The Choice

I am angry.  Truth be told I am livid.  For almost twenty years I have worked toward a healthy lifestyle.  I run, bike swim, lift weights and basically stay active a good portion of each and every day.  I don’t smoke, don’t drink and though I love food, I try not to over indulge.  I do all of these things because I want to live to a ripe old age in the healthiest way possible.  I don’t want to spend days on end in the hospital.  I don’t want to cough and hack my way through my old age.  I don’t want to suffer with diabetes or cancer or heart disease.  And really, when it comes down to it, living a healthy lifestyle, though it is work, it is also fun.  I enjoy my life.

Since I started blogging about my running life a couple of years back, I have been honored with emails from friends, family and even strangers who have told me I inspire them to get moving and to take better care of themselves.  At first I thought this was just something people felt obligated to say but then I started watching.  I started seeing signs of the influence one healthy life could have on another. I watched friends and family and strangers as they started working out, running and even entering races.

But every couple of months, I receive a call from my 60 year old mother, with another complaint about her health.  After years of smoking, eating poorly, and getting very little exercise, her lifestyle has caught up with her.  Her ailments run the gamut but ultimately ends in congestive heart failure. She has been told to stop smoking.  She has been told that the heart issues would dissipate with a proper, low fat, low sodium diet.  She has been told to exercise.  But she doesn’t do it and no amount of cajoling from her doctors or her children makes a difference.

Last night I received a call from my sister.  I could feel the steam emanating from her ears through the phone. My mother had just called her.

“I think I may be having a heart attack,” she said to my sister.

“Well, Mom, do you want me to call 911 or should I come and take you to the hospital myself?”  My sister asked with as much patience as possible.

“No, I want you to go pick up a pizza from Dominoes.  Then go to Subway and pick up a salad and bring that over to Aunt Joyce’s.  I promised her we would have dinner with her. And then, we can go to the hospital.”

My sister may be the most patient person I know but this was too much.  She insisted that they go to the hospital, my mother refused.  My sister lost her temper but my mother wouldn’t budge.  My sister cried and still my mother wouldn’t budge.  In the end, she gave up and did what my mother asked.

When they finally reached the hospital, my mother was in full blown congestive heart failure.  She had to be admitted.  Her first question?  You might think it would have something to do with her diagnosis or her treatment but, you would be wrong.  No, she wanted to know where she could go to smoke.  When the doctor told her there is no smoking on the premises at all she pitched a temper tantrum that would have put my two year old to shame.

As I sit here in my kitchen, seething because so much of this could have been avoided, she lies in a hospital room with dye running through her heart.  While I sit here waiting to hear whether she will have to have surgery, whether her body can even handle surgery, she lies there waiting for her next cigarette.  I sit here wondering how it is I can influence others to lead a healthy lifestyle, while my mother, who I love with all my heart takes nothing from my example and instead of lying in that hospital bed trying to plan out how to get better, she waits for someone to take care of it for her.

So, yes, I am angry but I am also sad, because though I can help my mom through this crisis, there is sure to be another and another down the road.  I am sad because I can lead by example but she has to make a choice to follow and if her history is any indication of her future, I know the choice she will make.

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The Carrot

This running life is not always fun.  Looking back over my online running log and all of the times I have clicked the little happy face to say it was a “great run,” I am afraid that my new-to-running friends might be getting the wrong impression about my running life.  I do enjoy the benefits of being fit.  I enjoy the fact that while I watch other people have to sit and take breaks while walking around the National Zoo, it is just a stroll in the park for me.  I enjoy the fact that on our vacation to Maine this summer we were able to bike into parts of Acadia Park that the average person might not get to see. I love the fact that my kids know I can keep up with their active lives.

I also know there are benefits to my healthy lifestyle that go beyond just enjoying myself. Earlier this summer, I started a new breast cancer screening program at our local Breast Center.  The idea is to get a baseline sonogram of my breast tissue to use against future screenings.  The first thing the doctor said to me was how nice it was that there was no fat to have to look through – how much easier it made it to get a good look.  This isn’t the first time a doctor has pointed out a benefit to being fit for screening purposes.

Of course, there are hundreds of studies that tout the benefits of staying fit and living a healthy lifestyle.  Fit people are less likely to have heart issues, diabetes, bad knees, strokes and the list goes on and on.

These are all things I am aware of, but when that alarm sounds at 6am and I know I need to get out of the bed and lace up my shoes, those things don’t seem all that important.  On those mornings all I want to do is crawl back under the covers and enjoy another hour of sleep.  Even on the mornings when I am ready to jump out of bed and go for those runs, it isn’t a guarantee that the run will be fun or even slightly enjoyable.  Yes, I love running but, that is a general statement.  I love running and biking and swimming.  I love being active.  But still, I don’t always love them.  Not every run, swim or ride is inspiring.  Many of them kick my butt.  Some of them are down right horrible.

I hope that people who look at my training log or read my blog will see the good runs for what they are.  They are a blessing that make me keep going back out there.  They are the carrot for all the sticks I have to put up with on the bad ones.  Being fit is fun and beneficial in a thousand ways.  And while the workouts are almost always beneficial, they are not always fun.  The trick, at least my trick, is to keep reaching for that carrot.  Keep rolling out of the bed on those mornings when I want to sleep and heading out the door slogging my way through a not so fun run in search of that run that brightens the world around me, that ride that makes me feel like a ten year old girl again or that swim that washes away all the worries of my day.

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Elastigirl

I wasn’t bitten by a spider or dunked in radioactive waste.  I am not from a far away galaxy.  Still, I seem to have developed a super power.  Okay, it might not be a real super power but it is a power that I never expected to find within myself.

For most of my life, when it comes to my goals, I have been Little Miss Rigidity.  Even as a child I was single-minded when it came to meeting a goal.  As an adult this rigidity has caused me more trouble than I care to mention and yet I still found myself pushing toward goals that I should have given up on. The biggest area of rigidity for me was in my running. I would schedule a marathon, come up with the training plan and run – no matter what.  You might think I would have learned that this was not the way to go after I ran the Fort William Marathon in Scotland with a fractured tibia and had to take six months off of running because of the damage caused.  But, no.  You might think I would have learned after completing three months of training for the Baltimore Marathon with a stomach virus from hell.  But, alas, no.

This year I ruptured my plantar fascia.  This injury did not develop overnight.   The plantar fascia had been hurting for 18 months and yet I ran.  The morning it finally ruptured, I knew something was exponentially worse than it had been and I decided I would go to the doctor – right after my speedwork.  So I hobbled to the gym and started the workout telling myself that I would stop after the warm up if it was still hurting.  Of course, Little Miss Rigidity didn’t do that.  I decided to see if the first set of sprints would make the pain go away.  It was only a minute into the first set that I heard and felt the pop.

After weeks in a boot and months of physical therapy, I still signed up for two marathons this fall.  I had a goal, dammit.  I had to qualify for Boston.  My single mindedness found me aiming at the goal no matter what the foot was saying.  Until, somehow, I found I had been bitten by that spider or dunked in radioactive waste and suddenly I was Elastigirl.  Suddenly I found myself enjoying the cross-training Coach Jeff had scheduled into my training plan to bring me back without injury.  Suddenly, I found myself being honest about the pain in my foot.  Suddenly, I found myself with a super power that allowed me to step back and be honest about my chances of qualifying for Boston in October.

In the past this decision would have been gutting.  I would have spent weeks mourning the loss of the marathon, cursing my foot and crying into my Gatorade.  But this time, I found a freedom in giving up the goal.  Instead of looking at what I was losing, I was able to see the possibilities that it opened up.  I could see the possibility of running pain free and not worrying about pushing through the pain that was already beginning to resurface, but more than that, I was able to see an opportunity I had missed in the past.  This year instead of running sick or injured, I will be riding.  I have the chance for the first time in 16 years to ride the Sea Gull Century in Salisbury, Maryland.  It has been there all the time.  It was a possibility so many times in the past but I chose to ignore it in pursuit of “the goal.”

So, no, I am not “faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” But I am able to bend and make choices beyond the goals I have set for myself.  I am able to change things up a little and work towards something new.  I am Elastigirl.

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Running Evolution

Running, for me, has been an evolution.  As I have grown and changed, my running has adapted, evolving with each phase of my life.

I started running seventeen years ago because, frankly, I had gotten fat.  Looking back, it is embarrassing to think about that time of my life.  Though I started gaining weight in college, I gained the majority of it the year after graduation.  It was a combination of being lazy, working in a job I didn’t like and spending a good portion of each day eating.

The week after I was married, I went to the doctor, stepped on the scale and got the surprise of my life.  I was officially fat.  Until that moment, I had been in denial – simply ignoring my ever expanding waist.  That evening, I decided I couldn’t ignore it anymore.  I decided to start running.  Because I was so young, the weight came off as quickly as it had gone on.  Within a couple of months, I was thin and well on my way to being fit.

After losing the weight, I continued to run.  As a new runner I had started to read everything I could get my hands on about the sport.  I came to realize that the health benefits alone were enough of a reason to continue running.  So the evolution continued and I ran, as they say, away from the reaper.  I ran away from heart disease, breast cancer, diabetes and so many other diseases caused by obesity.

As life continued both on the roads with my running and in our lives at home, the babies started coming, the work started piling up and the stress of real life started seeping into our lives.  My running once again evolved.  I started running after work before heading home to my children as a way to leave the stress behind me.  I found myself using my daily run as a sort of therapy.  I started thinking of it as something that benefited not just me but everyone around me.  After all, I am a lot easier to get along with after I run.

Though I continue to run for fitness and mental health, my purpose for running has continued to develop.  Fifteen years ago I joined a local running club and starting running their race series.  I started running for competition – sometimes to compete with others but most often to compete with myself.  Since that time, I have run trail runs and road races.  I have run everything from 5ks to 50 milers.  I have competed in marathons all over the United States and have even traveled out of the country for races.  I love to have a goal – to know there is a race coming up and to aim for my best time in that race.

Until recently the competitive phase of my running was my favorite.  But after turning forty last year, I have decided I quite enjoy the fact that running makes me feel young.  It allows me to do things other forty year olds might not get the chance to do.  I hope that it helps me to look a little younger than the next forty year old but beyond that I have come to realize that running lets me have the kind of fun most people my age have simply outgrown.

I go to our local park and run through the woods.  If the path is muddy I don’t avoid it, I trudge right in and come out the other end covered in mud.  On a rainy morning, a non-runner looks out the window and does one of two things, grumbles about the bad weather or thanks God for the water for their lawn.  I look at the rain and rush as quickly as possible for my shoes.  A chance to run in the rain, to splash through the puddles, to get soaked from head to toe is something that is just too good to resist.  These mornings are just one more bit of proof that running is fun.

Life goes on and things change in our lives over the years, but even with the evolution my running has taken, the benefits have stayed constant.  The pure joy it offers is always there.  The health and fitness I have gained are still there.  The feel of my legs floating over the surfaces, be it asphalt or packed trails, is still as great today as it was seventeen years ago.  My running has evolved, but in so many ways it is the one constant I know I can always count on.

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I’ve Been Promoted

Jack Bauer, Kate Austen and Ann Brennan – what do we all have in common?  According to my sixteen year old son, we are all bad-asses.  I am aware that Jack Bauer and Kate Austen are usually busy kicking ass and taking names and that I am not quite on that level, but apparently 40 year old moms are not held to the same standard as television heroes.  For a while I was teetering on the scales of badass but those scales where tipped in my favor after this morning’s 35 mile ride in the pouring rain.  That’s all it took to make my 16 year old son think I was one cool chick.  Okay, not his words but I know that is what he meant.

And to think, I almost didn’t go out there this morning.  I woke up at six and it was still dark outside.  The rain and wind were pounding the house and I decided, before my feet hit the floor, that I would not be stepping out that front door.  As though to reinforce my decision the window thermometer read 50 degrees.  So, the new plan?  Take the youngest to preschool and come back home and sit on the couch with my coffee and my latest Kindle purchase.  A nice relaxing morning at home sounded just about right.  At least, it sounded right until that little voice in my head said, “You are going to be stopped by a little rain?  And you think you are going to qualify for Boston this way?”  The voice won.

I dressed the littlest one for school, covered myself from head to toe in my best waterproof biking gear and loaded my bike on the back of the car.  As I did this, I sent up a small prayer of thanks that the rain seemed to be slowing down.  By the time I was walking my youngest into school it was hardly raining at all.  Maybe I was being rewarded for my decision to persevere.

And then again, maybe not.  The minute I pedaled away from the school the skies opened up and for the next two hours I was pummeled by the rain and wind.  I was forced through puddles up to my feet on the pedals, and I was splashed by every car on the road.  For the next two hours I went from praying that the rain might ease a little, to begging God to let the rain ease just a tiny bit, to raising my fists to the heavens and asking “Why, why, for Heaven’s sakes why?”

In the end, the rain did ease and I did complete my two and half hours on the bike.  As I stood beside the preschool wringing out my gloves, I raised by fists once again, this time in triumph.  I had not been deterred by the rain, wind and cold.  I had not turned back when the puddles became lakes.  I had persevered.  It wasn’t easy but I realized while I was out there, that I didn’t sign up for this marathon training because I was looking for easy.  I signed up because I wanted to push myself.

I didn’t set out today to become a bad-ass.  But apparently that doesn’t matter to a sixteen year old boy.  What impressed him was the stream of water that continued to flow off of me even after I had finished, my pruny, purple feet that had been marinating in my biking shoes and  the buckets of water I poured out of those shoes at the end.  What mattered to him and what really tipped those scales in my favor is the fact that I was out there in the rain and wind and cold pushing myself while most mom’s were home having their morning coffee. I hadn’t taken the easy path.  Next time I wake up to the sound of rain and wind, I will probably still pause before heading out the door but, for fear of losing my “Badass Status,” I know I will do it all over again.

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Go Ahead, Give It a Go

Every couple of months I get an email or telephone call from a friend, a different one each time, asking me to please help motivate their spouse, friend, neighbor or sometimes just themselves.  By the time they call, themotivation is usually not needed.  The person they are calling about is almost always motivated but usually lacks the confidence to jump into a routine.  For the next week I usually spend several days emailing back and forth with the newbie, answering questions about shoes, nutrition, running programs, and ways to stay motivated.

I am not a coach.  I am not an expert.  So, why do these people call me for help?  Well, let me be completely honest with you.  When they first started calling almost ten years ago, I believed they were calling because they had told there spouse or friend, “Hey, if Chubby Ann can do it, then so can you.”  I haven’t been Chubby Ann for a while, so I feel confident enough now to say, they call me because I am one of the most committed exercisers they know.  I have been a runner for 18 years and I love it.  But beyond the love, it is how I identify myself, and it is how others think of me.  I am their running and fitness friend.

I received another of these calls this morning.  A friend is considering completing his first marathon but doesn’t know how to get started.  We had been emailing back and forth, with me saying many of the same things I have said for years, when suddenly it hit me – Maybe I should write these things down for people who don’t call but are interested in getting fit, running their first 5k, 10k or even marathon. So, here goes.  Everything I think a newbie to fitness and running should know to get started.

  1. Shoes and Clothes – Buy your self a good pair of proper running shoes from a real running specialty store.  Have them fitted for you so you know you are getting the right ones for your size and your goal.  Running in your old tennis shoes or even a pair of running shoes that you bought ten years ago, is the fastest way to sabotage a new fitness routine.  Clothes?  The same thing.  Make sure you get technical gear that looks and feels good, not the three sizes too big t-shirt that you got for free when ordering Christmas presents for the kids three years ago.  By purchasing these things, you not only make sure you don’t chafe and blister before your new sport becomes a habit, you also make a financial commitment to the idea of getting fit.
  2. The first mile is always the hardest – It literally takes our bodies a full mile to warm up to the optimum temperature for exercise.  People say to me all the time, “I can’t run a mile.”  My answer is, “But you could run two.”  If you get yourself past that first mile (walk it if you need to), then you can be a real distance runner.  Even after eighteen years I always take the first mile slowly.  I let my body reach its optimum temperature and then I speed up.
  3. Get a goal – Not a “I want to wear my skinny jeans” kind of goal.  That goal will be met easier if you have a race or walk in your calendar, one you have actually signed up for.  Make it something that is doable but is a little bit outside of your comfort zone.  If you have never run more than five miles, qualifying for the Boston Marathon might be a little tough, but running a half marathon three months from now is completely doable – if you have a plan.
  4. Get a plan – There are running programs everywhere.  Running clubs often have different groups competing in different events throughout the year.  Join one of these and make friends while you get fit. If you can’t do this, then go to www.runnersworld.com and look up training programs.  Once you have the plan, make it a priority. Schedule the runs, based on your program, and stick to them.
  5. Have fun – This is the one most easily forgotten tip.  If you are not having fun while you are running, you will probably not keep doing it.  Having fun while running is easier than you might think.  The trick is to remember that fun is part of the goal.  Look for things you enjoy.  Listen to music, dance wildly at stop lights, sing out loud, run through the woods, jump over puddles.  Run, like Phoebe on Friends, like you are a kid again.  Whatever it takes to make it fun, do it.  You will not regret it.

I am sure there are other tips and hints but these are the first ones I always give.  If you are an experienced runner and have additional tips, add them in the comments section.  If you are a new runner and have questions, ask them there too.  I am not an expert but after running for so many years, I have probably come across the answer somewhere and if I haven’t, I have lots of running friends who are always willing to help a new runner.

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A Certain Strength

After months of illness and injury, I am on a comeback and I have to admit, comebacks are not all they are cracked up to be.  A year ago, I was in the best shape of my life and felt more confident about my running than Ihad ever felt.  This year, though, having taken off a good deal of the spring to recuperate, I have found myself doubting.  Was I really that fit?  If I was, is it possible to be there again?  And if so, is it worth all of the work it will take?

In the past few weeks, my progress has been slow, my workouts have been tough and there has been some form of pain in every run.  Any joy I had found in running in the past seemed to have been buried under that cloud of doubt.  As a marathoner, I have learned to fight through walls. So, I pressed on.  Each day, I laced up my shoes and headed out the door in search of that joy.

This past Sunday, I found the joy again but with it came something I had forgotten about.  There is more to running than joy.  On Sunday, I headed out the door for an easy ten mile run.  I wasn’t sure how I would feel.  I wasn’t even sure if I could complete it, but I headed out anyway.  The first five miles I ran with a seed of doubt in my mind.  When would this run fall apart like so many of the others.  At the turn around, I noticed though, that the pain in my foot had stopped.  I actually felt good for the first time in months but, more importantly, I had found the answer to my doubts.  Suddenly, as I was heading back home, up three miles of steady hills, into a headwind that would make even my sister swear, the cloud lifted and I knew I could finish the run.  And there was the answer I had been searching for.  It isn’t just the joy that comes with running, it is the strength.

There is a strength that comes with running, not just a physical strength but a mental one.  After having trained for and run marathons for the past thirteen years, I have gained a strength that makes it all worth while.  The strength comes in the knowledge that, yes, I can run ten miles.  Hell, I can run 15, 20 and 26.2 miles.  There is a strength in that knowledge.  Because if I can do that.  If I can put in all of the miles it takes ahead of marathon day and I can put in the 26.2 on race day, if I can push through the pain that comes with all of those miles, then I am unstoppable.  If I can do that, then anything is possible.

I am on a comeback.  Every step will not be easy but that isn’t the point.  Now, that the cloud of doubt has cleared, I know that every step will lead to a renewal of that joy and a building of that strength.  And that is what makes it all worth while.

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