Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Cheating my inner productivity-drill-sergeant

I intended to sit down and write an entry about habits, but I got so sidetracked elaborating on the first one I wanted to discuss - reading - that I guess I need to resign this entry to being solely about that. I'm all right with that.

Reading has been huge for me this year! I'm thrilled, because I struggled for a long time with giving myself permission to read. Curling up with a book often felt like too much of an indulgence. It still does, sometimes, but I've found a few ways to cheat my inner productivity-drill-sergeant and allow myself the indulgence anyway.
  1. Track books I read on GoodReads. That way, even when I'm snuggled up in my papasan chair with my cat, a mug of tea, and a ratty paperback, I can feel like I'm making progress toward a goal - and I'll have something to show for it at the end.
  2. Read while "hiking" on the treadmill. In training for the White River 50 this year, I was advised by the wise White River veteran Major Shark to get myself on the treadmill to train my legs for steady, steady climbing. Prior to this, I'd never done anything but run on the treadmill...mile repeats, check; 16-mile runs, check; Yasso 800's, check. But crank it up to a 15% grade and walk briskly for 6 uphill miles? Never before. Lo and behold, it's been great. Not only have I gotten in great shape, I can easily read half a book in one workout.
  3. Vanpool! James and I got a new vanpool off the ground that runs from Seattle to Kent. (One of these days, I will devote an entire blog entry to the amazing vanpool program in King County.) We share driving duties, but when I'm not driving, it's a great opportunity to read. What better way to start the morning than being immersed in a fabulous novel for half an hour before even checking my email?
  4. God bless the iPhone. After reading The Shallows a couple years ago and being quite sure I'd never find a place in my heart for ebooks...well, I've gone and done it anyway. Mostly because I can log on to the Seattle Public library's website on my phone and within 30 seconds, download a complete book - for free - onto my phone. Then, best of all, unlike regular books or even a Kindle, it's literally in my pocket all day long, ready to be pulled out and read while I'm waiting in lines, riding the bus, eating lunch, etc. I find all sorts of ways throughout my day to sneak reading a page here, a page there. I love it!
Did all that type-A stuff just spoil the romanticism of my bibliophilia? I hope not. I love books all the same - which is to say, very, very much.

It's just that...young adulthood has a way of making time accelerate, and that acceleration prompts a kind of nostalgia for the languid summers of childhood, swaths of unscheduled, uninterrupted free time to pursue whatever creative pursuits struck your fancy. Then you grow up, and time doesn't come around like that anymore. At some point, the question is no longer the presumptuous 'When shall I do this thing I really want to do?', but rather, an urgent, half-desperate 'Will I ever do this thing I really want to do?'
I believed, at twelve, that I could be a scientist. I believed I could be a writer, an actress, a professor of English in Rome, an acrobat in a purple spangled outfit. Days opened for me like the pulling apart of curtains at a play you've been dying to see. I had a microscope on my desk, shelves full of books and treasures that I found outside: rocks, wood, abandoned nests of hornets and birds, notes to myself for things to do tomorrow because I hadn't had the time today. I believed the way to ride bareback was to get on and go, the rising heat of the horse against your bare legs the only instruction you'd need. The how of everything was simply in the doing of it. - From The Pull of the Moon, by Elizabeth Berg
I miss having the time to pursue all the how's that pique my interest - to write a novel in my afternoons, to design my own board game for the heck of it, to teach myself to juggle in front of a mirror in my basement with hand towels and plastic bowling pins. I miss the limitless ambitions of the young imagination.

But I also recognize that simply missing free time doesn't make it magically appear. So instead of going around mumbling all the time about how I wished I had more time to read, I'm reading on treadmills and in vans and on my fancy phone. Pardon the pragmatism of growing up in the modern world.

Of course, there are limits to the number of things that you can "make time for", no matter how passionate and committed you may be to them. What I have learned so far, though, is that it's no good to throw your hands up in the air about it all. You can set new priorities, small ones, one by one, and eventually (I'm talking years here) they weasel their way into your daily life and eek out a little bit of room for new ones.

So. Reading, juicing, running, career building, today. Social life, PHP wrangling, banjo playing, new blog launch, book proposal, sleeping, traveling, tomorrow*. Ah life!

*figuratively speaking

Sunday, July 8, 2012

How to Shave 38 Minutes off a PR (or: 3rd Annual Vashon Ultra 50K Race Report)

Two years ago, I ran my very first ultra. Cajoled into it by my friend Tom (not the first, nor last, thing that's followed this pattern; see also: Vibram Fivefingers, MovNat, green smoothies, and chia seeds), I ventured across the calm waters of Puget Sound to try my hand at running 31 miles on Vashon Island. A perfect little getaway from the city, Vashon boasts a lively community of folks, including many artists, musicians and, evidently, runners. It's always a treat to visit this rural, small-towny oasis.

The race directors - Bruce, Lisa, Kevin, and Claudine - did a spectacular job with the race this year. They've been great every year, but this year, they truly outdid themselves. To honor me and a couple other runners who've done the Vashon Ultra all three years of its existence, they made posters for the mid-loop, Western-themed aid station:

Their race blends what I love most about trail runs - beautiful wooded scenery, a great community of friendly runners and volunteers, a homegrown post-run BBQ - with a couple of the perks you typically only see at road races - finishers' medals, and (relatively) flat terrain for posting (relatively) fast times.

I carpooled over to Vashon with Glenn, who was shooting the race (lucky us!), and his friend Kathleen - an accomplished ultrarunner and overall awesome woman I had the happy fortune to finally meet in person. Kathleen, who signed up for the race last minute, I have largely to thank for the slightly ridiculous feat alluded to in the title of this entry.

So, a little background on my history with the Vashon Ultra, for those who don't know: Having won the women's race the first year, then having run pretty much the exact same time last year and thereby gotten my butt whipped by Canadian badass Mel Bos, I returned to Vashon this year with a bone to pick. I had three tiers of goals: (1) Beat last year's time of 5:36:24, (2) Run sub-5:00, (3) Win.

I started off at a pace that fell somewhere between relaxed and hard - gently challenging, perhaps? I was breathing a little harder than I wanted to be on the first loop (of three), but rather than slowing down, I tried to catch my breath through moving meditation, muscle relaxation, nasal breathing, and a controlled sense of calm I've been working to cultivate during training runs these past few months - a kind of active, experimental biofeedback, I guess. Pretty cool stuff.

Photo by the illustrious Glenn Tachiyama

Kathleen had jetted out ahead of me at the start, and I quickly lost sight of her. I wasn't quite sure where I fell in the lineup, but at some point, got wind from other runners that I was in second place in the women's race. As I approached the main aid station at the 11-mile mark, I caught a glimpse of Kathleen on her way back out for her second loop - probably about three or four minutes ahead of me. I blazed through that aid station pretty quickly, energized by Bruce's awesome loudspeaker race-announcing (made me feel like a real athlete!) and buoyed by the knowledge that Kathleen wasn't too far ahead.
I only ran with a bottle this year, instead of my full hydration pack. I guzzled liberally, refilling the bottle with water every 5 miles, taking plenty of Endurolytes and some gels - though probably not as many as I should have. I stopped for fresh fruit and fizzy drinks at the aid stations, but not much else.

Partway through the second loop, I caught sight of Kathleen ahead of me. Without even being fully cognizant of my insidious competitive spirit, I instinctively fell into a steady pace, with just enough distance behind her that she'd be unlikely to notice me. I guess that counts as stalking? I ran behind her like that, at a distance, for several miles, noticing that she was slowing down, thinking (foolishly!) that this would mean I'd be able to overtake her at some point.

Well, just about when that some point came, it just so happened that she started to take a wrong turn and veer off course. Realizing immediately that she'd taken the wrong trail at a fork, she turned back around - and saw me. Here, I thought (again, foolishly!) that we'd fall into step with each other and have a nice little chat in the woods as we ran together - but the sight of me sent her foot straight to the gas pedal. I ran on her heels for a mile or two at a challenging clip, before she pulled away from me for good - never to be seen again until hours later when I crossed the finish line at 4:57:50 - 38.5 minutes faster than last year, 6.5 minutes behind Kathleen, for a 2nd place women's/10th place overall finish.

Nevertheless, it made a huge difference to have someone on the course who challenged me at such a higher level than what I'm capable of on my own. I spent the last two thirds of the race running at the edge of my ability level, trying to keep Kathleen within sight, within reach - wanting that win, knowing I probably couldn't get it, but also knowing I'd better damn well do my best trying for it. I know I wouldn't have smashed my own Vashon PR so thoroughly without her presence to push me. We collapsed into laughter at the finish line, marveling at how competitive we'd gotten with each other during the race - but how it was the best kind of competition, the healthy kind that drives you to do better than you thought yourself capable of. To yet another woman who kicked my butt in a race, I say thank you.

I also say thank you to Glenn, for yet again letting me have some bonus fun in front of his camera lens.

27ish miles in (I think). Ladies like to be ninjas in woods.

So! What else was different this year? For one, my body has simply gotten accustomed to running/racing 50K's. I went from running one 50K (Vashon) in 2010 and one 50K (Vashon again) in 2011, to running four (Orcas, Gorge Waterfalls, Yakima Skyline, Vashon + a handful of 30-38 mile training runs) already in the first six months of 2012. Two, in the same vein, I trained at a MUCH much higher volume, mileage-wise, than last year.
Last year, in the 8 weeks leading up to race day, I averaged 22 miles/week (peaking at a 41-mile week).

This year, in the 8 weeks leading up to race day, I averaged 49 miles/week (peaking at a 90-mile week.)

Apparently, training makes a difference. Imagine that! So here's to three weeks of last-minute cramming for my first 50-miler...woof.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Mid-Year Sobriety Report

Running on Bandera Mountain

It's July! This means that I am officially halfway through my self-imposed Year of Sobriety. Pretty hard to believe that it's been six months already. While the first couple months dragged a bit, and I wondered how I'd stay motivated to stay the course for a full beer-free year, the last few months have flown by.

I can't claim that I've been all health, all the time. I had a crackers-and-fancy-cheese phase that went on a couple months longer than it should have. I get crabby and irritable if I stay away from sugar for very long. I have a weak spot for dark chocolate, and I still eat ice cream pretty much all the time.

What I can say is that six months of self-discipline in one realm trickles over into self-discipline in other realms, too. Declaring such a clear priority for myself has invited the respect and support of my friends (thank you all!) - which has, in turn, encouraged me to be diligent about other goals, too. My running/training has been great; I've been working on some really exciting writing projects; I'm ahead of schedule on my goal to read a book a week in 2012 (I'm at 31 for the year so far!); I've been juicing regularly and eating more plant-based foods than ever.

Gluten-free Thai peanut pasta with rice noodles, fresh asparagus, and pinenuts

Also, knowing that I can still have a social life outside of "getting a drink" with friends has meant - on the whole - more quality time with the people I care about, not less (as I was worried it might). Instead of yelling to hear each other in crowded bars, I have spent time with friends doing other things: hiking, running, cooking wholesome foods, taking walks, snowboarding, biking, going to book signings, doing yoga, reading, just sitting around and catching up over a cup of tea. I spent a day building homes with Ruth at Habitat for Humanity. I went to Folklife for Zoƫ's birthday and her now-annual tradition of gluten-free tupperware cake. My lady friends hosted Lady Brunchluck.

Brunchluck lap.

I also have learned that trotting alongside someone in the mountains for hours on end, with headlamps into the late hours of the night, invites just about as much silliness, laughter, and intimate conversation as you might expect after a few pints of ale.

Have I saved money? Can't say that I have; I've just chosen to spend the money I would have spent on booze on beverages that are far more nourishing to my body - fresh, organic fruit and veggies for the juicer!

Liquid sunshine: Apple, carrot, celery, kale, parsley, and spirulina

Have I lost weight? Can't say that I have. (I blame the ice cream!) Nevertheless, I have definitely gotten leaner overall. More muscle, less fat. Bring it on, mountains; my legs are ready for conquering.

Have my evenings felt significantly more productive and satisfying? Yup. Do I feel like I'm making good progress on the things that are important to me at this point in my life? Yup. Have I suffered significantly less from the heartburn/acid reflux that's plagued me in the past? Yup.

So, do I feel good about my Year of Sobriety thus far? Heck yes. It's been a great experience - a genuine challenge that I look forward to seeing all the way through. I realize a year without any alcohol is considered borderline extreme in our society. Indeed, I look forward to that first glass of champagne at midnight six months down the road. On the other hand, sometimes doing borderline extreme things is a good reminder that society's expectations need not define our path - and sometimes there are very real rewards to forging your own.

P.S. Vashon Ultra 50K Race Report coming soon.