Lessons I’ve learned from running 10,000 miles

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During my first ultra in Lake Tahoe

Today, I ran my 10,000th lifetime mile. That’s a pretty crazy milestone, especially for someone who still doesn’t really consider themselves an athlete. It’s also an opportunity for reflection, so here goes. [Also, for those curious, my training log is still available here]

I started running when I got to college in 2006. This was after three years of fulfilling my high school athletics requirement with yoga and tech theatre which, yes, somehow counted as a sport. I was inspired to run by a friend who ran the 135-mile beast called Badwater. Despite no prior running experience or athletic abilities to speak of, I crewed for him during this race, and realized that if he could do five back-to-back marathons in 120+*F heat, I could probably do six miles a day. Also, I thought by burning more calories, I could eat more ice cream [protip: not true].

I had zero confidence in my athletic abilities. In middle school, I played defense when we played soccer – but not goalie, because I didn’t want the responsibility of actually defending the goal. I was the second-to-last person to finish the mile run fitness test – the one girl behind me had a medical condition and walked the mile. As a result, when I started running, for a long time I didn’t talk about running at all. I didn’t read about running. I definitely didn’t think too hard about running or the reasons I ran. I didn’t run with other people, and wasn’t even comfortable doing so until about five years later. Mainly, I was afraid of doing anything that might derail my newfound interest in anything athletic. I was afraid if I overthought it, I’d uncover all the reasons to not to do it.

I started tracking my mileage in the middle of 2008, which was also the time when I ran my first marathon. It wasn’t an official marathon – in fact, it was just me, running around near a river for 26.2 miles with a bottle of water and some Gu gels. I didn’t realize solo-marathoning was a big deal – probably because I still hadn’t read anything about running. It just seemed like the next logical step in my training. A year later, I ran my first ultra in Lake Tahoe; with no altitude training, I came in 2nd to last. Two weeks after my first ultra, I ran my 2nd ultra – again, I didn’t know about recovery because I still hadn’t done any research about running. After another 50k a few months later, I finally ran my first real road marathon – San Francisco – in 2010. It was all downhill from there [but sometimes uphill. Lots of uphill].

I’ve now run 47 marathon-or-longer distances and covered a lot of training miles in between. I’ve also learned a lot. In classic consultant style, here are three lessons that stuck with me.

  1. A good run doesn’t make you a good runner. A bad run doesn’t make you a bad runner, either. While the academic definition of a “good” runner is one who runs really fast, the majority of us probably won’t be breaking any records any time soon. That means that we have to come up with our own definitions of success. For me, success is consistency – consistently getting out there, even when I don’t really want to, or it’s raining, or I’m tired. To me, a good runner is a consistent runner – one who runs when they say they will, and doesn’t create excuses in order to skip days. One good run doesn’t make you a good runner if you never run again; it just means you had one good run. A “bad” run doesn’t make you a bad runner, either – it’s just an opportunity to get out there the next day and try again. The key is just doing it.
  2. There are a lot of different types of runners; celebrate and learn from them. There are short-distance runners and long-distance runners. There are people who run once a week and athletes who train 10-15x/week. There are people who run one marathon – ever – and elite athletes who race 10+ marathons a year. There are people who love treadmills, and there are people who hate them. Some runners love Gu; some runners are vegan. Some runners like running naked – of electronics, while some like running actually naked. Some just keep their feet naked. My feeling is, if whatever you’re doing is working for you, keep doing it, and don’t judge those who do it differently.
  3. I am a runner. I’m a lot of other things, too. Probably one of the most difficult times in my life was a year and a half ago, when I had a knee injury. I don’t know that I’ve ever fully written about it on this blog, because it was a really difficult time for me [I did write about an earlier injury]. Running had been so core to my life, and my self-identity, for the past several years. When I went running on Sunday mornings, I called it “runner’s church,” because it was my way of getting in touch with myself and my environment. I even had my own Runner Heaven. Being injured – the prospect of never fully recovering, and never being able to run any appreciable distance again – really made me question how I defined myself and what was important to me. Importantly, it made me realize that while I am a runner, I’m a lot of other things too – a daughter, a sister, a girlfriend, a photographer, a sailor, a student, a sometimes-dancer, a wannabe chef, a reader, a behavioral scientist, a TA, am ailurophile – the list goes on. Running may be core to my identity, but, especially when I’m injured, I have to remember that there’s so much more to runners than just the act of running.

I may never add a 6th digit to my lifetime mileage. To reach 100,000 miles, I’d have to keep running 2,000 miles a year … until I’m 70. Or run this 3,100-mile race every year for 30 years. Or run the 1,000-mile Iditarod race three times a year for the next 30 years. That’s a lot of running.

If I’ve learned anything over the last 10,000 miles, it’s that there will always be faster runners. There will always be runners who run farther. There will always be runners who are just a little bit more extreme. But running isn’t about that. Running is about the personal satisfaction we get – from achieving our goals, being out in nature, and just giving ourselves some time to explore.

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Running around New York (literally)

Starting out in the morning. This GoPro is definitely a fashion statement.

Today is my Marathon Birthday – I’m turning 26.2 years old (the .2 is 20% of a year). To celebrate this holiday that I have made up, I decided to run around the island of Manhattan – about 32 miles. I also used a GoPro to make a video about it – check it out above!

I’d run many of the paths around New York before, but there were some parts I thought would be tricky from a navigational perspective. I conveniently found this grassroots ultramarathon organized last year – the Madhattan – where 50 people ran the the same self-supported ultra I was attempting. I used their map as a template to help me prepare for the tricker-to-navigate areas, especially the north east part of the island, where the trail on the east side of the island ends.

I’d read a trip report from someone who cycled it, as well. He put it reassuringly: “It’s an island. You won’t get lost.”

 

This is where I started. I took this with my Android phone!

With these encouraging words in mind, I started running from the West Village area about 5:15 in the morning. I’d decided early on to run counter-clockwise, because the Staten Island Ferry area – where people go to visit the Statue of Liberty – becomes impassible to pedestrians by about 8am on the weekends due to mass quantities of tourists. I also started early because this was my first time using a GoPro camera, and I wanted to capture pictures of the sunrise.

Heading north along the East River was gorgeous – the sun was just rising, and the first 7.5 miles were along a well-marked trail that I was familiar with. I had to jump off for a bit and onto 1st Ave due to construction, but was back on the trail within a mile or so. I also noticed a bit of a headwind, which I hoped would pick up on the way back down and give me a boost going the other direction. I saw almost no other runners or cyclists out.

Sunrise at the southern tip of Manhattan. Taken with GoPro and edited in Lightroom. This camera is legit.

After about 120th Street, the trail along the water ended and I moved onto the streets. It was still pretty early at that point, so there weren’t a lot of people or cars – I could basically jaywalk against red lights. I picked up the trail again and took it most of the way up to the northernmost tip of the island, where I ran an extra two blocks and almost crossed Broadway Bridge, leaving the island. Fortunately, someone gave me directions to Inwood Hill Park – northwest part of the island – which I immediately also failed to follow correctly. I somehow ended up on the wrong side of the fence protecting Columbia’s football stadium, and, instead of running around again, just climbed over to escape. Clearly, the well-meaning cyclist from above had never met someone with as bad a sense of direction as I have.

Inwood Park was beautiful. So lush and green – there was even a little part where I got to run on dirt trails for a bit!  This part of the run also threw into sharp relief the fact that New York City smells really bad in a lot of places. Inwood Park smelled fresh and foresty – such a nice change.

Trails at Inwood Park, next to Columbia University. I’d love to run more of these trails before the summer is over – so beautiful.

Shocking zero people, I got lost in the trails and asked a guy for directions to the Hudson River Greenway – the path that goes along the west side of the island. He pointed me in the right direction. I did this part a little differently than the Madhattan runners did – I ran about the same distance, but a slightly different route, due to my great navigational abilities.

The route I was attempting

The route I was attempting. Click to enlarge.

Immediately after leaving the park, just after mile 20, the battery on my GoPro died. Fortunately, I had been forewarned of the device’s short battery life, and had brought two backups. This also provided a good opportunity to eat my sandwich. Since I still wasn’t clear on where the Hudson River Greenway was, I looked around for someone I thought might give me some additional guidance. A woman on a bike was nearby, and, deciding she was a likely candidate for solid information about bike trails, I asked her. She gave very good directions. Once on the path, it was a straight shot back down to West Village.

The last ten miles weren’t overly challenging, although my feet were in a bit of pain from the sidewalk pounding. I was fortunately aided by a tailwind – the previously identified breeze had picked up quite a bit, and my speed picked up (a very small bit!) as well.

By this point, it was midmorning, and a lot of walkers, runners, and cyclists were enjoying the good weather. However, the trail was wide and I was familiar with it, so it wasn’t difficult to avoid other pedestrians.

Other pedestrians out in the wild.

About four and a half miles out, I passed the yacht club – I use that as a waypoint on a lot of my runs. There’s a family of Canadian Geese with two little baby goslings – they were swimming around in their normal spot.

The last two miles were probably the most difficult. This was territory I was familiar with, so, while I wouldn’t get lost, it wasn’t visually exciting. My ankles were also very sore by this point.

 

During these two miles, I really appreciated the loud city noise and the fact that it’s pretty par for the course for New Yorkers to talk to themselves; I made up some pretty terrible songs, which I sang to myself, during these last few minutes of running. My improvisational musical abilities spanned topics as diverse as the number of miles I had left, the neon yellow shoes of the guy who just passed me, the number of miles I had left, the kid on the bicycle who just passed me, and the number of miles I had left. I told myself that people were looking at my head-mounted camera, not my crazy talking-to-self tendencies.

I finished right back where I started, with a view of One World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty.  After turning off my GoPro, I made a beeline to the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts.

Putting together the video was a lot of fun, too. Somehow adding music to pictures is weirdly inspirational.

Overall, this was a really fun run. For people interested in doing it, I’d advise you to spend some time with the maps of the area – that helped me avoid a lot of possible extra miles. As for me, I like getting back to leisurely long runs, where I don’t have to worry about time and can just enjoy the scenery and the feeling of taking on a new, and sort of crazy, challenge.

Check out the GoPro imprint on my forehead!

Behavioral Contagion – or Why I ran a Solo Marathon this Weekend

I just ran a solo marathon. Google+ makes these gifs look good.

My usual training method is somewhat ad-hoc:

  1. Run a few miles a week
  2. Run a few more miles each week
  3. One day, notice I’m running a lot of miles
  4. Sign up for a 50k race that’s three days away.

This somewhat contrasts to my new Wharton MBA classmates plans. Several of us are running the Philadelphia Marathon; my classmates are following quite rigorous training plans, which involve increasingly long weekend runs: 18, 20, 22 miles. Out of laziness with regards to my own training plan, I’ve latched on to their long runs.

Behavioral Contagion is a fascinating type of social influence. It explains why members of a social group tend to do similar things , like all face the same direction in an elevator or all order diet-busting dessert at a restaurant. It also explains why I seem to be following a training plan for this race – everyone else is doing it.

Behavioral contagion played a part in my decision to run a solo marathon this weekend. Here’s how:

  • Hogfest. On Saturday, Wharton hosted an inter-collegiate rugby tournament. I know I would be celebrating with the team that evening, and I also knew they’d be glowing from post-tournament exhaustion.  I felt like I would be missing out if I weren’t also athletically drained and able to celebrate with them.
  • 20 miles is almost 26.2 miles. I also knew that my runner colleagues would be running about 20 miles this weekend. But, in my mind, 20 miles is just an hour short of a marathon. It seems silly to not just tack on an extra 6.2 and get the marathon.

Perverse logic. But, there it is.

I thought about all of this on Thursday. True to my historical training regimen, three days later, I woke up and ran a glorious, easy, solo marathon.

The weather was amazing – just around 50*F. I ran along the river, with a very slight breeze and the sun low on the horizon. There were a few stretches of gravel path with green branches arching up on either side. It wasn’t a redwood forest, but it was gorgeous nevertheless.

The geeky runner information: My goal was to run a 4-hour marathon without feeling terrible afterwards.  I was trying to run at a consistent pace – one that didn’t feel frantic, but also that was a bit of a push. I ran my first 13.1 in 1:59:53 (just under two hours), then finished the entire run at 4:04:22 – pretty close to goal. Legs were a little wobbly around mile 16, but a Gu helped with that. Overall, this wasn’t terrible – and I think I can improve on 4:04 for Philadelphia, especially since I hadn’t tapered at all for this particular run (the total mileage for the week was 56.2).

In summary: I was “contaged” to run a solo marathon. But it was the best kind of contagion – the kind that pushes you just a little farther than you would have pushed yourself.

Also – this happened to be my 30th marathon. Yay!

Siempre Quiero Mas – I Always Want More (Running)

Tango is serious business.

Outside of running, I’m a sometimes Tango dancer. Tango is a beautiful dance, although not for the reasons most people think. It is passionate, but subtly passionate. It’s energetic, but it’s a strained, unresolved energy. It’s tense, but the tension creates the sweet moments of relief – the occasional breaths between beats.

It’s fairly common for dancers – especially female ones – to have a strength imbalance in their legs. One leg is the “Support Leg” – the leg that holds and balances the body. The other leg is the “Flair Leg,” which is the one that embellishes with kicks, swirls, toe taps, and extensions.

My left leg is my Support Leg. It’s easier for me to balance on my left leg. The muscles in my left leg are thicker and denser than those in my right leg – every sports masseuse has said so, unprompted.

In comparison, my right leg is a weak excuse for an appendage. It’s skinny and weak. It’s also flexible; when I’m dancing, the toes of my right leg draw beautiful circles and swirls with exquisite timing.

Tango saved my running. Prior to dancing, I occasionally suffered from shin splints, which happen when calves get too tight and those muscles start to pull away from the bone. Tango is a dance that happens primarily on the toes, so that extra calf strengthening allowed me to combat shin splits and run farther.

Tango also ruined my running. Continue reading

5…4…3… (Official Launch: brbRunning.com)

Feeling pensive - took this photo at sunrise this morning along one of my favorite running routes.

Sunrise along one of my favorite trails, near work. Taken this morning with Galaxy Nexus.

Humans have a tendency to want to record. We scrapbook. We journal. We take too many photographs. We want to remember, and we want to share. Why do you think Twitter and Pinterest are so popular?

I’ve done a lot of running over the past few years, which means I’ve spent a lot of time alone on the trails. As any runner knows, running is a great time to think.  While putting one foot in front of the other, we ponder the mundane (what should I eat for lunch?), the obvious (why am I doing this, again?) and the profound (were we really Born to Run?).

I’ve reflected on writing about running for quite some time.  However, it’s always seemed to be that only elite, accomplished runners are allowed the self-indulgence of regaling anonymous throngs of readers with stories that basically all end the same way. It wasn’t until I ran the Rocky Raccoon 100-miler, and wrote about it afterwards, that I realized I don’t have to finish first to tell a decent story, and that maybe some people will want to read it.

Runners have great stories, and other runners like reading those stories.  As such, I think this blog has been a long time coming.

So, here we go! On this blog, you can anticipate harrowing tales of pain, exultant accounts of success, and enlightened insights about running.

Maybe.

At the very least, you’ll stay up to date on my running. I think there are some nuggets of wisdom buried beneath thousands of miles on the trails.