Firm Kindness

PhotoCred: David Quick of the Post and Courier

It’s been an eventful few days for me. On Thursday, Abigail Lorge published a very kind and flattering article about me, which perfectly expressed how I’m feeling regarding the upcoming season and Boston Marathon preparation. It even got tweeted out by the @RunnersWorld handle!

Then the next day Grace and I hit the road for Charleston, where I would have my first true test of fitness since the New York City Marathon. I’ll tell more about it in a minute, but let’s just say it went surprisingly well and was a very joyful experience.

 

But before I tell you about the happy mile-mark (not yet a happy ending… hopefully that will come at Boston) to this story, I want to tell you why I haven’t posted anything in over 6 weeks. I haven’t posted because as runners, athletes, humans, we assume that people don’t care about the lulls. And the fact is, those posts get far less attention from the general public. But I still think it’s worth sharing.

It’s not that the past 6 weeks have been unhappy. In fact, I’ve been doing great! I had a wonderful time with family over the holidays and partly thanks to some of the resolutions and goals that took hold since that last blog, I’ve actually been happier than ever in many ways.

Happy

But training hasn’t been going great. I just wasn’t feeling good. I hadn’t had very many fitness indicators, but every single one I had was falling short. For instance, I ran a 10-mile tempo that was prescribed to be between 6:20-6:30 pace, and the best I could muster was 6:35 average. As a person who used to average under 6:30 pace every single day in college, that was a tough pill for me to swallow.

Cole ran with me that day, and after 7 miles of running over the prescribed range, I expressed my disappointment to him.

“I’m just trying not to cry right now.”

“Would you be fine if we were simply running 10 seconds faster per mile?”

“No. It’s not about how slow I’m running. It’s about how hard it is for me to run this slow. It’s not the pace. It’s the effort. I’m worried my best won’t be enough.”

With that, he understood. He knew that I wasn’t panicking over minute details. I wasn’t being a perfectionist. I was afraid. He said softly “well, I think you’re a badass.”

(I wish that every human had a best friend and partner to support them in the way that Cole is there for me.)

Notes from my log about that 10mi tempo.

My log entry after that 10mi tempo on January 3, 2017

I had felt the same way during basically every moderate workout I did in December, too. The paces were “slow” for me, so I wanted them to feel “easy.” But it wasn’t easy. Everything I did felt 30 seconds faster per mile than it was. That’s a lot more than I am used to handling.

As a professional athlete, a lull like this is not just an annoyance. It can easily escalate to an existential crisis. “I thought I was a good runner. What am I if I can’t run fast?”

 

Luckily one of my resolutions took root in early December. I started using the app called Headspace to commit to a long-time goal of mine to start meditating. It has reinforced a lot of the concepts that I have also learned from running and sports psychologists over the years.

One of the issues I’ve attempted to tackle before was that of how to how to handle negative thoughts. Headspace offers this analogy: our minds are a blue sky with clouds that pass (some darker than others) which are our thoughts.

I love this because especially in my generation, we’ve always heard things like “think positive thoughts!” But we all know that when you’re already in a negative state, you aren’t going to buy any of that “positive” bull. So that’s why this analogy is so great. It makes you feel safe with yourself. You aren’t the negative thought. You are blue sky and the negative thought is just in the way. All you have to do is get rid of it first, and then you’ll be fine. And you might even be able to start thinking positive thoughts!

Blue skies and positive vibes before a relatively slow but incredibly enjoyable long run in Richmond.

Blue skies and positive vibes before a relatively slow but unforgettably enjoyable (thanks to the company) long run in Richmond.

I recently started the segment on kindness, which guides you through a visualization of your entire body filling with warm sunshine. I must admit, I’ve almost fallen sleep every time I’ve done it, but the day after I started this segment, I had an epiphany.

I had been thinking about all of the anger flying around these days. With all that anger, I hear a lot of talk of “thick skin.” Thick skin is something I, too, have learned to don. I’ve been wearing this leather coat since I was in middle school, but you know what? I’ve finally realized that it doesn’t really fit me, and I’m ready to get rid of it.

This is what I wrote in my notebook on Wednesday:

 

A thick skin may keep you from feeling as much,

but a solid core will keep you on your feet.

I want to feel it all.

Feeling is living in the world.

I was afraid to feel because I thought it would destroy me.

But with a full heart,

a core of firm kindness,

and the knowledge that I’m doing the best I can,

no words, nor actions, nor events can take that away.

They will make me feel, but they cannot make me crumble.

 

So that’s where I was, physically and emotionally, before the Charleston Marathon. Feeling all the feels, but still managing to keep my feet on solid ground. Seeing swirling clouds of doubt, questioning my fitness and my very existence as a professional runner, but knowing that all the while, there is a blue sky somewhere beyond them.

Bedhead and sleepy-faced with my stable ponies (Beth and Colleen) minutes before the start.

Bedheaded and sleepy-faced with my stable ponies (my mother-in-law Beth and her best friend Colleen) minutes before the start.

So I did what I always do at a marathon – I went out to have fun. To represent myself, my family, my sport, my race, my gender, in the best way I knew how.

I saw some Dashing Whippets (familiar NYC club members) at the start and they asked what my goal was. Francesca told me she was aiming for 6:25 pace for the half marathon. I was delighted because Terry had told me 6:30 for the first few miles, and I had been afraid I wouldn’t even be able to hit that. But knowing that I would have the greater purpose of helping her, I felt much better and knew I could hold myself accountable to at least doing that.

With Francesca after the race. :-)

With Francesca after the race. 🙂

So off we went. We started with a 6:23, but that was a little quick for her, so we slowed to around 6:30 for the next 5 miles. After about 10k Francesca was starting to slow and I was getting concerned that I wouldn’t hit my A goal of breaking the South Carolina resident state record (2:49:03) if I stayed with her. So I wished her and her friend Bianca luck and forged ahead alone.

At that point, I also popped in my headphones (for the first time ever during a race). I watched my HR stay the same as my pace dropped 15 seconds per mile. Unbelievable! So I hung around 6:23-6:10 pace for the rest of the race after that.

Around mile 9, there was a small stretch of row houses with a few residents sitting out on their porches. They were watching the runners go by and there really wasn’t anyone else around, so I waved to each of them. One of the people was an older woman who looked like she had lived there her whole life. The moment she realized I was indeed waving and smiling at her, she gave me a heart-warming, ear-to-ear, genuine smile like I have never felt from a spectator.

A mile or 2 later, in an industrial area, there was a high school band playing “Where is My Mind” by the Pixies. As the singer sang the lyrics “try this trick and spin it,” I literally spun around. Not sure if they saw it (the band members were the only ones out there), but it was fun.

Soon after, the course doubled back on itself, so I started cheering for the passing runners. After a few minutes, I realized that people had their names on their bibs, so I started yelling out people’s names, too. Some people were weirded out, some probably annoyed, but a lot of people loved it!

As most road racers know, a lot of courses can be fairly sparsely spectated. Charleston was like that, too, but I loved that the course doubled back on itself several times. I got a lot of smiles and a lot of cheers from the other runners themselves.

And at the finish, I received an incredibly warm welcome from the crowd – mostly runners who had already finished the half marathon. I love this sport!

IMG_8311

After the race, I posted on instagram:

“Lessons learned/reinforced: have faith in myself and my training, my latest mantra of “firm kindness” is awesome, I love racing, a race setting is totally different from training, I love being an ambassador for the sport and for the people of our sport and for humans in general, and oh my gosh when running alone, music totally helps make the miles fly by!”

I won’t be wearing headphones in Boston, but I definitely have a lot to take away from these last few days, and really the last 6 weeks. I might have to stick with “firm kindness” as my mantra… at least for a while, because it’s something I need to work on. Without that solid core of firm kindness – toward myself and everyone around me – I’ll keep crumbling to the pressures of sport and the angry world out there. But with it there is so much joy to be found in the midst of it all.

I’m learning to better answer that question “What am I?” with or without the fast running… but preferably with. And as always, I will remain grateful for my health and take the joy of the process and the small signs of progress wherever I can get them.

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