Monday Musings: On the Perils of Comparison

I have a confession to make. I judge ultra runners.  I like to think of them as mildly unhinged, perhaps somewhat masochistic, and certainly a little bit athletically elitist.  In my mind, they obsess about their gear, their PRs, their training, their distance, and the next big trend in fuelling gels. I imagine that they are constantly irritated by having to put up with all of us ‘non-runners’ who have the audacity to be out on sidewalks and roadways generally getting in their way, and even going so far as to enter races we have no business entering.

If I let my tendency for gross and unfair generalizations take over, I’d imagine a human pyramid of runners. In this pyramid, the lowly 5k runner is stuck on the bottom of the heap holding up the next echelon of barely-better 10k runners. Getting closer to the top of the pyramid, you’d have your worthy-of-some-respect half marathoners hoisting up the worthy-of-even-more-respect marathoners. But at the very top of the pile you would have your ultra runners, all of whom would be puffing their chests out, sounding horns and brandishing expressions of smug superiority.

As I said, I recognize this is an unjust characterization.  Not only is it unjust, but given that I’ve just signed up for an ultra, it is also hypocritical.

So why do I do it?  For no other reason than evil, evil comparison. I read enough running blogs to know just how much time, effort, and thought a ‘serious’ runner puts into his or her training.  And I see how it pays off. I read about their races, their placements, their paces, their ever-increasing distances and it’s all just so very…discouraging.

When it comes down to it, I am a delicate flower who likes to occasionally dive into a very dark and defensive place.  I don’t like to recognize that I’m not good at something, that I might have to work at running and that, even if I work at it, it may not translate into greatness.

Rather than respect an ultra runner’s accomplishments, it’s just so much easier to be dismissive of their effort and assume they have a ‘natural gift’. It’s easier to judge them as elitist runners who take themselves too seriously so when I don’t take my own training seriously I can laugh off an abysmal finish and say ‘at least I’m fun’. It’s easier to look at their running prowess and wonder why I should even bother trying.

Comparison and its ensuing defensive judgment is not a pretty colour on me (nor anyone, I imagine).  Comparison takes that tiny (or not-so-tiny, as the case may be) ember of self doubt and fans it into a towering flame of confidence-crushing, motivation-shattering limiting beliefs.

Think I’m being overly dramatic? I’ll invite you to consider something that you really want to be doing, but aren’t doing right now.  Then I’ll invite you to consider why you’re not doing it. Chances are, if you strip down all the layers of excuses you’ll get to some sort of limiting belief about yourself.  Chances are even stronger that if you examine that limiting belief, you’ll see it amplifies every time you start to compare yourself to others. It’s like the cute little mogwai that, when fed after midnight, turns into a hideous and destructive gremlin.

gizmoWhy hello, I’m the adorable limiting belief hiding in your subconscious. 

gremlin
Uh oh, you’ve started to make comparisons and now I’ve turned into a heinous Gremlin.

See? I told you it’s not a pretty colour on anyone. Unfortunately, if you were looking for tips on silencing the comparison monster and learning to appreciate your own unique gifts, you are reading the wrong blog.  I have not been tearing you down in order to build you back up. I have no answers.

What I can say is that, although it will require constant effort, I need to try to shake that comparison gremlin for my own sanity in this ultra training process,  I’ve no doubt that if I can, I might just be able to transform myself from a runner who places in the bottom 10 to one who places in the bottom 15. And that, my friends, is a win for this runner.

TWIR #2

Happy Good Friday! It’s time to get our TWIR on (training week in review for those not in the know).  I’d like to say I had a more focused and intentional approach to training this week but I did not. Instead, here is a summary of what I managed to accomplish:

Saturday
Activity: Hill repeats/running
Relevant Stats: 17.26 km, 280m elevation gain, average pace of 5:53 min/km
Observations: First official attempt to apply a training technique! Lo and behold, slowing your pace works and I managed to knock out my longest run in roughly five years.

Sunday
Activity: Glorious and lone rest day of the week
Relevant Stats: Hosted brunch for 10, attended Easter dinner.
Observations: This was my first of two consecutive Sunday Easter turkey dinners. I feel no shame for my current or future turkey consumption. Gluttony and sloth unite in beautiful harmony and I take fewer than 1000 steps the entire day.

Monday
Activity: Run/Spin
Relevant Stats: 3 km run, 52 min spin
Observations: After the stellar success of Saturday’s training run, I expect motivation to be at an all-time high.  As with many things in life, my expectations go unmet. En route to the office, I run to the gym with a backpack holding my change of clothes and other things needed to make me look un-gross following my workout.  The consensus: running with a giant backpack sucks and causes spin to be a completely unspirited ride. I blame both Sunday’s gluttony and the backpack for this failure.

Tuesday
Activity: Run
Relevant Stats: 15 km, average pace 5:41 min/km
Observations: My enthusiasm for working out rebounds with the exciting return of partial sunshine (!!!!!). I once again employ the slow pace technique and find this an easy run from an endurance perspective. What is decidedly not easy is slowing my pace on a road run. If anyone has tips for this, I am all ears.

Wednesday
Activity: Spin/Core
Relevant Stats: 60 min spin intervals, 10 min core
Observations: God, I hate sprint intervals. I am built for endurance, not speed. I dream of the days when my old spin instructor used to do 20 minute hill pyramids. Of course, everyone else hated those…But I digress. Core work is much-needed but painful as my sacroiliac has been acting up. On the plus side, this prompted me to finally book a physio appointment to get it checked out.

Thursday
Activity: Hike
Relevant Stats: 9km return, 729m elevation gain, average pace 11:45 min/km
Observations: My observations are three-fold on this impromptu hike. 1. I am slower downhill than uphill on steep trails 2. I should stop doing steep trails as punishment for poor food and beverage choices throughout the week 3. If you weren’t already aware, drinking a half bottle of wine and a cocktail on a weeknight constitutes poor beverage choices, and will slow your pace.

Friday
Activity: Run
Relevant Stats: 9km, average pace 5:20/km, pigeon attack count: 2
Observations: Morning running is one of my least favourite things. I avoid it all costs, except when forced to by things like morning flights for Easter holidays. As expected, it is slow to start but gradually gets better as I daydream of being back at home stuffing breakfast in my face in between shots of espresso. In fact, that mental picture is so appealing that I run my last km at a 4:28 min/km pace.  Also, the pigeons have read my blog and are really out to get me now.

This week’s self-rating:

half ass

Throwback Thursday: On Bears as Motivation for Trail Running

Before I begin, here is my official disclaimer: I’m not actually advocating for running from bears.  I’ve read my Parks Canada pamphlets and various other publications on living in bear country, all of which have informed me of proper protocol upon encountering a bear. Take their advice, not mine.

I would, however, like to point out that proper protocol (i.e. rationality) goes out the window when you’re miles from the trailhead, haven’t seen a single human being in hours, and hear the distinct huffing of a bear. I would also like to add that I’ve run my own statistical study and have found that 3 out of 3 times that I have employed trail running when suspecting a bear in the area, zero bear attacks occurred. Just try to argue with statistics like that.

With all that preamble aside, let’s move on to the topic at hand, which is that bears can, in fact, serve as powerful trail running motivation.  Anyone’s who’s been following my brief blog life probably has a good sense of my thoughts on motivation. I’ve talked about guilt as a powerful motivator, but I’ve failed to mention an equally powerful motivator: fear.

And so, let me briefly recount three of my personal experiences using (my largely unfounded) fear of bears as motivation for trail running:

    1. Rockbound Lake–2009ish. I was not a trail runner at this point in my life. In fact, I had fairly recently moved to Banff and was just getting into hiking. Typically, this is a popular and crowded trail.  As luck would have it, though, I happened to pick a day where I encountered exactly four people.  There is a section of trail before the final climb to Rockbound Lake that crosses a wide meadow that I assumed to be highly bear-friendly.  On my descent, as I passed through this section of trail, I became convinced that there was ‘something out there’.  Mock me if you will, but I have always trusted my intuition in nature and it has rarely led me astray.  In my mind, the source of my rapidly escalating nervousness was a giant, lumbering grizzly. With that image in mind, I commenced a slow jogging pace and inadvertently ran my first 3ish kilometres of trail ever. Moral of the story: even if you don’t see a bear, it may be there, and it is best to use that to your advantage by testing out your running chops to ensure a safe escape from the area.
    2. Sunset Pass–2011ish.  I regularly trail run at this point but was enjoying a peaceful hiking day (in other words, I was too lazy to run) on the iconic Icefields Parkway. After about 12km of solo hiking and only two human encounters the entire day, I had already travelled through way too many kilometres of anxiety-provoking bear habitat.  In fact, I had already been jogging off-and-on across one particularly terrifying meadow lined on both sides by bear-hiding, shoulder-high scrub.  No sooner had I exited this meadow, and just as I was about to breathe a sigh of relief for being safe from bears, when I heard a loud huffing and what sounded like something large and ungraceful in the brush behind me.  Without a thought, I launched into an adrenaline-fuelled sprint for the remaining 4 km of the descent. Moral of the story: You are never really safe from bears, even when you think you are no longer in prime bear habitat, so you might as well run the whole damn trail.
    3. Tumbling Pass–2015.  At this point in my life, I have given up entirely on trail running care of many nagging injuries.  So on this day, I was out for a 25km out-and-back on a section of the stunning Rockwall trail. Roughly 5km in, I had encountered zero humans and one giant, steaming pile of bear scat.  I continued anyways, because I like to live life on the wild side. That said, I was in a heightened state of alert (i.e. making tons of noise and generally jumping at any sound or sign of life in the forest). I made it to the pass and revelled in its splendour.  On my way out, I passed exactly two other hikers. Solitude is great…except when you are walking amongst berry-laden bushes as far as the eye can see.  Right as I encountered the same, giant pile of bear scat, nature decided to teach me a lesson about solo hiking.  I heard huffing and a rustle in the woods.  As with my experience on Sunset Pass, zero rational thought occurred. I just ran like hell.  And, like that, I inadvertently completed my first trail run in years, albeit only 3 to 4 km. To add to nature’s lesson, as I drove away from this hike, a black bear ran across the highway directly in front of my car. I am convinced to this day it was the same bear I heard in the woods, not-so-subtly informing me that he had been out there and had only allowed me to survive out of sheer pity. Moral of the story: if you’re going to hike alone, you might as well run to lessen your chances of encountering a bear.

    And so, if you’re uncertain about whether you can trail run, let me assure you that you can, particularly if you share my slightly over-anxious temperament.  If you’d like to leverage bear anxiety for motivation, here are my quick tips:

    1. Find a secluded trail. If there’s more than 5 cars in the parking lot, keep looking.
    2. While hiking, listen intently for any possible noises in the woods, any bear scratchings or diggings, and even more obvious signs like fresh bear scat. When you encounter these, do not turn around.  Stay the course.
    3. Work yourself up into the anxiety riddled hiker who jumps at every sound and sign of motion, which I assure you are plentiful in nature.
    4. When your anxiety reaches it’s tipping point and/or you legitimately see or hear sign of a bear, follow your true instinct and run like you have no other option.

    Congratulations, you are now a trail runner.

Dangers of Running

In all likelihood, you’re anticipating a post about injuries, dehydration, dodging errant cyclists, or maybe even chaffing.  If so, you may want to stop reading right now because today I’m here to talk about a very different–but equally real–danger of running: pigeons.

Yes, pigeons.

pigeon

Don’t be fooled by their tiny stature

It’s important for me to clarity that I am not generally afraid of birds.  I even find some of them to be pretty. They typically seem to keep to themselves and, when that’s the case, I’m on good terms with them.

Pigeons, however, don’t seem to respect the whole “I’ll-leave-you-alone-if-you-leave-me-alone” thing and, because of this, I consider them my enemies. Particularly when I am running, they appear determined to scare the shit out of me with their haphazard flying and swooping.  As I’ve been increasing my running distance, I have had several encounters with these tiny minions of the devil. At each encounter, they’ve appeared calm and nonplussed by my presence until the very last second, at which point they launch themselves into the air and generally in the direction of my face. I then recoil in horror, shriek and duck awkwardly (all while running). As you can imagine, this causes not only extreme embarrassment (who wants to be that girl?), but also the acquisition of a slight pigeon phobia.

Now, when I see pigeons ahead, my adrenaline starts to kick in.  I try to dodge them, but it’s always to no avail.  It’s like they can smell my fear…and find extreme delight in it.  They are knowingly menacing beasts.

Lest you think I’m crazy let me assure you the threat is real:

  • My thorough (i.e. two websites) internet research shows that, like crows, pigeons are capable of remembering humans faces.  Studies have shown that they recall faces of individuals who have mistreated them.  The only logical conclusion I can draw from this is that, at some point, I’ve scared a pigeon and he has systematically spread the word to the entire Vancouver pigeon community.  Now, they are all out to get me.
  • They can actually harm me. For instance, did you know that “Pigeons have been associated with a variety of diseases, including histoplasmosis and cryptococcosis“? I have no idea what those diseases actually are, but neither sounds pleasant.

If you have encountered pigeons-as-running-hazards, I welcome any and all tips on suitable peace offerings and/or strategies to manage my anxiety.  I will also accept suggestions for pigeon-free running routes.

Training Tuesdays: On Slowing Down

I know I mocked the whole ‘all you have to do is slow down’ to run an ultra thing less than a week ago, but I have to admit it sounded so damn logical that I had to give it a try.

Saturday, when motivation failed to get me to the mountains, my guilt strategy kicked in and I opted for some hill repeats.  When I really want to punish myself, I head out to Spanish Banks/UBC endowment lands, where there are a couple of relentless hills that threaten your will to live. 

The Question: If I slow my pace, will it actually enhance my endurance?

The verdict: A resounding yes!

run

My usual running pace is about 5 min/km and, at that pace, I can comfortably run 10-12km. Uphill, I’m usually closer to 5:30 min/km and downhill I can cruise at about 4:40 min/km.

On Saturday, my average overall pace was 5:53. On the steepest parts of the uphill sections I was closer to 7:30 min/km but most of the overall uphill sections averaged out to around 6 min/km.  I even concentrated on downhill sections, and was able to bring my pace down to 5:35 min/km. At these paces, I very, very comfortably ran 17.26 km. I cannot stress enough how comfortable this distance felt (i.e. I felt like I could have run another 5 km easily).

What I Learned:

  • You would think it would be easy to just enjoy a more leisurely run, but it goes against everything I believe in about running (i.e. faster = better runner).  I have to shift my mindset around what ‘good’ running looks like. Anyone who knows me is fully aware that I am not good at slowing down. I walk quickly, even when I have nowhere to be. I drive quickly, even when I am not running late. I pretty much operate under the assumption that everything is a race. Going slowly not only seems like a waste of time, but also (and maybe even more importantly) seems like a sign of weakness. I absolutely equate speed and efficiency with competence.  I knew this approach would be hard for me–and it was.  Anytime someone passed me, I had to fight the urge to match their pace.  When I felt strong enough to run faster, I had to fight against burning myself out.
  • Even slowing my pace by 30 seconds/km makes an absolutely massive difference to stamina on uphill sections. Not once did I have to stop running. I may have felt like I was crawling, but at least I kept going!
  • If I can run 17.26 km of hills after a night of bad eating (i.e. pub food) and mild celebration (i.e. pub drinks) and without a good night’s rest (i.e. restless sleep because of aforementioned pub food and drinks), imagine what I could do with proper diet and hydration and sleep!

So far, training experimentation has been victorious! What should I try next????

Monday Musings: On Motivation

 

motivation-definition


Since I signed up for this race, and commenced whining and complaining about all the effort I’ll have to put into it, I’ve heard all sorts of stuff from my friends and family about how ‘motivated’ I am. Statements tend to be along the lines of the following:

Oh but you’re so active already so you won’t find it hard to do more.

How can you say you’re not motivated? I’ve never seen anyone hike as much as you!

You are NOT lazy.

Here’s the thing: I am fundamentally lazy, and I don’t feel particularly motivated.  When I hear people talk about loving a challenge, and the joy of working through something difficult, here’s what I think: “Oh, PLEASE” (with an eye roll thrown in for good measure).  I mean, seriously, give me the easy road any day.  The easy road is paved with moderate effort…and cake…and wine. The easy road is lined with puppies and cherry blossoms perpetually in bloom.  On the easy road, you can’t help but smile and feel good about life.

The hard road, on the other hand, is paved with deprivation and sore muscles and saying no to that 4th (okay, 6th) glass of wine; it runs at a 40 degree incline and with each step you feel its pointy rocks through the soles of your shoes. The hard road is not lined with anything at all; it is a narrow path with steep drop-offs on both sides, such that one misstep will send you plummeting to certain death. On the hard road, you want to curl up in a fetal ball and cry, but you can’t because there’s no room for that.

This is my mental map and, granted, it is full of extremes.  In my mind, the easy road is a land of 6 workouts per week, including a couple of long hikes on the weekends.  For some, this might not be the easy road but I am used to this level of activity, so it’s become easy to maintain and, thus, really requires little motivation.  Easy roads, they’re all relative.

When it comes to training for this ultra, or any other life event that pushes me outside my comfort zone, I don’t rely on motivation.  It’s too fleeting and fickle. It’s too situational.  It’s too intangible for me to wrap my head around.  No, motivation is not my secret.  Are you ready to hear my secret?

guilt

That’s right, it’s guilt.  I know you’re probably thinking it sounds terribly unhealthy, and you might actually be right.  But let me tell you it works infinitely better than that whole motivation thing. Let’s compare motivation and guilt in a real-life scenario:

Scenario: I have to hike 32km tomorrow but…let’s open that second bottle of wine anyway!

Motivation Response: I am going to hike 32km tomorrow! I will see pretty things! It will be magical! No amount of wine can interfere with my will to hike!

Guilt Response: That second bottle of wine is going to make the 7:00am wake up call feel horrid and there’s a 50% probability that I’ll downgrade my hike to 10km. If I do that, I’ll start to lose my endurance and I’ll never work my way back to being able to hike 32km.  And if I can’t do that, I’ll never be able to run this ultra and everyone will know I’m a total failure.

I think it’s clear which strategy will lead to greater success. With motivation, I’m ignoring the very real risks to training and relying solely on my good intentions. And I am a firm believer that good intentions mean squat.

With guilt, however, I paint a picture of failure so compelling and humiliating that I cannot possibly ignore it, no matter how exaggerated and unrealistic it may be. This is the beauty of guilt. It is the ultimate accountability driver because it’s so very palpable…and irrational.  We like to think of ourselves as rational beings but, let’s be honest, psychological research has shown time and time again that humans are often irrational in their decision-making.  Revel in guilt’s inherent irrationality and get ready to be shocked by how much you can accomplish.

It’s time for a new model of motivation.  I say screw the hard road and digging deep and finding your inner strength.  Instead, bask in the glory of guilt and let it shame you into achieving your goals.

p.s. Yes, I am available to do motivational speaking at your next event.

Training Week in Review (TWIR): Week #1

Welcome to the first official TWIR! This is exciting for two reasons: 1. ultra marathon training is officially underway (okay, so ‘officially underway’ is a boldface lie, but it sounds better than ‘somewhat underway’ or ‘hasn’t actually started but I always work out six days a week so this looks sort of impressive’) and 2. who doesn’t love a good acronym?

Let’s get this TWIR started (see, catchy isn’t it?):

Monday:  Official registration in the Mount Robson ultra. In celebration, I manage to fit in a lackluster combo of spin and HIIT. Side note: wearing glasses while using the TRX is one of the worst workout experiences imaginable.

Tuesday: I plan on an “extra long run” but end up with only 11 km on predominantly flat ground before calling it a day. Inner rationalization: I have six months left to train so what’s the rush?

Wednesday: I barely make it to the gym, my workout fueled entirely by Ibuprofen and a desperate need to temporarily escape the office.  I knock out a sorry 55 minutes on the spin bike.  Again, I remind myself of my seemingly infinite training window.  Also, being the totally creepy gym-goer that I am, I observe that I’m using a tension three levels higher than the guy next to me, which makes me feel superior…and like I am clearly a fitness ninja.

Thursday: 12.5km run in the sunshine watching cherry blossom sway in the wind.  It is almost a poetically beautiful experience. I felt like I could’ve kept running for much longer, and yet I didn’t.  I read once that you should end a run while you still feel strong enough to keep running. I also read you shouldn’t increase your mileage by more than 10% at a time, and this already exceeded a 10% increase over Tuesday’s run. I like to knowingly misinterpret real advice to suit my needs, and then treat it like gospel.

Friday:  I lead a boot camp for my colleagues every Friday, even though I have no idea what I’m doing from a training perspective.  I cannot provide counsel on form or modifications.  Once, one of my colleagues got bursitis care of one of my workouts.  Yet they continue to join in the fun, and sometimes they tell me my workouts are brutal, so I figure I must be doing something right.  Also, it provides me the opportunity to boss people around which I secretly love (although now not-so-secretly, since some of them read this–hi guys!!!! love you!!!!). Today is not a great workout for me. My sacroiliac is bugging me and, evidently, running stairs does not make it happier.  My colleagues abandon me 28 minutes in. Without anyone to boss around, I only make it another 20 minutes before calling it a day.

Self-rating on TWIR #1:

i tried

Except I really didn’t.  On the bright side, training can only go uphill from here!