Why I don’t monkey around with food

Ah, January. The time of year when my Twitter feed and blog roll are filled with stories of cleanses, fasts and all types of eating experiments. There’s Paleo, Whole30, “metabolic efficiency”, low carb, no carb, no sugar, vegan, and, last but certainly not least, gluten-free.

I’ve gotten caught up in all of this before. I’ve Vitamixed, juiced, cut carbs, sugar, alcohol and eaten lots of foods only obtainable for high prices at Whole Foods. I told myself I was doing it to feel healthy. Have more energy. Train better. Sleep better. But the truth is, I never felt right about making “food rules” for myself and here’s the reason:

I used to be anorexic.

It feels like a long time ago now, but it was something I lived with daily from the ages of 19 to 24 or so. It was sort of a living hell. Honestly, I wouldn’t wish an eating disorder on my worst enemy because it truly sucks. Those horrors have been documented many times in different places, and I think people have a good understanding of what an eating disorder entails so I won’t get into that here, except to tell you that it is extremely isolating and lonely.

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Looking overly svelte in Greece, age 24

When I think back to that period in my life, I think about the loneliness and how I wish I could have back all of the time I spent worried and anxious about food and my weight and compulsively exercising because I think it kept me from enjoying what is supposed to be an exciting time in life – graduating from college, transitioning to adulthood, getting married and building a life with my husband. We had a lot of good times, but many things were marred by my inability to enjoy normal things and activities. There were a lot of sad times that I don’t think too much about anymore because life is so different now.

There were really two things that changed for me and finally helped me overcome the eating disorder. The first was graduating from law school and accepting a position with one of the best firms in the city (the City of Detroit, not Denver). This firm was a prestigious, old-school firm with an interest in building collegiality between the newer and more senior attorneys. As part of that, the firm had a unique program that I have not encountered anywhere since. If an attorney went out to lunch with a first-year associate, the firm picked up the tab. At any restaurant we chose. There weren’t really any rules or limits.

When I learned about this lunch program through the hiring process, I was immediately nervous about it. I didn’t really eat a normal lunch at that point and the thought of going out to eat multiple times per week was seriously scary for me. But I really wanted to fit in at the new firm and be “normal.” I got myself back into therapy with some great doctors, therapists and a nutritionist just to prepare myself for this new life before the eating disorder derailed the career I had worked so hard for.

As it turned out, a lot of days people at the firm were too busy to go out to eat much, but we still ate out a fair amount on the firm’s nickel, and I went along and began to behave more like a normal person without food issues.

The second thing that happened around the same time is that I decided to start running marathons. I’m sure I started distance running because I learned it was a great way to burn a lot of calories. I can remember going for longer and longer runs and then feeling like it was finally o.k. to eat and what a relief that was. Even though it probably started as a behavior with less-than-healthy motives, at some point things changed and I began to want to fuel my body to run and race well. I wanted to work with my body, not hurt it. Food became fuel and that made it o.k. to eat. All of these factors helped me become largely free of anorexia by my mid-20s.

Today, I have a mostly normal relationship with food. Sure, I still begin and end most days by stepping on the scale and checking my weight and meals occassionally get missed. Aside from the occasional lapses, it is mostly a healthy life.

Triathlon is now a big part of my life and it is a sport that is consumed by talk of nutrition. There is endless discussion in the triathlon media about fueling, losing weight, race weight, and what we should eat to perform our best. A lot of the information is conflicting. Much of it is confusing. It feels like a person needs a chemistry degree to figure out how to fuel for Ironman.

Sometimes I get caught up in obsessing about food and I start to make some food rules for myself and I follow those for a while. Then, at some point, it all starts to feel too familiar, in a bad way, to what I went through with my eating disorder, so I go back to eating what I want, which can mostly be summarized as anything I want to eat, mostly healthy, in moderation. I don’t stuff myself with tons of unhealthy foods, mostly because I just don’t like them. I eat all foods and I really don’t think I am suffering much athletically because of that.

There is one last thing. I have an 8-year old daughter. I want more than anything for her to grow up having a healthy relationship with her body and food. I don’t want her to be like me (the old me). I’ve decided that the most important thing I can do to try to ensure she will grow up with healthy views about herself and food is to model normal, healthy eating habits. So I don’t skip meals in front of my kids. Ever. Even if I have eaten lunch at 4:00, I still sit down when them at 6:00 and eat something. I never talk about “bad” foods or make food rules that might send the wrong message (“mommy doesn’t eat bread”). I never talk about my body or weight in a negative way around my kids. I never tell them that if they eat too much of something, they might become fat. As much as the former anorexic in me would like to delve into a green juice fast, I wouldn’t do it because I worry it sends the wrong message to my kids, that eating is “bad.” I care too much about passing along a legacy of acceptance and health to act in ways that undermine the message.

If you are a person with food issues, it is never too late to get help. The time and energy spent worrying about what you are eating and how much you weigh can surely be spent in better ways. Trust me, I know. If you don’t have food issues but enjoy tinkering with your diet to try to lose weight, have more energy, race better, I wish you luck and success. But if you have young people in your life, know that they learn by watching what you do and you may be teaching them different lessons than you planned.

I wish all of us a healthy relationship with food and our bodies this year and beyond.

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Rock n’ Roll Arizona Marathon Race Report

When I finally got around to registering for the race, I had to put down my predicted finish time so they could put me in the appropriate corral. I put down 3:15, which was my aspirational, best-case scenario time. I didn’t have any basis for picking this time other than I wanted to believe, deep down, that I was still capable of running a 3:15. I hadn’t run any races in the past five months and felt like I didn’t have a clear idea what pace I was going to be able to run on the day, but I was still hoping I was a 3:15 girl. Or at least a 3:15-3:20 kind of girl.

Everything race morning was perfectly smooth and I even had some lucky things happen, like finding free parking on the street just two blocks from the start. I had given myself tons of extra time in the morning because I hate feeling rushed and I was a little nervous about having to navigate to the start by myself. One negative about this race is that the marathon start and finish are in two different locations with no shuttling between the two. You have to either park at the start and take the light rail back to the start from the finish, or park at the finish and take the light rail back to the start. It was all going smoothly, and I parked myself on the floor of a Starbucks right by the start line to sit and wait indoors since it was in the 40s and I didn’t want to waste energy shivering outside in the cold.

My predicted finish time had me in corral #1, along with everyone else who was hoping to run sub 3:30, which isn’t as many people as you would think. It definitely felt more like the start of a local road race than a Rock n’ Roll Marathon, although I have never run any of the Rock n’ Roll Marathons, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

The race started and I didn’t have to jockey much for position since there weren’t that many of us and we had the benefit of at least two lanes of the street. Getting your pacing right is a little tricky coming from altitude to sea level. You feel really great and it is hard to know how hard you are working because it all feels much easier with so much oxygen.

My Garmin buzzed at mile 1 and I looked down and saw 7:10 or something like that, which was surprising because I didn’t feel like I was running that fast. On the other hand, my heart rate was very high – pretty much at the top range of what I am used to seeing if I am working very hard – and that seemed like a bad sign, but I told myself that it was probably just the adrenalin from the start and it would likely settle down soon.

I settled into a pace that felt comfortably fast and that ended up being around 7:20 per mile, which was a little faster than I had been planning on, but again, I really didn’t have a clear idea of how I was going to feel, and the pace seemed to feel right, so I just went with it. My heart rate remained scary-high, but I ignored that as well, because I have always said that I run the marathon by feel, and I was not going to let the number on the watch slow me down, even though it was playing with my head a bit and I was feeling a wee bit nervous about how long I could keep that up.

The field spread out very quickly. I was already in no-man’s land with no one else very close by mile 5. Around mile 10 or 11 I made a couple of friends. There was a girl I had seen at the start who looked fast and she had been ahead of me, but then somehow she was back with me. She said she had been going for 3:10 but couldn’t hit the splits, so she was just taking it easy. We talked for a while and it was nice to have someone to pace with and keep me company because before that, you could have heard a pin drop on the course. There really aren’t many spectators along the route and other than the aid stations, a few cheerleading squads and the bands, it was quiet.

A little while later, maybe around the halfway mark, a guy heard another girl and I chatting, and he tried to organize the three of us into a formal pace group to block the wind. It was pretty amusing because, first, it wasn’t windy at all by Colorado standards, and, second, I’ve never heard anyone attempt to organize a pace line in a running race.  I’ve definitely tucked in behind people if there’s a headwind, but the formal way the guy tried to get it going was funny. The guy was running 7:20 and I had decided by that point that I should back off to something more like 7:30, so I let him go on ahead and stayed with my new friends for a while longer.

With my new friends Karen and Nadine. They both rocked!

With my new friends Karen and Nadine. They both rocked!

Miles 13 through 19 are a big out and back to Scottsdale. The out part was o.k., but at some point on the back, maybe around mile 17, I realized that I was feeling a little less comfortable than I had been earlier and the pace was not coming quite as easily. I had read reviews that said the late miles of this course are pretty desolate, so I wasn’t expecting crowds or excitement, but it was still a little hard once we made the turn south at mile 20 because the course became even quieter and more boring. I was alone again at this point and not really enjoying myself so much because my legs had started to hurt – one quad hurt and the calf on the other leg hurt – and this is about the time I started to fall off my pace.

Running along between miles 20 and 21, I realized that I had to go to the bathroom immediately. It came on that suddenly. I started to get worried that I might turn into “Rock n’ Roll Arizona poop girl,” and I started scanning the landscaping along the course to see how much coverage there was if it came down to that. Luckily, I was within sight of an aid station, so I hopped off the course and ducked into the porta potty. I kept thinking how bizarre it was because my stomach hadn’t even been bothering me and I had only eaten one gel and taken a few sips of Gatorade (in addition to water), so I couldn’t figure off what had set it off. The only thing I can figure is that if you run your heart rate close to your max for 3 hours, something is bound to give eventually, and in this case, it was my stomach.

After the porta potty stop, I felt tons better, but I had lost a bit of time and I was annoyed at myself for forgetting to turn off the “auto pause” feature on my watch because now my watch time and the race time were different and I wasn’t sure by how much.

The rest of the race was just a matter of survival to get to the finish while trying to not completely implode, but I knew that I had lost 3:15, and I didn’t have it in my legs to fight any harder.

Around mile 23, a “race angel” appeared. These are the people on the course who say just the right thing to you at the right time and it is so weird because you almost feel like your coach or spouse or training partner is speaking through them. Does this happen to anyone else? I can think of this happening at several Ironmans, and it happened again on Sunday when a spectator, seemingly out of nowhere since there was hardly anyone around at this point on the course, told me “relax your arms.” I immediately did what he said. Then he said,

“Now feel the energy? You have more energy!”

He was right. I did have a tiny bit more energy. So I focused on that for a while, relaxing my arms and focusing on my form and playing any other mind tricks I could think of to make the miles tick away faster.

Around this same time, the course turned east and I was totally confused about where we were and how we were going to get back to Tempe Beach Park, which is also where the Ironman starts and finishes. Then, at mile 25, we finally crossed over Tempe Town Lake on one of those bridges, and it wasn’t a long climb, but it was definitely the steepest part of the course. I almost laughed out loud because it was kind of amusing that there was this steep incline so close to the finish. People were walking all around me but I made it my personal mission of the day to not walk that hill. Sometimes it is the little things that give you more pride than the big picture and running up that hill felt like a large victory at the time.

After the hill, I could finally see that we were really close and there was a quick right turn and then the finish line was right there. I was happy that I didn’t get outkicked at the line like I sometimes do, but I didn’t even really care, because I knew I was over 3:20 and the actual finish time seemed pretty insignificant after I had just given my heart to the race for 20 miles and then almost imploded (but not quite).

Both feet off the ground!

Both feet off the ground!

Official time: 3:21:55

I wandered around in the finish area sort of half crying because my legs hurt so badly but also so relieved that I wasn’t running anymore. It was a weird setting because I was feeling pretty bad, but I was surrounded by all of these people who were celebrating their 3:30 half marathon finish and the finish line concert was in full swing. I knew I had to get out of there immediately. Plus, I was alone and I had to navigate the light rail back to the start line, find my car at the start, drive to my hotel, get cleaned up, check-out and then get to the airport for my flight home. I was a little overwhelmed and I felt like I wasn’t managing very well. It seemed like the easier and more economical choice to travel to the race by myself, but it can be hard at the end when you really need someone to carry your bag or find you a water and there is no one around who knows you. That was kind of hard and I probably won’t put myself in that spot again.

I had a lot of thoughts after the race, pretty much all positive, and Vince had some good insight on what I can improve on and where I can go from here. Tackling a fast marathon at some point in the next year is still a possibility and my dreams of running a personal-best Ironman run split in Boulder this summer are still alive.

A Return to the Marathon

It’s race weekend and I am more than a little nervous. Tomorrow will be the first time I have toed the line at a stand-alone marathon since 2009, six months before I joined “the dark side” as my running friends used to call it.  I’ve since run seven more marathons, but only with a 2.4 mile swim and 112 mile bike ride beforehand. Every single time I thought about the stand-alone marathon. How easy it seemed. Simple. Running 26 miles in the relative cool of the morning without cramming 2000 calories into my system beforehand?  It seemed like a joke.

But I began to wonder?  What kind of marathoner was I anymore?  I knew I was a fairly decent Ironman marathon runner, but what about a regular 26.2?  Did I still have the “magic”?

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Back when it all seemed so easy

Since switching to triathlon in 2010, I have thought many times about doing a marathon, just to see if I was still the same runner I once was. I registered for NYC in 2011 to run it with my husband and sister, but that was the fall I did Kona and putting an Ironman and a marathon within the span of 2 weeks seemed like a bad idea. Then I registered for the Colorado Marathon in 2012, but I decided to do Ironman St George instead that weekend.

At this point the marathon was becoming a bit of a monkey on my back. It was becoming mental. I was scared of showing up, not racing well, and losing something that had been a part of my identity for a long time.  The “good runner.”  I wouldn’t be that person and then I would have to redefine myself and I didn’t like the sound of “average Ironman racer” quite as well.

After Whistler this past August, I decided to make a coaching change and I hired Vince Matteo who I had met through Twitter (he’s @felog – give him a follow!).  One of the first things he recommended was running a marathon early this winter. He thought I had been underperforming in the run portion of Ironman. That thought hadn’t really occurred to me.  I was obviously underperforming in the swim, and usually underperforming on the bike, but I thought I was killing the run. Vince thought I could probably run better and he wanted to have me run a marathon. Not really to see if I could still crank out a PR, but more to learn about me as a runner and see how I would respond to his training.

We got to work on the marathon training in the fall and right off the bat, things were going down a little differently than I was used to. Instead of running solely by heart rate, we were running more by pace. A lot of times those paces were faster than I was used to running. More than a few times, after a long run where the wheels came off, I had to email Vince and tell him something like, “hey, I wasn’t able to hit 7:XX pace late in that run because I can only run that pace on the track at sea level if I am running 800s,” and that type of thing. I was a bit out of my comfort zone, and it was scary as it usually is when you go there. We both had to go through some learning, and some back and forth, but eventually we settled on some long run pacing that didn’t kill me.

Then I got flakey.

I was originally going to target the Tucson Marathon in early December, but race weekend coincided with my mother-in-law’s annual visit to our house to decorate our Christmas tree, and I couldn’t stand the thought of missing out. I decided to push the marathon back. Rock n’ Roll Phoenix was the next logical choice since it was an easy-to-travel-to race with a fast course. There was only one problem. Winter had arrived in Colorado. Cold temperatures, snow, the holidays, skiing. Still, I felt like I could manage all of that and stay on track for the race. Which is when I got hit with the big whammy – a terrible cold, flu, bronchitis, pneumonia? Who knows.  All I know is that I was a wreck. I was as sick as I’ve been in recent memory and the race prep was going south quickly. I managed to eek out a semblance of a “last long run,” but it took place in Vail, while wearing Yak Trax, with a 5 mile bus ride in the middle (don’t ask). Things were not looking good.

I sent Vince some insecure, whiny emails. I was losing any semblance of confidence I had previously had. Worst of all, I hadn’t even registered for the race yet! I had no real concrete plans to go to Phoenix. The limbo was awful and I was making Mark crazy. One day I would say I was ready to do the race and the next I would say I couldn’t do it. I was super afraid of failure and how that would feel.

Finally, I think it was on New Year’s Day or maybe the day after, I had a phone call with Vince and he talked me off the ledge. He said he didn’t care if I didn’t run 3:XX. He didn’t really care what the actual time was. He just wanted to learn some things about me that could help us going forward this year with Ironman training. So with the pressure off, I finally committed and registered for the race and made plans to go to Arizona.

That was two weeks ago.

So here I am, the day before the race, and I am trying to process how I feel about what may happen. I realize it’s not life or death – it’s just the marathon. But doing well in the marathon used to be my thing. And it might not be anymore.

I recently read that if you are afraid of something, that’s where you should head next. With that in mind, I plan to head out there tomorrow. I know I probably won’t be the same as I was before and I probably won’t run as fast as I know I am capable of. But I will be out there and I am hoping it will feel good to be back.