Relaxation is better than tension

What story do I want to tell today? I want to tell about yesterday, when I learned a lesson on my run and then forgot this lesson as soon as I stopped my watch, walked inside, and began the real part of my day.

My run started out okay, not great. I was a little sluggish and uncomfortable as it seemed that everyone in my neighborhood decided to cut their grass at the same time, leading to massive amounts of grass particles in the air. My skin itched, my eyes burned, breathing was an exercise in itself. On days like this, when the air is filled with grass and allergens, all I want to do is hide in bed. It feels like the flu but more annoying because I am not actually tired or sick, but my immune system is working extra hard, leaving little energy left for other activities.

But, I made it out the door and was running along, feeling like crap, when I noticed my mile times were actually pretty acceptable. Not record-breaking, but on-par for my current fitness and certainly faster than I had expected, given how awful I felt. This realization, unfortunately, morphed immediately into self-competition (because being what fun would there have been in contentment with my accomplishment ). My attention locked on my pace.

I had not been preoccupied with my mile splits until I looked at my watch; my time was not part of a conscious effort, it was organic, an expression of my current level of fitness. The moment I became conscious of my speed, however, I was worried I might slow if I were not vigilant. And this possibility, that I might lose a few seconds per mile because I was admiring the design of a house, or staring at the clouds, or becoming preoccupied with my non-running thoughts, strangled my stride with fear. I did not trust myself to maintain my pace.

My shoulders tensed as I focused on each step, my legs became heavy, and what had been an uncomfortable but manageable run became, in the course of a few minutes, unbearable.I began to fantasize about stopping, coaxing myself to make it just a few more feet. As my shoulders crept closer to my ears, my arms swinging more tightly across my body, my hips straining to move my legs forward, my body heading toward total shutdown, a tiny but annoyed voice in my head shouted “NO! STOP! RELAX!” Relax? Relax.

I thought back to the countless races I have blown, in which I allowed fear and tension to cripple my performance. And I remembered the countless successful workouts I have run (I was always better at training than performing), in which I relaxed my body and was rewarded with faster times. I remembered the lightness and power that come when I have fun with running. And I remembered that even if the trick of relaxation did not work in this moment, and I slowed by a few seconds because I let down my guard, there was zero consequence. This was an easy run, I have no race on my calendar, I am running for no one but myself. I have the choice, in each run, to find joy or struggle. Yesterday, in that moment, I chose joy.

And that next mile, in which I relaxed and moved my focus from my pace to the stunning blue of the sky and the almost-fall coolness of the air, was four seconds faster. I went on to run two miles longer than I had anticipated. I finished feeling strong and happy, my allergies a footnote to the successful run.

And then, I walked inside and the magic and wisdom of the run evaporated. I remembered my to-do list. I remembered to feel shitty about myself for being unproductive, for sleeping in fifteen minutes and being behind schedule. I remembered to be snappy with my boyfriend for not being enthusiastic about our day of chores and family obligations. As I had been on my run, I focused only on the immediate result and made each task harder than it needed to be. My shoulders tensed again. I tried relaxing, but dismissed the endeavor as indulgent and slow. I had a mostly shitty day. (Of my own making, I should note.)

Thank goodness I have a boyfriend who hates feeling stressed and who openly acknowledges he needs to take breaks to recharge. Thank goodness I have been doing some hard work on myself so I understand (although I do not always accept) I need breaks as well. Thank goodness I was convinced (after a bit of a fight late in the afternoon and some sputtering on my part) to meditate.

As I slowed my breath, and focused my thoughts, my morning run came to mind. The ease, the increased stamina and speed that had come from throwing away expectation. I relaxed and, therefore, I performed.

The experiences I have while running often provide a framework for understanding the rest of my life. I don’t want to sound preachy, nor do I want to generalize or simplify, but I do hope that maybe I will be able to keep this lesson close and relax when I am inclined to tense.

 

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Weekend Diversions 8.12.16

Deep breath. Every time I take a break from writing here, I am overcome with anxiety about returning. I know this is a common theme in my writing, and I apologize for the redundancy. But I am still always awed at how quickly I can fall out of practice and then confidence with writing.

Writing is one of the most difficult things I do, but also the most rewarding. I forget, though, about the rewards when I am mired in fear that I will have nothing good to say. That it will be too hard to find words, that my ideas are asinine, that I have lost my ability to articulate thoughts. And then comes the excuse of not enough time, that I would write, if only I didn’t have to (fill in the blank with absolutely anything, from eat breakfast to wash dishes to call my mom to work). Everything becomes an excuse when I allow anxiety to take over.

And somehow, no matter how many strategies I try, worksheets I fill out, solutions I write about in my journal, I have yet to find a way to make writing, here or anywhere, stick. I do write in my many notebooks daily, but those are private thoughts and are often left unfinished. My notebook writing does not feel legitimate because it has no purpose. I guess that begs the follow-up question: does writing here have a purpose? Somehow, sharing my thoughts with the world, however small my readership, does feel more like “real” writing, because it has the chance to connect with someone.

My favorite writing to read is honest, raw, authentic and makes me feel less alone in my crazy head. My hope is that my words will have a similar influence.

Admitting I want my words to reach others, to have an impact, leaves me feeling vulnerable. Will you, reader, judge me harshly for this hubris? Will you laugh at my overly-large intentions?

Because I do not know if my words have worth outside of my own head. This doubt is what has kept me from writing consistently in public. The fear that I am silly, and my desire to connect through my words is foolish.

I do not know how to dismantle this fear, other than to continue showing up here to write as often as I can manage. Because I can’t grow if I do not do the work.

I recently listened to an interview with Olympian Kate Grace in which she talks about her struggles with commitment to running and how she rededicated herself to the sport. I often think of running and writing as linked in my life, with running often taking priority even though writing is provides equal (sometimes more) fulfillment. Kate’s words resonated and reminded me that if I want to write, if I want to see how far writing can take me, I must show up. I might not succeed once I am here, but I cannot make any progress if I stay away from my computer.

My graduate school program begins in less than a month, and I know I will have to be extra vigilant to ensure that writing for pleasure is not subsumed beneath class and stress. I enjoy having this outlet and I hope it will provide a good counterbalance to the demands of academia. This space provides me with a freedom of expression I have not felt in other places. Once I begin typing, my anxiety about writing diminishes. I am relaxed here. I do not want to my excuses to take this away from me.

As a way to failsafe my writing, I am going to schedule time here on my calendar. I am going to make my words a priority. I really hope that this sticks.

And now, for a bit of weekend reading.

  1. Simone Biles: “I’m not the next Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt, I’m the first Simone Biles.” This woman is my new hero. I am awed by her ability to propel herself multiple feet into the air, do somersaults, and land with grace (among other superhuman feats). I am even more impressed, though, by her poise. Throughout her competitions, she has forced the media to focus on the sport. And she demands equal treatment for her accomplishments. She is an athlete in her own right, and she is amazing.
  2. A closer look at Simone Manuel, Olympic Medalist, History Maker:Simone Manuel made history last night with her tied win in the 100m freestyle. She is the first African-American woman to win an individual medal in Olympic swimming. I missed her full race because I was at work and NBC is very proprietary with the footage (only the last few seconds are available for free online without a cable subscription). But I am overjoyed that she was able to create this historic moment out of years of dedication to swimming. Like all Olympic athletes, she performed at an unfathomable level. She is open about the historic nature of her accomplishment, and hopes her performance inspires more diversity in the sport.
  3. Olympic sprinter Morgan Mitchell on being a vegan, tattoos and her dreams of designing: A quick profile of Australian sprinter Morgan Mitchell, who credits her vegan diet with gains in fitness and speed. She will compete in the 400m trials on August 13, and will move on from there.
  4. Lauren Fleshman: From retiring to rewiring: Not an Olympic runner, but a world champion and multiple-record holder, Lauren Fleshman has made the decision, after years of battling a foot injury, to retire. In this piece she explains, with eloquence, what the change means for her in her daily life, and how she has made peace with giving up on her dream of competing again at an elite level. Lauren is a beautiful writer, and her perspective on running and balance is always wonderful to read. The New York Times also ran a profile of Lauren at her retirement, which is worth a look as well.

That’s it for today. Have a wonderful weekend, and I hope to be here again soon!

 

 

Understanding my eating disorder is a hard process

I have been delving, over the past few weeks, through my relationship with my body, with food, with running and the way all three are interconnected; the effort has resulted in a lot of good insight but also a lot of mental instability. I am having a hard time concentrating, or finding motivation to write. And, as I’ve said  before, the longer I stay away from writing the more daunting a task it becomes in my mind. And the less I write, the harder it becomes to focus on life. And so on and so forth in an annoying cycle of anxiety and diminished productivity.

Or, at least, diminished perception of productivity. Because I know that the hard work I am doing now is important to creating a stable mental outlook. The more I talk and think and write about the role food, and control of food, has played in my life the more I realize the complexity of the problem. I have only recently had the courage to acknowledge that I struggled with eating for more than a decade. And that I still struggle, although in different ways, today. I thought that by becoming vegan, by cultivating a more forgiving understanding of my body, implementing fewer rules and allowing more freedoms I would be healed. Although veganism and self-compassion have worked wonders for creating freedom around food, they are not panaceas.

As often as I experience joy around food, I also experience stress and doubt. I do not trust myself to make the correct choices; I often second-guess the ingredients on my plate. I worry I am eating too much, or not enough. Simply put, I am not comfortable yet around food.

I have latent phobias of fat that emerge when I am anxious. I have noticed myself recently using food as a reward for exercise, and withholding meals until after I have burned a requisite number of calories, without regard to hunger.

This past Monday, for example, I slogged through a twenty-mile bikeride instead of eating lunch. I did eat when I returned home, but I had not allowed myself a meal beforehand. I think my reasoning was that I did not deserve anything because I had not sweat. I wanted not only the high of exercise, but the euphoria that accompanies eating after pushing my body. The problem with this thinking is that the euphoria is never as good as I imagine, and the letdown leaves me irritable. I snap at my boyfriend. I fall into self-loathing. And then I scheme ways to reconnect with the hunger-high.

This is not healthy behavior. It is not behavior I want to identify with. It no longer describes me, or the version of me that I am cultivating.

The person I envision myself being eats when she is hungry. Eats to fuel her body, and also her soul. She has cake without shame. She does not think much about food, other than as a vehicle for pleasure or utility. Food, in terms of quality and quantity is a minor part of life. Food is delicious and satisfying. It does not occupy my thoughts all day. Food is an accent, a benefit of living in a life of privilege and love.

I am not there yet, to this rational, empowered identity. But I can see it, peeking out beneath the years of maladaptive patterns. As I venture through memories and beliefs, I will probably experience a lot of triggering moments. I can foresee days when I will not want to eat. Days when I have to remind myself that food is good and nourishing. Days when I will not want to do anything but sit in my own thoughts. This is okay, because it is all part of the process of change. I am doing the hard work. I am becoming myself. I am learning to love my body and accept its needs. I am me. And I am doing my best to remember that the messiness of this process is okay.

 

 

Weight and running

I am conflicted about running. I want to run faster than my current ten-minute pace, and I blame my body (and the weight I gained while injured) for my current slowness.

Focusing on weight loss, however, invites the possibility of relapse into food restriction. Through mindful eating and a lot of therapy, I have learned over the past year to eat when I am hungry without regard to how much I have exercised on any given day. I no longer run to the restroom to complete emergency sets of squats and jumping jacks to combat the effects of oily foods, or to punish myself for indulging in dessert. I do not enforce long runs on the days after a large meal, nor do I only eat without hesitation when I have completed a certain number of miles.

This comfort with food, however, combined with the lowered activity levels of an injury, has left me fifteen pounds heavier than I was before my first sacral stress fracture two years ago. I do not mind the size so much as I mind not fitting into my clothes and not running as fast as I used to.

Running slower does have benefits: patience, for example, because even a short distance takes much longer to complete; gratitude that I can run at all after my injuries; enjoyment because I am no longer running out of habit, but because I make a conscious decision each morning to run (or not).

But still, running at this reduced pace is frustrating. I have not been this slow since middle school, when I was first learning how to run. And even then, my gains came quickly and I did not stay slow for long.

I feel disconnected from my former running self. I am not content to run slowly, no matter how hard I try to convince myself that this pace is okay. I happy after each run, but also a bit sad at the thought that I may never qualify for the Boston Marathon again, or run a twenty-minute 5K.

I want to regain the level of fitness I had before this two-year cycle of injury. My easy pace then was eight minutes per mile, sometimes faster; this was the pace I fell into by instinct, without effort. Today I ran an eight minute mile as part of a speed workout, and was glad when I had reached my mark and could slow again. The pace felt familiar, but it was not effortless anymore.

I do not know if it is possible to become faster without losing some weight. And I don’t know how to lose weight without opening the door to disordered eating. I worry that if I reach the benchmarks of an eight minute mile or a Boston qualifying time, I will not be satisfied but will set new, difficult-to-attain standards for myself, constantly grasping at a perfection that is always just out of reach.

I know that I am strong and that my self-worth is not defined by the size of my skirt or my shirt or my dress; nor by the time in which I can run a mile or a marathon.

But knowing and embodying are two different things.

I am not ready to accept that I will have to constantly struggle to balance fitness and self-compassion.

 

 

My muse demands patience

Okay okay I’ll begin. I don’t really feel like writing, and haven’t for the past few days. I was doing so well last week, and the week before, writing for two or more hours at a time, multiple days in a row. I suspect this sudden increase in writing has caused my sudden malaise. 

I thought I was being measured in the amount of time I was spending at my desk, but it is possible that I let my excitement at writing on a regular basis cause me to take on too much too soon. I have struggled with creating a regular writing practice since I graduated college with a vague idea of becoming an architecture critic. Other than assignments for classes and a sporadic relationship with my journal, I did not write regularly for myself while in school. In the structureless real world, I could not find the motivation to write. 

I had a funny idea that writing for pleasure and for work would be easy. That I would be greeted each morning by a magnanimous muse, who would know to meet me wherever I was (which was never at my desk) and that words would flow from my fingertips. When the muse refused to show up on time, or at all, I diagnosed myself with writer’s block and moved on with my day. When this happened for weeks and months at a stretch, I assumed my case was very bad but I remained optimistic that if I thought about writing enough and fantasized about how great it would be to be a writer, the block would clear, and the muse would come, and my dreams would be realized without effort. 

Ha. Dreams, I know now, are never realized without effort and muses don’t show up without an invitation. If I am not planted in front of my computer or notebook, ready and starting to write, ideas do not come. 
Also, writer’s block probably only comes to people who are actively engaged in the act of writing; for me it was an excuse so I didn’t have to risk finding out that my writing isn’t perfect. 

Often, my muse is late, not showing up until I am tired and ready to stop for the day; in fact, arriving after I’ve spent thirty or forty or ninety or more minutes banging away, changing postures, doing dances, crying, swearing, sweating is my muse’s most beloved pastime. She wants me to learn patience.

I am a slow student, though, so sometimes I give up before she has time to wake up and prod me along. I am learning, though, to amuse myself with writing nonsense until she comes.

Learning, too, to trust myself to create away from her inspired gaze. 

It is hard work, writing, but I enjoy the process and I enjoy seeing my voice become stronger on the page. I am ready, now, to do the hard work I avoided for so many years. Ready to write with consistency, even if it means writing less each day. My goal, for now, is to spend forty-five minutes five mornings a week at my desk. Even if I write nothing but complaints about how difficult writing is, it will help build the habit. 

I can do hard work. I can write. I can learn to make space for my muse. 

Writing about running 

Until I began this blog, I did not write about running. Not even, as I mentioned last week, in my journals. The few attempts I did make to capture my feelings about running, were stilted and hyperbolic. And while I know I have been entranced by running for eighteen years, I also know my superlative-laced sentences do not accurately reflect the totality of my experiences with running. Sure, there have been many moments of elation, but there have also been many (if not more) moments of agony, of frustration, of sadness. That time my senior year of college, for example, when I didn’t make the team for the end-of-season championship races, is all sadness in my memory (and yet the experience is absent from my journals). 

Because there is no written record of my reactions, observations, or emotions surrounding running, I worry that the narrative I am creating now (running as an activity shrouded in joy and pride and fear and relief) is not accurate. I want to know the arc of this relationship. I want to remember how I felt after certain races, practices, and solo runs. I want to be sure the conclusions I am reaching about running and me are accurate. But my memories are selective and not specific. The emotional resonance of past runs has been distilled by time, and feels apocryphal.
Running has been an integral part of my identity since I was twelve; it was so integral, it escaped scrunity. Running was always there and was so close to my concept of self, I had no reason to dissect its role in my life. And, too, because running was my identity, failure at running meant failure at being myself, a possibility too painful to analyze. 

Further, and perhaps more accurate, any stress I had regarding running during high school and college was subsumed by concern about making friends. Running was a constant, my social life was not. Although running was often hard and often disappointing, it was always there. Friends, on the other hand, have always been hard for me to to find and keep. And part of learning how to make and keep friends was learning who I was in my own head. I constantly compared myself to others, and critiqued my actions in all situations. 
Writing helped me figure out where I fit into the world. And running allowed me to escape these all-consuming thoughts. 

Writing about running would have tainted it.
And so, the most important part of my life escaped analysis. 

Now, though, I feel it is time to connect running and writing as I purposefully rebuild my running practice to emphasize mindfulness. I do not want to run out of duty or habit. I want to run for the joy of movement. Joyful running is not my default, however, and so I will turn to writing to help me close the gaps between reality and aspiration. 
Running is a way to escape, writing is a way to understand why I want to escape. Running has been a sanctuary, too precious for words. But I don’t want it to be precious any longer. I want it to be vibrant, dynamic, vital. In this process of rebuilding, it is time to remove running from its pedestal and install it into my written explorations.

Hello, running, my old friend. Let’s sit down and figure out this life together.  

Unexpected anxieties and flexibility

Yesterday my goal was to go to a coffee shop and write for a few hours before therapy. I had made the goal the previous week and as the day approached my anxiety increased. I slept poorly the night before, and I woke up anxious and irritable. Planning logistics makes me nervous, as do changes in routine. I am most comfortable when my life falls into recognizable patterns. 

Stopping into the coffee shop represented a deviation from the norm. Usually, on Tuesdays, I run, read, work in my office for a bit (writing, returning emails, working on the project of the moment). Therapy is wonderful but stressful, so I try to keep my mornings light. 

Going to the coffee shop, therefore, was a significant (to me) change of pace. It required leaving early, and also early enough to have the time needed to make the the trip worthwhile: ten minutes of writing would not offset the stress of planning its inclusion into my itinerary. 

I also grappled with the feeling that my stress was overblown. From a rational perspective, there was no reason to fret. The coffee shop I had in mind is one I like, in the neighborhood where I used to live, an easy drive on major streets I use often. Parking is on the street, but is usually easy to find. It is a short drive from there to my therapist’s office, also along steets I have driven many times. The coffee shop itself is comfortable, well-lit, not too hot, too cold, too loud or too quiet; the coffee they serve is excellent; the baristas are pleasant. My boyfriend usually has to drag me away, once I’ve settled myself in there. The space, route, and location are all familiar. My goal of writing there for a few hours, or even one hour, should not have been difficult to attain. But it was. 
It was so difficult that almost the moment my boyfriend woke up I fought with him over a glitch in my iPhone that is not his fault at all but that he was unable to fix in the few frantic moments I gave him between opening his eyes and readying himself for work. I left the house to go running in a horrid mood and without a hat, the latter a fact I failed to realize until I was half a mile away and cold. As I shivered along, I muttered to myself about my dumb phone, my unhelpful boyfriend, the high annoyance of everything. I was embarrassed at having behaved badly and mad at myself for everything in general (I am a big fan of arranging situations so that I am always at fault.) 

The cold wind only enhanced my angst: how could I be so dumb as to forget my hat; my hair is in my fave and this is going to be the worst run ever; why won’t my phone work properly; why is is this cold in April; why didn’t he wake up early enough to talk to me about my coffee shop anxieties –wait, what? I wanted to talk to Mike about my coffee shop anxieties? Was that my problem? Good grief. 

Once I realized that I wasn’t really stressed about my phone or my missing hat but about my impending trip to a coffee shop, I relaxed. Knowing the root of my problems always makes them easier to tackle. And, since I’ve been vigilant about being kind to myself when I can, I decided that any amount of time in the coffee shop would be beneficial because it would give me the change of scenery I craved as well as time with my thoughts, with the added bonus of proving to myself that a change in routine isn’t the end of the world. I came home thirty minutes later refreshed and energized, ready to implement my plan. 

In the end, I did not go to the coffee shop. After showering, packing a lunch, and preparing for the day it just didn’t seem practical (the fight about my phone had set me back longer than I realized). I would have spent more time driving than writing. 

Instead, I made the most of the time I had  left, writing the beginnings of this post between forkfuls of a sweet potato, lentil, and kale salad. I didn’t complete my initial goal, but I am still proud. I was able to recognize my anxiety, and then to honor it, not forcing myself into an unduly uncomfortable situation. I went as far as I could on that day, and that was enough. 

I left the house feeling happy and accomplished. I did the hard work of planning the goal, and took the often harder step of amending my intention. 

Perhaps next week I will take the long way to therapy, driving past the coffee shop, scoping out the route. And then the next week maybe I’ll leave early enough to go in, gradually building my tolerance to the change. Or perhaps my step yesterday was the perfect stepping stone, and I will be able to write next week at the coffee shop. I don’t know now, and I am okay with that. 

There are so many parts of life that feel nonnegotiable, like work or school commitments. And so I am a firm believer in working with the parts of my life I can control. This is easier in theory than in practice but when I remember that there is no shame in altering a goal or a situation to increase my chances of success, my life is so much more relaxed and, somehow, more productive. Small wins are important for motivation and, after my miniature success yesterday, I feel confident about my ability to leave my house and change my routine. At some point.