Sunday, August 24, 2014

Stepping Out Of Your Comfort Zone High Up in the Tree Tops

This week I want to talk about comfort zones.  Now, we all have something that makes us feel safe and comfortable: our Mom’s lasagna, a favorite chair, an old worn out sweatshirt that feels like a hug every time we put it on.  And we all need comfort.  Kids need to know there’s a safe place when they’re scared.  Actually, adults do, too.

There is a problem with comfort zones, though.  Sure, they’re safe, but they never let us get anywhere.  It’s much safer to walk around the block without ever crossing a street, but if we never cross the street we’ll never know anything other than our own block.

Last week I took my kids to visit my BFF Heather, and her family up in New Hampshire.  Now, I’d have to say that Heather is probably the person on this planet that I am most comfortable around.  I met her at McGill University my freshman year, and we’ve been buds for the last 28 years (yes, we went to college when we 5.  OK, we weren’t.  Yes, we’re old.  Just let it go).  But although I was in a comfortable place, my family and I all did things out of our comfort zones.

First, the drive alone was stressful for me.  I don’t drive much anymore, so 5 hours on interstate highways was not something I enjoy.  Also, my track record for drives to and from Heather’s house are not stellar.  Once I got a huge speeding ticket, another time I had to pull over on I-95 because there was such torrential downpour that you couldn’t see and the road was flooded.  And then there was the ice storm that I tried to drive in and ended up wrecking my car and getting a concussion. So, although Heather is my favorite person to visit, driving there is not what I would call fun.  That said, if I wanted to see Heather, the only way I could get there with the kids was to step out of my comfort zone and drive there.  And I did.  The drive was nerve-wracking but fine, and the payoff was 4 days with my bestie.  Totally worth it.

My next “out of comfort zone” story isn’t about me.  It’s about my 9 year old daughter, Olivia.  For those who don’t know her, Olivia is a very methodical, by the book kind of kid (unlike her mother, I doubt there will ever be any speeding tickets or car accidents in her future).  Olivia is also very practical.  Dumb ideas just don’t fit inside her body.  You know how you use a kid’s first, middle and last name when you are yelling at them and you want them to know that they are really in trouble?  Well, I don’t think Olivia even knew what her middle name was until she was about 7.

Heather's family and mine, before the course
During our visit to Heather’s, we all decided to go to Gunstock Mountain.  Gunstock is a ski resort in New Hampshire that doubles as an adventure destination in the summer.  They have a ropes course that takes you about 50 feet off the ground, a zip line ride that is 3 miles long, and off-road segways just to name a few.  Heather and her teenaged daughters were set to do the adult ropes course, and I was going to watch Olivia and my 6 year old son Benjamin on the kids’ one.

The course started with a safety demo.  I watched Ben to make sure he was listening and understood (unlike his sister, let’s just say that Ben was hearing his middle name 3 times a day before he was out of diapers).  Every now and then I’d look over at Olivia.  I knew she was concentrating on the rules, but I could see that she was also scared. 

After the demo, the kids and I headed over to the kids’ course.  Although it’s smaller than the adult one, it still puts you between 6 and 10 feet overhead, where you have to tightrope walk, Tarzan swing, or balance your way across wobbly logs while you’re held on by nothing other than a climbing harness and a couple of carabiners. 

Ben went up first, and I had my eye on him to make sure that he was always clipped into something, even if it was just a cable attached to a tree.  I knew that Ben wouldn’t be overly scared, so I also watched Liv. I just wasn’t sure if she could face her fear of heights, climbing, and well, hanging from a cable held on by nothing but a climbing harness and a couple of carabiners. 

Liv, facing her fears and talking to Willy
Olivia was fascinating to watch.  When she got really scared, she started talking out loud, and after a bit I realized that she was pretending to talk to her favorite stuffed animal.  “Willy” always makes her feel better, so she just pretended that she was talking to him.  I watched her concentrate and focus.  One obstacle was really difficult.  You had to walk the length of three different logs.  Each one only had suspension points on the end, so they wobbled back and forth as well as side to side.  And as you finished each one you had to take a very big leap to get to the next one.  Liv was terrified.  Frankly, I was terrified watching her.  But she comforted herself by talking to Willy and just kept putting one step in front of the other.  And let me tell you, nothing has ever shined as brightly as her face when she made it to the end. It was amazing.  Liv stepped out of her comfort zone, and the feeling of accomplishment she had was so big that it radiated from her.

Ben crossing the wobbly logs
But it gets even better.  When my guys were done with their course (which they got to do twice; the first time was slow and methodical, the second time they whipped through it), I texted Heather.  It happened that she was done with her course at the same time.  I hadn’t planned to climb at all, figuring I’d be with my kids while everyone else went, but Heather offered to watch them for me so that I could try the adult’s course.

I didn’t do all of the course, because I had to get back and relieve Heather since she and one of her daughters had to leave before the rest of us.  I was a little nervous, but I really wouldn’t say that I was out of my comfort zone, so I won’t get into my journey through the ropes course.  Besides, I want to get back to part two of my kids.

The kayak phenom
When I was done, I found Heather at the lake.  She was standing on shore, watching Ben and Olivia zoom around in kayaks.  I told Heather that they had never kayaked before, and she said that they wanted to try it so she took them over.

When the kids came back to shore, I asked them about kayaking.  Liv had a blast, and said it was her new favorite thing.  I asked her if she was scared to try it, and she said, “Well, yeah, but I was scared of the ropes course and did it, so I figured I could do this, too.”

And that, my friends, is why we need to step out of comfort zones from time to time.  We need to push ourselves at one thing to realize that we can accomplish many.  It’s great to feel safe all the time, but if we never leave that safety, we won’t discover other things that we end up loving.

So, the next time you’re sitting in your favorite chair eating your mom’s lasagna while wearing that old sweatshirt that feels like a hug, think about trying something that scares you.  You may just find your new favorite thing.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Two Phases Of Renovation

Have you ever renovated a house?  There are really two main phases: destruction and construction (and no, I don’t have a new show on HGTV; when we lived in Massachusetts we lived in a 2 unit house, and we helped our condo-neighbors with destruction and renovation of their place.  This was of course before we realized that they were psychotic, anti-Semitic bullies who we eventually spoke to only through lawyers.  Good times). 

The deconstruction phase is actually kind of fun.  You get to swing sledge hammers, kick walls in, and take your aggressions out by destroying your own home (that aggression part was the neighbors.  In hindsight we should have known what we were going to be in for just by watching them demolish their own property with such gusto).

Once everything is torn down and swept up, you start with the reconstruction.  Reconstructing involves more work in that it needs to be pretty precise or you have to live with shoddy results.  But if you put the work in, satisfaction in a job well done is a fantastic reward.

So, was I tearing my house down last week?  Nope.  So what’s with the deconstruction/reconstruction analogy?  Well, two weeks ago I went to Memphis for 4 days’ worth of work meetings.  Going on any business trip is tough.  You have hours of long meetings where you barely get to walk around, the days are very long and you’re sleeping in a hotel bed that you’re not used to.  And then there’s food.  At most conferences, there's tons of food, usually buffet style.  This meeting was no exception.  The food was abundant and was ever present.  Besides meals, there were snacks, sodas, and sweet tea (and by the way, in Memphis sweet tea is served with your meal instead of water unless you request it.  That was new for me).  Oh, and did I mention the desserts?  Key Lime pie (in my opinion, the only non-chocolate dessert worth eating), pecan pie (a very close second non-chocolate dessert worth eating), peach cobbler, ice cream.  And those are only the desserts I can remember.

Needless to say, my week in Memphis was deconstructive in terms of my own weight and fitness goals.  I ran a little, but, umm, have you ever tried to run outside in Memphis in August?  Talk about hot!  Regarding food, I tried the Weight Watchers trick where if you can’t pick your own food, make the best choice you can given what’s available.  But when the best choice available is fried chicken, you know it’s going to be a tough meal. By night 3 I was enjoying an extremely large margarita/strawberry daiquiri combo from Wet Willie’s on Beale Street (hey, by then I figured that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.  And if I was going down, it might as well be in a giant frozen margarita/daiquiri).

When I got home I weighed myself.  I was up two pounds, and that was with bypassing the cookies, deep fried okra, sweet tea, and even the Key Lime pie (sigh).  But here’s the important part.  I remembered the construction part of remodeling.  I knew where I wanted to be in terms of weight and fitness, so I just worked towards that.  All last week I ate like the Weight Watchers poster child.  I counted my points, tracked everything. I ran, biked, even got through two boot camp classes without swearing (out loud).  And when I stepped on the scale this past Friday, I had lost 1.8 of that 2 pounds of Memphis that I brought home with me.

There are always destructive times in our lives.  Things happen that we can’t control, or that we’re just not strong enough to deal with.  Everything falls apart, and when the dust settles we see that there’s a lot that needs to be fixed.   But there are two ways to look at the end of a destruction phase.  You can be so overwhelmed by all the work that you do that you leave everything in shambles and let it all continue to fall apart, or you look at all the empty canvas you have to build yourself up any way that you want.

70 pounds ago, 2008
When I lived as Fat Girl, I’d try to lose weight or be active.  I would do OK until some random thing got in my way (family illnesses, car accidents, a McDonald’s drive thru), and the deconstruction would start.  And once I was able to look up again all I saw were all the walls I had just knocked down (or kicked in if, you’re my old anti-Semitic, psychotic neighbor), and then I would decide to just stay on that course.  Rebuilding was too difficult. 

But the truth is that it doesn’t have to be.  Remember what it is that you want to build and what you want to get to.  Just that thought can get you back on track and help you to rebuild.  It may take a while, but isn’t the finished product of a remodeling job always so much better than what you started with?

Renovation complete, :-)

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Who Are You?

Who are you?  That question just took you aback a little bit, didn’t it?  I understand, it’s kind of an odd question.  And to make it more confusing, I don’t mean your name.  I’m talking about your identity.  Now if you’re a super hero, that is very cool, but your secret identity is not what I’m talking about.  How do you identify yourself?  Parent? Artist? Rockstar?

This question came up in my last Weight Watchers meeting.  Our leader asked us just that: “Who are you?  How would you identify yourself?”  I was stuck.  There was a very long pause in my head when absolutely nothing came to mind. I don’t think I quite understood the question.  Who am I? 

After a second or two, people started answering: “mother”, “sister”, “employee”, “grandparent”, “cook”, “house manager”.  As people called things out, I thought “yes” or “no” as it applied to me for each one.  Yes, I’m a mother.  Yes, I’m a sister.  Yes, I’m an employee.  Nope, not a grandparent.  Some were tricky (“cook”? Umm, if you mean cook well enough to feed myself and others to survive, then sure.  If we’re talking Gordon Ramsey level, then not even close). Others were a lot easier (I had a firm no on “scooterist” as one woman who we learned to be a Vespa enthusiast proudly labeled herself).

This went on for a bit, but then two identities were called out back to back that stopped my brain dead in its tracks.  When I tell you the two words, you’ll think it’s odd that they got to me (though if you’ve been following my blog for a bit, you probably picked up on my being odd a while ago).  They were “runner” and “athlete”.

I know; you’re confused.  So was I.  I run, bike, swim and weight train (as long as we define all of those words in terms of effort and frequency instead of skill).  I work out almost every day, taking a rest day only when my body is begging me for one.  That’s what athletes do, right?  I’m currently training for my 5th marathon.  That qualifies me for “runner”, no?

It should, but it doesn’t.  My body is fit and carries 70 fewer pounds than it used to.  The problem, though, is that my brain isn’t quite there yet.  Often at a race, I feel very out of place.  At the edge of the water before a triathlon, I look around at all these people who seem relaxed and confident.  They talk about how this race is really just a training day for some bigger race coming up.  I’ve never done a smaller race to prepare for a bigger one.  I don’t feel relaxed and confident.

Yesterday I volunteered for the NYC Triathlon.  Volunteering in any given year gives you guaranteed entry for the following year.  This is my 3rd year volunteering and I’ve done the race – zero times.  The first year I volunteered handing out packets to athletes with their race bibs, arm number tattoos (this race goes all out; no old creepy guy standing there with a Sharpie writing your number on your arm and occasionally getting it wrong, crossing it out, and writing it again under the first try.  Here you get tattoos you have to put on and that take about 3 weeks to finally come off, disallowing any sleeveless tops for close to a month).  I was with a few other women, most of whom would be competing in the triathlon the next day.  I spent 5 hours listening to them drone on about all of their athletic accomplishments; a Half Ironman completed with a broken wrist, 2 Olympic distance races in 2 weeks, about 3 million races that year alone.  I tried to keep up with them. I was training for my second marathon; that was cool, right?  Not to these people; they probably did 2 marathons yesterday. After a few minutes I kept quiet and felt like the only non-athlete in the room.  But there was a bright spot.  I was volunteering in 2012 to have guaranteed entry in 2013.  I’d be one of them then.

But, I wasn’t.  In 2013 the race was on July 8th.  I got out of my boot from my stress fracture on July 1st.  Now, even a real athlete can’t train for an Olympic distance triathlon in 7 days (well, these other volunteers probably would have told you that they could and did).  So, last year I volunteered again at packet pick up and was surrounded by different people with the same resumes: a billion triathlons, Half Ironmans, Full Ironmans, ultra marathons.  And again, I kept quiet and left at the end of my shift feeling like a fraud.  I wasn’t an athlete or a runner.  I was a Fat Girl who had lost weight and would eventually gain it all back and pick up my old sedentary ice cream filled lifestyle.

A few months after that volunteering day, registration opened for the 2014 NYC Triathlon.  I had that guaranteed entry – and I didn’t use it.  I told myself that it was because the race was ridiculously expensive (about $300; a LOT of money for an Olympic distance triathlon) and not worth it (note: I was given a guaranteed spot for volunteering.  I wasn’t given a free spot).  The truth, though, was that I didn’t feel like I could do it.  I’m not an athlete.  I can’t compete with those women I had handed out packets with for the previous two years. No way.

I did sign up to volunteer again, though.  First, it’s kind of fun to be involved in some way, and second, I’d get another guaranteed entry for 2015, and maybe I’d feel like an athlete by then.  Again, I signed up for packet pickup; yes, the other people were intimidating, but it was a really busy job and the time went by quickly.  But then a funny thing happened.  A few days ago I got an email from the triathlon company saying they had to switch some volunteers around and I had been reassigned to “chip checker” (we run your timing chip over a scanner to make sure that: a) your chip was given to you, and b) that it works.  Nothing like doing a race with a dead chip or ending with a fabulous time attached to someone else’s name because you had the wrong one). Didn’t really matter to me as long as I got that entry that I probably wasn’t going to use again.

This time I was with just 3 other women: Dawn, Caprice and Karen.  All three were competing in the triathlon, so I again felt a little inferior.  But once we got to chatting I felt comfortable pretty quickly.  Of course we talked about triathlons and running, but these girls weren’t crowing like the others.  One woman said she had quit in the middle of a triathlon (one I had done back in 2012) because she was having a really hard time and just got too far into her own head and gave up.  A second one (friends with the first and volunteering together) had finished that triathlon, but was second to last.  They talked about running paces of 11 minute miles, not 6.   They were back of the packers like me, and they admitted it freely.  They were all in their late 40s, and all just doing it because they love the challenge, which is exactly why I had started this stuff: to challenge myself and prove to myself what I was capable of.  Not to prove it to anyone else; prove it to me.

During this shift there was intermittent down time where we all talked.  But we didn’t talk about completing our first half marathon at age 6 like the packet pick up folks.  We talked about different style of foam rollers, where to buy the cheapest wet suits, and our favorite types of nutrition in the middle of a long training session (one of the women was partial to Honey Stingers wafters.  I’m a strawberry Shot Blok girl myself, though Vanilla Gu is a close second).  I brought up my broken foot from the year before and how I ran on it for a month before getting it checked.  These women weren’t shocked.  They nodded in complete understanding.

Messing around before a tri, 2011
Later in the shift I got hungry, so I pulled out the peanut butter and jelly sandwich I had made for myself; I had a 12 mile run the next day and a 9 miler the day after that; I needed to be all about carbs and protein.  About a half hour later Dawn got hungry, and pulled an almost identical pb & j.  She saw me looking at her and said, “The lunch of any athlete the day before a big workout.”  Then she smiled and attacked her sandwich.

And that’s when it hit me.  I spend half my time carb loading.  I own a wetsuit.  I worry more about flat tires on my bicycle than I do on my car.  I know what it feels like to roll out sore muscles on a foam roller and I do it anyway.  I have a favorite flavor Gu.  I will never win a race (unless I’m the only one competing in it, and even then I don’t know if I’d bet my money on me), but I train, sweat and ache.  I am a runner and I am an athlete.

Identities are fluid.  We start off as daughter or son and perhaps even brother or sister.  Later we become aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents.  We become artists, employees, even rockstars.  And sometimes Fat Girls turn into athletes.  I did.  So, who are you?

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Why You Have To Keep Going When You Can't Keep Going

                “Don’t stop.”
                “But I have to stop.”
                “But it hurts when you stop.”
                “It’s hurting now.”
                “Fine, then stop.  There, how does it feel?”
                “It hurts!”
                “I told you.”
                “Shut up!”

You want to know who is having this conversation, don’t you?  Of course you do, or you wouldn’t be reading this blog, duh.  OK, I’ll tell you.  This conversation happened during my run yesterday between me… and me.

Those of you who don’t run have just decided that I’m completely insane (or you decided that a while ago, and this affirms it), and those of you who do run not only understand but have probably had this exact conversation.

Yesterday I was on my long run.  Still in the first month of my training plan for the New York Marathon on November 2nd, this long run was relatively short at 11 miles (again, non-runners just gasped, runners nodded their heads in understanding of calling an 11 mile run “relatively short”).  And it was a bitch. 

After my great run in an otherwise awful triathlon last week, I decided to go all out on this one.  It started off fine, but somewhere around mile 4 things started to get ugly.  My legs were OK, but I developed a side stitch that decided to keep me company for the next 3 or 4 miles.  It was hard to figure out how long because my watch was apparently possessed since it went backwards by a ½ mile and then kept randomly shutting itself off.  Nothing quite like looking down to find your time and distance only to realize that your watch is paused and you don’t know for how long (and this happened 3 times during the run.  Annoying).

I was also hot.  Really hot.  It was humid when I started, so I brought a little towel with me that I hooked onto my water belt to wipe sweat off me before I drowned in it, but by mile 6 or so it was completely saturated.  I usually need 2 bottles of water for an 11 mile run in the summer, so I brought 3 just in case, and by mile 7 I was almost empty.  At one point I used a person’s sprinkler system that was inaccurately aimed at the sidewalk as a makeshift misting station.  This helped for about 30 seconds, but then I was hot again.   I even shorted out one earbud from my Ipod with my own sweat.   

Because I was so hot, I kept stopping.  I probably stopped at least once every mile, though I have no clue since my watch was being schizophrenic.  But that’s when the problem started.  Have you ever biked up a really big hill, and at the top you stop pedaling and just coast for a few seconds while you make sure that you’re still alive and swear to yourself that you will never ride a bicycle ever again?  Well, during those few seconds, have you ever felt your legs starting to SCREAM?  That’s lactic acid buildup.  The quick explanation of lactic acid is that your body produces it to give you enough energy to pedal over those enormous hills that you swear you’ll never face again.  So, when you stop pedaling, it builds up and has nowhere to go, and for some reason that is extremely painful even if it’s for only a minute or so (and the obvious trick when you’re cycling is to actually keep pedaling when you get to the top of that hill, even if it’s really slow and gentle; that way you use up that lactic acid without it trying to kill you).

Anyway, when I was stopping during the early miles I felt a heavy feeling in my legs, but it didn’t burn.  By the later miles, though, each time I stopped I felt a wave of fire run through my legs. So I’d start running again, but then I’d get so hot that I felt like I was going to pass out. So I’d stop.  The waves of fire intensified.  So I’d run to get away from the pain.  But then I’d feel like I was going to pass out again. So I’d stop.  Pain.  Run.  Pass out feeling. Stop.  Pain.  You get the idea.

With about 1.5 miles left on my run (approximately, of course, since my watch was running only slightly better than the 7 train), I had that conversation that started this whole monologue.  I had to stop.  But it hurt, so I didn’t want to.  But I couldn’t run anymore.  But I couldn’t stop. 

I told myself that I could just stop and walk the rest of the way home, but I didn’t.  At that moment something funny occurred to me.  My run hurt so much because I kept stopping.  The point of a run is to get from the beginning to the end in one fell swoop, but by continually stopping, I was just making it harder.  And isn’t that what happens with pretty much everything? If we dive right into something, it feels too hard and we stop doing it.  And then when we try to start up again, it’s even harder so we stop again.  Bad cycle, bad idea.

2013 NY Marathon.  Just keep going.
So what’s the solution?  Well, it’s actually pretty simple.  First, start small.  If I had started my run at a pace better suited to the heat and humidity (and my athletic abilities), I wouldn’t have struggled so much.  And when the trouble starts – which it will at some point – don’t stop.  Just ease up like those slow pedal strokes at the top of a big hill.  You won’t be moving fast, but it keeps the pain away and you continue to move forward.  And I’m not just talking about running (this time the non-runners are getting it and the runners are totally confused since they’re thinking, “When is something not about running?”).

Unfortunately I learned my own lesson in the last mile (I think) of my 11 mile run.  I also learned this lesson at age 39 when I decided to start my journey of losing 70 pounds and becoming an athlete (albeit an old, crappy one). The good thing though is that I can use it forever.  Here I am, 6 years later (though somehow still aged 39 :-), with the weight off for over 5 years and training for my 5th marathon. 

Next week my long run is 12 miles.  I’ll get through it just fine. I just have to remember my own lessons – and get my watch fixed.