Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Racing in the Moment - Indian Trails 20K, Leonardo, NJ, 4/8/18

Indian Trails 20k is the first team race of the year. This is funny to me because it is also the longest, hardest course of the year too. But people are trained up for Spring Marathons so it does work well when timing is works. This year, timing was tough. 

If I wanted race with my club again, so this means I need to show when my schedule allows and do my best, whatever that looks like. After racing the 5K last weekend, I asked Alanna if she wanted a 20K of hills ;).  We need hills and I need to see more finish lines. I miss the social aspect of club racing too. 

Saturday, the day before the race (this speaks to how serious we were about "racing") Alanna and I run 10.5 miles.  My back is flaring up badly. It was my worst day of back pain in a long time. My back has been hurting again on and off for the last few months, because I am tad too heavy for my spine right now. It does not take much extra weight for me to hurt. I have two destroyed discs. I have had degenerative disc disease since at least 2012. It was bad in 2015, but completely managed and mitigated in 2016.

On Sunday, driving to the race was bad for my back too. This is a hilly course and back pain could force me to walk. Normally, I would not mind. I have walked a lot when my back hurts. There is no choice. But today I have my team to think about. This does not mean I am going to somehow suddently be able to will myself to run through pain. Again, there is no choice when my back is non-functional. I email my captain and tell her to please know I am in pain and may be walking. If I run 9:00 pace or 9:30 pace that might be a great day today. I ask her to put me where she thinks she can use me, but to know I am hurting.
The funny thing about my back pain is that is comes and goes. Sometime on hills I feel good because of the varied grade. Often a flat course is worse due to the repetition of the same posture. Sometimes downhills are excruciating. Sometimes when I am running faster I feel much better than when I am running slower. Maybe there is something about my form being better when I am trying to move quickly. It is a mystery I am no longer interested in solving.

During our 5.2 mile warm-up, I could feel my back spasming and I was getting concerned.

I could never figure out what triggers the pain, but I know training well, getting lean, doing my single leg squats and core work all make the pain a non-issue. 

I have been doing none of that. 

But I have been doing a lot of meditation and I thought about that a lot as soon as I started to run.

The only time I have been really mindful about my breathing lately has been when meditating. At about 2 minutes into this race I started noticing my breath. I started noticing that I was taking deep full breaths like when I meditate and this triggered me to consider applying what I practice each morning to this situation.

Each morning I practice two skills, (1) the first is being aware of what I am experiencing and how it is shaping my emotional tone and (2) the second is letting go of any concerns that are related to past and future in order stay in the present moment.
So I am listening to my breathing and I determine that I feel comfortable, really comfortable despite working hard and this is good. 

Then I start to look around me and I ask “Do the people around me look more or less comfortable than I think I feel right now?” I notice heavy breathers. I notice people driving their arms hard. I notice a few who look fluid and smooth. I notice that there are MANY more people in my immediate area who appear to be working a lot harder than I feel I am working and I think “Good.This tells me that I am in the right place. I don’t want to be the one working harder than the other right now.”

This is a meaningful insight for me as a races. I used to use my perception of the others around me to gauge whether or not I felt they were working too hard, whether they would likely fade, whether I could beat them by the end. But I never consciously used my perception of my own comfort level, in comparison to those around, to me assess whether I was pacing myself smartly. Maybe I did this subconsciously. Maybe this is just semantics. 

For this race, I was not using my watch to track my pace. It was on, but I did not care to look at it. The data was just to be tracked. The pace I raced had to be paced by feel because I have no idea what I could do today in these conditions. So to help me gauge how I felt, I reflected off of others and determined that if I could run with a group of people who were all working just a little harder than I was working, then I was probably pacing myself well enough to pass them all in the second half, when I hope to be able to have some speed left in me (after all this is race so placement will eventually mattter).

This is the longest race I have run in a long time. This is probably the longest run I have run in a long time non-stop, probably since January when I ran a marathon. In training, I always stop at the bathroom by 2 miles in. In training we may stop briefly for any random numbers of reasons, to refill a bottle, because someone needs to do something. I am also certain I have not run this fast for this far in a long long time. I ran the 5k at 7:24 pace last weekend but that was just 3M of hard running. This is 12.4 of hills. 

Based on my 5k time, I initially told our captain that I expected to run 8:15 +/- 10 second per mile. (I am really pleased that I achieved this by then end). This pace range felt realistic for a flat course similar to the course I just raced for 3 miles. Last year I ran this course in 7:19 pace, so I hoped over a minute per mile slower was possible. (It takes training to run fast.)

It was too easy to get preoccupied about my recent Minimalist Approach to training or to drift ahead to the miles before me. But every single time I caught myself thinking about past or future, I would stop myself and say “Stay in this moment! How do you feel right now? Are you ok right now? Are you trying your best right now?  Are you running too fast right now? Can you run faster right now and still hold it together? ... This is the only moment you can control and if you make sure every "right now" moment is an honest best effort but never overreaching from your current ability, then this race will go really well! Race the Moment You are In!"  

By “ok” I don’t mean “not trying” or “sandbagging” or “taking it easy on myself.” By “ok” I  mean, “Running as fast as I can run without feeling like my wheels are about to come off.” When I raced by best races in the past I was very very in tune with how my legs felt. I could feel that line where I was over-shooting my pace and throwing away any additional gears I might have in reserve for the end when I could really use it to drop time. I would slow to not overshoot my pace. I didn’t care what anyone did around me. I ran by the way my body felt. It works.

Today, I was doing this again, except every step was about staying in the present. There was no mental math about what I could finish in if I just kept up this pace. I wan’t even looking at my watch. I knew with 100% certainity that I was giving my best effort in each moment and therefore the data meant nothing to me. It could change nothing.
The hills were brutal and I love them so much. I listened to my body, found a pace I could sustain, crested eat hill feeling really good, and cruised down the decent.

I remember thinking about how strong my heart felt, which is surprising since I haven’t trained it yet to be strong in a race. I started thinking about how strong my legs felt and how nothing hurt at all. I started thinking about how comfortable my lungs felt and how breathing wasn’t even a problem over these hills. Don’t get me wrong, the hills impacted my breathing significantly, but not to the point that could not recovery from a climb quickly and that is when I realized my lungs are strong. My only issue right now is body mass. I am very much within my healthy weight range. I am just heavier than I was in the past and I can feel it when I run. If I can spend some time burning off a few %s of body fat, and working to make my lean muscle stronger, I feel like I have a lot of potential to return to fast racing again. It will just take some work. A lot of work. But fun work. Work that makes you proud of yourself. Work that surprises you as your ability unfolds. I look forward to this work!
As we ran toward the turn around, we kept going down down down. As soon as my mind drifted to thoughts about how hard the climb would feel, I stopped and asked myself “How do you feel right now!?” Omg I feel fantastic. I feel fast and strong and like I am flying (after all it was a downhill). “Can you do anything different to make this moment better?” “No.”. Ok then, proceed with the running. And just like that any concerns about the up hill was gone and I almost missed out on enjoying the glorious descent I was running in that moment because I was letting my mind worry about the turn around and the climb back up.

As soon as we hit the turn around and started to climb I recognized that I feel really strong! This hill is big but I can run it all. Nothing hurts. The run is hard but "Hard" and "Hurt" are both four letter words that start with the letter H but that is all there is that makes them the same. Hurt may be just on the other side of Hard, but I am staying in my happy place for this race. I can’t do anything when I am in what I identify as pain. I enjoy doing Hard things so I just keep pushing.

I know I paced myself well because up the hill and even on the down I am passing runners who started much faster than me. We are climbing the steepest hill of he course, the last big climb, up a dirt road and it feels awesome. I keep checking in with myself “How do you feel? I feel good!” as I run past those who look like they could not answer that question the same way. The hills is really hard. My pace is slowed but I ran it.

A younger runner comes up on my shoulder and he says “Do you know that of all the people I could see, you and I were the only two who did not walk on that hill!” I responded “That means we must know how to pace ourselves!” He smiles and I do too b/c I feel like this race is going very well and I know that last mile is fast!

As soon as we hit the descent I decide it is now time to use up whatever I got left in my tank. For the fiirst time in this entire race I felt like I was getting some lift, like when I am in my zone and running as fast as I can. I miss being lighter because lift doesn’t come easier to me then.

I dig deep and hope that maybe if I can push really hard, I can negative split this thing. I give 100%.  My last mile was by far my fastest. The long downhill helped a lot. I did manage a negative split and this makes me proud! 

I cross the line in 1:44:50 and I can’t believe how good I feel. I do a 2.4M c/d and call it day at 20M. 

I don't win anything but I feel like I won the day.  Later I check team results and I see that my women's Open team, in our case made up of all women over 40 years old, placed 3rd OA and my 40's Women's team won.  This is a good start to the season and I am glad I was able to contribute to help the team in both categories! 

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