taking the plunge

This injury has had me going outside the lines I had so carefully drawn for myself. And this is a good thing. I needed to expand, to spread my wings! All this time I thought running was freeing me, and in some ways it was, but the truth is this injury has revealed to me that I used it to hide and to make myself smaller in a lot of ways. It has taught me to no longer confine myself.

Literally and figuratively.

This has happened in many ways for me. I’m not going to go into all of that now, but I will share that soon. Today I want to talk about how it’s taken me into the water, and has inspired me to start swimming. To explore myself and my abilities there. I’ve put on my water wings, so to speak!

In the start of 2017, I joined a Masters Swim class and have been attending every week on Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 6-7:30AM. My coaches, Craig and Terri West, are incredible. I am so lucky to have found this group of inspiring athletes led by top-notch coaches who push me and believe in me.

In the start of the year Terri asked me to email her my swim goals, so she could help me. I sent her the following email:

Hi Terri,

Thank you so much for reaching out. I appreciate it whole heartedly! Working with you has given me a renewed athletic spirit and something to focus on that is making me feel strong and hopeful. Your guidance, support and encouragement mean the world to me. I am learning so much and value your professionalism and perspective more than words can say.
As a competitive runner, I discovered so much about myself and pushed myself beyond my established limits to grow and gain strength. While it’s true I accomplished more than I imagined possible, I also believe that there is still more yet to explore and achieve as an athlete. I also believe that I pushed myself too far, and that my foot injury is a sign/consequence of that. Getting in the pool was at first a way to stay fit and bide my time while my injury healed and I regained hormonal health, but it has become something so much more than that. I love the feeling of being in the water, the experience of learning something so new, and am now enjoying having the coaching and support of you and Craig to help me discover what is possible for me as a swimmer.
Right now, I am not really sure of specific goals. I would love your help with that! I think in the short term, I want to be on the path to learning proper technique and efficient movement patterns in the water, while also building my aerobic base. I do love to go hard and push myself and want to see what I can do from that perspective eventually, but for now I want to be patient in order to build a strong base and healthy habits in the water. Once I have that down, I want to push myself and race! As an endurance athlete I have always felt like I have a strong engine to “go the distance” and my hunch is that I would have the ability to do longer races like the mile or two mile … but I think going outside my comfort zone and doing shorter/faster distances would also be really good for me!
I don’t want swimming to be something I do just temporarily while my foot heals. My heart does want to get back on the roads and trails again and I believe that I will, but right now I want to focus on doing what I can and what feels good for my body. Running isn’t good for my body right now, but when I am in the water I feel STRONG. I feel like I am nourishing my spirit as well as safely building a stronger, more balanced body. So I guess longterm goals – I want to become a strong swimmer for life and to cultivate a confidence and a way of moving in the water that feels sustainable. I think of my athletic endeavors these days more as a “practice” – something that soothes my soul, clears my mind, strengthens my body and nourishes me as a whole. I am curious and open to discovering what’s possible in all areas of my life, and sport is a constant teacher for me. When I do return to running, I want to continue swimming.
So, that’s where I’m at right now! I am so thankful to have found you and Craig and I am really excited to swim with you each week. Thank you for everything! I think you’re amazing.
Jessica
Terri responded with so much enthusiasm, grace and gratitude. She was a collegiate swimmer and competed on the national level, and can relate to a lot of how I am feeling these days. Here is some of what she shared with me in her response:

Good morning, Jessica!  I am so touched and moved beyond words right now for what you wrote. THANK YOU – you made my day!  THIS is why I love doing what I do. And I know you understand that and can relate to that as a coach.

You are so grounded and have such a beautiful perspective on who you are and what you can accomplish in the future, as well as the patience to “be in the moment” – which so many people miss.  I am thrilled with your experience in the water and being willing to learn and become “one with the water.”  Growing up in the sport of swimming, I over-trained and under-performed to my abilities, and when I quit the NCSU team in 1986, I left hating the sport and myself.  I embraced coaching and became a much better teacher than a performer and gained my love of the sport back.

If I can help you in any way, I am honored to do so.  We most definitely can work on your technique and your goals together – and all while enjoying it and continuing to be your best self and good to yourself.

Thank you so much, Jessica, for this opportunity!  I will enjoy this journey with you –

Terri

Isn’t she just amazing!? I believe that everything in life happens for a reason, and that people come into our lives when and how they do for a reason. My foot injury needed to happen in order for me to grow.

So I have decided I am going to enter my first ever open water swim competition. It is a local event here on July 22nd. I am going to do the 1 mile swim option of the Triangle Open Water Swim Series here in the Raleigh area in a local lake! Terri and Craig have been helping me learn how to be efficient in the water, and have been helping me build both my endurance and speed. I am learning so much every week, and am falling more and more in love with the water the more I do it. I know that I will return to running a stronger and even more grateful athlete.

Have you ever done an open water swim? Have you ever had an injury that you feel transformed your perspective about yourself as an athlete, and made you a stronger runner and person? This experience has taught me that without a doubt, our injuries can be our greatest assets in the long run. I would love to hear your stories!

Have a great weekend, everyone!

(re) learning to swim – another work in progress

Today is day two of writing every day for 30 days, and I’m sitting here at my computer screen at 5:00am with my bathing suit on under my sweatpants, my cozy boots on my feet and my pink knit hat snuggled and warm on my head … hot cup of coffee beside me.  Everyone in my house is silently sleeping upstairs except for the pup, she is looking around for me up there and I think will be curled up at my feet in a few minutes.  It was a huge accomplishment for me to crawl out of bed this morning.

Let’s just say the last thing I feel like doing is driving to the gym and jumping into the cold swimming pool for one hour of drills and laps.

By now though, I know better.  I have been swimming once a week since November, missing only one week when my son had a stomach virus.  There hasn’t been one morning yet that I have actually FELT like doing it.  Once I’m in the water (which, by the way, takes me a while … because I am a total wimp and take my time gingerly dipping my toes in before eventually just sucking it up and jumping in), I relinquish my resistant attitude and embrace the work.  Lap after lap I find myself relaxing into the water, letting go, and enjoying the swim.  Observing how I am moving my body and paying attention to the rotation of my hips, the reach of my arms, the strength of my legs, the stability of my core, the rhythm of my breathing.  It becomes therapeutic at a certain point.  I’m not moving quickly, but I’m moving with ease.  I’m not fighting myself or the water anymore.

When I was a kid I swam on my local swim team.  I remember loving it and swimming HARD in that water.  My big sister is 7 years older than I am and she was a very strong and competitive swimmer.  I wanted to be just like her, so I poured my heart into it.  Eventually though I found my love for soccer and stopped swimming.  It had been decades since I got in the pool to really swim laps.  Then one day this summer my mom was at the pool with me and my kids and offered to watch them so I could swim.  I put on my 8 year old daughter’s goggles and swam laps – butter, back, breast and free – in my J.Crew bikini.  And I loved it.  It was exhausting and exhilarating.  I told myself that after Richmond Marathon I would get a proper swimsuit and my OWN goggles and dedicate myself to a weekly swim.

When I first started swimming weekly (a few days after Richmond), I had the fitness to last a pretty long while in the pool.  But I had no idea what I was doing – retreating to habits learned when I was a kid, relying on muscle memory but having no clue (or really, care) whether or not it was the “right” way to do it.  I realized quickly though that there was something really WRONG with my swim.  Every time I needed to breathe, I would breathe from my right side.  This was a red flag to me – a sign of an imbalance or a bad habit.  So one day I decided to try to breathe from my left side, just to see what that was all about.

I thought I was going to die.

It astounded me how scary it felt to breathe on my left side.  I felt like I was in someone else’s body – someone who was severely physically impaired.  I swallowed water, my neck felt like it was being crunched and I thought I would sink to the bottom.  My initial reaction to this realization was to just stick with what was working and breathe on the right side.  Don’t go back to that horrifying place of left-side breathing!  Yikes!  It was awful!  In my heart though I knew that wouldn’t be okay with me.  I didn’t want to feed an imbalance or ignore it, so I would need to figure this out.

A few weeks later I joined the Masters swim class at my gym.  I spoke with the coach about my challenges and concerns and explained my goals.  She watched me swim and said there was a lot that was GOOD about what I was doing, but that we needed to bring me back to the basics.  I was fighting the water and completely out of control in my form – pushing hard and making it hard on myself.  She told me to break it all down just like I would my running form and take it piece by piece.   To not worry about the big picture just yet.  She had me doing drills every week.  Usually the workout has a mix of drills and intervals and it’s supposed to take us 1 hour to complete.  I would take my time with just the drills and that alone would take me basically a full hour at first.  It was humbling and HARD as all-get-out, but it is working.  I am breathing now on my left side just as easily as I am on my right side!!  I am finding balance and I can hardly believe it every week I get in the pool – the progress is so rewarding.  I’m slower now in the water, but a ton more efficient.  My hope and belief is that if I keep working on this, eventually the speed will come to me.

I remember with running I had to retrain myself with my form a few years ago.  Pilates helped me a lot with this – bringing awareness to how I was holding my pelvis and engaging my core, where I was planting my feet, how I was holding my arms and even my hands.  I took a course in Chi Running, read books on form and worked with the coaches at =PR= to better understand how to make myself more efficient – how to work less hard to move faster and more fluidly.  The same goes for swimming, and Pilates and really how we move in our every day lives.  This fact completely excites me in this totally geeky way but I can’t help it.  Proper movement, proper use of our bodies, is so healing and liberating.  I believe we are all works in progress in every aspect of our lives, including in the athletic passions that we pursue, and that it is ever changing and evolving as life unfolds.  We have the choice to ignore our imbalances and let them fester, or to step up to them and bring our awareness to them and work WITH not against ourselves and our bodies.  I truly believe the possibilities are endless if we approach our challenges this way.  Hooray for learning to swim again!

Can you relate to this?  Have you had to re-learn a way to move – whether with swimming or running or otherwise?

Boston Training 2014

“If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”
– Anthony Robbins

At the end of each training cycle I think it’s important to take a step back to look at what worked well for you and to think about and learn what was possibly missing from your approach so that you can do things differently and find ways to improve and to enhance your experience as well as your performance. Looking at your choices and execution is really helpful, and in my opinion essential for growth on a lot of levels.  Don’t just look for what went wrong or what was missing – try to see what was good as well as what could have been better or different.  This will help you get stronger, it will challenge you and it will change you and aid you in becoming more focused and determined.

My last marathon training cycle was awesome.  Last spring while training for Boston and my first 50 miler, I learned that my body, mind and spirit really LOVED high mileage running.  I was not only able to handle it remaining injury-free but I was also feeling very balanced and happy while doing it and was improving my race times in all the distances I attempted and was running faster paces with equal or less effort on my training runs.  This led me to experiment with some higher mileage in the fall when training for Richmond.  I maintained my foam rolling, strength and core routines and stuck to running 6 days a week but increased my mileage and peaked at over 100 miles that cycle.  This approach worked well for me and I felt very strong on race day, running a 7+ minute PR over my Boston time.
nearing the finish of Richmond 2013
When I started thinking closely about what I wanted to change this cycle as I crafted my training plan for Boston 2014, there were a few key themes I wanted to focus on:
1. QUALITY over quantity
2. Mental toughness and stamina
3. Take the running shoes off more
I am halfway through my 6th week of Boston training and so far, I can tell you without a silver of doubt that this is working for me and I am having one of my favorite training cycles ever even though it is freezing cold and icy outside all the time!
Here’s a closer look at what I am talking about:
Quality over quantity.  I am not running a single double day this entire cycle, which is a big change for me over the last year.  My mileage will peak at right around 75-80 miles, which is 25% less than what I peaked at last cycle.  As a result of running LESS, I am finding that I have MORE to give on the days when the purpose of my run is to push hard or practice my goal paces.  My weeks are designed with either a hill workout or tempo run on Monday, a track workout or intervals on Wednesday and a long run on Saturday that sometimes includes pace work.  With easy runs, recovery runs or rest in between those hard days, my legs are fresh and my spirit is determined.  When I was running 80, 90 or 100 mile weeks last cycle I was only able to get one quality workout in the week in addition to my long run. Reducing my quantity is giving me the opportunity to get another key workout safely into my week.  I am really, really loving this and I feel confident at this point that it will help me have a strong race in Boston.
taking the hard work indoors with Maddie – do what you gotta do!
Mental toughness and stamina.  Also known as building courage and grit.  I realized something kind of major about myself when I raced Richmond and that is that I have a tendency to settle for “good enough” at a certain point in the marathon, usually right around mile 20/22ish.  When I start getting really uncomfortable I either put my gears in neutral and hang on, or I downshift to cruise into the finish because I want to cross the line feeling GOOD.  Well, this is something I’ve decided I want to change.  I want to know what it feels like to completely put it all out on the line. To risk falling flat on my face.  To risk losing the good because I am going for the GREAT.  To see what I am truly made of.  This basically boils down to the need to FACE MY FEARS and see them for what they really are – “false evidence appearing real.”  To trust in the process and grow from the discomfort.  
so true!
This cycle I am practicing acknowledging my fears and insecurities and getting stronger than them.  I do this on my runs – especially on the tough runs – and when I am swimming or in yoga class.  Which brings me to my next point…
Take the running shoes off more!  This one was eating at me towards the end of my Richmond training.  My training partner and good friend Maddie is a triathlete and last year she was injured for many months with a torn hip labrum.  This meant no running for her for a while, but because of her swimming and biking she was able to stay fit and happy while she was not able to run (she is running again now and we are training for Boston together – she didn’t miss a beat!).  I thought about what I would do if I had been in her shoes and it worried me because I knew I would be in a bad spot.  I do Pilates and am disciplined with my strength workouts, but they don’t give me the endorphin release, the fitness or the meditative stillness that running does.  If for any reason I had to stop running, I am sure I would become more sedentary and as a result of that, depressed.  So after Richmond, I got myself in the swimming pool with the goal of swimming once a week.  I found it to be really difficult but also a great workout and lots of fun.  I haven’t missed a weekly swim since then, and am now joining a Masters swim class at my gym every Tuesday morning.  I signed up for my first triathlons in the second half of 2014 (both in my home town, one is a sprint and one is an Olympic distance) and this is motivating me to stick to my swim workouts, too.
a new gear
I am going to a spin class every now and then also and love it, but spinning fatigues my legs and the classes are harder to fit into my schedule while Boston is my priority.  Another goal for me was to take at least one yoga class a week.  I have stuck to this goal as well and can really feel a difference in my body.  Yoga is building strength and flexibility and is also a great place for me to turn inward, to reflect, let things go and to grow.  I am so thankful to have it back in my life on a regular basis.
These small changes and areas of new focus seem to be bringing big changes into my life and into my running.  I’m taking it one day at a time and am enjoying it so much.  Do you take a look at your training after each cycle and make changes?  What kinds of things have you found work for you?