Humbled and Hobbled

September 3rd Victory Memorial 10k – 36:53

Saturday October 6th TC 10k – 36:58

Saturday October 6th  TC 5k – 19:07

Sunday October 7th TC Marathon – DNF

As I said in my last post, I spent a month in Fort Sill, Oklahoma for army reserve training as a condition of my scholarship for school. During that time, it was difficult for me to think that I wasn’t being treated to some extent like a child. Being required to travel anywhere on post with another soldier in my company. Not being allowed outside the barracks after 6pm most days. Being restricted to the quad area just outside the barracks on the weekend for personal training. Being told when and where to use the bathroom, talk, eat, and everything else is just a part of a training environment. By no means was this basic training (I can’t stress the discrepancy in the intensity of our training compared to basic training enough), but it threw quite the wrench into what I set as a goal at the outset of the year.

To run, everyday, without fail.

Suffice to say, I got creative. If it meant sneaking out of the barracks to run 5 miles on the treadmill, or playing dumb when getting caught coming back from the track by yourself because you can’t find anyone to be your ‘battle buddy,’ or getting home from training and running 4 miles outside at 2am in Minneapolis because you just couldn’t make it happen the last day in Oklahoma, I did what I had to do. With only my schedule to follow for the rest of the year, it seemed absolutely guaranteed to check off that goal. Even with a pretty packed racing schedule ahead. Checked off a 15k and a trail marathon that, respectively, showed me I still had some juice in my legs just a day after coming back from hampered run training and also instill a newfound love for trail running. Both confidence building revelations as I continued to gear up for a 50 mile trail race in WI and turn around for a race challenge series on Twin Cities Marathon weekend 3 weeks later. I felt healthy, and strong, so why not ramp up the training?

I was trying to use the weekends to prepare for the ultra by doing long runs on trails while doing intervals during the week to get used to running on tired legs. Fairly standard training methodology. I utilized a Mill City team race to get in one more big training weekend 2 weeks before Wisconsin: 30 mile trail run Sunday, 10k race Monday, 10 marathon pace miles on Tuesday. And everything went fine. I run faster than predicted on the trail and the 10k, and am able to maintain (albeit uncomfortably) those MP miles. But on an innocuous, ‘junk miles’ run the following weekend, I ran into something I’d managed to avoid for over 3 years.

Injury.

‘Limby’ is an adjective I’ve heard used to describe me before, and that was when I was in high school as a 195 pound outside linebacker lifting heavy weights 4 times a week. I’m not one to really comment on people’s looks/body types. But I couldn’t help but think how accurate that describes a picture like this. Now being much, MUCH more comfortable in my skin (regardless of my weight, appearance), I feel more at liberty to bring it up. And with a 6’6” wingspan on a 6’1” inch frame and legs like a spider, ‘limby’ seems more objective than subjective.

I’ve facetiously entertained the notion since high school about cutting my legs off from the hips down and getting some athletic prosthetics to avoid that nagging, useless, debilitating pain you get from consistently pounding your legs. If I only had to worry about aerobic ability and do away with actually having to exercise maintenance, all the better right? It sounds like a better and better idea every day…

I digress. That weekend saw some nagging pain in my ankle, and then a forfeiture of a goal I’d, truly fought hard to achieve. A bag thick helping of humble pie that’s still finding its slow, painful, peristaltic path through my heart and soul. 1 week of cross training on a rower, a few days on the elliptical, a few PT sessions and wouldn’t you know it I’m ready for Twin Cities Marathon weekend. Having had to drop out of a trail ultra in Wisconsin, a forced abstinence from the fun and camaraderie with November Project tribe members from around the country, was, well, infuriating to say the least. And, honestly, I hadn’t had the slightest confidence I’d be healthy enough for TCM weekend. So I met the disappointment of mid-September with a newfound confidence that I’d run this challenge series (a 10k and 5k on Saturday, the marathon on Sunday) fast. And healthy. And I was wrong.

In hindsight, running only 5 seconds slower than my 10k PR for the first race was less than ideal, but I had the wherewithal to back off on the 5k just an hour later. Legs feeling 80% right after 15k of racing and a 4 minute lead in the challenge series, on paper I don’t think I could have asked for anything better. Honestly, I had as much confidence as I could have imagined going into Sunday. Out the gate, sitting comfortably at 6:30’s with good company to pace, I was even on pace for a PR. A marathon PR with 2 races the day before! But just 5 miles into the marathon, a thought came into my head I’d never experienced before in this race.

Quit. Give up. It’s not your day.

Quite literally looking up into the sky for the source of the insurgent voice I felt its power start to cling and take a prominent presence in my mind. Mile 8 rolls around and that conquered pain in my ankle comes back with a vengeance. And those 6:30 miles start to feel like 6:00 minute miles and I have to back off. And once again that voice of quitting finds a platform and a megaphone that drowns out any other thoughts. Am I even running in my own body anymore? Mile 11 and now I’m starting to limp, my watch says 7:00 minutes. My breathing is labored like I’m hitting the wall on Summit Ave and I’m not even halfway through the race. My pacers are almost out of sight. I spy a spot on the side of the road and knew, overwhelmingly, that this really isn’t the day. For the first time in my career this race is a DNF, a Did Not Finish. I looked down trying to comprehend what happened, looking back on the weekend, what went wrong. And in hindsight, when I’m honest with myself, the signs were there. I felt sluggish all day Saturday. I was fatigued and sore, unable to feel satiated or hydrated despite adequate food and fluid. I was irritable, and unmotivated for Sunday. Even getting up, that sense of excitement, wonder, curiosity, intrigue, all those things that have come with distances like this, was absent. I tried (and succeeded) at ignoring exactly what my soul was telling me. I really believe that, mind you. So when your soul can’t get through to you spiritually or emotionally, well it will try to reinjure you to get you to stop. I looked down at my leg on Sunday morning just after quitting, failing, ascribing a new meaning to the multicolored beautiful winged sandal that now takes up the majority of lateral thigh. A representation, for me, of endurance and longevity. And I felt something, in that moment, I hadn’t anticipated.

Relief.

It’s funny – you’d have asked me a few years ago what I thought about people getting a tattoo, I would have given the very usual responses of ‘It’s permanent – what if you don’t like it anymore?’ and “Why would you ruin your body like that?” and blah blah blah. Case-in-point, tattoos are cool af and I can only hope I can elevate my status of boring, introverted, shut-in, to boring, introverted, shut-in who looks marginally cooler having paid people to do some badass art on their skin. Equally remarkable as the tattoo? The fact that for first 3 hours of it, I had someone I hadn’t spoken to in almost 10 holding my hand and making me laugh (and not cry) during the stenciling and shading. That’s the power of being open-minded. You open yourself to new (best) friendships, and subsequently the opportunity to assuage post DNF pain watching Disney movies and eating (lots of) vegan snacks.

My soul, having tried a few different ways to reach out to me, finally found a mode of communication that satisfied its audience enough to comply. Now, that’s not to say I don’t feel frustrated and upset about being sidelined from the race. And having to go back to the drawing board as far as recovery. Both suck. However, I take solace in knowing that having scrapped something that meant the world to me, a return to an event that catapulted my practice in exercise to levels I would never have anticipated, I ensure I get to come back to it faster and healthier than before. It’s a practice to focus on the positives. It’s difficult to find the silver lining, and it’s even more difficult to keep your focus on the good when I could spiral into self-flagellation and loathing far more easily. But that gets easier, with practice. And extending that practice of positivity beyond my own self-interests, focusing and reveling in the accomplishments of others is where I find I can shift the perspective (more) easily. I have so many friends that found success this last weekend, and in Wisconsin, that I can’t help but have my heart fill with joy and pride for all of those in this community that enjoyed their successes this weekend. The selfish, self-absorbed, self-deprecating thoughts become smaller and less frequent when my internal focus is set on my wonderful friends all over the country who are absolutely fucking crushing it. People who are courageous, strong, and most importantly in my opinion, inspiring. And it extends beyond running.

My short career in acting has allowed me to portray a modicum of confidence outwardly while racing, while having a completely scattered-brained, self-doubting, over-thinking, catawampus mess existing perpetually in that organ just behind my eyes. Sure, I may look focused here, but between the cone and my position in the photo I could estimate no less than 5,000 distracting thoughts trying to derail the last 0.2 miles of this 10k. But don’t tell that to my upright chest and speed hands. Fake-it-til-you-make it is hardly a mantra constrained to interviews and first-dates – for me, it’s a way of life (and racing).

There have been numerous occasions in which this blog has opened doors to friendships and relationships I would never have conceived, simply because immeasurably strong individuals had the courage to reach out and connect with me. From old friends, current and former classmates, to complete strangers, I am floored by the willingness of people to be directly vulnerable with me, show support, and even open up about their own struggles. But because I have trained (am training, sometimes failing) myself to keep those doors unlocked, I have fostered new friendships and maintained old ones I wouldn’t have dreamed of even a few months ago. Re-connecting with high school friends I haven’t seen or heard from in years. Throwing every available resource I have to classmates struggling with the demons of eating disorder that found a home in my mind and soul for far too long. And perhaps most surprising to me, an unprecedented 6 hour lunch with a high-school-acquaintance-turned-best-friend sharing her story of her own struggle with mental health, along with her unapologetic sarcasm and morbid gallows humor that reflects mine with preternatural and hilarious precision.

There are lessons to be learned from listening to your mind, body, and soul. The integration of all three allows me to push when I need to push, slow when I need to slow, and (frustratingly) stop when I need to stop. But it’s listening to others, directing that focus onto the inspirational stories and success of friends, classmates, and total strangers that makes listening to yourself that much more bearable when your hurt. It gives me the chance to stop focusing on what I can’t do and being boisterously proud of what all of my friends can do, and continue to do.

I love looking just a little bit ridiculous when racing. Not a lot of other people out on the course with obscenities plastered on their race-day wardrobe. Anybody that ever tells you it doesn’t matter what you wear, it’s selfish to think about what you look like, all that nonsense, is full of shit. If you feel more confident in what you’re wearing, and it gets you some jeers while you’re at it (good in a racing context anyway), go for it. How often do you get to put the f-word on your socks? And beyond what it looks like, there is a lot packed in here that represents far more than an aesthetic. From November Project, to MCR, to wearing my American flag shorts for every race, there is a rich history of happiness, hardship, and wonderful people stitched into the fabric of this gear.

So keep being awesome people. If nothing else, you’re providing positivity fodder for a currently hobbled, humbled, (recently a little high for the first time), closer-to-30-than-20 kid who’s hoping just to dovetail your badass example.

 

From Denver, with Love

MDRA 15K August 5 2018 (57:31) and Pike’s Peak Marathon August 19 2018 (5:38:31)

My summer hiatus apparently wasn’t limited to just school. It’s been a while. I’ve missed this. I could pull many excuses for not updating: It’s summer, I was in Oklahoma for 4 weeks for army training, I was travelling last week, blah blah blah. In any case – that’s all bullshit and I regret not maintaining this. There is a dose-dependent output of positivity and peace that comes with writing and meditating, and I haven’t been more aware of that since falling off the practice of both exercises for the last couple of months. My mind is more erratic, my motivations less clear, and increasingly I feel out of touch with myself and my friends. But like most things in life, I seem to preternaturally learn the same damn lessons, repeatedly, the hard way. Perhaps some of you are familiar with the feeling – if so, you’re not alone. Take comfort (or more likely, despair) that you’ve got my company in your perpetual self un-doing. As I’ve said in the past, misery loves company. And I got you covered!

End melodrama. Let’s talk races!

I have quite the slew of races planned (and ran) in the next 2 months. July would have been an ideal training month for an ultramarathon, 2 marathons, and a handful of shorter races between then and October. Unfortunately, uncle Sam fit for me to spend 4 long, horribly warm and humid weeks in the middle of what can only be described as a state-sized hair-dryer. For those of you not aware, I am taking a scholarship from the Army for medical school. All expenses paid, plus a stipend, healthcare, and a nice chunk of extra change 6 weeks every year, with food and housing provided wherever it is I do my training. It’s quite the deal – and if you haven’t seen enough of my race photos, let me tell you that I fucking love America. Taking care of vets and their families is enough of a sell for me….just not in the Midwest. If you’ve never been to Oklahoma, keep it that way. It’s a hot, moist, cauldron of nothingness. On the bright-side, if I could manage even 30 miles a week in 110 degree heat with 80% + humidity, I would find solace in the cool, breezy, dry Minnesota August.

At least I thought.

The very next day after getting back to Minnesota, I saw to it to race and run with my friends as a celebration of my return to lakes, friends, normal temperatures, and delicious damn food. It just so happened I could get my fix of (almost) all the above running a 15K with my Mill City Running race team. Now, a 15k is one of those nasty distances that combines the intensity and lung-burning of a short race like a 5k or an 8k with the added benefit of having to sustain that pace for what feels like forever, not unlike a marathon. Couple that with gnats, heat, and humidity, and you’ve got yourself a damn fun race! And, honestly, given the circumstances, it really was. I was back home, I was with friends, I had great competition, and as I’ve come to learn very well in my life, all shitty things come to pass. And if nothing else, there is always, always¸ food at the finish line.

Fast forward another week and a half. It’s a (actually) beautiful day. It’s still dark, there’s a light breeze, it’s dry, and today’s high?  It won’t even break 80. But right now, it’s hovering about 50 degrees. Disregarding the fact that’s 3am, I’m making an entire pot of drip coffee to be shared between two people. As I pour the bigger half of the full carafe of liquid nirvana into a thermos, I’m unprepared for what nature has in store. One of my best friends and I are headed to a little low-lying place called Mt. Bierstadt, and wer’re determined to catch the sunrise from its peak. I am wholly unprepared for a mountain race in just 4 days, but today would be as good a day as any to try and play catch up. The mountain face outlines the background of our hour car-ride southwest from Denver. Each passing minute uncovers that much more of the landscape that would captivate me for the next week. I’m cautiously eager to get to our parking spot, right about 10 and a ½ thousand feet above sea level. Mt Bierstadt sits at just above 14 thousand ft – a popular ‘14er’ that many out-of-towners ascend during their stay. What better way to celebrate a new state than to run up one (two) of its peaks.

It’s an hourly occurrence where I ask myself why I live in the midwest and not near mountains. From Switzerland, to Italy, California, and now Colorado, each time is like the first. Except even better – I get to amass a larger and larger list of places to retire. Actually, to live and retire. Just 3 more years in Minnesota…

I’m ridiculously fortunate in how my body tolerates exercise and climate. Less than 24 hours in Colorado and I have hiked/ran 3.5 miles to the highest elevation I’ve ever been on Earth without so much as a headache. I (try to) never take for granted just how lucky I am. Hence Eric and I’s early-ass hike up here.

Yeah, yeah, I get it. Nothing more touristy than getting a picture of yourself at the elevation marker of a peak. It’s cliché. It’s sort-of petty, and absolutely unoriginal. Normally I’m not one to have my picture taken in front of landscapes/objects/buildings/etc. I much prefer the view of the point of interest than to have my awkward self juxtaposed with whatever awe-inspiring entity sits in the background. But it seemed only fitting at the time. And damnit if I don’t feel at least a little adventurous getting to the top of a 14er. I’m the laziest person I know – it’s an achievement for me to do something this physically active without the motivation of food/medal/t-shirt/photos waiting at the end.

I’ll generally spare you the views from the top, and overall from much of my time in Denver and CO in general. I can’t provide you with really anything that a great google image search wouldn’t get you faster and better anyway. You’d have the added benefit of not having to read my wall o’ text just to sift to the good stuff. I will share some more pictures of me, however. Pictures from Denver, Colorado Springs, Garden of the Gods, the Olympic Training Center, the air force academy, etc are far less intriguing to my narcissism than photos of me racing.

Okay, Pike’s Peak Marathon. Flash back to June. Within hours of completing grandma’s marathon, I raced home to see if there were still spots left for this awesome challenge. As luck would have it, the registration this year was slow, so in no time I had my spot secured and a flight to Denver booked for a race I had no business running. I picked one helluvan event to launch my career into trail racing. I had never ran up more than anything above a 10% grade hill my entire life, yet me and a thousand other people would be averaging about 14% for half a fucking marathon. All to race back down the exact same way we came to cap off a full marathon. It’s epic shit. It’s dope as fuck. It’s aptly described by lots more expletives. But most of all, it would be damn good fun.

Full disclosure – I’m an atheist. But if there is a god, she fucking loves watching me run marathons. I’m up to 5 now, and I haven’t had anything less than perfect weather for each one. I learn a little bit more about myself every time, and the finish of each one is a step closer to a truer, more authentic version of myself. Calm, cool 48 degrees here. I loved every second of it.

And fun it was. I couldn’t predict how I was gonna tolerate the climb, how I would handle the altitude, how I would feel on the downhill. I had no real predictions on how long it would take. I really didn’t even plan on racing. I was here for the challenge, to meet people in the starting corral and on the trail, take pictures, videos, stop at the top, and above all eat the food at the aid stations. And I did every one of those things. I even managed to finally get my feet underneath me during the descent (not before tripping constantly and falling three times, narrowly missing splitting my head open) and race. I was a kid in a candy store. Well, a really high up candy store with some seriously fast trail hikers, but definitely a happy kid nonetheless. I was stripped of all notion of pace and speed. I had no idea what would be a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ time. I was living as close to the essence of being a blissfully unaware and unassuming human on this planet as possible – to use my two legs (some hands too, shit gets real rocky above the tree line) to move, my mouth to share conversations with amazing people, and my heart to love every second of the adventure.

If I had one regret about this race, it was not buying trail shoes. From the top of the mountain to not even back to the tree-line I fell 3 different times and was still really not moving that fast. I finally figured that if I was gonna make it through the finish on my own two feet, I was gonna have to accept that the much better trail runners were gonna pass me. I was okay with that. What I lacked in preparedness and rock expertise, I could somewhat make up for on the ‘flats’ (not really a thing on this course but I suppose anything less that 10% grade could be a ‘flat’).

The stories of people I’d heard from the expo the day before, and the day of the race, were nothing short of inspiring. Wounded vets, long-time ultrarunners, world-record holders, you name it. Just look at the winner from that day – the dude biked (yes like the one with pedals and shit) 250 miles in the 4 days leading up to the race to raise money to combat climate change. And then set the course record for fastest descent. And won. I find its stories like these that illicit two reactions from people. Self-deprecation, or inspiration. It’s taken quite a bit of training, but more often than not I now find myself in the latter category. It’s a practice in recognizing the voice we all have in our head that says ‘I could never do that,’ ‘Those people are special,’ and ‘I wish I could be like them.’ We have a tendency to immediately forget all the things we’re capable of and focus on comparing ourselves to others, at the expense of positive self-esteem and self-worth. I try (keyword: try) to change the paradigm – ‘If someone is capable of doing that, what can I do?’ You recognize, and appreciate, the achievements of others. You give them credit, and get inspired by what they are capable of. And that positivity can translate into making yourself better. I try to put that into practice – you would have asked me 6 years ago that I could run 50 miles, or up a mountain, I would have said no fucking way. But I listened to people that have, and have done even more. I awe in their achievements and am inspired to push my own limits a little farther. But more important than all of that – I kept some really good friends.

They don’t call them ‘speed hands’ for nothing. I’m pretty sure I clocked that last mile in under 6 minutes. How can you not run fast when you basically get to fall down a mountain for 13 miles? And everyone knows you shave off AT LEAST 10 seconds per mile if you can keep your tongue out.

I read a book recently. The Blue Zones. It talks about the core tenets of longevity, based on the populations of people that have the highest per capita centenarians. Lots of old people who are healthy and active af. These demographers and social scientists studied everything about these people – what they ate, how much they exercised, how close their families were, did they go to church, etc. One of the best predictors of longevity? Your social network. The more isolated you were in retirement, the higher your rate of diabetes, depression, Alzheimer’s, etc, even when factoring in for other lifestyle habits. The stronger your bonds with other people, the longer and healthier your life will be. I just happen to be fortunate enough to have maintained a few of those close friendships since I was in grade school. Like many lessons I’ve learned since ‘adulting,’ its those friendships that keep you in check, and I know too well the consequences of social isolation. So in closing, this is a shoutout to great (best) friends. I wouldn’t have had an experience even remotely as fun and exciting without my best friend Eric (nor would I have gotten the badass pics of me at the finish, thank you iphones). Between the reminiscing, the restaurants, the conversations with mutual friends, hell even just a hot bed and shower for a week, there are almost no experiences in life that aren’t made complete with the company of the people that you love. Whether you meet them the day before the race, or in college, or met them before you started middle school, it’s people, even more than mountains, that fill this bumbling, newly-minted trail-runner with happiness. Now, if only I could get my quads back from that descent…

Eric and I hit up the OTC on our way down to Manitou Springs for the race. No, they aren’t real medals, but apparently that torch was the same one they used in Atlanta in the ’96 games. I could never have predicted I’d be the one clean shaven in a picture with Eric Johnson, but that’s life.

High as Hope on the North Shore

Grandma’s Marathon 2018 – 2:53:19

It’s sort of a travesty that I have lived in Minnesota my whole life and have spent a total of about 3 hours of it inside the city of Duluth. I had never been there before last weekend, and raced (pun intended) home after Grandma’s Marathon so I could get back and (ostensibly) study for finals. It really is a shame given how awesome the whole area is. The ocean-sized Lake Superior, the docks, the Glensheen museum, the old-school buildings. I would have loved to soak it all up last weekend. Hell, I would even have enjoyed soaking it up just a little bit during the race. Alas, that would not be the case. I was feeling it. Hard. In the last 1/3 of this race I had experienced a feeling that I had my first taste of at the TC 1 mile last month:

Is this stupid shit over yet?

I sometimes struggle with the idea of ‘racing.’ On the most concrete, objective level, you’re paying money to do something you could, in theory, do if you just had a mapped out route or a GPS watch. But the experience is something unlike any other. And you invariably run faster with people, and with a crowd cheering you on. You could never hope to run your best marathon, 20k, 5 mile, ultra, whatever, without the support of other runners and spectators. And if those other runners happen to be your teammates? Forget about it.

It was self-inflicted suffering. I ran the first half of that race comfortably uncomfortable. I had enough in the tank to bring down the pace a little. Not 20 seconds/mile. From about mile 14 or 15 I began struggling with that wonderful balance between holding back enough to have some in the tank and not leaving too much in knowing I could have gone a little faster. I’m usually adept at finding that sweet spot. Even in training. Perhaps not having raced this distance in almost 4 years means I lost some of that feel. Or maybe because it was a new course and I couldn’t anticipate the turns, ups, and downs like I can every block of the Twin Cities Marathon. Either way, mile 20 brought that sort of ugly feeling of how the hell can I possibly do this for 6 more miles?

Eric (right) and I were together for the first half of this race. It’s indescribably helpful to have a someone to help you with pacing through a race this long. I have run this distance (and then some) by myself before. It’s not as fun. When you can’t share that space with someone who’s also struggling you get lonely, and fast.

When I get tired I find a lot of idiosyncratic ways of making myself keep going. I repeat a handful of mantras that I’ve picked up from inspirational movies and ones I have made on my own. I’ll run with my eyes closed, or I’ll look up in the sky and remind myself how truly thankful I am that I’m able to just fucking move my body at all. Perhaps stranger than all is that I will cheer people on that I pass, or that pass me. I don’t know where it comes from. I must have said ‘great job!’ or ‘lookin’ good!’ to at least 50 people I passed during the second half of that race. And to a handful that passed me when I really started wobbling toward the end. I’m a competitive person for sure, and I hate to lose, and I hate getting passed. But it just doesn’t manifest outwardly (usually, I do have some pretty bad road rage) as confrontational. It’s much more playful. It’s a way of respecting others and pushing them to be stronger so that they may reciprocate the act if I start to fail or falter. That’s the beautiful thing about running and racing in the middle of the pack. First place is taken, so everything else is just for time. If you can use other people to make yourself better and faster, to get across the line in less time, then why not make yourself and others around you better? I know, it’s weird. But when it helps me ‘embrace the suck’ of the last half of a race I had no business running as fast as I was, I’ll take it.

On the straightaway near the end I was fortunate enough to have people near me who were struggling but also moving just enough faster than me so I could use them as motivation to try and catch up. My face was clearly not happy about this decision, but if I’m honest my face hasn’t never done much for me in the past anyway. There is some evidence that says smiling helps you run faster…I liked to think I’m smiling on the inside.

I wasn’t really sure how close I was to snagging a PR last weekend. I had a quick pit stop early in the race and it screwed with the mileage/time enough on my watch to where I was too tired or lazy to figure out what I needed for splits. By mile 20, I really was just trying not to drop my pace. One of the mantras that I cycle through when I’m doing hill repeats or intervals is ‘To slow down is to quit.’ It has a sort of two-fold objective. To me it’s a reminder that you gotta save just a little each rep so that you have just enough to hammer the last rounds. And it’s a reminder that when those last reps finally come, you better be willing to bust ass to maintain or even pick up the pace. It took on a much more literal meaning last weekend. I knew that if I backed off at all I was going to open up myself to slowing down more and more until really I’d find myself walking in a right angle straight off the course and on a walk of shame to the shuttle back to Two Harbors. It’s a testament to my overly binary thinking. A black-and-white mentality that often doesn’t make a lick of sense. But if it means I could hold a sub 6:30 min/mile pace for the second half of a marathon, again, I’ll take it.

No, I’m not trying to flash the camera. The photographer needed my bib number to show. Though I felt good enough to let loose and take my shirt off. Thankfully my smile has emigrated from the inside-out. But not before a good hearty cry just before this picture was taken. That metal was as heavy as my soul was light. I can’t say the same about my poor legs. I don’t think I’ll ever not overstride at the end of a race.

I semi-collapsed into the arms of a volunteer as I crossed the finish-line. I felt (and acted like) people do when they wake up from anesthesia. I wasn’t really making any sense, but I was very thankful. I must have looked as bad as I felt cause they wouldn’t let me walk by myself for what felt like minutes. Maybe I’m exaggerating. I felt exaggerated. I do know that after being self-released by those friendly course marshals, having proved I could walk and stand, I was acutely aware of three things.

  1. I was happy
  2. I was fucking hungry (I do not eat and do not drink hardly at all during these races) and
  3. I had an overwhelming need to cry.

I used to pride myself on silencing that pervasive emotion. My immature, naïve self, attributed that act to weakness, or at least an action that I was somehow superior to. I don’t cry, I would say to myself. Hell, I used to literally brag to other people about how few times I had cried in my life. I was (am) good at committing in nonsensical behaviors like this. But I like to think I have matured a little. So I took the appropriate actions that are natural reactions to the above feelings.

  1. I smiled (and honestly did for the first half)
  2. I ate. A teammate of mine promised me there would be peanut butter and bagels at the finish. After inhaling two apples, about a pound of strawberries, potato chips, and a bottle of water, I found those damn bagels. And made (and inhaled) the best peanut butter-banana-bagel sandwich of all time, willfully forgetting I had dropped that peeled banana on the gravel immediately before incorporating it into my sandwich. Sweat, hair, and all. Oh – right –

And 3. I found a spot on the rail next to where the above photo was taken, and bawled.

With all of the strange sobbing noises, mucus emptying, tear flowing events that it entails. Now, it didn’t last long. I fought like hell to forget everyone around me, yet social pressure ultimately prevailed and I cut my catharsis a little short. But for 15 seconds I was as vulnerable as a child. And I rather anticipated it. I haven’t run this race in almost 4 years, and that’s all due to the stuff I’ve mentioned at length. There was a time I thought I’d be permanently succumbed to my eating disorder and that I’d never be able to run again. I certainly didn’t think I’d qualify for the Boston Marathon again, at least not on my initial return to the distance that saw my introduction to this sport. Much like the events of the first week of this year, my tears at the finish were not of sadness, but of overwhelming joy, pride, and hope. No, I didn’t snag a PR. I’m probably a little ways from being in as good of shape as I was when I ran that fast all those years ago. But this time around I’m on the upswing. I’m not spiraling downward, right on the precipice of losing any semblance of control as I was 4 years ago. So I can build on this race and keep improving. And certainly not just physically. I can assure you that I’ll be even more successful at crying should that need arise at my first attempt to break 2:50 this fall. A mental, hell, even spiritual PR, if you will.

And I’ll be damned if I don’t find another peanut butter-banana-bagel sandwich.

Motivation and the Mill City Mile

2018 TC 1 Mile – 5:19:50

I’m gonna say this just to get it out of the way. And to make sure there is no doubt to anyone reading this.

I hated every second of this race.

And the cough I had for 2 hours after it? I’m still barely recovered. We as humans were not designed to run this distance. At least, I definitely was not designed to run this distance. Let me help you put it into perspective. On Saturday, I biked 50 miles (actually 44 but the race said 50 so I’m going with it). My legs were a little sore, but it felt great and I enjoyed it. So much so I put in 17.5 miles on my feet the next day with 14 of those at marathon pace. Like running at the speed I hope to run in June at Grandma’s Marathon. Let me assure you, that I would repeat last weekend, every week of my life, before I started doing 1 mile races. Why do hours on my butt/feet not hurt nearly as bad as running full speed for a few minutes? Why did my eyes start watering and my lungs catch fire a fucking quarter of the way through the race? And most puzzling of all, how and why do people do this for a living?! I have so many questions concerning the nature of this ridiculous event.

And no doubt – I’ll be here next year.

Alas, I’m already a formidable complainer, and would rather spare all of you (whom I appreciate dearly) the expense of reading my trivial drivel. I want to discuss something perhaps more profound – un-comfortability.

I raced on Thursday mostly due to the fact that I wanted to play a part in helping the Mill City Race team, enjoy the company of awesome people, and get a free shirt. Let’s be honest, it’s always about free shit. But something I listened to the other day provided me another motive for racing such a short, stupid fast race. The fact that I had no desire to run such a short, stupid fast race.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with David Goggins, you need to follow this man immediately on every social media outlet. He’s truly inspirational. Really, just stop reading right now read up about this man. He’s done every crazy strength and endurance challenge you can imagine. Listening to him speak on a podcast is like having a personal trainer in your ear telling you to literally shut up, suck it up, and do whatever you have to do to get a job done. I’m not just talking about athletics or sport either. It can be whatever menial task or objective you have on your to-do list. It could be that tough conversation you need to have with a family member or friend. It could be standing up for yourself. Perhaps something you’ve always wanted to try but never thought you could do. The limitations that we perceive are holding us back so often just exist in our mind. There are things that we don’t do simply because we’ve predetermined in our head that such things are too hard, or too complicated, or beyond our skill level. One of the most amazing tricks our minds do to hide this simple fact from us is to justify procrastination. I am as guilty of this as anyone. Tomorrow I’ll write that blog post (okay that one is at least getting a little better). I’ll study some more tomorrow, I need a break tonight. I’ll take of those emails later. It’s easy to justify any action when you allow that pleasure-driving center of your brain to take control of your consciousness. I get it. Anyone of these examples is perfectly indicative of a very true thought I’ve allowed to influence my behavior. And ultimately, I’ve let myself have a ‘break.’ Those thoughts, and even acting on them on occasion, isn’t dangerous. But habituating the easy way? Letting that part of your brain have ultimate control over your daily life? Having such a pathologic obsession with destructive behavior that you quite literally feel trapped? I can give you great, personal examples of some those actual thought patterns as well.

This is the last binge, tomorrow I’ll get clean.

This is the last pint of ice cream I’ll ever buy – tomorrow is a new day.

I’ll never eat so much that I feel I puke again – I’m starting fresh tomorrow.

See where I’m going here? If this is all unfamiliar to you, check out my story from the start. Now, eating disorder recovery (as much as I wish it could be) is not something you just beat into submission. You don’t put stop your mental illness on the checklist, lace up your shoes, put in an hour of work, shower, and then be cured. In essence, you don’t get to white-knuckle it. Trust me (or don’t), I tried. It takes sustained practice, mindfulness, changing your perspective, and some fuck-ups along the way. But there are definitely instances in which the woe-is-me voice needs a swift kick in the face. Listen, I’m not your resident expert on self-motivation, and I’m basically an authority on next-to-nothing, but what I do know is that everytime, everytime, I get out the door to train on a day I don’t want to, I never regret it. Each time I talk with a friend when I feel down, or feel like I don’t have time, I learn something as a result. I feel better. I enjoy it. Each time I change my outlook on objectively shitty situations, I feel better, more relaxed, and am more able to do what I need to. And I don’t regret it. It’s almost comical how often we have to overcome a mental barrier to do the things we ultimately are glad we ended up doing. The ‘self-impediment-to-happiness nucleus’ of the brainstem was never taught to me in any of my neuroscience courses. What the hell is the point of medical school if I’m not learning to bio-hack my brain to make my life easier, happier, and more efficient?

Getting uncomfortable is a big reason I got on my bike for 50 miles on Saturday. It’s part of the reason I signed up for my first 50 mile trail race in September, and why I’m racing 35 miles 3 weeks after that. But perhaps more surprisingly to those reading, it’s why I have to really tell that voice to shove it just to get to school (or anywhere) on time. Why I force myself to bike to school when I I’m feeling too lazy to go literally just a mile (one mile!). Yes, even ‘runners’ (at least this one) have wildly lazy thoughts. On countless occasions, I have succumbed to the lazy voice in everyday life. But there are tried and true antidotes to these situations, which I need to utilize perhaps more than the average person.

The suck-it-up mentality and the ability to consciously distance yourself from thoughts that don’t serve you are, in many ways, two sides of the same coin. If nothing else, when applied correctly they are different means to the same end. Change. They make the uncomfortable, comfortable. It’s definitely uncomfortable to sit with negative thoughts and not act on them. It’s uncomfortable to not procrastinate necessary tasks, and it’s uncomfortable to delay gratification, or postpone it indefinitely. Pain, un-comfortability, suffering, whatever you call it, is the stimulus that has the ability to supplant our current disposition and elevate ourselves to a higher intelligence, strength, understanding, happiness, self-awareness, whatever. But you can’t avoid it. Sit with it, or beat into oblivion, do what you gotta do, but face it.

I wish I could tell you I am successful at this every time I recognize that ‘easy-out’ voice. I’m not. But ‘the beast,’ that binge-eating voice, no longer has any effect on my actions. And I continue to ‘embrace the suck’ in everyday life. Listening to people that output the incredible vibes of success (like Goggins) through adversity are simple reminders that we all have that voice in us. That’s not unique to us – what is unique is whether we shut that shit off, feel shitty, run a mile, feel better, and repeat.

Return of the Duff

O Gara’s Irish 8k – 30:09

First thing is first – I know it’s been three weeks since my last update. I wanted to update you all last weekend, but having not actually written anything (at least, nothing current, and digging up old entries every week is not how I anticipate me successfully extending this endeavor long-term) I felt that wasn’t going to be insightful for you or me. So I made the decision to wait, and to continue to put into practice my original modus operandi. I’m trying (I hate the fucking word, but I’m at a loss for one better) to write in my journal daily, and add to these posts on the daily so that I’m compiling a finished product throughout the week rather than dumping down my already unrefined and abhorrently disconnected thought process all at once. What you have read so far was written last weekend, as is this clause: I don’t know what the subject of my next post will be. Daily reflection, and mindfulness, will elucidate that for me. Thankfully, fortunately, however you want to say it, I have built in place a series of daily ‘rituals’ that certainly will include under its umbrella the act of writing and meditating. I have not missed running so far in 2018, and with my ability to stay healthy and strong, there is no sign of that practice falling into decline. I have eaten probably everyday of my life, and that is the fucking best ritual (even better now that food is eating me, so to speak) – the one I look forward to the most 2-4 times a day (or more, ask anyone I go to school with how much I bake and cook). Adding writing and meditation to those daily practices is within mine (and anyone’s) ability.

But the topic for this post is easy. Today I ran my first organized race event since I ran the same one 3 years ago. Crazy, right? I have logged thousands of miles over that time, with long runs, hill sprints, tempo runs, battled physical and mental injury, and throughout all that time I really was just, well, fucking around. And with more race team events that are sure to come, I can assure you that that attitude will most certainly remain constant. Albeit with even more motivation to improve. To get better and faster. I like to think to think I strike a wonderful balance of completely nonchalant, go with-the-flow attitude and steadfast determination. And by balance I mean completely one of those extremes or the other depending on the given moment or situation. As I’ve said before – the middle is an acutely unbearable place for me.

That’s me in the front – those shorts have followed me through every marathon and now they will be with me every race. The buff is new, but it won’t be for long. I have a lot of problems with America, but damnit I still love it. Or at least the colors of the flag. Honestly, what’s the difference?

Anyway – on to the post! This morning was a cold return to the world of competitive racing. I loved it. Every second of it. Start to finish – the feeling of passing people one by one as a lock in what I describe as an ‘uncomfortably comfortable’ pace. Receiving (and of course giving) 3-4 word exclamations of encouragement to fellow teammates as we passed each other on the point-to-point course. Fixating on a ‘rabbit’ with 1 mile to go and chasing her down, putting her just a few meters behind me as we ascended the last hill. I’m by no means fast, and this wasn’t even a PR for me (you can read more about that here), but knowing that now I’m on a consistent, upward trajectory toward greater self-improvement, self-acceptance, self-motivation, self-awareness (ME ME ME), I can only envision improving from here.

A big shoutout goes to the teammates who weren’t running this race. I swear there was a group of them every mile just waiting to cheer on the competitors and take pictures. Beyond race events, you can pretty much guarantee an hour or two walking around Minneapolis will afford you an opporunity of seeing Mill City gear being sported by someone. They’re that popular – and for good reason!

Much more importantly than all of that self-centered egoism, my headspace has transcended its eerily dark position of self-loathing to a level that allows me to foster friendship, camaraderie, and unabated love for other human beings within the realm of competition. I wouldn’t necessarily say that I fall in the camp of ‘you have to love/help yourself before you can love/help others.’ There is too much interdependence with those variables for me that the muddy gray area which they co-exist becomes too difficult and frankly too inconsequential to delineate. But certainly you can’t hate yourself and try to have respect for others, especially teammates and competitors. Or at least, you can’t give so much focus to the negative, irrational parts of that paleolithic brain that hijacks your true conscious to get what it wants that you end up drowning out all the potential for selfless attention to others. I’ve a long way to go to full blown self-confidence and acceptance. But the future is bright. And it’s brighter with these people below in it.

My propensity for taking pictures has changed dramatically since the end of my eating disorder. Yes, my body confidence has improved dramatically as a result of losing alot of the weight that I put on when I was binge-eating, but far more importantly is my developed ability to just be at peace, in the moment, accepting myself for who I am and enjoying the company of people. It’s not foolproof, and I’d be lying if I said that those negative thoughts about my body don’t surface, but I’d be lying even more if I told you I identify with them. Through practice, I’ve learned to accept those thoughts as a bi-product of disordered thinking that I no longer possess. They go away. And hence why my goofy, smiling ass is featured in my blog now.

And it’s even brighter with all of the amazing friendships I have fostered since starting medical school, and the other friend groups I’ve re-ignited since my return to November Project and these fine folks at Mill City. So here’s to brighter (and actually brighter, I can be done with this 30 degrees with 15mph and overcast mornings any day now) days. Here’s to more races (I’m registered for Twin Cities 1 mile in May!), more team pics, more chest burning sprints to the finish, and more hugs, smiles, laughs, and free, post-race Coca-Colas!

Why I Run

Frozen 50 – 09:48:50

Minnesota in December is a cold fucking state. I started this event at just before 9am on the last day of 2017 and it was quite literally -16 degrees. Weather Underground tells me it was the coldest day of the year. But, as any true Minnesotan will tell you, things aren’t actually freezing cold unless it’s also windy.

It was also windy.

For me this hasn’t generally been a big issue. Even on a normal long run in the winter, I usually have the ability to run at such a speed which allows me to stay warm and/or decrease the time exposed so I can stay properly thermoregulated. When you’re running an ultramarathon (at least, when I’m running an ultramarathon), you’re gonna be running slow and you’re gonna be out there for hours and hours. This effectively negates the easiest strategies for keeping yourself from wanting to Uber your way to the nearest Asian restaurant and dunking your whole body in ramen broth (believe me, there were times I came pretty damn close). But after reading so many books about ultrarunning and ultra-endurance athletes, I knew this was the next progression of my running career. I just had to experience what it was like to slog through miles and miles and miles. All these incredible, inspiring human beings detailed their accounts of personal catharsis through unimaginable hardship.

I knew that my recovery from an eating disorder would be capped with an endurance feet of my own. I had wanted to run an ultramarathon since I first started reading about legendary people like Scott Jurek, Ann Trason, Dean Karnazes, and others. You can check out my haphazard route if you’d like. I could not think of a better way to celebrate the end of a 4 year-long brutal era of under/over eating and the beginning of a new chapter in my life than suffering a (almost) couple of marathons in the frozen tundra. On my own. With nothing but some homemade superfood muffins (kept warm and moist with handwarmers) and 3 planned espresso pit stops along the way.

I have recovered from binge-eating but as you can see, I’m still bat-shit crazy.

I wanted this chapter of my life to begin with a new-found sense of being. To break a mold that I had casted. I had proven that I knew what it felt like to ‘fly’ for 26 miles. I loved picking people off on the trail during training runs and acting like I was being chased from behind when there weren’t folks to pass. This would be a new challenge. Not just because of the distance and the time on my feet. Difficult things to endure for sure. But during training I had to learn to accept that I was gonna be the individual people were picking off. I had to learn not to chase down the person in front of me, no matter how fast or slow they were going. You don’t get to make random long runs a tempo run when you’re putting in 30, 35, 40, even 45 mile weekends. Back-to-back long runs aren’t conducive to spontaneous speed sessions. That’s just the level I’m at right now. And that’s okay. One of the many beautiful lessons I had to take to heart running this ultramarathon was the old adage: “All’s well that ends well.’ I like my couplet addition: ‘If it’s not well, it’s not over.’ Things can suck (and I mean fear-of-permanent-frostbite-on-your-quickly-icing-hands suck) but however unbearable a pain, a thought, an emotion, or a feeling gets, all of them come to pass. There is an endpoint, and it’s a helluva lot better than whatever my impulsive and demanding brain can make me feel right at any given moment. Sometimes you just gotta sit with it. Or slowly jog though it. Either way, each nagging thought or negative, habituated pattern of thinking is an instance where the grass is truly greener on the other side.

This wonderful blister showed up about 4 weeks before the big day. I let that blister fester thinking it wasn’t a big deal. I hardly ever get them. But then a blister forms on a blister, and then they get infected, and well, case in point, I’m not the brightest dude around…take care of your goddamn feet!

Overall, many of the things that make a successful ultra are the same things that make successful binge-eating disorder recovery. You have to be patient. You have to observe the negative thoughts without judgement, not letting every detracting emotion lead you astray. You separate that icky, disgusting, filthy, part of your limbic brain from your rational self. That’s as much as I want to make a comparison between ultrarunning and recovery for now. They are independent entities, and one cannot lead to the other, or save you from the other. And you cannot replace one for the other (if I could have replaced bingeing for running I would have long ago). One individual I have heard describe alcohol recovery on my favorite podcast is this: ‘I didn’t always want to go running, but I always wanted a drink.’ You can’t love running (which is good for you) and hope it will replace something more powerful and destructive to you. Running is hard, but bad habits? Those are easy. And get easier and easier the longer they last. I can now say from experience that running an ultra doesn’t get any easier the longer it takes.

This is a snapchat at the end of this glorious run. I was cold. Basically the only thing keeping my motivation up was the fact that I was soon to be in the warmth of an uber car. I was either too emotionally drained or too glucose starved to actually be crying. Or cold. Hell I was delirious – you decide, you’re guess is as good as mine.

But it’s neither here nor there (a mantra that kept me going for hours on this fateful endeavor). The title of this is post is Why I Run, so let’s explore that. Hopefully through the series of pictures and related text I can convey what it means for me, and why it’s so important for me to be able to continue this for, well, ever. Much like the answers I provided for over a dozen medical school applications, I can tell you it’s multifactorial, and that the whole is definitely more than the sum of its parts. Each facet is intrinsically related to the next, and they all operate interdependently, creating a product that is restorative, enlightening, and ever-changing. Each run represents a chance for me to realize a truer version of who I am, regardless of the intended distance, pace, speed, or workout. So let’s get into it! The following pictures represent some of my favorite views across this most memorable trek. Each one is chosen for the insight its given me over the years (and in one specific instance just on that day!), and its ability to help me explicate my specific reasons for why the wind and cold is no match for this mother fucker (hadn’t used the eff word in a while – wouldn’t want to disappoint you!).

This place is awe-inspiring. It’s a behemoth structure that a crappy picture doesn’t give justice to.

I can’t actually tell you how many laps I have run around this stadium. It represented my first foray into speed work as a runner. For years I had no idea how fast I would even run those repeats – I figured you just ran hard enough, with the same consistency on each turn, to make sure you were pretty winded once you got done…and that honestly hasn’t changed much even to today. Why I Run here is the same reason I would push myself during sprints in high school, outside of football and basketball practice. To improve. To know what it feels like to get faster, and fitter. Sprinting sucks, but the feeling of recovering after is a much stronger, positive sensation. It’s always worth it. Although sprinting exhaustion has a completely different quality than endurance exhaustion, they both are awesome.

I talk highly of this 8% grade, 400 meter demon. In actuality I probably really do hate it. These captions really get to the root of my subconscious. They are all in italics. If you have a sense of my writing style by now, you know that when the letters get crooked, the truth comes pouring out.

If there is anything more awesome (read: shittier) than running around a stadium 8, 10, twelve times, it’s running up this thing an equal number of times. Up/down, up/down, up/down. If running laps on flat ground allowed me to increase my speed, then running laps up and down this bad boy allowed me to increase my strength. Nothing burns my legs and lungs harder than working like hell to hit 5:30min/mi splits going up this incline for 400 meters. Over and over again. Why I Run this hill is the same as the euphoric effect of working to exhaustion around a big, beautiful oval.

There is no better description for running on this lake in the middle of winter than what’s written on the sign. You are at the mercy of mother nature, and if you find yourself in trouble, you’re likely on your own.

I have practiced formal meditation for only a few months, but much of what I understand about it relates to the experience of running my Sunday long runs on this lake in the early hours of the winter mornings during college. If you needed reminding, Minnesota sucks in the winter, and so does waking up early. So you can imagine the silence that entails breaking a sweat before the sunshine in subzero December weather around this beautiful body of water. No music, no friends, for 20 or so minutes I would focus just on the sound of my own breathing and the repetitive, rhythmic crunching of the soles of my shoes on the snow. It was peaceful beyond belief. By the time I made it out this far in the middle of my long run, I had locked in a pace that allowed my body and mind to operate in complete synchrony. No fighting to push a pace or back off. Why I Run around Bde Maka Ska (usually before other people are awake) is because I can cultivate a space that allows me complete dissociation from the city, while literally right in the middle of it. I can find calm and warmth while allowing my body to move without restraint in a vacuum of shuttering cold. It’s a measure of serenity that’s incalculable. It’s like living in that moment just before you fall asleep, where you completely surrender to the world around you and just let go. And I would experience that feeling for whatever length of time it took to complete the 3 mile circumference around Bde Maka Ska. Whether I returned to Lake of the Isles or took it out farther to Lake Harriet was inconsequential while I was in the moment. Which is basically the center of my meditation practice. A loop around a dark and silent glacial lake transcends physical or mental experience – it is spiritual at its core.

I really do wish I could capture what this lake looks like at sunrise on a warm spring morning. It’s magical.

Water is fucking awesome. Whatever the human species’ fascination with it (beyond it’s necessity for our survival) is beyond my comprehension. And I prefer it that way. Running provides an opportunity to surprise you when you venture farther and farther outside of your comfort zone. I remember training for my first marathon and seeing that I needed to run the chain of lakes as part of the course route. From a bird’s eye view on a map it doesn’t look so far from Northeast Minneapolis – where I lived at the time. However, it was a distance I had yet to cover before. This would be the first time I’d run 20 whole freaking miles in my life. I was nervous. But this infamous 20 mile long-run was so-called ‘essential’ to marathon training, and it was on the schedule. ‘Here goes nothing?,’ I thought. So I took my training run down the west side of Lake of the Isle, Bde Maka Ska, and for the first time, Lake Harriet. I was met with the most spectacular view of Minneapolis that I’d ever encountered, before or since. I’m almost remiss that I couldn’t get a photo of it here, but I suppose you’ll just have to venture down to the south side of Lake Harriet to find out for yourself. There is an opening in the tree line that gives way to a view that is unforgettable. The skyline is so distant and stalwart, with this ginormous, beautiful, bright blue (at least when I first saw it) cavern of precious water dominating the foreground. This view, for me, has forever been the most impressive of the city-scape. And I’ve seen some bomb-ass views of Minneapolis as a result of my love for the sport. Which is another reason Why I Run – it surprises you. There is a positive correlation of the amount of courage you espouse in the face of fear with the level of surprise and satisfaction you achieve when adventuring on your two running feet. The brand new sights you see, the wonderful people you meet, it all comes back to you in a big, big way. In 2012, this was my ‘longest run ever,’ and in brought with it a surprising and unforgettable experience. The novel experiences haven’t stopped since. Read on…

The picture doesn’t give one a great idea of how epic this hill is. The view of the rising sun from this hill is really something to behold.

I had a professor when I studied in Italy that talked to us about going to the top of the famous cathedral in Florence. He discussed with us the pros and cons, and ultimately shared his thoughts on if it was worth it or not. He told us that most people would climb all that way up to the top and realize that the view of the cathedral was much more impressive than the view from it. Well, I can tell you that doesn’t apply to this badass hill. The view of it and the view from it are awesome. I have chosen to give you a view of it. Fitness is achieved on this hill and deserves to be highlighted. When is that fitness achieved? Well you can read more about it here. But this post is hella long and I’ll say only that Why I Run is because I can’t be fit and healthy unless I have a community of kickass people that will run up and down this bastard 30 times in 30 fucking minutes. All with a smile on their face. It’s all about camaraderie. November Project. Google it. Check it out and then show up.

In all honesty my favorite view is a toss up between this and Lake Harriet. I know, I sorta lied before. These captions are all truth though.

Motivating yourself to be fit can only take one so far. I think competition is really the spice of life. It allows you to take that emphasis off yourself and your own wellbeing and translate it into something that will allow you to really test your abilities. Whether that’s against a personal best and/or against others, this motivation can take you a long way (so long as you’re smart about it). And it’s fun! I learned about being a part of a running team while on a brief stint with some fine, fine folks at Mill City Running and their race team. I’ll be returning to that same team next month. This establishment sold me my first GPS watch (so I could stop pretending I had any idea how far I was running, and how fast), and even gave my first experience racing on a team. Why I Run is not only for the benefit of making myself stronger and faster, but to pit my fitness against others. Sure, this view of Minneapolis is from just a regular, easy, 5 mile route I would take with some great friends from this store on Friday mornings, but every time I see it I’m reminded of the spirit of competition and the beauty that is wanting to beat the individual next to you to the finish.

I don’t know how to caption this picture. What I experienced inside was life-altering. Just keep reading and you’ll find out why.

Before I took on this 50 mile endeavor, I envisioned breaking down into tears on the steps of the capital building. My finish line. A celebration of recovery from an eating disorder that had plagued my mind, body, and spirit for years. I had not anticipated my gloves completely freezing 6 miles before the finish and giving me immediate fear of frostbite. I was forced to turn back toward the Target I had just left to regain my warmth in this diner not far away. I couldn’t even make it all the way back to the Target – I was sidelined to this burger and shake shack as it provided the only neon fluorescence I could immediately see this late on new year’s eve. I also didn’t anticipate bearing my soul to a group of complete strangers, sobbing in their arms as their generosity provided me coffee, a hand-warmer, and an abundance of love. The catharsis I had ‘planned’ would be rescheduled for right now. There are moments in your life that are impossible to forget – and I experienced that this day. The sequence of events that drove me here are not for me to analyze, to figure out the reason for, or to determine what happened or why. It’s not even important. The generous folks at this malt shop heard my story of ultrarunning, eating disorder, recovery, and celebration, and showed unabated love in return. Why I Run is embodied in what happened on that cathartic, cold evening inside this restaurant. I run to learn. To live. What I learned that day was, that at the root of true catharsis, is love. And love, loves, company. It isn’t something you can give to yourself. It’s felt and experienced when you share. There is no way I could feel that level of this emtoion while in isolation on the stone-cold marble staircase in Saint Paul (even if my blood sugar hadn’t been so disgustingly low I barely had the energy to breathe, let alone cry). There isn’t enough of that wonderful emotion that you can contain in one individual. I would eventually make it to the capital steps to finish this race, but no matter how many great workouts I put together on my own, how many awesome tempo or long runs or repeats I put in on my solo runs, achieving catharsis comes when running with (or to) others and feeding off each other’s accounts of personal hardships and recovery. It comes from giving and receiving all of each others’ energies. It’s achieved when you know, in a raw, palpable sense, that whatever you’re going through is a shared experience with those who surround you. Who love you. Why I Run is because I love to run, and now, I’m realizing, it’s because of how much I love to love.

The Calm Before The Storm

Irish 8k 2015 – 28:32

That wonderful running store that I score pancakes at, and have so far convinced a handful of med school buddies to join me, have a race team. It’s an all-inclusive, all experiences welcome team of runners that encompass many of the same folks that I get the opportunity to run with on Friday mornings. It’s a great excuse to be late for class. When I first got into running with them more frequently (almost 3 years ago!) I became really intrigued in taking this running game to another level. I loved the feeling of competing when I ran my marathon PR just a few months prior and certainly being on a team with a bunch of fast and friendly people was a sure-fire way to keep me motivated to train. Especially through the awful summer months of brutal heat and humidity. And I’ll be honest, running the same distance over and over, especially for my crazy and easily distracted scatter-brain, can get monotonous. Moreover, this would allow me to actually train for speed in a way I hadn’t before in my running life. Hell, I would sometimes even ask myself to sprint during training. Yes, me, at my (slow) maximum velocity. There are a good number of high school friends who can attest to just how awkward a Ryan Duff can appear while trying to use an uncoordinated 6-5’’ wingspan to hit full-speed. It’s amazing I never got hurt. It’s more amazing no one else got hurt. Luckily for me, 5k’s and 8k’s are still not sprinting speeds, and if I have to ask myself to try in training, I can do it in a socially isolated venue, before most people are awake, on an early morning track workout. Preferably near the pole vault mats.

I digress. Suffice to say I was signed up and ready to really try my hand at something new. I signed up just in time for the first race of the year, an 8k in Saint Paul at the turn of the season. I was feeling fit(ish) and this race seemed like it had exactly what I needed going for it. I happened to also be trying to bring down my marathon PR at the Fargo Marathon that May, and to do so I was gonna need to improve my top speed. This race would be a great first foray into just such an endeavor. Out and back. Not too far. It was spring-time so the weather was (should have been) solid. In actuality I’m pretty sure it was sleeting at the start. You get what you bargain for in this state. That’s me in the front of the photo. Still have those shoes BTW.

I managed to, once again, surprise myself with my splits. I was definitely not unhappy with a string of 5:40’s for 5 miles. I don’t think I’d ever run that fast in my life – I did definitely feel physically like dogshit by the end of it, but I was feeling good about the overall finish nonetheless. I was, at the time, determined to run the Fargo Marathon in the spring and try to break the Women’s B standard for the Olympic Trial Qualifier. If you don’t know what that means, it’s the time you need to break in order to get invited to run at the Olympic Trials. Any American that wants to run the marathon in the Olympics has to qualify, so you’re talking the fastest people in the country. The women’s qualifying time is 2 hours 45 minutes, and I thought I had enough in me to shave a few more minutes off my PR to make it happen. However, in the midst of training, I was also ramping up the binge eating and falling deeper in the depths of my eating disorder. I don’t need to explain to you how those are completely incompatible states. I would not wish that fucked up habit on anyone, but this specific blogpost is not meant for what I have covered previously (don’t worry, next week we’re going that deep again). Below is me not in the front, not smiling like Mr. Sunglasses, but just a few steps behind my friend Jack Mullaney, who himself has an amazing story to share.

This race gave credence to the idea that I could do some short distance stuff as well. I wasn’t as single track minded as I thought I was, and despite not having run a competitive short distance race since some turkey trot 5k about 3 and a half years before, I could throw-down halfway decently with some fast folk. Unfortunately, as it turns out, this is the last race I have run since my mental health took a turn for the worst. Fear not! After a hiatus of a few years, my return is on the horizon…

I am returning to this race team. This year. In fact, this week, at ‘Flapjack Friday’ (I don’t even have to be late for class this week as we don’t start ‘til 9am!). My next organized race should be on March 10 with O’Gara’s Irish 8k. I’ll be coming back right where I left off. Same store, same race distance, same great group of people, with a handful of new faces thrown in the mix. I have no idea how fast I’ll be running this, but I’ll train like hell for it. Just like always. I don’t know what kind of physical shape I’ll be in, but I can assure you my mental shape will be better than it has since I can ever remember. It’s gonna be a blast. And I can assure you I’ll give myself the opportunity to run more than just this race for this wonderful group of people. I’m already making plans to get my Minnesota born-and-raised ass up to the great city of Duluth for the first time in my life to run the infamous Grandma’s marathon. I know, I know, it’s embarrassing I’ve never been there. Better late than never, right? I have no plans to be breaking a qualiftying standard, or my PR, or anything else. I do plan on having a great time, on sporting the MCR singlet, and a smile twice the size of our friend above. Well, perhaps depending on the weather. I really, really, really, do hate the heat.

Third Time’s A Charm

Twin Cities Marathon 2014 – 02:50:53

I never raced in high school. I wasn’t in track or cross country (my running form left/leaves much to be desired). With the sports I did enjoy, the teams I was on were not exactly stellar. I honestly don’t even know what having a winning record feels like. It’s far from ideal for anyone who hates to lose. And, like most people, I really fucking do hate lose. Perhaps that’s why I got into this sport (more on that in a couple weeks – promise!). Distance running is an outlet that, more or less, circumnavigates that challenge altogether. Sure, you still compete against others. You can try to PR (personal record). Hell, if you’re that good you can actually try to win some races. But for me, and just about everyone else, that’s really not the point. When there is a race as large as, say the Twin Cities Marathon, there isn’t 1 winner and 12,000 losers. There are people who are just having fun. There are people running for charity. People running to check it off the bucket list. Folks running because it a tradition, or to motivate a friend, or running a destination race for its scenic beauty, etc. There are exponentially more reasons why people are running a race then there are people actually running it (or jogging, or walking, or sprinting – you get the picture). Take me for example. I had run this race a couple times. I was obviously not trying to win, but I do love the course. And I love the atmosphere, with the thousands of spectators and camaraderie built between all race participants. I had many disparate prerogatives influencing me to enter this ordeal again. Alas, there was one big, BIG reason I wanted to run that day. Why put in all of this training? All these thousands of miles?

Well, to try to go faster. Seems appropriate. And try I did. A competitive spirit that can’t find success as part of a team beating an opponent can certainly manifest itself by finding an opponent with itself. Or, better yet, a clock. I don’t remember when I first learned about this whole ‘Boston Qualifying Time[1]’ ordeal. What I do remember is that, once I did hear about it, that I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to try to make it happen.

It was just within reach to some plausible, yet challenging enough that I would never have considered it ‘low hanging fruit.’ It did initially seem elusive however. I needed to average 7:00min/mi pace for the entirety of the race to make it happen. When I first started training seriously for it I don’t think I even knew what a split was, let alone marathon pace workouts, lactate threshold, VO2 max workouts, strides, etc. were. I avoided the track like the fucking plague (although that hasn’t really changed much). Half the time I only made guesses at how fast I was even running. Suffice to say, I was going to need some help. I found a plan by Pete Pfitzinger, a former two-time Olympian, who has written a book that has helped many runners succeed in shaving off time to achieve PRs called Advanced Marathoning. It topped out at about 70 miles per week and included all sorts of workouts and terms I had never heard of before. And because I found this plan as a stand-alone pdf online, I had to do some googling to figure what the fuck a tempo run was. I was basically starting from scratch

What I lacked in knowledge, I made up for in grit. I live in a place that, for about 2 months during the fall, provides the most pristine climate for mindlessly exercising on the roads and trails while you cyclically breathe in and out the crisp, calm of the gently changing season. Everything in between that is a humid, hot sticky mess, or worse, a frozen wasteland of torturously low temperature that it becomes commonplace to hear on your television that you will die if you spend too long outside. That winter before this marathon was undoubtedly the most brutal I’d ever experienced as a Minnesotan. Actually, it was the most brutal that most people had ever experienced in Minnesota. We didn’t see the sun, or the will to open our front fucking doors, for months. But as any running addict can tell you, it did not stop me. If I had time and energy, I was putting one foot in front of the other for whatever mileage I had scheduled. And this was before I started a focused training plan. I was unknowingly sowing the seeds for a successful summer of training. Strengthening my mental fortitude for when workouts would be hard not because God had it out for the northern hemisphere, but because I was going to move my body for stretches of time at a pace that showed I had it out for myself. Sunday long runs that January were a real treat. You betcha. Fuck you mother nature and your negative 65 degree wind chill.

My training started in early June. It also happened to be the first full summer I would spend in Minneapolis. In the past I was either at home or filling up my time volunteering overseas in the most beautiful country on the planet, Italy. But needing to study for and take the MCAT, as well as work and make money and ‘adult’ and all that nonsense, I was stuck around my home city for the summer. I fell in love with it even more.

If winter was unbearably cold, summer in Minnesota is equally unbearably hot and muggy. I would take subzero temps with a low wind-chill over 100% humidity before sunrise any day of the week. Especially when you’re finding out what a marathon pace run is and you have one scheduled at the end of a 60 mile week. But goddamn if it didn’t feel great when I got done. Drenched in sweat, exhausted, legs feeling like jello, those training sessions are when I really began to experience training. Not just mindless miles at the same pace day in and day out. Real, ovary-busting workouts. Not just little fartleks (Swedish for speed play – I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to use the word in a post) that started and stopped as I pleased. Nah. I put in workouts that I could. Not. WAIT. To be over.

But lo and behold, they paid off! I remember running one of those MP runs about 4 weeks before this race with a brand new Garmin (never had owned a GPS watch before, and will never not own one since). I was clicking off 6:45 min/mi and I was really surprising the living shit out of myself. Read more about it here It’s not that fast by any means, but I didn’t think it was too bad coming from a former 195 lb. high school linebacker just a few years ago. And really not bad considering I was just beginning to be indefinitely harassed by a persistent little eating disorder.

If there is one thing I am good at it, it’s finishing strong. Always making sure I have enough in the tank to pull some wicked speed (for me anyway) out at the end. My splits, even in my first marathon, went down from beginning to end. This day was no exception. It’s a special feeling when you know you got your goal in the bag and you let loose whatever you got left as a sort of gift to yourself. It served me well enough to Boston Qualify (BQ) by a solid 14 minutes. I didn’t win the race that day, but I sure as hell didn’t lose. I won some pride, and a ticket (that I’ve yet to punch!) to a historic event. I’ll take it.

[1] As an aside: For those of you who don’t know, the Boston Marathon has a qualifying time standard that limits entry of participants based on a recent marathon time and their age. It’s a world-renowned event, and many of the most elite marathon runners from across the globe compete at this race every spring. Someday I’ll go there!

A Long Trot With My Best Friend

Twin Cities Marathon 2013 – 06:05:11

Round 2! This would be another fantastic day for a long run. I love this course and the cities it spans. I knew immediately after the race last year that I’d come back for more. I loved the idea of getting faster and stronger at this distance. I didn’t feel completely destroyed the last time, and my splits (if you don’t know what splits are they are just your per mile pace) got faster at the end of the race the year before. There was so much excitement and energy (and candy and Gatorade), I fed off of all of it. You stand out quite a bit wearing American flag shorts, which helps make you an easy target for cheers and jeers. Nonetheless, I know I wasn’t the only runner who could feel the collective enthusiasm for the event making my way down Summit Ave. That year was my event. It was a great debut to the marathon – it was my race. But, this race would be quite different than the first one. This was not my race. As in, I was not running this race for me. Enter Rebekah.

Below is a woman/rockstar/coach/athlete/warrior/best-friend named Rebekah. We go way, way, back. Like 6th grade back. A friend booming with poise, vitality, intellect, and above all someone who actually laughs at my stupid jokes, she is truly the living personification of female empowerment. We have maintained our friendship for over a decade – all throughout middle school, high school, college, as roommates, and now as adults (that term is more befitting of her than me). Our conversations go on seemingly never-ending, but always feel cut-short as we discuss anything and everything on life, motivation, love, politics, health, you name it. And don’t get us started on Lord of the Rings movies (but please do, we love them).

So I can tell you I was not happier than when she asked if I wanted to run TCM with her just before going into the summer of 2013. A chance to experience the trials and tribulations of a stupidly long race with someone I would trust my life with is not an opportunity I would pass up. I had entered the event already by the time she asked (I was hooked on running by this point, you can read about that here). It did not take much convincing on my part after she expressed interest. Before you knew it, we were both signed up and ready to go. In just a few months we would be lining the start line outside the used-to-be metrodome for a few miles of fun. This shit? It was going down. In a big way.

As has been the case for every time I have run this race, the weather was perfect. 35 degrees and sunshine with no wind is my ideal race condition, and was treated with that again that morning. Of the utmost importance, I was physically healthy the entire year before leading up to this race. No injuries, no missed weeks of training, and no running on shoes that I found in my high school gym locker that were one size too small with more than their fair share of holes. Not the same could be said for Bekah. She had missed some of her training due to some injury issues, but regardless we were toeing the line. We weren’t exactly on the same marathon fitness level –I’d kept up a training regimen for an entire year since last year’s marathon that was more mileage and harder workouts than I’d put in for the few months I’d spent training the year before. Bekah was making her debut with some hampered training, much as I had. But all of this was a non-issue for us. This was about running for hours with my best friend. It was about crossing off another impressive accomplishment for her, and realizing the joy it is to share in a transformative experience for me. Whether that meant she was helping me, I was helping her, or we coasted together, I was going to enjoy it regardless.

And enjoy it I did! It was a long day on the roads. For hours we chatted, for hours we didn’t say much at all, for some parts I spent motivating, and at the end we crossed together. Many of those miles were spent in a similar manner in which we hang out. There was no want of laughing, singing, quoting movies, intellectually stimulating conversation, and in an analogous manner of binge-watching Lord of the Rings, just shutting up and enjoying the ride. Running from Lake Nokomis to the Mississippi River up to Franklin Ave is a beautiful route. But it comes in what I consider to be the toughest, late ump-teen miles of the course that really test your grit. It’s generally a good time to listen the course rather than speak your mind. Those are only a handful of memories to live forever in my mind. It’s an incredible feeling when you’re accomplishing your own goals for your own values, but it’s an entirely different euphoria doing it in conjunction with your best friend. For me, it was an experience of a life-time.

But like I said from the outset – this wasn’t my race. It was Bekah’s. To date this is her only marathon (I will convince her to run again, I promise) and if anything, it’s evidence of her mental fortitude and perseverance. Her training had been hampered significantly, and she doesn’t come from the running background that I do. Add it to the list of incredible things she is capable of (it’s long, FYI). But don’t take it from me. Check out her website and podcast. We, by sheer happenstance, touch on many of the same topics in our respective outlets. Her work is dedicated to helping women develop body confidence, which is all about maintaining a healthy relationship with your body and ultimately transforming your life. Going free-form with some awesome women who share the experiences in health and wellness, it’s a must-listen for any woman (or man) needing to cultivate a nurturing relationship with themselves, their bodies, and their minds. Such a resource would have been useful for myself for years. If you’ve followed the blog so far then you have some insight into my eating disorder and subsequent recovery. It wasn’t pretty. And the longer this little experiment of mine continues, you can rest assured we’ll continue to dig up some of that buried trove of repression. I digress – just as this race was not for me, neither really is this post. If you are looking to move in a direction toward a positive, sustainable relationship with yourself and your body, you need to see this woman’s page and blog. Check. That. Shit. Out.

Race Numero Uno

Twin Cities Marathon 2012 – 03:54:35

Welcome to the world of running, Ryan Duff! It’s been quite the journey since this beautiful early October morning over 5 years ago. That was my first registered, official, chip-timed race I ever competed in. There are few times I can remember where I had more fun in my entire life. I’m not sure how many other marathoners are screaming from excitement during their debut after 26 miles. Nonetheless, there I am at the bottom of Summit Ave just a few short blocks from the capital building.

So – what was the inspiration for me to start this marathon journey? In a lot of ways, this was a long, long time coming. I remember from an early age going on runs with my mom as she trained. It was always relaxed, and I think that was when I first understood how much I love to talk and talk and talk and…

BLOG. Well, we’ll see about the latter anyway. But running loops with your mom as a 3rd grader, I believe, stimulates quite the creative juices. My mom is an excellent confidant (a trait we share, though I’m definitely not on her level), and is a terrific outlet for a kid who can really, really vomit a stream of consciousness. Any existential pondering you can envision, from relationships to religion, thoughts on society, meta-cognition (I’m seriously not making this shit up – I was much more intelligent as a grade-schooler than I am now), you name it, I poured it out. All while running. It was a space that we created that I not only never lost, but found a way to expand. I didn’t have her to communicate with as I ran in college, but I did use that energy and that ability to exercise my mental faculties to peruse the subjects of my head space that gave rise to insightful questions. Even in high school, I would use my sparse solo runs to speculate on many of those issues I had unearthed as a kid. Is there a God? What distinguishes platonic relationships from romantic ones other than just physical intimacy? What happens when you die? Is there free-will? What makes people act against their own self-interest? These essentially unanswerable questions were borne out of this safe-haven of free thought. I was fortunate to have my mom help me cultivate my presence of mind that allowed for such inquiry.

That type of deep, meditative, even spiritual endeavor lends itself well to a healthy dose of distance running. Or perhaps just a great explorative outlet for a quasi-ADHD mind. Either way, when I signed up for this race in the spring of 2012, I was excited to have something to really train for. I was going to be following the footsteps of both my mother and sister, who had completed the journey years before. I was certainly behind my big sister though, who was barely a teenager when she clocked in under 5 hours. Better late than never I guess.

Most of the training I had leading up to this race was based on what I thought I needed to do to accomplish just finishing. I ended up running through a stress fracture in my leg, and was really side-lined for about a month with Plantar Fasciitis about 2 months before the race. It sucked. I got through it. Not the crux of the story. What I really want to get at is, after this race, the training wasn’t really about racing anymore. I’ve been running consistently for years, and (albeit with a few years of eating disorder thrown in) I have really only run a handful of actual races. The miles and miles you spend every week on the road is transformed into a space that feeds you energy and vitality, joy, and catharsis. Hell, I’m sure I have maybe even experienced a little peace. As cliché as it sounds, the training is the destination for me. The long runs in the blistery snow and cold, tempo runs in the muggy, nasty Minnesota heat. Eating pancakes with friends on Friday morning after a few miles shooting the shit. Waking up early Wednesday morning to do some ball(ovary)-busting workouts with some kick-ass peeps. Being greeted by the sunrise on the south side of Lake Harriet, or by the booming Minneapolis skyline crossing the Broadway Avenue bridge. Dodging squirrels racing under your feet as they adjust to their human compatriot rounding out loops in Theo Wirth Park. Yeah. It’s in these places and spaces that I grew (and grow) my love for running. As I have matured (and regressed in a sense, and then subsequently grew stronger than ever), this persistent attraction to the sport has manifested something much bigger than myself (for a later post). But suffice to say, for now, that after this race, well, there was no going back. I was hooked!