The Long Walk of Recovery

Recovery (etymology): to come back or return

Today was supposed to be it: my return, however humble to the world of training and fundraising for good causes. For those not in the loop, I had debilitating knee pain that stopped me cold after my last triathlon. That led to knee surgery last July (refurbished, not replaced!) and now eight months later I’m approved to run 2-3 times a week for six minutes at a time. Six minutes is not even close to the half marathons I had been running, but I can walk without limping and take stairs foot-over-foot and just those simple things make me incredibly grateful these days.

A knee, a CPM machine, a cat and a crutch

Instead of gory post-surgical photos, I’ll give you this largely accurate picture of my initial recovery.

Beth, my partner, signed up for an entire series of events (three running races and her first triathlon, to be exact) and so I’ve gamely thrown myself into the role of coach. The word coach, literally comes from the horse-drawn vehicles—its root meaning is to carry someone through something. It gave me a ton of encouragement in my own healing process to be able to carry someone else through their training, even if my leg wasn’t quite strong enough to carry me through a race yet.

Then we came across the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center’s Walk for Change. As humbling as it was for me to think of walking long distances as the challenge I was equal to, I got pretty excited. The cause was a no-brainer: helping survivors of sexual assault in numerous physical, emotional and legal ways. The task itself was difficult but achievable: a three mile walk on paved, mostly level terrain. Without needing much encouragement from my church to start a team, I jumped at the opportunity with Beth right alongside.

Beth and me in our matching high-vis yellow jackets, ready to train in traffic.

Beth and me in our matching high-vis yellow jackets, ready to train in traffic.

But come event day, the morning worked out a bit differently than we’d planned. After months of searching for the right canine addition to our family, we’d recently found the right match for us. But for those who haven’t been through adoption, animal or otherwise, the timeline is often a bit fuzzy. Rescue organizations are careful in their placements, having rescued their animals from pretty rough circumstances. This translates to a multi-step process including calling references, having a phone interview, and hosting a home visit to scope out the environment—all of which can make it a little tricky to know when that actual day will be, if ever. When the day came, we were ready, but there was one hitch: the charity walk was the very next morning. I called a friend, arranged a vehicle, and crossed my fingers that a three mile walk wouldn’t outpace the pup’s endurance. Beth and I talked it over and agreed to a bail-out clause: if at any point the crowds or the walk seemed like too much, we’d bail on the walk and head home.

Three happy girls, one of them canine

A picture from the first meeting with Juno—she’s such a sweet pup!

The morning arrived after a tough initial first night. The pup was in a brand new place with brand new people and she’d had a little trouble calming herself enough to pee. So at nearly 1AM she’d had to wake us up with a tinkle emergency. We didn’t quite make it out the door before nature sprang into action, so all of us were up: some of us peeing, some of us holding a leash in our pajamas, and some of us cleaning up pee. Fast forward to this morning, we groggily packed carefully for the morning ahead, bringing treats and water for both dogs and humans, and with harness & leash on we headed down to the car. Having heard car trips were a bit nerve wracking, Beth tried to get her to pee before climbing in back to ride with her. I started the car and waited…and waited… Finally Beth came tell me she didn’t think it was going to happen. The poor pup was shaking and even as Beth leaned in to tell me this, I could see her straining at the leash to get back into the side yard.

Of course. Car rides, for the last few weeks, had often meant new homes. In fact, the car ride that had happened less than 24 hours before had resulted in this new home and the disappearance of her foster dad. And who even knew what sort of car-related PTSD was in her canine brain from her prior history. It was too much, too soon. She didn’t trust us or the permanence of her home with us enough to make that step yet. She was a survivor and still very much in recovery.

Some post-walk snuggles

Some post-walk snuggles for our brave little girl

So the plan changed. The three of us had our own mini Walk for Change through the nearby Franklin Park. And perhaps it wasn’t the giant step forward I’d pictured that day for me, but it was a big one for her. If there’s something I’ve learned from triathlon training and, less glamorously, in surgery recovery, it’s the value of knowing how hard to push. If you push just enough, you can build muscle and quickly advance—a process that requires some amount of strain and soreness. But if you push too hard, the soreness becomes sidelining injuries and huge set-backs. For this little dog, the walk in an unfamiliar park, getting to know her owners and a few others besides, was probably just enough of a push to help her grow. I looked at my little survivor on the end of the leash and realized this was probably the best way to honor who BARCC is and what they do. (Really, could I have *asked* for a better organizational acronym?)

Survivors thrive when there’s someone to walk alongside. For encouragement and reassurance. For guidance and maybe a little nudge, but in a way that respects the right pace for each recovery journey. For the past eight months of surgery recovery that person has been my physical therapist. For sexual assault survivors that may be someone at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. For Juno, right now, that’s us, as it’s been the foster family before us. And when we get “there” finally, when we get to recovery, it won’t technically be back where we started (personally, I will forever have a different knee). But all of us, in our own ways, are on our return journey back to our most whole selves, each on the long walk of recovery with someone to walk alongside.

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Reciprocal Inhibition and Learning to let Go

It’s officially that season: the signs are everywhere.  I’m covered in mysterious scrapes, bruises, and bike chain marks.  I sleep like the dead and eat like a hoover.  There’s a constant rotation of dull aches moving from one area of my body to the next.  It must be training season!  Among other things, that’s meant a ton of schedule juggling to make room for all I’ve set out to do.  This week my Team in Training crew met for their first swim workout together, I rode to the Blue Hills Reservation to train for the long ride happening in just six weeks, and in the midst of work, social, and training commitments, I fell off my yoga commitment hard this week.  In fact, since my last blog post I have racked up one, count ’em one, additional hour of practice.


I did not however, fall off this ledge.

The beginning of June marks the halfway point in my yoga challenge and my first reaction to this realization was panic.  The challenge, as a reminder, was a pledge of 40 hours of yoga practice in two months.  As happens so easily in weight management or training towards personal bests, I found myself getting caught up in the numbers game.  Despite the fact that I’d chosen the yoga practice as my fundraising activity this year in order to “keep me mindful of all that [fundraising for Love146] really means,” I looked at the 26 hours I had left in my pledge and the 30 days left to do it, and feverishly began slipping yoga “meetings” into my calendar in every open nook and cranny.

Let’s take a brief detour into the world of anatomy for a moment.  There are a ton of things bodies do completely unconsciously to help each of us move.  One of them, which I’ve become more aware of recently, is called reciprocal inhibition.  Basically, as I understand it, this means that in any paired set of muscles, when one contracts the other releases to make way for the motion the other muscle is enabling.  If both sets of muscles were to fire at the same time, it’s like pulling on both ends of the proverbial wishbone–something’s going to give and the odds that it ends in your favor aren’t great.


Reciprocal inhibition in action


I’m sure, dear reader, you see the parallel.  In trying to pull my schedule in all directions at once, I was cruising for the small end of the wishbone.  Looking at my calendar, booked from 7AM to 9PM every day for the next month, it was apparent to me that there needed to be another way forward.  In addition to possible burnout, I was setting myself up to win the numbers game without accomplishing the real goal of the challenge: to increase awareness in my self and the world around me around issues of human trafficking.  In order to make room for that movement to happen, I couldn’t be pulling from all sides.  Something was going to have to let go.

To be honest, I’m still sitting with that conclusion and trying to figure out how it will play out.  Letting go is not my forte and prioritizing one thing over another always induces some combination of guilt and nervousness.  But one of the big lessons yoga has taught me, whether in stretching, strength, or balancing poses, is that sometimes the act of release is the only way forward.  As someone much more comfortable fighting toward a finish line with three layers of blisters on my feet, this continues to be a hard lesson to learn.  But, hard or not, I would hate to become my own enemy while trying to fight alongside those Love146 seeks to help.  Thanks to those of you who have had my back, both as sponsors and as fellow travelers in that journey, wherever it leads us.


Balancing in tree pose above the tree line

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Advice for New Yogis

On my yoga mat Friday morning, I had a startling realization.  When I started my yoga challenge, I’d only been to a handful of yoga classes and my home routine consisted solely of repeated “sun salutations,” since that was all I really remembered well enough to do without serious risk of injury.  But this week, as I moved through the poses with very little correction from the instructor, here’s the thought I had:

I feel like I know what I’m doing.  I’ve learned a ton in the past few weeks.

Those of you who know me know how much I struggle with stepping into new labels.  But with each activity I’ve pursued–running, cycling, triathlon training–there’s come a moment where I’ve realized, Hey I know a thing or two about this and look at what my body can do!  Having that moment on a yoga mat, I struggled once more with the label part (Does that make me a yogi? What does that even mean? Do I want to be a yogi?) but once I was able to sidestep the whir of my inner dialog, I thought of this blog’s Advice Column.  Since people have found it helpful in the past to hear what I’ve learned about these things in the past, I thought I’d try my hand at some pointers for yoga newbies.

1) Chose classes over videos, at least in the beginning.

Videos have the allure of being constantly available and being an over-scheduled Bostonian, I completely understand looking at a yoga studio schedule and throwing up your hands.  And I know some of you would prefer to groan and sweat in the privacy of your own home.  But videos can’t give you feedback on your poses, which can increase the chance of injury.  Lack of feedback and constantly doing one video with one routine can also decrease the opportunity to attempt and slowly work your way into new, tougher poses.  I’ve written before about the power of cycling with others to make you a better cyclists–the same principles apply here and it’s worth a little schedule juggling and potential embarrassment.

Speaking of the embarrassment factor, I couldn’t reach lower than my shins in my first forward fold.  Everyone in the class has started out that stiff or fallen over trying to do a simple balance pose.  And in fact, a good portion of them probably have a story or two about relaxing to the point of farting in the studio.  Yoga, unlike triathlons, isn’t meant to be a competitive sport and bodily functions like farting and sweating happen to all of us.  It’s ok–you do you.


2) Don’t blow a ton of money on it right away.

Also unlike triathlons, which require a good bit of basic equipment investment, even with class drop in fees, start-up costs in yoga don’t have to be steep.  In terms of equipment, you’ll need:

  • Comfortable, fairly tight-fitting clothing (something that you can move in, but that moves with you)
  • A yoga mat*

Even the yoga mat is optional–you’ll only really need it if you plan on practicing at home or you get skeeved out by mat sharing.  Often studios will have mats you can borrow, for free for a small fee.  If you’re practicing at home and find you need a block or two, you probably have a couple things lying around you could use for the time being.  Need a strap?  Grab an old necktie!  You may get really into it and decide you want the unlimited membership, the dedicated apparel, a couple blocks, and a strap–but there’s no pressure to jump into all that sooner than you’re ready.

In terms of class costs, yoga studios often have “community classes” that will run you $10 or less.  Karma Studios in Harvard has cheaper rates on all their “early” classes, where early is anything before noon.  Karma Revolution is an Allston-based all donation studio.  My friend Mary runs reasonably priced yoga classes, often through a local church, and there are a ton of independent instructors doing awesome stuff around town.  Ask some friends and google around before you shell out big money at the splashy studios.

3) Proactively communicate with new instructors.

Plan to arrive at your class ten minutes early–if you run chronically late, plan on twenty.  Not only will this secure you the spot in the room you want (purely a matter of personal preference, but man it makes a difference in my stress levels not to have to be at the front!), but it will give you time to chat a little with the instructor before class.  If you’re new to yoga, tell them–often instructors will call out poses by name, but if they know you’re new, they may demonstrate more or at least choose the English names of the poses over intimidating names like chaturanga.  It will also cue them to watch for alignment problems and additional feedback.  Also tell them if you have injuries or medical conditions–they often know a ton about anatomy and can suggest modifications to poses that will work around any issues you may be dealing with.

Finally, tell them if you do or do not want to be touched.  Yoga instructors often find it easier to gently push or pull people into the right position, rather than try to describe verbally what needs to be adjusted.  But it’s perfectly ok not to want to be touched by a stranger!  In a discussion with friends about consent culture and hugging, I put it this way, “I get to determine who comes into my physical space, not the [other]. And I can offer my hugs to others but in the end they get to decide if I can come into their physical space.”  You set the terms for correction and modification–a good instructor will respect the limits you set, but they can’t do that if you don’t communicate them first.


4) Try out a bunch of instructors.

Even without hopping from studio to studio, there will probably be a number of instructors for you to explore.  You’ll probably feel a bit like Goldilocks in the beginning, but when you find the one that’s “just right” it’ll be completely worth the process.  The instructor that’s just right for you could be completely different from the ideal for me, so I hesitate to even give a list of questions or criteria.  But here are a few that I’ve found useful, as a jumping off point:

  • Do they explain the poses in a way that works for you?
  • Do they set a tone for the class that you’re comfortable with?
  • Do they strike the right balance of  talking and silence for your tastes?
  • Do they encourage/correct you to the degree and in the manner that you were hoping for?
  • Do they make themselves available before and/or after the class and answer questions clearly and helpfully?

There are a ton more–and probably at least one that’s very specific to you–but as you try out different instructors, you’ll probably begin to get a feel for what’s important to you.

5) Listen to your gut.

Speaking of getting “a feel” that’s unique to your experience, be sure to pay attention to that little voice that lives somewhere behind your navel.  Notice how you feel when you walk into the studio space.  Does it feel too spiritual or too commercial for you? Does it feel to cramped or too expansive?  How do you feel about the lighting?  the temperature?  the smell?  All these little things will enhance or detract from your experience of the class and maybe even effect your ability to concentrate.

Notice too how you feel about your interactions with the people in the studio.  This includes the front desk staff–they will often set the tone as you begin your class.  (Recently, I had the unfortunate experience of checking in while the front desk staff gossiped about the people in the last class.  I will not be returning.)  This also includes the instructor, as mentioned above, and the folks in the class–different studios and different instructors tend to draw different crowds, so just make sure you’re hanging with a crew you feel good about.    And finally, notice how your body feels when you move into a pose and trust your gut when it tells you that you can push a little harder or that you should back off a little.  Sometimes I get in a pose and it feels so awesome my gut nudges me to stay there instead of moving on with the class.  Yoga practice is individual and self-awareness is one of your best tools to getting the most out of it for you in a sustainable way.

6) Set an intention.

If not before your first class, then definitely before you buy that membership, make sure your clear on why you’re doing yoga in the first place.  Are you looking for increased flexibility?  That’s where I started: I called it my tie-my-own-shoes-while-training strategy.  Are you interested in building strength with out the weights, machines, or aerobics class vibe?  Or maybe you’re simply looking for a means of getting in touch with your body or have realized that you meditate/pray best when you’re moving.  Setting an intention will help keep you motivated and will help you focus on encouraging moments of growth along the way.



My intention at the moment is to reflect on and raise money around issues surrounding child trafficking.  As a motivator and a means for personal growth, I’m not sure I could have picked a better intention.  Thanks to each of you who have been and will be a part of that intention becoming a powerful reality, far beyond the reach of my 68 inches of floor space.

Days left in my Yogi Tread: 35

Hours of yoga practiced: 13/40

Funds raised for Love146: $812

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Rock climbing, vertical yoga, and risk management

“Top roping is just yoga on a vertical surface,” my Brooklyn Boulders instructor said earnestly and I somehow managed to keep my eyes from rolling.  It was one of those quintessentially Cantabrigian moments, like when my tattoo artist reminded me to eat lots of green vegetables to help my new body art heal.  It’s not that it’s untrue–it’s just so…Cambridge.  My ever so slightly acerbic smile must have given me away though and he launched into his defense.  “It’s all about balance and lengthening without tension.  Everything you’ve learned about how to move in the yoga studio still applies on the wall.  Besides, focusing on awareness and body alignment helps keep you out of the mind-games about what you can and can’t do.”


Yogi on the climbing wall

At this point I tuned back in a bit.  In my training I’ve become pretty familiar with the false limits my own mind could put on my body’s ability to perform.  In fact, at the Trimania Summit last year I’d heard the phrase “performance enhancement therapy” for the first time, referring to talk therapy through past experiences that were holding an athlete back.  In relating this phrase to my instructor, he nodded his head knowingly.  “A lot of climbing, as with other extreme sports, comes down to risk management: knowing what the risks are, assessing their cost and their probability, and acting according to what you can afford.  And unfortunately much of modern American society is not set up to teach us how to assess risks well.”

This brought our conversation back to well-tied knots, proper belaying technique, and how to fall, but it also referenced something he’d said earlier about childhood development in this area.  As we were walking over to the wall he’d mentioned an article he’d read about playgrounds and the potentially detrimental effects of designing them to be too safe.  Among them he mentioned higher levels of anxiety and increased unsafe risk taking due to overconfidence and plain old boredom.  “You can’t be afraid to fail.  You’ll learn more from the times you fall off the wall than when you manage to stay on.  But you have to make sure you’ve assessed all of your support systems well first–you’ll learn something from forgetting to clip into your harness well, but the potential cost is too high.”


Learning to be yogis, top ropers, and people in a risky world

This reminded me of a phrase that I picked up at church, one I’ve found helpful in training, as well as in my work and personal life.  “Try fast.  Fail fast.  Try again fast.”  It’s encouraged me to try things that might fail and learn from them.  But it’s also encouraged me to fail sustainably, to fail in a way that allows me to try again.  I hadn’t thought of it in terms of my yoga practice, but prompted by my climbing class conversation, I started to see the risk management at work in my more horizontal practice.  Throughout each yoga class, particularly in the challenging ones (thank you Rachel Barringer and Mickey Barr), there were a stream of barely conscious questions running through my mind.  How much of this pose is physically limited and how much is mentally limited by my idea of what my body is capable of?  Can I afford to try to push it a little further, knowing I have a lot more physical activity ahead of me this week?

This is where my thoughts landed as I refocused on the reason I’m doing all this yoga in the first place.  On the Love146 website, I came across this quote: “Being removed from the situation of trafficking is only the beginning of a journey towards freedom and recovery.”  The list of potential psychological damage to these kids is even longer than the physical, but I found myself wondering about one that wasn’t mentioned on the list.  If overly safe playgrounds could inhibit the development of good risk management skills in children, how much more perhaps the extremely unsafe conditions that many of these children grew up in?  How could survivors of such abuse properly assess the costs of a risky situation, when their most personal asset has been critically under-valued for years?  It made me grateful all over again for the holistic approach of Love146’s care and for our humble part in continuing their work in the world.

Days left in my Yogi Tread: 43

Hours of yoga practiced: 9/40

Funds raised for Love146: $437

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Settling into Discomfort

In any other set of circumstances, I would have found it annoying.  It was the same question, over and over, every time we’d land in the next pretzelesque pose.

My yoga class had been opened with a short and seemingly simple meditation from the monk Thich Nhat Hanh.  “I have arrived. I am home. In the here. In the now.”  As it continued, I could feel myself tuning out the way I do when anything is “too spiritual” so that it seems to dwell in a universe completely detached from anything I know or have experienced.  It was blessedly short and soon we were moving into our first poses, the words disappearing into the ether from whence they came as I focused on breathing through each achy stiff muscle.

Yoga warrior on the beach in Ptown, somewhere I could easily be at home

Yoga warrior on the beach in Ptown, somewhere I could easily be at home

But then it began.  That question, again and again, pose after pose.  Hanging upside down in Downward Dog or balancing on the block that made Pigeon pose anything like possible for me, after reminding us to breathe the instructor would ask:

Can you be at home here?

The first time this question  came it caused low level of panic for me.  How long does she intend to make me stay here?  I imagined an entire hour upside down, trying to “float my hips to the ceiling” and almost started to cry.  My wrists ached a little.  My calves were screaming at me.  Soon my arms would begin to tremble slightly, a warning from my nervous system that we were approaching face-plant territory.  At home?  Really??

Thankfully that was not what the instructor had in mind and we continued to flow through a set of poses, each of them challenging and uncomfortable in new ways for this newbie yogi with the runner’s body.  And each new pose brought that same question back: Can you be at home here?  I began thinking of all the unfamiliar life circumstances I’ve had to learn to be at home in over the last few months: living alone, working through various health issues, visiting less familiar churches.  I thought of all of the conversations I’d defused with a joke along the way when things got “too heavy.” What had I learned about settling into the discomfort of the unknown or the uncomfortable?  In what ways did I still recoil from calling those moments home?


Sign on the wall of the studio I’ve spent much of my time

The question followed me through my week: through meetings and mundane tasks, through embarrassing and beautiful moments with the people around me.  Even as I sat in the waiting rooms and stared at fluorescent lights from examination tables, I was thinking: Can I be at home here?  Sometimes the answer was ‘Hell no!’ but the practice of asking the questions and listening honestly and openly to my answers had stuck.  So when I turned my thoughts to Love146, it was that question that came up first.  Can I be at home in stories that often make me uneasy or upset?  Can I be at home in my indisputable privilege as I interact with those stories?  Can I be at home in the queasy situation of asking for money on their behalf?

I don’t claim to have much wisdom to share from all this reflection.  I just have the question to pass along and a hunch that as I listen and respond with a willingness to practice and extend myself the grace to grow, it could be an incredibly powerful one to have asked.

Days left in my Yogi Tread: 50

Hours of yoga practiced: 4.5/40

Funds raised for Love146: $337

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Practicing the Art of Staying


Call us diggers.

Ancient singers fumbling

though black halls,

hands ripping into cold walls and dawn

will not come sooner…

But in the long, dark hours

of December’s lowest ditch

we find each other

with our fingers.

We practice the art

of staying.

~ April Ranger, Winter Solstice Anthem

For the past six years, every spring has been a moment of decision: which races, which fundraisers, what goals.  And each time I’ve tried to make sure that there’s some reason, authentic and personal, to step back into it all.  2013 was one heck of a year for me in a number of ways, some incredible and some incredibly difficult–by the end of it, I was pretty spent.  As I contemplated the 2014 season this month, it seemed worth considering that it might be wise to lay off for a season.  There were a number of things that were pulling in that direction, not the least of which feeling I’d come to the end of my realistic ability to one-up myself, as I have each year.  But there were also a number of things pulling me back into it all…and they weren’t all related to my own stubbornness.

The inspiration that stuck, that convinced me to sign on for another round, is this thing April Ranger calls “practicing the art of staying.”  2013 gave me a few opportunities to be on the receiving end of that powerful gift, but it also gave me a handful of experiences of offering that to another.  I’m talking about those moments when you have nothing to offer but your presence, where like the best of Job’s friends you simply pull up a mat and lean in.  No handy advice or wise words.  No judgment or false sympathy.  Just groping with your hands through the pitch dark to let someone else know you’re there.  How does that have anything to do with charity races?

Rather than spend most of this post listing off the exploits I plan to execute in the next four months, let me tell you the personal part of each commitment, the part that feels like practicing the art of staying.

As a side effect, I currently have quite a collection of Love146 t-shirts.

As a side effect, I currently have quite a collection of Love146 t-shirts.

I’ve been a “Treader” for Love146 for six years now.  Each year I find some point of new connection to the powerful work this organization does, but this year the thought of standing with young people who are trying to sort out issues of trust, self-love, and healthy sexuality seemed particularly resonant.  One of the ways I’ve been helped in my own sorting out of such things is through yoga.  As much as I love my runners high and wouldn’t trade a beautiful summer ride on my bike for anything, yoga has been the form of physical activity that has left the most room for thought, reflection and prayer.  In a desire to both be thoughtful and physical as I tried to ally myself with the brave young people that Love146 serves, a yoga challenge seemed both fitting and full of providential potential.

Last year's Quaddies at the CF ride, with Bobby in his characteristic pose, holding his bike overhead.

Last year’s Quaddies at the CF ride, with Bobby in his characteristic pose, holding his bike overhead.

For the past four years I’ve also ridden with the team out of Quad Cycles in Arlington in the Cycle for Life (aka the Seacoast Safari).  Last year that included my first ever century ride, which would never have happened without that team’s persistent nagging and constant support.  The leader (and perhaps the mascot) of the Quad Team was a man that I knew as Bobby Mac.  Bobby was known for reminding us all the ride with smiles on our faces & love in our hearts (not always a simple task when riding on Massachusetts roads), for singing classic rock tunes at the top of his lungs while he rode, and most of all for his unrelenting support & encouragement for new riders training for their first charity ride.  Bobby’s body has left the helm of our team of riders this year, but his spirit remains in a memorial team.  I’m honored to ride with that team and carry on a bit of Bobby Mac’s legacy.

Last year's Team, at the inspiration dinner the evening before the big race.

Last year’s Team, at the inspiration dinner the evening before the big race.

And last, but certainly not least, I had my first year with Team in Training last year.  With the help of coaches Monica and Marco, a whole crew of Team Mentors, and a ton of training hours, I completed my first ever Olympic length triathlon.  It was in no small part due to the Team who stood with me that I was able to stare down so many doubts and fears along the way.  I remember thinking just moments after I finished ‘I’ve gotta do that again sometime!’  But even more than that, I wanted to help someone else get to that finish line, someone who perhaps like me would have scoffed at the idea not so long ago but had just enough faith to try something crazy.  So it felt several kinds of right when I contacted TNT about signing up this year in a mentorship role.  I’m stoked to train with, relentlessly encourage, and stand with anyone who decides to join me.  (The race is local this time–just saying!)

There’s information in the Fundraising tab regarding how you can support me and thanks in advance to those of you who will.  And as I did last year I’ll be posting many of my thoughts, hard-won athletic advice, and milestone recaps here on my blog, so be sure to check back.  My heartfelt thanks to all of you who dig alongside, who reach out, who are willing to stay.

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Why are habits hard to break?

Generally, around this time in January, I have a pretty clear idea of which of my new year’s goals I’m likely to pull off and which I’m going to have to table.  In reflecting on that list this past week and thinking about the lists I’ve made in past years, I noticed a pattern: I’m more likely to succeed in creating a new habit than I am in breaking an old one.  While not categorically true–there are habits I’ve tried to form for years without success–it got me thinking: What makes habits so hard to break?

In poking around the internet and reading a bit, my impression is that there isn’t a simple answer.  There is a lot of very current biological and behavioral research going on around this very question.  I’m certainly not qualified my answer the question on that level, but I have some observations from my own experience that I thought might be helpful to share.  A couple of disclaimers first: 1) The path to success with such things is highly individual, so my thoughts are just meant to help inform that process, not really as a program to follow and 2) Some of my examples are habits that might involve chemical-level dependance for some people.  If your habit is actually in the addiction category instead of just the habit realm, chances are everything I’m about to say is irrelevant.  That said I’m hoping one or two of my reflections might be useful in cracking your own code if you’re struggling to put down unhealthy or just unwanted habits.

So, in my experience, what makes habits so hard to break?

1) I convince myself that they’re serving me.

With the amount of time in my life I've spent with a drink in my hand, how do I not have one suitably incriminating photo?

With the amount of time in my life I’ve spent with a drink in my hand, how do I not have one suitably incriminating photo?

Here’s a great example: I’ve caught myself saying things like ‘I’ve had such a crazy day.  I need a drink when I get home!’  Now, having a drink when I get home isn’t a big deal and I’m a huge fan of not demonizing alcohol.  (Though please remember my disclaimer above about chemical dependance being a different kettle of fish entirely!)  But do you see the sneaky logic behind that pair of statements?  What I see lurking behind them is a belief that the alcohol is somehow going to help me recover from my stressful situation.  Usually the truth in the situation for me is that the drink doesn’t help anything–if I’m helped at all it’s generally by the company I’m keeping when I’m having the drink or the environment that I’m drinking in.  If I don’t have someone to talk to about my day or I’m not sitting in steaming hot water in my bath tub, chances are I’m just as stressed with a glass of wine in my hand.  That distinction matters when I decide that I want to drink less or stop drinking entirely, because if I have a stressful day, suddenly I’m self-sabotaging my efforts because I ‘need’ a drink.  If I can step back and re-examine that belief, naming the things related to the habit that are actually helping me when I’m stressed, I’ve got a better shot at following through on my goal.

2) I identify with them.

This is another case of casual statements that I think carry more power than I intend.  I’ll say things like ‘I’m a hangnail biter’ or ‘I suck at waking up in the morning.’  Making these statements, in some sense is probably perfectly normal: noticing patterns and naming them is a part of being human.  But saying ‘I bite my hangnails’ and ‘I’m a hangnail biter’ are two subtly different things.  The former is a habit pattern that I have; the latter is descriptive of who I am.  Again, I think that distinction matters when I decide that I want to stop biting my hangnails, because the first involves changing a behavior, the second involves changing who I am or at very least who I perceive myself to be.  I don’t know about you, but I find changing the second a lot more daunting than the first.  If I start by taking on my language around the habit first, often breaking the habit itself becomes somewhat easier.

3) I make breaking them a pass-fail scenario.

Races are pretty much the only thing I reliably wake up for and that's usually because I've barely slept.

Races are pretty much the only thing I reliably wake up for and that’s usually because I’ve barely slept.

So let’s say I manage to change my language around waking up in the morning and I’m ready to tackle my habit of sleeping past my alarm.  I read up on all the tips and tricks–I exercise the day before, I watch my caffeine intake, I make sure to get to bed at a reasonable time.  I set my alarm and climb into bed, thinking about how awesome tomorrow morning is going to be.  And maybe I even pull it off–I get up with the alarm!  But sometime that week, I’ll roll over or maybe even that first morning doesn’t quite go as I’d hoped.  If I set it up as a pass-fail test for every morning for the rest of my life, I’m sunk.  One failure and the whole project is a bust.  If on the other hand I look back on my week and give myself a pat on the back for the two mornings I managed not to sleep through my alarm, I can leverage that momentum to try for three mornings next week.  Or just be pleased that two mornings where I might have slept in, I didn’t, which is two more than if I hadn’t tried to break my habit of sleeping in at all.  Either of those postures toward the habit I’m trying to break are probably going to work out better for me in the long run than deciding I’ve failed the first time I hit the snooze button.

4) I rely on my will power instead of the power of habits themselves.

Habits are just that–they’re habitual.  I get to work, I take off my coat, I boot up my computer, I put my lunch in the fridge, and I pour myself a cup of coffee.  Every morning.  In that order.  So what happens when I decide to give up caffeine for a while?  I get to work,  I take off my coat, I boot up my computer, I put my lunch in the fridge, and…I stare down the coffee machine.  Chances are, some sleepy or grumpy morning, I’m going to lose that staring contest.  It’s just a matter of time.  But if I instead set up another pattern–I get to work, I take off my coat, I boot up my computer, I put my lunch in the fridge, and I pour myself hot water for a cup of decaf tea–then my attention isn’t always focused on the thing I’m trying not to do.  I’ll almost certainly still have mornings that I might want the coffee more than the tea and I’ll have to make a decision, but I haven’t left myself a void to stare down by my sheer force of will every morning. (For more thoughts about working around a lack of willpower, check out my post on Discipline vs. Care.)  I have another option, one that will eventually (hopefully) be as much on autopilot as the original habit was.

5) I make it a “should” thing instead of a “want to” thing.

Here’s another bit of language subtlety that I’ve found really matters.  ‘I should quit smoking.’  (Once again, note I’m in chemical dependency territory for some, so please remember my disclaimer!)  There are a lot of reasons why I might decide that I’m obligated to quit, many of them entirely valid.  But when I say an ‘I should’ statement, there’s a layer of guilt and quiet self-recrimination hiding behind it.  This is a quagmire–if I break the habit, I have no right to feel good about it, I only get to feel less badly about myself.  And chances are I won’t even catch that break, because motivating from a negative headspace has honestly never really worked for me.  If I instead mentally list off the reasons I want to quit smoking–I want stop coughing in the morning, I want my clothes to smell less like a used paperback, I want to train hard for a race, etc–I’ll both be more likely to pull it off and as a reinforcing bonus, I’ll actually get to enjoy my success.

6) I make it about who I’m not instead of about what’s in my way.

I'm actually much dangerous around chips or other fried foods, but this charming shot with a slice of birthday cake will have to stand in.

I’m actually much more dangerous around fried foods, but this charming shot with a slice of birthday cake will have to stand in.

If I had to sum this up in a self-talk statement, I would put it this way: ‘That’s great for them, but I could never do that.’  It doesn’t take a behavioral therapist to explain why this undercuts even my best efforts to change.  I’ve simply already decided that I don’t have what it takes.  Shaking self-limiting statements like those is tough, because honestly, when I say something like that, I usually just think I’m ‘being realistic’ and just ‘telling it like it is.’  I’ve got two tricks that sometimes help me when I’m in that headspace.  First, I try to make a mental list of all the things I’ve done that an older version of myself would have deemed impossible.  It doesn’t have to be huge–my teenage self would be flabbergasted by the fact that I enjoy listening to the Civil Wars–but the more recent I make the examples, the more powerfully they speak to the ‘I could never’ mentality.  Second, I try changing the statement around and say ‘I could do that, but…’  Everything that completes that sentence is a limiting factor–and dismantling them is likely to be a bit of work–but often what I discover is that none of them are inherently a part of who I am.  And as I mentioned before, for me, changing behaviors and circumstances is usually a ton less daunting than changing my entire identity.

7) I forget that not doing something isn’t necessarily easier than doing something.

Doing things takes work.  So not doing things is somehow like a vacation, right?  Not really.  Maybe this is a no-brainer, but both establishing a new habit and dismantling an old one take a lot of hard work.  I can often get derailed by trivializing the investment I’m making when I set out to break a habit.  Acknowledging to myself that what I’ve set out to do is difficult can be incredibly helpful when I start to get demoralized or discouraged.

Thoughts on what makes habits hard to shake?  Or methods that have worked for you that you’d like to share?  Drop them in a comment below!

New Year Questions for Reflection

Around this time of year I, like so many others, take a moment to look back over the prior year and look forward to the coming year.  I’ve developed a bit of a tradition of asking myself the same seven questions each New Year and it’s been fun to look back across my answers from previous years. (yes, I really have wanted a cat for years…I can prove it!)

I’m a little late, having taken a bit of a holiday hiatus from blogging, but if you haven’t yet taken a moment to reflect, I thought I’d offer my questions as a starting point.  (Credit where it’s due: I use a modified version of the 10Q project, which you should totally check out even if you’re not Jewish.🙂 I’d suggest tucking away your answers somewhere safe-but-findable to look over next year for inspiration and amusement.


2013 New Years hike in Maine with friends

Outgoing Year Reflection Questions

How did you observe/celebrate the passing year on the 31st?

What (or who) in the past year are you grateful for?

What in the past year are you proud of?

What was hard or disappointing about the past year?

What world events made an impression on you in the past year?

What family milestones occurred this year?

What spiritual experiences shaped this past year?


Christmas 2013 hike in the Arlington Great Meadows

Incoming Year Reflection Questions

How did you observe/celebrate the incoming year on the 1st?

What in the coming year are you looking forward to?

What do you hope to accomplish in the next year?

What personal growth would you like to see in the new year?

What would you like to learn more about this year?

What habits would you like to take on or shed this year?

What spiritual experiences would you like to pursue this year?

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The Last Race of 2013, a Philly Half Marathon recap

It’s been a packed race season for me this year.  I started training for my first race back in April and I mostly haven’t stopped.  There was a half marathon in June, a century ride in July, and an Olympic-length triathlon in September, all for various charities.  That would seem like enough race for anybody, especially given that the century and the oly were firsts for me, but I finished out my training in August with an itch for one more–something that would help me preserve all the hard work I’d done all summer, something that didn’t require me to divide my energies between training and fundraising.  A friend who wanted to do her first distance race talked mentioned the Philadelphia Half Marathon and a November race seemed like perfect timing.  While she wasn’t able to complete her race this season, I ran anyway, which gave me opportunity to do something I hadn’t done all season: race for me.


My friend Becky and I drove down to Philly Saturday.  Despite unexpected delays with the car rental in the morning and a bit of traffic through the New York area, we managed to make it into the city in time for registration.  On our way into the city, Becky made sure to introduce me to one of the local points of pride: the Wawa.  While they didn’t have the bathroom we’d been hoping for, I spent a moment to taking in their selection of deli meats and salads–not too bad for a Sev-Lev style convenience store.  After registration, we stopped by a new market/restaurant called Tela’s where our gracious host Kara was working.  Tela’s hooked us up with a pre-race dinner fit for a queen, before we headed back to the apartment to crash early in anticipation of our 4AM wake up call on Sunday.

Roasted chicken, broccoli rabe, and beets--yum!

Roasted chicken, broccoli rabe, and beets–yum!

The Course

The race began and ended by the Philadelphia Art Museum (aka the Rocky steps).  We ran down Arch Street by the Friendship Gate in Chinatown to the Delaware River.  We followed the river, then made our way back up toward University City via Chestnut Street, running by the Liberty Bell area and City Hall.  The race continued out by the Philadelphia Zoo and the Please Touch Museum in the beautiful Fairmount Park area, before heading back to the art museum along the Schuylkill River.  The route was clearly laid out, visual interesting, and spread out the “cheer zones” really effectively so that there were no silent stretches.  There were two climbs heading into the Fairmount area and they were no joke, but that meant the last three miles were downhill or flat for an encouraging finish.

The official elevation profile of the race, though I'm pretty sure that last climb at mile 13 was only for those continuing through for the full marathon.

The official elevation profile of the race, though I’m pretty sure that last climb at mile 13 was only for those continuing through for the full marathon.

My Run

Me, the art museum, and a beautiful brisk Philly morning.

Me, the art museum, and a beautiful brisk Philly morning.

The weather on race day was everything I could have asked.  By the 7AM start time it was probably in the low 50’s, we had cloud cover throughout the morning, and though it was humid, it never actually started to rain.  Becky and I showed up really early, heeding multiple warnings about long lines for security checks–post-Boston marathon race security is no joke.  In the end it took more time to get through the port-o-potty line than the security checks, but I was glad to have some time just to chill before gun time.  Becky and I were in different waves for the race start, so we parted ways and I dropped my fleece at gear check, before sliding into the crowd at the Green Corral.

Did I mention that this may be the biggest race I’ve ever been in, just in terms of the sheer number of people?  My memory of the first 5 miles is all dodging and weaving.  Despite having upgraded to a faster corral the night before, I kept finding myself catching and passing people.  I felt strong, but not exceptionally fast, so I ‘m guessing those folks were running the full marathon.  I’d set out with the training goal of setting a personal best in the race and my training was encouraging, but my watch was telling me I was on track for the same finish time I’d had in my last two half marathons.  This time I’d chosen to run with a hydration belt so I could run without stopping, but even with that extra time, I certainly wasn’t trending a pace that would hit my goal finish of 1:55.

Aside from minor bouts of gas (I spotted a sign on the course that read “Run now.  Poop later” and audibly laughed.), I continued to feel strong as I reached the hills.  The cheering crowds, costumed fans, and drums along the way helped keep me positive even as I confirmed yet again that my pace was not what I’d wanted it to be.  I rounded the corner with the final three miles ahead of me and as the course began it’s decent, I decided to throw it into high gear.  Most of the race thus far had been about pacing, but having assessed my various body parts to be sure nothing was out of whack, I changed my focus.  Save nothing became my internal mantra.  I opened my stride, used the hill momentum, and didn’t let up until I was six feet down the finish chute.

The Finish

The crowds in the final stretch were oddly quiet.  I don’t know if they were all concentrating on finding their loved one in the crowd of runners or if they were just cheered out, but the guy running ahead of me was having none of it.  As we hoofed it toward the final mile, he yelled and pointed ‘You!  Make some noise!  Come on people–let’s hear you!  Yes, you!  Make. some. NOISE!’  And whether by shame or simply by reminding them what they were there for, it worked.  The crowds came to life just as my playlist hit Katy Perry’s Roar.  As I came around the final bend and saw the finishers’ arch, I hurled myself forward with everything I had.  I missed my time goal, but I just barely hit a personal best by forty seconds.  Compounding the mixed feelings of that moment, the elite marathon runners came across the finish less than ten minutes later.  And the overall third place finisher?  It was his first marathon.  But my funk only lasted as long as the gear check retrieval line.  I reminded myself that the race was just the icing on the training I was so proud of.  I thought back across the last few years, reminding myself that the Erica of just five years ago would have passed out at mile three in a teary, hyperventilating heap.  And, as a bonus, I’d learned a few things that morning about racing for myself.  By the time Becky and I were kicking it at National Mechanics for a few celebratory drinks, I’d all but forgotten my brief disappointment.  When friends arrived and asked ‘How was the race?’ I was able to give them a full-hearted grin and tell them ‘It was great.  We killed it.’

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Discipline versus Care

Just this week it happened again.  Someone asked about my next race (a safe-bet conversation topic these days) and then shook their head saying ‘I admire your self-discipline.’  The clear implication was one I hear both verbally and between the lines over and over again: ‘I could never do that.’  I gently pushed back, trying to clarify in a way that I’m sure just sounded like some warped version of humility, but let me try to state it more clearly here.

Perhaps you’re no good at self-discipline, but here’s the thing: neither am I.

Really?  Suffering is my only choice?  And this is again?

Really? Suffering is my only choice? And this is motivating…how again?

Indulge me–I want to start with the word itself.  The word discipline, according to The Online Etymology Dictionary, comes to us by way of the Old French and Latin.  The Old French form of the word meant “physical punishment; teaching; suffering; martyrdom.”  The Latin term meant something more like “instruction given, teaching, learning, knowledge.”  The result was the English word that means a spanking, a list of possible college majors, and the ability to say no to the fourth cookie of the evening.  Or, perhaps more than occasionally, all three of these things at once.

So when people say something about my “self-discipline” it’s usually a blend of admiring the intellectual work of creating a training schedule, validating some perceived self-control, and gently teasing about my obvious streak of masochism.  While I’ll gladly take credit for the learning I’ve done (and brag endlessly about my teachers) and I clearly have some amount of influence over my behavior, I’m really not one to seek out pain for pain’s sake, nor am I particularly good at following ‘broccoli’ programs. (You know, the ones that are to be followed merely because someone else thinks they’re good for me in the abstract.)  I’ve shared a number of my ‘secrets’ of successful training here on this blog: finding activities I enjoy, attaching the training to some larger (in my case, generally charitable) purpose, finding fun people to do it with me, etc.  In looking across all of that, I don’t really see a pattern of self-discipline.  I see a pattern of self-care.  And there’s a huge difference.

I really have no idea what this has to do with self-care, but of all the images that came up in my search, this seemed the most compelling somehow.

I really have no idea what this has to do with self-care, but of all the images that came up in my search, this seemed the most compelling somehow.

Let’s start with a definition again.  Care comes from Old English and Germanic roots that mean “be anxious, grieve; to feel concern or interest,” with the added sense of “wailing or lamenting.”  Self-care then is being anxious over yourself.  To grieve for the things that cause you harm.  To take actions or maintain attitudes that show a concern or interest in your own well-being and development.  And maybe even to get loud about it.  There’s no sense of punishment or control or even intellectual prowess.  Rather there’s a sense of every day decisions and attitude shifts made in favor of being good to you and making sure you can thrive.  Self-discipline comes from a place of battling weaknesses.  Self-care comes from a place of fostering strength.  I don’t know how to tell anyone to be better at the former–honestly, I’m lousy at it.  But I’m starting to learn more about the latter and whether you’re trying to start an exercise routine or pursue your art of choice more deliberately or eat healthier or any number of other things you might do to build yourself up, here’s the best advice I can give you:

Start small.  Notice each victory along the way.  Dance at every finish line.  Go easy on yourself when you fall short of where you want to be.  Try again.  Give everyone you see doing self-care work of any kind a high five, hug, or fist bump.  And just don’t stop.  Even if the steps are smaller than an end-of-marathon shuffle, keep taking them until you’ve done everything you can to love, value, and care for the body and spirit you’ve been given.  That’s all I’ve really learned and all I’ll continue to press into, whether that looks like triathlons or performance poetry or therapy or long baths or kale.  So here’s an explicit invitation, if you need one: Don’t worry about getting better at self-discipline or applauding others in self-deprecating ways.  Figure out some small way forward in the direction of self-care–then tell me all about your journey so I can give you a great big high five then next time I see you.

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