Fast, Medium or Leisurely?

“Because so many of you have turned out this morning, we’ve split the start into three waves: fast, medium, and leisurely. You choose your wave, but please…be honest with yourself…”

We’re at the starting line of the Salomon Trail Series, Race 1, in Studley Park, Melbourne, Australia. I listen to the Race Director’s words. Another decision to make, in a race full of tough decisions. Usually, I know exactly what to do, what gear to wear, what to carry, where to place myself.

But today, I have unnerved myself, and become indecisive. It began at home, when choosing what to carry during the race. I spent six years doing Sprint Adventure Races in Hong Kong. There, I’d learned to carry a CamelBak, with house keys, money, a phone, gels. Just in case I got lost in the wilderness, I’d have a way home. The climate was steamy, humid, dangerous. We scrambled up waterfalls, along riverbeds, into the sea.

I’m in Australia now, in winter. I’ve been here four years, but it still doesn’t feel like home. Anyway, this race in only 10 km. There are no waterfalls to climb, no rocks to scramble over. And I don’t want the extra weight. Last year at this race, I was the only person in a CamelBak. It felt heavy and cumbersome, and unnecessary.

And yet…I filled it up and brought it anyway.

Now, here, at the starting area, I’ve changed my shirt twice, re-pinning the golden number to the front of first the long-sleeved running shirt, then the singlet. It’s cold today but the sun is just rising, and once I choose I’m stuck with it.

And now the pacing, which wave to choose?

Leisurely is not an option – I’ve never run a leisurely race in my life, though it does sound pleasant. Medium? I don’t want to underestimate myself, so I set myself at the back of the fast wave, noting the physiques of the others around me, deciding that I fit in ok. The worst thing on these races is to be too slow, to be hounded by others on my heels on the rough terrain. I’m slow on downhill, cautious after sprained ankles. When pressed, I panic and go even slower. So choosing the right place to start is pretty key.

Decisions made, long-sleeved t-shirt tossed into a nearby tree for pickup later, the countdown begins, and then we’re running.

The track is muddy from days of rain, studded with small and large rocks. It narrows considerably near the river, where a slip could mean a slide downhill into the brown and fast-flowing Yarra. Some pass me, and then I pass them. Eucalypts slide by, my breathing comes fast and I am absolutely focused on the now. Each puddle I jump, each downhill I traverse, each decision I make comes fast and furious. No time for second-guessing.

It is only towards the end of the race that it happens. Someone gets right behind me, right on my heels. Step-for-step they follow me. By now, the field has spread out and there is no runner in front of me. I’m following ribbons on trees to stay on course, slowing at intersections, then bounding downwards at full pace. I want to say, pass me if you like, but I’m short of breath and we’re nearly there. After a few minutes, I sense that this person doesn’t want to pass anyway, wants me to set the pace. So I do. Speeding up, gaining assurance. Suddenly my legs feel strong and up to the challenge.

I turn a last corner, hear cheers, and suddenly see the finish line fifty metres in front of me. Her voice comes from behind.

“You go,” she shouts, “I never wanted to pass you.”

I glance back, see her, shout back, “Let’s finish together, come on.” Then, “Go go go!”

And then we are running next to each other, stride for stride, fast as we can, not racing but supporting one another through this moment. Someone shouts, “Go Patricia!”, and I smile, wondering who it is, as we pound across the finish line.

This stranger and I hug, a sweaty, real honest hug, huge smiles and delight. We’ve both chosen well.

On the way home, I turn up Bon Jovi on the car stereo. The song is Lost Highway. I used to play it on the treadmill at Pure Fitness in Hong Kong, wishing I felt what the song was saying.

“In my rearview mirror, my life is getting clearer…its Independence Day on this lost highway…”

Suddenly I realise. This is exactly how I feel right now. Everything is clear. Decisions are easy. I sit up straighter and drive down these roads, which, after four long years, are finally home.

New Oceans

I set out to run 13 km this morning, using my Garmin watch to get the exact distance to the halfway point.  What I didn’t realise was where that would take me.

I’ve run this trail dozens of times, but not so far, and not from this starting point.  It was a cold day, one of the first I’ve left my orange long-sleeved top on.  But after the first two kilometres, I was warm and content.  The Coastal Trail requires attention, criss-crossed as it is with tree roots, studded with small ankle-twisting rocks.  There are a few minor downhills that allow me to dance, reminding me of Hong Kong trails but on a smaller scale.

I run and run, racing my fears, my worries, outdistancing them in a pair of Asics and a jog-bra.  I am happiest when the trail requires one-hundred percent attention, when getting caught up in the rumblings of my own mind would mean a face-plant.  I’ve done that before, lulled by an easier section to relax my vigilance, suddenly tripping and slamming face-first into the dirt.  Nothing makes me wake up like this, reminds me to focus on the now, and not on when the car insurance is due.

Today, when the watch beeps just five kilometres, I realise I’ve hit the end of the trail I know, and keep running.  It is a mini-adventure now.  Moments later my lovely track ends, and I am funneled onto the concrete bike track that runs beside the busy road.  Despair. But surely it can’t continue like this.  I have faith, keep running.  Two hundred metres on, there is a gap in the fence, a set of steps down.  I follow them, dancing downwards.

At the bottom, I arrive at the beach, look around, and see a sign that reads Rickets Point Marine Sanctuary.  No way!  I’ve driven here, cycled here, but never ever thought I could run here, run this far.  The waves break on the beach, white foam and joy, for me and one single walker with a brown dog.  I continue on until I hit my 6.5 km turnaround, and spin on the spot to sprint back down the beach.

I’ve just dedicated the rest of this run to adventure, to new trails, to new sights.  I don’t climb back up to my usual trail.  Instead, I run along beaches I’ve only seen from cliff tops, thick sand shifting away beneath me.  A coastal rock section recalls the terrain of the Lorne Adventure Race, and I move carefully in my thin running shoes.  When my son was five, we walked this rocky section, looking for and finding dinosaur skeletons in the rocks.  I smile at the memory.  I’ve never taken the time to run these rocks before.

The sand is thicker on the next beach, testing my endurance as I hit the ten kilometre mark.  I spot a steep uphill, leading back to my tree-lined track and dash up it, calves aching.  Compared to the sand, the dirt track feels easy now, and I increase my pace.  My eyes are drawn to the peace of the harbour, as always.  I let a familiar phrase run through my mind, from a poster I bought shortly after moving to Australia:  You cannot discover new oceans unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.

Today, the new ocean has been just a few footsteps further along the trail.

How often this is true.

At a crossroads

As I prepared my talk for the book signing last weekend, I had the chance to contemplate why I wrote Akilina: Out of the Woods.  At first, I thought I would tell everyone about myself, then about how Akilina came to be.  I ran through the talk aloud a few times, but though the words were all true,  something was wrong in the telling of it.

It wasn’t as if I had created this book — it was more like this book had created me.

One day, in 2003, I’d sat down in Starbucks on Caine Road in Hong Kong, as I often did.  Staring out the window at the traffic, at the people hustling by, I contemplated my path.  Then I opened my notebook and began writing.  I was “practicing” my writing, going deep inside to write about what I was feeling, but writing about it in the third person (she was feeling this, she was feeling that).  I only wrote one page that day.  It was about a woman who was alone at the end of a trail, who didn’t know where to go next.

That woman was me.

You see, I’d created a successful personal training business in Hong Kong, was known as an inspiring BodyPump instructor, and was meeting everyone’s needs but my own.  For years, I’d worked to combine the physical and mental nature of my work — I was both a psychologist and a personal trainer, but somehow, I had lost the psychology side of my work.  This was my crossroads.  I didn’t know where to go next, how to continue my quest to inspire large numbers of people, while being true to both of my passions.

So I began to write about it.  To write myself out of it.  I wrote of dreams I’d had, frightening experiences, uplifting experiences.  I wrote of what I knew — running in the woods, scrambling up waterfalls, facing down my darker side and learning how to let it works it’s power in positive ways.  I wrote to free myself from where I’d gotten stuck.  And I wrote to free others, by sharing what being stuck felt like.  To figure out how to break free.

I wrote the first draft of my book in three months, and then we adopted our children.  Having tiny babies, I suddenly saw just how self-absorbed the heroine in my novel was — perhaps how self-absorbed I had been myself — and rewrote the book to turn around the fate of a baby lost in the woods.  As my babies grew, my book grew.   It began as a 90-page novella and ended as a 364 page novel.

Reading the final draft before sending it to the printer, I saw that this book was all I was — hugely physical, a combination of dark and light, with a large dose of self-doubt and what I hoped was a larger dose of courage.

The book complete, I looked around myself, and realised I was no longer stuck.  Through my writing, I had forged a new path for myself, as coach, writer, and inspirer.

So to tell you how I came to write Akilina is really to tell you how I came to write my own life.  Now, a mother of two, a wife, content at the place I have reached, at the ability to once again motivate both mind and body, I see this novel for what it was: a pathway forward.

What I hope, when I look deepest within myself, is that this book forges pathways forward for all who read it.  Sometimes, when readers approach me with a certain look in their eyes, a look which says, thank you, now I feel less alone, I feel I have achieved this.  Helped them find their path again, as writing this book helped me find my own.

Where exercise meets joy…

Freedom

The most vibrant moments in my life have been during movement – whether trail running or weight training; practicing martial arts or cycling along a mountain track; surfing in a cold winter sea or rollerblading in Central Park.  During these moments I have learned what I know about passion, about triumph, and about pain.

I am a psychologist and personal trainer, an instructor and a coach.  I teach the deeper motivation of movement, about what movement itself brings:  the freedom of health; the feeling of using the body as it is meant to be used; the inner strength found on the running track, in the sports arena, in the gym.  It is not about body shape; it is about the lessons we learn about ourselves.

These are lessons about joy and values.  About persistence and triumph.  And sometimes about pain.   These lessons filter into our beliefs about ourselves.  And these beliefs determine the shape of our lives.  Do we back down when faced with a challenge?  Do we stop when pain becomes too great?  Do we take time to savor joy?

I talk to women who yearn.  They yearn for color, for strength, for that intangible sense of soul we get from doing what we love, from overcoming our limits, from breaking down barriers.

I show them the door.  Open it for them.  Teach them of the tremendous machine at their disposal.  Give them a chance to see the wonder of all they already are.

Here’s how it feels when you move because you love to…

A Run to Your Soul (Anywhere, Anytime)

Imagine:  A cool autumn day.  Mid-afternoon.  An outdoor path lined with black pebbly gravel.  The leaves crunch under your feet, and the trees open their avenue of arms just for you.

The sun filters in, dancing on the ground in spots of light and shade.  The air is crisp and your lungs soak it up.  Your legs feel like steel springs as you stride out, and they bounce you high as you move in long lithe strides.  Your chest swells.  You break into a light sweat, and your breathing deepens.

It is not hard.  It is effortless.  It is brilliant.  It is joy in a dance of the body. The sky through the trees is a deep blue.  You can hear insects and taste dampness in the air.

You can do anything.  It does not matter where the finish line is; what matters is where you are right now.  You have run to the place where exercise meets joy.