It was there that my coaching journey began, although I didn’t know it at the time.
It’s hard to believe that a year later, I returned to ZAP this time as a coach for Runners Connect.
Many of the attendees from last year were able to return again this year, which made it seem even more like the summer camp I remember.
Camp friends become forever friends.
I feel incredibly lucky that I get to run and geek out about running as a job. Over the four-day weekend, in addition to lots of beautiful miles with some amazing people, I led exercises on goal setting and strength training and had several one-on-one personal coaching sessions.
I’m learning that it’s not always the technical running training advice that matters the most. More often than not, the athlete already has many of the answers she is looking for and it is a joy to discover how to tease those answers out together.
As the weekend came to a close, there were hugs and exchanges of email addresses.
And just like the last day of summer camp as a kid, it was a bit sad for it all to end, but we knew we’d made memories and friends that are much bigger than a single weekend.
Just one day later, most of us are already looking forward to next year.
Most runners skew heavily on the introverted side. After all, we spend a lot of time logging miles on our own.
And most of us like it that way.
When we do get together with other also-introverted runners at the track or at a race, there can be a bit of the small-talk awkwardness that invariably begins with the classic question: “So, what are you training for?”
It’s the easy and obvious question, much like the standard, “so, what do you do?” at the party where you don’t know anyone. Or, for the single runners, the pick-up line at the bar.
It’s easy because it works. Most runners are training for something, so it’s a non-threatening, causal way to break the ice during 200m jog rests with a new group.
It’s also a quick way of sizing someone up. Wow, that guy’s training for the 100 Mile Certain Death Race?! He must be insane!
Or, she’s training for an Olympic triathlon? And I thought just running was hard!
Or, didn’t he just finish a marathon last week? He’s doing another one so soon?
Right now, I’m not training for anything specific, so answering that question is not as fun as it is when I have a set, defined goal. Usually, I mumble a response like, “oh, I’m not really training for anything right now. Just doing shorter stuff for the spring. You know, a few local 5ks and 10ks.”
My questioner typically gives me the side eye and nods, “that’s cool.”
Which definitely does not feel so cool.
Because just like the “so, what do you do” question, the “so, what are you training for” query gives you a quick, but limited view into what kind of person you are. Marathoners train for marathons, trail runners train for trail races, ultra runners train for ultras.
I don’t love racing 5ks. (There. I said it.) They are painful in a different way than the marathon and I have a hard time staying in the red zone of burning pain for so long.
So I don’t really act all bubbly and positive when I explain that I’m training for something I’m not too fond of. I’m doing it to become a better marathoner, but it’s not like I’m gushing with joy when I tell people I’m training for the Everyone’s a Special Snowflake Community 5K.
But just as your job does not define you, neither does your goal race. Sure, it does dictate how we spend a big chunk of our time, but it’s not everything.
Perhaps a better ice-breaker would be, “so what do you like to do for fun outside of running?” or, “what are you passionate about?”
You get a very different and infinitely more interesting response that way. People are taken back a bit since it’s out of the ordinary, but then they light up and let you peek inside the rest of their world.
Yet at the same time, the goal does become a part of who you are and helps you lace up your shoes everyday. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss that.
This weekend many of my running friends are in Boston right now ahead of the iconic marathon on Monday, posing for pictures at the Expo with Olympic marathoner Shalane Flanagan and trying not to walk too much up and down Boylston Street.
Over the past several months or for even over a year, when anyone asked one of them, “so, what are you training for?” you know they smiled happily and said a single word: Boston.
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.
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 Margolies, a 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.
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.
It’s written on the back of all their coffee mugs: the mind is the athlete. And right now, my mind is racing trying to absorb everything that I learned this weekend at ZAP Running camp. Strangely, I think most of what inspired me this weekend has very little to do with actual running.
ZAP is an elite training center near Blowing Rock, NC, less than a two-hour drive up the Blue Ridge mountains from where I live in Asheville. The coaching program I follow, Runners Connect, offers a 3-day running retreat twice a year and I signed up this spring along with a couple dozen other runners I had never met. We lived dormitory-style, sharing meals, runs, coaching sessions, and pieces of our lives.
I arrived Thursday afternoon and met the coaches and my roommate, Laurie. We unpacked and got ready for our first run in Moses Cone Park, a beautiful trail system that includes a flat mile loop around Bass Lake. We were told to run whatever pace and distance we wanted to and then meet up for a ride back to camp. I fell into step with a group of three other women going the same length as I was and we circled the lake and headed up the trail called The Maze.
Now when I say “trail,” I actually mean smooth packed gravel road wide and gentle enough for a car to drive with ease and closed to cyclists. These are not the rocky and rooty single-track trails that I am used to back home. We could run 4 wide and the only obstacles we had to avoid were those left by the horses that share the paths.
Dinner each night was created by Chef Michael who clearly knows how to fuel elite runners. Choices like roasted beets, homegrown tomatoes, veggie paella, roasted parsnips and carrots, beans and rice, and enormous salads filled my plate every night. Bowls of fresh fruit were always available and there was always something sweet for dessert.
After dinner, we introduced ourselves around the campfire and got to know each other a bit. There were runners from all over the country as well as two Canadians. Everyone there had different training goals and backgrounds but we were all there because we are passionate about running.
The next morning we headed back to Moses Cone for our run of the day. I had a ten miler on the schedule with the middle 6 being close to marathon pace, so after a warm up on some of the hills, I stuck to lake laps on my own with my headphones on. I was surprised at the effort I needed to give in order to crank out those fast miles. Granted, we were at 1000 feet higher elevation than I’m used to, but still, I was expecting it to be easier. I’m happy that I hit my splits, but I knew that the 18-mile fast-finish on the books for the next day was going to be challenging. But that was the whole point.
After our runs, the afternoons were filled with strength and stretch classes, visualization techniques, video gait analyses, nutrition for runners talks, individual coaching sessions, and mental strength training classes. I could write a separate post on each one of these topics and I probably will. There were moments of inspiration in every single one of these sessions. I was not expecting to learn so many real, tangible techniques that I can use in my running every day, especially on race day.
Saturday’s long run was back at Moses Cone and I joined the group that headed up to the fire tower. I knew that the climbing would make the three fast finish miles harder, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the 360 degree view at the top. I ran mainly with a woman named Andrea and we talked non-stop for two hours about our lives.
This is one of the magic moments in running. It is not very often that you can have a deep conversation with someone for that length of time. Even though we had just met, we shared personal details of our lives with each other and by the time we had reached the top of the fire tower, we were friends.
Back at the lake for my fast miles, I struggled to hit my times and didn’t, but I wouldn’t change a thing.
On our last evening, with our classes done and runs completed, we piled in the vans after dinner for ice cream and beer in downtown Blowing Rock. Jeff Gaudette, the owner of Runners Connect, said that this was the first time everyone in the group had come into town together. Our group had really connected in a way that not every one does.
In the morning, we hugged and went our separate ways, wishing each other well on our upcoming races. I have no doubt that many of us will see each other again.
Over the next days and weeks I will unpack some of the truly meaningful experiences I had at ZAP. I am inspired and motivated in a way that I haven’t felt since I got my first PR. Lately, I have been hitting a mental point where I’m struggling to get to the next level in my training. Now a have a few more tools that will help get me there.
I am not the type of person to play games on my phone. I’d rather read an interesting article than play a video game. So of course, I don’t know anything about Pokemon Go, the latest mobile game craze. But as an outside observer, it is fascinating and is clearly changing behavior, quite hilariously.
At the group Wedge run through the park yesterday, it was obvious who was there exercising like always and who was there to catch Pokemon. Ghostly pale couples, each with a phone in an outstretched hand clung to to the edge of the path, oblivious to runners and bikers passing by. My running buddy Doug and I passed no less than three smokers fixated on their cell phones, slowly walking in the middle of the path, clearly not out there for their health. As we ran by, one guy shouted, “hey, could you log in for me and run?” Doug and I looked at each other and laughed. Every couple of minutes, we’d point out Pokemon players to each other. “Pokemon. Pokemon. Pokemon.” We had our own game.
Over beers after the run, we talked about the newcomers at the park with the other runners. I thought it would be a fabulous business idea to take people’s phones on runs for money. Apparently, I’m not the only one who’s thought of this. There’s a few people in the area who are advertising that they will do just that so you too can be a Pokemon master!
While I will never get into something like this, I think it is absolute genius that a game will get people moving and be outside. The key to regular exercise is to enjoy it and have fun and if this is what it takes, I’m all for it. Although, it seems like this game engrosses people a bit too much, leading them to walk into traffic and fall off cliffs. But setting that part aside, it seems to be creating a community at the same time.
Not to mention providing a little entertainment for us runners.
When I started running in 2013, a runner friend of mine from high school messaged me and said, “you’re going to meet the most amazing friends running!” What friends? I thought. Who are these people you meet running? I ran alone and didn’t know too many other people in my town that ran. How on earth do you meet people running? Yank their headphones out as you pass by and strike up a conversation? Uh, no. I didn’t run to meet people. I ran to get in shape, to let out stress, to be by myself. I wasn’t going to meet people running down the street.
And I didn’t. For a whole year.
Then in the spring of 2014, I decided to try some trail running. I wanted to get to know Bent Creek better, a great running and biking forest just south of town. I wasn’t afraid of running the trails by myself, but I figured I should go with some people who knew where they were going so I could learn a few routes. I saw on Facebook that a local running store, Jus’ Running, had group trail runs on Wednesday evenings and all were welcome. I showed up and quickly became a regular. We’d run loops of around 7 or 8 miles and I’d be sore for days after. People of all paces would come and the faster runners would wait at trail intersections so no one was left behind. I loved it and was getting stronger and fitter.
Those Wednesday nights became my thing. I was happy meeting people who were interested in the same thing I was into. I was never the fastest and usually not the slowest but I was consistent. When I got out of breath climbing a big hill, I didn’t stop because there were people waiting for me at the top and people behind me who weren’t quitting. I gave more to those runs than I would have given on my own. What started out as a whim became a habit which became a part of who I was. I was part of a tribe.
It was through those trail runs (which are no longer organized through Jus’ Running) that I met Mandy who worked at the running store. She kept trying to convince me to go to the track on Tuesday evenings. Running in the evenings is a challenge since it’s family time and I didn’t want to trade the trail for the track, so I kept saying no. Running around a flat oval over and over again did not sound appealing, especially compared to the woods. But soon the summer days grew to an end and the light faded on our evening trail runs. It was not until the following spring after I was asked to join the Jus’ Running Racing Team, that I decided to try the track.
It completely defies logic that people actually enjoy running track if you’ve never done it before. But yet dozens and dozens of people show up each Tuesday to endure lung-popping, ego-bruising, leg-splintering workouts. Maybe runners are just masochists, plain and simple. Or maybe there’s something more to it.
Running hard is, well, hard and it’s better to suffer with others than suffer alone. I know that I would not be out there pushing myself this much if I didn’t feel the support and friendly competition of the group. I run better when I have someone to chase and I feel a sense of accountability when I put myself out there and others are watching, even though they really don’t care what my pace is.
My running friends know what it feels like to PR and they also know what it’s like to be burned out or injured. It is great to be able to completely geek out about running with people who are as obsessed as I am. I am inspired by those who run way faster and/or way longer than I do. We celebrate each other’s achievements and complain about our aches and pains together.
Thinking about the runners I know, most of us are a little on the introverted side. To spend that much time alone running, you have to be. Even if you never run alone, you can’t talk much while running faster than a jog, so you need to be okay with being alone in your head sometimes. But when we run as a group, we instantly have something to bond over, even if it is something as seemingly awful as a tortuous track workout.
We become better runners not only because of the workout, but because of each other.