Pushing the Boundaries, MY Boundaries

I am not a celebrated runner. Heck, I don’t even race much. Ever since I was a kid, however, running through the woods behind my elementary school and hopping rocks and running paths in parks around suburban Philadelphia, I’ve been a trail runner. Even when years of debilitating migraines kept me from running, my joy was always to be out in the woods or on a prairie path, walking. After turning my life around by changing my lifestyle, In my late thirties I found I was able to run again. What a joy of rediscovery that was, and what an empowering experience to know that my physical ailments did not have to rule my life.

When I started running again, I didn’t have many trails to run. I was living in a foreign country, in the city of Hiroshima, Japan. While in Japan, I was keenly aware of my position as an outsider, a female, and a mother. There were behaviors that I perceived to be the norm for those roles, and running was not one of them. At the time, in that city, women just did not exercise outdoors. Especially women my age, and certainly not foreigners. I was intimidated by custom and my perception of social expectations. I did manage to find some paths to plod, running along the river or in the Shukkeien Garden near my home. When it came to being in real wilderness, however, I never ran, and never went alone. Always, I was with family.

After that came our move to China, and that is where my running became a more serious endeavor. There was a lot of treadmill running at the start, as the city where we lived, Chongqing, is pretty polluted. Still, in a place surrounded by mountains and mist, how could I not explore? I started by running the city, exploring side streets, then running through a sports park where people would watch me through the fences, as you had to pay 2 yuan to get in. Next came Pipa Shan, a small peak right in the middle of the city, filled with old men playing their erhus or playing chess while their birds sang in cages, and grandmothers walking with their grand babies or carrying their washing or whatever they shopped for on their backs. There were the trails in the park behind the university I attended, where I met a family who showed me how to catch, fry and eat cicadas, and another small mountain as well, a supposed botanical park, on the top of which was a small makeshift village. I would run through that and people would laugh and smile and point, commenting loudly about the white woman running down the dirt street. They were always polite and I loved stopping to chat now and again.

Gradually, as my running expanded, my experiences with people and myself expanded as well. In each new place I visited, each new country I lived, I started with something small, a circle or straight distance that was well-defined, safe, and predictable. Even on vacation, I’d start that way. Walk the city and decide, “okay, tomorrow I’ll just run here,” but then the next day, push the distance even further. Read the maps and envision. Settle the butterflies and decide to go just a few blocks more.

I think back on these times and am filled with wonder at the places my running has taken me. There are other countries and other paths, from cities to mountains to beaches. The wonder is not so much about where I ran, however, as it is that I managed to do it at all. You see, I was not a very outgoing or confident person. I was really quite shy, unsure of myself, and downright afraid of doing something new on my own. I still am in some ways, but I am nowhere near where I used to be. Running changed that for me.

I reminisce because a few weeks ago, a woman posted a question on a Facebook running forum I subscribe to. How do people get over there fear to run trails alone? She wanted to desperately, but couldn’t figure out how to conquer her fear. People posted helpful advice, the most common of which was, “just run.” That’s all fine and dandy, but when you are as timid as I was, and possibly living in a new place, “just run” is advice that doesn’t cut it. The fear paralyzes a person. It paralyzed me. It took a lot of effort and soul searching and thinking about what to do before I could break through the wall that kept me bound.

As I read that woman’s post, I thought about how to answer. What could I tell her about my experience? For me, learning to run alone is about a gradual expansion of boundaries, from running what is close and familiar to taking a new turn one day and sticking with it for a few weeks, then taking another and adding that to the mix. Little by little, the familiar ground widens, and every little trial on that ground helps boost my confidence that I can overcome similar situations in new territory.

When I thought about my answer to her, I realized that this advice did not only reflect my experience on the trail, but it reflected an experience I was having with myself. Each bout of butterflies in my stomach and the subsequent joy that came from setting those butterflies free made me more sure of myself, more confident in my own judgment. I could do this, because I’d proven mile by mile – sometimes just half-mile by half-mile – that I had faced my fear and succeeded before. Surely a half-mile more wouldn’t be so bad. Little by little, the half-mile becomes 2, then 5, then 10. And I discover there is more in me of courage and strength than I realized.

I know there are others who would look at my runs and think they were nothing compared to the amazing adventures and distances they’ve explored. I know there are others who would see the pace of my self-expansion as way too slow for them. For me, however, it’s perfect. Whether it’s my own hometown or one of the many places I’ve been to around the world, taking the time to expand my physical boundaries has helped me to broaden the limits even within myself.

I say to you, woman, go at your pace, add inches or miles, but move forward. You will find so much more than distance.

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What Now? The Motivating Endurance Question

This post is based on the podcast http://www.richroll.com/podcast/james-lawrence/

I’ve been listening to an interview with a guy, James Lawrence, who is going to attempt 50 Iron Man races in 50 days. Both he and his wife and five kids are totally into the project. While that sounds like an utterly extreme and crazy goal, I was struck by his humble and balanced nature.

I love that a good number of endurance athletes are incredibly humble.  They view their goals, not as ‘hunt down/chase down/fight and succeed” type challenges, but instead as challenges that are more like the culmination of steps in a process of change and development.  They believe that what they are doing may seem incredible, but truly, anyone could do the same, if the goal is pursued with patience and done one step at a time.  For Lawrence, the drive is not to be “the best.”  At his core, I believe, Lawrence’s drive is personal and motivated by something that is, in essence, very simple: curiosity.  When asked (I’m paraphrasing here), “on a personal level, why are you doing this,” his response was to talk about his journey, beginning with the question, “why can’t I run 4 miles?  I should be able to run 4 miles,” to now asking, “I want to find out where my breaking point is and, when I get there, ask myself, ‘okay, what are you going to do now?'”

Ting!  Lawrence’s words struck a chord with me.  His drive is not competition; his drive is based on a pure and natural curiosity about himself.  His question is a good one.  It represents a motivation I can understand.  I am not competitive.  I even feel uncomfortable saying what many runners say, that “I am really just competitive with myself.”  That phrase does not exactly hit the mark for me.  I don’t feel the fight to be #1; I don’t understand the fire or aggression some believe must be in a competitor’s heart; I don’t even understand, really, the idea of ‘pursuing’ a goal, as if it is to be hunted down.  What I do understand is this curiosity.  I do comprehend, down to my deepest inner self, the drive to explore the what are the limits to which I can go, and when I reach them, I want to ask the question, “what now?”

Inspired by the podcast, I put the same question out to the universe during my meditation today.  I like this question.  I like the purity of it, the simple truth of it.  It’s my question, and it is the spark that will keep me moving, I believe, when I attempt to run 69 miles in June.  When I hit a point that I feel I can go no further, I will ask myself, “is this my breaking point?”  I know the answer will be “no.”  I will keep running, and  I will run until I reach the next point, when I will ask the question again.

This question will carry me through my race, and lead me to where I want to go.

Meditation

So, I have been meditating as a part of my training, relying on the advice of runners like Anna Hughes, who use visualization as a part of their successful racing strategies. It has become a bit larger than that, however. Sometimes, when I meditate, poems come to mind, describing what I see. This is a result of one of my more recent reflections:

Soul Travel

My soul today was a little leaf,
the color of autumnal reddish-brown.
Falling gently from the tree,
I rocked and swayed,
landing softly on the golden carpet
of Nature’s sanctuary, the afternoon sunlight bathing me and my space in glistening yellow warmth.
Peaceful, it was, until
Spirit moved,
And lifted me up to hover around his shoulder,
As he sailed across space and time,
I flitting and twirling and traveling,
Until we came to where you were.
Spirit then bade me to float,
down from his height
To where you lay,
And I landed softly,
A leaf out of nowhere,
On your solar plexus, and rested there.
You mused in pleasant curiosity
At this little leaf
That landed on your solar plexus,
And, arm folded and resting behind your head,
You regarded me with an amused and slightly quixotic smile,
Sensing something familiar and warm and comfortable,
So you let me stay.
I rested quietly, happy to be near you,
Intimate in a silent way,
Until Spirit thought well to move again,
Lifting me in his wake
To fly back home,
Through my sanctuary
and back to my Self,
Settled and filled with the serenity
That came through being with you.

————
Nothing special. Just wanting to share. : )

Picking Up a Bib

(a running commentary of my day)

On the subway. First leg, nine stops. Then switch lines, and then another. Should take an hour and fifteen or so.

Reading a book by the fanciful and often morbid Neil Gaiman, called The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains. It is illustrated like a graphic novel, but not quite. There are pages with paragraphs. As an operetta is to an opera, so this book is to a graphic novel or, indeed, a regular novel itself.

It takes place on the Isle of Skye, a place I would like to visit one day.

I like this author. Some of his things are just too weird for me, but all in all, his work reminds me of high fantasy, which I love. Innocence and Experience wrapped in fanciful and exquisite imagery. Transportive.

—-

Man being questioned by police. He wasn’t doing anything, but his skin is dark. Many people from the Federation’s eastern provinces are often checked by police.

Kievskaya Station has impressive mosaics portraying the workers’, the peasants’, and the professionals’ struggle and triumph over capitalism. Russia, one and all. Ornate and unmodern, very unlike the newer stations near my home. Each kind is beautiful in its own way and, modern or not, most of the stops are really very nice.

Funneling through the lines, the term “fake it till you make it” comes to mind. Exuding confidence creates confidence.

Down the escalator line, a sign promoting the ballet, The Great Gatsby.

Ballet?

Next leg begins.

——

I just met the president of the nation’s Mountain Running Association!!

In a very grey and messy complex of industrial and small business buildings, I found the sports club, where hosting organization has its office. Dirty air, cluttered streets, vans and campers parked as if people were living in them.

Not unusual, regardless of the country. It is a city, after all.

(it’s snowing)

Realized that yes, my Russian is improving, if only just a little, because I managed to get my bib AND chat for a few moments.

When I said I was American, one person’s question was, “Texas?”
No, not Texas. No need to worry about ebola.

I am number 1135

—-

oops, missed my stop.

—-

a few track changes, one wrong car, and now I am back on track.

Looking forward to reading my book.


A man is seated. Putting his hand alongside his cheek to scratch it, he instantly falls asleep. Hand is still there, fingers twitching, body deeply breathing. My, he must be tired.

Four more stops to go.

—-

Okay! Sitting in a warm cafe near my bus stop. I think I deserve a hot cup of something after all that. One more bus ride and then I’ll be home. 5 1/2 hour trip, but I got my number. : )

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My Big and Where I Am

Since I’ve moved and begun exploring my training routine, seeing where I am mentally and physically, I’ve harbored a feeling deep inside – I am a crap runner. Honestly. I have a goal to run a 111km race next year, and I stink. I proved that yesterday, when I ran a 10k race as part of the Moscow Marathon event. Too slow. Too unwilling to push. Too out of shape to keep it strong for even just 6 miles.

That’s okay. It was a stressful summer, preparing to move here. I even crashed my car because I was so exhausted. It’s time, however, to move out of recovery and into training. I have found a good plan for myself, I think. It includes a day of speed and hill work, plus one or two long runs, plus cross training (kundalini yoga and cycling) and, of course, shorter runs. I have been doing the routine for a few weeks and it feels good, but I’ve been too comfortable. Time to move that routine into a higher gear and begin pushing a bit more.

At the same time, I also need to remember that training is a process, and for it to have lasting impact, the advances I make need to be small ones. Patience is key, as is humility. I cannot let my ego take over; I have to accept where I am and move forward methodically but, as Bryon Powell puts it, relentlessly (by the way, if you have not read Powell’s book, Relentless Forward Progress, and you are interested in ultra running, get on it! The advice there is invaluable). I sometimes think that is why some people tend to fail at a task they have chosen: they are not so willing to accept where they are and are equally unwilling to pursue the process step-by-step. Lacking the humility to take the process one step at a time leads to failure, I think. I struggle with this aspect of training, but I am learning.

Patience, humility, and determination. Plus a little more courage to push myself further.

I will do this. I am not a professional; I am not anything special. I am just ordinary. But even ordinary can dream big and push for it. To some, what my big is, is nothing special. To me, however, it is. I will run this race, and I will run it strong. Not just finish. I will run strong.

What’ s your big?

FINDING MY WAY

WHAT A beautiful fall day. I was going to run today in the forest near my home, but a change of plans (happens frequently when one moves to and tries to settle in to a different country) meant a walk through the woods with my dogs instead. The change of plans happened for a reason, I now know, and I’ll explain that later.

I used to be jealous of all of you who get to run in beautiful places and forest trails that go on for miles. For various reasons, I was often limited to the trails in the city parks that dot the landscape in and around my old town in Michigan, USA. I appreciated them, but not enough! I realized that by connecting them with short road sections, I could easily put in 20 miles of terrific running, with short, steep hills, wildlife, and natural beauty.

I live now in Russia, just outside the beltway around Moscow. It is flat – flatter than Michigan! – and, well, populated. Here, very, very few people run, especially women. The only place I have seen women running is at one sports park I sometimes run to and in the little international enclave in which I live. Light joggers, mostly. A fellow, newly-arrived American and I are trying to create a group to run/walk in the morning once a week, but so far, there isn’t any interest.

It has been tough, a little. I don’t have a car. A sweaty female in running shorts on the Metro or the bus attracts a lot of stares. Heck, a female on the road running at all attracts a lot of stares. I’m used to the road stares – I have experienced that before in other places I’ve lived – but the Metro and the bus leave me a bit uncomfortable. For that reason, most of my runs take place in parks that I can, well, run to. They are nice, but they are small, often paved, or the trails are in no way technical. SIGH – I miss my old town!

There is one big potential though: in my backyard, there exists a huge national forest. To enter it, I have to knock on the guard’s door to pass through the gate. I have to have a pass if I want to return the same way. The terrain isn’t hilly or too technical yet, but I have only explored perhaps a 10 mile area so far. I need to move further in.

At first, I was nervous to even try because it is easy to get lost (very!) and there have been incidents of wild dog attacks. I was warned about groups of wanderers making camp there, and certainly, I have come across abandoned encampments during a couple runs. For a time, these warnings had me thinking that my one salvation, this forest called Krasnogorsky, was going to be off limits. Without language skills, without a map (haven’t found one yet), and on my own, the idea of running far in that forest seemed pretty daunting. I was, honestly, quite depressed.

I don’t know when it was exactly – perhaps one evening as I faced the forest from across the lake, soaking in the seemingly endless horizon of beautiful shades of pine and oak green, birch white, and deep shadows – but I just determined to not let the warnings and fears control my need to be free and run. The warnings were from people who are not trail runners, or even runners at all. They don’t know what I have learned so far. It seems to me that many people limit themselves with expressions of fear and danger in order to avoid putting forth energy to move outside their normal lives. I don’t want to be like that. That person, for me, was put to rest a long time ago.

As I’ve been exploring, I find it interesting that my real nervousness does not come from the forest, but from running in the city. I have to run along a few industrial roads to get to some parks. I face a good number of men while I am alone on a trail or pathway, aware that for some cultures, a woman acting outside the normal constructs of femininity is fair game for abuse, as she must obviously be a bit brazen to begin with. These places make me more nervous than being alone in the forest, though I have to admit, I have met some real gentlemen as well, including the man who insisted on fixing my bike pedal when I lost the nut and the pedal fell off. He did not speak a word of English and I could understand only a minute amount of his Russian. His help enabled me to get back home, though, safely.

So, once again, I am learning that my fears are not necessarily justified. Each day, in fact, sees an expansion of the sphere in which I exist. The forest is beautiful and, I hope, one day I’ll be able to run 20 miles there. Meeting people on the street really helps one to get to know the area, even though it also a bit scary at times. Often, it is simply my old self wanting to find ways to hold me back. I won’t let it.

The rewards to my determination are perhaps small to some people, but significant to me. I now believe I can train well enough, so I have signed up for the The Wall Ultramarathon in England next June, a 69 mile race along Hadrian’s Wall. I think the terrain here around Moscow will be perfect for that. I won’t do the marathon, but I will run the 10k portion of the Moscow Peace Marathon on September 21 (road race).

And, even better, though I haven’t found much interest in a running group, I just got a call from a woman who responded to a note I put up on a bulletin board, asking if anyone would be interested in running trails with me. She is a runner from Sweden, I believe. Because my plans had gotten changed, she and I are able to start tomorrow.

My first ever running partner. Yes, I’d say I’m beginning to find my way.

Lessons from Adventuring in a Foreign Forest – Run Report

This summer has been an exhausting whirlwind of move preparation, international visitors, and selling our home. My last days in the U.S. ended with a car crash due to exhaustion (I did not hit anyone, thankfully, and I was fine too), sending my dogs off on their week-long journey to get to our new home, a wedding, and finally, a few days at the beach. I barely had time to process the fact that I was moving to a new country, a new culture and a new language. It didn’t really hit me until I was on the plane and there was no turning back.

One thing I did continue to think about, however, was the area we were moving to. It is in a region outside Moscow, near a national forest named after the provincial town, Krasnogorsk. With all the work I was doing, I had little time to run far, and so I spent a good deal of time looking forward and visualizing what the forest would be like. We were to be living in a gated community and I would have limited access to a car, so I was envisioning and holding the image of the forest as my key to freedom while living in our new compound – uh – home.    

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Then, the other day, the shoe dropped. I was told by a Muscovite that this particular forest was dangerous. There are encampments of homeless people and packs of wild dogs. He himself had been attacked there once. He suggested that I run in those woods only if I have a partner, for safety.

As I know very few runners who run the way or do or who even like trails, I figured I was screwed. Fat chance I’d be able to get anyone to come with me, I thought. The guards already thought I was crazy when I went for a short run there last week, just after arriving. Now I knew why.

I can’t tell you how sad and disappointed I was. I have been trying to visualize my training for an 80-100k race next year (narrowed the choices but have not completely decided on which one), and images of running each morning from my home through Krasnogorsky were quite vivid. Moreover, it is the only forest area easily accessible without a car. Moscow has many beautiful parks, but they are not wild, and they require a bus, metro, and additional running to get to. How was I going to make this work?

I was pretty deflated for about a day, but deep inside, I knew I was not going to let the threat of dogs or people keep me from the run. Moreover, the forest is huge, and it was likely that the safer area was on the eastern side, where my neighborhood lay. I shouldn’t allow fear to keep me from exploring just a little. I woke this moning with the intention of running just a half hour within the woods, then continuing in the neighborhood. I would stick to main trails, stay as straight as possible, bring my gps watch, and take pictures at any juncture I came across.

Things went well the first 15-20 minutes. The woods were pretty and the terrain a little hillier and more technical on the south part than on the north part, which I had explored last week. I was on high alert for dogs, but did not come across anything except a pig. At least, it looked a bit like a pig and squealed like a pig, but I’m not sure if wild pigs are supposed to be up there. Perhaps it was something else.

When my time was up, I turned back to head home. Despite my attention, I must have missed a turn and found myself quite lost.   A myriad of pathways criss-crossed each other in all directions, and even with the photos, there were too many that looked alike.   I doubled back but could not find the path I needed to take. It was then that I discovered that my awesome (sarcasm intended) gps watch had stopped tracking for some reason, and did not know where I was. So much for European quality – ha!

I had to be back by 10 am.

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Fortunately, I had my new phone with me. The iPhone map feature is not all that great, but after a little creative work on the address, I got a general sense of where I wanted to be and began to head towards it. I was wrong at first and so found myself heading in the direction of a different town than mine, but eventually, I realized my mistake and set my steps in a direction to a place on the map that looked more like where I wanted to be. It worked, and 1.5 hours later, I made it back. The guard was worried, he said (or at least, I think that’s what he said), and was happy to see me. I even got home on time.

When I think about it, it wasn’t all that far out or dangerous. I did see encampments – empty ones. I did hear dogs, but not near me. I did see the pig, but he wasn’t the large boar I’ve seen in pictures. He was about half the size. And I’ve encountered them before. I did have pepper spray, and I did have my phone.

Being lost in the forest of a foreign country, however, where one does not yet know the language with the potential for attack by dogs or (worse) people – wow! Were my senses every on high alert! Finding home felt like a major triumph.

I will most definitely go back there, but next time, I will rely on lessons learned and, instead of just technology, I will use a compass and mark my coordinates. I will bring something to mark my turns (there are large “Vs” painted in red, but they mean to point out any number of exits from the woods, not just my particular location), and always, always, always, carry a weapon of some kind. If I can find a partner, that would be even better.

Here’s to adventure and freedom. Despite the risks, these things are so worth it.