My long hiatus from endurance sport: what I learned, and why I’m back.

I’m too ashamed to look back and confront the last time I posted on this blog. It was too long ago.

I’ve spent the past eight months or so on a hiatus from endurance sport. At times it’s felt liberating (a lot of hours free up every day when you step away from endurance training), at times it’s felt incredibly scary (how will my body react? Am I throwing all of my years of hard work down the drain? [the short answer: no. It’s come mostly back within a few weeks of hard work. Thanks muscle memory!]), and at times it’s felt lonely (without endurance sport, who am I?).

The greatest lesson I’ve learned from stepping away from training for so long is that without it, I am not the same. Sure, I have a heck of a lot more free time and that’s nice, but I’ve never been a lay-around, go-with-the-flow kind of person. I’ve always been a go-getter, a doer, a fidgeter. But as the months slowly passed I’ve found myself almost undetectably slipping into a sort of complacency; a sloth I’ve never known has made its way into my life. Now, I am completely capable of sitting through a regular two-hour movie without a problem. Like the rest of the population, I can contentedly twiddle through mindless games on my iPhone for hours. This may sound normal, but it’s not normal for me. I was meant to move. But I kept at it, because for the first time in my adult life, I learned how to completely relax.

Then, the big questions started popping up. Who am I? What is my purpose? What is my worth? In a life without the endorphins, goal-setting, and the tangible changes that come along with endurance training, everything else that I have to live for seems somewhat cruel and harsh. Without my endurance lifestyle, what do I have? I have my job and school, which are capricious—satisfying some of the time, but a frustrating and stressful disappointment most of the time. I have my friends and family—although perhaps taking a break from endurance sport allowed me to focus on them and appreciate them more. I have my possessions, but the mere idea of possessions depresses me. I have my love for playing music, admittedly rediscovered during my hiatus. But I don’t have that daily surge of energy and positivity that accompanies a long run or vigorous swim—energy and positivity that affects all of the aforementioned items tremendously anyway.

During my break from running, biking, and swimming, I became aware of what it feels like to be a boring person. I hope none of you take offense to this—my apologies in advance if you do, although I’m going to go out on a limb and assume the vast majority of my readership are pretty dedicated athletes. A boring person, in my own, simple little definition, is someone who has nothing that makes him or her interesting. No hobbies, no interests, no areas of expertise, no recreational activities in which they are adept, no talents utilized in areas outside of the traditional work environment, no massive collections of bizarre and random things. I have become “The Endurance Junkie,” “The Marathon Runner,” “The Triathlon Girl,” or even more crudely “The Crazy Person” (which I’m totally okay with!) among my friends. Without endurance sport, I don’t have much of an identity. It’s something I’m interested in, something I’m dedicated to, and something that makes me interesting. I do it for me, but a nice offshoot is that it makes me something unique for my friends and family. And similarly, I have a special place in my heart for friends that have non-boring sides to them. I learn so much from them, and find them to be much more engaging and inspiring people to have in my life.

One thing I’ve noticed, as my friends all approach and enter their 30s, is that the boring life just seems to set in with the vast majority of adults. Slowly, it takes over, but within only a few short years it can have a firm grasp on the typical working mom with toddlers or 60+ hour work week. This is what my friends are becoming, and so, idealistically, I cling to the hope that I can stay true to myself and the things that make me tick.

I took a break from endurance sport for several reasons, but one was to test myself. I remember having a conversation with my best friend a couple of months ago. I told him that when I was completely honest with myself, I did have some concerns about taking exercise too far. I think this is a common experience with endurance athletes. Endurance sports are all about taking things to the limits, and then passing them. We pride ourselves on completing events that require multiple body systems to fail at worst, and go into heavy compensatory modes at best. We voluntarily take on training that can sometimes make us tired and cranky, and even throws our physiology out of whack. Even those of us who are very careful about balancing training with recovery struggle with finding balance. As ultraman Rich Roll once said, “Balance eludes me.”

Looking back upon my many years as a runner, cyclist, and swimmer, I can earnestly say that there are times I’ve found a healthy balance, but more frequently I’ve been out of balance. Embracing imbalance has caused me much joy. But at times, too much imbalance has caused unrelenting fatigue, difficulties keeping up with responsibilities, and social withdrawal. Perhaps the biggest reason for my hiatus was to find time to recalibrate my perspective on things—so that the next time I get back into training, I do so with the benefit of reflection and experience.

A question I asked myself as my activity levels started to dwindle was: will all of my energy and drive somehow be magically sublimated into other aspects of my life? Will taking a break from exercise suddenly cause me to spike in my performance at school and work? After all, that energy is going to still be kicking around, and if it’s not going into a run, it’s got to go somewhere.

Not surprisingly, life without exercise was, paradoxically, an energy suck. I won’t go into detail here because I am sure you all have experienced this, but in summary, without my daily dose of activity I was more tired, emotionally labile, and unmotivated. Interesting how that works.

My take-away from my time off has been multi-fold, but to keep things succinct, I think the biggest thing I learned is that endurance sport gives me something that makes me happy and makes life feel like it’s worth living. This is extraordinarily rare. I think so many people—too many people—wander through adulthood aimlessly, and time chips away at them. They don’t have a “thing,” something they can keep coming back to that helps them along and lifts them up. They don’t have a happy place. They don’t have something that truly engages them and excites them. We runners, cyclists, and swimmers have this. Our “hobbies” are inane and without a clearly direct outcome or contribution to society, but they grant us joy that few experience on a regular basis. The indirect consequences of this cannot be quantified.

During my break, I realized that I wanted my life to feel like it’s worth living. I wanted to feel like life was fun and exciting. With the exception of a few select beings I love with all my heart, triathlon was the only place I could find this. Imagine the ecstatic feeling when one of your favorite songs bursts through your headphones during a run—the surge of previously hidden power that takes over your stride. Picture the tears of happiness and exhaustion that well up in your eyes during a marathon finish. Think about the incredible camaraderie you’ve found among other athletes at triathlons, in cycling clubs, and in masters’ swimming groups. These experiences cannot be paralleled anywhere.

And for that, I’m back in the saddle.

I’m an Athlete with Addison’s.

When I first began this blog late last year, I promised myself I wouldn’t talk about the fact that I have Addison’s Disease. I didn’t want it to outshadow other aspects of who I am and the validity of some content pieces I’ve written. The fact that I have Addison’s is something I’ve kept very private for the past couple of years. However, increasing interest in related topics (e.g. how to be active/athletic/live a balanced lifestyle while managing chronic illness) has come my way from friends and family members over the past few months, and I’ve found that sharing my own personal experiences, rather than hiding them, often gets people

During late 2011 and early 2012, I experienced several fainting episodes, one of which landed me in the emergency room. Doctors–both those at my medical school, who witnessed the first two episodes, and those in the emergency room–automatically chalked it up to stress, fatigue, and the most common culprits for fainting in young women: postural orthostasis (low blood pressure), hypoglycemia, and/or some underlying psychiatric cause. I was basically told I was probably having a mild panic attack, and sent home. The third time it happened, I experienced the worst stomach ache of my life and began vomiting–something I hadn’t done in 15 or 16 years. That was the turning point–the point at which I realized that my low blood pressure wasn’t just low blood pressure. I had the standard battery of tests done (blood tests, an EKG, even an echocardiogram), which came back with the usual “abnormalities” for an endurance athlete: mildly elevated AST, low-ish blood sugar, very high HDL, very low heart rate, very low blood pressure, enlarged heart, etc. Nothing to be too concerned about. Again, I was sent home and told to force fluids, salts, and caffeine, if possible.

All the while, my general sense of wellness deteriorated rapidly from crummy to unmanageable. My occasionally-tired feeling suddenly became a very all-encompassing fatigue. I continued to push myself hard in running and cycling, but my workouts would only temporarily energize me and end up leaving me feeling totally beat a few hours down the line. As a medical student fresh off my didactic units in cardiovascular physiology, the endocrine system, and the gastrointestinal system, I was very wary of trying to diagnose myself–and to be quite honest, I myself was pretty convinced that whatever it was, was probably some nebulous, unnamed, “stress-induced syndrome” of sorts. I was, after all, going through the most stressful moments of my life coincidentally–for multiple reasons that don’t merit detail here.

Disenchanted with the western medical doctors I’d seen, I sought the help of a reputable naturopathic doctor and herbalist in Berkeley, California, where I was living at the time. To her credit, she nailed the diagnosis right on the head from the start–but I didn’t want to believe her. I knew what Addison’s Disease was; I had learned all about it in medical school and from my high school obsession with John F. Kennedy. But for some reason, despite my utmost faith in natural and alternative healing practices, I didn’t trust her diagnosis at the time.

It wasn’t until early 2013 that I was formally diagnosed by an M.D. in Boston: a well-known specialist in Addison’s Disease. Only then could I accept the diagnosis. Before I even felt disheartened about such a deterministic diagnosis, I felt remorse for my lack of acceptance of the naturopath’s wisdom. Being a huge proponent of the naturopathic route myself, I felt like an enormous hypocrite as well.

In time, I’ve learned how to manage my condition using both a blend of western and eastern medicines and philosophies. With trial and error, I’ve learned how to keep endurance sport part of my life. Most importantly, I’ve learned how to read the very subtle signs of my body, and respond to those signs with adequate rest and recovery.

Being athletic with Addison’s is something conventional doctors told me would not be possible. However, I have found a great wealth of knowledge and resources among holistic health practitioners, integrative nutritionists, yoga instructors, and others with Addison’s, all of which lend considerable credibility to the continuation of athletic endeavors.

Managing chronic illness is not always as simple as taking a pill every morning; it can become a lifelong investment in discovering what it means to practice self-care and to experience true wellness. My experiences in endurance sport have prepared me well for this “journey, not destination” mindset. And my continued exploration of whole plant-based nutrition, yoga, and spirituality has unearthed truths about healing and the mind-body connection that modern medicines fail to elucidate.

I’m thinking of writing a few posts on what it means to be an endurance athlete with a chronic illness, so stay tuned. Almost all of us have something we’re keeping an eye on on a daily basis, whether it’s biochemical, psychological, or “biopsychosocial” (that’s the new catch-phrase in neuroscience; or so I’m told). Hopefully I’ll be able to uncover some gems worth sharing.

In health,


How to Date a Triathlete: Revisited.

This past December, I wrote a post that went viral, and is ultimately solely responsible for amassing such a large number of followers and page hits. Apparently, endurance athletes from around the world found my post, “How to Date a Triathlete,”  relatable. Up until then, my fledgling blog was followed by my mom—and only my mom (thanks, Mom).

A lot of people, it seems, find it hard to find companionship with a triathlete—and triathletes themselves feel alienated from the rest of society. If it’s not hard, then it’s certainly unique. The behaviors and rituals surrounding preparation for and immersion in the endurance sport lifestyle are frequently looked at sidelong by close friends and family members. So many of us feel misunderstood at worst, quirky at best. It’s a fun and frustrating hobby to have. That December post was, as is apparent from the get-go, written with the intention of being rather tongue-and-cheek, although there is definitely much truth to it.

As is obvious, I haven’t written a blog post in well over a month now, which is unusual for me. However, the reasons behind this can be largely tied into that fateful post which put this blog on the map.

Namely, I’m in the heat of triathlon training season and am too busy stuffing my face full of Product 19 to bother.

Just kidding. It’s actually quite the opposite. Yes, it’s the heat of tri training season and many of us are in the thick of taper mode for June and July races. I should be putting in my last solid week and tapering this week. In fact, I’m signed up for a half-ironman in upstate New York this weekend, so by all accounts I should be in top condition right now.

I should. But I am not.

I dropped the ball. I stopped training. I haven’t really done anything too structured or intense since maybe March. I willingly “sacrificed the gift,” as Prefontaine might say.

To be clear: I’m not injured. I’m not too busy at work. I’m not too busy otherwise. Even when I was pulling insane shifts at the hospital last year, I’d still have the will (and desire) to chase work with several hours on the trails. The truth is, I just lost (admittedly, temporarily) the will to train hard day in and day out. And this time around, it wasn’t because I was burned out.

It was because I found something else to occupy my time and energy, and engaging in endurance shenanigans for >15 hours per week quickly (and very, very unexpectedly) fell by the wayside.

I know what you’re thinking, but don’t worry—this is a temporary thing, a phase, and three months in I’m hankering for my usual dose of lone wolf time and endorphins. I am still, and will always be, an endurance junkie. However, to have had an experience powerful enough to take me away from my running religion is new to me—it’s humbling, and shocking, and extremely confusing.

My post suggested a certain rigidity to the lifestyle and personality of the endurance athlete and triathlete. And to some extent, this may very well be true. This was—and still is, to a large extent—certainly true of me. I willingly wake up at 4:30 a.m. to embark upon my own hours-long “mini-adventure” before most people even get out of bed. I am hard-pressed to choose socializing over a solitary swim; it takes a lot to pull me away from the reliable peace, calm, and clarity of mind that a run imparts. However, the thing about many endurance junkies is that we go to such extremes because we just want to feel something—and it takes a lot to shake us. Grabbing drinks and going for a stroll in the park are just not enough. We want to feel life full-force; we want every day to feel like the best day; we want to be fully immersed in the moment. Training does all of these things; life in the “real world” rarely does.

But what about those rare moments when the “real world” actually delivers?

For the past few years, I’ve defined myself first and foremost as an endurance athlete. Running obscene distances, and then masochistically chasing it with a brutally grueling bike ride, was what I lived for—it was the lifeblood of who I am and what I do. I was always a medical student on the side; a girlfriend as an afterthought; a friend of convenience; a long-distance sister. To have temporarily detached myself from this label and identity, and experienced life as a “normal person,” has been an unusual and disorienting experience—but perhaps, in some ways, necessary for my own personal growth and development.

My reasons for pursuing long distance have varied and evolved over the years. At times I felt inspired to lace up my shoes to chase away the blues; it was only a matter of time before I discovered exercise to be a very potent drug for almost everything that ailed me. Training for triathlon has been the antidote to almost every psychological and emotional upheaval humanly possible: anxiety, sadness, boredom, overexcitement, loneliness, insomnia, fatigue—the list is practically endless—and I credit my regular bouts of exercise to a certain mental and emotional resiliency over the years: a resiliency which carried me through multiple unexpected moves, the beginnings and ends of countless relationships, never-ending change, and an unfathomably stressful lifestyle. Endurance sport has kept me resilient, balanced, alert, and calm during experiences that I now look back upon with awe and surprise.

Because the balance is tipped undeniably in favor of maintaining this lifestyle, it’s only a matter of time before I’m back out on the trails. But in the meantime, having something that feels equally worth my time—if not moreso–is such an unexpected gift, I have recognized that I have to embrace it.

Thankfully, my running shoes aren’t going anywhere. They never have, and they never will.


An idiot’s guide to training without “training tools”: RPE and mind-body awareness

Disclaimer: the word “idiot” in the title of this post is by no means meant to be directed at readers; on the contrary, it’s my default way of being self-deprecating while writing these posts as if journaling to myself. Soon to come: “How to overcome unbridled self-deprecation as an endurance athlete.”

My last post, “I quit Facebook, canceled my subscription to Runner’s World, and erased my training log. Here’s why” received so much positive feedback and enthusiastic sharing of similar experiences from readers that I felt almost immediately inspired to expound upon my adventures in living the analog life–more specifically, how living relatively unencumbered by technology-driven distractions has improved my life as a recreational athlete (I could easily elaborate upon the benefits of this lifestyle in my personal and professional lives, but I’ll spare you the boredom and stick strictly to my badass, ninja, double-life which involves superhuman feats of strength, power, and will).

The theme of this blog post is centered around my newfound—and I use the word “newfound” cautiously—appreciation of how to move and train mindfully. The reality is that this skill is not so much newly found as rediscovered—something that has always been there, lurking just beneath the veneer of GPS watches and dubstep music turned to max volume. Each of us possesses a degree of wisdom within our musculoskeletal and neuromuscular systems that can be easily ignored, beaten into submission, or eclipsed by the sheen of a training plan. But what happens when we remove the agenda (mind) and just listen, feel, and experience (full inhabitation of body)?

This is risky, right? With structure comes progress (pretty much scientifically proven at this point) and accountability. Apply a specified, tried-and-true algorithm and, barring any rare medical complications, one can expect a certain outcome. I like this. I like science. I like applying evidence in order to forecast predictable outcomes.

I also like numbers, gadgets, and technical, detail-oriented things. Elevation gain, distance, HR fluctuations, cadence, max power, speed—these digital readouts are like candy for my left hemisphere.

Stripping myself of the comfort blankets that are my training journal, watch, and GPS was, quite frankly, terrifying for me. This was for several reasons, but among them: fear of boredom, fear of failure, lack of trust in myself to follow through, lack of trust in my body to progress, and attachment to the numbers/data game.

So I adopted something I could cling to: RPE. RPE, or “Rated Perceived Exertion” (a.k.a. “Borg scale”) refers to a numeric scale frequently used in exercise science research. The scale is completely subjective; in other words, it’s based entirely on an individual’s personal perception and concept of relativity. The idea is simple: on a scale of 6-20, how intense is your effort right now? (If 6-20 seems like an arbitrary range, rest assured it’s not–it’s based on heart-rate equivalents. It’s math.) For reference, 6 is lying on the couch, 11 is “light” activity, 15 is “heavy” activity, and 20 is “maximal exertion.” How the subject chooses to define “light” and “heavy” is up to him or her. Obviously one person’s light may be another person’s heavy depending on fitness, pain tolerance, and an incalculable number of other factors, but that’s beside the point. The point is to create a relative scale unique to each person, in order to gauge his or her psychological response to physical exertion in a given exercise session. Using RPE can be a useful tool for structuring a workout: intervals of alternating 12 and 15, or 17 effort uphill and 11 effort downhill, etc.—all while sidestepping the common pitfalls of using more traditional training tools (most notably, overtraining). RPE gives numerophiles such as myself something ordinal and organized, while also evading the possible dangers of too intense a focus on objective readouts (such as heart rate, speed, etc.).

Let me tell you something: RPE WORKS. It takes a little getting used to, but once you’re there, you’ve done it. You’ve figured out how to beat the system. But only if you play your cards right (in other words, no slacking!).

Here’s what using RPE requires: intense laser-focus on the present moment; constant and vigilant assessment of physical experience; unabashed honesty and ability to practice being objective with oneself; finely-tuned mind-body awareness; ability to interpret physiologic readouts; mental flexibility; and nuanced ability to ascertain when pushing limits is acceptable and beneficial.

Here’s what using RPE avoids: training to a preconceived number; ignoring bodily sensations for the sake of said number; zoning out; excessive overreaching; excessive underreaching; mind-body disconnect.

Here’s what an RPE-driven workout looks like: start out at a warm-up pace, and once you get to that point where the engine feels good and revved, push a little more speed or power for a discrete period. Mind you, this is all based on feel. Don’t push it too hard or too fast right out of the gates; rather, wait until you’re well into glycogen utilization (or beta oxidation, whatever you’re going for) to push into higher gears. This will become apparent not when you feel like you “should” start to speed up but when your body starts to crave it. I usually hit a point where I am ready to push myself pretty hard (15-19 on the Borg/RPE scale), and then I go for it for as long as it feels doable, maybe plus 15-25% for good measure. I let myself recover for a little while, but not too long, before messing around with lactate threshold again. Then when my body starts to feel like it’s breaking down, like I’m losing my form, I’ll reel it in and call it a day.

This is what my RPE approach to training looks like, but this is by no means a one-size-fits-all approach. I really enjoy interval training and have found this to be a great way to fine-tune my ability to put forth honest efforts while also maintaining complete immersion in the present moment. My regimented, schedule-oriented, left-brain self is actually a fan. And my performance has improved dramatically since January by training this way, despite the fact that my workouts are shorter (at least I think they are…I’m not measuring time, so I honestly have no clue. Similarly, my “performance improvement” is entirely subjective…but I just feel much stronger, lighter on my feet, etc.).

Interestingly, training by RPE also opened up a wormhole into a world oft despised (or even discredited) by endurance athletes: weight training. Running and swimming by RPE has made me keenly aware of any and every weakness in my kinetic chain like never before. Suddenly I am flooded with the sensations of specific muscles contracting and relaxing during movement; this is an overwhelmingly cool sensation, and also a wake-up call: my pelvis wasn’t nearly as stable as I thought it was while running, and my glute medius was all but shot; my pectorals were taking up far too much slack during freestyle and I’d need to do some serious work on strengthening my lats; my core and lower back weren’t doing nearly as good a job as they could be. Weak glutes during a run are bad enough as is; but try experiencing them on a whole other level while experimenting with total mind-body immersion practices. It’s horrific. Each step is like nails on a chalkboard: a glaringly uncomfortable and disorienting nagging sensation that was on the verge of driving me to insanity. So I started hitting the weights again. And surprisingly, I haven’t hated it this time around. I think it might have something to do with being fully present and mindful while doing it.

Through all of this, there is one thing I haven’t left by the wayside, and that is this: music. While I do strive for completely distraction-less living some day, I had to start somewhere, and music has been a nice crutch throughout the transition. My feelings on music also straddle the divide: on the one hand, it can be terribly distracting, but on the other hand, the right song can really help endow me with the laser focus I’m looking for. I suppose it’s all a matter of knowing how and when to use music as a tool.

Perhaps that could be said for all of the training tools—watches, GPS devices, training logs, etc. Perhaps it’s all about knowing how and when to use them effectively, while tempering the desire to go off the deep end and become too encumbered with slaving away to them.

This, however, requires a certain degree of moderation and, as I’ve stated before, moderation has always eluded me and to this day, continues to do so.

I guess that just comes with the territory of being an endurance junkie.

I quit Facebook, canceled my subscription to Runner’s World, and erased my training log. Here’s why.

Several months ago, I deleted my Facebook account. It was the best decision I’ve made in a while.

A few weeks later, I canceled my years-long subscription to Runner’s World magazine.

Then I threw my training log out of the window.

Looking back, it’s clear to me that these three actions—among many other smaller, subtler ones—are not unrelated. However, at the times when I made these decisions, they seemed independent of one another.

It all started with my decision to bow out of social media. Or at least, with whatever drove that decision.

I’d toyed with the idea of removing Facebook from my life for years, even deactivating my account for extended periods of time, but was never really too serious about committing to a Facebook-free existence. My Myers-Briggs personality type is strongly INTJ, and as such, the logical side of me almost always wins. And it’s logical to stay on Facebook: it’s practical, it’s efficient, and it can be a great resource for information—both regarding the world at large and our most intimate and innermost social circles. As one of my mentors is fond of saying, “Evolve or die!” So logic kept me in the game—kept me checking faraway cousins’ profiles for updates on their lives, kept me relegating my status updates to only what I believed to be the most high-impact and high-yield commentaries, kept me scrolling through “fan pages” of respected authors, scientists, and athletes for the latest scoop on science, sport, and global happenings.

The thing about being an INTJ—or any __NT__, for that matter, is that while the “T” (for “Thinker”) encourages logic to win out, the “N” (for “iNtuitive”) has an equal pull. And here’s a case where intuition trumped logic, overturning the precedent social media has set on my life once and for all.

I recognized that while it was logical for me to stay on Facebook, intuitively it just didn’t feel right anymore. Increasingly, I have found myself looking back upon the “good old days” when Facebook was first piloted to a small cohort of East Coast colleges back in ’04, right here in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It provided a simple means of organizing contact information for friends; it was really nothing more, and nothing less. As Facebook evolved into something far more complex, and thus transformed the way humans interact with one another, I found myself progressively more uncomfortable with the new paradigms it unveiled every few months.

When being completely honest with myself, I was surprised to encounter that one of my biggest motives for leaving Facebook was my desire to eschew the competitiveness, one-upmanship, and self-comparisons that have become rampant on social media—and of which I myself am as guilty as anyone else. While I don’t see myself as competitive, I am definitely overly ambitious, and Facebook is a great place to a) feel like you’re in fact not nearly as ambitious and accomplished as everyone else in your news feed, and b) trumpet your ambitions for the whole world to see in one of the least classy ways possible. No thanks.

In fact, plenty of social and psychology research has emerged in recent years regarding social media use and its correlation with, or even direct effects on, psychological and emotional well-being (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10). Not surprisingly, those with the most social media activity reported the lowest levels of self-esteem, sense of accomplishment, sense of satisfaction with their lives, and overall productivity, with Facebook use in particular serving as the biggest predictor of mental health outcomes. Sure, one could easily argue that these may be correlated rather than causative. However, even randomized intervention studies have shown that for a discrete period of time after which an individual views his or her Facebook news feed, he or she will report subjectively lower levels of happiness and self-esteem. The investigators’ hypothesis? Too much comparison of ourselves with what we perceive as the “perfection” of others.

While I freely admit that I went through a little bit of Facebook withdrawal for the first week of disuse (my habit of randomly clicking onto my Facebook homepage while bored at work, or while waiting for the subway, was now to be replaced with…what exactly?), this quickly diminished. In time, I’ve seen a distinctive return of a certain quality of life that’s been missing for a while—a quality of life that is built upon small efforts to connect with loved ones in real time and in more intimate, personalized mediums. And the time I spent on Facebook is now being more creatively spent…literally, on Instagram. ;] (ha ha ha…)

Several weeks into my Facebook-free experiment, I received my trusty monthly copy of Runner’s World magazine in the mail—an occurrence that has been so regular during the past seven or eight years of my life, that I could probably set my clock by its arrival. Runner’s World has been a staple of my diet since I first started running cross-country in high school. Admittedly, the scope and overall culture of the magazine has shifted dramatically in the past five or so years to accommodate the recreational running boom and all of the commercial bells and whistles that have accompanied it (Color Runs, neon sneakers, fad-ish training plans). But I still always enjoyed taking a glance through my copy, if for nothing other than Marc Parent’s hilarious spreads, or Peter Sagal’s witty editorials.

But when I received my February copy of RW, I was not so excited to peel apart its pages. For some reason, I hit a mental block just by looking at the cover: yet another overly-airbrushed photo of a lithe, lanky woman with impossible abs and quads of steel; a woman who looked like she could definitely, certainly, tear me apart both on the track and in the dojo.

This is not a new thing for RW mag—they’ve been boasting disappointingly unattainable and unrealistic physiques both on their covers and within their pages for years now—but it was new that I was so turned off by it. I didn’t even open the magazine; I tossed it straight into the recycling bin. Just like that, I’d decided I was through with it. My decisiveness shocked even me. Shortly thereafter, I logged on to my RW online account and canceled my subscription.

Now that I’ve removed two things that constantly tempt me to compare myself to others (and constantly, consistently come up short), I feel a heck of a lot better. Life is good! I’m a worthwhile human being! I am doing stuff today, and it’s good enough! In fact, it’s bad-ass!

All of this has culminated more recently in my foray into distraction-less, record-less training. In other words, I have completely abandoned my training log, my half-iron training plan, my GPS, my watch, and to some extent, my iPod (yes, I still use one of those…circa 2007 and still going strong). What does this have to do, if anything, with quitting Facebook and Runner’s World? It may not seem obvious, but a huge take-away from quitting Facebook and Runner’s World, for me, was also relearning how to be completely present. Eliminating those distractions from my life—and the distracting thoughts they encouraged within me—removed a significant amount of mental clutter. Free from this, I have begun to experience a new clarity of mind and ability to be mindful in the present, one which I am experimenting with both in my day-to-day meanderings and my approach to exercise.

Abandoning all of the gizmos, gadgets, bells, and whistles that quantify my training has also eliminated a source of self-comparison—both with myself (“I ran so much faster two years ago!”) and with others (“But Meb Keflezighi runs a 1:01 half-marathon!”). Also noteworthy is that I’ve dug myself deep into some serious trouble with overtraining in the past, and this is probably largely reflective of my desire to train to my journal rather than to what my body, mind, and spirit are desiring on any given day. This “naked” approach to running, cycling, swimming, and all other sport has also encouraged me to tap into that complete presence of moment, and use it as a tool for honestly and objectively-as-possible gauging my intensity by degree of perceived exertion. Ironically, being completely in the present moment makes upping the intensity easier for me. And suddenly I am becoming keenly aware of that mind-muscle connection (especially in strength training and yoga, but even in running and cycling), which is the coolest feeling ever.

So far, this is my favorite self-experiment to date. That’s really saying something, as I have been known to tinker quite often. I ran these ideas by a good friend recently, and his response was priceless. “Wait, you’re an INTJ?” he asked. “Yeah, I know it’s unusual for a girl,” I replied, feeling special. “No,” he said, “It’s just that, this all sounds like a really great way to cater to the Introvert in you!”

I admit, this is entirely possible. ;]

Olympic athletes by height & weight (awesome infographic!)

As much as I love running and cycling, the simple fact of the matter is that physics works against me in these endurance-oriented sports. At just over 5’10” (178 cm) and a buck fifty (68 kg), I’m more of a draft horse than a thoroughbred. According to science, the principles of basic physiology dictate that my body type is better suited to tennis than triathlon.


While watching the Sochi Winter Olympics over the past couple of weeks, I was surprised to find that many of the female athletes share in my relatively larger build–and in sports I wouldn’t expect. In many of the winter sports, height and weight are relevant factors–think about how dependent events like downhill skiing, bobsled, and luge are upon gravity and momentum–and so athletes’ proportions, along with their ages and representative countries, are flashed up on the screen next to their names.

Imagine my surprise to find that the women in luge and skeleton are all around my height and weight. Firstly, I had wrongly assumed that these sports would favor shorter athletes–something about soaring down an icy track, face-first, at 80+ mph on a tiny sled just intuitively seems more possible with a smaller build–but what do I know about skeleton anyway? Secondly…could skeleton and luge be any greater a departure from distance running?! I had quite a laugh at this realization. No wonder some of my long runs feel so awkward, I found myself thinking aloud–and since this weekend, I’ve found myriad excuses (“It’s the laws of physics!”) to justify my bumbling, eternal middle-of-the-pack status in the endurance world.

As an osteopath, my curiosity was piqued by the finding that athletes within certain disciplines have started to cluster around certain heights and weights. Certainly there are outliers, superhuman exceptions to the rule, but generally speaking it’s favorable to have long, gangly limbs (read: wingspan) in sports such as tennis and basketball, and also favorable to have a smaller, lighter frame for distance running (but thanks to Paula Radcliffe, who stands at a “towering” 5’8” [173 cm], marathoners clearly can be giants after all, right?). Much of this is elucidated in a fascinating foray into the overlap between genetics, innate talent, body structure, and environment: David Epstein’s book, The Sports Gene, which I highly recommend.

Determined to find out what sports my body type might truly have a chance at excelling at, I stumbled upon a couple of awesome interactive websites–websites in which the user can simply type in his or her height and weight and be met with a roster of Olympians of the same build (and their respective sports), as well as a visually intriguing scatterplot of height (Y axis) vs. weight (X axis) that can be pared down based on specific sports and genders using a host of toggle buttons below the plot. Unfortunately, these sites only describe the sports of the Summer Olympics, however it’s still an intriguing insight into how specialized athletes have become.

So what was the verdict? What does science say my body type is best suited for? Well, beach volleyball–with crew and tennis coming in close seconds. In winter sport, given that skeleton racer Noelle Pikus-Pace and alpine ski racer Lindsey Vonn are both exactly my size, I’ll gladly accept these daredevil events as my true Olympic calling.

Skiing, sledding, and beach volleyball all seem like an awesome time. But what’s my heart’s true calling? It’s still those darned running shoes. Awkward or bust!

The one thing I think is missing from the Sochi broadcast.

I remember the first time I had a glimpse of the Paralympics. No, it was not the svelte and good-looking Oscar Pistorius zooming down the track at superhuman speed.  It was, in fact, an advertisement–mere fleeting glances of Paralympic athletes flashing across the screen in a PR stunt as the International Olympic Committee boasted about its decision to include the Paralympics alongside the Olympic Games. The year was 2008, and the summer Olympics were taking place in Beijing. It was the first time a host city had hosted both the Olympics and Paralympics in the same venue, and at the same time. It was progress.

But did any of us actually see any of the Paralympic athletes outside of these publicity messages? Were any of the competitions aired? To my knowledge, no. I’ve been a pretty die-hard Olympics spectator for years now, and not once have I seen the Paralympic games aired on television. Out of curiosity, I took it upon myself to find the footage of the Paralympic competitions–and thanks to the internet, that wasn’t too hard to do.

What I discovered was a completely different universe in sport–a universe in which almost everything we think we know about athleticism is either turned on its head or magnified tenfold. For it’s one thing to watch the lithe, genetically gifted, and fully able-bodied Michael Phelps dominate the swimming field, but it’s quite another to witness a feat like this.

Olympic athletes inspire me, but Paralympic athletes inspire me beyond comprehension. These athletes–who have decided to work with their disabilities, in spite of their disabilities, and around their disabilities to generate the strength, power, and athleticism of their able-bodied counterparts–are embodying the pursuit of human potential on a whole new level. These athletes represent the ultimate expression of persistence, perseverance, and the dogged pursuit of dreams regardless of perceived obstacles. These athletes are heroes, and it’s their absence from the televised Olympic Games that breaks my heart.

How would airing the Paralympic Games affect cultural outlooks on ability and disability? Could more widespread coverage of Paralympic athletes ignite change or, at the very least, inspire even deeper levels of humility, respect, and esteem? One can only wonder. But one thing’s for sure: if I had money and/or power, I’d have those athletes all over the media.

As an endurance athlete, I draw great strength from stories of people who are able to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges to push through and carry on. These people are a constant reminder of the power of the human spirit  to craft the mind and body into strong, powerful, creative expressions of our most authentic selves. The next time you hit the wall during a run, or feel unmotivated to go out and do something active, I recommend watching a clip or two from the Paralympic Games. Whether it puts tears in your eyes or inspires a deep level of awe and respect, I guarantee it will light a fire within.

Triathlon as Therapy

I’d like a show of hands: who, out there, does NOT do triathlons (or marathons, or ultras, or endurance whatever) as a way of getting some really good, pretty cheap therapy?

I’ll be the first to admit that triathlon is my therapist.

“Therapy”—loosely defined as a practice that brings about physical, spiritual, emotional, and/or mental wellbeing—is sometimes considered taboo, but this bias is diminishing as our culture starts to recognize that by virtue of being alive, we are all in need of some sort of therapy. During high school, I probably needed therapy. During my first romantic relationship, I probably could have used some therapy. Heck, medical school should have COME with therapy attached. But thankfully, through most of the trials and tribulations of life that ordinarily would have called for some sort of traditional, structured therapy, I’ve had my bike, my running shoes, and enough motivation to get my butt out the door.

I’m about to make a huge generalization here and, fully aware, welcome comments and criticism—but I’m going to go ahead and say that triathletes and endurance runners engage in, and consistently return to, such “punishing” (at least by the outsider’s eye) sports because they serve us in ways that are therapeutic.

Have you ever met someone who does Crossfit because it’s psychologically and emotionally therapeutic? I’m sure these people exist, but I have met far more Crossfitters who are interested in a six-pack (sorry to pick on you all, but I had to pick on someone!). On the contrary, have you met many triathletes who train in pursuit of a six-pack? Again, they’re out there—but most of us who are seasoned in the sport know that endurance athletics are certainly not the most efficient way to get shredded—at least for most of us. No, we endurance athletes return time and time again to the toils of our sport because it is cleansing and calming not only to our bodies, but to our minds and spirits as well.

Exercise can turn a bad day around completely. This understanding is shared by everyone from recreational exercisers to more serious athletes. String together enough bad-days-turned-around, and you’ve turned a bad life around completely.

The thing about endurance sport is this: there’s something about that repetitive motion, that feeling of covering large amounts of ground, and that ability to let the mind wander just enough to invade some of the farthest reaches of our minds and hearts—this is what makes endurance sport therapeutic in a unique way. A long run can either be met with an icy and distracting focus, or a passivity that lends itself to observation and confrontation of our mind’s inner workings. Training for endurance involves spending a considerable amount of time training not only the body, but the mind: to be patient, to be persistent, to be disciplined and responsible, to be forgiving.

Perhaps one of the greatest therapeutic gifts endurance sport has to offer is the elation of crossing a finish line. This tangible experience, which is often met with a flood of endorphins and utterly delirious fatigue, is a concrete proclamation of our minds’ and bodies’ incredible potential. It is rare to meet such a definitive and celebratory benchmark in ordinary, day-to-day existence. The happiest moments of my life occurred when I crossed the finish line of my first marathons, or finally arrived on the west coast after riding across America. The profound impact of these feelings–ones of pure, uninhibited ecstasy and disbelief–have fueled a much higher level of self-esteem, belief in my untapped potential, and tendency to really push the envelope. I’m not sure traditional psychotherapy of any kind would have gotten me to quite the same place.

So here’s to endurance: to enduring, and coming out better as a result.

Zen & the Art of DNF

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post titled, “Oops…I overtrained. Again.” This post, a brutally raw admission of my constant struggles to maintain a balanced, healthy training regimen, was not easy to write. I had a really great autumn season this year, training for nothing in particular but coming off a rest-filled summer with the gusto and enthusiasm of a newbie. But suddenly, like a ton of bricks, a deep fatigue set in around the end of December–a fatigue that was all-too-familiar, and surely indicative of my overdoing it, yet again. I was met with a pervasive, intuitive sense that if I didn’t take a rest week (or two), I’d crumble. I’d hit a physical limit.

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It can be incredibly humbling to meet one’s own limitations, whether physical, psychological, or emotional. At the same time, it can be excruciatingly difficult to tease apart the subtle nuances through which psychology and emotion are intermixed with our physical capacity–especially in endurance sport. When was the last time you heard someone refer to an endurance event as [at least] “90% mental?” For me, it was only a few days ago. Anyone who’s run a marathon or done a long-course tri knows this as fact–and probably has this mantra engraved across his consciousness as gospel. And I tend to agree that the mind is the biggest player–for most of us mere mortals, at least.

But what about those times when the cold, hard boundary of our physical limitations is actually hit, head on? How do we know when to put our egos in our back pockets and keep soldiering on, and how do we know when it’s time to stop?

I have never had a problem motivating myself to keep going in a long race after “hitting the wall”–with enough pep talk, those last few miles, although painful, slowly begin to melt away. However, I have plenty of friends who hold DNFs to their names, and I expect my turn is coming soon. Most professional athletes also boast DNFs, but I think that’s a little bit of a different story given that many of them are attempting to defend titles and personal records; a DNF can be a good way to save face as a pro. That aside, I remain curious about age-group DNFers.

If I were a psychology grad student, I might make a dissertation out of interviewing DNFers to try to elucidate their thought processes when they decided to withdraw from a race. What physical limitations did they experience? How did they know when they’d reached the “point of no return”? Did the decision feel more voluntary, or more essential for survival?

Most importantly, though, would be the thought processes of these athletes. What algorithms did they use to weigh the risk-benefit ratio of continuing the race? Or was logic thrown aside because the physical suffering was too much to bear? Endurance athletes tend to be stubborn folks with few qualms about pushing through minor- to moderate-physical unpleasantries that others would balk at. Also, considerable research has suggested that as a group, age-group triathletes tend to have a much higher pain tolerance than the general population, and even other athletes. As such, I approach my theoretical dissertation with a wary eye.

I recently started watching a Discovery channel documentary series following a team of mountaineers up Everest. One of the crew members, an ultra-fit Danish triathlete with an incredibly endearing, humble personality, is attempting to summit without oxygen–the holy grail of Everest climbing–after three prior unsuccessful attempts. Despite a personal history of severe asthma, Mogens Jensen pushes on with vigor and a charmingly positive attitude. I imagine all audiences following this documentary cheering hard for this delightful Dane, who displays the classic “90% mental” attitude so characteristic of his endurance sport roots.

Unfortunately, Mogens decides–or is forced, rather–to turn back a mere 350 meters from the summit of Everest due to severe frostbite secondary to oxygen deprivation. Obviously this is a rather extreme example, but I wonder how Mogens came to the conclusion that it was time to turn around–especially after encountering numerous prior obstacles that would have sent anyone else scurrying back down the mountain face. How did he know he’d hit that “point of no return”? Plenty of mountaineers push on through frostbite; some make it, some don’t. But Mogens seemed to possess an uncanny ability to understand exactly when he could push on, and when he absolutely needed to stop. He was so close to clinching that dream–and after three prior attempts at that–but he knew that he had to relinquish it this fourth time.

Perhaps most indicative of this minor tragedy was the team guide’s response to Mogens’ defeat. Russell Brice, one of Everest’s most seasoned mountaineers and guides, notes that while he would have been extremely impressed by an asthmatic summiting Everest sans oxygen, he was considerably more impressed by Mogens’ very wise ability to sense exactly what he was dealing with.

This art is utterly beyond me, but I imagine with more experience I’ll have a better understanding of how to interpret the fine gradations of physical wellbeing. Until recently, there was little incentive to develop this talent; I’d always had fine success pushing through and finding comparable alternatives rather than stepping back. More recently, I’ve hit an obstacle that feels a little more concrete–a wall that won’t budge. For the first time in my life, I can’t simply charge through like a rhinoceros at full-speed: rather, I have to stop and turn around–or even better, find a creative way to circumnavigate the boulder blocking my path.

I think I’ll take up rock climbing. I hear it’s good cross -training.

All or none: the power of black-and-white thinking.

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Warning: This post may offend those who like to live life in moderation. I am not one of those people.

Here goes.

The key to success and happiness in life is to adopt more black-and-white thinking.

Wait, what? What about all of the “gray areas”? Isn’t it true that nothing is either black nor white, but somewhere in between? And what about moderation?

Yes! Almost everything IS gray. Which is why getting a little more black-and-white about things can be a good thing. It can push us into a darker gray, or a lighter gray, depending on what we value and want to achieve. We’re all humans, and with being a human comes the inevitability of human error. We’re destined to fall somewhere in the gray area…but why not try to make it to somewhere on one or another end of the gray spectrum?

For me, adopting slightly more black-and-white thinking about things–especially things that pertain to my biggest, most “extreme” dreams–can be incredibly useful, as long as I truly listen to my body while doing so. An almost unavoidable outcome of being just a tad more black-and-white is falling more into the realm of extreme people rather than those living in moderation. But is that necessarily such a bad thing, if I’m happy being one of the “extreme” people?

Our society places value in living in moderation and “finding balance” between all aspect of one’s life. While balance can at times be the key to keeping an especially hectic life manageable, I’m not sure it’s always the right solution for everyone. I think that for some of us, living moderately is a recipe for stagnation. Chasing down big dreams requires big, not moderate efforts. And at its most malignant, extolling the virtues of “living in moderation” is a really excellent and clever way to pardon ourselves for undesirable habits or traits.

I say, blah. Living life in the middle of the gray area is a recipe for a gray experience.

Living life in the black-and-white–well, that’s a whole other story. Life in extremes is a tumultuous, adventurous, fulfilling mixture of giving 200% and recovering 200%. The balance between the two makes it possible, but the existence on one extreme or another is what makes it worthwhile–and it is a sweet existence indeed.

In psychology, the concept of black-and-white thinking is often referred to as “splitting,” also known as “all-or-nothing thinking.” While I do firmly believe that utilizing black-and-white thinking at times optimally hijacks our brains to our advantage, I do not suggest taking it to the extremes that manifest in Borderline Personality Disorder.

Over the past decade or so, nothing has taught me the power of black-and-white thinking more tangibly than sport. Simply put, in this arena, using polarities yields results. Training days are either incredibly easy or incredibly challenging. In fact, Runner’s World magazine recently published an article in its October 2013 issue titled, “Benefits of Polarized Training.” Nutrition, to the athlete, is either medicinal or malignant: some foods hinder performance, while others foster it. Thinking in terms of good vs. bad, exertion vs. recovery, full effort vs. surrender is the linchpin to success and fulfilling experiences in sport–and it seems to extrapolate pretty darn well to other aspects of life as well.

I’ve run this idea of “the power of all-or-none thinking” past a few friends over the years, and have received more negative, if not mixed, responses to my “insane,” “impractical” theory than almost anything else I’ve proposed. Everyone, it seems, wants to err on the side of gray–or, the way I see it, on the side of caution. This is disappointing to me. While I believe that gray is often the inevitable solution to moral dilemmas and perhaps orthopedic problems, I don’t think gray is something to actively seek out for myself.

The ones who seem to be best capable of grasping the positive applications of black-and-white thinking are those who have struggled with addiction. I think vegan Ultraman and Epic 5 triathlete Rich Roll said it best in his book, Finding Ultra:

“When I decided to change my diet, I initially experimented with a vegetarian diet. Why? Not because I read a bunch of books and concluded it was the healthiest approach. It was attractive because it was so black and white. In recovery, you are either using or you are sober—no middle ground. As a vegetarian, you are either eating meat or you are not. I could wrap my brain around that.”

Rich seems to understand how the brain works, on both an experiential and theoretical level. The neuroscience definitely speaks in favor of black-and-white thinking in behavior modification. If we really want to change something about ourselves, then we have to change our brains (perhaps this is a form of biohacking, if you will). The building blocks of our nervous system, the neurons, function on an all-or-none principal: either they fire in response to something, or they don’t. The action potential doesn’t “just kind of fire” or fire less robustly in proportion to a stimulus. Even a tiny, minuscule droplet of impetus can set an entire neural pathway ablaze with activity.

Every day, I consciously make black-and-white decisions for myself. To others, this manifests as “extreme” discipline, but for me, this way of thinking has trampled down some pretty well-worn neural networks. I either wake up at 4:30 a.m. and kick butt, or I sleep in until 8 and take it easy. I either put in several hours of base miles for the day, or I sit in bed and read a book from cover to cover. Listening to my body is without question a key within all of this, but assuming I’m feeling well, it’s going to be a 4:30 a.m. day, darnit!

My general paradigm is this: every day, I try to reinforce more black-and-white thinking with myself, while simultaneously trying to adopt less black-and-white thinking with others and my external world. This is what keeps me reliable, disciplined, and true to myself, and also prevents me from ever feeling too heavily let down by anything outside of me.

I think Dean Karnazes, the “Ultramarathon Man,” said it best when he wrote: “My suspicion is that, like me, most of you reading these pages are drawn to extremes. Moderation bores you. You seek challenges and adventures that dwell on the outer edges. The path of most resistance is not a route often traveled.”

Dwelling on the outer edges sounds pretty fun to me. What do you think?