Monday, May 30, 2011

Mean or Motivated

Jacob Matham after Hendrick Goltzius, Superbia, c. 1593
 This past weekend I ran a 10 mile race along the Mississippi River. Considering I hadn't gotten the usual amount of sleep in the prior few days on account of flying back to the States and subsequent socializing, I was quite happy with my 1:19:57 time. I planned on incorporating my warm-up and cool down with the race to log at least 15 miles total. To do so, I parked about 2.5 miles away, and jogged to the start. I felt pretty good. In fact, for all the runs I had completed since returning to Minneapolis, I felt good. Some of that I attribute to the sunny, but cool weather. Some of it I attribute to being relaxed; after two weeks living from a suitcase and anxious about volcanoes, train delays, and other such transportation problems, I had made it safely back to the Minnesota. It is always a joy when your body is working with you. But feeling good is not something that happens magically. I set goals, and I make specific steps to accomplish them. Perhaps most importantly, I try to check in with myself frequently to make sure those steps are working, and the goal does not need to be adjusted. I had set the goal of 8-minute miles as a highly optimistic one. I knew I could run 8 minute miles, probably for at least 7-8 miles, but I wasn't sure I'd be able to sustain it.

Before any race I mentally set a time goal for myself. I always set this goal the morning of the race and base it on the many factors I know can contribute. I consider temperature, humidity, how I feel. My goal, in many ways, is both a wish and motivation. It is a wish, because I will not hesitate to re-assess and re-set my goal midway through a race. I set a goal that will push me, but that I know I can realistically accomplish.

Interestingly, I've heard that setting a a small, motivationally-oriented goal is difficult for many men, socialized to fulfil a particular gender role, to do. The idea that one can think small in order to achieve big does not seem to be part of many politicians' toolboxes either. I am constantly saddened that a politician will sacrifice long-term good for short-term glory to protect ego and power.

It's not that I don't know what it's like to fail. I do. It can be physically and emotionally debilitating to not live up to your own expectations. Yet after reflection, failure can be motivating. What did I do wrong? Was my goal unrealistic? What factors played into my expectation, and what factors played into my not realizing it?

The first marathon I ran was, in some ways, a failure for me. I ran the 2008 Twin Cities Marathon with my older brother and a high school friend. It rained from mile 4 to mile 9. It was cold. I was chafed. I was unprepared, mentally and physically, for the toll a marathon takes. I had struggled with plantar fasciitis all throughout training, and I was already hurting at mile 13. Still, I continued to push, and it wasn't until mile 24 that I became, as my brother and running partner put it, "a cornered badger."

(Do not watch the following if you are offended by foul language or blood)

Okay, so perhaps I wasn't as bad as the honey badger above, but my attitude of "I am not going to care about how my body feels, I am going to do what I want" is scarily similar to the badger's (don't feel the bee stings! Forget the cobra venom! Honey Badger don't care!). There is a line between a badass athlete who is at his/her physical peak and a good sport, and just a nasty, hurting, animal. Humans are animals, and we revert to instinct when in trouble. I was in trouble at mile 24, and to protect myself emotionally--to protect my pride and my ego--I snarled and spat for my brother and friend to go on, to leave me. My friend told me to "simmer down," something that in my extraordinarily defensive state I could hardly do. I had no energy left, my body was breaking, and sadly, my energy went into prideful self-preservation, growling my frustrations.

In the 10 mile race yesterday, I started out running just under 8 minute miles. I felt good. And I continually repeated that affirmation to myself as the miles ticked by. Almost like a mantra, I told myself  "I feel strong. I am strong." I told myself this at each mile marker and while maintaining pace going up hills. After mile 7, I was feeling tired. My mantra shifted, interestingly, to second person. It became motivational, rather than affirmational. I alternated between "you can do this" and "you are strong." The ego, in other words, had left--marked by the entrance of the second person in my thoughts. Miles 8 and 9 were just over 8 minute miles. I readjusted my goal, allowing myself to be over, allowing myself to be happy with feeling good and feeling strong, but also telling myself it was not yet out of the realm of possibility to finish under 1:20. And, with the mantras in my head, I did it!

Yesterday's race was a success for me. The 2008 marathon, while frustrating on many levels, was a useful and important experience as well. I learned how to train better, how to listen to my body better, and how to let myself fail. I learned there (and in many other non-running related experiences) some humility. Would that our leaders could do the same, and that we, as voters, valued that virtue.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Its Nice to Share in Zürich

twin and me on path into Zürich
Blogging from Wettingen, outside of Zürich this week. I am in Switzerland for the weekend visiting my twin. He was game--and even excited--about coming along with me for my long run. On Friday he planned our route. I was able to show him the amazing capacities of, which is great for planning routes wherever you are! I wanted to go 15 miles or so, so we decided to do a point-to-point run, starting in Wettingen and ending in Zürich. It took us through a few towns, a nature park, and past the Katzenzee (a name that warmed my heart, given my love of cats), ending well within Zürich.
local Wettingen brew: Lägerebräu


My twin biked beside me, willing to ride slowly, happy to talk. It is such a pleasure to be able to talk relaxedly, not only over beers (gotta carbo-load the night before!), but outside doing activities we each enjoy. My twin talked about how much he appreciated that I now have a visual of where he rides his bike when he cycles into the city--I now have that much more insight into his life here. We both agreed that for us, it has been through biking and running that we get to know a place, and that when we share biking/running in that place with others, the people with whom we share the experience not only know the geography better, but then know us better. I have had countless runs in places other than the city I call home, and I love using running as a way to learn my way around a place, learn the feel of place, see and feel the rhythms of a place that one just doesn't get on the street in car or even bus or tram.

Having company on a two-and-half hour run is always nice, just to ease the monotony. But perhaps more importantly, when you share something that is a big part of your life--like running in my case, or a bike commute for my twin-- you're sharing part of what makes you you--an individual with specific interests, taste, skills, goals. Perhaps less enjoyable for my exceptionally musical twin was hearing my taste in music, as played through my phone as we ran/rode the last hour. His commentary provided good laughs, at least!

Finally, after the 15.5 miles together, we hopped the smooth and fast train from Zürich Oerlikon back to Wetttingen, where I had a shower and my twin prepared tasty rösti (Czech-style: potatoes as pancakes with onions and caraway). Yum!


Saturday, May 14, 2011

Gezondheid en Hardlopen (Health and Running) Nederlands-style

one pack of many early-morning cyclists along the kanaaldijk

a lone rider on the kanaaldijk

Today I ran sixteen miles from Amsterdam to Weesp and back, along the polder that keeps the river Ij and the sea from putting Amsterdam underwater ( The run was beautiful--it was 55 degrees (Fahrenheit), it had rained the night before, and so the air was  pleasantly cool, and the sun broke through the typische Nederland (typical Dutch) clouds that roll in off the North Sea. The two-hour-forty-minute run gave me plenty of time to think about this blog, and appropriately, I listened to a This American Life podcast on the American right-of-passage that is prom, followed by an episode of Savage Love. Correspondingly, today's blog is mostly musings on how the Dutch provide a model for healthy, daily exercise (bike everywhere!), as well as a model for healthcare and health education.

Before those musings however, I would like to share the best waffle I ever ate, courtesy of Ghent, Belgium. That beautiful, buttery, syrupy goodness in which I indulged Saturday--and the Dutch biertjes on Friday--provided good carb-heavy fuel for today's sixteen miles!
Lekkerste waffel. Groentenmarkt, Gent, Belgie

Maarten, Kate, me enjoying biertjes, Utrecht
I began my run at 8:15 a.m., and was constantly passed by packs of cyclists in spiffy lycra get-ups. Clearly the hard-core bikers get out early on the weekend, before the runners--who I saw on my way back, after 10 a.m. The Dutch bike everywhere on commuter bikes, which no doubt help keep most of them fairly lean, despite the preponderance of such delectables as stroopwafels, all kinds of lekker cheese (Gouda? Edam? Dutch cities), and my other favorite indulgence (besides wafels), kaassouffle.

In addition to a healthy--and environmentally friendly--national mode of transportation, the Netherlands provides a model for how we could better educate our prom-going and sexually-ignorant youths in the US, and thus help keep STI and unwanted pregnancy rates down. Wikipedia on sex ed demonstrates the stark contrasts between Dutch approaches to sex education and US approaches. The Netherlands has one of the lowest rates of teen pregnancies in the world, while the US has the HIGHEST rate of teen pregnancy in the industrialized world.

In the Netherlands, teenagers get sex ed not as an opt-in or out elective, but as part of their biology class (makes sense, right?), which of course is government subsidized. They learn about contraception, as well as all-important communication and negotiation skills. This open dialogic approach is reinforced by the Dutch  healthcare system, which guarantees confidentiality and a non-judgmental approach to care, in addition to subsidized birth control (did you know some US insurance policies provide for viagra prescriptions but NOT birth control?!). Even the Wall Street Journal article concedes the Dutch healthcare system is a viable model for government-subsidized healthcare. Yet apparently this data somehow hasn't convinced every American citizen, and attempts to repeal Obama's healthcare reform--itself not a panacea--has been, along with defunding Planned Parenthood, a major goal of many on the right. Sadly, it is outside of the public system, at places like Planned Parenthood where kids in the US learn how to be responsible about their health and bodies.

Hmmm, could this poor record in health education in the US also have some effect on the extreme rate of obesity in the US? On the sixteen-miler this morning, I saw so many people out enjoying the fietspad (bike path) along the dike on bikes, on foot, or on rollerblades. The Center for Disease Control shows nine states that have over 30% of its population obese--and the majority of states are over 25% obese populated. Balanced health needs to become an important part of US culture, not something that can be purchased from a pill, diet fad, or by copying celebrity disordered eating and extreme exercise. We need to make daily exercise and open communication about biology--including sex and evolution--a priority here for everyone, one that is reinforced by the institutions of media and government.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Check this out in Men's Health: The Soft Underbelly of the Right. I will blog about it--and running in the Netherlands along the Rijn--soon!