This one has been sitting in my "drafts" folder for a hot minute.
Normally, I update my blog for major events (such as a race), or key information I feel is vital to nearly everyone's personal fitness and wellness journeys. Today's post is definitely the latter, and while it is a little scary to use my business platform to share something so personal, I have found in my nearly 7 years of personal training that the more open I am, the more my clients find that I am a real, honest, relatable human being. I am NOT a pillar of training perfection. In fact, I'd say my internal struggles have had a more profound influence on my training than any race or other physical achievement. And I hope what I have learned in the past several months of introspection will serve to help others as well.
So here goes.
The past couple of years have presented an incredible challenge for so many, myself included. Between a global pandemic and the accompanying pain and loss, and the compounding pressure of day-to-day stressors and uncertainties, I know I'm not alone with having felt an unrelenting burden since early 2020. I feel like it’s finally time to be candid about my mental health journey. For some time, I have struggled with the idea of being this open and vulnerable, but as I have started to talk to more people about my wellness journey, I’m finding I am hardly alone.
First, I wish to acknowledge my extreme privilege. I have a loving family, a home, and financial stability. Any issues I am continue to work on through this day, which previously fueled unhealthy behaviors, came from internalized pain and suppressed trauma from incidents that live in the past. My current life is secure, and I am generally quite happy. Any residual dark clouds hanging over me simply indicate that I still have some work to do, but they do not overwhelm or overshadow all the amazing things in my life.
I do not wish to raise any concerns about my current mental state, so I’ll preface this by sharing that I have had a lot of success working through depression and subsequent alcohol use disorder with Better Help and Moderation Management. If you are considering therapy for ANY reason, but aren’t sure what your insurance covers or whether you can afford paying out of pocket, Better Help has options for people who might need financial assistance, and Moderation Management is free (they rely on donations if/when people are able to contribute). So before I go into my story, know that I am in a healthy place because I was able to utilize these resources. And if you’re thinking about getting help for yourself (remember, there is no threshold for how “bad” things need to be to benefit from mental health support), don’t hesitate! You have nothing to lose and EVERYTHING to gain by reaching out.
With the start of the pandemic, I, like so many others, faced a good deal of uncertainty professionally and personally. Would I be able to pivot fast enough to a virtual training platform to keep my business going? Would my clients even be receptive to that? How can I ensure my daughter feels supported as she navigates the shift to virtual learning? How do I make sure she maintains a healthy social life with the loss of daily, face-to-face interactions? How long will this last? The questions were endless and the answers unknown.
We took it to heart that it was our responsibility to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 by staying home, only ordering carry-out when we didn’t want to cook, and not socializing with others outside the home for quite some time. At first, this wasn’t too terrible. We kept busy enough, taking on various “pandemic projects”. And hell, it was cheaper to eat and drink at home anyway, right? I brushed up on my old bartending skills to treat ourselves to craft cocktails, splurged on a variety of unheard-of IPAs, and signed up for virtual wine tastings. I was determined to try to have some fun in light of an otherwise solemn time. And without having to wake up nearly as early to see clients thanks to not commuting, I could justify indulging a little more throughout the week.
As the story often goes, occasional treats became frequent indulgence. Frequent indulgence became habitual. Habitual became necessary. Before I knew it, I had developed an unhealthy tolerance and it took way more to even “feel it” when I drank. I stopped mixing drinks and went straight to the liquor. I wasn’t tasting the beer anymore, but downing it mindlessly immediately after runs. Bottle of wine in one night? No problem. I’d down a drink, usually a strong beer, RIGHT after a run so that I could get that warm and fuzzy feeling thanks to a revved-up metabolism and empty stomach. I ignored the importance of hydrating between drinks to keep from losing those warm fuzzies.
While the pandemic certainly made it easier to drink more frequently without apparent consequence, it wasn't the real start of my unhealthy relationship with alcohol. The groundwork had already been laid for that many, many years prior. Restaurant shifts that concluded ceremoniously with kitchen staff pulling out bottles of cheap bourbon or tequila. Trail races with kegs at the finish line, going drink for drink with the guys as we tried to numb our minds and legs from whatever evils the course had thrown our way. And in life, any minor inconvenience was viewed as an OK reason to knock back an extra drink or three. Add a challenging childhood and history of depression into the mix, and I had the perfect recipe for alcohol use disorder. But I was able to hide it quite easily behind my extroverted personality and passion for running and training. Outwardly, I was happy and competitive. Inwardly, quite troubled and feeling like a fraud.
But I didn't think my depression was that bad, and I rarely got that drunk. Occasionally tipsy, but hardly ever “out of control.” The story I told myself was that I only ever got truly drunk once or twice a year, which, in my mind, was totally normal. Everyone gets a little crazy once in a while, right? Of course, as a personal trainer, I knew there was no way my daily drinking wasn’t taking SOME sort of toll on my health. But, I also felt like I could just deal with that later. I’d get back to “normal” when business returned back to normal. When my kid went back to in-person learning. When we turned the page from 2020 to 2021 and I wouldn’t have the excuse of being at home all the time to justify getting tipsy on a Tuesday.
Except I did not really stop. Or even cut back. I struggled to get back to a normal sleep schedule and found myself pouring even more after my husband and kid went to bed in order to finally feel tired enough to fall asleep, even though I knew alcohol messes with sleep. And I knew that it would be harder to wake up. I knew that it would effect recovery from tough workouts. But I eschewed all that common knowledge for the sake of numbing myself to sleep. I thought it was just the pandemic that brought this on, but in reality, other events in my life continued to fuel the habit. It wasn’t just about falling asleep at night, it was about turning off the brain to not think about all the OTHER shit that bothered me. Going into 2021, there was a lot of upset and challenging shifts in my immediate family. I was witnessing, from afar, a LOT of pain and heartache that I could not do anything about. It brought up a lot of painful memories from my childhood, from similar situations where I also had absolutely no control. I had worked hard in my adult life and into parenthood to not perpetuate harmful behaviors I had witness growing up, but I was powerless to stop others in my family from walking that same path. And somehow, in some twisted way, I used this to justify my own drinking even more. I wasn’t being emotionally abusive to my family. I maintained steady employment. I figured I was generally a pleasant person to be around. I ran trail races and often made podium. I was FINE. I DESERVE a drink because I was keeping my shit together. I deserve another drink for continuing to work and train so hard myself. I deserve another drink for… whatever. For existing as a halfway decent human being.
But honestly, I felt like shit. I started to feel like an imposter, and while fielding phone calls from upset family members about this or that new situation, I was mindlessly pouring myself yet another. My husband started to comment on how quickly I could go through a bottle of bourbon or gin. I laughed it off saying “It’s not a large bottle! It’s just a couple ounces at a time!” (They were not small bottles… they were not small pours). I had a fucking problem, but still struggled to admit it because no one else really seemed to notice. Even my husband, having only casually remarked on my increased consumption, never called me out directly to say “I think you’re drinking too much.” I suspect, knowing my family's history of drinking and abusive behaviors, that he didn’t want me to think that I thought that he thought that I has headed down the same dangerous road. I could never dream of becoming that mean, detached, or abbusive, but I was not behaving in a healthy way, either. I started to hate myself for it. Here I am, a personal trainer preaching health and balance and being good to ourselves and taking care of not just our physical but our mental well-being, and I had turned into a closet drinker.
June 1st, 2021 was the last time I was drunk. I hope, with the strength and resolve I have built in since that date, that it will remain THE LAST time I’ll ever get drunk. We were invited to an event with an open bar with a LOT of beverage options. It was the first event we would attend in over a year and a half, and I of course went into it with the mindset that I would get to really let loose and enjoy myself. Never mind that I have never been that good at being drunk. I’m less of the dancing-on-the-tables kind of drunk and more of the emotional-nauseous-crying-in-the-corner kind of drunk. That night was no exception. When the 5th (or 6th? Or 7th?) drink hit, it was like walking straight into a brick wall. A brick wall that threw insults at my soul. All of my years of trying to drown my demons did nothing but give them an amplifier and a microphone.
I had been handed someone’s key to drive us back to a friend’s house, and I luckily had the wherewithal to say “Oh no, I can’t drive.” But I felt incredibly ashamed and self-conscious in that moment that I was SO inebriated. "They can all see how messed up you are." I started to spiral into a pit of depression fueled by anxiety with a heavy dose of imposter syndrome. I was a fake. I was a fraud. I had no business calling myself a wellness professional. Everyone was going to see right through me. Why do I even bother trying to prove that I am a decent person? I apparently said a lot of this out loud, including some scarier thoughts, like “I’m a trash human,” and “Why should I even bother anymore?”
The next day, as I nursed my “Hangxiety”, and for several days following that, my husband asked me “How are you doing? Are you ok?” no less than 327 times. Somehow, after being a regular drinker for most of my adult life (and a bit before that, to be honest), it wasn't until THIS moment that I finally realized that alcohol and my brain chemistry do NOT mix well. I needed a hard reset. I could no longer afford to get buzzed, let alone drunk, ever again.
Part of my moderation journey involved a necessary period of abstinence, followed by a period of adhering to abstaining from alcohol during the week and a non-negotiable cap on number of drinks when I do indulge. After seven months of following Moderation Management's guidelines for reducing consumption to stay within "healthy" limits (which do vary, depending on what country you live in, interestingly), I was finally able to tackle "Dryuary" and abstain from alcohol completely from 1/1 until my birthday, 1/29. Prior to this past year, I could not recall a single, intentional, alcohol-free day, except for my pregnancy. Even 100-mile trail races offered sips of booze at aid stations, which I certainly took advantage of. But as of sharing this post right now, I have had more alcohol-free days since last June than the past ten years. I am still in awe at this moment that I managed to abstain the past several weekends (with the exception of said birthday). An alcohol-free Saturday with a 10pm curfew because of a Sunday long run used to sound like something people who were allergic to fun would do. "NERD" I would think, when a runner boasted about their healthy dinner and only drinking water before bed. Well, now I'm happily a part of that club.
My journey to work on my mental health and moderation does not have a finite end point, and I know this will be tricky to navigate in a trail running scene that loves to party. Sometimes, sipping water socially just won’t cut it, but I have found that non-alcoholic brews help me feel like I’m participating in the post-run fun. And when the urge to drink is triggered by a stressful situation, I know to rely on the homework assigned by my therapist to avoid the knee-jerk reaction of reaching for alcohol. I now have the following rules - again, thanks to Moderation Management - which have helped me tremendously:
1) Aim for more alcohol-free days than drinking days in any given month. This is much easier now having done "Dryuary", which really helped eliminate the regular cravings that, up until this past month, were still something I had to make a conscious effort to ignore.
2) No drinking before processing emotions. And definitely no drinking instead of processing emotions!
3) Honor my feelings. Drinking wasn’t the only way I avoided triggers. I used to push too hard with exercise, too, claiming a hard run was just as cathartic as therapy (it's not, and in fact, I'm sure several overuse injuries showed up as a result). So now instead of distraction or avoidance, I get out my proverbial tool box and pick from any number of practices - meditation, tapping, writing, yoga - instead of trying to burry the discomfort.
4) Have a plan and a limit. Moving forward, I hope to be able to enjoy an occasional beverage, but I MUST set the intention to stay within a specific limit. My favorite tip from MM came at the end of this year's Dryuary: It is OK to consider a drink as part of an event, but not the main event.
Everyone is different, and I can only speak to what has and has not worked for me up through this current point of time. As of right now, being candid and transparent is serving me FAR better than the self-inflicted isolation of trying to hide my habit and pretend I was fine. I am not 100% okay all of the time. But that is 100% okay. I have to be honest with myself and expectations, which is why the abstinence approach would not work for me. Having a healthy relationship with alcohol means having the glass of wine because it’s a really good wine. Not just because it’s something to drink and I need to drink something.
As for the root of a lot of my anxiety and depression, dragged to the surface thanks to the inevitable isolation of this pandemic, what I am comfortable sharing is that a lot of my behaviors developed as an attempt to protect myself from feeling violated, or fears of future betrayals. In the past, the gameplay was "numb and block". If I don’t have to think about how something makes me feel, then I don’t have to feel those feelings. This is something that, sadly, far too many people can identify with. So again, whatever “it” is that has you feeling like maybe you need some help or support, there is no litmus test, no upper or lower limit for how upset you need to feel, to benefit from therapy or group support!
I’ll conclude with acknowledging that I know many people endure challenging seasons. Some seasons last just a few weeks or months, others last for years. So if any of this resonates with you, don’t hesitate to reach out to me so I can share resources for professional support. I worried for the longest time that I would be a bother or a burden, until I realized what I would do if someone turned to me for help. I would absolutely do what I could to show support, and I want anyone reading this to have faith that there is SOMEONE out there who will do the same for you. I don’t want anyone to ever feel like they need to isolate or hide like I did. Whether it's drinking, dependence on another substance, or trying to work through the unknowns of living with any kind of mental health diagnosis, please just remember that you are loved, and you are not alone!
Much love, and HUGE virtual hugs! Thank you so much for reading.
(I don't always blog, but when I do, it's because I have done yet another silly race.)
Before diving into how the Yeti 100-mile Endurance Run went for me, I thought it would be helpful to take a look back at previous 100-mile performances. So many lessons were learned in the previous years that contributed to a successful performance a couple weeks ago, and I hope that sharing how I capitalized on my past mistakes might help others figure out how to plan for their next big race or challenge. Whether you are doing a couch-to-5K, gearing up for your first ultra, or getting ready to face a major life event, it is SO important to not only glean whatever useful information you can from previous struggles, but to embrace and be grateful for every misstep along the way.
Pinhoti, 2016: First 100-mile race. I sprained my ankle at mile 18, but survived on copious amounts of caffeine, ibuprofen, and absolute stubbornness, finishing in 25:19:34. Perhaps I should have thrown in the towel, as I spent the following year plagued with mobility issues as I kept pushing from one race to the next, fearful of losing the fitness I’d gained training for this first 100-miler. However, I experienced just how strong and willful the mind can be, and from this race I gained confidence that I can endure so much more discomfort than I had previously thought. That being said, I would not continue to run or train through that kind of injury again!
Great Southern Endurance Run, 2017: This was the longest distance I had ever covered on road. I was exposed for most of the day and had to work hard to stay on top of hydration and heat management. I should mention again, it was NOT smart of me to do another 100-miler at this point as I had foolishly run a race nearly every month since Pinhoti. I fought through some serious physical fatigue to finish in 22:56:01, and then finally took over a month off from high mileage and structured training.
Pinhoti, 2017: I returned to this race to get another ticket in the hat for the Western States lottery. My training was a bit more consistent and I started this race convinced I could go under 24 hours. But after a tough year managing some personal struggles (by “managing”, I mean I just ran more as an escape. Not healthy), I wound up battling physical and emotional fatigue all day and night. I waited too long to start using caffeine and so when my pacer, my husband, joined me I thought I could rely on him to keep me alert, entertained, and moving. Unfortunately, he was battling some physical issues and had to drop due to a severe muscle spasm in his back. I was certain I would quit right there, but another friend stepped up to get me through the rest of the night and that race, bringing me to the finish in 26:14:25.
Western States Endurance Run, 2018: Having gotten into this race with only two tickets in the lottery, I knew that no matter what, I had to finish. So many people wait for years and years to get their chance to start this race, so I was not going to squander my opportunity. I thought I knew what it was like to have the wheels fall off during a race and to fight for a strong finish, but boy did I have a lot to learn. Due to a disastrous effort maintaining the proper balance of fluid and calories, I spent half the race puking or trying not to puke. On the positive side, I finally learned how to surrender and accept help, leaning into my husband, coach, and pacers to get me to the finish. Initially, my ego took a blow, as I contemplated whether I would have finished alone (probably not), but to get that “Golden Hour” finish of 29:11:09 was worth swallowing my pride and fully realizing for the first time that I did not have to try to do everything on my own all the time.
Grindstone, 2019: This race, in a way, felt like my first 100, with the number of unknowns I would be facing. This was also my smartest year of training to date, in which I did NOT fill my calendar with a trail race every month. So I went into this event feeling charged up and ready to tackle one of the toughest races on the East Coast that included a 6:00 PM start, 40,000 feet of cumulative gain, potential for huge temperature swings, and needing to be self-sufficient for hours in between aid stations. I spent more time on my own mental strategizing leading up to this race, knowing that I would only see my crew twice before my pacer could join me for the final 35 miles. As luck would have it, my husband would miss me at the second crew stop, so I had to take care of myself between miles 22 and 65. The final few miles were the biggest struggle as fatigue set in from spending more time in the darkness than daylight, but I pushed myself to finish just a hair shy of my goal of thirty hours: 30:10:36. For the first time since starting my journey into trail and ultrarunning, I felt like I actually knew what I was doing.
So here we are, in 2020, a year that has presented most of us with challenges unlike any we’ve weathered before. To say I needed the Yeti 100 is an understatement. We all needed it, really, from the race director to the volunteers to the friends and families that came out to crew their runners. There was a definite sense of relief that could be felt in the air just walking around Damascus, Virginia. While our smiles were covered with facemasks, I could see in everyone’s eyes a little sparkle that said, “Let’s forget the world for a weekend and do something really silly that no one else will understand.”
After all the tests my previous 100-mile races had put me through, and knowing this would be the flattest – and potentially fastest - race I’ve done, I decided to put all my hard-fought lessons to the test and show up to this race without pacers or a crew. It’s a Yeti race, after all, and I feel incredibly fortunate to say I knew I would have friends who would check on me and offer any help I needed all day. Also, there were only three full aid stations… so I would get to see those friends multiple times!
All throughout my training for this event - every interval, tempo, and long run - I imagined myself at different stages throughout the race and the decisions I would have to make from one moment to the next. What problems might I encounter? When do I push and when do I hold back? What are my A, B, and C goals?
I worked on consistent food intake and learning how to really feel what my body was telling me it needed given the conditions of every training run. I kept a mental checklist of every less-than-stellar workout to remind myself how to problem-solve through every setback. I honored my body more with recovery weeks, and even extended them when things felt off. I resisted the urge to push paces that weren’t conducive to my training when I felt that twinge of competitiveness looking at other peoples’ runs. I told myself with every run that I was stronger than I thought and if I remained smart and consistent, I would get the result I envisioned.
If you’re one of those people that rolls their eyes when you hear things like “manifestation” or “the power of positive thinking,” I’ll probably lose you here. No matter, I will still say with 100% certainty that the race that unfolded for me was decided before I even stepped up to the starting line. I brought purpose and intention to every single minute of that race. You can’t see what you won’t believe, so I spent the months and weeks leading up to this race dedicating my heart and soul to believing in myself; that I could make it in under 24 hours, that I could run smart and manage every challenge, that I would finish with a smile on my face. Then, when race day finally came, I decided I can do even more than that.
While hardly ever alone on this course with its multiple out-and-backs from Damascus, I was provided more than ample time to spend in my own head. I knew that one of the most important race strategies would be to keep the chatter positive. And if I lost the energy to be positive, I had to at least be productive. As we set off at 5:00 AM in the rain, with nothing but rain (and more rain) in the forecast for pretty much the entire day, I anticipated some mental hurdling in the absence of the major hills or technical climbs that often serve as a nice distraction in other races. I found good company for the first 20-25 miles chatting with a few other runners, and relished in the usual race day chatter: Where are you from? Have you done this race before? Is this your first hundred? What do you want to do next? After a couple hours, the field of runners began to spread out and conversation dwindled down to Looking Good, Good Job, and It’s not going to rain ALL day, is it?
About the rain.
There were plenty of moments when my brain split into two runners: One, much like my daughter, decided these conditions were less than ideal and had a lot to say about it. The other, the grown up who has to manage her daughter’s mood swings, reminding my child-self that bitching about it won’t do me any good. Back and forth we went: I am so sick of this rain! – You can’t exactly WILL it away. – Is this ever going to stop?? – You aren’t doing yourself any favors by being mad at it.
Work the problem. This is probably one of the most valuable lessons I’ve taken from my many 100-mile struggles and mishaps. So on my second trip back to Damascus, about mile 47, I knew I would need to take the time to change my shirt and jacket and apply anti-chafe to all the places. Eliminate as many discomforts and control what I can. In previous races, I was afraid to stop for too long and would suffer needlessly through issues that could have been managed with a change of socks, different shorts, taking an extra moment to get the heart rate down so I could eat, and so on. Small changes can go a long way to help you reset for the next leg of your journey.
Along with the rain, I battled just a touch of monotony. Don’t get me wrong, the scenery along the Virginia Creeper Trail is simply beautiful, even through the low-hanging clouds and unrelenting precipitation. But on this year’s course, we would see the same 18 miles over and over and over again. When doing the same thing for hours on end, the brain craves something new to pay attention to, so I timed the use of music and podcasts to help shift my focus and stay in “cruise control” instead of angrily running faster as though that would somehow make the rain stop sooner. In training, I had spent countless miles running on pedestrian and multi-use trails around my home, training my brain to push through the boredom of familiarity. I challenged myself with each run to find something new that I hadn’t noticed before, and applied the same technique to keep my brain occupied with something other than anger (bordering rage) at the rain.
Finally, as the sun went down the rain let up, giving us a comfortable and pleasantly humid evening. It felt SO good to start breaking a sweat after fighting off the chill that came with every aid station stop all day. While the legs were starting to feel the pounding of more running than I had ever done in a 100-mile race, my brain started to perk up after a shot of coffee and the realization that if I kept moving consistently, I could be done with the final out-and-back section in less than four hours. But I knew I’d have to run with my brain and will power. There was pretty much no pep left in my step and things started to ache or downright hurt that I had not experienced before. Here comes another key decision point: I was in a position to run this race in a time that I had never even imagined. Going sub-24 was clinched. I could walk the last 18 miles and make it in that time. But what if I went for more? What if I put myself out there, aches and pains be damned, and really see what I can do?
I’ve mentioned in this blog and to my clients before – it’s not the “have to” or “need to” that drives the mental progress necessary to meet the challenges we face. It’s the “what if”s. It’s being curious and inquisitive and trying new and hard things, rather than beating yourself down about what you haven’t accomplished yet. It’s about failing and learning, rather than always playing it safe. What if I try this seemingly impossible task? What will I learn if I don’t succeed? How will I build on this experience if I do?
I decided I would continue to move as quickly as my body would allow, only slowing down to walk and stretch when my quads or knees started to yell. I told myself that even if it’s just for a few minutes at a time I would run what I could run and that I would finish strong. As a final energy boost, a friend had a few swigs of beer waiting for me as I came through his aid station on my way back to the finish with just 7.4 miles to go. It was time to, as the Yetis do, put on some loud music and “fucking run it”.
Thanks to a mix of fuzzy clock math and wild optimism, I figured I might make it to the finish by midnight. At this realization, my brain short-circuited. Midnight. Midnight?! You might actually run ONE HUNDRED MILES in less than ONE FRIGGIN DAY. For a moment, my more cautious self doubted my calculations and conceded that I’d also be extremely happy to finish by 1:00 AM, to which my brazen self replied, NO! YOU’RE DOING THIS BY MIDNIGHT!
The minutes and miles ticked by as I maintained a controlled effort to keep consistent splits while also being careful not to completely wreck myself. The adult me kicked back in with a reminder that I still needed some fluids and calories to get to the finish or things wouldn’t be so pretty when we finally sat down. By the same token, the now-emboldened runner said We’ll deal with whatever hurts tomorrow. Let’s go! As I neared what I referred to in my head as “The Beacon Of Hope” - where the lights from the parking lot at Food City illuminated the trail a couple miles from the finish - I knew it was time to really turn it on if I was going to turn this somewhat arbitrary goal into a reality. Just past Food City was the camp where runners’ crews had set up, marking just over a mile to go from the finish. I allowed myself a look at my watch and thought holy shit, we’re doing this.
11:55…. The caboose, decorated with a banner put up by the town welcoming the crazies who showed up for this thing. 11:56… The first of two illuminated bridges that lead into downtown Damascus. 11:57… For the last time I wave at the friendly neighbors with the tempting fire pit and beer and call out “Goodnight!” 11:58… I can see the lights over the second bridge and hear the faint whir of the fan keeping the finishing arch inflated. 11:59! I’m on the bridge! I see the timing tent! I see the finish line!
“NUMBER 252 I’M DONE!” I yell, running through the arch like a maniac, seconds before midnight.
My friends, watching bewildered from the aid station tent asked me why the hell I ran that hard at the end of 100 miles. “BECAUSE IT WAS 11:59!” I exclaimed, grinning like an idiot. A bold, brave, stubborn, determined idiot.
In the past, I’ve heard words like “intense” and “intimidating” tossed around when my name has come up in chats about running or racing. This really could not be further from the truth! Sure, I’m a bold, brave, stubborn and determined idiot, but more than that, I go into every challenge with a mix of brazen curiosity and blind faith. A huge part of my relative success in races is the fact that I’m not afraid to fall on my face, literally or figuratively. I’ve had some HARD races, and a couple where I nearly threw in the towel. They serve as a reference point for just how much physical and mental fatigue I can endure and still keep moving. I’ve fallen within the first few miles of an ultra (and multiple times thereafter) so I know I can withstand some pain and embarrassment and still keep moving. I have been the one intimidated by other amazing women at the starting line, so I know what it’s like to have to silence the ego that wants to put me down and say, “You’re nowhere near their level of talent” and just KEEP MOVING.
And that is why I subject myself to these frequent endurance tests. I don’t go into a race with any real intention of winning or even placing (but I admit, it’s pretty damn cool when it happens). Rather, it’s my reminder that I can do really hard things and prevail against the undercurrent of doubt that inevitably creeps up in races and in life. To doubt is normal. To be afraid of something is normal. It’s the brain’s way of protecting ourselves from doing truly dangerous or stupid things. But sometimes, the brain makes a mistake, and thinks it’s in over its head when in reality, we have so much more strength than we realize.
"Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absense of fear."
I wanted to sit down and write something useful in March, but ultimately failed to convince myself that I had anything helpful to share. We were still trying to grasp the potential severity of the Covid-19 pandemic, and deep down I knew some happy-go-lucky, "just do some yoga and breathing exercises and explore a new hobby post" would not only be silly, but completely ignorant of how complicated the whole situation would become. Still, my privelege allowed me to stay home and wait things out.
I wanted to sit down and write something positive in April, to highlight how we are navigating our new normal. There are more than a few Instagram posts of me rambling on about things to do at home but I'm not going to lie, that was not entirely for you. I needed the project - the distraction - of home fitness videos to make myself feel like I was doing something when in reality, I felt as unproductive as ever. Still, my privelege allowed me to feel listless and unfocused.
I wanted to sit down and write something passionate in May. Not only were some of my favorite races canceled or rescheduled due to the pandemic, but I found myself withdrawing from a race for the first time ever because actions taken by the race director went against everything I stand for personally and professionally. For a moment, I was ready to get on my virtual soapbox and scream, but soon realized even this was not worth giving screen space to. My privelege allowed me to just walk away from something that had made me upset.
But today, today I have to write something.
Because I see the pain of oppression and systemic racism, compounded by the toll that Covid-19 has taken on minority communities, and I realize that even my worst days are so profoundly influenced by my position of privelege. To have a home to complain about being stuck in. To run and not worry about being a target because of my skin color. To have distractions when that big scary world is just "too much". I can step away. I can turn off. I can have peace and quiet any time I please.
So it is my duty as a business owner to make it abundantly clear:
Some businesses shy away from talking about their personal core values. They don't want to risk scaring off potential customers by being too bold or political. This speaks to how dollars are valued more than lives. I am here to say that if someone thinks making a statement about human rights is "too political", that is a sale I am perfectly fine to miss.
At the end of the day, I will still give the same care and regard to every client, even if our values do not completely align. But like many businesses are not allowing people to shop without a protective face covering, I will not allow racism, insensitivity, or ignorance in my fitness space.
And I hope that my clients who have been subjected to prejudiced behavior because of their skin color, gender identity, sexual orientation, and/or religion will let me know what I can do to continue to make my fitness space a safe space.
If you've been here before, you may already know that once in a while I run a crazy race. And once in a while, I have to break from my professional Personal Trainer character to tell you about that race. That being said, know that I use real, honest language (I swear), because I am a real, honest human being and this race was REALLY, HONESTLY very ****ing hard! That is the only time I will censor myself in this post - read on unless that kind of language offends you (sorry, not sorry!)
At 3:11AM, and 37.13 miles into the Grindstone 100-mile race, my voice rang out over the tired crowd of families, crew, and volunteers aiding runners through the extremely challenging overnight hours. After a few annoyed glances from people slouched in their camping chairs by the tempting fire, blankets pulled up over their ears as they tried to sleep through the intermittent cheers and cowbells, I gave up the search for my husband, shoved some pirogies in my mouth and PB&J in a snack bag and soldiered on into the dark and one of the toughest parts of the entire race, hoping to make it to the next stop by the break of dawn.
The amazing thing about this 100-mile experience verses my previous races of the same distance is I knew exactly what I needed to do to keep moving forward, and I just did it. And to my husband’s whereabouts? Well, logically, I knew two things: One, If something terrible had happened, surely they would have gotten word of it and told me when I checked into the aid station, and two, there are any number of human errors that could have made him miss me (we were in the middle of nowhere with no signal, after all). I knew not to waste an ounce of energy worrying, and simply hoped he would be there (and maybe felt a little bad!) when I came back on the inbound journey.
Hoping that friends and crew could navigate the back country roads of Swoope, Virginia in the dead of night while I pushed up one relentless climb after another was just one of several unique challenges to this race. Among the other challenges were:
▪️6:00PM start - Everyone gets to run through the night, even the elite competitors.
▪️Thirteen aid stations - Over a total out-and-back distance of 101.85 miles (isn’t that cruel?) we hit each aid station twice except for the turn-around. This averages out to 7.83 miles between each station, and most of them, all conveniently nestled between intense climbs, which often meant several hours between aid.
▪️With an approximate 46,000’ of elevation change (or 14,020m for my European friends), Grindstone promises to be the hardest 100-mile race east of the Mississippi.
▪️Somehow, the trails actually got longer and more rocks appeared on the return trip. Considering this race takes place in October, it must be witches.
Despite all this, AND having crewed and paced a friend last year, bearing witness to it tearing out her soul*, I clicked “submit” on UltraSignup in October 2018. I committed myself to train for and endure what would become one of the most epic beatdowns of my lifetime.
(*Literally, right in front of me. It was quite gruesome. But don’t worry, she returned to successfully reclaim it this year!)
Like everyone else, I was a bit anxious about the evening start. Not like everyone else, I said “fuck it” and had a couple beers after the pre-race meeting because I figured there was no better way than that to make sure I didn’t go out too hard. The “heat dome” we’ve been suffering under in the southeast had finally lifted and there was a distinct hint of Fall as the sun slowly lowered from view behind the mountains surrounding us at the camp serving as the start and finish. I knew pre-race nerves and cooler temps would make me run way faster than I needed to in the first couple miles, so I tried to trick my body into thinking it was Happy Hour. I have to say, this worked REALLY well. The first aid station was the shortest gap between all the checkpoints at just 5.2 miles so I told myself not to get there in less than an hour, and to move easy enough that I’d be in the mood to eat. I arrived there shortly after 7:00PM but before I could eat, I had to stop dry-heaving.
Yes, 5.2 miles into the race I almost threw up because a fucking MOTH flew RIGHT INTO MY MOUTH, hitting the back of my throat. The noises I made as my insides tried to expel the foreign object raised alarms for a few runners around me, but I’m sure some probably thought I was an idiot puking because she sprinted up the first hill. The stupid thing wouldn’t come up so I did the only thing I could and swallowed it with a bunch of water, followed immediately by some PB&J. I wasn’t going to fall behind on calories, no matter what.
Within five to ten minutes of leaving the first aid station, I was finally able to shake the sensation of fluttering in the back of my throat. Time to focus on the first major climb, which rose about 2,300’ in 4 miles. The sun had set and it was time to enter into “The Tunnel”, where my world is just a small window of light cast by my headlamp, and the only point of reference I have to estimate the distance to the top of a hill or the next turn are the headlamps in front of me. Sometimes, I really enjoy this part. It’s just me and the ground beneath my feet and my tunnel and there’s no point in stressing about when I’ll “get there” because I’ll only know it when I’m there. This mentality got me through most of the night. That, and a strong desire to stay out of my head and focus only on the physical. Heart beat. Hunger. Thirst. Breath. Dirt. Rocks. Step after step. There was no room for thoughts that commanded any amount of emotional energy. If they popped up, I imagined pulling them out of my head and throwing them into the pitch-black woods, where my window of light could not reach. And just when I would reach a point when I was tired of thinking, or not thinking, about anything, an aid station would appear with the welcome distraction of music, food, and perhaps some slightly inebriated volunteers.
For a race like this to take place without a huge amount of attrition among the participants, the aid station support has to be spot on. I knew from being there last year that if I could train myself to eat anything on the go, then I wouldn’t have to load up on sugary gels and chews the entire time. Nothing against sugar. I LOVE sugar. But I knew that whatever I could do to stave off palate fatigue would mean I could take in calories more consistently. In training, I did runs immediately after meals on purpose, to get used to digesting and moving. Conversely, I also did runs hungry, because sometimes the aid station you think is right around the corner isn’t. Whatever might seem uncomfortable, that’s how I trained. And it paid off big time because in my mind I knew I could run Grindstone if I took it one snack at a time.
If you measured my body composition right now it would be 15% pirogies, 20% grilled cheese, 15% PB&J, 25% fruit chews and shot blocks, 10% ramen and broth,10% Coke and Mountain Dew, and 5% Red Bull.
So that is why when I reached the aid station at mile 37.13 and didn’t have my husband (and, to be honest, my husband with my things), I knew I’d be ok. I was already on the edge of the Witching Hour but feeling comfortable and, most importantly, still hungry and eager to eat. Obviously, this does not play into the “hardest race east of the Mississippi” picture I am trying to paint for you. Just wait.
Climb, climb, climb. Run/shuffle flats and descents. I won’t go over every detail here but it was a lot of rhythmic movement powered by the aforementioned food groups, Tycho and Emancipator. This particularly grueling section - a cumulative 3,000 feet over the course of seven miles - was where we would really start to be tested. My goal was to zone out and only regard time as a point of reference for when to take in more calories. I was toeing the edge of fatigue but determined to treat it like a brand new day when the sun came up. Unfortunately, I would discover that light didn’t matter. Once my body caught up with what I was doing to it, it started begging for a break. Even as I finally got to turn off my headlamp, I didn’t feel like my tunnel was opening. I had to focus hard on each step and my head felt heavy. The morning was overcast, so just like it did at night, everything looked the same during the day. Gray on gray, and a deeper chill setting in as the wind started to pick up near the top. I was bored, cold, and couldn’t shake the the thought of how amazing a warm comforter would be right then and there, even with only rocks for pillows.
Still, I was not quite half-way so I leaned on my nutrition (for those reading this hoping to glean some helpful information, when in doubt, eat and hydrate) and pushed up to the turn-around, where I got smacked in the face by Fall at 4,397 above sea level on Reddish Knob. The wind made it feel like the temperature had dropped into the thirties, and could have knocked me sideways had I not had my trekking poles. Luckily, we only had to pop up and then right back down Reddish Knob, which served as a bit of a wake-up as I headed to the turnaround. Something about the halfway point got me motivated to move again. Maybe the coffee, or the pancakes, or knowing we didn’t have to summit Reddish again on the return trip. I saw my friend Michelle headed to the turnaround shortly after me and we exchanged hugs and a mutual “THIS SUCKS!” The mostly-downhill return trip still had some big ups to tackle so there was only time to briefly acknowledge the silliness of this whole ordeal and then move on. Once I knew I was within a couple hours of returning to the spot where my husband had missed me, I put on a more energized playlist and prepared to power down all the nastiness it took me the entire night to climb.
With my coach AJW’s words of caution in my ears (“don’t overcook the descent because you’ll need quads for the last two climbs”) I adopted a strong and steady stride with brief walk breaks if my legs started to sing to me too much. A few miles from the aid station I saw my pacer, Sergio, eager to get moving, and my friend Shannon, the women’s course record holder. I took advantage of the extra opportunity to pick her brain about what to expect on the return trip and she warned that a low point WILL come and I had to be ready. But my husband was at the aid station this time so that would provide a bit of a boost to stave off that low for a little longer. We didn’t stay long because it was chilly and Sergio was chomping at the bit to get some miles under his feet. After a long night and morning in the tunnel, I was eager for his conversation and company.
My brain was still pretty well in tact and I was aware of the work that lay ahead. Still, the cumulative hours and miles did start to mess with me as each section of trail seemed to grow longer. Sergio is similar to me in the sense of knowing that you’re not “there” until you’re there, so it helped to have his confidence-boosting reminders that any forward progress was good, even if my shuffle was slower than his fast hike. I laughed at this, chalking it up to a notable height difference. I did my best to keep the mood light - being the “fake it til you make it” type - but my acting abilities were starting to fade with my energy and I could feel the next low coming on hard.
Sergio did what he could, carrying on with conversation about people and races and places, but I had to admit to him that I was reaching a point where I don’t think I would remember half of what we talked about. There were a lot of “Uhhu”s, “Yup”s, and “Yeah”s coming from me but my mind was slipping. Around 2:00 or 3:00PM I started experiencing a few micro-sleeps and after the fourth or fifth time having to vigorously shake my head, I said “Woah. Ok. I gotta sit.”
In my mind, I knew a 5-min nap or short meditation might help, but I was really afraid of passing out permanently. So I sat on the side of the trail and kept my head up to eat some banana I had squirreled away from the previous aid station, hoping that lowering my heart rate while taking in extra calories would give my metabolism a nudge. I had slammed a caffeinated gel not long before then and couldn’t feel a damn thing. Maybe my body needed more sugar to realize it had something more to work with. Whether this was actually the case or simply placebo, this somehow did the trick and I was able to move and stay a little more alert.
The next time I saw my husband, we had about 22 miles to go. The poor guy was running around on his own now, the rest of our group split up aiding other friends on the course. I had to send him sprinting down the hill to the car for fresh batteries for my headlamp while I downed more cheesy things, soup and Mountain Dew. He came back, pouring sweat. I’d have felt worse about it if I hadn’t had 80 miles and nearly 23 hours under my own feet at the moment (sorry babe!). I told him he was relieved if he wanted to go back to camp and sleep, but he also knew I was fixated on getting some Tropical Red Bull to get through the rest of this stupid thing, so he said he’d be there at the next stop, eight miles ahead. Marriage saved!
And it was a good thing I had my liquid crack to look forward to because we still had a few gnarly climbs to get back to the finish. Sergio helped me set the goal of seeing Zac again before having to turn our headlamps back on. I was SO determined to stay out of the tunnel for as long as I could, risking a few trips and stumbles as we made our way back over the 1,700’ Chimney Top climb. We almost made it, but after one particular hard kick of a rock I had to turn on the light. Within moments, however, we saw the aid station and I got my magical Red Bull. Zac has come back to life himself, with a fire to be in charge of and someone else’s kid to direct as his helper. It lifted my spirits to see him smiling, and I got my wings. One more nasty climb to go.
Fucking Elliot’s Knob.
Selective amnesia had sunk in and I know I should have paid more attention to this section on the outbound trip to be mentally prepared for this climb and final brutal descent. Mind you, I have already run this section in the same direction in June, but again on much fresher legs and in the daylight. So miles 87-95 were a whole new kind of monster that stood out as its own separate hell. My inner child was emerging, and not in a good way. “How are we not at the top yet?” and “How are we not at the last aid station yet??” whining on repeat in my head. I was starting to vocalize my distress more and more frequently and in so, annoying the shit out of myself. Time to put it away and move forward.
Final aid, 5.2 miles to the finish. One more climb.
What? That’s what they said the last time!
Don’t you remember, the big downhill and the stupid moth?
It was only about 500’ but at 10:37PM, it may as well have been another 2000’. An aid station volunteer had quietly told me “You could still make it before midnight” and I latched onto this idea way harder than I should have. Thirty hours was my “A” goal, albeit an arbitrary one, having never done this challenging of a race. Still, despite how trashed my feet and legs felt at this moment, I had to try.
I pushed, and pushed, and pushed. Sergio, for the record, was still fast-hiking, which made me feel like a slug. He only had to pick up his feet to jog for a few brief moments when I hit a rare, not rocky stretch of trail. Because, if you didn’t catch on to this already, there were still a lot of rocks. How did I forget about all of these fucking rocks?! My feet were on fire and clumsy and every third step I stumbled. At one point I just screamed and slammed my poles against the ground, much to my pacer’s amusement. After a few more glances at my watch I realized midnight was not within reach. Close, but not quite. Somewhat defeated, I resigned myself back to a more manageable fast walk to finish the last mile to camp.
But with that resignation, came a wave of relief.
Because here is where I succeeded:
I did the damn thing.
Everything I needed to leave on the trail - physically, mentally and emotionally - I left out there.
I managed myself extremely well, addressing each problem with an attempted solution, and did not allow myself to get swallowed by stress with every low point.
By chance or circumstance, I fell into an amazing group of people who showered me with love and support the whole way.
Sergio and I rounded the final corner to turn into the campground where lights were still on, music was still playing and a dozen or so people were still awake and cheering. I summoned the last ounce of strength I had for one last ultra-shuffle and crossed the finish line in 30:10:36.
Why do something so difficult, and to many, quite stupid?
There were a few things I had to prove to myself. An ultra-marathon is like a puzzle, and this one involved thousands of pieces. I needed to know I had it in me to work every problem and not sink into despair like I did at Western States. I needed to know I could work through extreme fatigue and not wind up crying at mile 85 like I did at my second Pinhoti. I needed to know I could lay it all on the line and not hold back and play it safe like countless races before. Some friends had put way more stock in me than I thought they should have (Shannon, I could never touch your record!) but what I lack in overall speed I make up for in durability.
Lastly, this race was the proving ground I needed for myself to feel like I had what it would take to tackle Western States again. While Grindstone was my longest and hardest race to date by time and distance, it was also one of my best-executed races ever. If I can tackle 46,000’ of elevation change over 100 miles, I know I can significantly improve upon my Western States time if I ever get to go back to Squaw. Fingers crossed.
But I do not want to trivialize my Grindstone experience by only focusing on going back out west. Even as a stand-alone race, Grindstone is an amazing experience. If you’ve got demons, they will be exorcised. If you have grit, it will be showcased. If you have an undying love of mountains and trails, you will feel at home.
And if you have any kind of feeling about rocks well... Grindstone doesn't care what you think about rocks. If there is one wishy-washy metaphorical takeaway it's this:
Life is rocks. It's fucking rocks everywhere. What are you going to do, turn around?
There is no one “right way” to work out, but following a strategic order of exercises based on your needs and goals will help you get the most out of every workout.
If there is nothing else I have learned from my years of training (myself, as well as others), it is that the best advancements in strength and stamina occurred once I became comfortable being uncomfortable!
Cardiovascular training is important for a number of reasons, first and foremost being that the heart is the most important muscle in the body!
But working outside of what feels “normal” or comfortable is hard, and takes heart of a different kind. Here, I highlight two methods of cardiovascular training and the benefits of both.
I can't tell you how many times I started down that path and thought, "Well, maybe I'm just not a trail runner." From the burn of lactic acid that seemed to build in every part of my body to the frustrated tears that came with every misstep and ankle twist, I legitimately thought this was a thing, like so many other sports I had tried in the past, that simply wasn't for me.
Stretching is a natural and instinctive movement. When we wake up, we extend our legs to break out of the stiffness of slumber. After sitting at a desk for several hours, it can feel good to lift the arms overhead and reach up high through the fingertips. But there is some confusion around stretching and when or how to do it before or after a workout.
A Pair Of Weights
Body That's Ready To Move
The sun was setting on Michigan Bluff, and my chances of doing what I had come to California to do. My arrogant voice echoed in my head, repeating the words I’d told everyone leading up this race: “The only way I’m coming home without a buckle is if I break a leg or die.” Yet there I was, just 30 minutes from the final blast of the air horn signifying the closing of the aid station, absolutely convinced there was no way I was going to make it to the finish.
Back at the starting line, I was anxious but confident. Just standing there with the other runners at the 45th running of the Western States Endurance Run was an honor in and of itself, and I was ready to prove what relentless determination and a hefty dose of East Coast grit can do. To be clear: I am NOT fast and I had zero time goals. But I also don’t DNF (that's runner-speak for "did not finish"). I have never had to battle against the clock to make cutoffs, which is why I was so unprepared to have to do just that.
Our first and biggest climb up Emigrant Pass was simply amazing. I felt strong, running slow but steady on the few flatter stretches and maintaining a strong power hike for the rest. As we neared the top, the sun rose over Lake Tahoe, illuminating the valley below. The magnitude of these mountains quite literally took my breath away. Cresting that first incline, I was filled with optimism and gratitude for what the day might hold. A large group of spectators and volunteers, who had woken up just as early as the runners they were cheering, awaited our arrival at the top.