Crossfit has ruined me for other forms of exercise

cropped-1005047_485749834841613_1594771077_n1

Last month, I decided to give crossfit a whirl. I was finding my usual circuit training bootcamp class to be less and less challenging and wanted to step up the weightlifting a bit. Plus, the gym I was interested in had a groupon deal: $68 for one month of unlimited crossfit and yoga classes. In the Bay Area, where monthly crossfit memberships ring up as a cool $200 easy, this was definitely a steal for getting my feet wet. What I didn’t expect was to really friggin’ love it.

I’ve been cautioned not to strength train too hard in the weeks leading up to a big race because it can lead to excessive muscle fatigue and hating your life, etc. However, since I am a runner and not a racer, I didn’t see any harm in tipping the cardio-strength scale a bit more to the strength training side for a bit. My biggest worry, as I’ve said before when it comes to crossfit, is/was injuring myself via the dreaded but all too common too-much-too-soon scenario.

After one month of 4 days/week of crossfit*, here’s my take on my experience at San Jose Barbell in San Jose, California.

The coaches: 5/5

Screen Shot 2014-04-14 at 5.20.20 PM
One of the coaches, Ranbir, teaching me the form for some Olympic lifts with a pvc pipe.

Perhaps I am biased, since I was friends with one of the coaches/founders to begin with, but they’re all awesome, knowledgeable, and encouraging. The ratio of coaches to classmates was 1:4 at the most, so I definitely felt like I was receiving personal attention and I never felt like I was in danger of injuring myself by performing a movement incorrectly. Most of the coaches were dudes, but the gym did hire at least one female intern, who led quite a few warm-ups and demos. Perhaps the coolest part of having these coaches as a resource is that they hear your problems and try to suggest a solution to personally help you. For example, I’ve complained a few times about my tight hips and how they can swell up during longer runs. I’ve tried all sorts of stretching and yoga to some effect, but they’re tight all the time. One of the coaches gave me some other exercises to do, like holding a low lunge and kind of rocking back and forth, and it has definitely made a world of difference. My hips don’t swell up anymore–huzzah!

The classes: 4.5/5

The classes are divided up into sections: warm-up, strength, and conditioning. The coaches go over all of the movements with the group before we even touch a barbell, and absolutely everything can be modified to anyone’s personal fitness level. The warm-up usually includes a jog and some cross-the-floors reminiscent of dance class to get the blood pumping.

During the strength section, we would usually single out a specific move, like strict/military press or front squats, and focus on getting in a few (~3-5) sets of low reps and high weight. Often, this would involve building up to a target weight, so sometimes you’d end up having done something like 8 sets. The down side to this approach is that there is limited time to complete the strength part, because the next part of the workout is conditioning, and that requires quite a bit of time itself. The advantage definitely goes to the person who has a clearer idea of what his or her target weight is–usually measured in reference to your one-rep max, the highest weight with which you can complete a single rep of that movement. If you don’t know your one-rep max, you have to guess and work up or down from there.

The final workout element is conditioning. This would vary from partner work, trading off static movements like wall sits with dynamics movements like bicep curls, to AMRAP (as many reps as possible) workouts, to a laundry list of movements (like a chipper, ugh) with a time cap. There is no room for complacency in crossfit.

I’m personally curious about the thought process behind designing the workouts. It’s different than other approaches to strength training, where you trade off targeting certain muscle groups, since not every person comes every day.

image_2 copy
Are we crazy? Post-workout planks!

The atmosphere: 5/5

I’ve whined before about my fragility when it comes to talk of diets and weight loss. That kind of talk can become a slippery slope for me, so I try to avoid it altogether. What was great about SJBB was that there was a pretty even split between the genders, but I never heard any talk amongst the classmates about losing weight or Calorie counting. There was a transformation campaign going on gym-wide, but I chose to selectively interpret it as being focused on performance. Overall, everyone was super supportive and I felt like I could ask any one them for lifting advice.

Personal Improvement: The biggest challenge was fitting it all in (that’s what she said). I want to do and try everything, but there just aren’t enough hours in the day (that’s what she said, that’s what she said). It is certainly possible that doing so much crossfit detracted from my running time, although I was certainly making some headway in conditioning and it definitely gave my shins a break, so perhaps it all balances out.

One personal milestone I achieved during this month was my very first REAL (unmodified) push-up. Might not seem like a big deal to you, but if your nickname growing up was Scrawny Ronnie, you can probably empathize with my joy and pride.

Screen Shot 2014-04-14 at 5.24.04 PM
Baby’s first crossfit bruise. Can you see it?

All in all, I’m really glad and surprised at how much I enjoyed crossfit. If I am allowed to toot my horn a little bit, I am also somewhat impressed that I was able to do it at all. My biggest disappointment is that I cannot permanently join the SJBB family, as I’ll be moving. And now I feel like I’m ruined for other gyms. But the great thing about the gym is their free Saturday classes and inclusive monthly Fit Mob events! See you at the next one, guys!

 

* My weekly workout schedule consisted of one rest day, 4 days of crossfit, and 2 running days (one short, one long).

 

A new year

Me: “I think I’m gonna do some hill sprints once I’ve digested breakfast.”

Boyfriend: “I’m not.”

Incidentally, I spent the better part of the morning playing with a new sketching app, and I think I’ve really created a masterpiece. Or at least if I was 7 rather than 27, you’d think so. I think at this point my lack of artistic skills is just endearing rather than pathetic. I can tell myself that.

Anyway, it’s always amused me that I seem to take so much longer to get reday for a run than my boyfriend. While he’s literally just pulling on the first boardshorts he sees and cramming his toes into his Five Fingers shoes, I’m finding my inhaler, putting on sunscreen and deodorant, tracking down clean compression socks, any handy sports bra, and a hat and sunglasses. If it’s nighttime, I have reflector bracelets, reflective tape, and a headlamp. Is my phone charged so that I can run my RunKeeper app? Where are my armband and headphones? Where will I get water during the run? WHAT DO I DO WITH MY BANGS!?

Either I’m just a lot better at accessorizing or I bring too much things. Too. Much. Things.

Here’s a visual representation of everything I just wrote.

image
image

Going out with a bang

A few months ago, I posted about The Blerch, a notion conceptualized by The Oatmeal’s intimate blog post describing the author’s personal trials and triumphs in distance running.  If you haven’t read it yet, do yourself a favor and check it out–after you’ve read this blog post. 🙂

Naturally, The Blerch was a concept that many runners identified with. My own Blerch manifested less as the fat, lazy angel that taunts/distracts The Oatmeal dude, but kind of a prick whose favorite word is “can’t”. My Blerch loves to hold me back, loves to remind me that I’m slow and usually physically or mentally broken.  But that didn’t stop me from wanting a Blerch T-shirt.

Lo and behold, what do mine hands unwrap on Christmas Day but my very own “I Believe in the Blerch” running T-shirt! It automatically made the cut for my next running outfit selection.

I showed off the shirt in a rather out of character selfie on Instagram with yet another example of my pitiful attempts to understand and maximize the marketing potential of hashtags, including #theoatmeal….AND THEN THE OATMEAL LIKED MY POST AND I DIED INSIDE I DIIIIIIIED.

Screen Shot 2014-01-03 at 10.18.24 AM

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a great, if not totally fangirlish, way to end a year. Happy New Year!

 

Cultivated skepticism

index
Not going to lie–I remember this issue.

Now, I can’t pinpoint the origin of my tendency to gravitate towards quizzes and categories—possibly all those hours in my preteens poring over pilfered “Young and Modern” magazines of my sister’s to find out how gutsy I am with guys (was I a gutsy go-getter or a wary wallflower?) or what kind of guy I prefer to date (pretty sure there’s a virtually unbroken preppy streak starting around then), but I can’t deny that there’s some comfort in being able to say that I fit or belong in some kind of category, that I’m an ectomorph, a triangle body shape (more like a spoon, imo), with a BMI of XX or a competitive fitness personality type. It’s like being in an exclusive club where you can nod at other ectomorphs in solidarity/commiseration over our inhibited ability to gain muscle or consult other glutards (my very pc word for my gluten-intolerant or Celiac disease-ridden friends) for innovative recipes free of that foul toxin There’s some comfort in belonging to something. That categorizing happens in running a bit too, but I think there it’s really a matter of specialization. For example, you could be a sprinter, a 5ker, a 10ker, a marathoner, or crazy an ultramarathoner. Depending on what type of runner you are, you might train differently, but that’s really about the only thing that separates one runner from another. Maybe that’s why I like acknowledging and being acknowledged by other runners—because even if we’re going different distances at a different pace, we’re all out because we like to run.

body-type-calculator-2
Ec-tastic.

This propensity toward self-categorization persists because people are naturally inclined to be curious about themselves and ever since that dude Adam came around, they love to put names to things. Sometimes these results can be personally meaningful. However, it can also be dangerous to pigeonhole yourself into one category or misinterpret the results, and because of all that, I have become more and more resistant to buying into any kind of self-categorization. The fact is that although people may share some common character traits, every person is different and has different goals. Something that I’ve been thinking about for a while now is the psychological theory of somatotypes. According to this theory, developed in the 1940s to equate physical attributes to mental temperament (which at first just sounded a little too much like the Hippocratic four humors but meh), there are three “pure” somatotypes: ectomorph, mesomorph, and endomorph. These types are characterized by physical traits such as a lean or slim appearance with little fat or muscle, a solid and muscular look but minimal fat, and a high storage of fat, respectively.  Although you may be predisposed to one type over another, your type may change as you age, and identifying your type is not as simple as looking in the mirror. Or so the theory goes. If I graphed the three somatotypes on a ternary diagram, there’s little doubt that I inhabit somewhere in the ectomorph region. I’m tall and lanky-ish with a normal female distribution of “insulation.” So what does being classified as an ectomorph actually mean for me? 

YouDoodleDrawing

As a self-identified ectomorph, I am supposed to avoid cardio, which will burn too many of the valuable Calories needed to build muscle. Rather, I’m meant to focus on strength training multiple muscle groups at the same time. This would no doubt help me (or anyone) build muscle, but I can’t help but ask what the point, then, would be? I’d likely have to keep up that regimen to maintain those muscles, and if my reason to build muscles in the first place is to be a better runner, then cutting out cardio just seems a little counterproductive. In this case, the advice I’m given does not jive with my goals. I’m not decrying the entire somatotype theory or any fitness theory for that matter. (So if you are the person who told me about it in the first place–you know who you are!–I am not attempting to debunk it or mock it or anything!) This could have just as easily been a post about how quizzes tell me to not wear prints on my lower half because it makes me look bottom-heavy(er) or how my exercise-induced asthma should restrict me to short-distance running unless I’m treating myself with meds like crazy. Like any knowledge, you can use it for good or evil. Will it push you forward or hold you back?

If what you do keeps you active, keep doing it. If it doesn’t, stop doing it. There has to be a certain amount of buy-in to following through with something that might be hard to start with, like exercising, especially if the efficacy of it is not readily apparent. That is, you have to believe that all that blood, sweat, and tears is achieving something. At the same time, don’t be afraid to challenge your own beliefs or challenge what you read, even stuff written by experts–because you are a person and not a category, fads are things that exist, and sometimes people have personal or professional agendas for saying what they say. Do not structure your entire life around an article you read in Women’s Health magazine. Challenging what you read is what one of my science professors referred to as a “cultivated skepticism.”

image

A good, relevant example of a well-known, creditable scientist purporting a less-than-credible scientific theory is that of Dr. Linus Pauling and his megadoses of Vitamin C. It’s hard to say enough to contrast Pauling’s early and later professional career. A short laundry list of his accomplishments includes fleshing out the field of quantum mechanics as well as making every future high school chemistry student hate him for his work on the nature of the chemical bond (i.e. ionic, covalent, etc.), for which he won one of his two Nobel Prizes (the other was a Peace Prize in the 60s). Unfortunately, more people probably know him for his belief that Vitamin C was the panacea of all human ills. He insisted that Vitamin C administered to cancer patients actually cured them of the disease (another study conducted by the Mayo Clinic found no significant difference in recovery rates between patients taking Vitamin C and a placebo). Pauling himself took  something like 3 grams of Vitamin C every day to prevent colds, which is another claim that has been widely discredited by studies. (At least one study did suggest Vitamin C could lessen the severity of existing cold symptoms, but did not seem to prevent them altogether.) Despite the wealth of evidence suggesting otherwise, Pauling’s scientific credibility and his total insistence that Vitamin C boosts the immune system have created a market for products like Airborne. Even knowing that the science isn’t exactly sound, orange juice is still one of the first things I reach for when I get sick.

image_3 copy 2

My point in all this is that sometimes even experts can get things wrong, and the only reason I’m not out there tearing Airborne packets off the drugstore shelves  or ridiculing those who are taking 17 multivitamins a day is, really, what can it hurt to take extra vitamins? Perhaps Vitamin C isn’t helping you get better, but if you think it is, maybe the placebo effect might be worth something.

That said, I’m still into questioning everything. There’s no substitute to poking the poop.

As for me, I’ll still wear my galaxy leggings even though prints make my butt look big. Whatever.

Crossfit part 1

cropped-1005047_485749834841613_1594771077_n1

My friend Aljay has some major balls guts. Earlier this year, he ditched his 9-to-5 an opened a killer crossfit gym, which has expanded via mostly word of mouth into a gym with dozens of members who attend the regular crossfit and yoga classes. Unfortunately, the gym is too far out of my way to attend as a member; however, I’ve been able to try out yoga for the first time and join in on some crossfit action during the gym’s free monthly Fit Mob events, both of which are open to members of the public.

Going to the first Fit Mob event, I had some reservations. Everyone who was attending had to declare their fitness level on a spreadsheet prior to the event, and although most people claimed to be crossfit “beginners” I was still somewhat skeptical that I’d be able to keep up with them. I was also nervous about the crossfit from a general fear of injuring myself.

Aljay used our self-identified fitness levels to organize us into three- or four-person teams. After everyone did a short 200m run and some cross-the-floors (as we called in ballet and colorguard–I don’t know what they call them in crossfit) to warm up, we found our teammates and did a 16-minute set of circuit training where we did each of 8 stations for 1 minute each, twice through. The bootcamp classes at my gym are also organized in this circuit format so I felt confident that I wouldn’t feel lost. Unlike my gym classes, though, these exercises were much more basic and easy to remember: simple squats, push-ups, pulls-ups, and my favorite, rest!

photo 3
Doing all the burpees!

At my gym, it’s not uncommon for me to waste a good portion of the set trying to get into the proper position for that prescribed station or modify an exercise to work for me. However, those exercises tend to be more complicated because they’re compound rather than isolated motions, so there’s kind of a trade-off I suppose. Basically, during the Fit Mob, I reaffirmed my preference for circuit training!

The next component of this Fit Mob was a friendly tournament of sorts. Teams were organized into brackets and the winners of each round would advance to the next, etc. During the first found, two people did wall sits while the third did 10 burpees as fast as they could. Then they would rotate and a new person would do burpees while the person who just finished them did the wall sit. Two teams competed to see how many burpees they could complete in 5 minutes.

photo 1
Winning strategy: the whole team pulls together!

The next round involved carrying a shit ton of equipment back and forth across the gym. My friend Matt lighted on the ingenious strategy to put all of the weights on the barbell (like 150 pounds or something ridiculous) and carry the bar across as a team. Round three was similar, except it was using the sled thing (not crossfit terminology) to load up increasing weight loads and push/pull the sled thing back and forth across the gym floor.

The whole experience was capped off with some Psycho Donuts, which, if you don’t know what they are, are like not-so-little bites of heaven.

All in all, I had a great time. I confirmed what zillions of people have told me: that I would really enjoy the camaraderie aspect of crossfit and that I would have a lot of fun doing it. I also confirmed that I have a greater-than-normal tendency to get injured during crossfit: I hurt my right wrist during the burpee round. Apparently you can’t just slam the weight of your entire body onto your dainty lady wrists without risking injury. I should’ve listened to Matt and just belly-flopped instead of trying to actually catch myself. But that’s the risk with crossfit or any timed fitness regimen–especially if you’re a beginner, you potentially sacrifice good form for time. Next time I visit SJBB, I could try to hold back and disappoint my teammates by slowing myself down. A better option might be to practice good form on my own time so that it’s second nature.

Would I recommend Fit Mob events to a friend? Yep. Did I enjoy myself? Heartily. Can’t wait for the next one!

 

photo 4

 

Getting real part 2

I grew up with a friend who came from a musical household and was practically born holding a violin and bow. As we got older, he took lessons and performed in local recitals before deciding to major in music in college. Even before graduation, he was auditioning and fielding offers for entry positions in symphonies and orchestras across the country.

It inspired me to learn violin too. I figured it wouldn’t be that hard to learn and it wouldn’t be long before I could audition for a local community orchestra–I’d attended many orchestral performances throughout the years, so I knew how a violin should sound, and I already knew how to read music, which is probably one of the bigger hurdles to learning an instrument. But to my disappointment, even playing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” sounded scratchy and terrible, like a third grader’s playing. Why was this happening? Why couldn’t I play Beethoven yet? Why wasn’t I as good as my friend already?

If you think these questions are totally ridiculous, it’s because they are. This story is made up (except for the part about my awful violin playing, which is true), but illustrates a key point: I compare myself to other people constantly, even though we may not only have different goals but also a different foundation, which leads to unrealistic expectations about performance.

That is, we may be doing the same thing (e.g. strength training, running) but we may have started from different points (e.g. 5 pound or 10 pound dumbbells, a 12 min/mi pace or an 8 min/mi pace) and ultimately have different goals (e.g. run a 5k or run an ultramarathon). It’s silly to make comparisons between these scenarios, and yet I still do it all the time. And I doubt I’m the only one. It makes almost no sense.

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 10.03.25 AM
Why, yes, I do maintain an excel spreadsheet to track my pace.

I have a lot of friends who lift and/or run, which is great because that’s a huge, readily available mine of information or even just conversation. Many of them are proud of their accomplishments–and rightly so–and post updates or pictures about their workout regimen. Mostly I am in awe of my friends’ superpowers, but a small, small part of me is envious. Will I ever be able to run a 7-minute mile or a marathon? Will I ever be able to deadlift my own weight? Why can’t I be like “that”?

Then I remember that I am a unique person with challenges and successes that apply only to me. I can’t run a 7-minute mile yet, but I started at almost a 12-minute pace about six months ago and am down to about a 9-minute pace–that’s a result! See that trendline in the graph? It’s going down–that’s me getting faster! I have had results, but mine might take longer to achieve than they might for other people, either because I started with puny, useless muscles, no stamina, and old-man joints, because I eat like a 15-year-old boy (i.e. crap), or because my workday can be up to 13 hours a day with a commute. These aren’t excuses, but they’re reasons for why I shouldn’t make myself feel like shit for not being able to run a marathon in 20 minutes or having six pack abs, 6% body fat, and bulging biceps.

I also need to remind myself constantly that these things (i.e. muscles and body fat percentage) are not my goals but physical manifestations of my goals, and they should not be what I’m aiming for. Mentally, I feel like I’m getting closer to my personal goal of approaching fitness as a lifestyle and not something that promotes self-evaluation, but I know I won’t be there until I can look at fitspiration pics without wanting to hang up the towel in self-defeat because I don’t look like a fitness goddess.

About 90% of the time, I am okay with how I look and feel about myself. The other 10%, however, is scarily intense hatred of every part of my body and fitness aptitude. It’s more than having a “fat day” and there’s not much that treats it. More often than not the fitspiration pictures that are meant to, go figure, inspire fitness just exacerbate or even trigger the problem because I am subconsciously jealous/incredulous of the results other people are able to get. How do I fight my instinct to compete with this image of the ideal or avoid just waving the white flag and accepting my life as a lazy loser?  At the same time, motivation based on physical appearance scares me the way that hanging around smokers might be unpleasant for someone who has just quit. What if I slip back into my old ways of habitual self-evaluation/hatred?

I think the key thing to remember here, again, is to be realistic about foundation, goals, and results. I may think that fitspiration or progress pics are making jabs at my inadequacy, but I clearly don’t have the same level of investment as the people in the photos, so why should I expect the same results? Do I even want to have to make the sacrifices they must make to perform the way they do? Do I want to cut out carbs and sugar? Do I want to go to the gym for hours a day? Not really. I can only do what I can do, and focusing on making fitness a sustainable part of my life is all I can do for now.

I feel like this is a recurring theme that I keep coming back to, but I suppose it still requires a lot of reinforcement. I’m going to punch that 10% in the face once and for all!

 

 

I’m a runner now?

970285_10100881924378338_1592266472_n
I enjoy pointing at my bib.
603486_10100795731479598_464288514_n
First-ever race: 2 miles!

Long ago in prehistoric times (that is, May), my boyfriend and I were talking about running and the point at which you know you’ve become a real runner.

He told me that when running seems like your preferred method of mobility, then you know you’re a runner. At the time, I didn’t really understand what he met. I was still in the phase of beginning to run where everything hurt, my only contributions to running conversations were breathy grunts, and no Springsteen songs applied to me whatsoever.

1098116_10100891023987648_865484431_n
Hanging loose…

I knew I’d reached some milestone when I overheard my boyfriend telling my family how objectively impressed he’d been with my performance during our most recent run. It had been about a month since we’d last run together, and we decided to kill ourselves with a nice, long 8-mile trail run around a very scenic lake. What had been mostly grunts on my part the month before had become an actual conversation. At the time it didn’t seem like much but impressing my boyfriend at all with my running was a feat in and of itself. (Some context: the Boyfriend sounds like an asshole but is actually a natural runner who is not only very, very encouraging but also a good resource for running knowledge, whereas I am a magnet for injury and brokenness.)

Then the other day, when we were walking through the IKEA parking lot of all places, a month after running the half marathon and having only completed a few test-jogs to assess my shin status, it struck me: the urge to run. I wanted to get to the IKEA entrance; walking wasn’t fast enough. I started feeling this urge everywhere. At work, walking leisurely from the printer back to my office was taking too long. Picking up packages in other buildings seemed to warrant a nice jog. Without even really meaning for it to happen, running became my preferred mode of transport. When I wasn’t doing it, I was thinking about it.

1391832_10200521080782320_481740290_n
New running buddies!
photo(40)
Fitness Face-off!

Perhaps I was just missing it, having taken a break from regular running to rid myself once and for all from shin splints, or perhaps it has finally hit just how great running has been for my life.

And it has been great–really, really great! Allow me to elaborate.

 

  1. Running gets me out of the house. I run past pretty things during pretty sunrises and pretty nature-y places.
  2. Running has helped me discover common ground with a ton of people. I’ve resumed friendships with people I’d lost touch with or with whom I hadn’t had much in common, I’ve made conversation with new acquaintances, and I’ve strengthened existing friendships–all because of running.
  3. I’ve found some awesome running partners–even if we don’t actually running together.
  4. Some of the best conversations I’ve had with my boyfriend have been during runs–once I could actually hold up my end!
  5. Running has helped me think of food in a healthier way–as fuel. I still eat how I want but I’m careful to get the right kind and an adequate amount of energy to fuel my run. (What I eat after the run is sometimes another story…)

I can’t run forever and I can’t run fast but I can run. I’ve never been a runner because I could never surrender all of the blood, sweat, and tears that it takes to become one. I’m not there yet, but thanks to so many friends and my family, I’m one minimus stride closer.

644493_10100705973290728_1039019656_n
Color Run!

 

I’m only half crazy — tips for surviving your first half marathon

halfcrazy

I did it! I finished my first half marathon!

And there was much rejoicing. I learned a lot from this half, not only during the race but afterward–when I researched why everything that went wrong during the race went wrong.

But before we get into what was not so great about the race, let’s talk about what went well:

  1. Shins. Surprisingly, my shins were not a problem during the race and for about two days after. I have no explanation, other than that perhaps my self-prescribed two-week rest might have actually had a positive effect!
  2. Lungs. No asthma attacks or overexertion. I didn’t even really feel tired–although that might have been because I slowed way the hell down for the last 5 or so miles. Honestly, despite all of the discomfort, the race felt like it went by in kind of a blur!
  3. Muscles. Aside from the joint stiffness and some calf tightness, I wasn’t too sore on race day or the few days following.
  4. The groove. For the first half of the race, equivalent to the 10k I had done about two months earlier, I had a nice groove going. I wish I could’ve kept it up, but I’m trying not to beat myself up too much about what-might-have-beens. It really is an accomplishment simply that I crossed the finish line. High school me would be shockedproud.

    u16Pg6y
    When you gotta go, you gotta go.

And here’s what went wrong:

  1. I cut my arrival pretty close to race time, giving me a limited chance to beat down the line of other racers to use the restroom before the start. I very unpatriotically pooped during the national anthem.
  2. As I had expected, I started to feel kind of low after about 6 miles, so I busted out the gels. Having tried them once about halfway through my 10-mile training run, I thought it was a pretty simple process–pop in one or two and let the energy flow. However, something funny happens to your stomach when you run. As your body exerts itself, the blood from your core is diverted to your muscles, which can make it pretty tricky for your body to digest stuff, especially a shit ton of simple sugars. You’re also supposed to take your gels with water, but I, being the awesometastic planner that I am, took two at mile 6 with nothing and another two at mile 8ish with Gatorade–a BIG no-no. Correspondingly, my stomach sort of freaked out and slammed me with what I can safely say was the worst nausea I’ve ever felt, a close second being the morning I defended my thesis. I’m talking, like, keep-absolutely-still-its-vision-is-based-on-movement* kind of nausea, which can make running a race just a tad unpleasant. It probably didn’t help that I’d popped two ibuprofen in a last-ditch effort to not have to race with shin splints.

    image(5)
    The Blister.
  3. About five days before the race I did a short 2-mile run as fast as I could. I wore my new running shoes without socks, which, as it had the first time I’d done that about a month before, created a mild water blister. While gross, it wasn’t much of a problem come race day. However, come mile 9, The Blister returned, and I only learned after the race that it had actually morphed Godzilla-like into a nasty blood blister the size of a half dollar. Needless to say, it might’ve affected my gait, which led to some substantial inflammation in my hip and knee joints. ALL THE JOINTS. I felt myself slowing waaaaay down around then, but I got it back a bit near the end and finished (I think) somewhere around a 10:00/mi pace.
  4. Stitches! Why? Why do they haunt me? Actually in this case, I think it was gait-related due to The Blister of evil.

Ruminating over all of the things that went right and wrong, I came up with this list of things to keep in mind while preparing for your first half marathon:

  • While you’re training, have a goal in mind: Know what kind of runner you are and what you want from running. A lot of running advice seems to be geared more toward more experienced runners who are actually racing. Casual or recreational runners like myself are not overly concerned with performance–it’s enough for us to simply finish the race or beat an achievable time. My goal was to finish at 2:15, which corresponds to a rough pace of 10:15/mi. I chose this pace after doing a couple of 5+ mi runs because it seemed like something I could sustain for 13.1 miles without totally killing myself. Training for more than a few months would have probably increased the speed a bit just by virtue of getting into better aerobic shape. But goal #1 was to finish! (Goal #2 was to not throw up, no joke.)
  • The start: It’s going to be appealing to sprint at the start, and passing people up is kind of an endorphin rush, but be careful. A lot of runners advise you to hold back at the start and focus on the pacing that you trained for. I think this is more true for runners who are focused on performance, but it’s still an important thing to consider, not just on race day but when you’re training. For example, when I was training, I aimed for building distance and was not in good enough shape to distinguish between a “race pace” and an “easy run” pace. I ran the pace that I thought I could sustain for whatever distance I was aiming for, which translated into running faster during short distances. I carried this approach into race day, letting the adrenaline give me an extra kick instead of consciously trying to hold back. Just trying to pass people kept my pace up for the first half of the race. Once I started catching up to people going my same pace, I still felt pretty comfortable. Even though I was pushing myself harder than I had during training, I realized I could handle it aerobically and muscularly (but digestively and blisterly are another story). I don’t know that I would have realized this potential if I had forced myself to go slow and steady in the beginning. As for the risk of burning out, I think it was minimal for me, as I was still running a pace I felt like I could sustain. In the future when my running priorities are different and I can actually focus on pacing, I might be stricter about the starting pace.
  • Find the balance between pushing yourself and avoiding injury: The hardest thing to remember going into this was this was my race. I was doing it for me, not for anyone else, because I wanted to prove to myself that I could. I think for the most part, I was successful at staying positive. I had two warring thoughts to motivate me. The first was that all I had to do was finish the race, and I didn’t need to beat myself up about crossing the finish line in two minutes or fulfilling some grand but unrealistic expectations about my performance. The second was that I’d trained for months and that this might be the only half marathon I ever get to do, so I should still go for it. I think I managed to find the line between these approaches and pushed myself just hard enough. I have no regrets for this race in terms of performance, though perhaps later races will involve more mental “pushing.”

    Screen Shot 2013-10-22 at 6.23.07 PM
    This is a proof because I’m too cheap to $30 on a digital picture.
  • The wall: Before this race, I had only run 8 miles continuously, and that had been about a month and a half before race day. I honestly think that beyond mile 8, when I’d been running for about 1 hour and 20 minutes, I started to approach my own personal wall, past which I’d never had to push my body before. That was the distance when things starting falling apart and when nausea and stitches seemed to be my only companions. As corny as it sounds, I credit my boyfriend for getting me through the last five miles. Being the awesometastic nerd that he is, he plotted out points on the course where he thought he might be able to meet up with me and constructed an algorithm to predict, based on my pace, when to hit each point. Looking forward to running past him for the high five kept up my drive.
  • Practice, practice, practice: Training runs are about more than just acclimating your body to distance running. They’re also about practicing what you’ll need to do during the race itself, whether that is following a hydration strategy or mentally keeping yourself going. The mistake that I had made going into this race was not thinking through a hydration or energy-replenishment strategy. At all. I thought I could just do the whole “listen to my body” thing and drink when I was thirsty, have a shot block gel thing when I felt drained, poop in a Porta Potty if the urge struck me. I think this might have been more effective if I had practiced different strategies during my long distance runs before the race and picked one that works for me. For example, being pretty tall I burn more calories earlier–do I need to pop a gel at 45 minutes into the race instead of 60 minutes? What if it takes more than the requisite 15 minutes to kick in? Here and here are some tips to structuring your energy and electrolyte intake to avoid nausea (that I found after the race, of course). This is definitely a concept that deserves its own post once I figure out my own strategy.

Here are my race results according to the race website:

And according to my RunKeeper:

  • Total Distance Run: 13.58 mi
  • Time to Run 13.1 mi: 2:15:08 (Pace 10:18/mi)

For my next half marathon in April, I have many plans:

  1. Stick to having one speed or interval day a week in my running routine to try to get my pace up.
  2. Take a few weeks off to rest my shins and then gradually reintroduce running into my life again
  3. Plan out my hydration and energy replenishment strategies better and practice them.
  4. If necessary, find an energy booster that doesn’t make me feel like death. I’ve heard about algae tablets???
  5. Crosstrain when I cannot run! NO excuses for skipping my long runs!

    Screen Shot 2014-01-03 at 10.33.02 AM
    I only look half crazy here…

I’ve learned so much during this entire process of preparing to run the longest distance of my life–so far. Now on to the next running adventure!

*Two solid “Jurassic Park” references. You’re welcome.

**The discrepancy between paces is due to the distance recorded versus the distance actually run. The chip is calculating when the runner crossed the 5k “finish line” but the race organizers measure the course based on the shortest possible distance. Inevitably, every runner will pick up a little extra distance here and there, for example, when take a turn too wide. Their time stays the same but their chip will record a shorter distance than their personal GPS, so by the virtue of fractions (pace = time/distance), a shorter distance (i.e. smaller denominator) gives a longer/slower pace. That’s why my GPS (RunKeeper) shows a faster pace than the chip recorded.