Mind over Mediocrity

Over the past few months I’ve had a solid training experience, with what I expect to be enduring results. The two main factors bringing this about were hiring out my training program and building a meditation practice.

As I handed out water at the Houston Marathon in January, I found myself craving a new goal race to train for, but not feeling enthused to run a lot of long, slow miles, so I ruled out the marathon and the half. My 10k experience was lacking and efforts sporadic. My PR according to my Garmin was nested in the last portion of a half marathon in 2017. Imagining myself training for a 10k, I felt intimidated, then inspired to commit to the 6.2.

Buying into Accountability and Win #1: Embracing the Tempo Run

I outsourced my running program for this training cycle, as I had decided the 10k would be a good challenge for myself mentally and physically, but I was inexperienced with the approach. I had started following the Strength Running Podcast, hosted by Jason Fitzgerald, with the enthusiasm of a fanatic. One of the things I like the most about the content of the podcast was the approach and depth to which the psychology of running, especially longer distance running, is addressed. Neither the guests nor the host left grit to mystery. Whether holding on through hard miles or repetitive ones, there was consensus that if you tended to show up consistently, no matter how the individual workouts went, you would trend towards success.  

Tempo runs have been gnarly to me in adulthood. Conceptually, I know I can do these faster, longer runs at threshold pace because even at 3-4 miles they are slower than even my moderate 5ks. In putting money down on this program, I was in part buying a compulsion to do the tempo runs.

Going back to what I wrote earlier, the trend is what’s important, not the individual workouts. There was one workout I did end early. I did not feel good about it but I spent about a mile and a half of the tempo-pace portion trying to get up to speed, but I couldn’t run any faster. Then I almost couldn’t run at all. I had tried to put the run midday and I was both sluggish and stressed from work and it just wasn’t happening. However, I didn’t let that deter me, and my next tempo workout was perfectly on pace. As I kept going with the tempo runs, they became easier to approach, and I actually found myself having fun with them, using them to practice holding my focus on my running rather than trying to distract from it- enter meditation.

Meditation and Staying with My Run

Research and anecdotal evidence support practicing meditation, but I have struggled to get on board for years. Meditation was introduced to me in rehab, and I hated it. It was guided by a counselor, and I didn’t like sitting still and I really didn’t like being told what to think about. When it was time to meditate, usually in the morning, I would just let myself doze. I tried the Calm App a few years ago, and doing sessions on my own worked better for me than group meditations, but I couldn’t make a regular habit of it for very long, and eventually I gave up on that one as well.

This spring, I found out about the 50-day Waking Up meditation course, in an app created by Sam Harris. I wanted to give the whole mediation thing another go. I completed the entire 50-day course, although it took me longer than 50 days (maybe 60). It was just simple enough to stick with it, though at times it was pretty hard to stay with the guidance. Sam says enraging things like “Consciousness is not inside your head, your head is inside consciousness”, and suddenly a lobotomy sounds cool. Still, I’m totally on board with meditation now, as I felt changes in even that short a time span. I have kept up with daily meditations in the app as much as I can.

As for what meditation brought to my running, there really was a general “mellowing out” of my physical, mental, and emotional state while running and racing. When running is painful, boring, or intimidating, as in a race, I am practicing just observing the internal and external situation, without trying to close in or get further away from it. I emphasize “practice” because of course I don’t do it perfectly and I will lapse into murky emotional spots. I find that I can be in a great mood or a stinky mood about the run, and still execute on my workout or race plan, and I approach obstacles to doing so with more self-compassion. I am more accepting of what I am bringing to my runs, and what they are bringing to me.

One of the reasons I was able to maintain consistency this time around because each session was an emotionally blank slate. Going back to the Strength Running podcast, I am drawn to it partly because of how often and with what depth the psychological components of racing and training are discussed. It often feels like I feel and express more self-doubt than self-confidence in my running career. Synthesizing the accounts of other runners with my own experience, and observing how my self-talk trends through meditation, allowed the space for sucky runs to just be sucky runs, and move on to the next workout or life-thing with a little more grace, and curiosity instead of apprehension.

Next Chapter

For me, one of the biggest reasons to run is to explore- both places and my limits.

Do you ever take a moment to examine where you are, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and wonder how you got there? I’ve done it all my life. Sometimes it’s in a appreciative way, something like

“Man! How did I get here? Am I really here? This is so great- I am so lucky!” I was running around the Blue Mountains in Australia last week, having that thought often.

I’ve been through life at the other end of the spectrum though, where I find myself fearfully asking,

“Wait- why am I here? What am I doing? What are they doing? This doesn’t feel good or even ok…how do I get out this?” That sort of question happened far too often in my past. I’d be scraping myself out of one undesirable situation only to land in another where I felt equally uncomfortable, never stopping to take a breath and decide where I actually wanted to go, instead of just ruling out where I didn’t want to be.

As an adult, I was diagnosed with major depression, though I had probably had it since I was a teenager. For me, depression is what settles in to that void between where I am and where I want to be. I had gotten so far from the kind of life I dreamed of when I was young that I barely remembered what that was. I wanted to be on my own, seeing the world, learning as much as I could, and hopefully piecing back together to a whole person that had an altogether confusing childhood.

In contrast, what I was doing was going to college, getting married, settling down, working for bosses I couldn’t stand, trying to hit external marks of progress to give answers to who I was while ignoring my inner voice that said

“Holly, you don’t care about any of this.” I would answer myself with

“There will be time for all of it- I can find myself here in this place, even though it feels wrong right now.” I would eventually drown the voice completely with alcohol, choosing to numb out the resistance I felt to what I was doing. In this time, I talked myself into walking down a wedding aisle when I should have been hustling through an airport.

Eventually I scrambled out. Out of the marriage, out of the traditional image of work,, and most importantly out of alcohol abuse, something I got taken up with when I no longer cared what happened with my life. That took outside help, which I’ll work up the courage to write about in more detail some other time. It has not been a pretty process, but it has been worth every fear and tear. I now find myself on a middle road most of the time, far from despair. I am content with my life, and even occassionally blissful! I no longer ignore dreams or sideline goals, with  permission to make mistakes to get where I am going. The irony is that now, just as before, I have no idea what I am doing- but I since this time I am designing the course, I can rearrange it however I want.

Although in life I feel directionally challenged sometimes- I always know this one cue: “Further”. Further from comfort, further from what is known towards what is unknown. I was like this as a kid, and it’s good to be back here again.

I started this blog more than two years ago as a way to practice writing, using easily accessible subject matterrunning. While I want to share my running travels and process, the overarching goal is to use those experiences to develop as an author, and move towards some day being able to write about my broader life and deeper throughts. I have stories outside of running that are wild, somber, joyful and sad, and through it all I relentlessly engage in new experiences so that I keep recovering hope and cultivating wonder. I want to be more consistent about writing here, and to expand on what I cover, with the hope that I will continue to make more connections with people and ideas about life.

Race Recap: Dad’s Day 5k- Dedicated Training = Personal Best. 

Thoughtful & consistent training pays off with a new PR.

Sunday I ran the race I trained for, and though the time I saw when I crossed the finish line marked the achievement of one goal, I took it as a bench mark of two different paths I want to continue on. The two goals are intertwined; I want to become the best competitor in running that I can push myself to be, and I also want to be a useful training coach for fellow amateur athletes who want to push their own boundaries. With training on myself, I hope that I might find good practices to pass on to my fellow athletes, whether they are full of fury for a medal, or just want to feel more confident and comfortable in community races.

Summary of the Race

I’ll write about specifics, including pacing and training, lower in this post, but first I wanted to give an overview of the race. It was the “Dad’s Day 5k” in downtown Houston, Texas. I love these community races- something always chokes me up, and this one got me good. The cause was prostrate cancer, as the race fell Fathers’ Day Weekend. My own father passed away over ten years ago, and it was from him that I got the running genes, so I thought about him a lot. I don’t doubt that soaring emotions helped me get to the finish line faster, I felt pretty inspired to do my best, just in case he was watching.

I found that it was a pretty big race, at least 1000 people running, more volunteering. There were men dressed up as Captain America & Batman, and I grabbed a pic with Batman after the race, while waiting for the times to be posted. It was hot and humid, the stats being 80 degrees Fahrenheit with 80% humidity. I felt it as soon as I opened my car door at the race site. Those guys in the superhero costumes were seriously heroic for donning facemasks and tights in that weather! Once the race got going I felt like I was running through a volcano covered in a wet blanket.

They did a kids 1k race before the 5k started, and it was of course adorable but also inspiring. The bigger kids ran really hard, and I was floored to see that a girl took 3rd place, flying in well ahead of the next kids and the pack.

Running the Race

Start line

I lined up at the front. I finally realize that is where I need to be. Choosing a spot close to the start line is a relatively new move for me. In the past I’ve been scared it would make me go out too fast, but I finally have confidence in my training that I know my pace and can hold it, letting go of my ego, so that the people that rush out in front of me oftentimes drift behind me after a mile or so. There were signs posted from 7 min pace on up, and I marched in between it and the 8 min sign. Even with the weather, I was counting on running at the very least 7:40/mile. My previous pace for a race on about the same course was 7:50, but that was in February when the weather was much more forgiving.

First mile

Never ending. It felt like forever, and I glanced at my watch, reading a 7:25 there. For a long time that would have alarmed me, as getting close to 7:30 too early in the race gasses me. I stopped looking at my watch. Legs felt good, breathing was ok. My only source of discomfort was the heat.

Second mile

The race was out and back, so the one mile mark meant only 1/2 a mile until I got to turn around. My pace quickened, and I didn’t really have to think about it. I was running in a pack that included a few women, and I had no way of knowing if they were hurting like I was and if they would suddenly take off. I would look at my watch, and still see times that were a little fast, 7:18 or so, and just leave the over-analyzing alone and ask the question- “Can I maintain this?”. I did, and I got faster. As I approached and rounded the turn-around, I counted nine women in front of me, making me ten. A little fear set in that I may drop out or I would get passed, which took my adrenaline up a notch.

Like I said, it was bonkers hot. I even saw the photographer, and this grimace was the best I could manage.

Third Mile & Finish Line

Or as I like to think of it, the oh-thank-god-its-almost-over mark. My focus became just running at my threshold. I wasn’t going to leave anything behind. I had passed a few women, and there was one in front of me that I figured would stay there, but something happened in the last 200 meters or so. I looked at my watch, and the time read 21:30. My goal PR right now is a sub-22, and though I really thought I had no more effort left to give, I surged. I got to the finish line with a 22:33, and I was really proud with that. It busted my old PR by 20 seconds, even with me being 5 years older since I set that mark. What a rush!

As I crossed the finish line, I realized just how overheated I had become. I never got water in the race, not wanting to sacrifice time or stop my momentum, and as I came to the stop I realized I wasn’t altogether sure I wasn’t going to pass out. I also had to use the bathroom, and deliberated on the odds of me blacking out inside the Port-o-potty if I even made it there. YOLO, in I went, out I came, and grabbed water.

“Outta my way, kids! My turn!”

The Training

As a starting point for my training, I read Jack Daniels’ Running Formula. I was mainly interested in his VDOT charts, which take performance as an indicator of VO2 max, then provide a comprehensive list of times to aim for in training for 5 different kinds of runs. Once you figure out where you land with your VO2 capabilities, you are only getting started in putting together a training program. I had to identify my strong and weak areas, and prioritize my training to condition myself what I  was worst at- holding a pace through discomfort. I know I’m capable, I just haven’t always been willing!

Lest I get super confusing for newer runners or people whose lexicon is different, here is how I describe and interpret my training. This is taken almost directly from JD Running Formula, I just adapted a few things within my training becuase his book describes a program for people who run way more volume (miles) than I do right now. I give a description of how interpreted and adapted the workouts for my purposes, and the paces I used, which were determined from Daniels’ charts in the book.

Interval Run: 400-1000 meters run at slightly faster than 5k pace with 60-90 seconds of recovery.

  • 7:20 pace for this training cycle

Tempo Run: runs of 20 minutes at hard but comfortable pace

  • 8:00 pace

Reptition Run: short intervals on the track. I used 200 meter sprints, with a 200 meter recovery jog.

  • 50 seconds/200 meters

Easy/Recovery Run: should be self explanatory, but runs of half an hour to an hour a few times a week.

  • 9:30/mile.

I ran maybe 20 miles a week. I was able to get away with relatively low mileage because I  supplemented resistance training in the gym. The resistance training was more or less targeted to not just strength, but endurance, including short to no rest periods between sets targeting different muscles. What I found was that training this way conditioned my mind to push through pain and fatigue, which is just what I needed!

For this race, I went in knowing what I was working with, because I had been training consistently, with progressive paces individualized to my workouts for months. I wasn’t as interested in where I placed in the field for this race. I knew this would be my last 5k for awhile, and I wanted to beat my best time. The big picture: If I placed last and ran faster than my fastest, then the race would be a success. The race was a total win. I ran hard the whole time, held on when it got really rough, and somehow found the grit to rev up even more at the end. I start training for the Houston Marathon next month, and I’m really excited to work out my training details for that race!