Cicada Song

“The cicadas sang louder and yet louder. The sun did not rise, it overflowed.” – Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine

Cicadas are found on every continent except Antarctica. These robust insects mature underground before emerging in the late spring/early summer to molt and mate. Most species, known as “annual” cicadas, take around a year to complete their life cycle. However, some species, called “periodical” cicadas, spend 17 stalwart years in the dirt before reaching maturity. These individuals are easily distinguished from their annual counterparts by their bright red eyes. 

“Periodical”, in English, means occurring after a specific amount of time; it is also a synonym for a newspaper or magazine.

In June of 2003, Appalachia’s 17-year periodical cicadas (designated Brood IX) emerged. My hometown, Knoxville, Tennessee, was smack dab in the epicenter.

What I remember most about that summer was the noise. An earsplitting drone permeated the air, day and night, for what seemed like weeks (but was in reality probably only a few days). Far from being irritated by the constant aural onslaught, I was delighted. Even then, I was an animal-obsessed kid, and I ran around our backyard collecting as many discarded cicada exoskeletons as I could find. I loved their eyes the best, the two tiny, shiny, and perfect bubbles.

I remember holding them in my hands, these remnants of a past life, and marveling at the patience of a creature that grows quietly underground for 17 years before it learns to sing. 

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A cicada exoskeleton clinging to a Tennessee tree.

Immature cicadas, or nymphs, go through five developmental stages, called “instars”. While underground, they feed on plant roots, tapping into the starchy reserves and sucking out the juices. Science has suggested that periodical cicadas spend most of their developmental years in the second instar stage, but nobody knows for sure.

In autumn 2003, I turned eleven years old, entered fifth grade, and started running. Naturally, at that age, my legs awkward and gangly as a baby deer, I had no idea how far running would take me. I only knew that it was weirdly fun, and that I loved it. 

Slowly and surely, running moved to fill an increasingly prominent role in my life. I transformed from an enthusiastic middle school runner, to a PDG (pretty damn good) high school athlete, to a collegiate All-American, to a professional road racer. The other interests (nature, writing) in my life didn’t vanish, but they did take somewhat of a back seat to Running, at whose altar I sacrificed daily. 

I have been at ZAP for four years now, a full Olympic cycle. That time has been utterly transformative. I’ve run hundreds (perhaps thousands) of miles tucked into this strange little corner of the Blue Ridge mountains. I’ve hiked here, pulled live crayfish from the cold creek here, lost a cell phone to salamander hunting here. I’ve laughed and wept and forged lifelong friendships here. I’ve fallen in love here.

But a place like ZAP is transitory by necessity; none of us is meant to nest in this holler forever. 

When soil temperatures consistently reach 64 degrees F to a depth of 8 inches, cicadas begin to emerge from their subterranean lairs. Still ambulatory, the late-stage nymphs climb the nearest tree trunk and shed their skin a final time, splitting open to reveal a pair of sturdy, flexible wings. The adult insect is called an imago. 

In Latin, “imago” refers to the idealized mental image of a person or thing.

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Shiny new journalist photo.

It has been 17 years since I started running. Right now, across North Carolina and Tennessee, the periodical cicadas of Brood IX are appearing once again. 

At the end of August, I will move away from the southeast for the first time in my life to the beating heart of New York City. If a habitat more different from ZAP exists, I can’t imagine what it would be.

In principal, this move is a return to my first loves in life: biology and storytelling. I’ve been accepted into NYU’s graduate program for science journalism, an environment where my zoology and creative writing undergraduate degrees finally make perfect sense. Even in these quaren-times, with proper safety procedures (social distancing, mandatory face masks, small classes, online correspondence when necessary) in-person classes are slated to start this fall. 

It’s hard to describe how excited I am about the prospect of a future in science writing: my inner child is doing her best Steve Irwin impression, hopping up and down with glee.

Of course, there is adult reality to contend with. Moving to New York means leaving ZAP. So far I’ve managed to separate these two events in my mind, but I know there is a deep reserve of sadness laying in wait for my brain to catch up. For the time being, though, I’m just trying to make the most of my last few weeks in Blackberry Valley.

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I mean, just look at this place.

And since this is my blog, I’ll take my Oscars moment here and thank some of the incredible humans who have made my time at ZAP so meaningful: 

Thanks to our sponsors, On, Ucan, and Elliptigo, for all of the support and cool gear. 

Thanks to Amanda LoPiccolo and Jenn Pillow for keeping me in line and on my feet. 

Thanks to Chef Mike for always making sure our hearts and bellies were full (ZAP is going to miss you so much). 

Thanks to our campers for making summers memorable and just generally being awesome. 

Thanks to my teammates – I love you guys. 

Thanks to LoPic and Burg for giving the interns most of the dirty work, coming up with new core routines, and for occasionally bringing your dogs down to the compound. 

And thanks especially to Pete and Zika, for giving me this opportunity in the first place.

I should probably also mention that I have no intention of hanging up my racing flats just yet (I am, after all, a competitor at heart). Pete has generously agreed to continue coaching me into the foreseeable future, and with the Tokyo Olympics now over a year away and the promise of rescheduled marathon majors on the horizon, I find myself running with a reinvigorated sense of purpose. 

Hopefully, I’ll even be able to put in some training blocks at ZAP during academic breaks.

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🎶Start spreadin’ the news/ I’m leavin’ today…🎶

So, to wit: I am a bundle of emotions. Am I ecstatic about this opportunity? Yes, I am. Will leaving ZAP crack my heart open like a pistachio? Undoubtedly. Is the prospect of moving to a gigantic city in the middle of a pandemic terrifying? Abso-freakin-lutely. 

But it also feels freeing, like emerging from the cool, protective earth into blinding daylight. It feels like shedding skin. 

All things are periodical, cyclical, written. The cicadas are singing; time to fly.

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Notes From The Uncanny Blackberry Valley

If you’re wondering what being a pro athlete looks like during a pandemic, the answer is weird.

Really. Frickin’. Weird.

Glancing at our schedule day-to-day, not a lot has changed around ZAP. I feel somewhat guilty about it, but the fact of the matter is that we’ve been a fairly isolated, self-sufficient little commune from the beginning. It’s hard to wallow in loneliness when your quarantine-mates are six of your closest friends and training partners. Even our daily practice routine is remarkably unaffected, since we tend to run in sparsely peopled areas (though we’ve had to exercise more caution as the weather warms). 

Zooming out, the changes become more pronounced. For the first time in ZAP’s history, our board has had to pull the plug on at least two months’ worth of camps. It was unquestionably the right decision; and yet, it still sucks. Camps are an integral part of being a ZAP athlete, and the thought of a summer with no reshuffling breakfast duties, no chatting on the breezeway late into the night, no creeper trail picnics, no Bear, and, devastatingly, no Chef Mike lasagna(!) is a huge loss for us – as I know it is for anyone who’s ever attended one.

Then there’s the race cancellations. Training is a joy in and of itself. But when it’s decoupled not only from competition but from the faintest suggestion of competition (at least for the foreseeable future), it starts to feel like an uncanny holding pattern. I’m sure the running community at large is grappling with the same cognitive dissonance.

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The Olympic Rings are social distancing and so should you.

I’ve taken to treating running as meditation rather than means to an end – like, I might not have a lot of control life-wise at the moment, but I can choose to take this next step, climb this next hill, and I can enjoy it purely for the act itself and not how it will or won’t impact my next 10k. There’s freedom in that.

Our team is finding other outlets, too: reading, cooking, coding, coaching, foraging morel mushrooms, staging elaborate Easter egg hunts and Christmas tree bonfires and generally distracting one another as best we can. We threw an impromptu dance party. We created an 18-minute parody of The Shining.

You know, the usual.

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Very normal quarantine activities.

For every egg hunt and movie parody, though, it is impossible to ignore the news trickling in from the outside world. Right now, ZAP life has the texture of a Twilight Zone episode: an eerie, small-town uncanny. As if, just beyond the ridge of our sunny little valley, the world as we know it is crumbling. 

I’m being hyperbolic, but still. It takes a Herculean effort to “relax” and enjoy movie night when your friend two states over is losing her job, when your 83-year-old grandma can’t leave her home. Many of us have friends or family members in the medical profession. Some of us have already lost friends or family members to COVID-19.

But (and I never thought I would say this) I’ve found a surprising source of comfort in online communication. Seriously – just checking in on the ZAP Nation FB page or scrolling through friend’s IG stories every day has been a bright little hit of joy. In lieu of in-person camp, we hope to do a lot more digital events throughout the summer, like virtual challenges, live streamed lectures, and Zoom Q&As.

I guess this post is my attempt to reconcile gratitude for being in a position of privilege – and it is an extraordinary privilege to be young, able-bodied, and employed right now – with my own deep-rooted anxiety and grief over the state of the world. I’m trying to give myself the grace to mourn the loss of normalcy without drowning in it. I’m trying to remember that, for those of us living off a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, going about our daily business is the best way we can care for others.

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It’s ok, we’re cohabitating.

In short, quarantine is treating us well here in the Blackberry Valley. And, as in much of the country, quarantine is quietly stressful. Our situation is both unique and entirely unremarkable. 

There is solace in running. Even running in circles, indefinitely. 

 

The Anxiety Blog

This is the one where I talk about my anxiety. 

No no, please don’t leave. Hear me out.

I think the conversation around mental health has, in general, come a long way in recent years. However, I still hear people occasionally gripe that “everyone has anxiety nowadays”. Bah, humbug.

Before I jump on my soapbox, I want to draw a distinction here between normal, healthy nervousness and an anxiety disorder. Regular anxiety has a clear source, is situationally proportional, and dissipates as the problem is resolved. In order to be considered a mental health issue, anxiety must be chronic, occur for no clear reason, be disproportional to the situation at hand, or otherwise interfere with day-to-day function. So when I say “anxiety”, please know that I’m not simply talking about pre-race nerves.

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Let’s do some research, shall we?

According to the AADA, anxiety disorders affect around 18.1% of adult Americans, some 40 million individuals. The umbrella of anxiety conditions includes generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social anxiety disorder (SAD), and panic disorder.

The number of people with diagnosed anxiety disorders certainly feels like it has increased in recent years. Which begs the question, how did so many people manage to “catch” anxiety?

Part of the answer is modern diagnostics. Conditions bearing a strong resemblance to anxiety disorders have been reported as far back as ancient Greece by none other than Hippocrates himself. However, there was no uniform name for these states, and so they were slapped with such disparate labels as “hysteria”, “anguish”, “vapors”, “melancholia”, or “narrowness” (as in ‘narrowness of the spirit’ – your guess is as good as mine).  

It is much easier to diagnose  anxiety disorders now that we have a set of terms to distinguish them, with a set of corresponding symptoms by which they can be recognized. Specific language equals cultural recognition. 

Also, there might be something to say about the soul-crushing existential vice grip that is life in our modern dystopia, but I’ll spare you that rant.

The type of anxiety that I experience is called panic disorder. Basically, this means that I’m a pretty calm person, until I’m not. 

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Sometimes my brain hits the ‘PANIC’ button.

Panic disorder is characterized by panic attacks, which (if you don’t or haven’t seen someone else experience) are wild. They can come seemingly out of nowhere and leave the sufferer shaking, hyperventilating, and crying for no apparent reason. It’s important to note that this is a physical reaction, meaning that once it starts, the affected person cannot simply will themselves calm – they have to ride it out.

It’s almost a cliched description at this point, but the first time I had a panic attack, I felt like I was going to die. I wanted to be somewhere, anywhere other than where I was. My throat and chest constricted; I struggled to breathe. When I put my hands to my face I realized I was crying. It was utterly terrifying.

Panic attacks can be set off by any number of factors: pressure at work/school, exhaustion, having too many things to do, even the looming fear of having a panic attack. This ambient stress builds up like water boiling in a kettle, until it reaches a certain threshold and manifests as a lot of hyperventilating (shaking, crying, etc.). 

I was diagnosed with my anxiety disorder around the same time I started running. This was not a coincidence; running offered a constructive, fun outlet for my pent-up stress, which helped keep my panic attacks under control. This is the case for many athletes, whose love of sport grows as their stress decreases. It was true for my mom, who also experiences periodic panic disorder and recognized my symptoms early on.

Unfortunately, the thing that really sucks about anxiety is that it makes caring about things stressful. As I became more invested in my running, I became more and more likely to have a running-adjacent panic attack. I suppose it was only a matter of time before one hit during a race.

However. The way I see it, running did not (and does not) cause my anxiety disorder; a recent meta-analysis found that elite athletes experience chronic anxiety proportionally to the general population. I would be dealing with panic attacks no matter what career path I happened to be on. In fact, running, with its endorphin-releasing tendencies, probably helps to keep them as relatively rare as they are. 

And, if I weren’t running professionally, there’s a good chance I would have left my anxiety untreated. I wouldn’t have developed the coping tools, like meditation, mindfulness, and positive self-talk, that I’ve cultivated over the past two years. 

Here’s what I’m most proud of in regard to my recent Chicago marathon: when the race started to go south, I didn’t panic. A year ago, I would have. Instead, when I began to struggle at mile 14 (mile 14! Barely halfway!), I took a mental step back, regrouped, and focused on breathing. That way I was able to maximize performance on a bad day instead of hyperventilating off the race course. I have my sports psychologist to thank for that.

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Or maybe it had something to do with the bib number…

For me, anxiety is just part of how my body operates. That’s not an excuse; it’s simply something that I have to be conscious of, like a food allergy or a muscular imbalance.

When we don’t talk about mental health in sports (especially in a constructive and non-stigmatizing way), young athletes don’t develop the requisite tools to deal with these disorders when/if they arise. You grow up learning to put ice on a swollen ankle; what do you put on a panic attack? You know to take vitamin C to stave off a cold, but how do you cope with depression?

I used to be embarrassed by my anxiety. To some degree, I still am, which is why it’s taken me so long to write this blog. I want to be “fearless” and “though”, not anxious (which, sidebar: when did we decide that being tough meant not having feelings? That  hasn’t always been the case; the Odyssey is, like, 76% crying). But I think that mental health issues affect a lot more athletes than we, the athletes, like to admit. The only way to change the conversation is by having it.

At the very least, it’s a start.

The Unexpected Merits of a Wilderness Sabbatical, or, Five Stages of Grief in a Canoe

 

Several months ago, I wrote about my third-ever marathon. Here’s what happened during and after my *almost* fourth.

The 2019 Grandma’s Marathon took place on June 22. We stepped off of the bus and into a clear, cool morning, sunny and 55 degrees with a tailwind. In other words, race ideal. 

Training in the weeks leading up to the race had been some of the best I’ve had as a marathoner, if not necessarily the most consistent. I had knocked out some very solid long runs, averaging within 15 seconds of my target race pace for 23+ miles and making it feel easy. I’d also been semi-successfully managing some TFL and IT band tightness that occasionally flared up and relegated me to walking speed for a couple days at a time. But all in all, I felt prepared.

At the starting line, I had a sense of almost preternatural calm. The hay, as they say, was in the barn. When the race began, I settled right into pace and got to work.

But by mile 14, I knew something was off. My lower back had begun to tense up like a too-tight rubber band, until I could feel the muscles twitching involuntarily. This went on until mile 20, when I finally got too freaked out and stepped off the course. 

It was a long 6 mile bus ride back to the finish.

Luckily, for every crappy race, there exists an equal and opposite good day. In this case, it materialized in the form of Andrew Colley, one of my ZAP teammates, who finished in second place with a huge PR and club record. Other notable finishes were Tristin Van Ord of the Raleigh Distance Project (coached by fellow NC State alum Steve Furst), who ran an outstanding debut of 2:40-flat, and ZAP training associate Savannah Plombon, who qualified for the Olympic Trials with an impressive 2:43:52.

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Andrew at the Grandma’s finish line.

One of the great boons of having friends within the running community is that you always have something to celebrate. And so after the race, we celebrated well into the night, and I put any/all negative emotions on time delay.

The next day, Joe, his mom Kathy, and I headed to the Quetico for a canoe/camping trip with the rest of the Stilin clan. A heavy drizzle painted the world in grey as we drove along Lake Superior towards Canada. I remember thinking something about the pathetic fallacy. A familiar melancholy was welling up inside me.

There’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed in regards to the marathon that takes hold after the race is run. Within hours of crossing the finish line (or not, as the case may be), I’ve found myself sinking into a deep funk that might take weeks to fully blow over. This is true for both good and bad races alike, though it tends to be magnified in the bad. Other runners have corroborated this based on personal experiences. 

I have not dealt with maternity blues (probably because I’ve never been pregnant), but I imagine that one could draw some parallels between it and the post-marathon doldrums. And I suppose this makes sense: the marathon is a big, traumatic event for which you spend months preparing, only for it to be suddenly done, leaving you physically and emotionally drained. 

Six hours and one border crossing later, we arrived at the campsite in southern Ontario. We shared a big pan of homemade lasagna – courtesy of Mrs. Stilin – set up the tents, and hit the sack. The next morning, we brought the canoes down to the shore at the crack of 11 and set sail for adventure.

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We christened the canoes with whiskey, of course. Pictured (left to right): Greg Stilin, part of Dave Stilin, me, Anthony Stilin, everybody else’s hands.

As soon as Joe and my’s canoe hit the water, I launched into mini-mourning process. First, denial: Grandma’s didn’t happen. It was just a bad dream…or something. But I couldn’t ignore my still-twitchy back and stiff legs for long, and so this stage was short lived.

Then I spent a few hours in the mire of anger, most of which was expressed through aggressive though largely ineffectual canoe paddling. Bargaining, too, was over quickly, since I’m not very good at praying and there was no cell service. 

But the depression stage lingered. Over the course of the next couple of days, I continued to dip in and out of the blues. I’d be portaging a canoe bag one minute, and the next – wham – I’d be reliving the last few minutes of Grandma’s, feeling sorry for myself and wondering if I should just give up on civilization and become a Canadian backcountry hermit. I felt like a clumsy, sullen burden inflicted on the poor Stilins, whose only mistake was being kind enough to invite me on their family vacation. 

Something had to change.

What finally snapped me out of it was a poetry collection. One afternoon I cracked open Mary Oliver’s A Thousand Mornings and read the following:

“I go down to the shore in the morning

and depending on the hour the waves

are rolling in or moving out,

and I say, oh, I am miserable,

what shall-

What should I do?  And the sea says

in its lovely voice:

Excuse me, I have work to do.”

It was a refreshing slap in the face.

After that, I gave myself permission to just exist. Race-adjacent thoughts still occasionally flitted through my head, but I focused on the immediate: setting up camp, breaking down camp, catching fish, identifying bugs, and applying sunscreen when necessary. 

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The proud hunter returneth.

 

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Later, the feast.

I think that the archetypical runner personality lends itself well to wilderness introspection. We like to wax rhapsodic about the “purity” of our sport. We relish spending time alone, in nature, reconnecting with our physical and spiritual essence, man.

Turns out, this was exactly what I needed: to be surrounded by beauty, quiet, and adventurous people. We paddled past loon nests and through electric blue damselfly hatches, drifted between reed forests and islands full of wildflowers. We stargazed. The milky way was a bright ribbon reflected on the dark water. We caught fish and ate them.

I had fun – a lot of fun. And while the running itch did eventually return, it was nice to have that physical/mental break.

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Northern sunset.

Equally important to being a runner is occasionally allowing oneself time to not be a runner. Or, rather, to be more than a runner. Nobody is ever only one thing, no matter how much we like to pretend otherwise. 

One week after we returned to the US of A, I signed up to run the Bear. For those not in the know, the Bear is a uniquely Blowing Rock race that takes place on the second weekend in July. The 5 mile course runs straight up Grandfather mountain, gaining 1,641 feet of elevation in the process, 900 of which comes in the last 2 miles. Why the heck not, I thought. I was feeling adventurous. 

A couple of days later, I was feeling considerably less adventurous as I stood at the bottom of Grandfather with roughly 800 other runners, listening to bagpipe music and silently hoping that the ominous-looking cumulonimbus clouds would disperse. I hadn’t been planning to push past more than a brisk trot – but as we leapt off the starting line, a competitive instinct took hold. I started to dig.

The ascent was beautiful. And excruciating. There is nothing quite like looking over an ocean of rolling green mountains to take distract you from the pain of running up one.

When I crossed the finish line, it felt like coming home.

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Johnny and Joe went 1-2 on the men’s side, and I took 1st for the ladies.

I guess all this is to say, I’m in a good place right now, feelings-wise. I’m on the cusp of my next marathon buildup, targeting Chicago. This time I have the force of a whole extra 10 weeks of marathon training behind me. And this time, I’ll make them count. 

 

Post Script: Thanks again to Kathy, Greg, Neil, Dave, and Anthony Stilin for letting me tag along on their vacation! Extra thanks to Joe Stilin, for generally putting up with me.

Zoolympics

Recently, the IAAF released their list of standards for the 2020 Olympics.

I have a lot of free time on my hands, so naturally, this got me thinking: if the animal kingdom were to assemble an Olympic track team, who would be on it? (Full disclosure, I was a zoology major in college.)

The ground rules: only terrestrial animals considered. While some species can achieve remarkable speeds in the air or water, we’re just looking for runners. Also, none of this scaling-for-size nonsense. Yes, it’s true that tiger beetles are technically the fastest animals on the planet in terms of speed :: size. But if you were to scale them up, their legs would break from the weight of their carapace. So there.

Without further ado, here are my picks for zoological gold in a handful of Olympic events.

200 Meters

The 200 has to go to everyone’s favorite furry race car, the cheetah. Cheetahs are world famous for their speed. They can accelerate from 0 to 60 miles per hour in under three seconds, reaching a max speed of nearly 75 mph. For perspective, that’s equivalent to a standard formula 1 car. 

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The cheetah in motion.

In competition, the cheetah may, in fact, prove to be a cheater. When cheetahs hunt prey, they hone in on a very specific anatomical feature: the achilles tendon. They will attempt to slice through this tendon with their very sharp, non-retractable claws, either hobbling the target or tripping it. The hardest part of coaching a cheetah through a 200 would be ensuring that it didn’t end the competitions’ careers…permanently.

Fun side note: the best way to survive a cheetah attack is via boredom. Hungry cheetahs attempt to provoke prey items into flight by crouching down and charging directly at them. However, according to zoologists, prey that does not react becomes “a source of great puzzlement” to these ADD felines, and after a couple failed attempts, they’ll give up. 

So what’s a cheetah’s 200 time? Assuming a static start (without blocks), our cat would clock in around 8.95* seconds – less than half the duration of Usain Bolt’s world record.

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Zag on ’em.

1 Mile

Ok, not technically an Olympic distance, but the mile is downright iconic (and this is my list, so deal with it).

So who’s the best miler in the animal kingdom? My money is on the pronghorn. Native to western and central North America, these distant giraffe cousins are built for mid-distance running. They’ve been clocked at speeds of 42 mph over 2 kilometers (1.2 miles), and have been known to maintain a comfortable 35 mph cruise for 4 miles.

There is a lot of debate in the scientific community as to why pronghorns evolved to be so speedy. After all, none of their extant major predators (mountain lions, bears, humans) can come remotely close to matching their pace. The fossil record might hold some clues. Several skeletons belonging to a suspiciously cheetah-like prehistoric feline have been unearthed in modern-day pronghorn territory.

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Sometimes called the “goat-antelope”, these herbivores are neither goats nor antelopes.

But the pronghorn has some competition. Enter the blackbuck. This Indian antelope can achieve remarkable speeds over 1500 m (0.9 mile), maxing out at a stunning 50 mph. Sounds like the pronghorn’s in trouble, right? It would be, except for one detail: pronghorns have an extra gear. Their top speed is 55 mph, which, crucially, they can hold for 400 meters.

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The horns are also perfect for uncorking wine bottles.

When it comes down to it, the mile is a kicker’s race. So while the blackbuck might lead for three laps, my bet is on the pronghorn at the bell. Of course, spectators would have to pay close attention: the entire race would only last 1 minute and 25 seconds*.

10 Kilometers

My pick for the 10 k is the only avian animal on this list: the ostrich. As the world’s largest bird, the ostrich can grow to heights of 9ft 2in, about half of which is leg. Those powerful gams propel the ostrich to 43 mph bursts of speed, with longer, sustained measures of 30 mph. They can hold this pace for roughly half an hour.

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Check out that stride.

Like other birds, ostriches have crazy efficient lungs, which contribute to their (get ready for it) breathtaking endurance. Unlike mammals, bird lungs do not contract or expand –  they have no need for a clunky diaphragm. Instead, they use a series of ~ten air sacs that act as bellows, shunting air in a single-direction circuit for maximum O2 absorption. The practical upshot of this is that ostriches take around 8 breaths per minute, compared with 12-20 for humans.

Where does an ostrich keep all that extra air? You might have heard that birds have hollow bones, and this is true. But what you might not know is that many birds use their bone holes as storage chambers. Some of the hollows are essentially glorified extensions of the respiratory system, where birds stash their ancillary air sacs.

So where would a human olympian stack up against an ostrich? Kenenisa Bekele’s current world record is 26:17.5. Not bad, but Bekele is still getting lapped; your average ostrich can cover the distance in approximately 12:25.8*.  

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Come at me, bro.

Marathon

What about the marathon? The winner is (*drumroll please*)….us. Believe it or not, we humans are the best terrestrial endurance athletes in the animal kingdom. 

Humans have a number of adaptations that make us especially disposed toward long distance running. For one thing, we’re great at dispensing excess heat. Our relatively hairless bodies and large pores allow for sweating, which helps keep body temps cool. What’s more, because we’re bipedal, we have a lot less surface area exposed to the sun compared with quadrupeds. 

A stable skeleton is another hallmark of a good endurance athlete, and boy howdy, are we ever stabilized. Our torsos and necks are held in place by the nuchal ligament and pectoral girdle, which prevent energy lost from excessive head banging. Highly developed butt muscles help keep our hips and trunks in line. Even our eyes have developed shock absorbers to help keep our vision from shaking during a run. 

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BUTTS!

I’ll hazard that most of us know how fast a human can run a marathon, but in case you need a refresher, the current world record stands at 2:01:39 for men, and 2:15:25 for women. If you want to test your own endurance against a quadruped, good news: you can! The annual Man versus Horse marathon takes place in Wales every June.

So there you have it! Hope you enjoyed this not-really comprehensive list of animal athletes.

Next time, I promise to write something a bit more on topic.

Maybe.

*All calculation courtesy of Joe Stilin.

Trail(ahassee) Blazing

Worldwide, there are a handful of agreed-upon cities that claim the mantle of “runner Mecca”. Iten and Kaptagat are East African strongholds. Switzerland’s St. Moritz boasts a high-tech, Olympic certified Alpine training center. Towns like Eugene, Flagstaff, and Boulder loom large in the American running scene.

Allow me to humbly submit another location for consideration: Tallahassee, Florida.

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An aerial view of a Tallahassee lake.

In 1993, Andy Palmer began training in Tallahassee after starting a PhD in sports psychology at FSU. The road racing standout and eventual ZAP Fitness founder sparked a trend of elite winter training in the Florida capital. ZAP’s team has been making the annual pilgrimage since 2002, keeping Andy’s legacy alive.

As it turns out, elite training in Florida is not without precedence. In the late 60s and early 70s, legendary Olympians Frank Shorter, Jeff Galloway, and Jack Bacheler (along with the rest of the Florida Track Club) made Gainesville famous as the East Coast’s running epicenter. This reputation was further cemented in 1978 by the release of John L. Parker’s iconic Once a Runner, set largely in and around a fictional version of the University of Florida.

In recent years, savvy track fans might have caught a glimpse of Matt Centrowitz, Jordan Hasay, or Alberto Salazar orbiting Florida State’s track. This year, an unprecedented number of professional distance running teams have descended upon its red clay roads like flocks of migratory geese. There are currently dozens of post-collegians from groups including the B.A.A., NJ*NY, and Boston’s Freedom Track Club settled down in Tally for a long winter’s run.

So what makes a bonafide runner haven? For many training camps, it’s all about the altitude. Living for three or more weeks at 5,000+ feet above sea level has been shown to increase red blood cell volume and improve oxygen absorption in the human body. Obviously, this kind of efficiency is desirable for endurance athletes. 

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The AllTrails elevation profile for Boulder’s infamous Magnolia Road.

The average elevation of Florida is 98 feet. I think it’s safe to say that nobody is coming here to improve their hematocrit. So then, why Tallahassee?

Florida State head track and cross country coach Bob Braman has some ideas. Braman, who moved to Tallahassee in 2000, recalls being flabbergasted by the quality of running venues within the city limits. “I’m not going to say we’re number one in the the country [for trails], but we’re as good as anybody, particularly if you want variety.”

Affectionately nicknamed “Trailahassee”, Florida’s capital boasts over 2,000 miles of marked path in the Apalachicola forest alone. Runners (and bikers, hikers, and elliptigo-ists) can access a plethora of other picturesque trails, from the rolling crushed gravel Miccosukee greenway, to the sandy straits of Tom Brown Park, to the twisting wilderness single-tracks of St. Marks (which, unsettlingly, inspired the deeply creepy “Area X” from Jeff Van Der Meer’s Annihilation). Running through that moss-dampened, subtropical forrest is its own kind of quiet magic. 

“We’re all a bunch of big kids, in a way,” says Braman, “No matter how serious you are, the idea of exploring a new trail is just fun.”

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Observe the wild ZAP athletes in their natural habitat.

Equally important is climate.

One serious drawback for most high-altitude training camps is the winter training. Flagstaff, for example, receives over 100 inches of snowfall every year, on average. Boulder collects an average of 90 inches. Snow plus mountainous terrain makes for some treacherous running conditions, to say nothing of driving. 

Danger aside, months of icebound running can get stale pretty quickly. Interval training in extreme cold can put middle distance runners at risk of injury. And, let’s be honest: there are only so many treadmill miles one can handle before contracting cabin fever. Megan Mansy, a miler for the New York New Jersey Track Club, says that escaping the harsh northern winter “is a definite must for optimum training.”

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Fortunately, snow and ice are not an issue in Florida. In 2018 Tallahassee received its first measurable snowfall in 28 years, a whopping .1 inches. The most intense weather athletes can expect to battle is humidity. But again, this can be an advantage: also known as “poor man’s altitude”, humidity training can produce similar physiological adaptations to living at elevation. 

Then, of course, there’s race strategy. 

Tallahassee’s Apalachee Regional Park, or the ARP, is draped in prestige and Spanish moss. Its multi-surfaced loops are packed hard from the thousands of cross country spikes which drumroll up and down its hills every fall and winter. Since its opening in 2009, the park has hosted the ACC Championships, Southeast NCAA Regionals, Club Cross Country, and an upcoming (2021) NCAA D1 Nationals. 

This marked the park’s second consecutive year hosting the USATF Cross Country Championships . A number of competitors folded race prep in with their training camp regimen, hoping to gain a home-away-from-home-court advantage.

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It’s a beautiful day for cross country.

But the final ingredient that makes Tallahassee training special is camaraderie. Nothing brings a team together (for better or worse) quite like six close-quarters weeks in a hotel or AirBnb, an environment that strips the athlete life down to its barest components: run, eat, sleep, repeat.

And in case you’re wondering whether the assorted teams fraternize with one another, the answer is: absolutely. The pro racing circuit is a small world; runners tend to be amiable people, and truthfully, even though we’re intensely competitive, most of us are friends. Interteam bonfires, bar trivia, movie nights, and group runs are as much a part of Tallahassee training as the workouts and long runs. 

I asked recent B.A.A. recruit Erika Kemp about her favorite aspect of winter training. She cited the beautiful trails, varied surfaces, good weather. But most of all, “[it was] so nice to overlap with other groups, and just get some fun miles in with different people.”

I have to say, I wholeheartedly agree.

Back to the Light Brigade

 

The other day I was digging through my old laptop files (something that, as a compulsive editor, I do far too frequently), when I stumbled across this little document from February of 2016. According to the date stamp, it was created five days before the Olympic Marathon Trials, where I ran my 26.2 debut. A lot of life has happened between now and then, and while I’m nowhere near a seasoned veteran (yet), it’s interesting to have a window into what this particular permeation of myself was feeling.

Let’s hop in the way-back machine and see what pre-marathon Joanna had to say on the topic of marathoning:

*Insert sci-fi vibraphone noises*

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“‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’

Was there a man dismayed?

Not though the soldier knew

            Someone had blundered.

            Theirs not to make reply,

            Theirs not to reason why,

            Theirs but to do and die.

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.”

–       Alfred, Lord Tennyson (from: The Charge of the Light Brigade) 

Since I first encountered (and was subsequently forced to memorize) this poem in seventh-grade English class, it has been one of my favorites. It felt weirdly relatable, like this nineteenth-century British poet-Baron was reaching through time and writing to me. Not that I have ever been to battle, or experienced anything close to a war zone –I can’t begin to imagine the kind of courage soldiers require. But something about the rhythm, the recklessness, even the gravity of the poem reminds me of racing.

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Alfred, Lord Tennyson and his sweet hat.

It’s a clichéd metaphor, I know. Combat is the ultimate sports parallel. This poem, in particular, has supplied the battle cry before the big game in locker rooms the world over (especially since the release of a certain Sandra Bollock movie). But I think it applies to our sport especially well.

To be a runner requires a masochistic mentality. You have to look forward to weathering adversity. You have to be prepared to hurt. You have to make peace with the fact that once the starting gun fires, there is no going back. Do and die, no questions asked.

Over the course of the past six weeks, Tennyson’s words have lodged themselves front and center in my brain like a stubborn commercial jingle. Why?

In a few days, I will line up for my debut marathon.

The marathon is (arguably) no longer the most “extreme” running challenge, but it is the most storied. If the ancient Greeks are to be believed, Phidippedes, the first ever marathoner, collapsed upon finishing and died. That’s some serious stuff. The marathon finish chute is a survivor’s club.

What I’m hoping to gain from the experience is close to what Tennyson captured in his famous poem: the wild, unthinking charge, (wo)man against faceless peril with nigh a second thought for physical risk, driven by courage sweetened with the promise of eternal glory. In short, I want to feel like a motherfucking badass.

And I’ll be honest: I am terrified. I am also ecstatic.

So I’m going to toe the start line in L.A. with these words in mind. All 202 women and 168 men in the race are charging toward the same goal: the Valley of Death is 26.2 miles long, and we intend to cross it. What to say in the face of such a daunting task? What to think? Really, there’s only one response: Forward!

*Insert Back to the Future Dolorean tire screech*

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Fast forward twenty-two months: back here in the future, I am about to embark on my third marathon (the first in good conditions, thanks in no small part to California’s incredibly brave firefighters).

So what have I learned? Well, for one thing, 23-year-old Joanna was overfond of dramatic prose, but that’s neither here nor there.

It’s weird, because in retrospect, I think that I managed to simultaneously underestimate the marathon and turn it into my personal white whale. I was right about the pain – it was abundant, persistent, and different from any other race fatigue I’d experienced. But I could handle it. And I was very wrong about race tactics, thanks perhaps in part to Tennyson’s glorious suicide mission. I charged off the line, settled in with a pack running slightly faster than my heat-adjusted time, picked up the pace at mile 19, then blew up. Gloriously. 

Current Joanna has the advantage of that experience. From this side of the divide, the miles seem less daunting. The race has become known quantity. I can focus on regular race jitters instead of the unnerving sense of floating through space without a tether

For four of my teammates, though, this race will mark their first charge into uncharted territory.

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#Squad. Also pictured: Pete gesticulating. 

Andrew, Matt, Josh, and Joe are all making their marathon debut in the same race, which just so happens to be this year’s USATF championship. I am nervous for them. I am also thrilled. 

These guys are a lot better prepared than I was, certainly from a mental if not physical standpoint. After watching them bank killer workouts and copious miles together for the past eight weeks, I know they’re ready. But the race course still feels like a battlefield, and I can’t wait to share war stories.

So at the start, I’ll tell them the same thing I’d tell myself: Relax, breathe. Don’t go out too fast. You got this.

I’ll see you on the other side.

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Look at all that youthful optimism!

Eats Shoots and Leaves

Pandas are nature’s most stubborn vegetarians.

As members of the Ursidae (bear) family, they pack your standard carnivore digestive system: short intestines with a simple, one-chamber stomach. Normally this setup would be nice and efficient. The snag? They subsist exclusively on bamboo, which is not easily processed by a carnivorous gut.

Pandas handle this problem through meticulous nutritional juggling – eating particular parts of particular bamboo plants at particular times in the year. Luckily, human vegetarians don’t have to go panda-style extremes to get a balanced diet: our omnivorous systems are equipped to extract nutrients all types of food, be it animal, vegetable, or mineral. Nevertheless, when I mentioned this ursine fact to my teammates, I was immediately christened “Jopanda”.

My name is Joanna Thompson, and it has been seven years since I last ate an animal.

That might sound strange coming from an elite runner. For decades, the prevailing wisdom in sports nutrition (and American nutrition in general) was that a diet without meat makes the body weak.

 

 

But being a veggie athlete isn’t as difficult as it sounds. Or, at least, it doesn’t have to be.

I decided to switch from standard meat-and-potatoes fare to a plant-based diet seven years ago. At the time, I was a rising college freshman preparing to live outside my home state for the first time. I was also about to start my career as an NCAA division 1 student athlete. So when I walked into my family’s kitchen one summer afternoon and announced my intention to quit meat cold turkey, my parents were, understandably, a little concerned.

Luckily for me, my high school coach was both a former collegiate rower and vegan. He was able to offer some sage advice, which assuaged my parents’ fears and helped me avoid major pitfalls.

Here are a few of his best pointers for the veggie-curious athlete.

1. Become a Protein Pro

Perhaps the most pervasive misconception about vegetarianism is that it leads to protein deficiency. In my experience this is not the case (unless you try to live exclusively on Cheerios). Sure, you might need to be more cognizant of what’s on your plate when you don’t have the option to protein-load with a cheeseburger, but there are a multitude of easy and delicious ways for any vegetarian athlete to meet (heh) their protein needs.

As the body’s heavy-lifting molecule, proteins are involved in everything from acting as antibodies in the immune system, to regulating hormones, to building skeletal muscle. Proteins themselves are large and complex, made up of simpler units known as amino acids.

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Just in case you were curious.

Different combinations of amino acids create different proteins, which are then used for various biological functions. And while some plant-based foods lack “complete” proteins, most provide a variety of amino acids. In order to get the protein your body needs, all you have to do is eat combinations of amino acid-rich foods*. This is a lot less complicated than it sounds. For example, corn plus black beans yields a complete protein. Ditto for rice and lentils.

Of course, some meatless staples, like tofu, tempeh, and quinoa, contain complete proteins in their own right. And for non-vegan vegetarians, eggs, cheeses, yogurt, and other dairy products are all tasty protein packed options.

2. Pump Some Iron

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Not that kind.

Ask any runner which micronutrient they worry about the most; the answer will probably be “iron”. This makes sense, given that around 50% of runners experience anemia at some point in their career.

A lot of well-known meatless proteins are great sources of veggie-based iron: beans, lentils, tempeh, and tofu all contain between 6.6 – 8.8 mg of iron per serving, about 30-50% of recommended daily intake.

But many other foods are also surprisingly high in iron. For example, dark leafy greens like spinach and Swiss chard are absolutely chock-full of the stuff. Same goes for potato skins, mushrooms, flaxseeds, coconut milk, and dried thyme. Side note: it’s almost never a bad idea for any serious runner (vegetarian or otherwise) to take an iron supplement, just in case.

What about other vitamins and minerals (you might well ask)? Like any healthy diet, the key to vegetarianism is diversity. Eating a wide array of fruits, vegetables, grains, etc. should provide a full spectrum of macro and micronutrients. Don’t be a panda; bamboo alone won’t work for you.

3. Eat Enough

In our current diet-centric culture, “calorie” has become something of a dirty word. Low-cal foods are seen as “healthy”, whereas calorie-rich foods are demonized.

The majority of fruits and vegetables are not very caloric, especially if they’re fresh and/or prepared in a minimally processed way. While this might sound great at first, it can present a challenge, especially for runners deep in training. Vegetarian athletes need to make sure to incorporate enough calorie dense foods (particularly sources of fat) into each meal in order to avoid exhaustion.

My personal favorite is peanut butter, but avocado, egg yolk, nuts, olive oil, and virtually any kind of cheese are also a delicious, healthy source of fat calories. Remember, running on empty not only feels bad, it can also put you at risk for injury.

4. But…why?

There are myriad reasons to forego meat. For some people, it’s a way manage cholesterol and saturated fat intake. For others, it’s a religious decision. Still others might hope to reduce their carbon footprint. I’m pretty sure there exists a subset of vegans who were exposed to Scott Pilgrim at an impressionable age.

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I have no explanation for the pandas, but my own decision stemmed from reading too much about industrial meat production – some of the literature was enough to put me off mass-market meat indefinitely. For me, it was an easy transition; I was already only eating meat two or three days a week, and once I got to college it was simple to cut it out of my diet without inconveniencing my family. Plus, with copious internet research and personal acquaintances’ knowledge to draw from, I was able to go about it in a healthy, balanced way.

That said, vegetarianism isn’t for everyone. If you have an allergy to certain foods, like soy, legumes, or tree nuts, trying to get adequate protein without meat can be a real struggle. Similarly, runners with chronic anemia should probably stick to steak as their main iron source. In the end, the best thing any runner can do is find a food plan that suits both your lifestyle and your body’s individual needs.

And, of course, find a delicious way to do it.

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*Note: There is evidence to suggest that the Protein-Combining theory of vegetarian eating might not be strictly accurate. Specifically, recent research indicates that major amino acids (such as lysine and methionine) are already present in most plant proteins and do not need to be consumed in tandem to be synthesized into a functional protein. That said, a healthy vegetarian diet should still encompass a wide variety of amino acid sources.

BONUS! A Short List of Notable Vegetarian/Vegan Athletes:

  • Carl Lewis, multi Olympic medalist
  • Venus Williams, tennis champion
  • Mike Tyson, infamous boxer
  • Scott Jurek, ultra marathoner
  • Brendan Brazier, Canadian ultra marathon champion
  • Tony Gonzalez, former tight end
  • Hannah Teter, Olympic snowboarder
  • Robert Parrish, NBA hall-of-famer
  • Amby Burfoot, 1968 Boston marathon champion

In Pursuit of Happiness

joy (n.) \ ˈjȯi \
a. the feeling of great delight evoked or caused by something exceptionally good
b. the expression or exhibition of such emotion

Ten days ago I raced for the first time in almost six months. Barreling toward the finish clock, legs numb and wobbly, an unexpected emotion sucker punched me in the gut: pure, unadulterated joy. It was the kind of euphoria that splits your face into an involuntary grin, the kind I hadn’t associated with finish lines in a while. It was exhilarating. It was a little alarming.
It was also exactly what I needed.

There’s this weird thing that racing in a professional capacity does to you. When you’re pouring everything into training, day in and day out, making it the focal point, you almost feel guilty for being happy after a race.

Like: This. Is. Your. Job. If you’re smiling at the end, you aren’t taking things seriously enough. It starts to wear on you.

Not to say that I didn’t enjoy races over the past year; after all, hitting goals and setting new personal bests is undeniable fun. But each moment of elation felt like it came with a caveat (which, now that I think about it, is an apt summary of many American’s feelings towards 2017 in general). I ran my best-ever 3k…but I just missed the ZAP record. I was top 10 at a US championship…but I wanted to be top 5.

IMG_1411Like so.

I ended my season last July on a high note, but mentally, I was exhausted. So as August approached, I was very much looking forward to a two week break before ramping back into training with Nicole and Johnny for the California International Marathon.

Of course, things didn’t go quite so smoothly (the best laid plans, etc).

In September, for the first time in my running career, I had to take a significant chunk of time off due to a gnarly case of achilles tendonitis. I’d been absurdly lucky up to that point (still have been), but injury, much like death and taxes, comes for us all. I was well past due for a stint on the IR. So I took some down time, and it sucked, though not necessarily in the way I expected. My body was ready for the general malaise caused by not-running, but I started suffering some serious race withdraw.

Thanks in part to close proximity and in part to non-refundable airfare, I got to travel to almost every race I scratched. Being present to cheer for my teammates was humbling, powerful, and deepened my appreciation for the sheer tenacity of running fans. Seriously, anyone willing to dedicate four hours on a Saturday idling around a snowy field in Lexington, Kentucky just to catch a glimpse of the Club Cross Country Championships has my undying respect.
But what really struck me whilst standing the aforementioned cold flurry was how fervently I wanted to race.

IMG_0113Spectating is always best with old friends.

Long time runners can attest to this phenomenon. It’s strange: just before the starting gun, there’s a fleeting moment where you almost wish you could skip the race, skip the pain, go home and curl up with a cup of hot chocolate instead. But when racing isn’t an option, you’d give anything to go through that. Chalk it up to addiction, maybe. There is certainly good science to back this up.

“Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t kill their husbands. They just don’t.” – Elle Woods

The word “endorphin” is derived from the words “endogenous”, meaning “produced within the body”, and morphine, an opiate famous for its ability to reduce pain and elevate mood. Endorphins bind to the same neuroreceptors that interact with opioids, thereby promoting the release of all kinds of feel-good chemicals, like dopamine*.

Endorphins, as noted by Reese Witherspoon’s character in Legally Blonde, are produced during intense exercise (read: running). They are part of the chemical cocktail responsible for the so-called “runner’s high”, that feeling of intense well-being that makes you wax philosophic about things like running 13.1 miles at near-top speed.
By November, I was itching for an endorphin hit.

Fast forward to the end of December: I had been training totally pain-free for about three weeks. I’d just finished my first week of significant milage and eked out one or two workouts. In the middle of a conversation about training, Pete brought up the Houston half marathon.
“You know,” he said, “looking at it objectively, you’re at the start of your season. You won’t be as fit as you were this time last year.”
I agreed.
“How would you feel about racing anyway?”
In the past, I probably would have thought twice. Maybe said something about not wanting to embarrass myself, or, for that matter, the club.
Instead, I heard myself saying that yes, absolutely, I wanted to race. More than that. I needed to.
Which is how I found myself once again standing outside on a cold weekend morning. But this time, instead of the sidelines, I was behind the start line of the sixteenth annual Houston half marathon.

The first 10k was conservative, and I found myself drinking it all in. There were bands on the corner playing loud music, a motorcycle brigade, and, thanks to a creative bib entry by Pete, people yelling “GO JOJO!” as I passed. Like any good road race, the energy was infectious.
The second half wasn’t what I’d call “comfortable”; I had to continually remind myself to push, keep pushing, don’t settle into the pack. The adrenaline rush through my system wore off, then returned like a knife jab. My toes went numb. In my brain, endorphins were percolating like an overactive coffee pot.
And then I hit the finish and my lungs hurt and my legs turned into dead, achy noodles and sweet Jesus, I’d missed that feeling more than I realized. I think I started laughing. The marathon volunteers were, I’m sure, concerned for my mental health.
It reminded me of racing in high school, before anyone worried about things like prize money or reputation, when racing was pure fun. And, like high school, the rest of the day was filled with good friends and fajitas (thanks Caryn and Scott!).

Was Houston my best race? No. Not by a long shot. But it was the best I had on that day, and, more importantly, it allowed me to reconnect with what I love most about racing (chemical, spiritual, or otherwise). There’s something to be said for that.

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A final distinction: in my mind, joy is not the same complacency. It’s possible to throughly inhabit a moment without necessarily wanting to stay there forever.
Certainly, there is something to be said for motivation by disappointment. Just look at the famous anecdote about Michael Jordan getting cut from his high school basketball team**. Happiness, however, can be an equally powerful motivator, which is probably why our bodies release endorphins in the first place. Stick, meet carrot. Sometimes you need both to succeed.
That simple rush is a reminder of not just why we run, but why we race. Running is its own kind of bliss, but running (with a little luck) will be there our whole lives. Racing at this level won’t be. So this year I’m giving myself permission to relax and appreciate the joy in our sport.
Or, to quote Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Later I will sit down and dissect this race moment-by-moment, picking out each shortcoming and crafting a plan to correct it. Of course I will. I’m a runner.
But right now, I’m going to unbridle my reined-in enthusiasm and ride this beautiful endorphin high into the sunset.

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*A recent study in rats found that intense exercise produces endocannabinoids as well, indicating that running might also simulate the effects of marijuana. In fact, since endocannabinoids pass more easily through the blood/brain barrier, they might be responsible for most of the runner’s high.

**This story is true, if slightly misleading. Michael Jordan attended Emsley A. Laney High School where he was a decorated multi-sport athlete. He tried out for the varsity basketball team his sophomore year, but was deemed too short and relegated to the JV squad. The following summer he trained hard, grew four inches, and was selected for varsity thenceforth.

Photo Cred: Michael Scott

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and my wonderful mom

Trusting the Machine

I like the lady horses best, 
how they make it all look easy,
like running 40 miles per hour
is as fun as taking a nap, or grass.
I like their lady horse swagger,
after winning. Ears up, girls, ears up!
But mainly, let’s be honest, I like
that they’re ladies. As if this big
dangerous animal is also a part of me,
that somewhere inside the delicate
skin of my body, there pumps
an 8-pound female horse heart,
giant with power, heavy with blood.
Don’t you want to believe it? 
Don’t you want to tug my shirt and see 
the huge beating genius machine
that thinks, no, it knows,
it’s going to come in first.

Ada Limón, How to Triumph Like a Girl

Racing requires a degree of cognitive dissonance: you have to believe in your body not as a collection of organs and muscles, but as a machine perfectly suited to fulfill its given task. You have to trust with your whole being that this machine can carry you from start to finish at the grueling, arduous pace you give it. You have to banish thoughts about how you feel, because how you feel doesn’t matter. Nobody cares how you feel. You have a job to do.

That’s exactly what I didn’t do at this year’s USATF Outdoor Championships.

It started as a crapshoot.

During a national track championship, race coordinators accept twenty-four to thirty-two athletes per event: anyone who hits the ‘A’ standard, plus the next several fastest entries once the standard holders run out. I did not have the ‘A’ in the 10,000, my target event; however, I knew that if I entered, there was an outside chance I could sneak in under the radar.

I found out I’d made the cut five days prior to the race. A simple line of text from my coach dinged onto my cell screen: Nationals is a thing. And I thought, “Oh”.

See, going into the meet, my mental state was not what it should have been. Instead of thinking “I trust my body and training”, I thought, “I didn’t earn this” and “I don’t belong here”. Race day conditions only compounded these anxieties. It was a scorching week in Sacramento, with daytime temperatures climbing into the 110s (in the shade). And the field was absolutely stacked.

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How I pictured myself.

As the days and pre-race hours dwindled, I tried not to think about any of my nagging self-doubt. I failed spectacularly. Scenes of failure kept playing in my head like an insidious nightmare pop-up ad, right up to the moment I set foot on the track.

I’ll spare you the gory details, save for this.
Somewhere between laps eight and twelve, I had a panic attack.
Then for the first time in my running career, I was DFL: Dead. Fucking. Last.
After I staggered through the finish, pity cheers from the stands earthquaking my head, I beelined for the nearest trash can to puke. Not from exhaustion, but from sheer nerves. Then I cried (also unrelated to exhaustion).

Later, during the awards ceremony, three of America’s finest distance runners stood on the podium like a series of marble statues carved by an ancient Greek master. I felt so small. An announcer called their names over the PA system while the remnants of the crowd roared, and suddenly I gained a new appreciation for Rilke staring up at the archaic torso of Apollo and thinking “you must change your life.”

(Un)fortunately, there was very little time to brood. Pete, my coach, didn’t want to end the season on such a low note. Plus, I was in good shape physically; there was no reason to throw away my shot. I had to put on my big girl buns and race again at Peachtree, the US 10k Road Championship, in ten days.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to freak out a second time. Now, though, I had the benefit of hard-earned perspective. Now I knew how it felt when I let my anxieties take complete control. I knew what it cost to lose to my own negativity. It felt awful.

It made me want to prove those thoughts wrong.

So this time, my approach was very different. Instead of worrying about the competition, the weather, or whether I deserved to race, I concentrated on actually racing. It became an opportunity rather than an obstacle to overcome.

That Monday when we went slow through the first mile, I didn’t panic. When the weather alert hit red, I dumped some water on my head. When the lead pack began to break away, I breathed. I started picking people off. And when I finished, it was in front of several girls who’d served me my ass on a silver platter the week before.

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Me, at the Peachtree finish line.

I am good at this. That sounds arrogant; I don’t mean it to be. If anything, I suffer from a case of terminal timorousness, including a tendency toward self-flagellation when I fall short of any given goal (what can I say, I’m the product of thirteen years of Catholic schooling). I manage to convince myself that I’m worthless, despite the evidence to the contrary: fast times, solid workouts, all-American accolades and MVP plaques.

More important: I love this. All of it, the workouts and long runs and strides but especially racing, is fun. Running all-out is extremely painful, but at its core a race should also be an expression of joy (like taking a nap, or grass).

Here’s the bottom line: if I wasn’t good, I wouldn’t be here. It’s easy to lose sight of that.

But even elites doubt their ability. So after Peachtree, I contacted Dr. Bob Swoap, a highly regarded sports psychologist. He set me up with a mental training plan of sorts, to help rewrite my thought-code whenever it starts to retread those old negative paths. It’s not an overnight fix, but then again, nothing in this sport ever is. And that’s ok.

The beating genius machine inside my chest knows what it’s doing. I’m finally learning to trust it.

Photo cred:

Michael Scott

and Pintrest