fitness · running

Inspired by running race signs, a modest proposal…

As much as I love writing for this blog, I also love reading blog posts here at Fit is a Feminist Issue. Tuesday’s post was by Nicole, our newest blogger– welcome Nicole! She wrote about her half-marathon, in which she was aware of previous injuries and pains. She experienced new sensations– some painful– during the race. I’m not going to spoil the ending– you can check it out here.

One thing she wrote really struck me: some of the runners were wearing signs that they were kind of injured, but doing the race anyway. I had never heard of such a thing. It’s…

Pure Genius, stenciled on pavement. By Lance Grandahl for Unsplash.
Pure Genius, stenciled on pavement. By Lance Grandahl for Unsplash.

This idea may not appeal to everyone. Some folks may want to be more private about their injuries. I have one friend who is super-private about her health and injury status, which made it really awkward when I accidentally blurted out to, oh 9 or 10 people that she’d had orthopedic surgery. Oops! Sorry (again).

Sometimes our injuries are noticeable to the outside world, so we don’t have control over that information. Other times they aren’t. On the plus side, it means we can try to be just one of the crowd, trotting along (albeit possibly slower or in a different way). But there are several minuses to having non-visible injuries: we might not get the support we need or want. We might get further injured by trying to move along at a pace or in a way we’re not up to. And, we might not finish, or reach the goals we had set for ourselves at the start line.

By the way, I’m using the word “injury” in a broad sense, mainly for its metaphoric power. I’m not trying to distinguish among injuries, disabilities, and other body changes or states here. I’m just going with the metaphor for now, and hoping you’ll go with me.

There’s a lot written on this blog about mobility, (dis)ability, and movement. Sam has written about her knee brace (lots of times, but check out here here here to start), and also about her new Brompton foldable bike as a mobility aid.

We’ve also written a lot about invisible injuries– from stress, anxiety, depression, trauma, life events, etc. There are too many to link to, but you’ve probably read some of them.

So, to my inspired proposal: wouldn’t it be nice if we could get the support in life for our visible and invisible mind-body states the way you do in a race? Here’s what I have in mind.

  1. Pace bunnies at the ready for long work days, labor-intensive times, finishing that thing you just cannot seem to get done.

I think pace bunnies are the best thing ever. In case this is new to you, they are runners who go at a specified pace; it could be for the whole race, or paced her km/mile. Here are some:

2. Bystanders not actively involved in what we’re doing, but there watching, offering us support, humor, affection, solidarity, the occasional warning, and a reality check that what we’re doing is hard but awesome.

3. Help, when we need it, from friends or family or colleagues or random strangers to make it across whatever line is ahead of us.

4. Permission from ourselves and others to DNF (did/do not finish) when we need to. Finishing isn’t always the right thing to do, and it’s not always possible. We can use some help with that, too.

I don’t have pictures for this one, as it’s hard to illustrate what it’s like to stop doing something. Also, there are lots of fitspo quotes telling you not to DNF. But here’s an article in praise of the DNF. It gives good advice for when to stop racing, which I will add to here:

  • when you can no longer stomach fuel or fluids (or can’t sleep, eat, function)
  • when an injury forces you to stop (we get hurt a lot and try to ignore it; maybe don’t)
  • when you catch a bug (or are ill, under the weather– don’t gut it out)
  • when– even after resting– your condition has not improved (I love this one! If we go back to it, and rest hasn’t helped, maybe this task or direction is not for us)

I’m not a runner (at all). But I wish I had race fans and fellow runners and helpers and lists of tips to help me sprint/slog/trudge/opt out of days that are hard.

Oh, wait a minute– I do! You! Thank you readers and bloggers (in addition to the people in my regular life)!

You = awesome!
You = awesome!

So, readers– any thoughts about getting support around DNFs, injuries, bonking, slogging through, in races or not? We’d love to hear from you.

body image · competition · fitness · Guest Post · health · injury · race report · racing · running

Couch to 21.1 km (Guest post)

by Jennifer Burns

Content warning: Body image 

Last Sunday, I ran my first race. I’ve been running for eleven years (and are my legs ever tired!) but I’ve never run any kind of a race before. Mainly because I’ve just never been much of a one for races. I even dropped out of the rat race a few years ago, because – as a funnier and wiser woman than I once pointed out –  even when you win, you’re still a rat. 

So naturally, for my very first race ever, I chose to run a half-marathon. Because why not? 

Actually, it was Andra’s idea. Andra is my physiotherapist, and a former competitive swimmer and volleyball player. She takes no shit from anybody, least of all me. 

I’ve been working with Andra for over three years now. For two of those years, I wasn’t running at all. She helped reconfigure my body after my last pregnancy downloaded and installed some updates that I don’t ever remember clicking “OK” on. 

The thing is that, apparently, for most of my adult life, I’ve been walking around with an undiagnosed case of scoliosis: a bent spine. Mine curves from side to side, creating a posture somewhat reminiscent of one of Tom Thomson’s windblown jack pines. I always knew I was a bit off-kilter, but I never knew until three years ago that I had A Condition. 

Apparently (don’t quote me on this) if you have scoliosis, one pregnancy is OK, but subsequent pregnancies can worsen the spinal curvature. Much hilarity ensues. Like, if you’ve ever wanted to recreate the Grand Canyon between your rectus abdominis muscles, scoliosis plus pregnancy can totally help you with that. 

Now, I did not want the Grand Canyon, but it ended up being part of the whole post-partum package-tour I embarked on back in 2016 (you really gotta read the fine print on these things). In addition to scheduled stops at Sleepless Gulch and Hormone Crash Hill, there was also plenty of commentary from the locals: “Already pregnant again!?” “Is this one of those weird twin pregnancies where they’re born weeks apart?” “Wow, I forgot how long it takes to look normal after giving birth!” etc etc. 

Worst trip ever. But at least, after the magical “six weeks pp” were up, I’d be “allowed” to run again. Right? Right?!

[Ron Howard’s voice: “She was wrong.”]

In September 2016, I found out that not only did I have scoliosis, but it had also probably worsened during the pregnancy, turning the area under my ribs into a veritable pressure-cooker and creating a gaping 12cm/6-finger separation between my abs. This separation, together with the scoliosis, was setting me up for even worse alignment problems that could result in spinal deformities, disc herniation, urinary incontinence and – everybody’s favourite – pelvic organ prolapse. 

And so, given this, I should give up running, forever, and take up race-walking. (If my life were an episode of Friends, this would be the one where Chandler Byng quips, “Because race-walking is such a ordinary, everyday activity that doesn’t make you look ridiculous or stand out AT ALL.”). 

Oh, and also? My abdomen would never be flat again without at least ten-thousand dollars’ worth of plastic surgery, followed by a two-month recovery and almost inevitable chronic and incurable pain from nerve damage. Pretty much the best thing I could do, in this strange, new, disloyal, and no longer conventionally-attractive body, was “be grateful” I was a “mama”, and “embrace” my “journey”, along with my “battle scars” and my “tiger stripes”. 

I am still mildy amazed that I didn’t “drop-kick” the “physiotherapist” right there and then, but forgive me, my reflexes were pretty shot from lack of sleep. 

That was Physio No. 1. Physio No. 2 was Andra. Who, in her no-nonsense, does-not-suffer-fools-gladly, clipped Romanian way agreed with Physio No. 1 that my situation was “not good” (“It feels like gummy bears in here, it feels like a trampoline” she said, prodding my abdomen). 

Then she uttered life-changing words: “We will fix this.”

If I’d known, sitting in a tiny office up the street from the Reference Library on a dreary winter afternoon, that the path to “fixing this” was going to involve a two-year slog through electro-accupuncture, progressive core-activation exercises, swimming endless laps, tedious floor work, before finally graduating to modified workouts with a trainer at the gym – I’d have crumpled to the floor. This piece, written then, knowing that, would have been entitled By the Toronto Reference Library I Sat Down And Wept, and I probably wouldn’t be running today. Actually, I’m not sure – I’m a stubborn old cuss when you get right down to it. But knowing that entire years lay between me and me getting back to my preferred – at the time, my only – sport, would have been devastating. Andra was smart. She didn’t say anything about how long it could take. She just said we would fix it, and I believed that we could so I was ready to show up and do the fricken work. 

And if you’d told me that in less than three years, I’d run a half-marathon – me, who had never run any race, ever, who had run a continuous 20K exactly one time, in three hours, four years ago – me, always picked last on teams in gym class – me, lugging this living cautionary-tale of a postpartum body around, a “Here Be Dragons” warning made flesh – me? Run in a marathon? I would have laughed so hard I’d probably have busted a gut. (Except it was already busted, so no worries there). 

But. Reader, I marathoned. OK, I half-marathoned. I ran the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Half on October 20, 2019. My goal was modest: sub 2:30. I crossed the finish line at 2:27. 

A year ago, almost exactly, I was running one minute and walking five. I was glad to be running again, even if only for a minute at a time, but I was finding it really, really hard. I had so little endurance, despite all the work I’d put in over the past two years. And when winter came, I quickly got bored of running on the indoor track at the gym. So I took up skating instead, because if you can’t beat Winter, you may as well throw your arms wholeheartedly around it while also leaping around frozen surfaces on sharp blades.

When the ice melted, I moved the skating indoors, but I also went back to running. With Andra’s endorsement, I registered to run the STWM half. I didn’t commit to seriously training for it until June, which is when I made the total rookie mistake of upping my daily mileage by 6K in one day and made the fascia around my right hip “angry”, in Andra’s words. My hip’s temper tantrum set me back weeks.

Nevertheless, I persisted. Andra’s advice plus a tennis ball and a foam roller got me back on track. By September, I was running 10K easily.  Then 12, then 14, then 16, and finally my last three long runs before the race were just over 18K.  

Seasoned runners joke that running a marathon is simply a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. So too was my recovery. Except, I stopped looking up while I was doing it, because every time I looked up, I scanned for a horizon I couldn’t even see, much less imagine, and this made me angry and scared and sad. So, I just kept my eyes on my feet and kept moving them forward. One foot, then the other. Physio, swimming. The gym, my bike. The stairs in High Park, and then the hiking trails. Run one, walk five. Skate a bit, run a bit more. One foot, then the other. I just kept showing up. I went to the gym and to the rink and to physiotherapy (thank you childcare, part-time job, supportive partner, and generous spousal health insurance coverage!) and somehow, somehow along the way on this metaphorical “journey” (*makes flourishing air quotes with hands*) I upgraded from the all-inclusive Occasional Runner package, to some kind of Choose Your Own Jock Adventure deal. And that’s an upgrade I’m more than OK with. 

Jennifer is a writer, mother, wife, runner, cyclist, skater (ice and inline), and non-profit administrator. She lives in Toronto. 

fitness · running

Sweaty, Sore and Slow

I completed another half-marathon this past Sunday. When I added my medal to the other ones, I counted 12 (2 for full marathons), but this was the first half marathon in about 5 years. I felt tired but happy. Each race inspires me to continue running despite the highs and lows throughout training and the race itself. It’s never not worth it in the end for me.

My training went pretty well. My version of training this time included one long run every Sunday. I did a couple shorter hill-training runs early on, but mostly, during the week, I went to the gym for my conditioning and strength training. A couple of weeks ago I reached 19k, on schedule.

However, last week I had a bit of a head cold. And my back hurt. I think I pulled it picking up a couple of kettlebells at the gym the day before. And now it felt a bit like there is a knife in the left side of my lower back, going into my butt. But, as is typical, time and stretches, helped and it felt mostly better by the weekend.

I was feeling a little low-level anxiety the day before the race. I’m pretty sure my husband noticed I was a bit testy! But I concentrated on carb loading (yay!), had some delicious pumpkin, coconut pasta for dinner, and went to bed early.

On the morning of race day, I enjoyed an Americano and got my gear together. I played around with my bib until I had it properly secured and not lopsided. I applied my Body Glide to all the parts of me that rub together and cause chafing over the long run.

I left on schedule to take the streetcar to the start line. Still clearly pumping out a bit of anxiety, I thought I’d walk to the start line, then realized part way that I wouldn’t get there “10 minutes” before the first corral start time, as required, so I got on a streetcar and then realized the diversion wasn’t going to help with time, so I hopped into a cab with another person on their way to the race.

Then I made my way through the crowds. I am not a big crowd person. At the same time, I can appreciate the festive, supportive atmosphere, I get stressed trying to make my way through the slow walkers/spectators/baby strollers/smokers(!) trying to figure out where my corral was (2nd from last).

Once I found my corral, I decided I had time, and needed to pee, so I went to the dreaded Porta Potty and made my way back to the corral. I listened to Mayor Tory congratulate us all for being there (thanks, Mayor Tory, can you bring back the Relief Line over the Ontario Line?), and then the first corral was off at 8:45. Then we all fidgeted on the spot and tried to stay warm until our corral was allowed to start at about 9:10. We were off!

I felt OK, starting slow and steady. I hadn’t had any liquid while waiting, but lo and behold (probably nerves) I had to pee urgently about 1km in. At the first 2km pit stop, I reluctantly got in line to pee (at least 3-4 min off my time right??). Back on the road, I felt OK, but stiff. Started repeating the motto in my head “I am doing great. This is probably the best part of my day!”. Before the pit stop I was pretty close to the 2:20 pace bunny but I couldn’t see her anymore.

What I could see was my fellow runners. One thing I like about running is that at a race, it is always evident, that it is available to everyone. Fit seniors, curvy, tall, skinny, male, female, those wearing signs that they are kind of injured, but doing it anyway. Those inspiring people can also be slightly annoying throughout the race too. The random throat clearing spitters, the random stoppers without warning,
the space weavers who have no sense of the space around them. This race was surprisingly dense throughout. Good for camaraderie. Requires more motto chanting for me.

About halfway through, I was feeling pretty sore in my butt/lower back, but I popped a Motrin and repeated my motto over and over. I also stopped to stretch briefly (2 minutes off my time right?). I learned in my training this time, that a running gel helped with leg stiffness about halfway through. But I didn’t bring any, figuring there would be some at the race, but the one and only gel station was fresh out of gels by the time I got there (except for the sticky discarded packages on the ground).

I was sure my motto for this race was going to be “Sweaty, Sore and Slow”. I was certain I was running slower than ever. But, I was shocked when I got to the finish line, within my usual time – 2:26 (about 2:20 minus the pee break and stretch right??).

Overall it was a decent race. The weather was glorious. My husband was waiting for me at the end and I was very happy to see him (and be on our way to brunch at Impact Kitchen). A friend (Hi Seanna!) said hi to me about a 1/3rd of the way in and it gave me an extra pep in my step. I also ended the race with the conviction that I will continue my longer runs through the winter and try to incorporate more speed work.

It’s been mentioned by many that running is a great metaphor for life – sticking through the hard times and enjoying the benefit at the end, and all that. Running a race is a good reminder of these benefits.

 

 

race report · running

Bettina doesn’t run a half marathon, part 2: “downgrade” race report

This is part two of my report on how I didn’t run a half marathon. Read part 1 here!

Once I had realised there was no way I was running 21k, I decided to downgrade to the shorter distance of the race. A friend of mine had signed up for the half marathon too, but had injured his knee a couple of weeks before, so he also decided to switch. What a pair! At least we were in the same boat. But as I resigned myself to the shorter option, I also made a crucial mistake: in my memory, there was something about a distance of 9, but this being Europe, my mind somehow turned this into a 10k option. It wasn’t until the Friday evening, after a more than 3k swim practice with speed work to boot, that I exhaustedly realised we were talking about 9 miles, i.e. 14.5k! Yikes.

I turned up on Sunday morning, still tired from the 10k test run the previous Thursday and swim practice on the Friday, and with my stomach still not at 100% after whatever bug it was I had picked up the week before. This was going to be… interesting. Luckily, my friend and I had a good support crew: our partners came along to chauffeur and cheer us on. And there was the prospect of burgers at an excellent diner close to the race venue afterwards.

The conditions were perfect: around 20C and sunnier than expected – the rain that had been forecast decided to hold off until later that day, so weather-wise the only downside was a slightly-too-strong wind. I was a bit nervous because of my stomach, but also determined. If I wasn’t going to do the half marathon, I was at least going to give it my all for the 14.5k.

Bettina during her final sprint with a determined look and unwittingly colour-coordinated blue shirt and blue shoes, in front of several onlookers (anonymised with yellow stars to cover their faces).

I set off at quite a good pace. My stomach wasn’t very happy though – you know that feeling when you want to burp, but you can’t? That was me for about the first half of the race. Not too pleasant. Because I wasn’t very comfortable, I had trouble settling into my rhythm. I was keeping a decent speed, but it constantly felt like I was pushing myself. There was also the wind, which was coming from the side or the front. But the course was nice, it took us through a park with two small lakes and then out into the fields.

At the first water station, I took electrolytes and water. Mistake. My stomach hated the electrolytes, there was too much liquid, but on the other hand I was thirsty, so something had to give. I pressed on as the course turned onto a long, straight stretch through the fields. The wind was now coming from the back, which was technically an improvement, but it also meant that the sun was now in my back and it got really, really warm. I really struggled to keep my pace at this point and wished I’d worn shorts instead of capris.

The second water station came around the 10k mark; I’d learned from my earlier mistake and only took water. My stomach had now settled down and I was able to focus more on my stride, which was also becoming necessary because I was getting quite tired. I could still feel Thursday’s training run and Friday’s swim practice in my legs and my splits were constantly getting slower. Up until then, the Spotify 170bpm playlist I had on really helped, but at this stage it became about continuing to run rather than speed.

If I had hated the part of the course with the sun in my back, the course setters had something “better” in stock at around 12k: over 1 kilometre along a sandy path. My friend and I agreed after the race that this was by far the toughest bit physically. Since this was a combined 9-mile and half-marathon course, as we came up to the 19k sign I knew we had about 2k left and the going was getting really tough. I’d long decided to disregard the mile signs: being used to counting kilometres, the miles didn’t tell me much and I found them more confusing than helpful.

As I slogged along, my friend, who is known for taking his time to settle into a race, finally overtook me about 1 kilometre before the end. Mentally, the first half of the last kilometre was the hardest for me: the course looped down a random street for about 200m before coming back in the opposite direction to make the distance fit. I was exhausted, and the way into the loop was ever-so-slightly uphill. Plodding along as I saw other runners coming towards me was really discouraging somehow.

But once I had finished that horrible part, I knew I was out of the woods. There was a guy right in front of me who was going at the same pace I was, so I made it my goal to overtake him before the finish line and mobilised my reserves to speed up. Turns out, he had the same idea and we basically raced each other to the finish. I got so caught up in the competition I ran straight past my finisher medal and had to go back for it later!

I was completely spent, but elated. I’d finished! I hadn’t died! I hadn’t thrown up! I’d run 14.5k with far less-than-ideal training and while not being perfectly healthy! I was also really thirsty, but for the first 15 minutes I didn’t feel like I could drink anything but water. Then I had some coke, which I don’t usually love but suddenly craved. Later, we ate burgers as promised – I couldn’t quite finish mine (still that pesky stomach), but I’ve never had a veggie burger that tasted of victory quite as much as this one!

Reading over this post again, it sounds like I really suffered, and in the moment, I actually did. But I’m still really, really pleased I ran. The feeling of having finished made all the difficulties worth it! Even if it wasn’t a half marathon.

For what it’s worth, I finished in 1:22:32 and actually came third in my age group (it was a small race). Not bad, all things considered! I was on point with my splits (my goal pace was under or around 5:30mins/km) up until kilometre 8. My aim for the half marathon had been to do it in about 2 hours, give or take, and speed-wise I was nearly on track for that. Stamina-wise, I couldn’t have done it on the day, but I’m optimistic that if I manage to get through training without getting sick right before the race, I can do it – next time!

fitness · running

Two new marathon records, two different sets of staffing requirements

This weekend, marathon fans were treated to not one but two new world records. One is official– Brigid Kosgei of Kenya broke the existing women’s marathon world record, clocking 2:14:04 in the Chicago Marathon. Paula Radcliffe of the UK held the previous world record of 2:15:25 since 2003.

Brigid Kosgei, new world record holder for women's marathon.
Brigid Kosgei, new world record holder for women’s marathon.

Just the day before, Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya also broke a record: he ran a marathon distance in less than two hours: 1:59:40. The sub-two-hour marathon has been the elusive white whale of running sports, and breaking that barrier is momentous news.

Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, crossing the line in Austria in 1:59:40.
Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, crossing the line in Austria in 1:59:40.

Important thing to know: Brigid Kosgei’s Chicago marathon time counts as a new world record, but Eliud Kipchoge’s marathon run doesn’t. Why not? Because Kosgei ran in race conditions (well, in an actual race), and Kipchoge’s run was not in race conditions. What do I mean by that?

Glad you asked.

Kipchoge’s run was set up to optimize on race course, weather, running conditions and nutrition so to maximize the chances of breaking the 2-hour marathon mark. Here are some of the features of the setup, as detailed by an article in the Atlantic:

The organizers scouted out a six-mile circuit along the Danube River that was flat, straight, and close to sea level. Parts of the road were marked with the fastest possible route, and a car guided the runners by projecting its own disco-like laser in front of them to show the correct pace. The pacesetters, a murderers’ row of Olympians and other distance stars, ran seven-at-a-time in a wind-blocking formation devised by an expert of aerodynamics.

Here are pictures of Kipchoge and his ominipresent rotating phalanx of world-class runners, all there with him to optimize his run time.

Kipchoge himself came equipped with an updated, still-unreleased version of Nike’s controversial Vaporfly shoes, which, research appears to confirm, lower marathoners’ times. He had unfettered access to his favorite carbohydrate-rich drink, courtesy of a cyclist who rode alongside the group. And the event’s start time was scheduled within an eight-day window to ensure the best possible weather. 

Brigid Kosgei also had pace runners with her for at least the first half of the marathon. Here’s more about how that works from the Chicago Tribune:

Because Kosgei runs so fast — and because she planned to go out for a women’s world record if conditions cooperated — those pacers were hard to find, according to a marathon spokesperson. Race commentators questioned whether they had gone out too fast and abandoned pre-race strategy.

There are two pacers who work for the elite women’s pack and four for the men’s pack — all accomplished runners themselves. They stay with runners up to the 35 kilometer mark.

Kenyans Geoffrey Pyego, who mainly works as a marathon pacer, and Daniel Limo, who has competed in marathons since 2006, led the way for Kosgei. Limo holds personal bests of 1:01:30 in a half-marathon and 2:08:39 in a marathon, winning the 2015 Los Angeles Marathon in 2:10:36.

They planned with Kosgei on Saturday night to get through the half-marathon mark at 1:08. She passed 13.1 miles at 1:06:59, which was also on pace to break the course record pace of 2:17:18.

Here’s Brigid Kosgei, on the course with a pace runner, and winning the Chicago marathon on her own.

I love watching marathons– I live in Boston and always try to watch the Boston Marathon either in person or on TV. It seems an impossible task to run that far that fast, and I am always in awe of the world class runners (while also admiring the thousands of non-professional athletes who do this as well).

I think it is super-tremendously awe-inspiring that Eliud Kipchoge ran a sub-2-hour marathon course. But, this two-day/two-records-sort-of brings two questions to mind for me.

Question one: I wonder how much faster Brigid Kosgei could run a marathon course if she had 1) her own rotating phalanx of world-class runners; 2) a pace car equipped with lasers to point out the best route on the course; and 3) a personal bike-riding specialized nutrition delivery person?

Question two: how much faster or stronger or better at their sports would women be if their training was at the level of men’s training? What would girls be like as athletes if we trained them and funded them and equipped them and surrounded them with a rotating phalanx of praise and support and encouragement?

Answer to question one: Not sure, but definitely faster. Right?

Answer to question two: Definitely faster. stronger. better at sport. happier. More fulfilled. Right?

Okay, final question to you, dear readers: Which would you prefer, if you could pick one:

  • a rotating phalanx of experts around you all the time?
  • A pace car with lasers to point you in the best direction in life?
  • A personalized-for-you special nutrition delivery person (bike optional)?

I’d like to hear from you…

Fear · racing · running · training

Bettina doesn’t run a half marathon, part 1: imperfect training and disappointment

All of this summer, I’ve been so excited about my new bike and getting into cycling, I’ve only mentioned half marathon training in passing. I’ve done a bunch of shorter races by now, mostly 10k. After the last one, a 10k in the sweltering heat in July, I decided that maybe it was finally time to tackle the half. If I could run 10k in 30C and survive (though just barely), perhaps there was a chance I could run twice as far?

To be honest, I was super intimidated by the sheer distance. I could do 10k, but I’d end up exhausted, and at races that included a half marathon option, I always wondered how the hell it was possible to double my distance. But plenty of people were doing it, and some of my running mates were egging me on: “if you can run 10k, you can do a half marathon, no problem!” and “anyone who runs a bit regularly can do a half!”. They meant well, I know, but this sort of encouragement made my anxiety worse. What if I was the sort of person who could run 10k, but not 21? Or who could run more or less regularly, just not very far? I was really quite scared of the idea of trying to run 21k.

Photo of an unsurmountable-looking, ice-covered mountain face. This is how Bettina felt about the half-marathon distance when she first started training.
Photo by Stas Aki on Unsplash

I’ve always been one to avoid a challenge rather than risking failure, but it’s something I’m trying to work on: getting out of my comfort zone and push myself to take on things that are a bit of a stretch. Learning to maybe fail.

And so I scoured the web for an autumn half marathon with a flat course that was close enough so I could get myself there on the morning of the race. There was no way I was starting out with a hilly half. I settled on a small race around a former US Army base called the Franklin Mile Run. The US Army left a lot of its German bases in the 2000s and these areas are being redeveloped now, and the event website promised an entertaining and – I noted with relief – almost completely flat course. 29 September, I was on!

I started training “in earnest” following the aforementioned 10k race in early July, so I had ample time to prepare. I didn’t draw up a particularly sophisticated training plan: the idea was to run two to three times per week (ideally three), with one long run on the weekends, gradually increasing the distance up to 18k a few weeks before the race, repeat that a couple of times, and then taper the week before race day. I mapped out the long runs on the calendar, knowing I would hit my first 18k at the end of August. Then we’d go on holiday, during which I would do a couple of shorter runs and one more long run before tapering.

Initially, the long runs were tough. I had this mental block caused by my Fear Of The Distance (FOTD): I wasn’t going to be able to do it, it would be too hard – essentially all the negative self-talk that was trying to protect me from failure by sabotaging me, as Cate recently pointed out. It was also really, really hot. And so I would go out, afraid that I wouldn’t be able to complete my run, and any difficulty I’d run into – it still being too warm, being slightly uncomfortable in my gear, etc., would compound that feeling and leave me starting out jittery and nervous. There was one particular run, my second 14k, during which I hit a wall at 10k and spent the final 4k shuffling along in suffering, convinced I would never be able to run a half marathon. In hindsight, it was really just too warm that day. I should have taken something to drink and taken it easy. But at the time, it was quite discouraging.

And then one day, I ran 16k and was fine. I’d taken a water bottle and decided not to sweat it (haha!), and it really helped. A friend of mine, who has done several half marathons, had also given me an amazing pep talk the day before. Not the “anyone can do this” kind, but the “you, Bettina, can do this, I know how much you train, you’re clearly in great shape”, kind. After this successful run, I was much more confident. I even knocked my first 18k out of the park. By early September, I was ready. I was feeling strong, doing great for speed, the temperatures were finally coming down, and my FOTD had subsided. Then, we went on holiday, and I got sick. Not ideal, but at this point, two weeks out from the race, I still thought I’d be able to do it.

I got back, went to work almost recovered from my cold, and immediately picked up a stomach bug that was going around. A week and a half out from the race, it was getting seriously worrying. The week before – I hadn’t run in almost three weeks at this point – I was still not feeling 100%. The race was going to be on the Sunday. On the Tuesday, I had planned to do a trial 10k but didn’t manage to get out of work on time – it was also one of the busiest weeks of the year, of course. I finally got myself out for a run on Thursday. I did 10k, which went alright, but it was abundantly clear I wouldn’t be able to do the half marathon. I was gutted. I had been ready! And now, I clearly wasn’t.

It was especially disappointing because I knew I couldn’t just sign up for another half a few weeks later once I was fully recovered. Just two days after the race I was going to have a hyperactive parathyroid removed, which would keep me from exercising for several weeks. By this time, the season would be essentially over and I would likely have to wait until next spring for another go at the half-marathon distance. (There are of course winter races, but none of them meet my criteria of ‘no overnight stay required’ and ‘mostly flat course’.) But there was nothing I could do about it. I hadn’t done anything wrong, I had just been unlucky. I now know that I can do it, so training myself up for another go will be much easier. Still tough, ARGH. Double-, nay, triple-ARGH!!!

Luckily, the race had a shorter option and it was possible to downgrade on the day, so I decided that at least I was going to run something, even if it wasn’t a half marathon. Read on this upcoming Wednesday for the race report…

Have you ever had to bow out of a race (or another challenge you had worked hard for)? How did you deal with the disappointment? I’m curious to hear your experiences.

fitness · Guest Post · running

Imposter Syndrome in Fitness (Guest Post)

by Nicole Plotkin

When I was at a clothing store a couple weeks ago, buying a pair of pants, the young cashier looked up and asked me if I was a runner. I was momentarily shocked, “how did you know”, was my natural response, assuming no one would guess I was a runner unless I told them. She pointed to the tattoo of running shoes in a heart on my arm and I smiled. Oh, right, now it makes sense.
 
I have been running for 16 years. I have run 2 full marathons and several half marathons. During my 30s I went to spinning class, on average, 4-5 times a week. Often double headers, and sometimes a run, followed by spin class. Then I learned kettlebell and yoga and became a devotee of a lovely local studio for a few years. For the past few years I have been going to a women’s studio for strength and conditioning workouts. And yet, I still feel like an imposter, on occasion, when it comes to fitness (don’t get me started on my career).
 
There are times I feel quite satisfied by my dedication to fitness. Somewhere in between learning how to run more than a few blocks, and completing my first half marathon, I acknowledged that I am, in fact, a “runner”. It is a great source of confidence, “even if a bit of a slow one”.
 
Running and other forms of exercise have helped me manage my mental health (I am a moody Cancerian by nature). It gave me something to have goals about, and distract me from some of the life goals I wasn’t reaching in my 30s.  I am certain, it is because of my regular exercise, I have managed to stay “insulin tolerant” at 47, despite a strong family history of type two diabetes, and a penchant for eating bags of sour kids when my hormones are not my friends. I had high blood pressure at age 18, but not ever since I started exercising. I have managed to stay fit, much to the chagrin of the part of my brain that has been socialized (incorrectly) to believe only certain bodies can call themselves fit.
 
And yet, even when I would be finishing 3 hours of high intensity spinning, with energy still left to burn, there was still a part of me that figured that many of the “natural athletes” in the room secretly knew I didn’t belong.
 
There’s still the 12 year old girl who, for lack of knowing better, and likely not realizing she was self-treating early stages of anxiety, would stop halfway through the dreaded laps in gym class, to light a cigarette, and take as long as possible to walk back to the baseball field, to hopefully find a spot on the bench.
 
I have made friends through fitness, relished the endorphins pulsing through my body after a killer HIIT class, and yet, I still feel embarrassed when I can’t do certain moves and that I will be found out for not belonging there. Sometimes that can manifest itself as anxiety in class. Making sure I do what I am there to do, sweat like crazy, even if my brain is suffering a confidence battle, at the same time there are logistical challenges due to a packed class, or a tight hip, or peremenopausal nerves clenching my soul.
 
Ultimately, I know I cannot function properly without exercising regularly and I am diligent in fitting my needs into my calendar. One day, I may turn off that imposter voice in my head, once and for all.
Nicole Plotkin: law clerk, loves to exercise, eat good food, snuggle with her dogs, and her wonderful husband.