Lyme Disease and Running Again

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A beautiful view near the Appalachian Trail before the start of the 2013 Ironmaster’s Challenge

There are countless stories of people fighting for months or years to get an accurate diagnosis. There are the mysterious symptoms that could be indicative of any number of issues. Then, there’s my story.

I felt I was at my peak physical performance. In September of 2012, I ran two half marathons in the same weekend, with the second being just two minutes away from my PR. My second marathon in November proved to be a huge improvement from the first, and I ran a 50K for the first time in December. “Were you feeling really tired?” people ask. If I did, I didn’t notice. When you’re busy and you run long distances to relax, some degree of tiredness is to be expected.

My first race of 2013 was a 5K in January and a significant PR. My confidence and excitement level were high. It felt like a good start to my racing year, particularly as I was targeting a March marathon and April 50K. When I woke up the morning after the 5K and my knee was swollen, I didn’t think much of it. I ran 10 miles that night and felt fine, but I knew something was off. I researched doctors and found an orthopedist that sounded trustworthy. I figured he’d tell me to dial back the miles for a few weeks and send me on my way. What a joke!

At my first appointment, he drained the synovial fluid from my very swollen right knee. “You said you run trails. Do you mind if I test the fluid for Lyme?” he asked as he was putting the bandage on my knee. I thought it seemed like an afterthought on his part. A Lyme PCR test takes about a week, which gave me a week to repeatedly and ignorantly declare things like, “I don’t have Lyme! I never saw a tick!” The test was positive.

Thus, my Lyme diagnosis came thanks to the wisdom of the orthopedist that drained the fluid from my knee. There had been no tick bite, no bull’s eye rash, no months of unexplained tiredness or suffering performance. I was blindsided. I had the subsequent round of traditional blood work used to diagnosis Lyme disease and every test came back positive.

In my experience, most people seem to react to news of a Lyme diagnosis in one of a handful of ways. Some underestimate the potential significance of Lyme and what havoc it can cause. Perhaps they had a tick bite, the prescribed precautionary 10 days of oral antibiotics, and never gave it another thought. They were lucky! There’s also a camp of people who have horror stories they feel compelled to share. They usually involve the brother of the friend of the aunt of the ex-sister-in-law who had to quit their job, got divorced, and is now a hermit with 19 cats. You get the point.

Others are blissfully ignorant. Lyme disease is one of those things you hear about but maybe don’t take the time to understand. It’s something that happens to other people, not to you. If you are one of those people, please take time to educate yourself. I’ve included some links below. Learn. Lyme does not attack only crazy trail runners, nor are you immune because you’re not out playing in the woods every weekend.

I don’t pretend to know much about Lyme or even Lyme prevention. I’ve tried to avoid forums and endless Googling. All I know is my experience with the disease, and with trying to find others with similar stories. Plenty of my Googling was for distance runners with Lyme disease, or running after Lyme. The information just wasn’t there, which was part of why I wanted to share. I was desperate for success stories.

When I learned that Runner’s World legend and running community great Bart Yasso dealt with Lyme, I almost immediately downloaded his book, My Life on the Run. The humor in those pages was comforting for a weekend spent reading and icing with frozen vegetables instead of out on a training run.

Over the last few months, I have done three different rounds of oral antibiotics, narrowly escaping the surgical implantation of a PICC line for intravenous antibiotics. Both knees have taken turns swelling to ridiculous sizes. I’ve been unable to straighten my leg and been unable to do any kind of exercise outside of a pool. I had a Baker’s cyst that caused my leg, ankle, and foot to swell to equally impressive sizes. The disease put an end to my streak of running at least one mile a day after 431 days. But, I’ve been really lucky in that the Lyme arthritis has been my only symptom. If it hadn’t attacked my knees and thus running, something I love dearly, I can only imagine how much worse it could have been.

I was always thankful to run, but that thankfulness really grew when the ability was taken away. I am so thankful for the miles run with family and friends over the last few years, in a way that is amplified greatly thanks to Lyme.

This blog project had been suspended, in part because of the busyness of life and other obligations, but also because I wasn’t sure how I wanted to address what was wrong. I have no intention of this becoming a Lyme-focused blog. Had I immediately posted about it at the beginning of the journey, about the disease and how I was feeling, I would have had to revise it countless times over. Sharing every step would have been draining for me and a miserable read for others.

My intention in sharing this is to hopefully encourage someone to pay more attention to Lyme disease. Prevent it. Spray yourself with some repellent and be cognizant of the risks so you can keep enjoying what you’re doing. I also want to add a hopeful voice to the Lyme conversation in the blogosphere. I’m not sure that I’m in the clear, but I am positive that I am on the right path.

Two weeks ago I was cleared to do pretty much everything other than run. I immediately started taking long walks. Yesterday, I was able to complete the awesome Ironmaster’s Challenge 15K trek with my husband. For the first time since January, I ran a few steps. Mostly, we hiked. The running wasn’t very far, but on beautiful trails on a perfect spring day, it was harder to walk than run. Don’t tell the doctor. I’ve only been off antibiotics a few days, and I’m interested to see what my knees do over the next few days. The feeling of being out on the trails, splashing through creek crossings and mud, was quite an improvement from three weeks ago when I could hardly walk the dog.

A race report will follow. In the meantime, thanks for reading and cheers to fellow runners and Lyme-battle-ers alike.

Happy and healthy running,

CDC – I’ve been using this as my primary reference. Make sure to click around in the sidebar on the left, particularly on the prevention guide and statistics, to see if you’re in an area known for Lyme.

Infectious Disease – This is more heavy-duty, but still helpful.

Runner Goes Swimming

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As my running hiatus has stretched from one month into two, I’ve mostly been able to maintain my sanity thanks to water aerobics. It’s a welcome distraction to do something that I never did in my pre-hiatus days, meaning there’s no basis for comparison for how I used to do. I just do. My body feels like it moves normally in the water, like everything is cooperating and moving appropriately. There are no swollen joints or awkward gaits in the water, just movement. It all sounds so zen.

But, then the competitive side of me kicks in. I did somewhere around 18 races in 2012. Now, I’m pushing two months race free. It was only a matter of time before my web browsing time turned away from news headlines and fluffy gossip columns and back to where I belong: searching for races. More accurately, searching for goals. I think the appeal of racing in a lot of respects is the quantifiable joy of achieving something challenging and knowing that the numbers are there to support what you’ve done. I went from did-not-exercise to half marathoner in around six months. Without the goal that seemed crazy at the time, I probably would’ve floundered around with running for weeks or months, being way too easy on myself, never running more than half a mile, and then eventually have fizzled out because of undirected boredom.

About a year and a half ago, I developed an insatiable desire for a bike. I was never much of a bike rider, but my husband swore it because I was riding heavy bikes that weren’t well fitted to my body. The longing I had for a bike was the strangest thing. I would see cyclists out for rides and be struck with the desire to be one of them. Finally, I paid a visit to a bike shop “just to look” and left with a generous birthday present from my husband. I wanted to ride the bike home but it was carefully loaded in the car. Upon arrival at home, I declared we should go for a ride on a 10 mile route I frequently ran. My logic was that if I could run the route without issue, it should be that much easier on the bike. We were hardly out of the neighborhood before it was evident that I had never been on a bike with gears. I had no concept or understanding of these fanciful gears or how to shift. Furthermore, running always afforded me two feet on the ground and the luxury of running towards traffic. Now, I was on an unsteady frame with traffic whizzing by be from behind. I also had a fear of the roads.

It took numerous bike rides to even become to overcome this discomfort and fear of the road. Most of them usually included at least a few minutes of me hollering at my husband from a bike far behind his about how he handled a left turn, how fast he was peddling, or some other trivial matter. The irony here is that I had no better knowledge myself. Regardless, numerous bike rides proved beneficial in at least making me think I could enjoy cycling on occasion. I never did it enough, but every now and then I would think about challenging myself on a bike. “Doing a century would be cool!” I’d say, and then I’d realize some other running event would be around the same time, and the century idea would go to by the wayside.

The idea of a triathlon was inevitable. Running was a given as was cycling, on a good day. I was just missing the last third of the sport. One recent afternoon, I found myself surfing the web until I landed on the homepage of a local triathlon. At this point, I was already registered for a swimming clinic at the gym, so I figured I was practically a swimmer. Thus, the latest goal, “I want to do a triathlon!” was born.

Swim lessons were humbling. Gracefulness and coordination are not among my strengths but seem to be key in swimming. For years, swimming to me has meant gliding around under the water and coming up for when needed. Also, my version of a backstroke was floating on my back, occasionally moving my arms around out to the sides, hoping I was floating far enough out of the water to get a nice tan. I haven’t seen many, if any, triathlons, but I’m under the impression that the swimming portion does not consist of people just disappearing under the water and popping up for air. Nor does it include a sunbathing challenge.

I’d rather not go into the details of my utter misunderstanding of swimming as a sport. I am just completely baffled at the concepts of swimming on one’s side, not lifting out of the water for air, relaxing my hands, and the list goes on. Much like in an aerobics class, I can see what other people are doing, I can see what I’m doing wrong when someone mimics what I’m doing, but correcting it is a challenge. There is a total disconnect between what my body does and what I think it’s doing. Apparently, the only thing swimming and water aerobics have in common are the fact that they’re performed in water.

While my not running streak is quickly lengthening, at least there’s the diversion of researching triathlon training. And learning to swim without floaties.

Happy and healthy running,

Diversification – The Case for Cross Training for Mental Health

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The benefits of cross training are beat into our heads as runners. Most of us recognize that allowing running to be our only exercise is insufficient. Running makes us feel invincible but neglecting other aspects of our health eventually humbles us. A few months ago, I decided I’d try a new exercise class. One of the first classes I attended, we were rotating through stations doing different exercises with weights. At one station, the instructor would toss us a medicine ball as we did sit ups. She gently tossed me the ball and I fell right over. It was comical and I briefly wondered if we were on a reality show featuring weak marathoners. This should have been a wakeup call.

For many of us, we find something we like and we stick with it. Whether it’s running, cycling, or a Zumba class, when something brings us joy, it can be hard to do other things. But what happens when we can’t participate in our exercise of choice? When our joints protest our passion or Zumba suddenly becomes a fad of the past? It’s not just our physical health that suffers from our single-minded passion towards a specific sport or activity; it’s our mental health.

Finding cross training activities we enjoy helps us develop a broader perspective. We can learn that other activities might be capable of bringing us joy. When my time of not running began, I dwelled a lot on the fact that nothing seemed to make me as happy as running. It bothered me that I’d allowed myself to become so attached and dependent on something that can disappear. Now, I’m learning that swimming and cycling are also fun. Aqua jogging might look really weird, but it’s a blast. Cross training also helps give perspective that passion isn’t exclusive to our sport. I imagine the happiness we feel on a run is the same that hockey players feel while gliding over the ice or mountain bikers feel doing some death defying ride down the side of a mountain. In many ways, we’re all the same. We just want to do what we love to the best of our abilities.

Cross training assures that you can keep moving forward even when circumstances change. While it’s great to pick up new sports while rehabbing an injury, I imagine it would be even better if you already knew you liked to do those things. Save for the occasional exercise class or long bike ride on those few days of “perfect” weather we get each year, I never did anything other than running. Nothing. I imagine that if I had some other interests before this set back, it would have been easier to focus on doing those things for a little while. Instead, I’m learning from the beginning. I’m a newbie at the gym after four years of making monthly donations. While it’s better later than never, I could’ve been enjoying these other things all along. The old adage of “don’t’ put all your eggs in one basket” rings true in physical and mental health. Enjoy exercise outside of your primary sport. Have hobbies that don’t require peak physical health. 

Finally, cross training is good for building mental strength. Sometimes we forget to vary our routine and try something new because our old habits are just easier. Comfortable. Maybe we’re good at our primary sport and we don’t want to try something else and fail. Maybe it’s just laziness. Learning something new requires effort. Trying a new sport or a new class might be hard, uncomfortable, or embarrassing. Maybe we’ll get knocked over by a medicine ball, stumble all over ourselves in an aerobics class, or tip over trying a new yoga pose. Even when we fail, we learn something. Vary your routine. Try the class or activity that looks alluring and intimidating. It will probably be OK.

Happy and healthy running,

Aqua Jogging and Spectating: A Race Day in Recovery

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Interconnectedness. There is no such thing as singular, independent event. My knee balloons to an unnatural size, running stops, motivation in other areas wanes, and suddenly even blogging has joined the list of casualties. The inability to run has been harder than I expected. I miss my daily relaxation and exercise. I haven’t been able to get my heart pumping and my body moving. It’s hard when the mind and body are out of sync. Part of me feels that if I could just put on running shoes and be thrown out in the middle of my favorite road, I’d somehow be able to just run. I know better, of course. Even my walking has a delightful awkwardness. In my head, I think I’m doing a great job passing as person walking normally. I’m knocked back to reality when someone tells me they can see I’m rehabbing an injury or ask sympathetically what happened. Regardless, I think the month of the “Life Ruled by a Knee” is over. I put that large, hot to the touch thing in its place today. I rode a bike outside, went aqua jogging, and enjoyed a 5K. The knee came along.

After a few successful rides on the recumbent bike in PT, I decided it was time to try my real bike and joined my husband and dog on their walk around the neighborhood this morning. As a runner, I stubbornly think that all sports should be able to be done outside regardless of the time of year. I act like “too cold” is an excuse to stay inside. Riding a bike slowly around the block when it felt like 12 degrees Fahrenheit, I was humbled. How do you year-round cyclists manage? I didn’t last long, but the feeling of being physically active outside for even a few moments was just what I needed to tackle my next project in reclaiming my physically active life: the swimming pool.

There is something so intimidating to a non-swimmer about a swimming pool. I imagine it’s the same for newbies of any sport. The starting line of a race can look like an odd place, with those hydration packs and silly colored shoes. Swimming also has a lot of foreign gear: swimsuit? Goggles? Crazy hat? I wore a bathing suit more suited for a day lounging beside the pool than swimming in it. In running speak, this is the equivalent of throwing on an old cotton t-shirt. While it technically does the job, you’re really better off wearing something created for the task at hand. An athletic swimsuit would be more comfortable in the pool the way a t-shirt made out tech material trumps the old t-shirt.

I hobbled into the gym pool looking as awkward as I felt and was dismayed to see people in every lane. These people looked to me like “real” swimmers. I made a beeline to the lifeguard. I introduced myself as a runner who didn’t understand swimming lane etiquette and explained that I was rehabbing an injury. She kindly suggested a lane where she thought I’d be comfortable with another woman who was working on her swimming technique. Thankful for her help, I got in the water and began a sort of awkward swimming technique that in my head looks like a breaststroke but in actuality resembles a doggie paddle. The kind lifeguard watched and suggested I try a flotation belt. “Aqua-jogging?” I asked. Yes. She assured me the belt would keep me upright and I would be able to mimic the motion of running. I agreed, she handed me a belt, and for the first time in a month, I went for a run of sorts.

I dabbled in aqua jogging once or twice before, primarily because my gym happens to have a pool and I like water. Once or twice a year, I’ll get the urge to try something in the pool. The first time it happened, I made the unfortunate choice to show up during the practice time of the local high school swim team. Demoralizing. Another time or two, my running partner and I have gone and ended up wearing the aqua jogger apparatus more as decoration while we tried to make movements that would propel us through the pool just enough so we wouldn’t get kicked out of the lap lanes. We’d make running motions but it just felt silly. Why splash around when we could’ve gotten out of the water and run?

As an injured runner, the aqua jogger felt like salvation, something I could do to give myself that amazing feeling of running. I’m not sure how well I actually did. My understanding is that you’re supposed to move your arms and legs just like you would while running. It sounds simple enough, but I’m sure my knees were kicking higher and my arms were doing a disproportionate amount of work. Regardless, aqua jogging has given me the hope that all my fitness won’t be lost during this break from running. I know I was in peak shape when this problem started and I can’t let myself think too long about what must be happening to that fitness. Instead, I will befriend the pool.

After the pool and nice long shower, I headed to my next big challenge of being injured: being a spectator at a race I was registered to run. More specifically, the Frozen Foot 5K, Race 2. I prepared for the race as if I was running, wearing the same clothes, toting a water bottle. The one thing missing was the pressure. There were no worries about PR-ing or beating anyone in my age group, I could just go have good time. My running partner and I went through our pre-race rituals, skipping our warm up lap around the lake and my actually standing at the starting line. I hobbled away a few minutes before the race started in search of a good spot to stand with my sign.

It was on my departure away from the finish line that I found the first affirmation that I could love the race experience without being an athlete myself. A man walking behind me asked, “What is it? Ankle? Knee?” We walked and talked for a few minutes about injuries and racing plans. This may sound trivial, but I really love that running gives strangers a common ground. Even though I wasn’t running, I was still amongst fellow runners and able to enjoy my time. Awesome!

Another surprise came when the race started. I love watching people run, but I never tried it while holding a sign reading, “Worst parade ever”. There was no originality with this sign. I saw it at another race and it cracked me up. Apparently, I’m not alone in this, either. It was a lot of fun listening to people pass by and laugh at the sign, give a thumbs up, or otherwise comment that they were aware the parade sucked.

As much as I enjoyed doing things differently, there is nothing as satisfying as crossing the finish line after running a good race. It sometimes feels like there’s a highlight reel of moments from races playing in my head the way music usually gets stuck. I vividly remember parts of races, plenty of times I didn’t even enjoy, and long to have them back. A few miles spent panicking about not being able to get my hands on the right flavor of GU, trudging up a hill after being passed by a pace group, and general feelings of physical and mental exhaustion sound wonderful when running no longer seems like a certainty. While I know my spring racing schedule is more or less erased, I’m looking forward to returning with even more appreciation for the sport. The good, bad, and mundane details of the run all trump sitting on the couch.

Happy and healthy running!

Ending the running streak and beginning balance

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After 431 consecutive days of running at least one mile, the streak has ended and I’m on crutches. I always loved watching Full House, probably just as much when I was in college as when I was a kid. Each episode follows the same formula. Something intense happens and by the end of the episode, Danny is sitting with at least one of the girls talking about what they should learn from the experience. You can always tell the lesson is coming by the music they play. I call it “moral music”. The moral music starts and everything comes full circle. The girls have learned a valuable lesson about telling the truth, being nice, etc. This post will be about as mushy as a Full House episode. I apologize.

The morning after the amazing 5K with the 38 second PR, I realized my knee was swollen. There was no pain, no fall, no snap, no monumental incident to indicate something was wrong. It was just some painless swelling that was strange enough to cause me to start icing but without pain, I certainly didn’t stop. I ran my scheduled 10 miler that night and continued running throughout the week with no pain. I also scheduled an appointment to see a sports medicine doctor. By Friday, I was stressed about my long run the next day. We had a four hour run scheduled on some technical trail and snow was falling, threatening to make it even more challenging. It bummed me out, but I skipped the trail and just did a mile on the roads.

By Sunday, exactly a week after the 5K, I was hurting, sad, and couldn’t wait for my appointment with the doctor the next day. He gave me crutches, told me no running and somehow, I didn’t cry. I think I had taken care of that over the weekend. On some level, I knew what was coming. I’ve spent the last few days trying to conquer said crutches. This morning was my follow up appointment to learn the results of my recent tests. Miraculously, nothing is fractured or torn, I just have a lot of fluid build up in my knee. They’d drained it at my first appointment and by a few hours later, you wouldn’t have guessed. I’m supposed to continue resting and being my graceful self on the crutches, (I’m convinced I will hurt myself more on the crutches). I start PT on Monday. Hopefully, that will give me some more information on what I can do and a timeline for recovery. Correction: I understand that timelines are out the window.

I won’t bother telling you about how much it hurts to not run. That was done more eloquently than I could ever hope to do here. She captured exactly what I feel. I particularly like the blurb about acting as if an injury is earth-shattering, even though you logically know things could be much worse. I also really identify with the line about the pain of not running being worse than the pain of an injury. Um, yes. But I feel like I was gambling for a long time and making slightly unwise choices. Logically, I should have known better and recognized that I was pressing my luck. I don’t blame any single aspect of my running for this, I think it all worked in conjunction. I also can’t help but feel this is about more than running. Cue the moral music. It’s about my seeming inability to learn to slow down and take a break. This is my opportunity to learn, and I’m lucky it’s not worse.

Before my first appointment, I made a list of things I could do while I wasn’t able to exercise. I thought this would be a way to be proactive and positive, even if I was given less than desirable news. Listing things involving organizing/cleaning projects was silly. For whatever reason, I imagined being completely mobile yet unable to run. Right. Those things aren’t getting done. The act of making the list was helpful in putting me in the right mindset, though. Good things will come out of this! I now have no choice but to slow down.

Many of the things I love about running remain, even without running. First and foremost, I appreciate the commradarie and friendship of running. I’m blown away and extremely grateful that not running seems to have hardly changed a thing in this respect. I appreciate that my running pals have made me feel like I’m not missing a thing, from regular emails to planning visits and outings when we’d normally be running. I’m trying to relish in the opportunity to be cozy on the couch, rather than out on the roads in the wind, rain, and cold. It’s really neat to be able to go out to dinner late on a Friday night, because I’m not getting up to run far the next day. Undoubtedly, I wish I was running, but I might as well enjoy the break while I can.

Mornings can also be enjoyable without running, much to my surprise. I love watching the sunrise. Apparently, the sun rises and is just as beautiful and brilliant even when I’m not running. Who knew?!

I love the routine, pageantry, and anticipation of race day. While I’m still not sure how my spring racing schedule will pan out, I’m anticipating not being able to run everything I’d planned. Regardless of my running status, I can still enjoy races! Maybe I can walk, downgrade to shorter events, or volunteer. Regardless, I can still be involved in a different capacity. (Friends: Whatever I’ve committed to doing with you, I’m still going to be present in some capacity. It might be running alongside you or cheering for you as you cross the finish line, but I’ll be there and it will be awesome.)

Racing has apparently infiltrated every area of my life. Everything is a rush, hurrying from one place to another, crossing something else off a list. It’s not healthy. I never realized how much I race sans bib until these crutches entered my life. Simple walks between parking lots and buildings seem to take an eternity. Too stubborn to make multiple trips to my car before leaving the house earlier in the week, I shattered my coffee mug when it came tumbling off the roof of the car while I was loading my crutches, lunch, and purse into the back seat. As I watched the coffee wash down the driveway, I could hear the words in the back of my mind. Slow. Down. There is no need to hurry from one activity to the next. It’s a good idea to be present and patient all the time. I should take the time to savor the present even when I’m not running.

Of course I wish I was running. I’m sad that the streak ended, that I can’t definitively say what races I’m doing, and that my poor husband has to do even more around the house than usual. (Who would have thought not running would make more work for him than my marathon training!?) Mostly, I just feel really lucky. Many people are going through things much more physically painful than a stubborn knee, and more emotionally painful than missing a run. I’m looking forward to more cross-training, increasing my awareness of my body, and learning to slow down. Also, eating a late dinner on a Friday and not worrying about how it will sit in my stomach for my run the next day. I’m looking forward to balance.

Happy and healthy running,

430 – Frozen Foot, Thawed Legs, and Miracle Kale (aka Frozen Foot 5K Race Report)

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5K race series are awesome. Many use the same course over weeks or months at a time. This gives you the opportunity to learn the course and see how you’re progressing over an extended period of time. The Frozen Foot 5K series in Elizabethtown, PA consists of monthly races from January through March. While you probably can’t pinpoint Elizabethtown on a map unless you’re from the area, these races epitomize all that is good with local racing. Packet pickup is smooth and located indoors, in a nice warm building with real bathrooms on the campus of Elizabethtown College. The sunshine that always seems to be shining, (at least through the races last year and the first this year), more than compensates for the frozen aspect of racing this time of year, as does the hot soup at the end. Delicious. Hot. Soup. In a season with slim choices for racing, I look forward to the series as a highlight in winter when everything else is rather bleak. The races are at 2pm on Sundays, so you even get to sleep in and have a shot at slightly warmer weather. What could be better? Oh, the price! Early registration is around $40 or less for all three races and you get a nice long-sleeved tech shirt.

While I consider the 2pm start time a positive, it also leaves me feeling confused. When and what do I eat? What do I do all day beforehand? The first race of the year was Sunday the 21st. The day started with having my in-laws over for breakfast. Blessedly, I found this recipe for kale casserole and it was amazing! My experiences with kale have been limited and I wasn’t sure how it would go over with the family, but there were no leftovers. I made this in a larger dish with a dozen eggs, added red onions instead of green, Italian seasonings instead of Spike, and added sliced tomatoes on top. It was tasty, filling, satisifed the family, and didn’t weigh me down to run. It’s the breakfast of my dreams!

My running partner and I arrived our usual hour early for the race and spent our extra time with bathroom visits, wandering around the small lake beside the starting line, and finangling our timing chips onto our sneakers. Said timing chips may be the only negative about the race, but I believe there was talk about getting rid of them. They’re a minor inconveience and worth the hassle for the afforementioned ammenities. We lined up a few minutes before two and started discussing excuses for not having a good race. They included:

1. It’s 2pm, I don’t know how to eat for a 2pm race
2. It’s really, really windy
3. We ran long-ish yesterday!

The list went on but it’s probably not good practice to start a race with reasons why it’s going to be miserable. Lining up at any race is a delicate balance of not being too far back or forward for your pace. If you’re too close to the starting line, you risk getting trampled and cause issues for the faster folks behind you. Starting too far back increases the time and energy you’ll spend trying to weave around people. It’s hard to get this right ever, and particularly impossible at small races. One race last year, a man pushed by my running partner and I in the first tenth of a mile and rudely pronounced, “Watch it, Ladies!” All we knew was that he was tall and wearing an orange shirt. We passed him about half a mile from the finish line. While I don’t usually feel particularly competitive with anyone other than myself, I’ve never been so happy to pass someone. I think of him at the start of almost every race.

The race started promptly at 2pm. (Thanks, Race Organizers! We had tickets to the Hershey Bears game that night, it wasn’t a day for miggling.) Ironically, the race course begins with a jump over a speed bump. After clearing that hurdle, you take off down a slight hill, around a corner, and more slight downhill. The course is hilly but most of the uphill is concentrated in the first half, meaning the second half is largely downhill. It’s not a perfect out and back but lollipops through a neighborhood and adds a steep uphill right around the start of the third mile. We took off without incident and I almost immediately thought I didn’t feel very fast. I make it a practice to not look at my pace while I’m running, especially for shorter distances. It worries me and makes me either push harder than I should or slow down when I shouldn’t because I feel I’m running above my ability. I was ready to be finished by the halfway point. I was passed by someone on the large uphill and I never quite caught up to him.

By midway through mile three, I felt like I was barely hanging on and having visions of having to walk that “slight uphill” right before the finish. The slight now seemed daunting. As I was running up the hill and just getting ready to turn towards the finish, a runner who already finished was walking back out on the course to cheer yelling, “Come on! Leave it on the course!” I wanted to tell him I’d left “it” back somewhere on the course before that point.

I rounded the corner, saw the finish clock, and then saw my husband. He took the first photo ever taken of me where it looks like I’m running rather than shuffling. A few seconds later, I crossed the finish line with a 38 second PR and 22 seconds under the 5K time goal I thought might be a stretch for 2013.

It was awesome, but why do you care? This was a good lesson day. Regardless of how the conditions may seem stacked against you, it’s not worth fretting over or writing off the race before it begins. You never know what you’ll be capable of doing. Zen and the Art of Running talks about letting go of attachments. This doesn’t mean the files in your email or the iPod you attach to yourself before heading out. It means letting go of the ideas you have ingrained in you, such as the attachment that “running in the cold/wind/rain will hurt/suck/be too hard. Just because the weather isn’t perfect and you accidentally mistook ice cream for an appropriate choice for dinner doesn’t mean you won’t perform well. Also, I’ll be eating more kale.

Happy running,

423 – Morning Runs and Germ-a-phobia

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My blogging frequency has evidently taken a nose dive as work, marathon training, and grad school have been demanding more of my time. I would like to say a busy schedule can’t hold me back from adding to the blogosphere, but I suppose time management skills can only carry me so far. Be prepared for shorter, less edited and more scatterbrained blog posts. Honestly, they’ll probably be more amusing than my long dissertations. Cheers for entertainment!

Running in the predawn hours before work has always intrigued me. I dabbled briefly with the prospect in the week last summer when high temperatures in the triple digits forced me to run in the morning or succumb to the dreadmill at night. Morning runs in the summer were delightful. There was the obvious benefit of not having to pile on layers like the kid in “A Christmas Story” just to stay warm enough to run. The best part was leaving the house just before sunrise and arriving back home just as the sun was peaking over the horizon. It felt like such an appropriate way to start the day, waking up in perhaps the same way ancestors did before electricity and central air helped ruin our natural rhythms. It felt good but the temperatures cooled and I resumed hitting snooze until I absolutely had to get up, leaving myself just enough time to throw on some clothes and grab a breakfast I could eat at my desk.

A scheduling conflict forced me back out the door early one December morning. I figured the only way I could get my run in was if I was out before sunrise. Running around 5am on a December day lacks the things that make running at the same time on a July morning so appealing. It may still be the coolest part of the day, but that cold is undesirable and something to fight rather than embrace. There’s also no promising sunlight by the end of the run. In fact, it’s just as dark when I return home as it was when I departed. Occasionally, I wonder if all the clocks in my house were wrong, (my husband does enjoy practical jokes), and I’m actually out running at midnight. Regardless, I was out the door early and incidentally started a vicious but positive cycle.

Running may be a solo sport but if you want to get to know someone well, spend hours upon hours running with them. Setting out in the morning and finding a running partner similarly decked out in a reflective vest and headlamp is awesome. My morning running partner and I met through seeing each other regularly on a mutual favorite route. Having someone else likeminded, (aka crazy), enough to set the alarm early and venture out makes the morning run much more appealing. This was the first and most significant reinforcement I needed to make the early morning run a habit – I’m not alone!

Furthermore, rolling out of bed and starting the day with something you love is preferable to diving right into something aptly called work. Running provides a nice opportunity to wake up and start the day with a sense of accomplishment. Most surprisingly, I’m much more productive the rest of the day. I would think that setting the alarm clock earlier without a correspondingly earlier bed time would lead me straight to zombie-like afternoons. Contrarily, morning runs have diminished the need to delay sending important emails until after I’ve consumed a sufficient amount of coffee. I’m more alert even before the caffeine has kicked in and the benefits extend the rest of the day. It feels like unlocking the secret to the universe. It’s so simple, obvious and free, and yet for some reason I rarely started my weekdays with a run. Insanity!

Despite the clear benefits of camaraderie, productivity, and an overall better day, I have to fight the urge to stay in bed daily. I combat this with a two-pronged approach: affirmations and bribery. Each night before sleep, I set an alert on my phone encouraging me to run the next day. The iPhone makes the former technique really easy. I create a calendar event and name it something silly and encouraging. Here’s a sampling of the things I have had my phone tell me in the last week or so:

“Go run! Be happy! Diet Coke at lunch and relax tonight! Stars! Trails this weekend!”
“Go run! Remember how awesome it is to run 6 miles before work! Diet Coke and lunch date!”
“Run! You have an awesome day ahead!”
“It’s a great day for a run! Go enjoy your morning!”

I use the “Title” and “Location” fields when setting up an event for these kinds of corny things, set the event time for right around when I want to get up, and set an alert for “at time of event” and “5 minutes before”. That way, it goes off with my alarm and the first thing I see in the morning is something positive. Reading my calendar alerts in one place shows me just how ridiculous they sound out of context, but it’s much better than just seeing a horribly early time on the clock and darkness out the window.

The later technique of bribery is also working a bit too well. If I run in the morning, I get to drink a can of Diet Coke in the afternoon. I love Diet Coke. It’s a guilty pleasure of sorts. I’ve drastically cut my intake since I started running, but few things taste as good to me still as an ice cold soda. Usually, the Diet Coke makes it into my calendar alerts so that when I’m laying in bed debating whether it’s worth it to get out of bed, I imagine cracking open my Diet Coke in the afternoon or the contrary image of leaving it in the fridge. It makes it a tangible reward for making the right decision. Eventually, I need to wean myself off the soda bribery. Perhaps I’ll let myself have a soda once or twice a week if I’ve gotten in my morning runs as intended that week. For now, I’m going to rely on the soda. Anyone have any other suggestions on how you get yourself out of bed early?

As a side note, my typically slight germ-a-phobia is reaching epidemic proportions along with the flu. This morning I refused a gummy candy from my running buddy because she accidentally touched it with her glove, (sorry)! I’m worried flu-fear is turning me into a jerk.

Wishing everyone flu-free and happy running!

415 – Vegetables, Running Goals, and a Watch that Works!

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Seeing as I am finally posting about resolutions eleven days into the New Year, I suppose one of my resolutions should be to prepare my 2014 resolutions before the year begins. Resolutions are always a struggle for me. My traditional resolution routine is to say that I am absolutely not making resolutions. As the calendar gets closer to rolling over, I start to hear most other people speaking of their own resolutions and I get inspired. Ideas from “running on trails at least weekly” to “flossing daily” sound great in theory. I should do those things. One of my favorites I’ve heard recently is, “buy more locally grown food”. Despite buying mostly produce and having a relatively convenient farmer’s market in the area, I end up at the chain grocery store buying vegetables that are better traveled than I am while perfectly good farmers down the street are harvesting the same things at a better quality. It’s senseless! Regardless, it seems to me that many resolutions are simply good ideas that could be executed at any time during the year if I was passionate enough. Replacing the term resolutions with “goals” seems more empowering and tangible, especially in terms of running. 

Running goals require flexibility

At the beginning of 2012, I jotted a few goals at the bottom of my training schedule spreadsheet. One was focused on improving my time in the half marathon, but others the rest were simply completion goals: qualify for Half Fanatics, run a marathon, and continue my streak. The latter two goals were accompanied by question marks indicating my uncertainty. At the end of 2011, I wasn’t running very much. Having struggled with some setbacks where I was happy to just to have completed the Baltimore Half Marathon, I wasn’t convinced my level of running could support a marathon in 2012. The streak also seemed like an impossible dream. Running at least a mile every day seemed insane at that point. I could not imagine how it would actually continue. While I met my 2012 goals, it was largely a result of being blessed enough to avoid a setback that was out of my control.

Injuries, life changes, and other unforeseen circumstances often mean we have to adjust our expectations. If we’re too hell-bent on logging a certain number of miles, reaching a new distance, or running a faster pace, we risk being too stubborn to listen to our bodies. It can be hard to differentiate between normal aches and pains resulting from being anti-couch potatoes and pain that we should take seriously. I recently spent a good two weeks complaining to anyone who would listen that my hip hurt and was moderately convinced it was a stress fracture. I’m thankful I have so many people in my life who give great advice and recommended the following: foam rolling exercises, lacrosse ball rolling, Arnica, stretching, resting, strengthening, and PT. It’s feeling much better now, probably thanks largely to most of the aforementioned recommendations. (PS: I love my foam roller!) However, practicing flexibility would probably have been a much better strategy than privately panicking and publicly requesting medical advice from non-professionals. I should’ve redirected my stress and frustration toward patience with my body and myself. Sometimes I think aches and pains serve the purpose of reminding us to be flexible. Our goals may sound great, but we need to listen to our bodies.

Primary vs. Secondary Goals

Many runners have long lists of short and long terms goals. While some of these goals are complementary, often they are not. Training for a new, longer distance requires lots of long and slow running. This training is not necessarily conducive to setting a new shorter distance PR. Thus, enter the concept of primary and secondary goals. The primary goal is the basis for your season, whereas the secondary goals can be stepping stones along the way or good consolatory achievements if the primary goal doesn’t work out.

My primary goal for the spring season is my target race of the Ironmaster’s Challenge 50K. Just typing the name conjures feelings of excitement with a twinge of fear. Throughout my relatively short time as a runner, I’ve found I most enjoy the long run. If it was feasible for me in terms of both time and health to run long distances every weekend, I would. The tears were hardly dry from my first marathon before I was imagining what it would feel like to run longer. When a friend made the mistake of innocently telling me she thought it would be fun to run 30 miles for her 30th birthday, I suggested one more mile and we would have a 50K. Accordingly, we’ve been planning on a spring 50K since sometime last August. While I ran the fat ass event last month, Ironmaster’s will be my first officially timed ultra-marathon and it looks like we’ve picked an exceptionally hard race. Fortunately, the idea of a 50K isn’t attractive because of ease and this one sounds amazing for the scenery and support.

 While I will consider my spring running season an ultimate success if I can finish Ironmaster’s upright, (I would also be happy crawling across the finish line), I’ve scheduled other races. These will serve as training runs, tune up races, a fun way to pass the winter, and they will give me another way to measure my success than crossing the finish line at the 50K. One of my secondary goals is to get a new PR in a local 5K series; however, it might not be practical given that the Sunday afternoon races typically fall the day after 20+ mile training runs. Contrarily, achieving this goal might show me that my training for Ironmaster’s is paying dividends in other ways. Primary and secondary goals are also helpful within a single race. One method is to set a goal for a race under “ideal” conditions, and a backup goal that you can be just as satisfied with if things don’t go your way. Weather is often a significant and uncontrollable factor in races. Extreme cold and wind produce performances that differ drastically from overcast and 50 degrees. Goals should vary with the conditions, too.

2013 Goals

After that lengthy dissertation, it must be time to commit to some goals, at least for the first few months of 2013.

  1. Finish the Ironmaster’s Challenge 50K smiling
  2. Be smart about finishing the Garden Spot Marathon three weeks earlier – meaning not trying to PR or push myself so hard that I end up injured before primary goal #1
  3. PR during one of the 5Ks I’m running in the next few months (confession: I’d actually like to break a specific time mark, but that’s lower than secondary. I’ll take a PR of any kind.
  4.  Continue my streak

Nothing glamorous, exciting, rigid, and certainly not well-rounded. They are not indicative of how much more I should be focusing on cross-training or locally grown vegetables, but simply goals I’d like to cross off the list… or in the case of the streak, keep on the list.

As a side note, sometime I should write a post on how much I love my Soleus watch but in the meantime, my beloved watch is on sale for a ridiculous price. I discovered this yesterday when I went on their website to email their link to a friend in need of a great, simple, GPS watch. I highly recommend for a user friendly GPS watch that doesn’t cause high blood pressure, a rarity in the world of GPS watches. And at $59, there’s not much to lose

Best of luck to everyone with their own resolutions and goals!

Happy running,

406 – Kris Kringle 5 Miler Race Report

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The Kris Kringle 5 Miler on December 30th provided the perfect opportunity to close 2012 with one final race. Running a shorter distance race a few weeks after a longer event has a great dual purpose. Training for and racing a longer event tends to have the residual impact of improving your time at shorter distances. Fortunately, if your performance happens to tank that day, you can also blame it on having just completed your [marathon, half marathon, etc] a few weeks earlier. While I was looking forward to testing out any speed increases resulting from my last marathon training cycle and subsequent 50K, my motivation for speed was diminished. Racing a new distance always guarantees a PR, and somehow 5 milers were missing from my racing repertoire.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I was mostly looking forward to this race because of the hoodie. I’m lucky to leave most races with an oversized cotton t-shirt that I can sleep in or give to my husband. Kris Kringle boasted a low registration fee in the $25-30 range and hoodies. My sweatshirt-driven race entry almost completely discredits my previous post on motivation, but we can all use an extra boost sometimes.

We were greeted race morning with a cold and very windy day. My running partner and I arrived at the race about an hour early. Registration was smooth, sweatshirts were plentiful, and the volunteers were exceedingly nice. The race organizers thoughtfully hosted the pre and post-race festivities in the Berks County Ag Center, so we were protected from the elements. There was even a mini-expo of sorts, with lots of reflective gear for sale and Janet Oberholtzer  selling and signing her book. After some indoor pre-race announcements, about 600 of us headed to the starting line.

My pre-race research on the course was lacking. While there are benefits to studying race maps and elevation charts, I occasionally like an element of surprise. Much like riding a rollercoaster, you can’t stop midway through a race because it’s not what you expected. Rather, you move forward and enjoy the ride. The Kris Kringle course started with a very slight downhill, followed by a sharp right turn and a long steep ascent. This was a great way to start, as it was followed with some downhill and eventually turned on to the Union Canal Towpath Trail.

I prefer not to look at my watch while I’m running and I was too busy admiring the scenery and concentrating on my footing to notice the mile markers. Accordingly, I’m not sure how long we were on the towpath, but it was a significant portion of the race. It was beautiful running alongside a stream on snow-covered path. It was the idyllic scene you would almost expect to see featured as a Rave Run in the next Runner’s World. The flat terrain would make this an exceptionally fast course when not covered in snow and ice. The course departed from the towpath with less than a mile remaining and finished on a downhill stretch of road.

The post-race amenities were particularly top notch, with Domino’s pizza, numerous bagels and spreads, and munchies from candy to cheese balls. It’s always nice to finish a race and be able to replenish more calories than were burned during the run itself. They also had raffle prizes, the top prize being two roundtrip tickets anywhere Southwest Airlines flies. This was unbelievable to me. Almost just as impressive, organizers were kind enough to do the raffle prizes before the award ceremony. Alas, I did not win the tickets and my dreams of running almost any marathon on the west coast will have to wait another year.

Overall, I really loved this race and the Pagoda Pacers execute a top-notch event. I’ll look forward to making this a regular year end tradition. 

402 – Many Miles and Memory

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Self-reflection and the end of a calendar year seem to be so compatible. Inquires about resolutions seem to be the default conversation starter and year in review blog posts abound. Looking back at my year in running, I’m amazed at how little I really seem to remember.

I spent this morning procrastinating on my run and finishing Susannah Cahalan’s book, Brain on Fire. It’s a gripping story of Susannah’s battle with an illness difficult to diagnose and only very recently discovered. As the subtitle “My Month of Madness” eludes, she essentially lost a month of her life, unable to recognize herself and incapable of recalling many of her own experiences. This book results from thorough research about her own time in the hospital through journals, medical records, and interviews.

Her journey is made more harrowing by the question Susannah presents several times of how many people are misdiagnosed with a mental illness when they are actually suffering from a treatable autoimmune disorder. Furthermore, she highlights the fragility of our brain and basic human functioning. As the book closes, she struggles with distinguishing memories between those that were hallucinations and reality, and why we remember certain events but not others. Essentially, the hippocampus and amygdala of our brains are responsible for memories. The former provides the experience while the later is responsible for the emotion of the event. When our emotions are running higher, it is more likely that the amygdala will commit the experience to memory.

Fortunately, I can find a way to relate almost anything back to running. Reading about the hippocampus and amygdala not only returned me to my undergraduate psychology courses, but it made me consider how we remember things throughout our running. I find it fascinating that we can run for hours and it sometimes seems as if the whole run can be summarized by four or five key highlights. The rest of the time seems to have vanished, even when you’re trying to recount a race that happened just hours before.

Procrastination this morning was not driven solely by my desire to stay in my slippers and finish the book. I wanted to give the falling snow time to accumulate, providing for a beautiful run. When I finally headed out tonight, it was with a friend to do some short loops through a nearby park. Each time we would make one of the turns of the loop, we would see the full moon. Every turn yielded a different portrait of the moon as it crept upwards in the sky and escaped the clouds behind which it had hidden. It was a great run, and one that I know I would probably not recall in a few months time if not for the help of a blog or other written record. It was a beautiful scene between the moon and the snow, but I was relaxed and without a ton of emotion. I was out just to get in a few miles before writing a blog post, trying to resist the temptation of holiday snacks still in the kitchen, and going to bed. My amygdala was probably not in overdrive, recording the rising of the moon like an eager parent with a video camera.

My first big race of 2012 was a half marathon at the end of March. The scenes I recall are vivid but few. I remember trudging up a hill towards the beginning of the race, feeling less than stellar, and running faster when I saw a coworker waiting at the top with a camera. I can recall with great detail starting a conversation with a fellow runner as we were rounding a curve and heading downhill, to the final flat stretch that would take us to the finish line.

The marathon a month or two later was much the same way. There was the runner in the first mile taking a bathroom break in an open field, my running partner declaring the hill in the same mile a “speed bump”, and a conversation with another runner about the dismal state of school lunches. There were the two opportunities we had to see our family, (aka cheerleaders and support crew), on the route, certain turns, views, and hills that stand out in my mind. I know we crossed a bridge at mile 10, I felt euphoric at seeing the mile 20 sign, and we stretched our calves under a tree somewhere around mile 22, declaring it “marathon yoga”. In the last mile, we sang and talked about post race food. 26.2 miles boiled down to a paragraph’s worth of memories.

Reflecting upon a year of miles and races can help us decide on worthy goals for the upcoming year. It’s helpful to remember that seeing the desired time on a clock at a finish line doesn’t necessarily make the most meaningful memories. There’s nothing quite like turning a corner to see the finish line ahead and realizing you’ve made your goal. Our amygdalas are probably at risk for overuse injuries at finish lines, but the other memories cemented along the way are just as important. They’re hopefully happier than any finish time.

Remember to check out Brain on Fire for yourself. Let me know what you think. What was your most vivid running memory from 2012?

Happy Running,