On Saturday, January 14th, I found myself deep in the throes of tumultuous fervor, the delights of which promised violent ends. I had dressed in my tightest black compression, my skimpiest running top. I packed four pairs of shoes, unsure which would suit him best. I approached with timid, curious angst. He was tough. Undulating. Rugged. Winding and unpredictable, yet disarmingly calm. Unruly, dark, hot as a furnace, cold as a tomb, and in the end he grabbed me by the Camelbak and threw me to the frigid ground, staking claim to my dignity and DNF purity forever. His name was Longhaul 100. He was my first DNF. You never forget your first.
In ultrarunning speak, DNF means DID NOT FINISH. In all caps. Shouting.
The only thing that hurts worse than your legs and shoulders the morning after an ultramarathon is your legs and shoulders the morning after DNF'ing an ultramarathon at mile 62. The absence of accomplished bewilderment is like a lack of painkillers after having your wisdom teeth out. It's like waking up halfway through surgery and walking away from the table with your gallbladder halfway out; you sling it over your shoulder, tape yourself together, and try to get through the week without stitches, the gallbladder bouncing around yelling "What am I for? What purpose do I serve in the body? Are we there yet?" Instead of a gnarly scar, you have a gaping wound of grief for which there is no closure and a thousand questions. Except, you have to find closure. And that process is as tough as the race itself.
Granted, I don't regret my decision to stop -- I just hate it. I hate that it happened, but it was the right choice. F. Scott Fitzgerald told us that "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." While measurements of things like intelligence are relative, I think he was onto something. Because while I hate what happened at Longhaul, I also see that it was one of my more valuable running experiences. I walked away stinging with a full-blown head cold and a lack of resolved accomplishment, but with some new knowledge I didn't have before. As I sew myself back together, here's some of what I'm learning:
I'll never start a physical endeavor that big again unless I'm in 100% health. I wasn't last Saturday. I was underslept, underfed, and coming off of a sinus infection I'd picked up on a ski trip the week before. My breathing wasn't clear. My appetite was minimal all week. I'd been in law classes late at night and at work early in the morning, and I hadn't rested or prepared in the manner I should for something as big as 100 miles. But, I went for it anyway. It cost me.
Halfway through the race, I hit a low, low point. It was somewhere near mile 55. I just became physically ill. It had grown humid during the day, and when the heat had set in hadn't fueled properly. I went several hours running without any fuel. That was a mistake I paid for later when the sun went down, as I dry heaved and desperately tried to ingest something to no avail. I couldn't keep anything down. I couldn't refuel. I could barely hydrate. I cramped. I shivered. I ached. It was the domino effect, not to be confused with the Dominos Effect, which is what you feel when you finish a race and want to eat two large pizzas by yourself.
I staggered for the next seven miles, shuffling and jogging as much as I could, often throwing up in my mouth. I scared all the wild animals away. The otters I'd seen in the creek earlier in the day were literally underwater, holding their breath waiting for me to pass by. The armadillos were throwing hand signals at each other to stay hidden until I passed, sniffling and barfing. I was a big, nauseated, sloth-like monster with a flashlight and snot coming out of my nose. To win it, I was also crying. I was the ugliest, saddest thing in the woods. But I had headphones, so while I cried and stumbled across the next mile to the aid station, I listened to Janis Joplin singing "Piece of my Heart." Honestly, all I could think about was changing the words to "take another little piece of my foot now baby." At sixty miles, both feet were about to fall off. It was the perfect song for that perfectly fucked up moment. But I digress.
When I made it to mile 62, 100 kilometers, I stopped and sat by a burn barrel trying to get warm. Other crews and runners there were encouraging. The race director, Jen, sat down and talked through it with me to see if I could recover. I tried to find an ounce of myself that wanted to continue. But when you know, you know. And I knew in that moment that if I kept going for 38 more miles, I was going to end up in the hospital with pneumonia, or worse.
I asked myself, do you need to stop. Yes.
I asked myself, are you okay with this? Yes.
When I knew the answer, I dropped from the race.
I remember reading this blog by Mark Manson about how to break hearts and risk everything. If the question is, "I hate law school and know it's not for me. How do I quit?" the clear answer is simple: Walk to the registrar's office. Withdraw from the classes. Walk back to the car. Drive home.
But that's not really the question. The question is really, "How do I face failure. How do I explain this to everyone. How do I face my family and friends who expected me to succeed. How do I live with the guilt and feeling of inadequacy."
That's why a decision that seems so easy on the outside to others is actually extremely difficult for the person who faces it. It's not about the decision. It's about emotional boundaries, which are invisible and much harder to create than the logical decisions. The decision is like a gate. Opening the gate may cause a flood of emotions like guilt, sorrow, confusion. Closing the gate may shut down possibilities like love, triumph, fulfillment. Opening or shutting the gate isn't the hard part. Handling the world the gate begins or ends is.
I shut the gate. I don't have a 100-mile finish, and I don't have pneumonia. I do have my health back (almost), and I do have the possibility of trying again. But the exercise of going through this has not presented a limitation -- instead, it revealed a boundary: I'll never let any goal compromise my health, which is the biggest goal I have. I started down this path of distance running searching for a better life. The healthier I've become, the more my life has flourished. Saturday night was the first time I truly felt like my health was going to be compromised if I continued to run. I felt it deep inside. I knew the answer. And now I know more about why I run, and why I am here blogging about it like Janis Joplin going on and on and on.
I walked away with a truckload of other ideas about how to better approach an ultramarathon, from gear to fuel to mental strategy. But most importantly, I know where I stand when it comes to my desire to finish a race coupled with my desire to have a healthy and fit body. Janis let heroine take her heart. I wasn't going to let running take my health. Not today, running.
Not everyone shares this view. Some feel that you have to finish a race you start, even if you kill yourself in the process. But if first-rate intelligence is holding opposing views in both hands without malfunctioning, then a first-rate community is one where people can hold opposing views and still exist in harmony with one another. I firmly believe in that.
Onward to the next endeavor, after I tackle the rest of this head cold. I still have the 100-miler to tackle. And I'm still the ugliest, baddest, saddest, snottiest thing in the woods. Thanks to everyone who has supported me along the way. Go on, take another little piece of my heart, running. You know you've got it - if it makes you feel good.
In all the miles this season, I've collected some thoughts. One thing I've been marinating on is discipline -- a relatively new arrow in my quiver. As I round out the end of another trip around the sun, I'm realizing how much grace has fallen on my life since I embraced the concept of discipline. Let me explain.
As far back as I can remember, I disliked the word discipline. It reminds me of the well-meaning but stern grey-haired woman who tried to teach me piano lessons when I was in first grade. She was frail and sort of spiny, like a winter tree, and she squinted and rapped her fingers on the piano wood every time I hit the wrong note. I was hopeless. I see music in colors and I've always played everything by ear. I am also phenomenally stubborn to a fault. I can't read sheet music to save my life, and her twisted scowl every time I left her house indicated that she could not save my life either. I was equally appalled by the way she treated music -- like it was some kind of math problem with only one right answer.
I lasted two months and quit by way of tantrum. My first-grader view was: I don't want to grow old like this woman and view music as something I should force children to memorize while ironically pounding out mechanical repetitions of "Joy to the World" in perfect quarter-notes. I viewed discipline, and "practicing" music the same way: Like the destruction of joy and the sabotage of everything artful and exciting about possibility.
Here's the part where I confess things about my past, and the results of that kind of thinking:
Between the ages of 17 and 24, I treated myself badly and I treated my life like it wasn't worth much. I smoked a lot of cigarettes and took ridiculously terrible care of my body and mind. I drank bottle after bottle of various things to try to get away from myself because I was really just not happy. Maybe it was the piano lessons, I don't know. (Kidding.) It actually got much, much worse than this but I'll save the graphic details for another time. I'm embarrassed about this very dark period of years, but I'm trying not to be ashamed. I think shame is the false belief that others won't accept our truth. I'm going to go out on a limb here and believe otherwise. I believe we all just want to accept and be accepted, regardless of what we project.
So in my twenties, I was always just struggling to get to a place of peace, and I didn't know what that was, so I ended up constantly running from everything. I went out late and stayed out late. I bounced around to different jobs. I was late to things. I forgot people's birthdays. I cancelled plans all the time. I ran away from any intimate situation. I was scared of anyone who cared about me. I was terrified of food. Terrified of love. I grew up in a really critical environment where perfectionism was encouraged, and I guess I just sort of exploded and went careening in the opposite direction -- running away. Self-sabotage. I just assumed that life was all ways going to feel like an anxiety-ridden dread-fest where everything ahead would just get worse. That was what I knew. I didn't have a purpose or a goal. The only goal was to protect myself from everything in the ugly world, and to protect everything good in the world from my ugly self.
It was the worst kind of selfishness: Self-hatred. Self-criticism. Self-destruction. Nobody is winning.
I was not, at early 20's, the kind of person who believed that one day I could graduate law school, run a marathon, run an ultramarathon, be on a trial team, be an aunt, write books, and land an amazing job at a law firm, or build beautiful lasting friendships. I didn't see myself as that person. I saw myself as a broken thing that should avoid intimacy and relationships and try not to inflict my insufficiency on others. That's no way to live. I see that now. But I don't think I could have gotten there without discipline.
Here's the Raymond Carver moment of grace, where things get hopeful:
What I learned was this: Discipline actually creates possibility.
I'm going to break discipline into two categories: Action Discipline and Thought Discipline.
Action Discipline is doing things you don't want to do because you trust that they will amount to something greater that you can't see or feel yet. It's going to an event you RSVP'd to, even when you really don't feel like it -- trusting that something will happen greater than the doom you imagine. It's is as simple as getting up at 5:30 to go running or to the gym instead of sleeping in. It's picking up the phone and making a ten minute call you don't think you have time for. Sitting the butt in the chair and studying 14-hour days before exams. Dragging yourself to class. Staying late at work to finish instead of procrastinating. Folding laundry when it's dry. Writing just one page of that novel draft even when you don't feel inspired.
That's all Action Discipline. It's small things, done over and over trusting that they are creating something larger and greater. Sometimes they surprise you with immediate payoff. Sometimes, they actually don't. But you have to use your imagination and trust that you are building something great.
But also, this: Discipline is learning to control your thoughts.
Thoughts dictate everything. I think the first time I learned that I could control my thoughts was when I ran my first marathon. I got tired and upset and frustrated, and really bad thoughts started creeping in. I mean...painful thoughts from long, long ago. About my shortcomings. Feelings of abandonment from my mom. Breakups. Feelings of inadequacy. A tragedy I witnessed and couldn't stop. Unresolved grief. It was all just a horror-show in my brain of really self-destructive thinking.
It all got to be too loud and too much and I remember ripping off my headphones and walking for a minute. I was so engulfed in my own misery that I could no longer absorb anything around me -- even though I was running the Miami Marathon with thousands of people. And right there, for the first time, I asked myself:
"Are these thoughts helping me get to the finish line."
It was more of a statement than a question. Of course the answer was no. So I made a rule. All the thoughts could flow by. But the only thoughts that could stay were ones that would help me get to that finish line and subsequent beer tent.
I didn't know it at the time, but I was disciplining my mind. That's a practice of mindfulness -- something I knew nothing about either. We are not our minds. We are the awareness behind our minds.
When you practice thought discipline, you are being the awareness behind your mind.
When you practice thought and action discipline, you become a better family member, a better friend, a better coworker, and a better human being because you meet the standards you set for yourself -- and you control the never-ending chatterbox in your brain that filters all of your perceptions about the world. Sure, I could mull all day over the ugly parts of the past. But, those thoughts don't help me get to the next amazing place in life. They just keep me in the same space.
All of this has created possibility and joy. I can't remember any feeling I've ever felt like the one I had when I crossed that finish line. I can't compare the transcendence I've gone through in an ultramarathon. These human experiences were gifts that came because of the discipline it took to push myself to that point. I swear, I've never looked back and regretted any of it. People ask me constantly, "But why. Why would you run 50 or 100 miles? Why would you wake up at 5am and run? Why are you pushing yourself so hard?" Because I trust that there is more amazing out there, and amazing comes from the state of flow, and the state of flow comes from discipline. It really does.
And, in the end, discipline comes from a place of self-love. I took control of my thoughts during that marathon because I really wanted Megan to finish that marathon. I wanted it for her because she deserved it. I wanted myself to have that experience and that joy of accomplishment. In a state of awareness, I embraced the pain and asked my mind to get onboard and work with me.
I leave you with a quote: "To know yourself as the Being underneath the thinker, the stillness underneath the mental noise, the love and joy underneath the pain, is freedom, salvation, enlightenment." Eckhart Tolle
There are big changes going on around here for me, as a runner and as a person.
After the Keys100 this summer, I decided to take a look at my training and see where I could improve. I usually hit a slump during the summer where I don't run as much. I tend to slow down on my running and hit the gym to rebalance my body. I tend to get very busy, too. I'm in law school, and usually the summer means that I work full time, plus either take classes on the side or do research for law professors. I'll be honest -- at the end of the day, I don't really feel like running. I feel like drinking good beer and watching Netflix. (You could say I should run early, before all of this, but still -- I feel like drinking good beer and watching Netflix then, too.)
But this summer, I wanted things to be different. I wanted to focus on work and improving my running pace.
And drink good beer and watch Stranger Things on Netflix. So I set a big goal: I want to qualify for Boston. It's too late to do it this year. So I'll have to qualify for 2018.
But that means that the work started in early summer, because I realized that running in the killer Miami heat was going to make me a stronger athlete, at the end of the day, and when fall and winter roll around, I'll be flying like a rabid bunny in Nike Airs.
I have three big strategies for improving my running pace, after some research. The three big strategies are this:
It's a complex and scientific strategy. First, I'm going to breathe more. And second, I'm going to drink more. And at the same time, I'm going to run more. Let me take you through a few things I've learned about each:
I'm learning to breathe through my diaphragm. Or, "belly breathing" as some call it. It's actually phenomenal. I read a great book (pictured above) called Mind, Body, and Sport by John Douillard. Douillard explains that when we take short, shallow breaths from our chest, we don't actually get enough oxygen or release enough carbon dioxide to properly oxygenize our muscles. So, they fatigue faster. Also, when we breathe like that, we increase our stress level (via cortisol) and put ourselves in somewhat of a panicked state, which burns out glycogen the way a car burns through gasoline much faster when you rev the engine again and again. SO, instead, if you breathe longer, fuller breaths by expanding your belly while you run (say, breathe in three strides, breathe out two) then you fill your body with way more oxygen and don't fatigue as quickly.
It is difficult to make this change. I've been working on it for months now, and only recently did I begin to feel the big changes -- running at a decent pace and breathing steadily, without that rushed feeling that it isn't sustainable. Pretty amazing.
What I did to get there: I went out on runs in the morning and breathed through my nose the entire time. Douillard says that by breathing through your nose with a closed mouth, you force yourself to take longer, lower breaths. This teaches you to control your breath, and even though it will slow you down in the short term, the long term benefit will be you running faster, with no real perceived increase of effort, and without cramping because your muscles are starving for oxygen.
Drinking more is hard for me unless we're talking about a 90 minute IPA or a Pinot Grigio. I really don't drink enough water and I get the sense that most humans don't. I don't know why -- we're made of water, and hydration is one of the biggest keys to health. So that's why the great people at Nuun Hydration are my life-savers. Because they MADE WATER GREAT AGAIN. My relationship with Nuun is like this: I carry two tubes in my purse, one tube in my running bag, and one tube in my car. I put one in my water on the way to work in the morning, I put one Nuun Energy in my water before I go running, and I drink Nuun Active again after the run. If I wake up hungover, I pop a Nuun Energy in my water. If a friend or coworker is hungover, I dose their water with Nuun. Because the thing is -- you feel the hydrating effects really fast. And it tastes magnificent.
I am lucky enough to try a few of the new Nuun flavors and formulas, after depleting my stash. The Nuun Team sent me two flavors of Nuun Energy: Mango Orange and Cherry Limeade, along with two flavors of Nuun Active: Tropical and Mixed Berry. My all time favorite Nuun flavor is definitely Cherry Limeade and
I've gone fully vegan this year and feel better than ever. I can't say enough about a plant based diet. It's the easiest, healthiest thing I've ever done for myself and it makes choices so quick and painless. Cooking is a blast. (Check out my instagram account if you want to be bombarded by stir-fry's and potatoes and big ass kale salads.) It really is a dream. But most of all, my body feels so much better: hydrated, light, energetic. I recover quicker from long and hard runs. It only took me a few days to recover from the Keys, and my body felt stronger afterward, not weaker. I also sleep better and have WAY LESS digestive issues. Plant's yall. Plants.
The new Nuun formulas are completely plant-based. Built from the old formula, they add monk fruit extract, beet juice powder, and avocado oil to the recipe, and the Nuun Energy formulas use Green Tea Extract for a longer-lasting, less crashing caffeine effect. All new lines of Nuun are certified vegan, gluten free, dairy free, soy-free, and non-GMO sourced.
Nuun now uses a non-GMO sourced dextrose--a fast release carbohydrate that delivers fluids and electrolytes to working muscles quickly. I believe it, because when I drink Nuun I feel the effects within minutes. This is my go-to stuff for running. I don't look twice anymore at Gatorade, or Powerade, or anything else. I just drop the Nuun in my water and go. It feels good when you find your product and you stick with it.
Finally, the most important part of my big summer plan is the running itself. I'm doing bridge repeats. I went months and months just running on flat, long, road. And, that's great for building endurance but it doesn't challenge the muscles or the core in the way that running hills does. I notice, after about six weeks of doing bridges several times a week, that my core is stronger, my "easy" pace is faster. Plus, it's just way more fun to run up and down the beautiful causeways of Miami than to stay on the flat road for miles and miles. My strategy is this: train in the heat all summer, run hills, start upping mileage, and pick a cold-weather marathon sometime between October and March to run the 3:35:00 minimum standard (which, realistically, I need to cut down a bit to ensure qualification.)
Qualifying for Boston is a really big leap for me. I've been focused on distance ever since I started, and I've never been particularly fast. But, I can imagine myself as a fast runner. I can see myself crossing the finish line at 3:30:00. I can visualize it. So it already exists -- all I have to do is train like a madwoman and get there, this year. Now is the now. Let's get it done.
Have you qualified for Boston? Did you improve your running leaps and bounds to get there? Share with me how you did it. I'll send you a high five. ;)
I've been here before.
Let me tell you about one of my heroes.
In 2003, while studying abroad in the Czech Republic, Andre Kajlich waited by a train one night after hitting the bars with his friends. The next thing he knew, he was on the tracks, struck by the train, and fighting for his life.
The accident severed both of his legs and, remarkably, left him alive.
Eight years later, in 2011, he competed in his first para-triathlon. Rather than remaining crippled emotionally and physically by the accident, he found a way to explore his limits. Now a world famous para-athlete, Kajlich blogs openly and honestly about his setbacks, aspirations, and his journey.
I first read about Andre in a Runner’s World interview a few years back, before I officially took up running. I was pretty stunned at the raw honesty of some of the statements he made about his life. I guess I was in a place where I needed a wake-up call of my own. I encourage you to read the interview just to get a hint of why this was life-changing. Here's a quote:
“It’s an amazing thing, running- especially at that maximum turnover. It’s also amazing to never do something again because you can’t. I’d like to transfer that concept into everyone’s head, because inevitably it will happen to all of us.”
Soon I began stalking him as I tend to do when I find extraordinary people with stories I can't shake. I eventually reached out to Andre and we exchanged a few emails about the psychology of motivation, failure, and the allure of extreme sports. I’ve been particularly interested in the concept of failure, because in order to achieve anything really large, you tend to run into failure along the way. And, you have to learn to handle it like a champ. After attempting his biggest feat yet, the SoCal400, this May, Andrei agreed to do an interview with me.
Failure is a strange subject to discuss in the world of extreme sports. When an extreme athlete fails to reach a set goal, there is a sense that it doesn’t matter: They’ve already gone above and beyond norms anyway. But many athletes argue with this notion, insisting that the goal you set is the one by which you measure your success. Dean Karnazes says, “You can’t be afraid to fail. But unless you fail, you haven’t pushed hard enough.” When Andre stopped short of the finish line at the SoCal400, I knew I needed to interview him to hear some thoughts about what happened:
M: You set out to achieve a goal that surpassed anything you'd done before: a 400 mile ride with a 32 hour time limit. Going into it, what was your mindset like? Did you entertain the idea that you might not finish?
A: I definitely entertained the idea of not finishing but was pretty confident that I would. I don't think I would consider it over-confidence but I did make a major mistake of seeing this race as just a small thing on the way to Race Across America. Considering it is the biggest race I've ever done, too much of my focus was on what came next. Because of that, my planning, preparations and even the trip surrounding the race were totally inadequate. I got down there about 36 hours before the race, behind on sleep and with a ton of things left to do. Without trying to make it sound like physically I should have completed the thing... scratch that... physically I should have finished it.
M: Talk to me about thoughts along the way. What were strategies you used when things got difficult? What obstacles did you face?
A:The race was going great. I think in the first 100 miles you go up from sea level to 5300ft. back down a couple thousand before climbing up again and then you drop down into the furnace that is the Salton Sea basin. It's a tough start but I was going well. During the big climb my sister drove up with music blasting and we had some fun; then I'd tell her to buzz off for a while when it started getting tough and I felt like focusing for a while. Then I saw a group of riders ahead I started to just reel them in, caught up, chatted a bit, and then took off with some extra hop in my step. It really helps to have a diversity of emotions and a diversity of things to give your attention to over the course of a race.
M: Many athletes know that we must have reasons to call on when things seem insurmountable. Do you remember the reasons you called on?
A: I don't call things like “what I'm doing this for,” “what I've sacrificed,” or anything like that. I try as much as possible to go with the experience and the emotions that come with it, because ultimately that's why I'm out there - to experience this thing. In the past, I've had strategies worked out in advance—normally just ways of seeing the race. For example, during my first Ironman I decided I would not think about the end of the bike. At the time the distance was really daunting. So I just tried to get myself to be okay with pedaling forever. That actually worked really well. Often I get tired in the longer than 24 hour races and come to a point where I want it to be done—I want out. Thankfully some switch gets flipped finally and I'm like a machine. I don't care how hard it is, I actually relish it, and no matter how long it takes I'm going to finish "this thing." Unfortunately that didn't quite happen in this last race.
M: What did the failure to reach the finish line mean for you? In what ways was it positive? In what ways negative?
A:At the time I didn't really care. I mean, that is why I quit. The entire point alluded me. It was lack of sleep and the same thing has happened in the past to me but I have been able to get over that particular point in the race. This time that didn't happen. I told my team I'd continue another 30 minutes but we chatted about it and I just decided to stop. I'm sure if I'd done that much more, it would have got me going again. So really, at the time I didn't care but now I'm pretty bummed about it.
M: What would you go back and say to yourself at the start line, or during that race, if you could?
A: It would probably require going back a bit further than that. I got to the start line too tired and I don't know how much I could have done. More importantly, I don't think I'd say anything to myself, other than "Be safe and enjoy this,” because I’m glad this happened. I learn best through experience. If I really found myself at that stopping point or was advising someone else, I'd say get in the van and sleep for 30-60 minutes and then make up your mind.
M: What's next for you as an athlete and a human being?
A: In my mind, it’s an unnecessary distinction. It's all part of my life and for me it doesn't matter so much what I do as long as I can make them quality experiences. Right now, I'm hoping that I can go race this fall. There's a number of races (Silver State 508, No Country for Old Men, 24hr World Time Trial Championships) that I could race and try to qualify for Race Across America. At the same time, I really can't afford any of them and have other important things to figure out in my life. Well, riding and racing seem to help me think on those things so maybe I'll just pick one and go for it.
I used to think that many people never truly have to face failures, because big failures require big risks, and vice versa. But now I realize: We all know what failure feels like. We've all, at some point, taken a risk at something that didn't pan out. It doesn't have to be an ultramarathon or a business idea or an application to Harvard. It can be a human relationship. It could be a phone call to your mom. It can be a time you tried to give somebody a Valentines Day Card in middle school and they laughed in your face. Failure is an experience, and it helps you understand limitations and obstacle so that you can push against them like the little obstacle-crusher that you are.
When have you failed? Why did it happen? What would you have done differently? Share it. The world wants to know.
~Stay tuned for more interviews with heroes and athletes I've stalked. ~
Where To Catch Me