What running taught me

Mon Dieu!  I have been delinquent in keeping you lovely folks up to date on all the goings-on around here. It’s been a busy time. We just returned this morning from a wonderful long weekend in Lyon (more on that soon). The weekend before we were with friends and enjoying a particularly Dutch adventure (more on that, too) in the north of Holland.

But for now, as I relax after a slow, hot, not-so-great training run, and with my first race in years just 6 days away, I figured I’d take a few minutes to share a bit more about my return to running. As I mentioned last time, I spent a couple of years recovering from a very painful injury to my heel and foot. It was so bad that I had pretty much given up on running completely. But after many months of finally being pain-free, I thought that maybe, just maybe, I could start up again. When I was encouraged (pressured?) to be part of a company team for an annual race in Amsterdam, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for my “comeback”.

As I often do when tackling a new project, I made a plan. I dug out my list of physical therapy exercises and started the calf stretches and one-legged squats. I downloaded a walk-to-run app and eased slowly back into running. I joined a running group to give some structure to my training. In the first weeks, I obsessed about my heel and how it was feeling. I paid attention to every little twinge, worried that it was a relapse. I rested, stretched, massaged, and did whatever I could to be sure that I was protecting the site of the old injury.

Several weeks into my training, on a long run with my pace group, I noticed a little pain in my knee. We were running distances I had never done before; on this day, the knee discomfort started around kilometer 14 or 15. I remember being surprised by it – less by the pain itself, and more by the idea that some part of my body other than my foot could hurt.

Later that day, I realized that for the previous months of preparation and training, I had been completely focused on my heel, worried only about protecting and strengthening it. So focused, it turns out, that it never occurred to me to pay attention to pain or discomfort anywhere else. I was running as if I believed that the only possible injury I could have was a recurrence of the old one.

I don’t think my approach is an unusual or even a bad response to injury. We do need to protect parts of ourselves. We need to strengthen these tender areas, baby them a little. That’s fine at first – necessary, even. But if the goal is to return to full health, then shielding something too long can put us at risk in other ways. Maybe we opt to remove ourselves completely from something – a sport, an activity, a relationship – in order to stay safe. Or, we may find that our focus on the hurt or broken part has blinded us to other things that need our attention – both opportunities and vulnerabilities that we fail to see.

I’m not going to get all “Zen and the Art of Running” on you (mostly because I haven’t read the book), but I do find that this time around, running is giving me more than it did before. In the past few months, I feel like I’ve developed a greater general awareness. I have more trust in my body and its ability and potential. My injury and the pain that came with it felt like a betrayal of sorts; my normally healthy body suddenly had limitations that frustrated and (literally) hurt me.  But now we’re back on steady ground. I take less for granted, and try to pay more attention – not just to the parts that have been damaged.

When physical activity of any kind brings you challenge, focus, peace, growth, and health, you’re on the right path. Whatever does it for you, keep at it. Do it more.


(Definitely Not) Born to Run

I have a love/hate relationship with running. As a tall, gangly, pre-teen, I got feedback from my softball coach about my running style. My long legs didn’t result in a long stride, and after getting a hit, I was often arriving at the base just before the ball. Family being what it is, my siblings translated my coach’s criticism into, “You run funny”, and after hearing that a few times, I decided I would do whatever was necessary to avoid running.

Avoidance worked for a long time. My teen years were focused on volleyball, which brought its own challenges to my still-gangly body. My high school boyfriend was an accomplished long-distance runner who did his best to get me to join him, without success. I was too self-conscious, and also too other-conscious. His speed, stride, and overall energy for running embarrassed me. I can say now what I couldn’t see then: that his running was strong and beautiful and desperate, given all he was trying to outrun. Running probably saved his life.

As an adult, cycling became my primary sport. On the bike, I felt coordinated, capable, and fast. I started cycling long distances. I completed the 3-day Boston-NY AIDS Ride in 1999 and 2000, both of which were transformative events. After a few years and a few more multi-day cycling events, I started to look for something new. (I do that a lot, I’ve been told.) I didn’t want to stop cycling completely, but I wanted more of a challenge. I wanted to push myself and feel the same sense of accomplishment I had after the AIDS Ride. Somehow, I landed on My Next Thing: triathlon.

I’m a decent swimmer, and that’s the shortest part of the tri, anyway, so I knew I could train and get ready for that leg. The biking would be easy. But, there it was, the last hurdle of triathlon, lurking at the tail end of the race, taunting, daring me to come for it: running.

I found list of area triathlons and picked a sprint-distance race in Lowell, MA that August. I then set out to become a runner. I approached running with a rational, almost academic attitude (I do that a lot, too, I’ve been told). I got Runner’s World magazine from the library. I joined my local running club and their weekly “Walk to Run” program. And I started running.

It was awful. It hurt. I couldn’t breathe. I got side stitches. I was slow, plodding. I hated it.

And it pretty much stayed that way for years, even as I kept on running and doing triathlons. I became a regular at the women-only Title 9 Triathlon, and even recruited family and co-workers to race with me. I would train and prepare, and every year, the run would suck. I would lose time, have no energy, and usually give up and end up walking (just for a minute or two). It never got better, or easier.

For the 2013 race, I had a new strategy. I embraced the suck. The run was going to be rough no matter what, so what was the point of “saving my legs” during the bike? I went all-out, aiming to finish in an hour and 25 minutes, which would be a personal best. With only a mile to go on the run, I checked my watch and calculated that I was close to hitting my goal time, but only if I kept on running. As the photo shows, (you can see most of the clock over my shoulder) I crossed the finish line at 1:25:17, 4th in my group.

Title9 2013 finish

Little did I know that about 6 months later, I would be sidelined with plantar fasciitis, a common and incredibly painful injury which, at its worst, felt like someone was jamming an ice pick straight up my heel. It took over a year to recover, including several months of physical therapy. I gave up on running, feeling that I finally had a good excuse not to run. I wasn’t interested in risking a relapse for an activity that I didn’t enjoy in the first place.

It was winter 2015 when we moved to Amsterdam, and the walking and biking was enough to keep me fit. Another year went by without any running. And then, at a work event in January of this year, maybe over a beer or two, a friend convinced me (“I’ll do it if you do it…”) to join the company team in a road race in September. The Dam to Dam is a 16 kilometer – that’s 10 miles for you non-metric folks – race from Amsterdam to Zaandam. At the time I was coerced into participating, I had never run further than 7 miles in my life.

And here we are, less than four weeks away from the Dam to Dam, and I am a runner. Again. Or maybe at last. I connected with a running group (old habits) and have been training three times a week. Last week I ran 17.6 km. In the course of one of my long Saturday runs, I decided that I would also do the Amsterdam Half Marathon in October, because, why not?

The truth is that I am enjoying running for the first time. Maybe it’s the group and the support. Maybe it’s the short hop from our apartment to the Vondelpark, where I do my weekday workouts in the peace and stillness of the early morning. Maybe all the biking got me in better shape, so the running is easier on my body. I probably still run funny. (Who doesn’t?)

In the past when I ran, I would think primarily about how much I hated running, which was not terribly productive. Now, I run without music, and that gives me a lot of time and space with my thoughts. But more on that next time…it’s taken me about as long to write this as it does for me to run 10km (I’m still slow and plodding) and I need to get up early for an interval workout.

One foot in front of the other…


Catching up

Some days go by in a blur, and before I know it, weeks have passed without my having marked them at all. And it’s not as if there haven’t been things worth noting. Just this month, we’ve welcomed family, said goodbye to friends, accomplished some goals and had one very unexpected victory.

I spent some time complaining recently about the Dutch weather, which is probably the least productive activity in all of the Netherlands. Happily, not long after my whining and moaning, the winds changed and the storms blew out.  And our visitors – my brother, sister in law, and a bunch of their friends – were rewarded with a lovely weekend, cool but sunny, perfect for boating. It was a great visit, my brother’s first to Europe, and filled with just the right balance of relaxation and activity. It’s always nice to host guests who just want to sit in the sun and drink a beer canal-side.

The day before my brother’s arrival, I said goodbye to my American friend and biking buddy, Kim. We met last summer, shortly after she arrived in Amsterdam. By chance, we sat next to each other on a warm night at a favorite Portuguese restaurant, and she introduced herself after overhearing us speak English. I later learned that she “never does stuff like that”. Even though she had spent almost every summer in Amsterdam with her Dutch husband and their kids, this was her summer to push herself, to try new things. Talking to us that night was the first in a long series of brave, bold things that she did for herself. With her husband’s sabbatical at an end, she and her family are heading back to their life in Ohio. I will miss our cycling adventures, exploring the back roads and the knooppuntenroute, stopping for tea and sweets along the way. I will miss our conversations, some of the most honest and open I’ve had.

Kim and I were good at cheering each other on, and she has been so encouraging as I  did my own brave, bold thing this spring, and returned to running. Over 2 years ago a painful injury ended my never-very-impressive running career, and I’ve been hesitant and fearful to start up again. But some months ago, I was challenged by my coworkers to sign up for a  race in Amsterdam in September. Sixteen kilometers. Ten English miles. No small thing for someone who has never run more than a 10k. But slowly, I’ve been getting back into it, building up my endurance. I’m running with a fun and supportive group every Saturday (hooray for House of Running!) and my weekend long runs are now in the 9-12k range. It’s been so surprising and rewarding to see my slow but steady work pay off, and to see my performance improve. I may even end up signing up for another race later this year…

And finally, those same influential coworkers convinced me to join in the Euro pool, even though I know nothing about European football. But I paid my entrance fee, set up my account (username: Clueless ‘Murican), made my picks, and selected 4 top scorers – even though I can only name 2 or 3 professional footballers. As luck and the sports gods would have it, halfway through the first round I climbed into first place. And there I stayed.  I didn’t predict the final winner,  but I earned enough points to hold onto the top spot. Tomorrow I’ll be presented with my prize and I will do my best to be a gracious and humble winner. But of course, as an American and a sports fan, in my head I’ll be running a victory lap, or doing an end-zone dance…a proper American celebration of a win.



Les mystères de la France, #3

This post would more accurately be titled “les effets mystérieux de la France”, since it’s less about a mystery in France and more about a mystery from France. Something I can’t explain, but that I’m choosing to credit to my time in France, even though there are probably a dozen other reasonable explanations.

It’s this: since I’ve returned from France, I am a better runner. I am running farther and faster than I have before. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think that generous quantities of rosé and chèvre have given me bionic abilities (although that would be something…).  All I know is that when I left for Villefranche I was, as I’ve ever been, a struggling runner who did not enjoy running. Ever. And now that I’m back, well, things have changed.

A bit of background so you can appreciate this transformation:

I’ve always hated running. As a pre-teen softball player I was given some constructive criticism by a coach, which a sibling of mine (who will remain unnamed) translated into, “Kathryn runs funny.” So I avoided running for years, until I decided, sometime around 2005, that I wanted to do a triathlon. (For those of you who care, I promise I’ll get around to talking about my tri experience one of these days…) I joined the local running club and participated in their “Walk to Run” program. I realized something important during this program: with the rare exception of a few graceful, beautiful, gazelle-like people, everyone runs funny.  Flailing arms, hitches in their gait, bobbing heads – you name it, I saw it. So I lightened up about my own running style, such as it was, and just got on with it.

For the last 7 or 8 years, I’ve just been surviving my runs. I’d manage 3 or 3.5 miles, slogging along around a 10-minute mile pace.  I never enjoyed the run itself, it never seemed to get easier, and I never got any faster. I read Runner’s World and tried to do fartleks and tempo runs and long runs and all the things you’re supposed to do, but nothing much changed.

Then I go to France. I brought my running gear thinking I’d need to do something to work off all the bread and cheese I expected to eat. Villefranche was very hilly, and running in and around the town was too much for me. I found a relatively flat route out-and-back on Boulevard Princess Grace, a busy road on one side and a lovely view of the sea on the other, with a monument to the late Princess where I’d often stop to pay my respects. And by “pay my respects” I mean, of course, “try to catch my breath while appearing to gaze thoughtfully at the sea“.  I probably only ran about 5 or 6 times during the month I was there, and I didn’t feel particularly fast or strong during those runs.

I come home to Boston, and a few days after returning I head out to do a 3 mile loop in our neighborhood. I notice that the effort is easier, and when I check my GPS I see that I’m running a sub-10 minute mile. Huh. That’s interesting. But then it keeps happening. On my shorter runs, I’m going faster. And just today, I did a 5-mile run (which is long for me, at least), and felt great. I probably could have kept going.

So do we give France the credit for this breakthrough? Could it be that the few pounds I lost in France made a difference? I was considering writing a diet book, “Eat Chèvre for Breakfast and Still Lose Weight!” or “Drink Your Way Thin with Rosé!”, but I think someone has already got that covered. Could it be all the hills I climbed in Villefranche, strengthening muscles I hadn’t paid attention to? Whatever the actual reason, I’m happy to see this improved performance as yet another souvenir – hopefully a lasting one – of my French adventure.