Tuesday, May 8, 2012


It was my fourth 50K in four months. I had booboos on my booboos from the last three. And I'd "rested" ie slacked off for the last 6 weeks since my last race. I'd gained 2 pounds slacking... uh resting... and my left quadraceps tendon was still whining like an angry ferret from some residual tendonitis. And now, at mile 11.5, in the middle of the trail, the size and shape of a modest tornado, lay a decaying live oak; there is something ironic and uniquely trail runny about being held up during a race by a dead live oak.

Looking left to right I discovered the clever race organizers had marked the trail down and around the crown of the tree through a small thicket. It made sense. Every runner's brain says down is better than up, right? So down I went. At full speed. Like an African antelope. Leaping and lunging over the rough terrain, lickety split like a.... like a... like a distance runner in a waist deep thicket of poison oak. Elegantly, almost skillfully intertwined with poison ivy. This is when my mantra in answer to why I do this crazy stuff ("Because I can, neener neener") *appears* to be insufficient. Appears.
That is when the emergency back up mantra kicks in: "Because I spent eighty bucks on it." And the emergency back up back up mantra: "because I bragged about it to all my friends." And the back up to the emergency back up back up mantra: "just shut up and think about all the pretty flowers."



Just before the turn around at mile 15 I came across the girl in Orange coming the other way. In races you never know anybody's name. As you pass them or they pass you, you give them names. I'd left skinny calves guy in the dust practically at the start of the race. Prissy run skirt girl had given me a challenge for the first 4 miles and then hadn't wanted to get her shoes wet at a mud puddle and had stopped to ponder it a little too long.
Orange shirt girl had taken off like a rocket right out of the gate. I'd admired her athletic form and her stellar gait, her understated gear, and overall... prettiness right up until she disappeared ahead. I'd encountered several people coming back the other direction, and had been expecting to see Orange shirt lady miles ago with the heads of the pack. As I passed her I said, "HA! I figured you must be up here somewhere!" It was about time I ran across the first finisher female.

From her response I could tell she was tired. She was disappointed with her slow down. This was not her race. Hmm. Maybe I'd make it to the finish line before she left and I'd ask her what she'd been disappointed with.

Two hours later I stopped at the aid station right before Poison Oak Alley. There, seated and clearly still having the worst race ever was Orange shirt lady. Also present was Best Husband In The Universe, poised and ready with poison oak lotion and mini oreos (BHITU=GENIUS). I chatted with Orange shirt girl for about 2 seconds, just long enough to discover A) she was having a lousy race and B) she did not have an emergency back up mantra.

I ran the remainder of the race expecting the more skilled, fitter and in all likelihood less gimpy Orange Shirt Lady to come prancing along behind and cheerfully pass me with a slightly smug "nice race" (transl. "Good job slow poke. I'll wait around an hour or two at the finish line for that high five.")

But Orange shirt girl never showed. In fact, she came in well behind me, tired and dehydrated.

So why, I asked myself, does someone fitter, younger and more motivated to win not leave my gimpy, underprepared self in the dust? My guess? You can train your body to a razor's edge, but it's your brain that wins races. Your body will push through almost anything, but it's your brain that sees poison oak and closes it's eyes and plunges forward. It's your brain that realizes you didn't bring a water bottle and decides whether to beat yourself up, lament the distance between aid stations these nutty trail people set up, or just grab a bottle at the next aid station and stick it down your pants for the remaining 24 miles. Your brain decides whether it will focus on the heat, or the itching, or the mud puddles (which my brain does just because it happens to think mud is the best part), or focus on the little archway of forsythias between mile 6 and 7 that felt like running through sunbeams. Do you formulate in your head all the many things you're going to tell the race organizer when you give him a piece of your mind, or wonder exactly how many days/ weeks/ months you'll be able to use the poison oak anecdote to try and wrangle a discounted race fee.

All these are choices your brain learns to make with one, specific goal in mind: finish well. Have your own very best race possible. Not the race you necessarily win. Or even the race you PR. Just the race where you chose forsythias over poison oak, jokes over complaints. And the more you choose to focus your mind on things it loves over things it loathes, the more determined it will become, the more unstoppable you will be. The more often and constantly you achieve your goal: finish well.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

It's all in your Head

The first time I ever told that to someone it was a hot, mid afternoon run. The 10K I ran every week with a bunch of guys I politely referred to as my "old guy run group." Don't tell THEM that, by the way. There are some seasoned runners in that group who'd run the pants off any young... youngish... ok late thirtiesish hot shot run coach I know even if they are mostly collecting social security.

We had a new recruit that week. He was slower than some of the other guys, so I comfortably kept pace with him and found myself happily chatting as we ran through the 90 odd degree noon heat.

"I'm just a 10 minute mile guy," Mike said. I stared ahead of the disappearing figure of the other Mike in the group, Mike the Machine, whose 7 or 8 minute mile pace never slowed, rain or shine, hills or mud puddles. The two Mikes were about the same age. Equally fit. Similar build. The Mike I was chatting with had given me a full history of his running career and his training schedule was far more impressive than Mike the Wind Up Runningbot ahead.

"Why? You've got a great program. A great trainer, even if she's not ME." I still wince a little when I say that part, even these several years later.

"That's just my .... Time."

"It's all in your head."
3 months later Mike put in a 4:45 marathon. 3 months after that, he knocked out 13.1 in Sacramento averaging a 9:16 mile pace.

I've said it over and over through the years since then. Whatever you want to get out of yourself - fitness, a smaller dress size, a better mile time, a better job, a better education. It's all right there where you can easily find it: in your head. Your limitations are there, too. If you tell yourself you'll only ever do a 10 minute mile, you'll never get out of your bean counting desk job, you can't go back to school because you're too old... Whatever limitations you impose on yourself, those are the limitations you have.

I got a chance to see this myself, first hand. I qualified for Boston in that San Francisco race Mike and I ran together. And found myself running it a few months later. I didn't make my target time in Boston, and by mile 20 I knew it wasn't even going to be a personal best. I started to think the Boston thing had been a fluke. I wasn't a runner. I was in fact a former fat girl who should just go back to her couch. People were passing me. I was running out of steam. This whole running thing had been a big, over ambitious dream.

Just then a guy on old fashioned prosthetics blazed past me. Not the controversial running prosthetics, the old, heavy metal ones. He wasn't just running by. He was BLAZING past. And I thought. Here was a guy who had physical limitations. Infinitely worse than mine had ever been. But in his head, there were none. No limits.

His head was all possibilities.

Mike and I ran together for a while after that, but we had to part paths when my path went to crazy ultra distances and Mikes took him to triathlons. This year Mike is doing his first Iron Man in Arizona. Iron Man Mike.

As we were on our way to a recent half marathon together Mike was telling me about his ambitious triathlon training schedule. 15,000 work outs a week, swimming, cycling, running, strength training, underwater basket weaving.

"I'm amazed with what you've been able to do Mike."

"Ah well." He said. "Someone once told me my limitations were all in my head."

"Haha." I had to ask just to hear it. "Was I right?"

Monday, March 5, 2012

Couch to Boston

It's going to take forEVER.

The tired lady in front of me proclaimed, releasing what seemed to be every last bit of air from her tired lungs. A stray strand of hair fell into her face.

I'm not going to get that far. I don't even like what I look like when I'm that thin. I want to be below 200. That's as far as I care to go.

I know from where you're standing the task seems impossible, the work grueling, the time frame so long you can hardly think so far into the future. But I want you to imagine something for me. You only have, what, 70 more pounds to your healthy body weight? But I lost almost twice that in a year and a half. In fact, I lost 100, quit smoking, lost 30 more and... (I did some math in my head) now, 3 1/4 years after I got up off the counch and started this journey, I'm going to be running the Boston Marathon. It's amazing. Look back at the last 3 years of your life, and tell me 3 years ago doesn't seem like yesterday.

Her blue eyes widened.

I just don't see myself doing that kind of work.

She'd been to curves. And when curves stopped working she'd joined our gym.

But you've done the hardest part already. You've made a start. And when what you were doing stopped challenging you enough, you upped the ante again by joining up here. And talking to me.

I just want to be under 200.

I just wanted to "not be a freak anymore." I got the Boston Marathon instead.

But I don't want to run.

I didn't start running until I was almost a healthy body weight. In fact, strangely enough, I picked it up as a way to prove to myself I was done with this whole fitness kick. I could go back to my normal life, maybe do Zumba a few times a week. Run a 5K now and then for charity. Nobody has to run.


It's going to take about a year to reach your healthy body weight. And you're going to feel great. After that if you want to run a marathon you can. If not, don't. But be healthy.

She nodded. I could tell she thought I was full of baloney. I shut up and showed her around the gym cheerfully.

I saw her around the gym doing the routine I'd set her up with virtually every day. It worked. She was losing, getting stronger. The work became easy. As soon as the work became easy it stopped working.

She became frustrated.

I invited her to join my gym group.

Each session she jogged, ellipticalled, weight lifted, toted, cardio kick boxed her way past her plateau.

After our sessions ended I would see her around. Working her tush off. She would delightedly tell me she was losing steadily. Or she'd plateaued. We would plan and scheme.

Then came the texts. She'd gotten under 200. She hit 180 and got a tatoo. 10 more pounds and she would have that healthy BMI she never thought she could have.

Then the day came. I got the text. "I made it." It had been a little less than a year. I'd watched all her progress. Cringed as she told me about her plateaus. Cheered her progress and complimented her as she slipped into smaller and smaller clothing sizes. I was as proud as I'd been the day I'd crossed the finish line at the Boston Marathon.

Yesterday I saw her in the gym. There's a look of delight in her eyes. She got a tatoo just above the waist when she reached her healthy Body Mass Index. She'd kept going, too.

It feels like yesterday.

I know.

I can't believe how hard I thought it was going to be. How long I thought a year seemed. It feels like yesterday.

It's been almost a year since I crossed the finish line at the Boston Marathon. I've taken up ultra running since then. Ran a 50 mile race. Qualified for the Western States 100 mile race. This year just because I can I'm running a 50K a month. Why not?

But looking back the 4 and a bit years it's been since I first ventured off the couch and out into my neighborhood for the 2 mile walk around the hills of doom (which took me an hour) seem like nothing. At the time I could not imagine exercising TWO WHOLE MILES a day for the next 4 years - certainly not for the rest of my life. Now two miles seems like ... a walk in the park.

And every time I cross a finish line I think of how long I've been running this race. My 4 years - and it seems like nothing.

Couch to Boston Marathon in 3 1/4 years. Where will YOU go?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Yay! Next speaking engagement!

You can't always make everything good as new but you can always make everything good