Competition with Compassion

When interviewed before starting the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Race last year, Kaci Lickteig was asked about the deep women’s field that she was facing.

“I’m competitive with myself,” she responded in the documentary Life in a Day.  “I love to have competition ’cause that brings out everybody’s best.  So having this enormous group of women to run with brings out a better Kaci.”

She went on to crush the race, finishing nearly an hour before the second place female.  Clearly on that day, Kaci’s best was way better than anyone else’s.

I love competition in the same way.  It’s not so much to prove who is faster than whom, because there’s always someone faster somewhere.

It’s about the hope that maybe, just maybe, today is your day.

It’s inspiring to race with faster people, feeling them pull out the best in you.  I run better when I have someone to chase and I run faster when I know someone is chasing me.

Otherwise, why race?  Instead of shelling out thirty bucks for a crappy t-shirt and yet another circle on a string, you could just run a 5K every day if you didn’t care about racing.

And some people do just that.

Other people don’t care about the competition aspect of racing and run for charity or just like the camaraderie of a group run with a party at the end.

But that’s not me.

I like to race to do my best and my best doesn’t come out alone on the track or running through the park.

It comes out when I try to run faster than someone else.

If you are faster than I am, I will try to catch you.  If you are having a bad day and I am having a good day, I will pass you.

If you are slower than I am, I expect that you will chase me.  If I am having a bad day and you are having a good day, you will pass me.

That is racing.  In any event, anywhere in the world, with any caliber athlete, that is what racing is about.

Running your hardest is hard.  It’s not fun.  Racing makes that hard effort more fun.

Unfortunately, my love for competition can come across in a negative way and I believe that has everything to do with my gender.

At the start of the Swamp Rabbit Half with my Jus’ Running girls!

Most men have no problem with healthy competition and see winning as an essential part of the game. Of course a guy is going to try to win if he has a shot at it and he’s not generally going to feel too bad for the buddy he just beat who was off his game that day.

But women have been conditioned differently.

“Because women learn that they are not supposed to be competitive and win at others’ expense, their natural competitive spirit cannot be shared openly, happily, or even jokingly with other women,” says Dr. Lynn Margoliesa psychologist and former Harvard Medical School faculty and fellow.

“Women learn to feel guilty for feeling happy and successful,” she says, “and with their female friends who may not be having such luck, they may experience their own success as hurtful to their friend. This can make it uncomfortable for a woman to share and enjoy her accomplishments with her female friends.”

This, of course, is ridiculous.  And very real.

Downhill at Dusk 5K 2016

So how can we be competitive in a fun, healthy way without all the drama?

According to Dr. Margolies, we need to balance competition and compassion.

“A healthy balance of competition and compassion means allowing oneself to do well and embrace a positive feeling of empowerment and strength while at the same time caring about friends’ feelings and supporting them in their own growth,” Margolies offers.

Most women tend to be really good at supporting others and not as good at embracing their own accomplishments.

We deserve to enjoy our success!

The other option is to apologize for winning and belittle your accomplishment by saying, “well, all the fast girls were somewhere else today,” or, “the only reason I beat her was because she had a bad day.” Sadly, we women do this kind of thing all the time, knocking ourselves down because it feels more appropriate to show modesty instead of genuine, natural pride at a job well done.

Not to mention that when we downplay our success, we inadvertently insult everyone that comes behind us. I would rather come in dead last in a race where my competition brought out my best, even if it wasn’t good enough.  Racing with women faster than I am is tough and thrilling and inspiring and makes me want to try even harder.  And the last thing I would want the women who beat me to say would be, “the fast girls were somewhere else today.”

Obviously, I’m not even remotely in the same league as one of the best ultra runners on the planet, but in so many ways all runners go through the same things, no matter what level.  Whether it’s a local 5K organized by the middle school PTO or one of the most grueling and elite 100 mile races, competition makes it more rewarding.

And competition with compassion, for both our competitors and ourselves, is the best kind of all.

 

 

 

 

 

Spring is Here! Time to Plant

I consider myself a serial obsessionist.  Before I fell madly in love with running, there was gardening.

Not just let’s-grow-a-tomato-plant-on-the-porch gardening, but let’s-turn-a-half-acre-of-jungly-invasives-into-a-lush-landscaped-paradise-of-food-and-flowers gardening.

By hand.

But I grew weary of waging the constant battle with groundhogs and drought, especially after having kids.  Each year the veggie garden grew smaller and smaller, until one day I decided I’d just stick to perennials like raspberries and blueberries for a year.

And the year after that.

By then I was running so much that I had little energy left to lug hoses around the yard from the rain barrels or shoo away those giant rodents who had learned to climb the fence.

My passionate desire to grow as much as possible grew soft.

But now the kids are a little older and it’s fun to grow just a few things to teach them about where food comes from. We have a little mounded bed in the front yard so that it’s convenient to take care of every day and watch its progress.

 

Early spring is the time for peas, radishes, beets, and greens.  So in they go!

 

The flat-leaved parsley over wintered.  Perfect for falafel!

Inside, we’ll get a couple of flats of tomatoes and basil started for planting once the danger of frost has passed.

But that’s it.

In past years, I started flats and flats of dozens of types of veggies.  I turned a metal storage rack into a growing center with fluorescent lights on timers and coaxed thousands of seeds into seedlings.  One year I had so many that I sold them in my driveway for a pretty nice profit!

But I’m realizing that I can’t do everything.  As much as I love a homegrown tomato, I don’t need to grow 6 different varieties.

Running satisfies my need for hard physical work that I used to get from digging, planting, and weeding.

So now I’m buying most of our veggies from the store or the farmer’s market.

And I’m okay with that because I have learned that I can only handle a few obsessions at a time.

The Breath: The Simple Way to Improve Your Running Right Now

Breathe.  Just breathe.

It seems like we shouldn’t have to think about breathing.  After all, our bodies are designed to breathe involuntarily without a conscious thought from us.

Yet while running, being able to focus and control your breath can be a powerful tool.

And if you think about it, controlling your breathing is a powerful tool in the rest of your life as well.

Think of the last time you were in a stressful situation.  Maybe your puppy decided to devour your new running shoes or your toddler drew her latest masterpiece on the living room wall in permanent marker.  Taking a deep slow breath won’t get you a new pair of shoes or magically erase your wall, but it instantly helps diffuse the internal stress signals going off in your body and helps you remain calm.  The better you get at remaining calm during stress, the better you can manage the situation.

The same is true while running.

(And to be completely honest, I need a lot more practice at this.  Both in life as well as running!)

One of the most popular episodes of the Runners Connect Run to the Top Extra Kick Podcast that I’ve done was Episode 23, focused on breathing.  During that episode, I explained some breathing patterns and techniques that you can use while you run at different intensities that help you gauge effort level.  Memorizing your own breathing patterns at different speeds will help you become better at pacing yourself, which is key to racing well.

I will get more into the specifics of breathing techniques in future posts, but I have found that if I focus on my breath, the rest of my body tends to follow along.

It works in two paradoxical ways: it’s both a distraction and yet precise focus at the same time.

Finding a way to distract yourself from the discomfort of racing or running hard is essential to running your best.  If I am focusing on just this one aspect of running, I can forget about my legs.  I can forget about how much further I have to go.  I can forget about how hard it is and how much I want to stop.  All I have to do is think “in, in, ouuut, in, in, ouuut, in, in, ouuut,” and let the rest of my thoughts melt away.

Focusing on my breathing is something that I have absolute control over.  I can’t control the weather, the conditions, the competition, or countless other factors.  But I can control my breath.

The concept of focusing on your breath is simple. But like many simple things in life (world peace comes to mind), it’s not always easy.

Anyone who has gone to a yoga class or tried meditation knows that focusing on just your breath is hard!  Your mind is a scatterbrained chatterbox that needs to fill every space with thought.  You’ll try to concentrate on your breathing and before you know it, you are wondering if you remembered to pay the water bill or what’s in the fridge for lunch.

I wish I could sit here and say that I’m great at meditation and staying present, but I’m not.  I need to continually work on it.

So does everybody else.

That’s the reason yoga or meditation is called “practice.”  Focused breathing is a skill that takes consistent practice to be most effective.

But the great thing is that you don’t have to be a zen master to use it or benefit from it.  Every time you take a moment to focus on your breathing during your run, you are improving the quality of your run and working to manage negative thoughts.

With practice, those moments become more and more frequent and begin to last longer and longer.  The negative thoughts begin to lose their grip on your mind in times of stress.  When they resurface (and they will), you can bring your focus back to the breath and let all other thoughts slip away.

I believe that the mind-breath connection is so important that I am making it a major part of my training.  I am working on more techniques and tools that I plan to share with you in the coming months that you can use to improve your training as well.

We breathe every minute of  every day.  Harnessing the power of that simple, involuntary action can be one of the most effective tools we have to improve our running.

And our lives.

 

 

Finding My Happy Pace

There is such joy in helping others achieve their goals.  Even if it’s a stranger you’ve never met before.  Even if you don’t feel like you are doing much.

Pacing for a race feels like that.

When I got asked to pace the 2 hour group for the Asheville Half Marathon at the Biltmore Estate, I said yes immediately.  I raced the half once before as a training run for Boston in 2015 and the full marathon was my very first in 2014.

The two hour mark is such a breakthrough goal for many runners that I was excited for the chance to help people get there.

The course is unlike any other: winding roads carve through lush landscaping and climb up to the magnificent house at Mile 6.  Then you weave down through gardens blanketed with daffodils and then cruise along a smooth and flat gravel path along the French Broad River.

It’s simply stunning.

Waiting at the start, my co-pacer Gurmit held our 2:00 sign up high over the crowd and people began to move towards us and introduce themselves.  One runner named Natasha said she hoped to go quite a bit under two but wanted to stick with us through the early hills.  Another woman named Sarah had never broken two and she hoped that today would be her day.  A few others didn’t speak up, but smiled and listened wearing expressions of anticipation.

I explained to the group that we were not planning to pace evenly.  The hills at the beginning are a good place to ruin your race if you take them too fast, so we planned to be more conservative until we hit the flat section at the Biltmore House.  From there, we planned to catch back up.

The gun went off and we headed up the course.

I quickly learned that GPS was not reliable on the course and the mile markers were not precisely placed, so it was a bit of a guessing game on pace, but we kept a smooth and even effort level.

As the hills steepened, the friendly chatter evaporated into the cold morning sky replaced by bellows of hard, rhythmic breathing.  Hundreds of pattering feet slapped on asphalt like a driving rain on a metal roof.

The Biltmore house marks the end of the uphill and once we passed it, Gurmit and I looked around at what was left of our group.  Many of them had moved ahead of us and would stay ahead of us until the finish.

At the 10K mark, we were right on pace and took it easy on the downhill to the river where we reached our first out and back.

As faster racers turned around, we could see how well the people who had gathered at the start with us were doing.  Natasha was well ahead, looking strong and happy.  Sarah was just a few paces behind her and she broke into a smile as I cheered her on.

Unless something unusual happened, both women were going to go well under two hours and it was a thrill to watch them crushing their goals.

About Mile 10, Gurmit and I knew we were pacing a little fast, so we slowed our pace some on the flat sections.  Over my shoulder I heard the labored breathing of a runner working hard to pass me.  I turned to see one of the men we met at the start taking the opportunity to surge ahead.  This was his moment to give it his all.

As we got closer to the finish, I relied on the total time left on my watch rather than mile markers and GPS.  When we had 5 minutes to go, I estimated were less than a half mile to the finish, so I slowed and tried to encourage those around me to use all of the energy they had left to kick it to the end.

I ended up helping one our original pack runners speed across the line, thrilled with his performance.

The most rewarding part was after the race when several of the runners came up to us and thanked us.  One woman who didn’t catch my name yelled across the finishing chute, “Pacer! Hey pacer!” I turned and she happily told me that she beat her goal by three minutes and thanked me for my encouragement.

Sarah found me as I made my way to the food tent and we posed for a picture.  She had obliterated her goal and crossed the line in 1:53.  I had just met her two hours ago and I couldn’t be more happy for her.

Is there a little part of me that would have rather raced instead?  Of course, there always is.  But it’s only a tiny part this time.  I got to fully enjoy the course and help others achieve their best race ever.

Who knows?  Pacing was so rewarding that I may never race this one again.

 

 

Stop Listening to Your Body! It’s Lying to You.

I inwardly cringe whenever I hear the phrase “listen to your body.”

I realize the spirit behind the message is to be aware of your body’s signals and adjust your behavior accordingly, but there’s a big problem with that.

Your body is a liar.

And not just a liar.  It’s a paranoid helicopter mom liar with OCD, paradoxically tempered with a pinch of stoned hippie and a healthy dose of stubborn toddler.

Your body craves equilibrium, safety, and protection.  If you’ve ever tried to lose weight or speak in public or look out over the edge of a cliff, you know that your body will fight your brain every step of the way to prevent what it has determined as mortal danger around every corner.

It is a hoarder of energy, anxiously squirreling away every extra calorie for doomsday like a conspiracy theorist preparing for armageddon in a bomb shelter in the hills.

Your body hates change and wants everything to stay exactly the same always and forever no matter if it’s healthy or not.

Does your body want to push harder and harder in the last 5K of a marathon?  Hell, no!  Your body is absolutely convinced that YOU ARE GOING TO DIE!  If you decide to “listen to your body,” you will stop immediately or at least slow dramatically, dashing any hope of finishing the race strong.

Does your body want to get up and run at 5 in the morning when it’s dark and cold and lonely?  Of course not!  It wants to stay in your warm bed where it’s nice and warm and safe.

How about after a long day’s work when you’ve got to squeeze in a workout before dinner?  Do you think your body is going to tell you how great that plan is?  Nope.  Your body wants to sit on the couch with a family-size bag of Doritos while mainlining merlot.

Your body thinks running is a TERRIBLE idea.

“Listening to my body” with chips and chocolate! After the race…

Now, I know what some of the long-time runners are saying:  “I feel better after a run!” or, “running makes me stronger which is good for my body!”

Yeah, that’s like telling a five-year-old to eat brussels sprouts with the oh-so-convincing argument that they’re good for you.  It doesn’t matter if running is good for your body.  It will not be convinced.

At first.

And for all of us that feel better after a run?  We’d be lying if we said that were true every single time.  A lot of times we feel better simply because we have stopped.

But what about those amazing runs where everything goes perfectly?  The weather is gorgeous, our strides feel effortless, and we run without a single complaint from our lying, whining bodies?

Those happen because we’ve gradually tricked our bodies into believing that running is a good idea with consistent, progressive training.

Just like the little kids who eventually help themselves to an extra helping of broccoli on their own, we can convince our bodies to crave running.

We can over-ride our bodies’ signals of protest: sore muscles, tired legs, burning lungs, and reach of level of fitness and accomplishment that we never could have even dreamed of.

It just takes patience and practice.  And a little trickery.

When you don’t want to run at 5am, but you do it anyway, you are not listening to your body.

When everything aches the first two miles of an easy recovery run, and yet you keep on going until you feel better, you are not listening to your body.

When you get to Mile 20 of the marathon and your quads are screaming and the soles of your feet are on fire and even your fingers hurt, you are definitely not listening to your body, which left to its own devices would never have even walked to the starting line.

Now I would never recommend anyone run through true pain (or fall into the deep fatigue of overtraining).  True pain is very different from discomfort and you need to experience both to be able to differentiate between the two.  It’s like learning to tell the difference between when a child is truly hurt or just crying for attention.

You have a relationship with your body and if that relationship is healthy, it is not one-sided.  There is a give and take and while there is certainly some listening going on, your body needs to be told what to do.

A lot.

And like a child, you need to love and care for your body and be amazed and grateful for all that your body can do.

But you also gotta to teach her how to love her vegetables.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Easy (But Slow) Falafel and Vegan Tzatziki Sauce

The Greeks know how to make seriously good food.

Crispy yet crumbly falafels with a tangy cucumber yogurt sauce is so simple, healthy, and easy to make restaurant-quality at home.

Easy and simple does not always mean quick, however.  The secret to the very best falafel is skipping the cans of chickpeas and using dried beans that are soaked overnight.  This creates a crumbly yet cohesive texture that you just will not get from canned or cooked beans.

If you are in a hurry, canned or cooked will work, but you will be missing out.

This recipe from  J Kenji Lopez-Alt is not my own and for once, I didn’t alter someone else’s because it is just perfect.  And that’s saying a lot coming from me!

The only thing I do differently is skip the frying and bake the falafels instead at 400 degrees F for 20-22 minutes, turning once in the middle of baking.

For the tzatziki sauce, I use this recipe, subbing my non-dairy soy yogurt for the Greek yogurt.  I like to squeeze out some of the water from my yogurt in a thin cloth for a few minutes to get a nice, thick texture.

It tastes even better if you allow it to chill in the fridge a few hours before serving.

For the salad, I had to find a Greek dressing recipe and I used this easy-to-whip up recipe from the Detoxinista.  I like to limit oil as much as possible, so I just used a splash instead of the quarter cup.

For dinner, we rolled everything up into a tortilla, piled on more tzatziki and had the most delicious wraps.  My husband said it was as good as anything we could order in our local Greek restaurant.

You might want to go ahead and double the recipes, because you will be definitely wanting more soon!