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!

Fast Friends and Flapjacks

Mill City Running – Every Friday

 

I participated in a research project the summer going into my senior year of college. Basically, a grad student at the U of M was looking for runners who would volunteer to come into the labs, get their VO2 max tested, their body fat measured, and their blood drawn. I’d come in once or twice a week to foam roll and run on a treadmill, or run on the track. I can’t tell you which one I hate more. But overall it was a pretty easy way to make $150. This grad student and myself chatted about running and marathoning. I mentioned to her that I was training for the Twin Cities Marathon that fall (2014) and that I had found a training plan online that I thought was helping me get into pretty great shape. I also mentioned that I used MapMyRun to map most of my routes online to get an idea of where to run to fill out my daily mileage. She, being a much more accomplished and talented runner than myself, suggested I invest in a GPS watch. I sheepishly admitted that I had absolutely no idea what that was. Like, the driving navigator thing with the stupid commercials? Nope. Just a watch that tells you how far and how fast you’ve gone. How have I not heard of this? I had no idea the technology existed. Luckily for me, I lived about 4 blocks from a family owned and operated store. They cater to every and any individual looking to buy, well, anything and everything about running! Yes, even for an amateur like me. Enter: Mill City Running.

This place had been up and running for about a year since I had moved so near to its location. I’m sure I’d passed it dozens, hell, maybe over a hundred times and had never stepped inside. Mostly just never had to. There is not much I’m good at it, but if there is something I do well it’s use the fuck out of my running shoes. The shoes I was training in that summer up until I stepped foot into this amazing boutique had seen well over 2000 miles. Two thousand. And they’re still around, for sure. Albeit with their fair share of holes and completely worn-down soles. Alas, I was determined to qualify for the Boston Marathon (that post is coming soon), and if knowing, instead of guessing, my time and mileage was going to help me, then it was time to get a watch. And probably some new shoes.

It was inviting. Warm. I was greeted by many friendly faces (who I’d come to know with some familiarity as the months progressed) who were eager to help me. I said I needed a watch – a GPS watch. Oh shit, was I ever getting fancy. They probably thought what I really needed was someone to dress me like a human being. My normal garb of worn out flip flops, stained t-shirt, and athletic shorts unquestionably looked profoundly stupid. My wardrobe has matured since, even if I haven’t. While watch shopping, I made sure to replace my worn-out, filthy running shoes too. I was introduced to some new Asics styles (my favorite) and some that were on clearance. I found some that I liked, and there I was with some new Asics Gel Cumulus 16’s and a Garmin Forerunner 10 GPS watch. As I readied to check out, I was told about running events that the store put on just about every day of the week. Most of these were in the afternoon, but I was NOT about to get my sweaty ass out in muggy Minnesota with the sun blazing at 90 degrees with 100% humidity. But one day did catch my attention. Flapjack Friday – 6:30am. Growing up I used to have pancakes just about every day before school, and I often ate them on long-run days for breakfast pre-run (my nutrition has matured as well). They were and are still my favorite meal ever. And at 6:30am, I couldn’t pass that up. What could be better than running a few miles in the morning and eating some free pancakes? I’d come next Friday for sure.

And I was more motivated than ever to do so. The next day I took that watch out for a workout. I still remember it like it was yesterday. The workout is still in my google calendar: Marathon specific 17M w/ 14M @ marathon race pace. One mile warm up and BLING. My watch vibrated: 7:39min/mi. Not bad I thought. Now it’s time to bring it down. I needed to average just about 7 minute miles to achieve my goal of qualifying for Boston. I clicked the next 5 miles off with only one above 6:55min/mi. Holy shit. Maybe I’m not as slow as I thought. And I felt great! So I picked it up. I finished with my last 5 miles at 6:37 or less. Did I just run that fast? Granted, this is NOT fast for anyone with real talent, but it was much faster than I thought I could move so comfortably. I loved this little watch! And, I think I’d earned some pancakes.

So I jog out from my apartment and waltz into the store on a hot, sticky, Friday morning just as the sun is rising. A handful of serious looking (and some with rather casual demeanor) athletes stood around and chatted, drinking coffee. I modestly poured myself some and introduced myself to a handful of others. I was met with the some gracious and warm environment as I had when I first stopped in to buy my shoes and watch. After a few minutes, a tall, scruffy man stood himself up on a podium. He introduced himself as Doron, a ‘friend of the store,’ and welcomed the ultimately drowsy crew of a few dozen stalwart runners to ‘Flapjack Friday!’ The routes were simple (and later I would learn, simply beautiful). A four, five, and seven mile route were offered, with pace leaders to lead groups of varying speed. With the good vibes still running through me from my marathon pace workout, I thought it best to jump in with the 7min/mi group for a nice and easy 5 mile route along the river. I was initially a little shy, but opened up just a little bit every mile. I learned the stories of some phenomenal athletes. An Olympian even worked at this store! And there were tons of people talking about the Boston Marathon, and this 100 mile trail race, and all these other crazy events. I was in good company. We made our way back to the store and I was introduced to perhaps the most important and life-changing idea I’ve ever encountered in my existence. Pancakes – with peanut butter. They were incredible (though I can’t say I have always had a great relationship with peanut butter in the past, read more of that shit here). More importantly, I started making friendships. I started learning about other types of races and events. I learned about this ‘Mill City race-team,’ and during the winter I learned about a little something called November Project (read that shit, I promise you’ll love it). I made it to as many Fridays as possible, and was always so interested in learning about other people’s goals, ambitions, and race plans. I loved the camaraderie. And there was an absolute abundance of fast and talented, yet humble, athletes. So many inspiring souls from all different backgrounds. I wanted to be friends with all of them. And I was! How unfortunate it was when my injury, and ultimately my eating disorder, brought me so much shame, change in weight, speed, and guilt about my disgusting habit, that I would again not permit myself to return to a wonderfully supportive group of people for the better part of 3 fucking years.

I was running a tempo run in June 2015 when I got a terrible pain in my hip. I was about 5 or so miles in and was a pretty far ways from home. I kept trying to run through it, but the pain kept getting worse. I ultimately ended up walking 2 miles back home, and that was a struggle. Having been at in the grips of a binge-eating disorder (I do implore you to read my first post for more info) for a year and a half, I went back home and dealt with that stress how I naturally trained myself to. I bought a frozen pizza, doughnuts, a pop, and a pint of ice cream from the convenience store I lived above. You can imagine how fast it was gone. That was a pretty typical occurrence, 2, 3, 4 sometimes even 5 nights a week. It was hell. And all the while I was sidelined from the roads due to this nasty, debilitating pain in my hip. I couldn’t even walk normally. It would be months before I got over that injury. But it would be years before I got over that disgusting habit. The binge-eating. And since my last binge over two months ago, that’s exactly the way I’m going to keep it forever.

This is Jeff, he is awesome. He and his awesome wife Bekah run this place.

This week has been the most emotional of my entire life. I have cried more times (out of happiness) than I thought I was capable of. To this store, November Project, and all of my dearly missed friends, I have a message: Thanks for taking me back like I never left. Thanks for not judging me, for being supportive, for listening to my story, even if you didn’t ask for it. Know that if I ever enter those dark moments again (I won’t), that you won’t be the last people I see. I’ll look to you, for you, for help. And support. Running is the language in which I speak most fluently, and to have so many passionate and empathetic listeners is what brings me so much joy in the conversations that we share. Even if it’s fucking freezing outside. ‘Til next Friday – and flapjacks. With peanut butter, of course.

Just. Show. Up.

November Project – Every Wednesday

This morning marked my return to working out with a group. But not just any group. You are truly not a badass until you have sweated with this collection of studs right here. I can’t believe the shame of my own weight-gain and binge-eating disorder kept me from showing my face for almost 3 damn years (you can check out the fuller story here).  Had I had the courage to open up about what I was putting myself through, no doubt my recovery would have taken on a far more expedient (and less potentially disastrous) course. It’s almost impossible for me to fathom now, but I would literally change my running routes, avoiding that dark but inviting spot between the Guthrie Theater and Mill City Museum, just so no one would see me. Just so no one would know how much I had changed. All the while I knew damn well in my head that not a single one of these tremendous humans would hold an ounce of judgement toward me. Not one of them would have been anything but supportive, kind, and uplifting. All while kicking each others’ ass (in a good way!) through a dope workout. Man, oh man, I just couldn’t brave through my negative emotions. I even had the example of a strong and courageous friend (read his post, his story IS inspiring) to use as a template. Jack shares his own experience battling, and recovering from, an eating disorder. I could have used his bravery right there and then to buttress my self-confidence and open the fuck up to someone, but, I did not, and suffered as a result. Perhaps it just wasn’t my time. I’ll be damned if it ain’t my time now.

So who are these people? What do they do? This is called November Project. It’s the greatest group of people in the world that get together on Wednesday mornings well before the sun comes up to hug, sweat, and workout. There is no cover. There is no necessary equipment (you might wanna bring a jacket if you live where I do). No membership fee. No personal trainers. It’s you and your favorite people on Earth. For a half hour you motivate each other to grab the morning by the horns and ride it into oblivion. You look forward to freezing cold mornings with an icy smile on your face cause you know you just changed the goddamn world. Think I’m exaggerating? Since it’s inception with a couple of rower bros from the NE United States in 2011, the movement has attracted people from all over the world, with tribes spanning 3 continents and 8 countries. And it’s growing. And it’s FREE. There is no sign-in, no dues, no tax, and no bullshit. And it’s for everyone. Sub 3 hour marathoners to couch potatoes to heavy lifting gals and guys to total couch potatoes. It doesn’t matter – and it never will. I couldn’t have envisioned a better environment to really recover in.

BTW this is Jack and I – basically this is my face all the time during workouts.

I literally, literally, LITERALLY, cannot wait to spend every available Wednesday morning here. I was first introduced to it by my good friend pictured above. It sounded as strange to me as I’m sure it does to you right now. He said something about hugs, and sweating, and a…project? What the hell was this cult? I was mildly curious, and majorly skeptical. But, as my actions are (almost) exclusively dictated by my do-whatever attitude, I thought I’d give it a shot. I’m up anyway, right? It’s really not that early for me! Let’s check it out……and then subsequently come as often as possible. I was one workout in, and I was hooked. The boombox, the hugs, the fuck-yeahs, the deck of cards, it was a thug-style workout that I couldn’t have envisioned until I showed up myself. It had been years since I had had the ability to really train with people. To throw high-fives and motivational ‘You got this!’ out to people, most of whom I’d never met in my life. I went from stranger to comrade within the time it takes to give a hug. And there were many, many more hugs than one. From every fitness level, everyone was just having just fun. There was encouragement. Excitement. Competitiveness. I was sold. And clearly these peeps were too.

Nothing defined my isolation more than missing these incredible workouts with these even more incredible champions. This morning was epic. I hugged. And yes, Ryan Duff cried. A lot. Med school will surely de-rail my attendance here and there (I even anticipate a few #wemissedyou in the future). But not a hump-day went by during my ‘hiatus’ that I didn’t think about coming back. To getting back to propelling myself and others to absolutely beat the crap out of the morning and do work. There is always an aura of mind-numbingly intense positivity in this space that it’s actually euphoric. I missed that terribly – but now I don’t feel like I have to. I can #justshowup, be myself, and let it all out. I don’t carry the shame or despair with my every step anymore, and it frees up all of that mental energy to actually exude some high vibrations to the tribe. Especially for those that may struggle to hit the 6:27am start-time.  I can’t make up for that lost time, but I can try. How? By spreading the word. Come. Find a tribe near you, or if you live in the MSP area, get your behind to the river between Mill City museum and Guthrie Theater on Wednesday morning, 6:27am. I’ll be there. The tribe will be there. You’ll get addicted and won’t even want to quit. And why would you want to? No doubt my recovery will be spent sharing the love with these people who have the capacity to receive it, and who give way more back. If subzero, pre-dawn workouts are crazy, a disorder if you will, well, it’s one I can’t get behind. But don’t take it from me. #justshowup and find out.

A Peanut Butter Ice Cream Nightmare: Food, Impulse, and (re)Ascension to Average

Today is a sort of special kind of day. Two rather significant events occurred. One: I ran a long ways (not that significant but more than I ever have before). Two. I cried. In the arms of a total stranger who had the generosity of helping warm my gloves and my heart during this awfully cold run. It’s been years since I have been that open with another human being, and we had known each other for all of about 4 minutes. It felt amazing. It’s unimaginable to me that I have held held back for so long this almost uniquely human experience for the sake of establishing a façade of stoicism. Not anymore.

So who gives a fuck right? (Btw, you’ll see this is rather uncensored commentary, and an uninhibited Duff probably falls on the heavier end of ‘vulgar’ language. Bear with me). Well, I have no idea. But it’s gonna be put out into the world regardless. Cause if 25 years of living has taught me one thing, it’s the more garbage you hold in, the more septic your mind and spirit become (yes, Ryan Duff is getting spiritual, hold onto your fucking hats). And you don’t need to be in medical school to know that sepsis is really not a good thing. In accordance with my all-or-nothing, impulsive, do-or-do-not attitude, allow me to take out the trash.

So you’ve made it this far and you have no idea what I’m talking about, or why. If you have spoken to me in person you’re in familiar territory. Let me explain. Let’s take a little trip back in time. I grew up in what I will finally admit to the world (or the maybe 5 people reading this) was not an average household. I have lied about that for a while, so let’s unpack that dumpster. Out of respect for everyone involved, I’ll just say I was privy to a torrent of alcohol addiction, drug addiction, eating disorders (remember that one we’re coming back to it), and a suicide attempt to boot. Fights were the norm. ‘Walking on eggshells’ was the rule rather than an idiom. And all around a relative dearth of communication – between anyone. Talk about dysfunctional. As the youngest of 4 progeny, I thought myself ‘lucky’ having escaped all this misfortune personally. ‘I’ll never be like that!’ said my (even more than now) naïve self. ‘How can people be so selfish?’ ‘Why can’t they just be happy?’ ‘Why would they do that to themselves?” Little Ry-blaster had it all figured out. I’d have to wait until my twenties to learn just how dumb I really was.

Sidetrack: I took a liking to running from a young age. There were times running with my mom as a grade-schooler when I remember really being authentic, having meaningful conversations, and pondering on what it means to run through exhaustion. Hell, I still use ‘run to the next street light’ as a motivational ploy to persevere through a long-run bonk, and I developed that at the ripe age of 7. It served me well this morning, this afternoon, and this evening. But it truly took off in college. I remember specifically one cold evening during winter break of freshmen year when I get lost out in the country roads for a couple hours to come back and realized I ran my first half-marathon. Go me! But it was fun. And I felt alive. And I fucking loved it. Whatever concoction of neurochemicals that were sustained in my brain (I’m sure I’ll learn more than I ever wanted to know this Spring) during that first, true, cold, long run was enough to get me hooked. And hooked I still am. But that wasn’t so much the issue. If running was the ‘yang’ of my solitary happiness, then a dark ‘ying’ lingered in the shadow of my constrained spirit: food obsession. Growing out of a sense of loneliness (not solitude) and dissatisfaction, my obsession with it manifested in much the same ways as is common among young adults (usually women, but ask anyone who knows me just how much I hate gender stereotypes). It was borne out of an obsession with body image, a sense of ‘accomplishment’ in achieving a certain look, and a more desirable motivation of wanting to just run faster and farther. It took time, but by my midway through sophomore year of college, well, I was finding out just how deep that rabbit hole went.

I never quite matched the clinical definition of anorexia nervosa. I think I never hit that low of weight, and it didn’t significantly effect my energy levels, but certainly a drop 30-40 lbs in a relatively normal weight, active 20 year-old would be cause for concern for anybody. But with a lack of meaningful interaction with friends and family, who was there to stymie the symptoms? To keep me in check? To ask how I was doing and intervene appropriately? Okay, I would never, ever, hold anybody else accountable for my actions. I was responsible for what happened, and me alone. But I would also never, ever, suggest that I had an ounce of training in dealing with negative thoughts and emotions, how to manage stress and external pressures, and how to just generally socialize with others in a way (well, in ANY way) that is conducive to emotional well-being. Without any of these skills to cope, what’s a rather impulsive, stressed-out, food-obsessed, eating disorder pre-disposed, 20-something-guy going to do?

Okay, fast-forward. About a year and a half. And to, in my mind, more dire straits. We’ve been keeping up this restrictive diet for a while. Restrictive is maybe not the word – let’s go with highly ordered with a (un)healthy dose of mal/undernourishment. What a mouthful! Anyway, fast-forward. Right. I remember it like it was yesterday. Coming home from class, getting ready for my usual dinner of flaked mashed potatoes. Yeah, like the ones that come in a fucking box. No butter or cheese, made with water, but an abundance of salt. Delicious, right? But! A thought occurred. You know what sounds good right now? Like, REALLY fucking delicious. A peanut-butter jelly sandwich. On a bagel. A sweet, chocolate chip bagel! Now this is something similar to what I’d eaten for breakfast just about every day of my life for the past 2 years (keep the pb+j, take out the bagel and replace with 2 slices of some ‘low-calorie’ bread). But for dinner?! You gotta be kidding me – I wouldn’t dream of it! Think about how many calories that would be! Didn’t I already have a big lunch? But sure enough, before I knew it, I was putting away that pb&j bagel faster than you could imagine. Maybe not the craziest thing in the world. Not a totally uncommon snack in America. Especially for ‘runners,’ as one might describe me. But that voice wasn’t finished. That was not satiating, not even close. What’s the harm in another one? When I was in high school, two PB&J’s and a couple of chocolate milks constituted my daily lunch. What really was the harm? Come on, you ran 8 miles this morning, you can put another one away! That sandwich was delicious – have another! And for the first time in many years, well…that’s exactly what I did. Still, no regrets (yet). But here’s the kicker. Now is where it gets really crazy. I mean a little (lot of) bit psycho. About 10 minutes, 4 more Pb&J bagels, half a quart of chocolate milk, and a few handfuls of candy later, and I was, well…satiated? Full? Hmmm…let’s try sick. Enter normal brain: What the fuck just happened? I felt like I had just entered a zombie trance. At no point during that exercise did I feel anything that amounted to rational thought. And…and, well by god – it felt good! At least, while it was happening. That amount of peanut butter, bread, and dairy will put a fucking knot in your gut. But when was the last time I ate something without looking at a food label first? Without knowing it has x calories or y grams of fat? I actually thought I’d accomplished something – like I was really breaking free! Sure, now I felt sick, but wasn’t that better than being perpetually unsatisfied? Anything had to be better than that prison of malnourishment, obsession, and starvation, right? As it turns out, for the better part of four years, I’d find myself in a new rabbit hole that went deeper, and was far worse than anything I’d ever experienced before.

Having not been fruitful in meeting the diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa, my perturbed brain thought it would try its hand at binge-eating disorder (it was a rousing success). What I described above was my first episode of binge eating. It was, unfortunately, not the last, not the most severe, and not the last time I’d say ‘never again’. For now, I’ll refrain from expounding the gory details. Suffice to say, there was significant weight gain, a food log, calorie counting, broken promises to myself, attempts at purging (and 2 physiologically induced purges from a couple of really intense episodes), and even some suicidal ideation when I did finally bottom out (another topic for another day).  I truly cannot estimate the pints of ice cream, jars of peanut butter, donuts, boxes of cookies, whole pizzas, sandwiches, burritos, blocks of cheese, bags of chips, and every other imaginable shit food I had consumed individually in those years. If I thought I had been obsessed with food before, I didn’t understand what being under the dominion of it really felt like. Every waking moment was focused on how I could stifle the voice. What and where and how much I was going to eat. And, at its worst, about 5 nights a week, ending with an all-consuming binge. All I can tell you now, is through true recognition of what I was doing, and why, and the tools to stop it, was I able to put that beast to bed. FOR GOOD.

There are three books I read specifically that got me out of that hell. It took a while for me to put that knowledge into wisdom (much like I had the knowledge that an eating disorder could fuck up your life but not the wisdom to actually prevent it), but eventually it…well, it just clicked. Brain Over Binge, and its compendium Brain Over Binge Recovery Guide, as well as Rational Recovery. The RR book was designed for alcoholics, but if I could (and the author of the former book could as well) ascertain anything from this despicable habit, it’s that impulsivity is a mutual component of both binge eating and binge drinking. And that’s what these books got to the heart of. Again, for now, I’ll refrain from the exact processes that are involved as its not the focus of this admittedly long post. The point is that I needed just a little more than what was given to me in these books. I needed to communicate. To share. Even if it meant just putting it on paper. My true thoughts. I needed to establish friendships. I didn’t predict that my that my recovery would find its birth within the middle of the first semester of medical school – but I’ll take it. I will fucking take it.

I couldn’t have recovered, made it through this semester, and (as scary as it is to admit) possibly survived without communication. Without expressing to individuals what I was feeling. There were other factors to (another post for sure), but principally this is a story I’ve needed to share since before it even started. Anxiety and stress exists within all of us. You can hold it in or you can share. I tried the former. Hopefully this post has conveyed to you that didn’t work. Through the semester I tried the latter – no, I didn’t share this level of personal experience. In fact, this is the first I’ve told anyone any of this part of the story. But the overwhelming stress of school, the problems with family, the joys of running (and the not so joyous occasions of falling/spraining ankles). All this I started to share with friends. I could have balled all that shit up into a binge. Into isolation. You don’t destroy yourself with food while around people – it’s a solitary endeavor. Whoever said misery loves company doesn’t know how good 2 pints of Ben and Jerry’s are after a whole pizza and a box of chips ahoy cookies watching Netflix by yourself (it’s miserable). Though I almost had it beat before I started school, it wasn’t until a cold day in early November when it clicked for good (another topic, for later). I had all of the knowledge that I needed to overcome that beast. I knew I had found ways to deal with the urges, to mitigate stress, and to just be present. It’s all because I sought help, and found it within the books described above. But the final piece to the puzzle was communicating my thoughts and feelings. The everyday things that, if left untouched, WILL break you. All the things that just ad to all the toxic garbage that builds in one’s mind and soul. That place of isolation and secrecy is not a place I ever want to be again. Which brings me to this blog. If communicating some of my thoughts/feelings/emotions amounted to successfully ending this nasty ordeal, what effects could there be by communicating all of them? Why wouldn’t I try it? Let’s see how far that rabbit hole goes…

So hopefully you stick along for the ride. I have some ideas for what will be produced in this blog, but regardless of the point of each post, rest assured knowing that the words will represent, now or at some point in the past, my truest and most authentic self. Some reservations will be placed only out of respect of those people involved who would like to be anonymous. Not that I consider myself as someone with a story really worth writing home about. Honestly, this experiment is more for my benefit than anyone else. I know it will keep me ‘sober.’ And if it doesn’t, I’ll be damned if it that story doesn’t end up on here anyway. In full fucking detail. But in my opinion, even a barely average dude like me has got something to share. Meaning everyone has got a story to share. Whether that story is completely public or private, shared with many or shared with few, it deserves to be heard and understood. If I’m good at one thing (and if grad school taught me anything, it’s that that might just be true), it’s doing shit people don’t often do. Run 50 miles to celebrate ‘sobriety?’ Fuck yeah. Write a public blog detailing every hitherto tacit event that almost destroyed you for the sake of being honest? Tell me where to sign. It might be dumb, or strange, but it’s definitely me. And who I am now is definitely closer to me than I have ever been in my life.

Me. Unleashed. Hopefully you stick around. I think we’ll both learn something.