Saturday, November 9, 2013

(Almost) Everything I Learned About Life, I Learned From Being a Runner

With my ninth attempt at 26.2 miles just a few more hours away (so excited for the inaugural Naperville Marathon!) I've been thinking more about why I run and how it connects with my everyday life. I've said it before--the sport of running is about more than just getting stronger, competing with others, and improving your body. Running has changed my life in ways that have nothing to do with the physical aspect of it. For example...

1) I've learned that no matter how much success you experience, you're never immune to the struggles you dealt with in the first place. They can creep back up on you anytime, and they love it when they think you're not expecting them. If you eat that pizza or give in to those cookies that your parents technically bought for their Bears tailgating event the next day, you're accountable. Period. You don't have to spend weeks beating yourself up over it, but you shouldn't ignore it either. Acknowledge it, learn from it, and move forward. Bottom line? You never outgrow the learning process.

2) I've learned that life is hard, but never so hard that you can't find something to smile about...even if it seems minor. Be grateful for the smallest things. Whether it's a genuine hug from a 7-year-old, an unexpected compliment, or time spent with family, it really isn't "small stuff" at all. It can never be small when it brings happiness to some part of your life.

3) I've learned that if you've accomplished something, you should write it down. Write it quickly so you don't forget, even if you have to scribble it on your hand until you get home. When you accomplish something and feel good about yourself, it's nice to have something to help remember that amazing feeling. You'll lean on it later, when you really need the motivation.

4) I've learned that for every weakness you have, it's someone else's greatest strength. Don't be afraid to learn from them, to ask for their help, and to appreciate what they have to share with you. If they took the time to help you out, thank them. If they inspire you, tell them. They deserve to know.

5) I've learned that the glory of the race day is amazing, but there are many, many lonely days during the learning other words, the training. The fun can't come before the work. Sooner or later, you have to just do the hard stuff, often by yourself, and focus on getting stronger without the constant motivation of someone cheering for you. That's the roughest part--struggling through the pain and wondering when the heck it's going to pay off. The second that day arrives, though, you'll feel it, and it's pretty awesome.

6) I've learned that I'm slow, and that's okay. I may not be the best, but that's no excuse to say I'm the worst and stop trying altogether. There's always room to get better and be YOUR best...which is actually kinda cooler than being THE best.

7) I've learned that sometimes, you just have to push through the pain. Other times you need to back off and listen to your body...but in many cases, it's just a matter of sucking it up. The longer you keep at it--whatever IT might be--the better you become at learning the difference. You can trust yourself to know which is which, and to be smart about the choices you make in your life.

8) I've learned to look around as much as possible, just so I remember why I'm doing this and why it makes me happy. Concentrating on the joy will be helpful when life gets painful or difficult later. I know I'm going to fall. But when I get up (and I will), I'm going to learn how to fix it...and in the end, I'm going to be better for it.

9) I've learned that it will come. It might happen slowly, but it will come. Patience is key to getting through just about anything.

10) I've learned that it's not all about me. Help someone else out whenever you get the chance. Don't be too shy or too nervous to step up. You have something to share, something to teach. If you've struggled with that in the past (I know I certainly have), for whatever reason, take advantage of a future opportunity to make a positive change. That's what second chances are for, when you're lucky enough to get them.

11) I've learned that not everybody is going to like me or care about what I have to say. It's truly one of the hardest lessons to learn, and I spent many adolescent years (okay, and a few adult days) literally in tears over that exact issue. At some point, though, after freaking out over it enough times, you find peace with the fact that some people simply don't care for you. They might find you annoying for some reason. They might think you're weird or crazy. They might not be able to stand you. Sometimes people have a reason for acting this way, but all too often, it's a matter of them just being plain mean. It's okay, though, really. You don't like me? That's fine. I can take it. We live in a society where certain people are constantly being critical and judgmental, almost as if they're pre-conditioned to do so. That's their problem, and nobody else's. On any given day, all you can do is be nice. Feel grateful for those who do love and support you. Besides, life would be boring if everyone just thought you were awesome...and even then, someone would have to dislike you for that reason alone :)

Oh, and for the record, I swear I'm not just speaking empty words right now. From personal experience, I can tell you that it's a huge burden when you worry about these kinds of things, and it feels really, really, REALLY good when you finally give yourself permission to let it go. That's what I started doing (very recently, actually) and I'm a lot happier because of it.

12) I've learned that if you're working hard and trying your best, there WILL be a payoff, even if it takes a long time. Even if it's different from the one you originally planned. When the time comes, you won't mind if the picture isn't the same one you had in mind. You'll be too happy to care, because a part of you is already stronger, and nothing motivates you more than that, especially when it's time to go after the next big goal!

13) I've learned that when everything else fails, and you don't know what else to do, being kind is the answer. There are days when you might feel too weak, too dumb, or too worthless. You may ask yourself why you even bother trying in the first place when things keep going in the wrong direction. But then, when you start to look around, you realize that the world is still going on, and it is so much bigger than all of that. Everyone is dealing with something, even if you can't see it clearly in the moment. We count on each other to be kind, to be respectful, and it truly is one of the most basic good things we can do for another person. Even just a simple "Great job" or "you inspire me" can change someone's entire focus...and maybe even motivate them to pay it forward somehow. I know because there are many people who have done it for me...and hopefully I have been able to do it for others, as well. Too often in life, things happen that we can't change, so it feels good to come across something that we can control absolutely, 100%, every single day. Kindness is one of those things.

14) Most of all, I've learned that saying or writing all these things is good, but at some point, you have to get up and actually live it. Don't be afraid. Ask for help if you need it. Find inspiration from others whenever you can. They're here for you. You have worthwhile things to say and give, so have at it (and remember to smile too)!

Friday, November 8, 2013

Sweet Home Chicago Marathon 2013...the Joy and the Memories!

It's been a busy past few weeks (but definitely exciting with the holidays coming up), and now I'm finally getting around to writing about the Chicago Marathon, which took place on October 13. In a lot of ways, it was the same fantastic racing experience that keeps me coming back each time, but it became even more special when I got a very rare PR (personal record)!

Well, okay, it wasn't an official PR, if we're being honest. It was my second best finish time (5:46) out of eight total marathons, but because I haven't hit anywhere near that in two years, it instantly felt like a personal best. A lot of things just came together at the right time to make it possible, and I'm very thankful for the happy memories from that day.

My mom and I stayed over the night before, so I could get up exactly when I wanted to, shower, leave the hotel an hour and a half before the start, and just take my time. No rushing, no stress about getting to the start line. That was really nice. I was one of the first in my corral and could just sit for a while, listening to music and gathering my thoughts. I remember saying a prayer at the start line, but at the same time, I also knew that I was going to need to put in the work. There's actually a parable about two farmers who learned about "preparing for rain" - in other words, offer your prayers up to God, but then use what He gave you to work hard and prepare yourself to have those prayers answered. Sooner or later, you gotta get off your butt and make an effort, no matter how much you wish there was a shortcut somewhere.

There are a lot of excuses that runners tend to come up with during the racing/training, and the longer you use them, the more easily they flow. Maybe you'd recognize some of them, too: I'm not the kind of runner who is lightning fast. I'm not skinny enough. Not trained enough. I don't have a friend to pace me. I have 26 miles to cover and don't want to burn out in the first half of the race. Just focus on finishing and having fun. I already succeeded simply by showing up. Why risk getting injured? I can't say those were all bad reasons to be cautious. As a runner, you have to be responsible. But I also learned that it's okay to push yourself. It's awesome running with others and having friends to help pace you--that's good and important. But if you don't have someone at that particular moment, that particular race, you have to count on yourself more.

I chose to go out of the gate really fast at the beginning, which a lot of coaches advise against completely. For me, though, it worked, because I wanted to get a solid head start while I was still feeling my best. I knew I was going to be sore and tired in the second half, and if I started strong, I could feel less stressed when that point of the race came. I trusted myself to listen to my body and know if/when it was time to stop. Fortunately, on that exact day, and at that moment, it ended up being the right technique to use.

"Shoot for the moon. If you miss, you'll land among the stars." Sound familiar? It's one of my favorite quotes to focus on during difficult times. I knew that beating my all-time PR was a lot to ask for, especially since I hadn't done anything under 6 hours in over a year. But I started there and figured, well, if that doesn't work out, then there's still plenty of room to at least achieve one of my better finish times. Around mile 17, I knew I wasn't going to make it in 5:28, but at 22, I knew I could definitely get under 6 hours...even 5:45 looked like a strong possibility! Knowing that really pushed me through those last miles and was motivating.

I still played it safe in a lot of ways. I stopped for the bathroom once, walked through the water stops (which I counted on as a "break" to slow down and refocus before picking up the pace again). 5:46 isn't a super-fast finish time, but it's definitely a good starting point. It's the best I have done in a very long time, and I did it on my own, without being paced. It was a good confidence booster too, just knowing that I could do it. So much of this sport is mental. Not all of it, but you can pull yourself out of a rut by setting a new goal and following through with it. I've loved racing over this past year, but it did feel like something was there was potential to do better if I really just sucked it up and went for it. The mind can help us achieve a lot of awesome things.

That, and preparing properly. I'm the kind of person who gets really involved in a specific workout and doesn't like to switch it up a lot. But the week before Chicago, I started Tae-Bo again, and I absolutely think that helped me get faster in a short amount of time. It's a full-body workout, and the instructor (Billy Blanks) is incredible. He's talented for sure, but even more than that, he's a positive person. He wants you to reach all your goals in life, not so you can be "the best," but so you can feel happy, healthy and confident in who you are. Makes me think about how much more I could accomplish if I cross trained a little more. If seven days can make such an impact, that tells you something.

Also, the Chicago Marathon course happens to be very flat, which really made a difference. I've battled some hills in recent races, so compared to a course like this, I felt like I could move a lot faster. Then there's that amazing crowd support. 1.5 million spectators! There wasn't an empty spot the entire way. Some areas were less active, like around the United Center, but there were always people cheering. Adults, kids, pets, etc... And with 45,000 runners, the course itself was never empty either. At Fox Valley three weeks ago, I remember being alone for several miles, except maybe for two or three people at the most. Sometimes it was literally just me and the pavement. Small town races have their own strengths and advantages, but Chicago really is my favorite for this reason. Ultimately, I do prefer the huge crowds, the activity, and the excitement, because it drives me to the finish line like nothing else. Everyone is different, though, and I definitely believe you should experience both dynamics.

I am so lucky to have found the new friends that I have through running. They are all better than me--literally every single one of them--and I don't say that out of self-pity. It's a good thing! I like it that way because it motivates me. Their accomplishments inspire me to be better. Everyone you meet has specific skills or knowledge that you don't, and it's great to learn from them. You find a lot of love and support in fellow runners. They know what it's like to push through something difficult because the payoff is so incredible. They understand what it means to be in total pain and still love it at the same time. I admire people who take on new challenges and develop a passion for things that once felt impossible.

And just in case I haven't said it enough, this blog isn't all about running. It never was supposed to be. I write down these things as a way to remember all the races I've participated in, so I can one day look back on what helped me become a healthier, happier person. It might all seem mostly boring to others, but if you are reading, I hope you are also going after the goals that make you better. Not every day will be a PR, but if you're doing your best, taking it all in as you go, and enjoying the experiences with others, then every single day is worth it!

It's true. Just ask this woman, Rita Jeptoo, who was the female winner with a record-breaking finish time of 2:19:57 (good Lord, can you imagine your feet moving that fast?) What I love about her is the way she looked so absolutely excited and happy as she crossed that finish line. The finish times that the Kenyans post are unbelievable--it's so hard to imagine that the human body can do what they do--but in the end, it's not "easier" for them just because they're faster. This woman didn't just blaze through 26.2 miles, then act like it was nothing.

This picture is a little blurry, but look at the expression on her face. It's the same joy you might see in the eyes of a first-time marathoner who crosses the final mat in six, seven, eight hours. When we see what the Kenyans are able to achieve at a marathon, it's sometimes easy to forget that they're people too, toughing it out and making sacrifices so they can have that moment of celebration. It's a cool thing to think about, knowing that you share these same emotions with others, even if their accomplishments seem so much greater in certain ways.

Well, ultimately, Rita's words after finishing were "The race was very, very nice. Weather was good. Today I am I was with my friends."

Being with friends and being happy with what you're given...what else is there in life, really? That sounds pretty perfect to me too!

Have a great day, everyone :)