Creatively become a better runner

IMG_0170The past few years have been a battle to keep myself healthy and running. My knees have not always cooperated and during the down times, when I am not able to log the type of miles I want to, I have tried to find other outlets. I’ve dabbled in photography. I’ve done a little bit of writing. I’ve picked up a couple of sketch books but hardly cracked them open, much less drawn anything.

In an effort to find my muse, to understand what it takes to find my voice and do the type of creative work I want to, I’ve searched out a few highly recommended books. I re-read Stephen King’s On Writing for the fourth of fifth time, as much because I am entertained by the way he tells his own story as for tips on being a productive writer. I picked up photographer/podcaster Chase Jarvis’ book “Creative Calling,” after listening to him make the rounds promoting the book. I read, and re-read Austin Kleon’s triology, “Steal Like an Artist,” “Show Your Work,” and “Keep Going.” Lastly, I just finished reading Stephen Pressfield’s book, “The War of Art,” which defines that thing that keeps most of us from doing the work, THE RESISTANCE, and tries to give us the tools to overcome it.

Interestingly enough, the things I learned have helped my fitness routine more than they have helped my creative routines. In fairness, the back cover of “The War of Art,” does ask if you ever, among other things, “wish you could start dieting or exercising today?”, “hope to run a marathon someday?” But my goal was not to find tips on how to be a better runner. My goal was simply to break out of this cycle of saying, “I want to write,” “I want to create art,” “I want to make photos,” and instead, actually do those things.

The No. 1 takeaway from all of these books is to create a routine, a habit. Jarvis writes that “creativity is not a skill, it’s a habit.” Stephen King writes about his goal of writing 2,000 words a day, and staying in his office until he has reached that goal every day. Austin Kleon talks about creating a bliss station, a place you go or a time of day (or both) you set aside to create your art. Pressfield stresses that to ignore your muse is to spite The Almighty (that seems a little drastic to me, but I get the point).

This has proven to be 100 percent applicable to running for me. Being fit, doing the things I need to do to be a good runner, is all about habit. If I stick to a routine of running at a certain time (my bliss station), do my dynamic warmup before my miles and my physical therapy, stretching and rolling immediately after, those routines become habits. I was on quite a roll with all of this too until the current situation with the coronavirus ramped up my anxiety and forced me to take a step back.

For me, getting in miles and doing the necessary things to keep myself on the roads is all about setting routines and showing up for myself, and my muse, every day. Of course, as an athlete, it’s not all about going all out all the time. I don’t think any of these creative types are encouraging that either, but as an athlete (it feels pretty arrogant to call myself that, but I have a running blog, which is kind of the height of arrogance, isn’t it?) that is something I have to remember and stick with.

Another important thing I learned in my research that applies to running is to avoid comparison. It is the thief of joy, as Theodore Roosevelt is credited with saying. “Your goal should always be to become the best you, not a pretty good — or even damn good — version of someone else,” Jarvis writes. Scrolling through Strava and feeling like everyone is kicking more ass than I am is a recipe for bad things to happen. Ignore the noise, these guys say, and focus on the work you need to do.

I’m in a good stop with running right now. I’m running more and more every week and feeling better and better. I will, however, continue to explore ways to flex my creative muscles and being a better writing, artist … whatever it is that strike gets my creative juices going.

Hopefully, the things I read, watch and listen to help me become a better runner, too.

Longfellow Frostbite 2.5K 1.0

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Racing down Congress Street was pretty fun, if it wasn’t so cold. (Photo by Maine Running Photos)

In the weeks after the Chicago Marathon I wasn’t feeling great but I wanted something to motivate me to get back to work. I signed up for the Jimmy the Greeks Frozen 4-Miler, the Mid Winter Classic 10-miler and the Longfellow Frostbite 2.5K.

Well, my knee ended up being a much bigger pain in the ass then I anticipated and I didn’t run for about 4 week. When I did start running again, it wasn’t terribly comfortable and I wasn’t doing very much of it. The 10-miler was off the table within a few weeks of signing up for it. I could have done the 4-miler but it would have been a super slow slog (I was only running for 15 minutes at a time at that point) and the timing just wasn’t going to work out because I had to work that afternoon.

So, I started 2020 with two Did Not Starts. I’m OK with that, it’s just not exactly what I had in mind after running Chicago.

I’m happy to report I was able to finally start and finish a race in 2020, the Longfellow 2.5K on Sunday, and it was actually quite a bit of fun.

I didn’t have very high expectations for this race. I’m still only running three or four days a week and I have just started to add some strength/speed stuff into my routine. The hill workout I did the Wednesday before the 2.5K was really the first and only workout I’ve done since Chicago, so my fitness is pretty much non-existent.

Despite that, I’m pretty happy with how the race went. I finished in 11:21, which translates to about a 7:18 per mile pace. Not super fast, especially when you consider the only time I raced the mile I finished in 6:36 and my last 5K I averaged 6:52. But what little running I have been doing since Chicago has been super slow, so to hold onto 7:18 pace for a little more than a mile and a half … I’ll take it.

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My form is a little sloppy, I’m really out of shape, and I’m not very fast, but it was super fun to pin on a bib and race. (Photo by Maine Running Photos)

There is not really much to say about the race. It was just a quick run from Lincoln Park on Congress Street to Longfellow Square and back. I figured I’d run at a comfortably hard effort, just enough to feel like I was actually putting in work, and be happy to feel good. Racing on Sunday was way more about getting in the arena, toeing a starting line and feeling that rush again. It was a chance to see a few friends and do something other than jog my mileages. I accomplished each of those things.

I took off with the crowd, running faster than I thought I would, but it felt all right, so I just tried to keep running that pace. Surprisingly, it didn’t feel nearly as bad as I thought it would. It didn’t feel great, but it didn’t feel awful either. That’s a win, no doubt about that.

Sunday was a start. A nice reminder of why I’m doing all the work I have to do. It was the fuel I need right now to keep going to the gym to do my physical therapy, as tedious and boring as it sometimes is. I’ve made huge strides since jacking up my knee again running Chicago. I’m still not 100 percent – if I stand for too long or if I sit the wrong way at work for too long (which I always do), my knee starts to ache. I am in a much better place than I was and I’m excited to do more, not so excited that I’m going to rush into anything stupid, but excited to keep doing the work, to continue making progress, and to step into the arena again sometime soon.

Missing out … and that’s OK

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The 2017 Mid Winter Classic. This is one of the best races I’ve ever had, one of those days where I didn’t leave anything on the table and far exceeded my expectations.

My favorite race is a week away and I will not be running in it. This is not a new development. I signed up for the Mid Winter Classic in November with the hope that, with physical therapy and treatment, I’d be running enough in December and January to toe the line on Feb. 2. It didn’t take long to realize that I wouldn’t be ready to run the 10-miler on Super Bowl Sunday. I’ve known I wouldn’t run the race since early December.

I’m not here to piss and moan about it. Yeah, I’d really like to be healthy enough to run the race on Sunday, but I’m not there yet. I haven’t run more than 6 1/2 miles since the Chicago Marathon. I’m definitely not in a place where I would even attempt to jog 10 miles.

But, I am running and I am feeling a lot better than I was in October, November and December. My knee still gets tired and a little sore, but the constant ache is gone, and the sharp pain I felt during the marathon and in those few runs the week following is gone. My hamstring is still also a little sore, but it doesn’t constantly hurt while I run, and I’m working out those kinks.

I’m heading in the right direction and that is why I’m not pissing and moaning about not racing on Super Bowl Sunday.

I have loads of work left to do. I’m only jogging for 20 minutes at a time. Saturday I jogged for 20 minutes, walked for 3 minutes, jogged for 20 minutes, walked for 3 minutes, then jogged for 10 more minutes. That’s about all I can handle right now. Well, I probably could run longer, but it’s not smart to push it yet, and for once in my life, I’m trying to be smart.

In the months since the marathon I have spent much more time in the gym then I have on the roads. Every day, I spent 30-45 minutes going through my physical therapy routine. It’s not terribly extensive and the exercises are not very taxing, but I am rebuilding the muscles that will allow me to run without constant pain in my knees. At some point, I will have to start doing more strength work, but my routine right now has me heading in the right direction, so I will keep it up.

And at some point I will start running more, but I will not rush it. I have no goal races on my schedule, I have no times I am chasing, no mileage numbers I want to hit. I would like to have a goal to chase later this year, but right now my only goal is to run pain free. My only focus is on doing the work to be able to enjoy running.

Races can wait, even if that mean I have to miss my one my favorites.

No second guessing, 2019 was a win

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The Mother’s Day 5K was my favorite race of 2019. I wasn’t expecting much from myself but ran as hard as I possibly could, felt awesome (in a brutally painful kind of way) while doing it and just missed a PR. I can’t wait to have more days like this. (Photo by Maine Running Photos)

It is easy right now to look at 2019 as kind of a shitshow in terms of running. My knee problems from 2017 reared their ugly head, I strained a hip flexor, and my left hamstring hasn’t really been right since the last month of marathon training.

 

My aches and pains are on the mend thanks to a lot of physical therapy, a lot of rest, a lot of trying to do things the right away.

That being said, I’m only running for 5 minutes at a time right now (5 minute jog, 2 minute walk, repeat). I’m feeling better every day, but it is hard not to be frustrated that I am not training for the Mid Winter Classic the way I want to be.

It would be easy to look at that, to focus on my body falling apart when I pushed toward my big audacious goals, and think of 2019 as a failure. After all, the biggest race of my year broke me.

2019 was far from a failure.

2019 was a year of huge wins.

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Riding the pain train at the Chicago Marathon. I was in a world of hurt right here. My right knee and left hamstring were screaming at me. I didn’t totally quit, though, and while I didn’t reach my ultimate goal of 3:47, I did set a marathon PR. You can never be upset with a marathon PR, especially when your body is revolting on you so much.

Yeah, it wasn’t perfect and I’m dealing with the fallout, but I met all but one of the goals I set for myself this year. I proved to myself that I can train harder enough to run another marathon. I figured out what my body is capable of and what goals I really want to chase in the future.

 

How can that be considered anything but a huge success?

That list of goals I set for myself in 2019 was geared toward one big goal, the one goal I didn’t meet this year. Running high-for-me mileage (a 50-mile week and a 200-mile month), running a sort-of-fast-for-me half marathon (sub 1:45), running a decent effort in the 5K (sub 23 minutes), losing 20 pounds, were all part of the process of preparing to run a 3:47 at the Chicago Marathon.

I met each of the goals I set leading up to the Chicago Marathon.

• I ran 1:44:59 at the Lake Auburn Half.

• I just missed my 5K PR, running 21:36 at the Mother’s Day 5K.

• By giving up beer and cleaning up my diet a bit, I lost 20 pounds (I’ve gained some of that back since the marathon).

• I ran 50 miles in a week and 200 miles in a month.

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The Lake Auburn Half was another huge win. I started off easily, pushed myself harder than I ever have in the second half of the race, and gained a ton of confidence. Days like this are why I love running so much. (Photo by Maine Running Photos)

If you have followed along at all, you know the only goal I didn’t meet in 2019 was finally running that 3:47 marathon. I was on pace for a long time at the Chicago Marathon, but the second half of the race was a painfest thanks to those hamstring and knee injuries, and I wasn’t quite tough enough in the last 5 miles (oh, and I had two bathroom breaks before that and that cost me some time) to finally run 3:47.

 

But I did fight my ass off to set a PR at Chicago, finishing in 3:49:45. I wish I had been a little tougher and hadn’t quit on myself a few times in that race, but I’m extremely proud that I handled the pain in those last 5 miles much better than I did at the end of the Sugarloaf Marathon in 2017. I stuck my nose in it, I didn’t allow myself to completely quit, and I proved to myself I could do hard things.

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Chicago hurt, A LOT, and I’m still dealing with the fall out, but WHAT A DAY. It was such a huge win. It was probably my last marathon and I’m OK going out on this note.

If that’s not a win, my standards are way too fucking high.

 

As I reflect on 2019 I will think about all of those successes. I will also think about the things that went wrong. The wins show me that if I put in the work I can accomplish the things I want to. The losses show me that I have to work that much harder to continue to be able to accomplish the things I want to.

Moving forward, I have no big audacious goals for 2020. All I want to do is get myself to a spot both physically and mentally where I can enjoy running again. The goal is to do the work to make my body better, to get stronger and fitter to try to prevent these injuries that keep putting me on the shelf from putting me on the shelf. I have started doing that work, but I have also cut myself some slack. I worked hard for a lot of 2019, it’s OK to step back and refresh a little bit.

At some point in the future, I will set some goals to chase after. I will probably never run another marathon, but I will set some lofty goals. I will try to run some fast races. If I learned anything in 2019 it is that I am capable of reaching those high standards I set for myself and I enjoy doing the work I have to do to get there.

Small progress is better than no progress

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Woodway jogs at Starting Line Run Studio on Sunday morning. This felt like progress.

All the ways we have as runners to measure progress – more miles on a daily and weekly basis; faster intervals during the mid-week workout; a faster 5K PR; a few more miles tacked onto that Sunday long run – none of them are relevant to me right now. Sure, I want to get faster, I want to be running for more than 3 minutes at a time. I’m a competitor, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about that stuff.

But right now, the only measure of progress I’m worried about is feeling better. Was my knee not quite so sore and did the soreness hold off for longer? Did that achy hamstring just feel tired or was it crampy and pulling? Did I feel like I could keep running at the end of each 3 minute rep without increasing the level of pain or the level of my breathing?

As I work my way back from an achy left hamstring and a case of patellofemoral pain syndrome (i.e. runner’s knee) in my right knee, the only thing I’m worried about is feeling better. Sunday morning as I jogged for 3 minutes at time on the treadmill at 10 minute per mile pace, I wasn’t worried about how slow it was or how many miles I was going to cover. No, instead I was checking in on my knee and my hamstring. I was thinking about my form, making sure not to over stride and heal strike, and monitoring the situation in my legs.

Sunday was a good step in the right direction. Last Wednesday, after an hour of physical therapy in the morning, I did my jog/walk along the East End Trail in the evening. It didn’t take long for my knee to hurt and my hamstring to cramp. I was already bummed out watching everyone else in the Mid-Winter Classic training group take off for their “beat your last interval” workout, so the pain in my legs put me in a pretty foul mood.

Things turned around slightly on Friday, when I took my “run” to the treadmill. I wasn’t nearly as sore or crampy and almost felt like a runner. Sunday was even better.

It’s hard not to feel discouraged when I’ve lost so much fitness and jogging/walking for 50 minutes is the most I’m able to handle right now. It’s hard not to get discouraged watching other people do the type of workouts you want to be doing, but am not quite physically able to do right now.

Sometimes though, you have to put things into perspective. Someone much smarter than I am recently told me that instead of comparing myself to others and trying to compete with them, I have to accept where I am at. Their journey is not my journey. That is not where I am at in my life, I shouldn’t feel bad about it, just accept it and do what I can. 

So, that has been my plan of attack. I’m not always as motivated as I would like to be, but right now my only goal is to do what I am capable of and feel good about it. I do my physical therapy every day. I run every other day. If I feel up to it, and my legs aren’t telling me to lay off, I’ll do some body weight exercises. Whatever I can do is what I can do. Whatever anyone else can do doesn’t matter. 

I feel like I’m moving in the right direction. I know I have a long way to go, and I will most definitely get discouraged by the process sometimes, but all I can do right now is stick my nose in it and do the work I am capable of doing.

Small progress is better than no progress. No matter how you measure it.

Symbols of excellence … or of just being better

img_4664When I stepped on the treadmill Monday morning I pulled off my hoodie. Underneath, I was wearing a blue and black singlet with a huge Chicago Marathon logo on the chest.

I felt a little silly wearing a singlet on the treadmill when I was going to be doing less than 40 minutes of work. I wore a singlet a lot in training this summer, but for me putting on a singlet is like putting on a game jersey, a uniform. Putting on a singlet means, it’s race day. It’s a signal to my brain that this is different than every other day. It’s time to perform, to put all that training to use.

In other words, it’s symbolic of the significance of the day.

Monday morning was nothing special. Heck, I was going to be walking more than I was going to be running. I planned to be on the treadmill for 38 minutes and cover about 3.1 miles. In other words, I was going to do 5K about a minute faster than it took me to “race” the distance 8 1/2 years ago when I “ran” my first race.

Like I said, nothing special.

But I wore that singlet for a reason. Just like race day, it was symbolic. I wore that singlet to remind myself that I am capable of big things, despite the way my body feels right now. Less than three months ago, I ran a freakin’ marathon. Yes, it chewed me up and spit me out, left me broken and bruised, but I ran a marathon. And I ran it faster than I’ve ever run 26.2 miles before.

So yeah, I’m a little broken and not quite feeling like the dude who ran a marathon on Oct. 13, but that singlet was a reminder that I am indeed able to do the things I want to do. If I stick my nose in it, do the work I’m supposed to do, the work I need to do to prepare for those things, I am capable. I am able to do the work. I have done it before. And big things can happen when I am willing and able.

That singlet was a reminder to get to work doing those things.

Running is not a heck of a lot of fun right now. Actually, I’m not even running that much. I hop on the treadmill every other day, walk for 5 minutes, then do about six intervals of 3 minutes jogging, 2 minutes walking. I’m actually spending a lot more time doing physical therapy, trying to repair my body and strengthen it to hold up to doing the type of running I want to be doing.

That’s fine. I’m OK with that … for now. I had a great year of running and a couple of stellar races, it’s actually a good time to give myself a break, assess where I am at, and fix the things that are broken. It’s a great time for me to create new routines, new habits related to fitness and running. If it was forced upon me because I got so banged up running the marathon, then that is a blessing.

I may not feel like the guy who ran the Chicago Marathon a little over two months ago, I may have felt silly wearing that singlet on the treadmill for a run/walk Monday morning, but right now I’m just focused on doing the right things. I can’t compare myself to where I was, I can only do the work to get back to where I was – no, scratch that, I can only do the work to be better than I was.

That singlet was a reminder of what I’m capable of, but also a kick in the ass to be even better.

Re-thinking my 2020 goals

img_4612-1At this time last year, I sat down and wrote down a list of goals for 2019. I did the same thing in 2018, 2017, 2016 … oh, you get the point.

And goals have been on my mind a lot in the days and weeks and now months since the Chicago Marathon. I have done some brainstorming, thinking about the races I would like to run, the times I would like to chase.

I think it is time to pump the brakes on all of that.

It’s time to stop thinking about big, fast goals, and time to worry about getting myself healthy enough to run. I’m working on that, but I’m only running for 3 minutes at a time right now (jog for 3 minutes, walk for 2 minutes), and it doesn’t feel great.

So if I’m not really running, why am I worrying about goals?

The reason I set goals is because it motivates me to do the work. I’ll run without a goal race or goal races on the calendar, but it is pretty half-ass, and I don’t get a ton of joy out of that. When I have a goal, I’ll work toward that goal, stick to my routines, and I’ll enjoy running a lot more.

Right now, though, that is not the best use of my mental energy. All thinking about goals is doing is bumming me out about what I can’t do right now.  I can’t really train for the Mid Winter Classic. I can’t do any speed work. I can’t do long runs. I can’t REALLY run.

So instead of my list of running goals looking similar to the one I had last year (run a 3:47 marathon, a sub 1:45 half marathon, a sub 23 5K, a 50-mile week and a 200-mile month) it will look more like the last goal on my short list for 2018 (JUST FUCKING RUN).

That’s it. My only goal to start as we close in on 2020 is to do the work I need to do so I can run without significant pain. That is going to mean a lot more than running and not a ton of running to start. As I start to feel better, start running on a more regular basis, and start actually training (if that ever happens), I’ll plot out some goals, maybe even some of those goals I’ve been thinking about for the last two months. But right now, those goals I was thinking about (setting a 4-mile PR and place in my age group in the Maine Track Club grand prix are off the table.

For now, my only goal is to do the work to feel good about running. I’m in no position to expect anything else.