Archives for posts with tag: Exercise

The pain was sudden, intense, and sharp. I yelled as an electric shock ran down the back of my leg, causing my knee to buckle instantly. I didn’t have time to react as my left leg gave out underneath me. I was practically to the floor before I was even aware that I was falling. Luckily, my husband caught me, stopping me from hitting the concrete.

“What just happened?” The surprise was quickly morphing into concern as he looked at me.

“I don’t know. I was just standing up, and it’s like someone stuck a cattle prod on my left butt cheek. It felt like I was electrocuted!”

The next day, I saw my primary care doctor, who is a specialist in sports medicine. After an X-ray and physical examination, she stood back. “Well, it looks like you are having a combination of issues. I’d say you probably have some bursitis in your left hip, some IT band inflammation in your left knee, and you have what’s called ‘piriformis syndrome’ in your left hip and buttock. Basically, you have some big inflammation all down your left leg, and part of that inflammation is squeezing your sciatic nerve, which is what created that electricity feeling and caused you to fall. It’s serious, but totally something we can take care of with anti-inflammatories and physical therapy.”

But physical therapy just wasn’t a viable possibility for me. In order to come in two to three times a week, I’d have to find a sitter for the girls—spending quite a large sum of money, taking quite a large chunk of time—and results could only be promised insofar as I was able to continue the exercises at home (if my issues responded to them at all). My doctor understood my concerns, and she suggested that I learn a few stretches to do at home. “You could also look up some good stretching videos online. Like yoga.”

Immediately after leaving my doctor (a prescription for powerful anti-inflammatories in my fist), I texted my friend, Sara, who has been practicing and teaching yoga for 7 years.

Three days later, I had my first yoga lesson. I spent a good five minutes, just trying to stand in Samasthitih (saam-i-sittee)—the neutral standing “pose” that is seriously just standing with your weight equally dispersed between your feet, and your arms at your sides. I realized that my weight was primarily on my right leg. (I was naturally trying to spare my injured left leg by taking my weight off of it.) I was amazed that I had never noticed before just how off-balance my body had been feeling. Finally, I found my center, and learned Sun Salutation A, and the first couple of standing poses in the Primary Series (the sequence that all practitioners learn when they first start Ashtanga yoga).

It has been three months since I first started Ashtanga (for clarity, most people know it as “Power Yoga,” but that’s really a misnomer). After three days, I stopped taking the anti-inflammatories. They just weren’t necessary anymore. After two months, I ran a 5k with no prior training other than yoga. I haven’t experienced any recurring pain from my injuries (though my left hip is definitely tighter than my right, and requires a little more caution when manipulating certain poses), and my overall strength and endurance have skyrocketed. While I’m not “back” at running yet (the 5k was for a charity and put on by my cousin. I try to do it every year), I have started walking again, and the paces that I can now maintain just astonish me. Whereas walking a 15-minute mile prior to beginning my practice (that’s what you call a daily yoga exercise. A practice) would have left me sweaty and breathing heavily, even when I was running the most, now, I find myself barely perspiring. I often will have to remind myself that my walks are not for leisure, but exercise, and that I should be pushing myself more to get my heart rate up.

Sara, my yoga instructor, told me that a regular practice would change me. I secretly scoffed at the strange, New Agey idea that an hour a day of bends, lifts, concentrated breathing, and asanas (poses) would really “change” anything. I mean, physically? Of course! But mentally? Spiritually? Besides the pleasant release of endorphins that I expect from any exercise, I just didn’t see how that was going to happen. After all, I was a ballet minor in college. I’ve been dancing since I was four. I’ve been a runner for six years. Surely, if I was going to change from a physical activity, it would have happened by now.

Then, just this week, I met with Sara for my weekly lesson. I had had a frustrating week. Sara challenged me with trying headstands for the first time, and I could barely bring myself into the pose that you take before you actually do the headstand. I was stuck in that position, trying to breathe deeply, but just gasping, while the sweat dripped down into my eyes and nostrils. I wasn’t completing a headstand so much as I was thinking about maybe, one day, building up the strength to try one. But, what was even worse, I was feeling particularly frustrated with something called my “vinyasa.” A vinyasa is a transition. It moves you from one asana (pose) to the next. It’s the movement that comes in between the actual movements you have to achieve. And it’s hard.

Basically, when you “take your vinyasa” or “flow through your vinyasa” in the Primary Series of Ashtanga, you are trying to move your legs from being straight out in front of you in a seated pose, to being straight out behind you in a plank (chaturanga) position. You do this by bringing your legs up to your chest, lifting your butt off the floor with your hands, and then tucking your legs between your arms (while you are still suspended) before jumping or stepping your feet back to chaturanga. Here’s a video of it, since it’s kind of hard to describe:

I’ve spent weeks struggling with my vinyasa. I could feel my body lifting internally, but nothing seemed to be budging on the outside. It was as though my bones were lifting up, but all of the non-solid stuff—the fat, the skin, the stretch marks, the ingrown hairs, all of what I perceived as my “ugliness”—refused to move off the floor. I would “take my vinyasa” by grunting, gasping, pushing with all of my might against the floor, only to remain exactly where I was, until I was forced to take another breath, and just walk my legs behind me to get into chaturanga.

I opened my lesson with a diatribe against vinyasa. Feeling unable to do a headstand felt justified. After all, I knew people whose lifelong fitness goal was to “do the headstand in yoga.” But the vinyasa? The transition? The thing that is just supposed to take you from one place to the next? Why did that have to be so hard??

I began my practice, with Sara watching me, breathing with me, and adjusting me as needed. When the sweat began spilling from my face, she quietly placed a towel by my side, and gave me a breath or two to wipe down my slippery hands and feet. When I would bend forward, she’d appear behind me, firmly yet gently pushing down on my back, lengthening it until my forehead suddenly touched down on my ankles. Sara’s quiet, steady strength is inspiring, to say the least. Then, when it came time to take my vinyasa, she just said, quietly, almost in a murmur, “Take an extra exhale to just set the bandhas (your lower pelvic region and core), and then lengthen your arms on the inhale.”

I exhaled, feeling my fingers spread and my palms flatten. Feeling the texture of the mat, and thinking about keeping my entire palm flat on the floor. Thinking about using my fingers to help with the push. I inhaled.

And lifted.

There is a similar pose in Ashtanga called “utpluthih” (oot-ploot-teehee). Translated from the Sanskrit, it means “uprooting.” You sit in lotus position, put your hands down at your sides, and push up. Having pulled bushes, trees, and about twelve incredibly deep and stubborn rose bushes out of my yard, I was already very aware of how difficult “uprooting” can be.

utpluthih

Utpluthih

But I realized in that moment, that second of lifting up, that I wasn’t really uprooting myself. I was re-rooting. I was still attached to the ground. Just finding a new way of connecting to it. I couldn’t get my legs to swing back without touching the ground, but I was able to pivot my body forward, walking my legs between my arms on my tiptoes, and as I swung my legs through, I felt the gentle twist of my muscles. Wrapping around my arms from my shoulder blades, around the tops of my shoulders, wrapping back around my triceps, around and around, until the muscles spread into my fingertips. And in that moment, as I was feeling the spiral of my own strength going down into the ground, I thought about the apple trees on my parents’ orchard, growing over the years and decades and generations in a slow twist, spiraling out of the ground and spreading up, turning to find the sun, the wind, the rain, the moonlight. So slow and steady, and so trusting of time, that the only evidence of their continuous twist towards the sun is in the steady wrap of bark around their trunks.

It was a second and a half, but I felt all of those things. That I was like the inverted apple tree, spinning, slowing screwing myself down into the ground. That I wasn’t uprooted, but re-rooted. Flipped. Upside down, but still upright. That strength is different from power. That I realized that wanting power (and calling it “power” yoga) is an exercise in ego, and that ego has no place in my practice. That the tree is powerful. It does not have power. That those two things are very, very different. It was the most incredible, meditative moment of my life thus far.

I collapsed in chaturanga, laughing. “My arms are trees,” I gasped. “My arms are trees!”

I can’t say where my yoga practice will take me. I can’t even say that I will maintain it, or pursue it into more complicated series (there are 5 after the Primary Series, and after 3 months, I’m still only at the halfway point in the Primary). But I can say that it has, in fact, changed me. I’m liking the change. I’m liking the re-rooting. The rerouting as it were. I like that it’s forcing me (quite literally) to look at my world from different perspectives. Ashtanga is here for me at exactly the time it needed to be. It’s healed me. It continues to heal me. And that’s some crazy, New Agey shit for sure. But I like it.

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It’s March 9th. On April 9th, I will run my very first half marathon. That is, I hope I will run my very first half marathon. I know that (Good Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise) I will cross the Start Line, and I know I will cross the Finish Line. What happens in between is anyone’s guess.

It’s been two months since I began training for this race. In that time, I’ve learned many things, and I’m struggling with many more. At this critical juncture, I think it’s time to record a few of those lessons here.

  1. The Stats Don’t Really Matter. In many ways, training for this half marathon has reminded me of writing my dissertation for my PhD. One of the things you learn pretty quickly, is that the end result is not actually as critical as the process itself. My committee barely glanced at my finished dissertation (and I certainly never gave it a second thought once it was completed). They didn’t judge my readiness for my PhD through the finished 264 pages. They determined my abilities based on the four years prior. The conferences I attended. The countless drafts I submitted. The many (many!) rabbit holes I pursued to no real avail. I’m slowly coming to understand that this half marathon will be the same way. How fast I’m able to finish. Whether or not I’ll have to walk a few miles. Where I place in the pack. How well I’m able to pace myself. Only other runners will be interested in those details. I will be interested in those details. Everybody else will just care that I finish. My dissertation is not worthy of publication. But that doesn’t matter. I have my PhD. That’s the accomplishment. Everything else is just statistics. (You think anyone cared when this guy finished the Boston Marathon dead last, and in 20 hours? Hell no! He finished the Boston Marathon. End of story.)
  2. I’m Constantly Disappointing Myself. Running is an almost entirely self-motivated sport. There’s no team. No coach. No fans in the bleachers. It’s you. It’s your head. Your thoughts. Maybe some music. A road. The air. Therefore, it’s not surprising that runners are considered something of a psychological mystery. Because of the release of endorphins that comes with any physical activity, running eventually feels good, but the good feelings—the high—are very temporary and only last a short time. Getting your brain to release that dopamine is a long process. And a painful one. And it’s all on you. The runner has to be willing to undergo hours of self-inflicted torture for twenty minutes of satisfaction. And research has shown that runners often self-identify as intelligent, motivated, excited by challenges and risks, and highly critical (Who has two thumbs and fits all those personality traits to a T? This girl!). The majority of my training these last few months, therefore, has involved me analyzing, assessing, and finding fault with every aspect of my running. I slept in and missed my cross training session. I had to walk after that last hill. I couldn’t make the distance I wanted to. I didn’t eat right before a run, and was stymied by horrible cramps. My running is all on me, so when something goes wrong (and it frequently does) I have no one else to blame. So I blame me. A lot.
  3. I’m Constantly Impressed with Myself. All that being said, my training is truly paying off. I’m improving. Quite a lot. Every day when I go out for a run, I can feel how much stronger I’ve become in just two months. How my stride has changed. How my breathing has slowed. How my pace has increased. That’s perhaps the best and most surprising part of this process: the improvement in my pace. I didn’t even care about pace when I began training. I wanted the distance. I wanted to be able to say that I can run—run!!—13 whole miles. I never thought I would get faster in the meantime, but I have. When I first started back into running after a nearly 4-year hiatus, I was thrilled when I completed my first outside mile in 11:57, three seconds faster than I could run on the treadmill. Today, a 12-minute mile would feel like crawling for me. The last three times I’ve run my routine “maintenance” miles, I’ve completed them in an average of 9:30 per mile (some splits faster, some slower, but pretty consistent for a newbie). I regularly can now look down at my watch, and amaze myself with a PR that I never seem to be anticipating. I realized just last week that I’ll likely run this race as a “middle of the pack” runner. That makes me proud. I’m only 4’11”. I have 25” inseam. I’m pear shaped. But I’m moving. I’m not breaking any records, but I’m taking a body that falls solidly on the left side of the bell curve and pushing its capabilities right into the center. That’s kind of awesome. Kind of really awesome.
  4. I’m Not Doing this Alone. Running is solitary. Being a runner isn’t. Being a runner who is also a stay-at-home-parent of two small children with a spouse who works 70 hours a week requires a community. Though I try to get my runs finished in the mornings before my husband leaves for work, often, that plan fails. Training through all of January and February, there were plenty of mornings where roads were slick, sidewalks weren’t cleared off, visibility was minimal. For me, safety always comes first. Even if that means sacrificing a run. If conditions are bad, or in any way dangerous I just won’t go out. (I hate running in the dark. Even though I live in a quiet neighborhood, I am required to run on several streets without sidewalks, and I don’t want to be running on the same street as a sleepy sanitation worker who might be reaching for his coffee instead of looking for short moms in reflective tights.) Plans don’t always work out. So I’ve needed other people. A lot. On the weekends, my husband goes into work an hour and a half late, so I can get in a long run after sunrise. During the week, my mother-in-law watches my girls for a few hours so I can slip out to the YMCA (when the weather is cold) or down to my favorite trail, and still have time for a shower. My neighbor and I exchange babysitting. I’ll watch her boys when she has a doctor’s appointment, and she gets my girls when I need to wait until the afternoon for a run. Friends have emailed me, texted me, and told me that I’m doing a great job. I’ve asked for (and received!) Facebook messages of encouragement from both runners and non-runners. People have actually walked up to me, and told me that following my updates on my running has inspired them to try running. To try walking. To try Zumba. To try. I’ve even had neighbors roll down their windows and wave and cheer as they drive past me. All of this has made my training possible. I couldn’t have made the progress I’ve made without all of you. My community.
  5. I’m Still Totally, Completely, Unbelievably, Shaking-Down-to-My-Boots Terrified. I mean, seriously. 13.1 miles?? What the hell was I thinking? What am I thinking? And it hurts. (I’m starting to have IT pain in my left knee. That shit is uncomfortable as hell!) And it’s hard. Really hard. Why am I doing this thing that’s really, really, really, ridiculously hard? For a medal? For the bragging rights? I mean, really, Rachel, why?

The truth is, I have no idea why I’m doing this. It all just seems like an extended experiment in pain tolerance most of the time. But I do know what my mantra has been (what it’s been ever since I started my PhD, actually). John F. Kennedy, when he announced to the world that America would send a man to the Moon within a decade, gave one of the most inspiring speeches in the history of American politics. And I think about that speech every time I run. Every time I realize that it’s hard. Every time I want to quit. JFK talked about the whys too. Why go to the Moon? Why explore beyond our atmosphere? Why spend the money, and risk the lives, and tap the brain power? His response:

 “We . . . do . . . [these] things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

We do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

Because they are hard.

I want to do hard things. (That’s what she said.) I’d rather fail doing something difficult, something challenging, something impossible, then float along on a cloud of a million easy successes. I want to reach, and stretch, and pull all less-than-five-feet of me to the farthest distances I can, both figurative and literal. I want to do this.

And right now, at this moment, I think that I can.

I’m training for a half-marathon.

Oh, god. I said it. Out loud. In a public forum.

I am now contractually obligated to really do this thing, I suppose.

Okay. Breathing.

Let me explain to you all how I came to this completely insane life goal.

I started running before getting married back in 2010. I wasn’t really running to get into shape (I think I had more physical changes from walking, actually). It was more of a challenge thing. I double-dog dared myself. I owned a treadmill at the time, and had been walking for quite some time. But then the walks just felt too easy. I barely even broke out in a sweat. So, I started increasing the speed on my treadmill, until I broke from a walk to a jog. Two minutes jogging. Two minutes walking. The first time I did that, I went until I hit a mile. Eventually, I double-dog dared myself again. I wanted to run a 10-minute mile. It was speed like I never thought I could achieve. I had to take time. Had to train to get to that pace.

And then? I did it.

Then, I did it again.

Finally, I decided to leave the comfort of my bedroom. I started running outside, and I was certain that the entire world was watching my butt jiggle in my yoga pants (They were, it turns out. My neighbors were both retirees, and they both made comments at one point about seeing me running around the neighborhood. Then, our mailman really put the nail in the self-conscious coffin. I had to sign for a package that spring, and gleefully exclaimed, “Oh! These are our wedding invitations!” He replied, “Ahhh, so that’s why I keep seeing you out running all the time! I always see you and think, ‘Well, now, she doesn’t need to lose any weight. What’s she doing running around like that?’ But now I know.” He winked. “You’re trying to fit into a very special dress.” He meant all of this as a compliment, but I couldn’t help but feel violated by his uninvited judgment of my body. It was hard to go out for a run at my usual time after that.). It was terrifying.

But I did it.

Then, I did it again.

running

I was never fast. My 10-minute mile on the treadmill translated to about a twelve and a half-minute mile out in the real world. I shuffled. My form was terrible. I don’t think I ever even fully extended my legs as I ran. But I was running. Right before my marriage, I ran 6 miles. A long, long, slow 6 miles. I started thinking about signing up for a 10k.

Then, my new husband and I started trying to get pregnant. I was on Clomid for 6 months. We had to be artificially inseminated. I was emotional. Hormonal. I ran about once a month. Then, not at all.

My last run was when I was 13 weeks pregnant with my first daughter. I managed to run a half mile before having to stop and retch on the side of the trail.

I didn’t run again until my second daughter was about 3 months old.

I was out of shape. Out of practice. I had experienced severe incontinence after the birth of my first daughter (that has since cured itself). I was terrified. I had to double-dog dare myself. One mile. 12 minutes. On a treadmill. Inside.

Then, last December, I started running outside. About twice a week. I worked in mile increments. Just run a mile. A single mile. Down to the end of my road and back.

That first run, I did in 11 minutes and 57 seconds. 3 seconds faster than my treadmill time. For the first time ever, I had beaten the machine. Without a mechanical device pushing me along, I was running. On my own.

It’s weird, but for the first time ever, I realized that I controlled my pace. I could determine whether a run was fast, slow, or some combination of the two. I could change my posture. I could think about pushing off of my toes. I could relax my hands, or hold them stiff, slicing them through the air and feeling the breeze against my sweaty palms. I was in charge. I had control of how I ran. Me. Nothing else was pushing me or holding me back. It was just. Me.

ryan running

It took a long time to break through that 1-mile mark. By summer, I was frustrated. I had cut two and a half minutes off of my mile time (I regularly run a 10-minute mile now), but I couldn’t push my body to run past 1.25 miles. It took months of frustration to finally figure out the concept of pacing. Of running slower in order to run farther.

In October, I finally ran my first 5k loop around my neighborhood. I still had to stop and walk for a spell, but I did it.

Then, I did it again.

By the end of October, I started cross-training. I did Jillian Michaels’ “30 Day Shred” and worked out 30 days in a row (I’m still kind of amazed I did that). I finished on Thanksgiving day. Two days later, I ran another 5k loop. In 33 minutes. 5 solid minutes faster than my one official 5k race pace (I ran it with my sister about a month before getting pregnant with my first daughter. I went into that race with absolutely no training or preparation. It was miserable).

I’ve never felt stronger. I’ve never felt lighter. My husband told me that he thinks I’m more fit now than I’ve been in the 12 years we’ve been together.

poster-51_0

New Year’s approached, and I knew that I wanted to run a race.

I consulted the Internet. I consulted some of my good running friends. Some of my friends who, like me, struggled with reconciling their personal body image with athleticism (The people who, like me, looked in the mirror and didn’t see an “exercise person” or a “sports person”). They all said the same thing: We know you can do it. Go for it. We double-dog dare you.

So, I am. This is my first week of official training, and I’m terrified. Granted, this “training” week doesn’t look all that different from last week, but I’m starting every workout with a ball in my stomach and jitters.

Because I can’t stop thinking that I’ve never been that person. The exercise person. The running person. The “pain is weakness leaving the body” person. (Note: I’m still not that person. That person just sounds dumb and eager for a torn ligament.) I’m honestly afraid to tell my mother that I’m doing this, because I’m worried she’s going to laugh at the idea of her little book nerd, her little baby, her PhD, trying to become an athlete.

But I’m not trying to be an athlete.

I’m just trying to do something difficult.

Something that once seemed impossible.

Something that still kind of feels impossible.

But something that can be controlled by me and me alone.

Something that I decide the success or failure of.

But only if I dare.