Hurricane Motivation

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Fancy Pumpkin Patch 5k trophy.  Is that pumpkin smiling or laughing at me??

It has been a long time since I ran a 5k without kids… maybe at least 4 years.  I don’t run 5k’s because you are supposed to run them fast.  I prefer to run slow and steady for a longer period of time.  I’m too old to run fast.  Or so I thought.

As most of you already know, I have been in a bit of a funk lately.  No real reason for that, unless you count getting displaced by a hurricane, losing most of your household goods and having your family split apart.  But enough with dwelling on my woeful circumstances.  My concern most recently has been my history of depression coming back to haunt me.  Whether or not people want to believe it, depression is a real illness and should not be taken lightly.  It is not just about feeling sad.  Other symptoms include hopelessness, helplessness, guilt, fatigue, loss of interest in normal activities (or activities you once thought were fun), difficulty concentrating and making decisions and loss of appetite.

It has been about 14 years since I have taken medication for depression.  Instead, I have used exercise as my medicine and it has worked.  There were times I worried about it coming back, like when I had a protruding disk in my back and was unable to run (and barely walk) for 3 months.  I did my PT religiously and then I found a way to gradually get back into running… by doing triathlons.  From there I took it all the way to a half Ironman.  Yes, I fight back and I fight hard.

Two days after the hurricane hit and I was stateside, I went outside for a run.  I could barely run.  I dragged my feet and quit after 2 miles.  It was a tough week and I struggled with every run I attempted.  Honestly, I felt like I could barely do anything.  Then one day I went for a run in the woods and I felt the fight begin to stir within me.  I kept fighting and some days I would win and other days I would lose.  It has remained a tough battle even after all of this time.

Last week I signed up for a 5k on the nearby Navy base.  It was free so I thought it couldn’t hurt.  As I already mentioned, I don’t really do 5k’s.  I just figured I would at least get out and run with a group of people.  Then last night I felt an ache in the pit of my stomach and had second thoughts about going.  I made up excuses in my head:  “Well, I don’t have a costume” or “It’s free so it doesn’t matter if I show up or not.”  Even this morning after I dropped off the kids at school I was still debating in my head.  I went back to the house and just planned on running alone around the neighborhood.  Somehow I managed to tell myself to at least drive to the base and I could just change my mind if I wanted to.  I had to go the Exchange anyway.

Next thing I know I was lined up at the starting line.  Once again, I just told myself I was going to get a run in with a group of people.  I mean, I even had taken a weight training class the day before and my legs were still hurting.  What could I even do if my entire body ached?  The countdown started and my adrenaline and need for competition kicked in.  I know by now that I can’t just “run” a race.  I have to race a race.  I started off too fast as I always do (but I always coach people to start off slow and finish strong… just so you know).   Then all of a sudden my emotions surfaced.  It wasn’t joy or sadness.  It was anger.  All of a sudden I was just pissed off.

The sorrow and woes had turned to anger.  The many stages of grief.  Right.  I summoned up a new mantra:  “Fuck you Maria!”  I repeated it over and over again in my head, and maybe out loud a few times (but only when I could actually breathe).  When my body started to shut down, I fought against the pain and lack of air in my lungs.  As I got to mile 2, my mind was definitely on the prize.  I knew I had to win one of those trophies that I had seen on a table at the start.  At that point, it was definitely possible.  I knew there were only 4 or 5 woman ahead of me.  I just wanted to prove to myself that I had the fight within me and I could overcome all of the crap that has rained down on my family.  I know it seems crazy to obsess over a cheap trophy, but it symbolized not just a win in a race, but a win in this internal battle.  I fought so hard that last mile.  I thought I was slowing down so I kept pushing hard (and I found out after I finished that my mile 2 was actually the same exact lap time as my mile 3).

I walked away with that trophy after placing 2nd in my age group.    My finishing time was 23:10 and I am pretty sure that is my second best (if not best) 5k time ever… and I am not getting any younger!  Um, and let’s just go ahead and throw this out there:  I was faster than most of the Navy guys.

Even though I have a headache from the heat and lack of proper hydration, I feel much better today.  I feel like I have a fight stirring within me again.  I will continue to have the strength to do what needs to get done and I will even go beyond that in any way I can.  The next step is to find a purpose now that extends beyond my motherly duties.  Running keeps me on the right path and it will take me to where I need to go.  With that thought, I hope everyone faced with difficulty figures out what gives them the strength to move forward.

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Running and Grieving

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Evacuation Day.  I had no clue it would be months before we are able to return home.

A few months after my mother passed away I ran a 6 mile race in her memory.  As I ran, I thought about her and how she was so passionate about running and I wondered if I would ever feel the same way.  It took me a few years, but I eventually became just as passionate about running and I also realized that it provided a sense of reprieve from some of the difficulties I encountered in my life.  Running became my medicine for depression and it also became a time when I could think about big ideas, make spiritual connections and grieve.

Grief has always been a part of my life.  I was born into grief.  Two parents who had a second child after losing the first to SIDS.  The brother I never met.  I didn’t understand grief at the time, but I grew up wondering what it would have been like to have Joshua here with me.  He probably would have been a great big brother who would have protected me from everything that was thrown at me.  Instead I was on my own.  The grief my parents suffered left them broken and unable to properly take care of me and their marriage.  As a result I became very close to my grandparents.

The sorrow I endured during my grandmother’s passing was my first intense encounter with grief.  I could not even bear to look at her lying in that coffin because I wanted her to talk to me and tell me everything would be okay.  Just two years later my mother passed.  Along with that grief came guilt.  I had always made it difficult for my mother to get close to me.  She wanted me to forgive her and she tried to make things right.  I had built a wall around me and did not let her in.  Years later I finally gained a new perspective and instead of focusing on what she had done wrong, I focused on the things she got right, including running.  She is the reason why I started running and the reason why I started this blog.

Grief and worry entered my life again soon after my first child was born.  I received a call that my father had been diagnosed with cancer and it was going to be a rough road ahead.  It was constant worry for the following year.  Watching him get sick from chemo, wondering if he would be able to fight it.  We brought his granddaughter over as often as we could.  She was his light in a dark tunnel.  I just didn’t think I could bear to lose another parent.  But my dad fought… and won.

Years later I went for a run as usual, but this time as I ran I grieved for my grandfather.  At that point in my life, I realized I HAD to run.  I reflected on the memories I cherished and the great qualities my grandfather had passed along to me.  Around this time is when I stopped running with music.  I didn’t need it and I didn’t want it.  People often ask me now “How do you run without music?”  I just do.  I just get inside my head and do what I need to do to feel better.  Maybe one day I am thinking about the crazy squirrels scrambling up the trees or another day I am contemplating the purpose of life.

A few years ago new sorrow arrived.  My stepmother was diagnosed with a brain tumor that turned out to be cancerous.  The doctors didn’t give her much time but she was determined to fight.  She fought for almost 2 years until the cancer won.  I had my own grief to work through, but this time I really became aware of my father’s grief.  I realized that another person’s grief can be absorbed by someone else.  This became more apparent a few months ago when my sister-in-law’s son passed away.  I never got the chance to know him very well, but I was still consumed by the grief of my stepbrother and sister-in-law.

Life appears to be an endless cycle of happiness and sadness.  With so much grief, I can’t let it consume me, change me or keep me down.  Running is my fight against grief.

More sorrow has entered my life and I have to go through the grieving yet again.  It is a different type of grief this time, but I know what grief feels like and this is it.  My family and I are hurricane victims.  We were torn apart and we have lost so much.  We have been displaced from our home and have been wandering around like lost souls.  Yesterday, I cried most of the day.  After I dropped the kids off at school, I sat in the car and sobbed.  I sobbed hard and long.  “Fuck you grief.”  Yesterday I became consumed by the grief and couldn’t hold myself together.  I let it come in and do its thing.  I grieved for the separation of my family.  I grieved for the separation from our friends.  I grieved for our damaged things we have spent 15 years collecting.  I grieved for my children who are suffering, but trying to keep moving forward (and doing a much better job than I am).  I grieved for all of the other families going through this.  I grieved for Puerto Rico.  I grieved for the pain my husband feels.   I grieved for the reality that we will never be the same.

Then this morning I ran.

The Ripple Effect

My girls pushing their grandma on the tire swing.

My girls pushing their grandma on the tire swing.

As I sat in an interview the other day, I was asked why I had decided to switch careers and focus on teaching fitness classes rather than cute little first graders.  It was the day after my stepmother had just passed away so the answer came right to me.  It was such an easy question to answer, but my emotions almost took over.

As a child I was raised pretty much in the same way most kids around me were raised: eating meat and potatoes for dinner and Captain Crunch for breakfast.  Even now, my dad sees nothing wrong with this type of diet.  Well, my husband doesn’t really either, but he is a bit more willing to follow suit.  When it comes to my own kids, I know that I will not apply my childhood eating habits.  Often I am given grief (even by my own family members) for the food journeys we currently partake in.  My husband will feed the kids bacon when I am gone, but then adheres to the meatless version upon my return.  My friends just find it rather fascinating and occasionally ask what is so great and healthy about eating cardboard.  Then there are the “no candy” policies I have to enforce with teachers.  Eating healthy is basically a daily battle so I can see why most people might just throw their hands up and roll through a McDonald’s drive-thru.  I know I am not perfect either, but I keep coming back to fight.

However, after the toll that heart disease and cancer has taken on my own family, I can’t stop fighting the battle.  If you can avoid a heart attack or cancer, why not at least try?  It’s not going to hurt anybody if you decide to add a few extra veggies to your plate or try a few meatless dishes each week.  Sure, you might still have a heart attack or get cancer, but maybe it will be just a little easier to fight back.  I tried very hard when I spent a spring break with my stepmother (already sick with cancer at the time). I fed her vegan meals all week in hopes that it would make her better.  Of course there are forces of nature beyond our control, but we can at least try, right?

Yes, I know it is hard to chew on that piece of tofu when you would rather be chewing on a piece of meaty steak.  Maybe you have never been a morning person and can’t seem to roll out of bed in time to get to the gym before work.  Those are your choices to make and sometimes you choose not to.  It is especially challenging when you think you are alone and feel like you have no power to make positive changes in your life.

This is where I step in.  This is where I can be there to hold someone accountable with making the change.  I can encourage someone to come back to the boot camp class after finding the courage to try it out one day.  I can encourage someone to join me for a personal training session and find out that it really can be a simple process that fits nicely into your busy schedule.  I can encourage someone to find the strength within and train for and finish a half marathon.  That’s what I can do.  Or at least I can try to do just that.  I know I will not always succeed, but as with teaching small children, if I can at least make the difference in one person’s life, then I have done something meaningful and it will truly be worth the time and effort.

Running has always been an important part of my life and I have my mother to thank for introducing me to the sport as a child (even though I never liked running as a child).   I grew to love running and I strongly believe that it has made me a better person in so many ways.  A few years ago I decided that I would move beyond my personal love of running and learn to share my love of the sport with others.  And that has been an extraordinary experience thus far.  It would take me too long to write about all of the amazing adventures and stories I have experienced through my clients.

Here I am now, a few years after starting Inspired Miles Coaching LLC, and I have decided to take it even further.  It’s not about me becoming a better runner or more fit.  It’s not even about making money (however, an extra income would be helpful in raising 3 girls).  It’s about guiding others down this path to a healthier and stronger life.  I do realize it is not an easy task.  It takes motivation, dedication and a whole lot of patience.  A WHOLE LOT OF PATIENCE.  Lifestyle changes don’t happen overnight.  They might not even happen in a year.  It just takes small steps and a lot of faith in the process.

To me, being fit and healthy is not about looking good in a swimsuit (however, that is a nice bonus) and it is not about fitting in with the latest trends (crossfit, paleo, etc.).  It is just about being a better version of yourself…. from the inside out.  In the process, you might have some extra energy to keep up with your kids or add a few years to your life so you can watch your grandchildren grow.

Yes, the answer to that interview question was easy.  I am here because I am inspired to make a difference and help others see that they can make a change.  Their inspirational stories may then ripple out and touch the lives of others.  This is so big and important that someone out there may save another person’s life through this ripple effect.  My stepmother’s life could not be saved, but she fought so hard until the end.  Her fight lives on through me and I will continue the fight in her memory, my mother’s memory, my grandmother’s memory and my grandfather’s memory.  They all loved me so much and that will give me the strength to continue on this journey.

Time for a change

As a military spouse, I am constantly making changes and maintaining a certain degree of flexibility.  It’s impossible to stay at a job for longer than 3 years and my career intentions fluctuate with the ebb and flow of the tides.  However, as I reflect back on the past decade, there is a common theme in my pursuits: helping others achieve something great.  Whether it be helping a 6-year old learn to read or getting a client to the finish line of a marathon.  I know that my natural skill is teaching.  I am good at it and have become even better over the years.

I have dabbled in many different areas of education.  In college,  I started off as an intern for the Bureau of Land Management working at a science center teaching environmental science to elementary students in Alaska’s natural habitat.  I quickly moved into a paid position.  I somehow convinced my academic advisor, Rusty Myers (an avid runner who recently passed away), to grant me a senior project that involved designing and implementing a shark curriculum for 6th graders even though I had no knowledge of curriculum design or any classroom teaching experience.  However, the classroom teacher was extremely helpful in this whole process.  I have continued to use an updated version of the curriculum and it is one of my favorite subjects to teach.

Next I was off to actually learn more about sharks in the Bahamas and upon my return to Alaska I dipped into the social-emotional issues of teenagers.  The following year I packed up a car load of belongings and headed down to San Diego.  I immediately signed up to volunteer as a docent at the Birch Aquarium at Scripps and found joy in sharing my knowledge of the tidepool creatures found in the touch tank.  I did need to get paid so I searched the area for an opportunity that would fit me like a glove.  I drove out to Fiesta Island and walked right into a facility with a sign that read “SEACAMP.”  I remember walking back to the shark touch tank with the owner and telling him I had recently worked with sharks in the Bahamas in hopes of getting his attention.  Not sure if it was that or my natural ability to navigate through an interview, but he hired me and the next thing I know I was teaching marine biology to middle school students.  Not only was I teaching marine biology, but I was snorkeling, seine netting, boogie boarding, making visits to the aquarium and Sea World and setting up massive bonfires to roast marshmallows and tell spooky stories (okay, I really wasn’t good at telling spooky stories).

My love for the ocean somehow translated to seeking out the Coast Guard.  Not sure what happened there, but it was quite the adventure with many ups and downs (and rolling from side to side because that tends to happen a lot on a ship in the Bering Sea).  I learned a lot about what not to do as a leader and had to put together pieces I collected along the way in order to determine the qualities of a great leader.  I’m still collecting those pieces to fill in the puzzle, but I have a much better idea of what it is supposed to look like.

There was a time during my Coast Guard training when someone said to me that I acted more like an elementary school teacher than a platoon leader (I took it as an insult back then, but a few years later I finally agreed).  As soon as my military obligation ended I stepped foot into a Kindergarten classroom for the first time.  It was immediately scary and overwhelming (and there was lots of snot and drooling), but I managed to get hooked up with the most remarkable mentor teacher ever… and her name was also Heidi.  And wouldn’t it be my lucky year that as soon as I finished student teaching in her classroom she decided to retire and hand over the keys.  The first year in the classroom was rough, but the support from my colleagues was unprecedented and I made it through unscathed and ready for more.

Eventually, I gave birth to child number 2 and decided to wing it at home for a bit while supporting my former colleagues as their go-to substitute.  I couldn’t just stay home and take care of 2 children, though.  I had to stay busy so I worked on my Master’s Degree in Science Education.  Since my husband was still in the military, it was only a matter of time before we moved to Florida.  That is where my confidence in my teaching abilities was put to the test.  I miserably taught a rough 4th grade class for a few months. The discipline issues were too much and the scripted curriculum only added to the struggle.  There was no freedom outside of teaching to the test.  I backed down and returned my focus to finishing my Master’s degree even though I felt less confident about whether or not I would ever use it.  I still spent time in the classroom at my daughter’s elementary school and continued to search for the right path.

Well, the path took me down a road less traveled.  It sure was bumpy and I often felt unsure about which turns to take.  All it took was my Master’s degree in Science Education written on my resume.  They really didn’t ask many questions.  I should’ve been asking the questions.  I also should have had a degree in Special Education.  Let’s just say that teaching science (with limited resources) to middle and high school students who can not function in the public school system due to behavioral, social and emotional reasons was the most challenging job I ever took on.    On top of that, I never had any breaks during the day (we had to eat in the lunch room with all of the students) and I had to design my own curriculum for six different classes.  I often reflect back on that time because I don’t know where I had the energy to work full-time in the classroom, spend extra time working at home, train for the Goofy Challenge and raise 3 kids (with my husband deployed).  This time I was actually saved by a military move.

We arrived in Colorado and I said “that’s it, I’m done with this teaching stuff.”  I gave away most of my teaching supplies and resources and turned my attention to health and fitness.  In one weekend, my soon-to-be new boss interviewed a few dozen candidates.  I got the job.  Not only did I get the job, but I got paid what I was worth.  Not only did I get paid what I was worth, but it was part-time and I basically had the flexibility to choose my hours so we never paid for daycare.  At the fitness center, I did everything except teach the classes, but I watched, listened and participated.  With less time to spend working, I spent more time on my family and myself.  I trained hard and achieved many athletic feats during our time in Colorado.   It was the perfect balance of work, family and self.  I even received my run coach certification and started my own coaching business.  Then it was time to move and I left the state kicking and screaming.

Then we entered Virginia and for some reason I took a look at teaching employment opportunities.  One job description spoke to me right away and I said “the heck with it, I will just apply to this one and see what happens.”  The job was mine.  The past two years have been a mix of joy and terror.  Yet, I saw something I hadn’t seen before: my potential.  I became confident in my teaching and was able to navigate successfully through the terror and absorb the joyful moments.  However, maintaining the balance was a struggle.  It worked well for the first year and then I began to lose sight of my own needs.  My running motivation hit a wall and I found myself trapped on the treadmill.   I became tired and my health started to deteriorate.  At one point, I had a cold that lasted for two months.  The worst was when I lost partial hearing in my right ear and that compensated with a constant static noise.  I doubt I will ever see (or hear) any improvement.  My confidence in leadership waned once again and I began to feel like I was on a staircase with no railing.  On days I went home to complain, my husband repeated his mantra: “you just need to work for yourself.”

As the end of the school year approached I made my decision to move on.  I turned my attention back to fitness and decided I would put my personal trainer certification to good use.  I also decided to bring back my coaching business and I am currently working on putting all of the pieces back together.  As people ask me if I am going to teach somewhere else, I reply “Yes, I am going to teach, but it will be a different kind of teaching.”  I suppose I was always meant to guide others.  Even though the military moves have caused me to go back and forth in my endeavors, I am fortunate to have so many unique experiences.

Run Club

At my recent school I organized and coached a run club. These students finished a 5K! I found great joy in doing this.

Now it’s time for the next challenge!  It’s new and scary, but that’s pretty much all I’ve ever known.  On Sunday, for the first time in a very long time, I finally let my alarm go off at 6:00 AM so I could hop in the car and drive to the beach.  I ran outside.  It was tough and hot, sticky and buggy, but it was also exhilarating.  I ran past the swamp, up the tiny hills, over the roots, through the mud and greeted all of my fellow runners who were doing the same thing I was.

A time to beat

I earned this with a little extra help from strangers.  The running community is so amazing.

I earned this with a little extra help from strangers. The running community is so amazing.

Seriously, it has been decades since I last posted a blog.  I could use the excuse that I have been overwhelmed with family and work, but that wouldn’t be entirely true.  A lack of inspiration is the main culprit of my hesitation to put words to paper.   Once in a while, I post a random photo of the sunrise to facebook after one of my morning runs, but that’s about all I got over here.  Yes, I am loathing in self-pity for my misfortune of being introduced to a place that doesn’t exceed my expectations for running greatness.  The real problem is my recent exposure to a running and triathlon mecca that filled my heart with inspiration and my mind with thoughts of “something beyond myself.”  Kind of like when you find yourself.  Then your life changes and you regress back into the darkness.

Until recently, when I was humbled.  And inspired.  Humbled by others, and inspired by my own self.  I didn’t need a place to inspire me.  I found it within.

I have silently been working hard over the past few months.  Okay, not as hard as I could have been working since I was lacking a bit of motivation.  That may sound odd coming from me, but it’s true.  I still did my thing.  Got up at the crack of dawn to do what I needed to do… most days.  Other days I just waited until after work so I wouldn’t have to get up early.  I got out there in the cold and did my duty… most days.  Other days I just settled for the treadmill and was perfectly content keeping warm inside.  I pushed myself through a tough workout when I needed to… most days.  Other days I just kind of accepted a mediocre pace and thought “I must just be having a bad day.”  Okay, I didn’t always give my running the full attention it needed.  I was being pulled in so many directions that I kind of let that line slack a little.

After my 50, I thought “that takes a lot of time and work, so maybe I should do something shorter.”  It took me months to figure out what to do.  In the meantime, I kind of just ran when I felt like running.  I knew that I had to set a goal soon or else my running (and my weight) would suffer.  Why not bring it down a notch and run a half-marathon?  However, I couldn’t just run another half, I had to beat my best time.  That’s all I wanted.  Until a few months into training when I looked at the results from last year and realized that I might even have a chance to place in my age group.  I never let that goal run past my lips though.  It is a secret goal I kept to myself.  Out loud I said that I wanted to break my personal record.  I’m not even sure who I said it out loud to… maybe just my husband.  I had stopped shouting out my plans to everyone within ear shot.  Probably because I never took the initiative to join the running community here.

The night before the race I considered joining the 1:45:00 pacing group.  I had never done a pacing group before.  I didn’t like groups during a race.  I usually just thrived on being alone.  On the morning of the race, I saw the pacer with his sign and I thought “okay, I will just kind of hang back and see what happens.”  By mile 3, I was chatting with the pacer and a few of the other runners in the group.  By mile 5, a 63-year old running veteran introduced himself and started chatting with me.  At mile 10, Jim was still with me and the pacer was about a minute behind us.  At mile 12, I was silent, but Jim was still there.  I wanted to slow down, but I wouldn’t.  I had to stay with Jim and I had to stay in front of the pacer.  For an entire mile, I quietly chanted “You are strong.  You worked hard.”  Even though the second part of the chant wasn’t entirely true, I never let a negative thought seep in.  I maintained the same pace even though I was never able to accomplish that during a training run.  I always slogged at the end.  Not this time.  I completely surprised myself.  I beat the 1:45:00 pacer by one minute.  And to think that I was only trying to beat my 1:49:00 time.  Not only that, but I placed 3rd in my age group!

I won’t forget Jim for his help.  He had done that half-marathon before in 1:36:00 so I know he could have finished in a faster time.  All I can say is that I hope to be still moving like him when I am in my 60’s.

I have been stuck in my own little world since I arrived here, unwilling to step out of my comfort zone.  I think my experience at this race has changed that.  I know that all I have to do is extend a hand and someone will be there to take it.  I can find what I found in Colorado.  I just have to move past my inhibitions.

Running from dogs

I would much rather be chased by a billy goat that wants to eat my clothes than by an aggressive dog that wants to rip apart my flesh.

I would much rather be chased by a billy goat that wants to eat my clothes than by an aggressive dog that wants to rip apart my flesh.

Most people don’t think about dogs when they run, unless they are running with a dog.  I am constantly on the lookout for dogs because they pose another threat that must be taken seriously.  Unfortunately, there are dog owners out there who don’t take proper care of their dogs or who teach them to be aggressive.  A couple of years ago, there was an article written in Runner’s World:  When Dogs Attack.   It’s scary to think about what might happen if you encounter an aggressive dog (or a pack of dogs!).

I have been chased by dogs before.  Mostly little yappers that I could easily kick if they started nibbling on my feet.  Those little guys are usually all bark and will only chase you until you yap back at them and cause them to run away with their tail between their legs.  Just recently a large pit bull started to come at me from its spot on the front porch of a house. I could not see a leash and it was definitely not happy.  I wasn’t sure what I was going to do if it ran up to me.  Fortunately it stopped at the border of the yard.  I assumed that it was stopped by an electric fence, but how effective can those be if a dog really wants to get out? I decided to avoid that street from then on.

While running the backcountry trails in Colorado, I learned that is was smart to carry a knife, mace and a phone.  My biggest fear was mountain lions, but a pack of coyotes would also get my hair to stand on end.  A lone coyote, or even a pair of coyotes, never concerned me very much since they never seemed too alarmed by my presence and they were more common than not.  A domesticated dog off its leash seems to be more of a threat.  I find that the domesticated breeds tend to be more unpredictable than what you might find in the wild.  Once again, it all comes down to how they are trained and treated by their owners.

Yesterday I was out for a run through a decent neighborhood near my parent’s house.  Since I don’t live in this area anymore, I am pretty unfamiliar with the territory but I found a comfortable area to run through.  I was only a few blocks from the car when I heard something coming up behind me.  I turned my head slightly and noticed a dark figure running up behind me.  As I slowed and turned my body for a better look, I realized it was a very large german shepherd that was bounding towards me.  I did not see a person anywhere near the dog and it was definitely not on a leash.

The dog quickly caught up to me, brushed against my legs and wrapped its jaw around my lower leg.  If that dog had any ounce of aggression in it, my leg would not have survived the assault.  Fortunately (very fortunately), the dog was only intending to play and barely left a small mark on my skin.  However, I yelled at it at the top of my lungs: “No!  No! Get away!” and  I pushed it away from me very aggressively.  FINALLY, I heard someone call for the dog.  I looked up and saw a man washing his truck in a driveway down the block a few houses down and across the road.  I was livid.  I yelled to the man “You need to keep your dog on a leash!”  The man then had the nerve to reply “Why?  He doesn’t bother me.”  Fortunately, the dog ran back to its owner and I kept running toward my car.  I was so freaked out that all I could think about was getting out of there.  As I got in the car and drove away, I thought about the lesson I had learned.  I would do it all differently if I were put back in that situation.  Here are my thoughts on doing that again:

1.  Always carry a phone and a small knife when you run.  There is no need to get all crazy with the weapons, but this just shows that even a nice, quiet neighborhood can turn deadly if you encounter an aggressive dog.  Mace is a good idea for when you are further out in the country or out on an isolated trail.  You can buy mace that is designed for runners to carry.  I know that people think this is a bit much and they sometimes laugh at me for carrying a knife, but I won’t be laughing when I have to use it to defend myself from an animal or a human.  It is always a good idea to carry a phone because you never know when you might need to call for help.

2.  Get your own dog to run with.  That does sound a whole lot better than carrying a knife.  I have been dreaming about a furry running partner for a while now, but our busy lives aren’t quite ready for that type of commitment.  One of these days I will have my own personal running buddy and protector.

3.  If you do encounter a dog that is off leash, then stand your ground.  Remain calm and firm to get the dog away.  Running from the dog will only cause it to chase you.  If it attacks, then defend yourself in any way possible.  I really hate to think about this, but if a dog started chomping on me I would have to hurt it.

4.  Once you get away from the dog and are in a safe place, call the police.  Even though the dog didn’t necessarily “attack” me, I should have held the owner accountable for HIS actions.  His attitude only shows that he doesn’t really give a crap if his dog attacks someone.  If he had the decency to apologize and make sure I was okay, then I would probably reconsider the police involvement and make sure he knew the importance of keeping his dog on a leash.  I was even more irritated when I noticed the mark on my leg after I had gotten home.  The other thing that bothers me is his lack of concern for the dog.  The dog could have easily been struck by a car while crossing the moderately busy street to chase after me.

5.  The last thing I learned is not to tell your dad when something like this happens since his blood pressure will most definitely skyrocket as he makes threats to kick someone’s rear (well, other words were used but I will keep this post family friendly).  I was seriously pissed off about the owner’s response  and I think that anger was very apparant to my family when I walked in the door after my run.  If your dog accidently gets off leash or runs up to someone, please have the courtesy to restrain your dog and apologize.   That is what irritates me most about the situation.  People like that shouldn’t be allowed to have dogs.

Don’t get me wrong, I love dogs.  I have friends and family with dogs that I totally adore and enjoy hanging out with.  However, I do not like being chased by dogs that I do not know.  I do not like worrying if a dog galloping towards me is out to play or attack.

50 Miles of Lessons Learned

Yep, these runners are walking up this hill at around mile 5.

Yep, these runners are walking up this hill at around mile 5.

The JFK 50 was a pleasant experience in so many ways.  I know that sounds a tad crazy, but it went better than I could ever have expected!  Maybe it was just my lucky day or maybe I trained right.  Regardless, I just want to pass along some things I learned about training for and running an ultramarathon.

1.  Follow your training plan.

Fortunately, I have my own certified running coach: me.  I know how to kick my own tail.  I develop my own training plans based on what I have learned and the research I have done.  Regardless of where you get your training plans and whether or not you have a coach, the most important thing is to follow that plan.  Don’t be tricked into saying to yourself “Oh, I can’t squeeze in 6 miles, so I will just do five.”  That will soon become a habit.  Then you might be saying “It will be okay if I miss my run today because I can make it up later.”  Sometimes things come up that you can’t help (like you come down with the flu), but if your schedule doesn’t allow training for an ultra, then you shouldn’t be doing one.  I have a full-time job, a coaching business on the side and three small children.  Yet, I still have time to train because I make the time.  If you can’t make the time to follow a training plan, then try something not quite so challenging.

2.  Your training runs are practice runs.  Learn what to do and what not to do, then just do what works.

In the week leading up to the JFK 50, there were quite a few people posting questions on the facebook page.  A few of them didn’t make sense to me.  People were asking questions like what they should carry for hydration and what they should be eating.  Seriously, if you didn’t practice that during your training runs, then I am not sure what to tell you.  It got to a point where I had to post a reply: “Just do whatever you did during training!”  I wore my hydration vest and carried food during training, so that is what I did during the race.  Sure, if I were trying to win then maybe I would want to lighten my load, but all I wanted to do was finish and I knew I could if I stayed hydrated and well-fueled.

3.  Practice walking during your training runs.

I know that this sounds odd, but trust me, it is a hard thing to practice if you are a runner who has never done an ultramarathon before (or a runner who has never set foot on trails).  I had trouble finding the patience to do this during a 20-mile run because I knew that I could run the entire twenty miles.  However, I compared time for two 25-mile runs… one involved running the entire way and the other one included intervals of 25 minutes of running with 5 minutes of walking.  Do you know which time was faster?  The one that included the 5 minute walk breaks!  I wasn’t able to be 100% consistent during the race, but I focused on walking most of the hills and running the flats and downhills.

4.  The most important part of your body to train is your mind.

At around mile 35, I heard a runner say to another runner “I left John behind.  He was in a dark place and I couldn’t get him going.”  Every now and then I would wonder when I would hit my “low” because I naturally expected it to happen at some point during a 50-mile run.  I used to hit walls during marathons at around mile 22.  I just thought that maybe it would be later for an ultra.  However, it never hit.  I never experienced a low point during the race.  Okay, at mile 46 I sure as heck wanted to be done with the race, but I was able to speed up and keep my focus on the finish line.  In order to train your mind, you have to experience some of the crap that comes along with training.  During one 24-mile training run, I struggled during the last 4 miles.  My struggle was so intense that I had to repeat a phrase over and over: “One foot in front of the other.”  I felt like I could barely put one foot in front of the other.  If you don’t have tough training runs, then you won’t know how to be prepared for whatever challenges you face during the race.  If you are prepared, then you have less anxiety.  You also have to run long and run far.  They say back-to-backs are good to do since you run on tired legs the next day.  Sure, that gets you physically prepared, but you HAVE to run for a long time without any breaks in order to get the true experience of what it will mentally feel like on race day.

5.  Train on the terrain you will run on race day.

The first 15 miles of the JFK are up and over a mountain on the Appalachian Trail.  I spent all of last winter running trails in Colorado.  Even though it has been awhile since I have been on a “real” trail, I still had that knowledge of trail running.  I also took advantage of whatever trails I could find in my local area (even though they were a far cry from mountain trails).  I also did hill workouts in preparation for the climbing.  Not only that, but 26 miles were on a long and boring (but very beautiful) section of the C&O canal.  If I could count how many times I experienced long and boring running around Chesapeake… Oh, and let’s not forget, if the race doesn’t allow music, then you probably should train without music.  Honestly, I wasn’t very bored at all during the race and I actually felt like those 9 hours and 55 minutes just flew by!

6.  Don’t do anything new on race day.

This kind of goes along with #2.  I actually wore different clothes than I had been training in for the past 6 months since the weather was a whole lot colder.  However, as mentioned before, last year I ran through a Colorado winter.  Also, I had prepared to eat a variety of foods, but I decided not to pass up Christmas cookies and red velvet cake.  And no, I never tried those during training.  However, I do know that I have an iron stomach.  I once spent my first trimester of pregnancy stationed on a ship in the middle of the Bering Sea during winter… and I never threw up.  If you have a sensitive stomach, then skip the red velvet cake because you don’t know how it will affect you.

7.  Female runners are level-headed.

Females are actually better able to keep their minds in the right place during distance races than males.  I know, I know… I didn’t do the research, but I will tell you that the only complaints I heard came from the mouths of males.  I remember this one specifically: “I just want to get off this canal trail!  It is so long!”  I seriously wanted to punch this dude in the face.  How dare you speak negative out loud while I am enjoying time in my happy place??

8.  Most of all, have fun!

It is a once in a lifetime experience… well, maybe more than once if you are truly crazy!  One runner has finished that race 45 times!

Even if you follow all of these tips and every other tip you read in all of the books, you can’t always be prepared for what mother nature or mankind might throw at you.  It could snow and a thick layer of ice might form on the trail.  There could be a train you have to stop for (as in the case with some JFK 50 runners).  Maybe there is freezing rain in subfreezing temperatures (only 17% of runners in 1974 finished the race due to these conditions).  Or you acquire a nasty virus the day before a race.  The point is, you just never know what could happen so tuck away a Plan B.