The downs and the ups.

It has been an up-and-down roller coaster sort of a week since I last wrote, with a few more downs than ups, to be honest.  But running, as usual, has kept me hanging on through the steeper dives.

And running – well, thanks to my new running coach, Shaun Brewster – running has felt like a completely new sport.  I clocked 53 kilometers last week, my largest in quite a while, but I don’t really feel like I ran all of that because of the massive diversity in training.  Monday was an 18k long slow run up on Mount Dandenong, amongst the fern trees and eucalypts, with just mud for company.  Tuesday was a fast 10k along my Bayside Coastal Track.  Wednesday I taught two BodyPump classes back-to-back, which nearly killed me, so Thursday I only ran with the kids (1k with my daughter; 3 with my son) before driving us all to Ocean Grove for a short family holiday.  Friday I learned about Fast Downhill training, racing to the base of a steepish hill on a cliff in Ocean Grove, and walking back up, maybe 12 times, followed by 20 minutes of flat-out fast running.  Saturday, I ran 25 minutes fast, then practiced uphill running, driving up the cliffs on the bluff above Barwon Heads, running up as hard as I could, jogging down.  It all added up to 53 kilometers, but it didn’t feel like it.  And that was the joy of it.  It wasn’t any hard slogging down trails I didn’t enjoy; it was fast and fun and diverse, and just what my heart, soul, and body had been craving.

That’s the running part of last week.  And the running certainly helped me cope with the nose-dives of bringing young, emotional children to a different house.  I could share the downs that came with those emotions, but rather than focus there, I’d like to tell you about the ups.

There’s Leila, our seven-month-old Labrador Kelpie.  You might recall we adopted her from Labrador Rescue back in February, and I was a tiny bit dubious about the decision.  How wrong I was.  She’s the light of our lives.  Last week in Ocean Grove, she spent many hours off lead down at the beach, and if ever you want to see absolute joy, that’s where to look.

Leila loving the beach

Leila loving the beach

She loves every dog and every human she sees, so much so, that she tends to follow whichever dog happens along, in whatever direction it happens to be going.  Her whole body wags and is full of enthusiasm for the simplest of things.  A stick – oh my God – a stick!  And look – seaweed!  Do you see it?  Seaweed!  Dogs!!  People!!  Dogs!! We spent a lot of time walking back and forth along the same stretch of beautiful coastline in Ocean Grove, with the ongoing call of Leeillaa.  Sometimes she’d come running back to us like a racehorse, tongue hanging from the side of her mouth, joy in every inch of her body, as she buzzed us, and kept running.  If hungry though, she’d drop into a sit directly in front of me and fix me with her lovely brown eyes saying treat, treat, look I’m sitting, treat…

Then there were the cats, Jakie and Mini.  Both black-and-white, like Leila, though Jake is fat and lazy, and Mini is, well, Mini.  Fast, skittish, but hugely affectionate, standing on her back paws and reaching up to be petted.  I found them curled up together on our sofa, a picture of contentment on a cold Ocean Grove day.

Mini and Jakie content

Mini and Jakie content

They even get along with Leila now, which is a staggering thing to see after the initial fear they had of her.

Oh, and then there were the four of us, in a rare moment of family harmony, playing Scrabble on our small oak dining table, me noting how well my daughter is able to spell, and how clever my son is at using strategy to score extra points.  And how patient my husband is with our young children, under all circumstances.  The simple pleasure of no electronics, just family, playing an age-old board game.

The hours after the kids bedtime, where my husband and I curled up with books and beer and Leila, with the warmth of the gas heater filling our tiny living room, the curtains drawn, and rain falling on the tin roof.

The absolute beauty of the shoreline in Ocean Grove, which mesmerized me as I did my downhill running at sunset, watching the sky change color, the waves roll in, the surfers gather in the last of the day’s rides.  The wildish view from the top of the Bluff in Barwon Heads, with storm clouds in the distance, mist in the air, large waves rolling onto wild shore as far as the eye could see.  The green of the grass and yellow of the wildflowers.  The white of the crushed shell underfoot, and the small undulations and curves of the trail that made me be present.


Ocean Grove from the picnic spot where I did my downhill training

Ocean Grove from the picnic spot where I did my downhill training

And finally, the great joy of arriving home just one hour before dark, and my husband saying, I’ll empty the car, why don’t you go for a run.  My running clothes hanging dry in the laundry room, my watch charged.  I bolted out the door, ten minutes easy, then 7 intervals with 2 minutes fast, 1 slow, then 25 minutes of moderate (ok, fast as I could) running to return home, elated, and to notice that my average pace was faster than it has been in years.  And that it hardly felt like I had run at all, it was so much fun.

Now, my whole body is saying ouch, that’s a lot of running in two days, and I’m delighted that the kids are in bed, the dog is in her basket by me snoring as I type, the cats have curled up somewhere warm, and my husband has gone to the gym.  I have had one golden hour to share with you, reflecting on all that’s been good for the last six days.  Downs? I can’t seem to recall any downs anymore.


“One day you might not be able to run,” she said…

“What will you do then?”

She sat back and eyed me.  I shifted in my seat.  It was as if she were prophesying disaster.

Last Sunday, her prophecy came true.  I sprained my right ankle during a routine training run with my son.  I’ve already told you about the sprain in last week’s post (see the link below if you missed it), but here comes the surprise.

For the first time in my life, when unable to exercise, I was calm.  Though other runners suggested swimming as an alternative, I knew it would just delay healing; doing anything involving my ankle would delay healing.

And yet I was calm.  Sedentary and calm.  Unbelievable!  I have been trying to put my finger on why, and I believe that the answer lies in a mental shift that happened without me even really noticing.

Once upon a time, like many women, I exercised for body shape.  I pursued that elusive idea of feminine perfection for mind-numbing lengths of time, on Stairmasters, treadmills, rowing machines, even those strange rollerblading machines from the early ’90s.  I lifted weights three times a week, three sets of 12 repetitions on every single machine I could find.  It took hours.  When I couldn’t exercise back then, it was a BIG deal.  I would do all sorts of crazy stuff to fit in my workouts, from swimming with pull-buoys with a seriously sprained ankle, to doing sit-ups while in a back brace recovering from a compression fracture of a vertebra.  I was seriously obsessed.  I wouldn’t have admitted that then; it would have been way too threatening.  I look around the gym today, and see lots of women doing the same things I used to, and it saddens me.

Because now, dialing the clock forward something like twenty years, I see the world and myself completely differently.  I focus on function rather than form; it is how I coach others, and what I have come to believe really matters.  Sure it stinks not to be able to run, to be sedentary for a week while I heal.  But I have not felt that strange compulsion that I used to.  I know that a week off won’t change anything: I learned this when I became a personal trainer; I learned it by teaching myself.

So last week, I rested.  And, to tell the truth, it did change me.  It allowed my ankle to heal.  It gave me time and space to clean my home (whoever thought plantation shutters were a good idea should have considered the problem of dust more carefully); it gave me time to calm, to watch the rain fall, to simply be.  Without the adrenaline of my usual life coursing through my veins, the world seemed quieter.  My cats came up for pets and sat on my lap.  My temper was not so short.

After three days, I started doing the physiotherapy exercises that years of ankle sprains have helped me perfect.  I have all the gear: the elastic bands, the dura-disk, the step, the instructions memorised from many a physio.  I walk back and forth in my office on my tip-toes like a ballet dancer and will the weaker ankle to keep up with the stronger one.  I begin eccentric Achilles training, practice my single-leg squats, and work on recovering flexibility.

And I am okay.  Perhaps that is what this time has been meant to teach me.  That running is a part of me, but I am no longer fleeing.  I am no longer chasing perfection.  I sit within my own skin, calm and certain.

Today, I went to the gym for the first time in a week.  I couldn’t go all-out; that would have been foolish.  I set the treadmill on a gentle incline, and gradually increased it to 11% (if that is what 11 means on the incline button).  I did not let myself run; I held on to the notion that I am aiming at this half-marathon in three weeks time, and to get there, I must be smart.

And perhaps therein lies the answer to my lack of agitation over this injury.  It is just another part of training, recovering from injury, using my learning to strengthen what went wrong, to fix the bits that are temporarily broken.

I see myself, in several weeks time, running along my favorite trail in the Dandenongs, the light filtering through the trees.  I close my eyes and I am there, smelling the sweet smell of the woods, watching for the wallabies that may cross my path, hearing the kookaburras chortle after me.

It is without compulsion that I run.  And that makes my running, when I can do it again, all the more sweet.

And to answer the question – what would I do if I could no longer run?

I would find solace in a different activity, perhaps in playing the piano, or painting beautiful pictures, or in doing Tai Chi.  There are many, many paths to soul.  I think, really, that’s what my friend was trying to remind me.

Teaching BodyPump

Tonight, as I was teaching BodyPump to a full class of about 25 women, my mind drifted back to the beginning of this long journey.  I remember the first instructor workshop:  I had never worn a microphone; I didn’t know what a beat was, or how to count one; I didn’t know about choreography or how to lift a room, or how to use the various tones of my voice to change the atmosphere.  All I knew was I was drawn to this program, because it had changed my life.  I had walked into an aerobics studio in 1997 as a Human Resource Consultant with a PhD in Organisational Psychology.  Then I did first BodyPump class.

It was more of a re-awakening.  I was on the wrong path that day, and BodyPump delivered me back to the right one.  The path where physical and psychological collide; the place where change happens.  From there, I left my suit behind, my heels, and re-found the clothes that hang right on me, the gym clothes, the runners, the bright, peacock-coloured clothes that are worn for function rather than form.

Tonight as I taught, as I lifted that room, as I helped people surpass their limits, I gave a nod to that self who was brave enough, way back in 1997, to attempt what felt impossible.  I knew so little that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.

And tonight, there was a woman who had gone as far as she could.  We were nearing the end of the shoulder track.  She had nearly made it.  I caught her eye.  I said, “We are going to finish this together.  Just you and me.”  The rest of the room disappeared as we powered through those last eight repetitions.  When she made it, I cheered aloud, and saw a look in her eyes that will stay with me.  She had just learned she could do it.  She will keep that knowledge.

BodyPump.  It changes lives.  And it enables me to change lives.

Lesson learned: increase training by 10% per week only or risk injury

So, I finally found a limit.  I’ve been pushing and pushing things, surprised that nothing hurt, that is, nothing hurt until Friday last week.  With the use of my Teva Five Fingers and my Fit-Flop shoes, with lots of TR-X training, and lots of squats, lunges, and core work, I had managed to complete my first 22km run a few weeks back.

Then a fellow team-mate and I decided we were going to do the North Face 100 in Sydney’s Blue Mountains as Marathon Pairs.  Which meant that, come May 2013, I’d be running up to 56km in one go.  Without much recovery from the Surfcoast Ultramarathon, and with the Marysville Half-Marathon coming soon, I hit the trails hard.

Yes, I’d heard of the 10% rule.  And I had printed out and read several detailed 50km training programs, but simply hadn’t put one together for myself yet.  Last week, I decided I’d just up the distance of the runs I was doing, each one, a little bit.  Twenty km became twenty-one; four became five; six became seven; four became, well, four became ten.  That was the one that broke me — because all I was doing was substituting my usual cross-training session for the same amount of time running, I thought I’d be fine.

Did I do the math?  Of course not.  If I had (and I did after my hips were aching on Friday night), I would have seen that all my tiny increments added up to a whopping 40% increase in one week, instead of the 10% I should have been aiming for.  I cringe thinking about it.  I am grateful that my friend Maria saw my “aching hips” post on Facebook, and texted me to remind me what I knew, but hadn’t adhered to.

I like to preach “no limits” to myself and to my classes.  I like to live “no limits”.  But the fact is, there are limits and if I don’t respect them, and train more consciously, I won’t be teeing up at the start line of many 50km races.

So, with new-found respect, I am committing to designing a six month plan to get me to that start line.  The good news is that after two solid rest days, my hips are back to normal.  I ran 5km in my Teva Five Fingers on the treadmill this morning, and it felt just like running should feel.  Pure, pain-free joy.

My mathematician husband also solved a great mystery that may have plagued other math-illiterate runners – the 10% increase can apply across the whole week (like if you run 35km in total for the week, you increase that total by 3.5km), but if you increase each individual run by 10% this will add up to 10% across the whole week too (so you can spread that extra 3.5 km across various runs).  That was one sticking block I couldn’t get my head around.  I think I’ve got it now.  Let me know, other runners, if I’ve still got it wrong.  I can be a bit of a blockhead about some things.

I suppose the only way to gain wisdom is to make mistakes along the way.  I have never tried to run so far.  For most of my thirty years of running, I’d simply do one long run per week of about 10km, and cross-train the rest of the time with swimming, weight training, cycling, spinning, or whatever was the most fun at the moment.  So this conscious increase is a whole new ball game.  I love to do things right the first time, but I suppose that is not so realistic.  This is going to take some learning…

Planning for the next big thing: The North Face 100?

So…last time I wrote, I was concerned that my mood had dropped since the completion of Team Inspiration’s first ultramarathon.  I didn’t have a big, gnarly goal to aim at anymore.  But I knew I’d find one!

I’d been toying with the idea of a 50km run since January, when I began finding I could run further and further without pain.  Seeing how far I could go became a sort of a game.  Yes, I’d heard of ultra-marathons.  And marathons.  But strangely, the idea of completing a “regular” marathon had never appealed to me.  Call it a short attention span; a resistance to doing what others were doing; a lack of interest.  I didn’t want to have to give up BodyCombat, or Spinning, or weight training, or BodyPump, just to train for one thing alone.  I still don’t.  Maybe it was the word “ultra” that lured me.  But I think it is the terrain that’s done it.  Marathons, in the old days, were run just on the road, and the road bores me to tears.  I can barely manage the 1 km it takes me to get to my favorite trail.

But now…well, they run the things on trails!  Beautiful, wooded, rocky, waterfally trails.  And they are trails that, due to family life, I’d otherwise never get to see.  Picture this:

Me:  Hey kids, want to come on a 50km hike today?  We’ll be done by, well, maybe in a few days.  No…hmmm.

or this:

Me:  Love of my life, would you mind watching our two young children for the next week or so while I go traipsing off into the mountains?  No…hmmm.

Not going to work.  But what will work is me going like a screaming bullet down the trails, running flat-out as fast as I can go, surrounded by hundreds of other trail lunatics, who all make it safe for one another.  Call it trail racing if you will.  I call it freedom.

Back to the next big gnarly goal.  My team mate Ben from Team Inspiration (this is him, looking pretty cool on his 28km leg of the Surfcoast Century) suggested we might try the North Face 100 in the Blue Mountains in Sydney in May next year.  Well, I sort of suggested it first, but I didn’t really know what I was talking about.  I could have been suggesting we fly to Mars – I do this sort of thing, jump in without thinking too much.  Makes for some interesting moments.

Ben Clark

We’ve sort of agreed to try it, and now I’m scrambling to find 50km training plans (we’re going to do it as Marathon pairs, meaning we split it).  The plans are confusing.  They are often written in miles, where I use km – an easy conversion, but it hurts my head.  They also vary a great deal, some suggesting straight weekly increases in distance, others alternating hard with easy weeks.  And none tell me where to fit in all the other activities I do – I need my weight training to keep me stable and strong, I’ve got to teach my BodyPump classes, but where do I put all this extra stuff?  And will I be too tired to do it?

As a personal trainer, I plan to approach this pretty scientifically but the fear is getting in my way a bit.  The word “Mountain” gives me a cold chill, as does the list of mandatory gear, which includes a fleece and a hat.  Don’t get me started on the scary blog accounts of people who have actually done the thing.  I want to keep my head in the sand for just a little bit longer.

So I’ve wished for a big goal and it has landed on me, and I can’t sleep for thinking about climbing these silly mountains.  Will I be strong enough to even cope with the training?  Will I get myself to the start?  I’ve got six months to get there.  I have never tried going so far.

But then again, as Ben reminded me, the Surfcoast Century, at 21km, was really scary, before I did it.  One day at a time.  That’s what I’ll have to remind myself.

Because, really, I’d do just about anything to put myself into this picture…

Juggling kids and training

Phew, that’s a night then.  Just got my two lovely children off to bed – I think – there was some talk of a sore thumb about 10 minutes ago, but I think the hug and bandaid fixed it.

I was pondering what to write about tonight, when it occurred to me – being a parent, as well as an athlete might be relevant to some of the readers out there.  The days are long gone that I could simply plan to do what I wanted to do, and then get out and do it.  These days, I’ll often plan a long run, and then be called upon to go on a class excursion (these, I never miss).  Or there will be a costume to make – this week, we have the “Go to school as your favorite book character” and the “Charlie Brown theme” for assembly.  No problems there, then, that will be simple.  There is lunch to make, cuts to bandage, swimming lessons, and gymnastics, and soccer.

And then there’s little old me – juggling and juggling, trying hard to keep up with it all, as I increase my mileage in the quest of my first ultramarathon (in a relay team).  So I’m tired as I juggle too.  Every now and then a ball falls, and I have to consciously not beat myself up about it.  Goals are set to slip by – yes, I’ll get my first coaching client this term.  No, perhaps not.  My first book updated and redesigned – well, that one will have to wait too.  Re-organise my home office and buy new clothes – nope.

I don’t complain.  I am blessed by the complexity and fullness of my life, by the friends who ask for coffee times, by the healthy children I get to nurture.  But I do find I am juggling faster and getting a bit more tired than usual.

The pursuit of all great goals is difficult.  The pursuit of them in the context of family life, more so.  So tonight, I’m going to cut myself a break.  No, I won’t vacuum my house, or fold those silly sheets.  I’m going to, instead, delve deep and contemplate why I am doing what I am doing.

When I was 19, young and lost, alone at university for the first time, I stopped riding horses for a little while.  One day, I found it again.  It was a homecoming of sorts, as I’d ridden horses since I was 11, and only stopped because I didn’t know where the stable was at university.  I was a physics major, and I was struggling. Struggling with change, and feeling alone, with being no good at physics, with living away from home for the first time.  And suddenly, there I was again, on a horse’s back, high above the earth, so able, so competent.  It was the first thing I was competent at there, the first thing that made me say, yes, I can do this.

That year, I decided to ditch physics and study psychology – I wanted to know why we are as we are.  Because as I rode those horses, I uncovered a self that I’d forgotten about – a confident self, a self that knew what she was doing.  I decided there and then that I’d do something for others – it was going to be therapeutic horsemanship – teaching others to believe in themselves through horseback riding.

Years went by, and the horseback riding turned into weight training, which turned into teaching BodyPump, which turned into teaching people to believe in themselves through weight training.  I became a personal trainer, a psychologist who did coaching.  I found adventure racing, and learned that I could do things I’d never before dreamed possible, tackle trails that were dangerous, climb waterfalls, scramble up rivers, throw myself off of a pier fully clothed, and swim to shore.  That horseback-rider self was still there, just discovering new ways to believe in myself.

Trail running started there for me, back in Hong Kong, learning to run fast on technical terrain, learning to trust my body on steep downhills, narrow single-track.  All in pursuit of that belief in myself I had first tasted at age 19.

And now, I do it to inspire others, to show them what can be done.

For the mothers out there, juggling all the same things as me, and maybe more, I say, it can be done.  The depth that trail running adds to my life surely makes me a better parent, a better wife.

Within this mad juggle of family life and training, I like to see myself as a wide-based mountain, stable, solid, able to withstand the winds of change that family life demands.  That is how training allows me to see myself.  Without it, I am sure all the balls I juggle would seem much, much harder to manage.

Ultramarathon Training: So. Very. Tired.

I’ve been training hard for years, and years, and years.  At age 12, I began running.  I rode horses competitively all through my childhood.  I’ve lifted weights, crazy, heavy weights for about the same number of years.  I’ve completed more adventure races, trail races, and road races than I can count.

But never has training been like this.  Ever since Team Inspiration began (that’s us below, me in the Bitumen is Boring shirt).

Team Inspiration: Dan, Patricia, Ben and Scott

Back in January, ten kilometres was my long run, my stretch run that took me from my home in Hampton to the cliffs at Red Bluff where I’d regather my chi (something I’d learned about in my time in Hong Kong), and then run home again.

Then I signed up for the Salomon Trail Series, where the distances grow longer with each race beginning with 10.8 km in Studley Park, then progressing a few kilometres longer each month.  My aim was to get to 16km to be ready for the fourth and final race in the series on September 23rd.

But, as fate and Facebook had it, I helped create this monster, err, I mean Ultramarathon Relay Team, I mean Team Inspiration, and that has raised the stakes.  Now we’re going for the Surfcoast Century 100km Ultramarathon on September 22nd.  My relay leg is 21 kilometres along the beach and coastal rocks.  The training?  I’ve been advised by a very skilled athlete on how to increase my distance safely.  I’ve only increased 2km extra per week. A few weeks back, I made the jump from16km to 18km.  Seemed insane, but I did it.  Then the following week, I went from 18 to 20.  Wacko territory.  Still, I wasn’t certain I could nail the 21 on race day, so today, I went up to 22.  About five of that was on the beach, soft sand, sinky sand, killer sand.

I got home elated – I’d made it.  Okay, my foot hurt a bit from the sand in my shoe, but I was all right.  I cycled to watch my kids at a mini-olympic day.  Had lunch.  But about 4:00 pm, I bonked.  Now, this would be cool were I twenty-five, single, and had time to put up my feet.  But the kids were home from school, there was school lunch to make for the next day, dinner to be cooked and cleaned up.  And there I was, bonked, exhausted, too tired to stand up.

Twelve days left until I hit the beach in Anglesea, for the first leg of the Surfcoast Ultramarathon.  I can’t bring myself to fully comprehend the race directions just yet.  Could be denial.  Could be that I can’t focus more than five minutes in front of myself just now.

Tomorrow I’m going to be on the radio to talk about why we are doing this mad, exhausting, exhilarating thing.  Thinking of it now, thinking our goal is to inspire others, seems too weak a thing to say. Of course we want to inspire others, but there’s more to it than that.

Proving to ourselves that we can do this, and taking that proof back into the rest of our lives, living life fully, with gusto, facing down the challenge, trying harder than we think we can.  Accepting that this will hurt and that, in the end, it is not the hurt that matters, but the doing.

We are here to do extraordinary things.  So what if we get tired when doing them?  The sights I’ve seen just by increasing my training runs from 10 to 22 kilometres.  The realisation of how very far my legs can carry me now.  That’s why we do it.

Tired?  So what.  On the long journey that is this glorious, juicy, wondrous life, what is a little bit of tired?

Next to me on my desk is a little note about the training I’d have to do to run a 50 km race on my own, written in small print on a notepad I use for recording our finances.  Only time will tell…

Training through Illness

In my early twenties, when I didn’t know better, I would routinely turn up to the gym with a sniffle.  I’d take cold medicine first, so that the sniffle wouldn’t impact my workout as much.  Smart, hey?  When I kept training as hard as I could, that sniffle often became an upper respiratory infection that lasted for weeks.  I thought that was what happened to everyone when they caught a cold.

Over the last twenty years, I’ve studied all about training.  I became a qualified fitness instructor and personal trainer in the US and Australia, trained clients in the gym, taught BodyPump.  I learned exactly how to shape, change, enliven and invigorate my body, and my clients.  In the process, I learned about training through illness.  I learned it was dumb.

But still I did it.Image

I could believe the scientists in theory, but this was my body we were talking about.  And I’d worked hard to get where I was.  So, sniffle; train anyway.  That was still what I did.

It wasn’t until I started to notice the difference between what I told clients to do when ill, and what I was doing, that I began to change.

I began to discipline myself not to train at the first sign of illness.  And believe me, for someone who loves the gym and trail as much as I do, it was discipline.  I’d check my face in the mirror every few hours to see if I looked well enough to hit the gym yet, wonder if coughing counted as a real sign of illness.

To drop the belief that I had to keep training at all costs was a leap of faith – a real test of what personal training had taught me.  But I did.  I stopped training when ill, and I watched what happened to my body.  Closely.  The result floored me.  Nothing changed.  Nothing!  Yes, I felt lethargic and slower, but I would have felt that way anyway simply from being sick.  Did I gain weight?  I don’t know.  I’d stopped weighing myself.  Weight was not the factor by which I wanted to judge myself any more.  When I stayed still, sniffles lasted four days, then, like a miracle, would simply go away.  I could hit the gym as hard as I wanted after the sniffles were gone, and train for my next event with gusto.  My resting heart rate stayed the same; ditto for my pace on the treadmill.

Training through illness?  I don’t think so. 

We wouldn’t do it to a racehorse or a greyhound.  We wouldn’t recommend it to our clients or our children.

Why in the world would we do it to ourselves?