Thursday, March 27, 2014

What I Know About Running

I have been running now for just under a year and a half.  I'm pretty sure that makes me a total newbie - there are many things I don't know, many things I haven't experienced, many things I'm still experimenting with.  I commonly see people who tell me that they've run for 20, 30, 40 years consistently, and I've got a long way to go before I can count myself among their ranks.

But you've got to start somewhere, and here I am.  I'm still a newbie, but I've also got a year and a half of experience, and I'm sharing that experience here to help and encourage anyone who is just getting started.

Here's what I know about running so far that applies to just about everyone:

1)  You can start from zero.  When I began working out again, a year ago November, I was in terrible shape.  I didn't go out for a run....I went for a walk.  I called it a brisk walk, but I'm not even sure it was all that brisk.  I didn't buy new clothes, I didn't get fancy shoes, and I didn't prepare in any way except one: I set my alarm for verrrrry early, and I promised myself that when I got up in the morning I'd get out and move.  And then I did.  Those first walks were under 2.5 miles, round trip from my house to a beach and back, and I don't know if they improved my health a ton, but I do know that they felt good, that I started to appreciate the quiet of the morning, and that they got easier pretty quickly (even coming up the big hill).

2)  You can make progress pretty quickly.  November 2012: Walking 2.5 miles.  March 2013: Running 3 miles.  August 2013: Running 6 miles.  October 2013: First half marathon.  Scheduled May 2014: First full marathon.  I went from basically sedentary to a half marathon in a year, dropped down from a size 6-8 to a size 4 without dieting or trying to lose weight.  Many, many, many runners share that story, in some version or another.

3)  Find a goal, and engrave it on your heart, your mind, your soul.  In March 2013, barely able to run 3 miles, I decided to sign up for a half marathon.  I told everyone I knew what I had done (partially to keep myself accountable, partially because my friends are fabulous and I knew they'd support me by asking me about training and encouraging me)....even though I didn't exactly see how it was possible to run a half marathon, and even though that distance seemed fairly ridiculously long and difficult and impossible and crazy.  But every day, I told myself "In October, I'm running a half marathon" and that is when I started thinking of myself as a real runner.  Scared, worried, and feeling somewhat like a fraud....but a real runner.  Having that goal kept me motivated and on task, and there were days when I thought about sleeping in but went running anyway, because I could so clearly envision how great it would be to cross the finish line of that half marathon.

4)  Find a training plan (there are lots of them online for free), write it on your calendar, and then do it.  Trust the plan - you are not the first person to start a running program from scratch, and assuming you don't have major health obstacles, then there is no reason it can't work for you.  A good plan gives you plenty of time: most marathon plans say that you should have a year of running before you start the plan (which is usually 12-18 weeks; I chose an 18 week plan); I started my half marathon plan about six months into running, and gave myself six more months to work up to it.  Find a plan that suits you: there are walking plans, walk/run plans, novice plans, expert plans.  Some coaches have you run six days a week, some only three days a week.  Some plans will have elaborate run instructions (run at X pace for X minutes this day; do hill repeats this day; do intervals this day) and some just tell you how many miles to go.  Do a little research and find what works for you....and then stick to it.  For my marathon, I chose to do Hal Higdon's Novice I program, and I try to stick to the recommended mileage (though I've tweaked it to suit myself: my knees don't like three days in a row of running so I space it differently, which sometimes means I drop a short run; I have had to take a break of 3-4 days when my body told me I had to, and then I picked up where I left off).  Not sure where to find a plan?  Check out Hal Higdon, Galloway, Runner's World.  There are couch to 5k plans for those who haven't even done their first run yet, and there are expert plans to help you run your first three hour marathon (something I don't ever plan on doing).  Find the distance that suits you right now, then find a plan that suits you.

5)  Be prepared.  Before I go to bed each night, I look at the training plan to figure out how many miles I need to go, and set my alarm accordingly.  (I need a lot less time to run 3 miles than I do to run 10 miles.)  I lay out my shoes, clothes and gear (including a headlamp, RoadID, hairband, hat/coat for rain, headphones and iPhone, house key, and if I'm running by myself in the dark I add pepper spray) so that I have them ready (and to make sure that I don't forget anything when I'm too sleepy to think clearly).  Laying things out at night makes sure that I don't have the excuse of "oops all my running clothes are in the wash!" and it's just one less obstacle to face in the morning: when I wake up, there they are on the chair, a sign of my commitment, and their very visibility reminds me that I want to do this.

6)  Fabulous shoes.  I'm all for a pair of killer heels or cute sandals, but running shoes are all about comfort, and by "fabulous" in this case I mean fitted to your feet and your running needs, comfortable.  I had really hoped to find some cool running shoes in great colors, but you don't choose running shoes based on how they look.  You don't need any special gear to run, but you must have really good shoes.  How do you know if they're good?  You go to a specialty running store where the staff are runners, and you take their advice.  Usually they want you to show up in a pair of old running shoes (even if you just wore them to walk the dog) if you have them, so they can look at the wear patterns.  Then, they'll watch you walk or run inside the store to see how your foot lands, and they'll make recommendations about what to try on.  They'll give you some tips (your heel shouldn't slip, there should be room but not too much in the toe box, etc.) and they'll often have you try one shoe brand on one foot and another on another foot so you can feel the differences.  I've had to try on 20 pairs before to find the "just right" one, but this is not a step to skimp on.  If your feet hurt, you can not run.  And sometimes it's not just your feet: if you wear the wrong shoe, your knees will hurt, your hips will hurt, your back will hurt.  Running isn't supposed to hurt like that, and your shoes will set the tone.  DO NOT go online and look at cute running shoes and order them in your size.  Do not assume that because ten years ago you ran in Nikes and they were great that if you order a pair of Nikes today they'll be great: every model of shoe is different, even within a brand.  And those dusty shoes in your closet?  Do yourself a favor and get a new pair.  The materials of the shoe break down over time and even if they were great a couple years back, they're not great now.  (Case in point: my legs were really hurting on my runs, and I started to think that I was just not cut out for distance running.  I got new shoes, and I could not BELIEVE the difference....the aches went away like magic.)  Become friends with your local running store staff.

7)  It's not about the gear (except shoes, of course).  All you need to really get going is a pair of great running shoes, and the rest is easy.  You'll want clothes that don't chafe, and technical fabrics will help wick away sweat, but the rest is just "whatever works."  There are a zillion cute running outfits out there, and yes, I do want them all, but the truth is that you can pull some old yoga pants out of your drawer, put on a decent sports bra with something to cover it, and head out the door.  If you want to look like a runner, Target has cheap running clothes that work pretty well.  As for me, I'm rewarding myself by buying a "nice" running outfit for my marathon, but that's about vanity, not about sport.  I did get a RoadID in case I get hit by a car or something because I run without carrying a driver's license or anything, and I think it was a good $20 investment; I also picked up pepper spray in case any bad guys jump out of the bushes in the dark.  When I started running longer distances, I bought a hydration belt, but I didn't need that until I hit the 10 mile distance.  You can get all geared up and you can look really great if you want (why not!), but running isn't about the gear.

8)  Find a way to track your distances and times.  When I first started, I drove the course I was going to run to see how far it was on my car odometer, and I used a basic sports watch (pulled out of a drawer where it hadn't really been used) to track time: you don't need much more than that, and for decades runners have just tracked their distances and times on paper.  However, I've since become addicted to MapMyRun, which I use on my iPhone.  On every run, I put in my headphones, start MapMyRun, and it shows me my time, distance, pace, splits, elevation, etc as I run and gives me a summary of the totals at the end.   Knowing that I've gone the appropriate distance is important for my training, of course, but hearing the little voice in my headphones telling me how fast I'm going also encourages me to speed up, to push a little harder at the end, etc.  And seeing the miles pile up over time, with weekly, monthly, and annual totals (all viewable on the computer, because it syncs automatically) makes me feel really proud of myself and motivates me to do even more.  I have the free version of MapMyRun (so frugal!), and you can also look at RunKeeper or Nike+ or a number of other programs.  I like them because I already had a smartphone so I'm not spending extra money, but if I had a few hundred dollars to blow I would probably buy myself a Garmin.

9)  It gets easier.  And then it gets harder.  And then it gets easier.  And then...  Running has ups and downs, just like everything.  Just at the point when I thought I was doing awesome, I hit some speedbumps where my runs started to suck.  Sometimes, there is a reason for that (you're sick, you've got an injury, you need new shoes), but sometimes there is a day, or a week, or even longer, when running just feels harder than you want it to, for no apparent reason.  I have learned that this is all part of it, that there are good days and bad days, and that just because you had a bad day today doesn't mean that it's going to stay bad if you keep at it.  I have learned to appreciate the magic of a good run, and not to let a bad one psych me out too much.  If you've got an injury then of course you should rest, but otherwise...just keep going.

10)  Running is a mind game.  I've saved the best for last here: running is more about your brain than about your body.  There are all kinds of catchy slogans about this, but it comes down to this: you are capable of more than you think you are, and when you run past the voice in your head that says "STOP!" then you come to a much deeper understanding of yourself.  When it's just you and the road (or the trail, or the treadmill) and you push past the belief that you can't do one more step and you do an extra mile or an extra minute, you prove to yourself that you're capable of more than you thought, and it changes you.  My body often tells me that I'm done, that I can't go any faster, that I can't go any farther....and when my mind overrides the messages that my body is giving me, I can't tell you how good it feels.
And here are a few more thing about running.  These ones apply to me and may or may not apply to you - you tell me!
1)  Running makes me feel like a badass.  I can run 16 miles now, and I am so proud of that I can't even tell you.  I'm 44 years old and I can maintain an 8:30 pace for 10 miles, a 9:00 pace for 15 miles (don't ask me about that last mile of that 16 minute run just now!).  I never, ever, ever thought I'd be able to do that.  And I can.  And it makes me feel like a badass.  And....I love feeling like a badass.
2)  The earlier I run, or the worse the weather, the more like a badass I feel.  When I'm out there alone in the dark, and the houses don't even have lights on, and the moon and stars are out, I know I'm doing something special.  When it's pouring rain (where I live there is a lot of rain, very little snow) and I'm the only one out, I feel like a warrior, capable of anything.  I love that feeling.
3)  I love being outdoors, and I don't want a treadmill.  I'd rather run in the rain than feel like a rat in a science lab running nowhere.  I think that one of the reasons I've kept up with running is that it allows me to be outside for a portion of the day.  I live in a beautiful area (and feel very fortunate), so my runs can take me through an urban forest and along the edge of the sea.  When I hear the waves lapping at the shore, it utterly outweighs the wet or cold I might feel, and it eases whatever aches my heart might have.  And on a sunny day with blue skies, or on a day when I see great wildlife (seals, eagles, and sea lions are common), my soul simply soars.  I can't get that on a treadmill....and I want that.
4)  I love being disconnected from the world, running alone.  I carry my phone for safety reasons, and to use MapMyRun, but I'm not looking at it, it's tucked in a pocket (or into my sports bra, which functions just as well).  Nobody is asking me for anything, nobody is talking to's just me, my thoughts, my body, fresh air.  I've tried running with others, but it gets in the way of finding flow, and I really prefer running quietly, solo.  I don't even listen to music most of the time any more, preferring to get lost in my own thoughts instead.
5)  Running makes me believe that anything is possible.  What I could not do before, I can do now.  This makes me believe that I can make my other dreams come true, too.  I can't tell you what a lifesaver that is.
6)  I did not begin running to look better, but it made me look better....and I love it.  I wanted to feel stronger and more energetic, but running has changed my body in many ways.  I'm smaller, and clothes look nicer on me, and I look better. 
7)  Running makes me feel good.  Mentally, physically, spiritually, no part of me is unchanged because of running.  All of me is better: not only are my legs stronger, not only do I assume my heart is stronger, but my soul, my spirit, my mind all feel stronger as a result of running.  I love that.
8)  Running is a lifestyle.  I'm not just a runner when I'm running, I'm a runner all the time.  I plan my days around running: when I wake up, but also when I go to bed; what I eat, or when.  I plan my weekends around my long runs, making space in my life to put in those long distances and then recover from them.  I'm okay with leaving the party early because I have to get up early, and I'm okay being the designated driver because I'm in training and not drinking alcohol right now.  A couple of years ago, those would have seemed like large sacrifices, but now they seem tiny.  What I get back from running is so much more than those small things, and I don't think twice about it any more.
9)  Even though I mostly run solo by choice, running has made me some lovely connections with other people.  The (ex) brother-in-law and I have had deep conversations about running, my daughter and I have bonded over short runs, my best friend from college and I have done events together (and though we train separately, we talk about our training together with regularity).
10)   It's all worth it, because every time I run I feel renewed, powerful, capable.  Yes, it hurts.  No, I'm not a morning person.  Yes, I question my sanity sometimes when I'm soaking wet, cold, aching.
But it's all worth it.

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