50 Days. 50 Miles. 50 People.

In 50 days, I will run the JFK 50 Miler. It’s the nation’s oldest ultramarathon. I ran an ultra in April, a 50K (31 miles), but this will be my first (only?) 50 miler.

As I’ve done with each of my major races, I’m running for a cause. This time it’s for NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Why?
Because mental illness touches all of us in some way.
Because it’s still too stigmatized and misunderstood.
And because my own daughter lives with anxiety and depression.

Her story isn’t mine to tell, though she did give me permission to share this. (Really. I asked several times. I showed her this post. My kid is a teen, which means she does not hesitate to tell me to kiss off.)

As for my story, I’ll say this: it has been the single hardest experience of my life, but also the most important and precious. My kid is beautiful, brilliant, talented, and strong. There’s nowhere I’d rather be than by her side. (Stand with her too: donate here.)

In the early days of my daughter’s most acute struggles, I signed up for a 50 miler. It’s hard to explain the timing of this decision. It felt reckless in a way. But I knew it was the right thing to do. I needed something big and audacious, something that was mine alone. In retrospect, it gave me additional excuses to care for myself: to eat well, to get solid sleep each night, to pare down my work to the essentials, and to exercise regularly. (OK, there’s nothing “regular” about running 22 miles one day and 16 miles the next. Noted.)

In all things over the past several months, the invitation has been to hold things as lightly as possible—worries about the future, wondering whether the worst is past or if another shoe will drop, fretting over whether this will be a lifelong struggle, or just a terrible but temporary quirk of the teenage brain.

Meanwhile, my kid continues to astound me with her stubborn determination to get better. She is my hero. I’m going to run 50 miles in a couple of months — Fifty. Miles. — but in terms of hard things that members of the Dana family will do this year, it is a distant, distant second.

One of the many trail races I’ve done in preparation of the JFK.

One of the many trail races I’ve done in preparation of the JFK.

Just as we’ve tried to hold all things lightly, I’ve held the race pretty lightly too. I’m training, but I reserve the right to call it off if it doesn’t feel right and good. Well, now the time is close. It’s 50 days away. Even now, I’m willing to let it go… but I can actually see it happening. That said, it can’t just be me running a stupid number of miles. I need to connect it to something larger.

That something larger is you. I’m looking for at least 50 people to donate any amount to NAMI over the next 50 days. Please join me. Root for me, and root for my kid. It would mean the world to us.

DONATE.

The Kindest View: A Tale of Two Graphs

Content note: This post discusses weight loss as a component of my overall personal fitness. It’s an illustration of a larger point, unrelated to weight loss, but feel free to skip if that topic is not helpful for you to read.

As a Woman of a Certain Age, I have reluctantly accepted that I have to be intentional about my health. Positive habits don’t just happen; they must be practiced. That doesn’t mean that I don’t still enjoy foods I love and occasionally overindulge (*cough*gorge*cough*). But at almost-50, I have a lot less margin than I used to when I was 20. Which means when I do make less-healthy nutrition choices, I try to get back on track as soon as possible. Consistency-ish, not perfection.

I’ve set a goal to run the JFK 50 miler in a few months. It’s a huge physical challenge, and not something I’m positive I can pull off, which makes it both exciting and scary. What I do know is I will have an easier time if I’m not carrying around extraneous weight, and if the weight I do carry is relatively high in muscle and low in fat.

So in addition to my running, I’m strength training several times a week. I’m also prioritizing lean quality protein and reducing carbs, though not eliminating them altogether (the joys of being an endurance runner—we need quality carbs aplenty!). I’m paying attention to how my clothes fit as a sign of what my body’s doing, and also taking some measurements from time to time to gauge body composition.

And… I weigh myself every day.

This is a controversial practice. I know it can be triggering for some people. Even those who aren’t triggered can get wrapped around the axle with the inevitable daily fluctuations: overreacting to a higher number by restricting calories beyond what is healthy, or even going on a food bender as reward for a “good” result. I’ve learned, gradually and still imperfectly, to look at the forest rather than the trees. What does that mean? It means I take the measurement most mornings, but I kinda blur my eyes mentally, if that makes sense. I pause before I even step on the scale to get myself in a neutral, detached place. I try to see the number as one indicator among many, and not even the most important one at that. How I’m feeling, what else is going on in my life, where I am in my menstrual cycle, how much stress I’m experiencing and where I’m carrying it physically—all of of these are more important than weight. I’m not always successful at keeping this perspective, but I find it essential to try. I saw it written some time ago, “Your best weight is whatever weight you reach when you’re living the healthiest life you actually enjoy.” I couldn’t agree more, which for me means holding lightly the number on the scale as just that—a number.

Anyway, lately my weight has been slowly trending down, which at this stage is what I want it to do. But this brings me to the point of my post. The app I use allows me to see the trend line over various periods of time: a week, a month, two months, etc. Here’s what I see when I look at the three-month view:

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A pretty good trajectory, eh?

By contrast, here’s the the year-long view:

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When I look at this graph, I remember every poor choice I made, every late-night snack session, every work trip in which I let all my healthy habits fly out the window. And no matter how positive the last several weeks have been, I want to berate myself for letting things get out of control.

This is not a kind way to treat myself.

I’ve been reading and doing a lot of processing around self-acceptance and self-kindness. My latest revelation has been the work of Buddhist teacher Tara Brach, especially her book Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha. This approach may come easily to some of you. It doesn’t come easily to me. I’m someone who sees life as one big self-improvement project. Which isn’t bad in itself, but when that self improvement is grounded in a sense of not being enough, it’s a problem.

When I look at the first graph, I feel empowered, like I’m taking control of my health in a positive way. There are fluctuations, but the overall trend is clear.

The second graph makes me want to give up.

The thing is, both graphs are “right.” The data are accurate, and you could argue that the year-at-a-view is more accurate because it contains more information, a longer-term picture. Sure, it makes me feel bad, but hey, numbers don’t lie, and that upward slope is the price I paid for making a series of bad choices. I made my bed, now I have to live with the consequences.

That’s my own self-punishing voice talking, but it’s not just me. There’s a real punitive undercurrent in our culture right now. Perhaps it’s always been there—a harsh, Puritanical edge, what Anne Lamott imagines as the purse-lipped high-school principal leafing unhappily through your files—but it seems especially acute at this moment in history. This line of thinking is very vigilant against anything that can be seen as inflated self-regard. Just look at how we sneer at people who express any weakness or vulnerable emotion: Snowflake.

In the prevailing view of this culture, it would be self-indulgent, even dishonest, of me to ignore the year graph and just focus on the one I happen to like.

Except the three-month graph inspires me and helps me want to live better, both in terms of good choices and accepting with compassion when I make less-than-great ones.

Tara Brach tells a story of a man who carried a lot of anger and resentment from his upbringing, to the point that he lashed out at his family regularly. He heard Brach’s teachings about self-kindness and acceptance as the path to healing, but he bristled: I don’t deserve that kindness, he pushed back. I’ve been way too hurtful to the people I’m supposed to love and support. In response, Brach simply asked him: Has that self-judgment helped you be less angry? Has the punitive approach chastened you and put you on a path toward wholeness?

…Is it working?

The questions were a revelation. Once he began seeing himself in the kindest possible way, he was able to do the work of transformation. Over time, he changed to the point that his wife was able to say, For the first time in our marriage, I’m not afraid of you. A miracle.

I shared all of this with a friend recently, who summarized it thus: “self-acceptance over self-improvement.” Not that we can’t grow in our capacity for grace and goodness. But we do so through self-kindness, not self-punishment. Self-acceptance doesn’t ignore our missteps, but it frames them in the midst of our own belovedness, and focuses on the part of the picture that helps us live happy, joyous and free.

It’s been a minor revelation to realize that I can simply choose the kinder view, and that I don’t need anyone’s authorization to do it.

The Freedom of 50: Ultramarathon Thoughts

In 115 days, I’ll be running my first 50-mile race, the Marquette (Michigan) Trail 50. 

It’s an 11-mile loop, followed by a 20ish-mile loop run counterclockwise, then clockwise. The race features beautiful views of Lake Superior, which you can see from one of the four mountains you climb… twice.

Sugarloaf Mountain

Sugarloaf Mountain

Just typing that makes me want to lie down.

I’m also really, really excited about it.

I signed up for Marquette on the suggestion of a friend during a very stressful time in my life, when all I could see was the situation I was mired in. Running 50 miles seemed impossible to me—it kinda still does—but it felt important to hit that Registration button. It felt like an act of hope that life would not always be consumed by the crisis at hand. And even if things were still unspooling in that part of my life, signing up was a kind of stubborn defiance: as important as that situation was, and is, I refuse to let it consume my entire life. I need something that is just for me. Many people say not to make any major life decisions when you’re in the midst of extreme stress or grief. For me, the grief was a major factor in the decision. Have you read Mary Oliver’s The Journey? There was this wild sense that in signing up for this race, I was saving the only life I could save.

After I committed to Marquette, I realized I should probably do a shorter ultramarathon before tackling a 50 miler… and yes, I get the humor in the phrase “shorter ultramarathon.” So this Saturday, Lord willin’ and the Potomac don’t rise, I’ll be running the North Face Endurance Challenge 50K here in DC. 

The Potomac Heritage Trail

The Potomac Heritage Trail

That K makes a big difference. I mean, 50K is no stroll on the beach, but it’s 31 miles, not 50. Once you’ve run 26.2 a few times, you can kiiiiiinda get your mind around running 5 more. Still, these two races are the first things I’ve signed up for that I can honestly see myself not finishing for some reason or another. I could get injured. I could hit the wall. I could have tummy troubles, or botch my hydration. I could simply go too slow and not make the time cutoffs—ultramarathons have strict cutoffs along the way, and they will pull people from the course who aren’t keeping the minimum pace. This is probably the biggest risk for me. (A Boston qualifier I ain’t.) I have many friends, good runners all, who’ve had these things happen.

To all of that I say, “Bring it on.” There’s something invigorating about striving for something that’s potentially out of reach. 

People often say about marathons, “Respect the distance.” You can train and prepare, but the marathon will do what it does and you are not in control. This is even truer at ultra distancs, and especially on trails rather than roads.

I need the reminder that you can get ready and trained up and do your best, and what happens next is not entirely up to you. And if things go haywire, it doesn’t necessarily mean you did it wrong or weren’t good enough. It’s just the way life works sometimes.

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You may know the number 50 as the number of jubilee in scripture, the time every fifty years when debts are cancelled and enslaved people set free. I got a bit obsessed with this numerology—50K, 50 miles—to the point that I made Freedom my word for 2019.

On one level, it seems contradictory. Where is the freedom in getting up early, sacrificing leisure time, running up to 50 miles in a week? Isn’t there freedom in letting go, doing less? True. This is a major time commitment, not just for me, but for my family. The training has been hard, harder than any other training I’ve done. I’ve fallen multiple times. I’ve stumbled on roots. I’ve gotten muddy and (temporarily) lost. I got bitten by a dog on the very route I’ll be running in a few days. I rolled my ankle a week ago. 

But it’s also beautiful out there. There is freedom on the trails. You have to stay loose and flexible, yet focused at the same time. 

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When you’re running, you can’t be managing the family calendar, or finding someone’s lost sunglasses, or emptying the dishwasher, or working. You can only do one thing: relentless forward progress, fueled by one’s breath, mile after mile. There is freedom in that—freedom from multitasking, or performing; freedom from doing anything other than an activity that brings mental and physical well-being to so many of us. 

By saying yes to this, I’m surrendering to a mystery that’s beyond me. And while the falls and the bites and the bad stuff happened to me, none of it defeated me.

I’m reading one of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs novels (a current favorite) and ran across this quote:

“When a mountain appears on the journey, we try to go to the left, then to the right; we try to find the easy way to navigate our way back to the easier path. But the mountain is there to be crossed. It is on that pilgrimage, as we climb higher, that we are forced to shed the layers upon layers we have carried for so long. Then we find that our load is lighter and we have come to know something of ourselves in the perilous climb.”

Yes. This is a pilgrimage.  

Maybe the ultimate freedom isn’t in what we pick up along the way. It’s in learning what we can do without. I have this feeling, this hope, that that freedom is waiting for me out on the trail this weekend.

The Comparison Trap

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On a recent Saturday I had the chance to fill in for a running coach friend, overseeing a training group she’s been leading. These were mostly new runners, some of whom are training for their first 5K or 10K, out for their weekend group run and looking for guidance and encouragement. I mainly coach individuals, so it was great (and a little daunting) to stretch my skills and try something new. 

I ended up sticking with the brand-new runners—as in, this was their second week of training: run 90 seconds, walk 2 minutes, repeat for 25 minutes. It was gratifying to go at their pace, remembering a time when that was really, reallydifficult for me—as it was for them that day—and reflecting on just how far I’ve come. (Marathon #4 in four weeks!) Who knows where this process will lead them, but it was joyous to contemplate what’s ahead of them, and hold out hope that they will gain as much strength and empowerment from their journey as I have from mine. Or, perhaps, that they tap into that strength and empowerment in other ways.

The next day, those lofty happy feelings came crashing back to earth when I read a Facebook humblebrag from another runner who ran her very first 5K the day before… and placed in her age group.

Sigh. 

After almost eight years of running, I’ve seen great personal progress, but remain stubbornly on the slow side of average. And on my good days, I’ve made my peace with it. Talk to a runner long enough, and pace will usually come up in conversation, but often it’s the least interesting part of a run. How you felt, what you saw, the peace of mind, the pleasure of putting one foot in front of the other, or even pushing yourself—these are the measures of a good run. Getting out there is what matters most... and if you’d told the seventh grade me, who gasped and seethed her way through the mile in PE class, that one day she would voluntarily do mile repeats at the track—at 5 a.m.—you would have gotten a big eye roll.

On my worse days, though, the comparison trap grabs me in its sharp, unforgiving jaws, holding me in place as the voices of Not Enough ring out: You’ve been at this for so long. Why aren’t you faster? You’re not a real runner.

Later that same weekend, my 10 year old, James, decided to put together one of the Raingutter Regatta boat kits we had left over from Cub Scouts. Margaret, always up for arts and crafts, joined him. Now, what you need to know about James is that he always opts out of the Raingutter Regatta. Hard to say exactly why, but I think our tender-hearted kid, who marches to a different drummer, doesn’t really care for this event, in which children go head to head in competition for the best boat, along with all the trash-talking that goes with it (however good-natured that chiding might be). 

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So I was touched by this spontaneous act of creation. It wasn’t about designing the best boat and winning the race. It was simply about having some fun on a Sunday afternoon: no evaluation, no benchmarks. 

Our world has an abundant supply of yardsticks, and no end of volunteers to wield them with perverse glee. Some of us are better at disregarding those evaluations than others, and social media sure doesn’t help. I don’t blame the new runner who dominated her age group; she should be happy and proud! My reaction wasn’t about her; it was about me: a sign that I need some self-care, some perspective, some kindness toward myself. Goals are great, but radical self-acceptance is some of the best fuel out there to help achieve them. (And if you don’t achieve them, you’re still beloved of God. Whew!)

Yesterday this Anne Lamott quote came my way: “Expectations are resentments under construction.” The comparison trap is most potent in an atmosphere of scarcity: for one person to win, another must lose; their good fortune is my misfortune. But the trap also snaps tight around us when our expectations are out of whack—when we’re too focused on “should,” when we grasp at unattainable and punishing ideals rather than loving what is.

You are a wonderful work in progress… and you are already who you are meant to be, right now. And so am I.

This reflection was sent to my email newsletter; subscribe to receive articles such as this, twice a month, right in your inbox.

Ten for Tuesday

Onward!

MY FRIENDS MAKE STUFF

My friend Bobby Williamson has a book coming out in August--Forgotten Books of the Bible. I can't wait to read it. Here's a teaser--the introduction is available online. Pre-order from Amazon here.

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Second, my ludicrously talented friend Alan H. Green just collaborated a bunch of other musicians to record this sweeeeeet cover of Luther Vandross's "Never Too Much":

~

FIGHT BACK WITH BEAUTY

Next, three stories about luminous empathy:

While out for a jog, she discovered a baby buried alive. Twenty years later, they reunite.

Woman becomes best friends with a bee she rescued. (Video)

Dog rescues his pooch friend from drowning in a pool. (Video)

~

NEWS YOU CAN USE

Instagram, Snapchat, Fortnite: The distractions are endless. Here’s how to help kids cope. (WaPo)

The Fun Scale (REI) Three types of fun. What do you think?

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LADY GEN-XER INSPIRATION

Two articles that came to me this week--both resonated:

How to Survive Your 40s (NYT)

The Midlife Unraveling (Brene Brown) This is stellar.

~

AND ONE FINAL WOW

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If Planet Earth can still be a work in progress, maybe each of us can be too. 

~

REMINDERS

We're running a selfie contest through this Friday! Take a picture of yourself with a copy of God, Improv, and the Art of Living, then post it to social media, tagging me and/or using the hashtag #improvliving. You'll get entered into a contest to win a signed copy of the book for yourself or a friend.  

Aaaaaaaand, for runners, or people who'd like to be: I'm running a fall race special and have a few slots left:

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Monday Runday: Houston Marathon Recap & Race Review

This is incredibly long--epic races deserve an epic recap--so I've organized it into sections for better scan-ability. How We Got Here: The Grudge Match

I signed up almost three years ago for the 2016 Houston Marathon, excited to run through my hometown. Then I developed a stress fracture and had to cancel. I’ve since completed every major race I had to defer that year, including the Marine Corps Marathon, but this was the last piece of the puzzle—the final grudge match.

Houston is a relatively flat and fast course, with great support, so I’ve been training hard for a big personal best. My previous marathon PR was at Marine Corps in 2016. It was only my second marathon, and it was hhhhhhhhhot that day. So I had a lot of room for improvement, especially if conditions broke my way.

After Hurricane Harvey I was even more excited to run in the Bayou City. I didn’t register for the race as an official charity runner, but I did sign up to raise money for the Houston Food Bank, which was and is instrumental in supporting people impacted by Harvey. I raised almost $700, and it’s not too late to contribute.

Taper Town Be Crazy

My running friends know I’m an obsessive weather-stalker before a race. Houston’s weather is a complete crap shoot in January—it can be 70 and muggy or perfect PR conditions. Amazingly, all the weather models began to coalesce around the latter—race start in the 30s, warming to about 50. I was super excited, but that meant no excuses not to go for broke. I remembered one of my favorite mantras: “If it is to be, it is up to me.”

Taper madness began last Tuesday after a race-pace run, a workout I’ve done eleventy times this training cycle without incident. Soon after I finished, my leg started aching at the exact spot of my injury 2 1/2 years ago. I felt it while walking, climbing and descending stairs, and sometimes, just when sitting.

The taper must have a way of knowing what our most vulnerable spots are. Intellectually, I know it’s very rare to reinjure a stress fracture site, especially during taper when your training volume is way down. But of all the aches and pains that could have flared up, this is the one that would throw the most doubt into my race preparation. Last time I felt that ache, it meant a 3 month-break from running and starting completely over. In consultation with my coach and friend Lena Steiner, I decided to rest the leg for the remainder of the week—no running, nor exercise of any kind really. The next time I would run was Sunday at marathon start.

My leg ached off and on all week, driving me nuts. I had several pity parties, and one big bout of imposter syndrome (“Why did you ever think you could do this? You come this far, only to whiff it in the last few days? You’ll never be a ‘real’ runner.”)

Like I said, Taper Town be crazy.

I woke up Friday morning and decided I had to “go until no.” If the injury flared up during the marathon, I would immediately walk off the course, because no race is worth what I went through last time. On the other hand, it might be the race of a lifetime. It was PR or DNF and nothing in between.

In retrospect, the injury scare invited me to “hold it lightly,” tune into my body, and embrace the mystery of not knowing what would happen. And also appreciate the simple joy of running. I get to do this.

So… I readied myself:

(I got a LOT of “Go ‘Stros!!!” in that outfit. Excellent life choice on my part.

Race Day

Mom had come into town, along with my daughters, and they were an amazing pit crew, assisted by my brother, who lives in Houston. Mom dropped me at the race 90 minutes before start—plenty of time to visit the portapotty 2-3 times, as is my custom. *cough* It did mean an early alarm though:

I’ve always been very motivated by music, but I’m racing headphone-free now, and I love it. I was a little worried I’d get bored by myself during a whole marathon, but it turned out to be fine. Instead I used the music to get pumped up ahead of time. I sat on the floor for about an hour beforehand, channeling my inner Michael Phelps:

OK not really, but I was FOCUSED. My last song before turning in my gear:

Around this time, Robert sent me just the GIF I needed:

And then it was time to go to the corral! The corrals at Houston are huge, and were so crowded that a bunch of us jumped a temporary fence so we wouldn’t have to go all the way to the back and fight our way upstream.

And then it was go time!

 

The Race Itself: A Run Down Memory Lane

The marathon course starts downtown and goes through some of Houston’s most beautiful (and swanky) neighborhoods. That makes for a picturesque race. But it’s hard to convey just what a trip down memory lane this was for me personally. We ran by countless old haunts, most notably Rice University (with the Marching Owl Band to entertain us), the house Robert and I shared when we first got married, my elementary school, our family’s church growing up, the street I grew up on, and within a block of the church where Robert and I got married and where I was ordained as a minister nine years later.

Needless to say, yesterday was an experience I will cherish forever.

I started out slightly slower than race pace, just to get warmed up and also to test the leg. Within a half mile it became clear that it would be totally fine, but it wasn’t until mile 2 that I really embraced that yes, I needed to run 26.2 miles now. (I thought of that Aaron Burr line in Hamilton when he deadpans, “OK so, we’re doing this.”)

The crowds and the landmarks kept me entertained, and I really felt good and strong and happy. Robert was tracking me and would send texts at key moments, which I could read on my Garmin without fumbling with the phone (great feature). Every time I touched a timing mat I got excited because I knew I’d hear from him soon. My race pace was hard, but felt sustainable—so glad I’d practiced it so much.

I saw my family three times. I saw Mom and Margaret at mile 9 at Rice Village, and Margaret gave me the baby from our king cake this weekend, for luck. Then at mile 14, near the Galleria, they showed up again to switch out fuel belts with me, so I could continue drinking my Nuun electrolyte without fumbling with tablets and refills at water stations. Huge support, especially since it was chilly enough that my fingers were stiff. I then saw them one more time, with Caroline and my brother, at mile 21.

Around mile 18, we turned onto Memorial Drive for the long winding trek back to downtown. Mile 18 of a marathon is no Club Med vacation even in the best of circumstances, but several additional things happened:

  • The rollers started. They weren’t bad, just unrelenting.
  • Headwind.
  • MAMD was all out of significant landmarks to bask in.

In addition to the gradual rollers, there were some more significant elevation shifts—not like Virginia’s finest, but enough to feel it. And instead of traditional hills, they were underpasses, which means you go down and THEN up. That’s just mean. As a result of all this, miles 21-25 were 20-30 seconds slower than my average pace up to that point, and it took a lot of concentration not to slow even further.

Mentally, I had several mantras I cycled through:

  • Sky above, earth beneath, fire within. A phrase I picked up at the Richmond half.
  • One good _________. [one good mile, minute, 30 seconds, whatever]. Helped me stay in the moment.
  • Trust your training. An oldie but goodie.
  • Execute. Weird mantra, but a reminder to stick to my race plan.
  • Keep doing this. Rather blunt and inelegant I admit, but I picked this one up late in the race, when I was tempted to slow down. It was my reminder not to get fancy or change things up, just to keep doing exactly what I was doing, which I knew I could do because… I was doing it. (Marathon logic.)
  • Pace yourself, push yourself. My reminder to find the balance between keeping the pace strong but not overreaching and flaming out.
  • Around mile 24 I saw a sign that said, Focus, breathe, believe. I have no doubt the woman who held it was a runner herself, because that was the perfect mantra to carry me through the last couple of miles.

Crossing the finish line is never the elated experience for me that it seems to be for others. I think I’m so in the zone that it feels surreal. That was true in Houston. It wasn’t until I got through the chute and was able to sit down, stretch, and see the texts from Lena and Robert that it all flooded in.