complaining and serious complaints.  And the key is knowing where they come from.

We all have days when we whine while we run.  We have days when we don't want to be out there, and every step is a hassle, and all we can think about is how everyone else is home in bed.  But those complaints aren't coming from your body--they come from your brain.  Your brain (my brain especially) is LAZY.  But most of the time, if you tell it to shut the hell up for a minute, you can hear what your body is telling you.  Usually, it is saying "yeah, I'm good, just a little tired, but I got this."  Every now and then, however, it is saying something more like "Why the hell are we out here?  I am broken!  Stop moving and get on the next f**king bus you see!"  Those are the days that you need to listen to your body.

Here's the problem with a runner's brain: it tells you stuff that is not always that helpful. For example, my brain likes to tell me that if my pace is not below a certain point, I suck.  It also likes to tell me that if my mileage is not above a certain point, I am a let down.  And sometimes, when I finally convince it that something is broken, it convinces me that I am a baby for resting and to get my ass to the gym.

Some days, having a brain like that is awesome.  It doesn't let me slack off or bag on runs.  When I need some extra incentive to get my ass in gear, it always gives it to me.  However, there are also days when having a brain like this is a problem, and those are the days when I need to learn to tell it to shut up so I can hear what my body has to say.  And once I learned how to do that, my body told me that my brain is a dumbass (I sort of suspected as much).

Here's what I learned by listening to my body: I don't have to be wicked fast every day; I don't have to run a million miles; I can take a day off if I need it.  And the crazy part?  The more I listened to my body, the less I needed to take a day off, and the less my brain has been yelling over my body to keep me going.  Now, I have learned to be easy.

For a long time, I figured that long, hard runs were the only kind.  But, they're not.  Long easy runs, short hard runs, short easy runs (okay, I still can't really convince myself of those); they are all necessary to being a life-long not-injured runner.  Sometimes, it's okay to go slow, and even to stop to stretch and walk.  It's okay to take a day off and rest, as long as you take the day because you need it, not because your brain is making excuses for you.  There is an enormous amount of pleasure in an easy run, with no watch or plan, especially when you can share it with someone else, someone with whom you can plan a trip to Everest for example. 

Like all my other great revelations about running, this is all easier said than done.  There are plenty of days that I don't listen to my body, and I let my brain talk me into doing stupid things.  Like squats.  And I certainly still go out for long, hard runs.  But I can enjoy them a lot more now because I feel like I am out there because I want to be, not because that is the "only" way to run (translation: I have to be).   And of course, when I get home and calculate my pace, there is always a part of me that wishes I had been just a little faster, or wonders if I was taking things too easy.  Because this whole "easy" thing is still a pretty new concept, and I am still not totally comfortable with it.  Even with Renee and I in it together, we are not exactly good at it yet. 

But then I look at the big picture, and ask myself the big questions: did I have fun?  Can I get back out there tomorrow? Can I keep getting out there every day until I decide it isn't fun anymore, way after I would have burned out if I listened to my brain every day?  As long as I can say "Yes" to all of those, then I am happy, and being happy makes EVERY run easy, just the way it should be.     

  

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Over Rivers and Mountains

While trapped in the car on Friday, making my slow way across MA and NY, I had a lot of time to think about how I ended up in Boston.  Most days, Boston (okay, Somerville) is a great place to live.  We have lots of stuff there, and all that stuff is easy to get to.  We have some really good friends who we love.  But every now and then, I leave the city.  And as soon as I get out past the 95 corridor, there is a switch that goes off in my head, and I am able to see all the things that I am missing by living in the city.  Mostly, I am missing rivers (seriously people, the Charles is cool, but if you can see both banks at the same time, it is a stream) and mountains (the Fells in Winchester?  Hills, if that). 

I am spending this week at home, in Northern New York.  I grew up in the Thousand Islands region of the state which, for those of you unfamiliar with anything past White Plains (shame on you), is waaaaay up near the top of the state.  The town where I grew up is about 90 miles north of Syracuse, off the last exit on 81N that is still on the American mainland.  It borders the St. Lawrence River, one of the longest and largest rivers in the world, and also the only river in the world besides the Nile that runs north.  It is filled with water from the Great Lakes; the end of Lake Ontario is about 30 miles upriver from us, and then the river continues north into Canada.  Now that you can locate it on a map, here's a picture:

Up close, it looks like this:

If you are wondering, yes, Thousand Islands Dressing IS just like the place where I grew up; the dressing was invented there.  There are about 15 different stories about it, but the most common one goes like this: one weekend a train was heading up from NYC (more on that later), and the chef on the train realized that he had no salad dressing in his kitchen.  So, he mixed a bunch of condiments that they did have together, and called in Thousand Islands Dressing.  Personally, I think the stuff is nasty.  
So, now you are thinking, "You live in the middle of no where, why would anyone want to take a train there from NYC, which is way cooler?"  Well, we have more than just a river here.  We also have thousands of islands!  And those are pretty freaking cool themselves.  And about a hundred and fifty (give or take, I am not a historian) years ago, it was very common for the wealthy people of NYC to own islands, and to spend their weekends and summers on those islands.  In truth, not much has changed.  Lots of people still own islands, and many of them do not live in or around NNY full time.  

Some of the islands are huge, and have huge houses on them, like this:
Ha ha, yes that is actually a castle.  Boldt Castle.  The man who built it, George Boldt, at one point owned the Waldorf Astoria in NYC, strengthening the link between the to ends of NY state.  Then, before the castle could be completed (the outside is done, but the inside was uncompleted) his wife either died or left him for someone else, depending on which version of the story you believe. 

Other islands are very small, like this one:

Seriously, I went past this house / island every summer for years.  I have never seen it flood, although it must happen in the spring when the river is high from all the melting snow.  It cracks me up.  The people who live there basically tie their boat to their front door.  Oh, because that is the other thing that you sort of have to have to live here, and not even just on an island: a boat.  

I grew up being on boats, all the time.  I was on a boat before I rode in a car.  This is not the exaggeration you think it is, because the hospital where I was born is only a few blocks from where we lived at the time, and in the 70's it wasn't like they made you use car seats or any of that.  So, my parents just walked me home.  Then, since I was born in the spring, put me on a boat.  (Okay, maybe not that quickly, but something like that.)  

Being home reminds me of about a million stories (those are for other posts) from my childhood through college years.  Some of them, many of them, involve the River.  Jumping off rock cliffs with my cousins and brother.  Taking boats out after dark and hitting shoals because we were looking for buoys to either side but not directly in front of the boat (then blaming a bent prop on someone else and totally getting away with it).  Lots and lots of nighttime swimming!  But also just lazy days on the river, driving in and out of the tiny nooks between islands on the American and Canada sides of the river.  It is hard to grow up here and not have the River, and water in general, become a part of who you are.  

My childhood until I was 15 was spent here, in the Thousand Islands.  At the beginning of my sophomore years of high school, I decided that I needed to get out of here, and I went to boarding school.  Yes, it sounds wicked snobby, right?  Well, let me explain: I went to a tiny, tiny boarding school in Lake Placid, NY.  If you have not been there, Lake Placid is smack in the middle of the Adirondack Mountains.  They had the winter Olympics there twice (1932, and 1980--when the US hockey team beat Russia and it was a BIG DEAL; I have even had a chance to skate on the hockey rink where that game was played!).   The town, and the lake it is on (which is actually Mirror Lake) look like this:
See those mountains in the background?  Those are the little ones.  Whiteface and a bunch of others are on the other side of the lake.  During high school, there would be days when classes would be cancelled and they would put all of use (well, there were maybe 125 of us) onto buses then leave us (and a lunch) at the bottom of a mountain with a teacher to lead us.  And we would spend the day hiking.  There was an Outing Club, and they went hiking and rock climbing year round.  Looking back, I wish I had done that, but I spent my fall playing soccer, and the rest of the year I spent (surprise!!) running around Mirror Lake and snowboarding at Whiteface.  Obviously, this was not a hard life. 

While I was in LP I fell in love with the mountains.  I have to admit that I could be pretty whiny about some of it.  I was, after all, a 16 year old girl with better things to do, like seeing what the boys on the hockey team were up to; you know, important stuff!  But, without realizing it, the mountains became almost as important a piece of existence to me as the river was.  So when I went back to the flat land of NY for college, in Geneva, I missed them.  I had, of course, the Finger Lakes right out my front door.  By joining the crew team I even found a way to spend hours a day on the water all through college.  And so I gave up the mountains to be back near the water.

After college, I moved back to the mountains, a little farther east than LP, in Vermont.  For you geographicaly disinclined, VT is the Green Mountains.  Although, I prefer them in the fall when they are red, yellow, and orange.  This time, I just lived in them; I didn't really make an effort to get out hiking, although I did a LOT of snowboarding (which I love--it is mountains and water together!!  Yes, the water is frozen, but that is actually how I prefer it, so it makes me extraordinarily happy).   If you have never been to VT, no picture I find on Bing Images is going to do it justice.  Then again, the other pictures have not exactly been amazing representations, so I will try (extra points to the first person who identifies the mountain in the picture): 
Again, none of these pictures really do justice to the places I am trying to explain to you, and they certainly can't capture what those places have meant to me.  Like the Thousand Islands, Vermont is full of memories and stories. New Year's Eve parties in Montpelier filling our friend's car with Christmas lights.  Lazy trips to Cold Hollow Cider Mill to buy an unreasonable amount of cider donuts.  Late nights in Burlington, wandering down Church Street.  About a million different local beers and cheeses.  None of those things are in this picture, just like none of my memories of being in a boat or of being a silly teenage girl in LP are in the earlier pictures.  

By this point, I am sure that you are thinking, "These are nice pictures, Kirsten, but why are you telling us all this?"  That's a good question.  I guess my drive across two states, making my slow way home, brought back a lot of memories for me.  This trip coincides with Matt and I moving--we are just going across town, but the process has made us have a couple of conversations about where we actually want to end up.  So as I drove along the bottom of the mountains and up towards the river, I started thinking about where I have been, about the places I have called home.  So, I started thinking about rivers and mountains.  I started thinking about my journey across New York and down through VT to finally end up in Somerville, where we have neither rivers nor mountains.  (Again, the Charles and the Fells do not count.)  And I started thinking about where I want to be, and what "home" means to me, what I want my home with Matt to be 

This is not going to be one of those posts that ends with me making some big life decision, don't worry.  For one thing, because choosing between rivers and mountains would be like choosing between different parts of my life, different versions of myself.  Who can do that?  But also because I am not ready to choose.  For now, Somerville is perfect for us.  And when the city gets to be too much, we can always go home--one of our homes.  We have family here in NY, along the River.  We have friends who are as close as family throughout VT, in the mountains.  So, I can put a decision off for a while.  

But that doesn't mean I don't miss home, sometimes painfully so.  On those days, I can run along the Charles, or hike in the Fells, up in Winchester, and think to myself, "You call this a river/mountain?  Seriously, people?  Let me tell you about my home, let me tell you what it should REALLY be like..." 
 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Purpose, with a side of cheese fries.

When I talk about running, particularly about running ultra marathons, most people say (or at least think) "why the hell would you do that?"  So, I started thinking about an answer. I started thinking about the purpose behind my running, and that led me to starting thinking about what is--and isn't--really important to me in my life.  I came to the realization that my purpose is directly related to my happiness, which comes from the act of running itself and from the time I spend with the people I love (which, lucky for me, often coincide).   

Here's the thing: if you have ever spent more than 30 seconds reading online articles about running, you will see that many of them are directly related to weight loss.  This makes sense; running is a form of exercise that people often come to in an effort to lose weight, and it is very good for that.  At one time, I ran to lose weight--at some points in my life I have run obsessively in order to lose weight, and paired it with calorie restrictions and a generally unpleasant attitude.  But, somewhere along the way, between bouts of weight loss and regain, I fell in love with running.  The purpose was no longer about being thin, and was instead about how I feel about myself when I am running.  

Over the past few days I have had a series of conversations with friends about how they need to get skinny, and how they work out twice a day, especially at lunch so that they aren't eating at lunch time.  This struck me as the most ridiculous thing ever, really.  First of all, because none of these people are fat to begin with, and second because (as anyone who knows me can verify), I do not believe in skipping meals.  After having these conversations (and a big lunch), I went out for my afternoon run and started thinking about what exactly it was that propelled me out the door twice yesterday, and what I wanted to get out of all this running.  And I realized, as much as I would like to be in shape, I don't--can't-- run for that reason. 

A few months ago, I ran a marathon.  I trained for months, running upwards of 40 miles a week on a fairly regular basis.  I loved (in a loose sense of the word some days) every minute of it.  But I didn't lose any weight.  In fact, I specifically didn't try to lose weight; that wasn't my purpose in running the marathon and I didn't want to compromise my health by restricting calories while I was training.  That is not to say that I followed some incredibly healthy diet, either.  I ate more than my share of Doritoes and cheese sticks, and drank plenty of beer.  I became a vegetarian and had to deal with all the changes in my diet that went along with that.  But, through it all, I never purposely tried to lose weight through running.  Not that I couldn't have done so, I have certainly used running to lose weight in the past, but somehow the goal of the running itself, the marathon, was much more important to me.  And equally important was the time spent with friends, during training and at post-training meals.  For the first time in years, I didn't care how much I weighed, and I was really happy.      

Let me take a second to clarify: I definitely have not had some weird nirvana moment where I suddenly have stopped having "fat" days or anything like that.  In fact, there are plenty of days when I look at my mileage then I look in the mirror and I think "WTF?  For how much I run, shouldn't I be a lot thinner than this?"  It is incredibly frustrating; I hate feeling squishy when I put my hands on my hips and I hate being touched by other people because I am worried they will feel the same squishiness.  So yeah, I have my own baggage about my weight. And I could easily become obsessed about using running to lose weight.  I have done so in the past, but it never works out the way that I want it to.  Because there are still days when I feel gross, or I get on the scale and don't like what I see.  Knowing how hard it is to lose weight, I don't want  the frustration and guilt that goes along with dieting to suck the fun out of something that I love.  So, I (completely unintentionally, although I now realize it was the best thing I have ever done for myself) have separated the two things in my mind.  

There is, of course, the other side to all of this: the eating.  I love to eat almost as much as I love to run.  Umm... okay, maybe even more.  As I said, when I was training for the marathon I ate in proportion to my mileage, and it was great.  I realized, listening to my friends who talk about not eating to be skinny, that I love to eat, and I can't imagine not doing it--any more than I can imagine not running.   Here's the thing: running makes me happy; eating makes me happy.  Dieting, worrying about my weight, and feeling fat don't make me happy.  I live under the assumption that being thin will make me happy--happier than I am now.  But, as I was running around the pond this morning, I started questioning that assumption.  Would losing weight really make me happier than I am now, because I am already pretty happy.  So I started thinking about what parts of my current life I would have to change to lose weight, and would the happiness balance out in my favor? 

There are a few specific things that I would have to give up, the way I see it.  First: Friday nights at the Burren, specifically the beer(s) and cheesesticks.  I would also have to give up nerd nights, particularly Sundays with Ben and Leah, which typically include snacks, drinks, and ordering sandwiches from Deli-icious with a side of cheese fries.  Then there are all the random nights (or whole weekends in Maine) that include a bag of Doritoes, blueberry pies, and S'mOreos.  Basically, I would have to give up all the best days I get to spend with my friends, with the people I love.  You know, the days that make me happy. 

The truth is, a text message that says "We're at the Burren, let's get drunk" is just as appealing to me as a text message that says "Let's do 13 miles tomorrow, I'll see you at 6:30am."  Those are the things that make my life the life I want to have.  And those are the times when I feel beautiful.  I saw a quote recently from Molly Barker, who is the founder of Girls on the Run International: "Running is the space in my day when I feel the most beautiful--when I don't feel judged by others.  And that is what I want for all little girls."  I know exactly what she means.  When I am running is the time when I don't worry what other people think, or even what I think.  I can feel my muscles working, and that helps me worry less about all the squishiness that jiggles around over them. 

Wow, it would be amazing to be able to feel like that all the time, not just when I am running.  It would mean no more frustration over my weight, and no more guilt when I have a cheese stick with my beer on a Friday night.  Of course, that is easier said than done.  I have spent years (most of the past 33) worrying about being thin; it isn't easy to just stop thinking about that.  But, I am going to try.  For the next month, I am not going to weigh myself.  I am going hide the scale, the body tape and fat calipers (oh yes, I bought those in a fit of motivation only to find them to be a true instrument of evil), and I am even going to turn the full length mirror around so that I can no longer stand in front of it and poke at every defect I see.  At the same time, I am going to try to take care of myself: eat healthy, run and go to the gym, things like that.  But I am going to do those things purposefully to make myself happy, to do things that make me feel better inside rather than as a desperate (and ultimately un-enjoyable) attempt to fix everything I think is wrong with me.  Again, probably easier said than done, but I think that it will be an interesting experiment for me to try. 

On those days, which I know will come more often than I want them to, when I feel gross and frustrated, I will focus on doing things that make me happy.  Going for a run, or even a walk.  Spending time with my friends, or just reading a book.  And when I get the overwhelming urge to poke at my belly and get angry at it for still being there, I am instead going to look at it and say "Oh hey there; we've had some pretty good times, huh?  Blueberry pie in Maine!  That crazy Friday night at the Burren when I let everyone draw on my stupid pink cast while I ate cheese sticks!  Yeah, those were good times.  What do you want to do this weekend?  Chinese buffet?  Yeah, I think so, right after we go for a little run..."   



Here and Back Again: A Race Recap of Sorts

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