Tales of a 5-Miler, Then and Now

I still remember my very first 5-mile run. It was summer 2010, and I was just finishing up a 10-week stint at the Brevard Music Festival in North Carolina. I had gone to Brevard as a rising senior in my college’s music program with the intent of getting myself ready for auditions the following year. By the end of my junior year, though, I had started seriously doubting whether a performance career was really, truly what I wanted for my life. Perhaps going to a summer music intensive in the midst of such an earth-shattering epiphany wasn’t the most logical course of action, but I had already gotten scholarships and grants to cover the cost, paid my deposit, and figured that regardless of what path I took after graduation, going to Brevard would be a good learning experience, both for music lessons and life lessons. Besides, it would be a change of scenery, and that alone would probably do me some good as I figured out what exactly I wanted to do next.

Though my daily schedule was packed with lessons, rehearsals, and personal practice, I carved out time on most days to run around the beautiful campus with its tree-lined paths, sparkling lakes, and rolling hills. Generally I kept my runs to 2-4 miles, but I looked forward to them as a calming ritual of sorts. When the uncertainty of my life direction seemed almost unbearable at times, running kept me grounded and in the present moment. I loved the steady rhythm of it, focusing on timing my breathing with my footfalls, and just being outside, enjoying the sunshine and the scenery of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I even made a few friends at the camp who sometimes ran with me, including a run two of us did one night at about 10 p.m. under a perfectly clear, starry sky…which I highly recommend trying if you ever get the chance!

The day I did my 5-mile run that summer was the day before I was scheduled to head back home. As the sun set on my final day at camp, I decided I was going to go for it. That elusive 5-mile run was happening, and nothing could stop me. Surely if I could finish that run, I would be able to finish the upcoming year of my degree program and sort out my life direction. With my reserves of determination filled to the brim, I set off towards town, slowly but steadily, savoring the scenery and soaking it all in. At the 2.5-mile mark, I turned around and headed back, buoyed by the conviction that I was definitely going to make it, and just as dusk descended, I triumphantly returned to camp. I had averaged something like a 12 minute/mile pace, but by golly I had finished, and my friends celebrated with me at a picnic table outside the rec building. 5 miles! I had really done it! And sure enough, much like I got through that run, I got through my senior year and figured out next steps, the cumulation of which have gotten me to where I am now.

I couldn’t help but think of that run tonight as I went for a 5-mile tempo run after work. These days, 5 miles hardly feels like the monumental challenge it did 7 years ago, at least in terms of distance alone, though adding the element of speed certainly kicks the difficulty level up a notch. As the sun ducked behind the buildings and the cool dusk set in, it took me back to that night in the mountains of North Carolina, my determination to hold my speed now mirroring the determination it had taken just to finish back then. When I got back home and looked at my stopwatch app, it showed that I had managed to hold a 9:23 pace for the duration of my run. Sub 10-minute pace for 5 miles…I could hardly believe my eyes; it was the first time I’d ever cracked the 10 minute/mile pace for anything over 3 miles. This was a feat I could have only dreamed of that summer at Brevard, but I’d finally done it.

Obviously, I am by no means the fastest runner out there. I never will be, but I’ve long since accepted that, and besides, that has never been my goal. The beauty of running, to me at least, is how the sport grows with you over time, how you only really ever compete against yourself, and how you get to celebrate whatever milestones are meaningful to you. Tonight, I took a moment to savor the fact that I had dropped over 12 minutes from my very first 5-mile time as well as the progress I’ve made both in running and in life since that summer at Brevard. While it’s always good to be looking ahead and striving to improve, sometimes, it’s just as necessary to look back and see for the sake of perspective just how far you’ve actually come.

Half Marathon Prep Begins

Hey everyone, checking back in. I know it’s been a little while. I haven’t written much recently as the last few weeks have been a little rough over here. My kitty has been having some pretty serious health issues as of late, which has involved numerous trips to the vet, starting meds (including both pills and subcutaneous injections), and making some tough calls regarding how to proceed in what is a frustratingly ambiguous situation. It probably goes without saying that this has been quite stressful logistically and emotionally, but the good news is that for now she is doing better, even though we aren’t out of the woods just yet.

To the best of my ability, though, I have been maintaining my sanity by keeping up the running routine. I’m still shooting for a fall half marathon (woohoo Chicago Half Marathon!), my first since my one and only back in 2011, so I’ve officially embarked on training for that using the FIRST half marathon training plan. So far, I am a huge fan. For me, 3 days a week is the perfect amount of running, at least with each run serving this specific a purpose (one interval, one tempo, one long run). From my perspective too I think the key with the FIRST plan is that it leaves you with plenty of time to cross-train and strength-train, along with one or two rest days, which frankly I find almost as essential as actually spending time logging miles. Even just spending one or two days a week on the bike and lifting some weights makes a huge difference for me in terms of improving speed and endurance and avoiding overuse injuries. Case in point: Although it seemed like a lot for being so early on in training, I did the first 10-mile long run about a week ago without much trouble at all. It was actually my first double-digit mileage run in over 6 years, and even though I was slower than I wanted to be, I had no lingering aches and pains afterwards. So, major win.

I think most of my sluggishness right now is due to the fact that with my stress levels being as high as they are, I’ve completely lost my appetite and the time/energy that I usually put into meal and snack prep. Obviously this is somewhat problematic since a huge part of running well is fueling well, and given that my go-to stress food is microwave nachos and not much else, I’ve…not exactly been doing an exemplary job on the nutrition front. I’m trying to be gentle and patient with myself while still making sure I eat SOMETHING with actual nutrients (and ideally some fiber) in it every day, though of course that’s easier said than done. It’s not a perfect solution or an ideal long term solution, but for now I’ve found meal replacement shakes (namely chocolate Ensure Plus and/or Slim Fast) to be helpful in closing the gap. That, plus bottles of Naked Juice Protein Zone, which are good if you don’t mind the grittiness of the protein powder they use. Again, more of a temporary measure than a permanent solution, but hopefully not one that will be necessary much longer…fingers crossed that life calms down again soon.

Anyway that is pretty much the latest around here. Aiming for a recipe sometime later this week if all goes well…stay tuned!

Training Limbo

Being between race training plans is always sort of an odd time. Ever since I finished my most recent 5K in mid-June, I haven’t been following any kind of structured schedule with running. I’ve been aiming to get in a couple runs per week, but that’s about it. After the Swarthmore race, I ended up having some non-running related projects come up, plus a couple of pleasantly distracting visits from dear friends where catching up took priority over squeezing in a few miles, so overall, I’ve been happy to take a short break.

Besides allowing me the time to focus on other life priorities, I also really enjoy periodic running breaks because I almost always find I come back from them feeling well-rested and stronger. In my most extreme case, I actually dropped about 2 minutes from my previous 5K time after not running for about a year. Yet even for short breaks like this past week, I still find that my running noticeably improves afterwards.

Case in point: Recently I’ve noticed that part of what slows me down is actually my arm movement, so I’ve consciously been working on that, especially towards the end of a run when I might be getting tired. I have a huge tendency in running (and really in day-to-day life in general) to hike up my shoulders when I get tense and/or fatigued, which of course is a complete waste of energy. Along with that, if my upper body is tense, my arm swing constricts and/or my arms start crossing over the midline, and either way, it slows down my stride considerably…I really noticed this at the end of the 8K last week. If I’m able to keep my shoulders relaxed and my arm swing natural, I can easily maintain a much faster pace than if I don’t.

Fast forward to today. Got home from work and decided to do a quick 3-3.5 miles, no watch, no pressure. Although the temperature still hovered in the 80s, I felt great the entire time. A cool breeze blew in from the lake, and the few times my arms and shoulders felt like they were creeping up, I quickly adjusted. My stride felt smooth and easy nearly the entire time. It’s like something clicked for me during my days off, and now I feel ready to build the intensity back up again.

This upcoming week, I start training in earnest for my next big race, the Chicago Half Marathon in late September. I’ll possibly have a few shorter races between then and now (including a new state if all goes well!), but will mostly be focusing on getting ready to tackle 13.1 miles for the second time. I’m excited to be getting out of training limbo and into a more structured regimen again, and after having a couple of weeks to relax, I feel ready, both physically and mentally, for the challenge ahead.

Summer Cooking: Kale Tabbouleh

I suppose you could say my love for running and my love for food go hand-in-hand. I started getting into cooking right around the time I started running in my early 20s. Sure, takeout Chinese food and midnight pizzas were delicious, and I had no qualms about indulging on a fairly regular basis, especially during half-marathon training! For my day-to-day life as a runner, though, I felt infinitely more energetic if I ate mostly homemade, veggie-based food. I was by no means a master chef when I first started, but got surprisingly far on assorted combinations of rice/various grains, beans/legumes, leafy green veggies, and cheese.

Then and now, I almost exclusively cook vegetarian meals at home, partially in an effort to be more environmentally friendly, but also because I am completely squicked out by the texture of raw meat. That’s not to say I never eat meat; I do occasionally (mostly if someone else makes it for me), but it’s not a huge part of my diet at all. Hooray, flexitarianism!

Summer has always been a little challenging for me in the kitchen, though. Most of my go-to recipes are soups and stews, and who wants to stand over a hot stove in the middle of July? Salads are a good option, but as a runner, they sometimes don’t feel substantial enough and I end up hungry again an hour later. As a result, at this time of year, I’m constantly on the lookout for creative ideas for filling, protein-packed, mostly cold dishes to try. Lo and behold, a friend recently sent along this New York Times Cooking recipe for a kale tabbouleh, and it has quickly earned a top slot in my summer meal rotation. It’s relatively simple, it will fill you up, and there are a LOT of possible variations. My adjusted version of the NYT recipe with my own added commentary (in parentheses):

INGREDIENTS

  • cup fine bulgur, dry (you can also substitute quinoa…both are good cold)
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 shallot, finely chopped (red onion would work as a substitute, too)
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • ~1 teaspoon fine salt (adjust depending on your taste)
  • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 bunch kale (~5 cups), stems removed, leaves chopped (or torn) into 1-2 in. pieces
  • 2 large ripe tomatoes, diced, ~2 cups (you can sub sun-dried tomatoes for a slightly different flavor)
  • ½ cup torn mint leaves
  • ½ cup diced radish*
  • 1 can garbanzo beans, drained, or ~1 cup dried garbanzo beans, cooked and drained*
  • 6-8 oz. feta cheese*

*=Optional additions, do as many or as few as you want

PREPARATION

  1. Prep veggies. Cook bulgur (and garbanzo beans, if desired) according to package instructions.
  2. In a small bowl, whisk together lemon juice, shallot, cumin and salt. Whisk in olive oil.
  3. In a large bowl, toss together kale, tomatoes, mint and radish. Once the bulgur (and optional garbanzo beans) are cooked, stir those in. You can let the hot ingredients cool first, but I like how they help tenderize the kale if they are thrown in right off the stove. Toss in dressing. If you want to add feta, toss it in just before serving.

Enjoy, and be sure to leave your favorite variations in the comments!