Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Dedication over Motivation

Since January, I've been trying to write a post exploring how my mindset has shifted regarding fitness, strength, and running, but I've had the hardest time framing it. It's just such a huge topic. But after my last 10k, it seems apropos to talk about how I managed a significant PR in that distance for the first time in 10 years. 

The shift in mindset is absolutely to credit for that accomplishment, so...consider this topic duly framed.

The alternative title to this post is "How I finally PR'd a 10k"

First, some context. My PR at the My Better Half 10k (MBH) was unplanned. I did not have a goal for the race at all. During the race, I didn't feel I was overexerting myself; I wasn't sticking to any sort of pace or run/walk pattern. I ran it entirely by feel. It was a challenging course in that the hill at the start could have eaten up a lot of my energy and ambition, and having run a nearly-identical route in the same park about 3.5 months previously, my anticipation of the hill could've been a setback.

Actually, that similar 10k gives me a perfect comparison for how much I've grown in the fifteen weeks between races, and that growth comes down to a newfound dedication and commitment to strength and movement.

So, let's follow this journey. If we're using the 10k as our measuring stick on my progress right now, we have to start in 2012.

My 10k PR from 2012 was at the Sanibel Race for FISH 10k. I've run that course enough times to remember that it's flat and easy, but also that the humidity and lack of shade always played a huge role in how I performed. The first time I ran it and earned that PR, I finished in 58:41, with a 9:27 pace.

I can' stop staring at this pic. Those shoes. The IT band straps. The sunglasses. 2012 was something else.

I've run a lot of 10ks between then and now, but I've never come close to that time again. I always seem to hover between 60 and 62 minutes.

On Halloween 2021, I ran the Run Scared 10k. The course was significantly short at 5.9 miles but it had the same start as the MBH 10k. According to my watch, I finished in 58:21 with a pace of 9:51. (The official record of this race, erroneously measuring the distance as a full 10k, has my pace at 9:26, which is quite comparable to my previous PR but isn't actually accurate based on the distance.)

Despite the short course, I was pretty happy with my pace here. I wasn't happy with how rundown I felt between miles 3-5.

I noticed that I was running stronger than I have in other recent 10ks, but the race felt like work. A month or two ahead of this race, I had just started to get consistent with long runs, cycling, and strength training. 

For the MBH 10k, the course distance per my watch was 6.15. I'm willing to call that a true 10k. My time was 57:12 and my pace was 9:19. Even before I knew I was earning a PR, I could tell I was running faster, steadier, and with way fewer walk breaks than back in October.

So, how? It really boils down to something I always knew mattered but never made the time for: consistent strength training.

Has my consistent running made a difference? Of course. Running hills, simply because they're unavoidable here? Yep. Doing long runs every weekend? Sure. But the truth is, none of that is new. For the past ten years, I have always (well, almost always) kept a consistent running schedule, incorporated bridges whenever possible, and run long weekly. The only truly new factor was my incorporation of riding the Peloton once a week and doing strength training 2-3 times a week. Like clockwork.

I still have to stop and wonder how the shift in mindset happened. I've tried to incorporate strength training in the past but it never stuck. Why is this time different? Is the answer really as simple as: Peloton is fun and kind of culty, and it's doing the trick?

A couple years ago, I came across this piece of advice: You won't always be motivated. Learn to be disciplined. I don't particularly like the connotation of the word "disciplined" — I like "dedicated" instead — but the quote resonated with me and struck me as true. I've had it in my head for years, and I wanted to learn to be disciplined but wasn't sure how do go about doing it.

The answer ended up being so simple it's annoying: I started to keep a calendar. A whiteboard calendar front and center on the fridge, actually, so that it was never something to forget or ignore and could be easily updated and changed every month.

At first I kept it blank and only added in the workouts I completed. That was motivating without creating pressure, when I was struggling mentally last spring. But when I started joining group runs and following the HCotF Peloton calendar, it made sense to be proactive and to start planning my workouts ahead of time for the entire month. 

At the start of the month, I write in the workouts and the checkbox. As I complete the workouts, I check off the box and add details of the workout.

Looking at a month at a time, rather than week-by-week, gave me both focus and perspective. Missing one workout in 7 days felt defeating, but missing one in 30 was no big deal, and suddenly I could move on from "failure" without wallowing in it. At the same time, I missed fewer workouts because they were already scheduled for me!

I started keeping the more detailed calendar around September and from that point on, motivation stopped being a factor entirely. Discipline — dedication, commitment, whatever — took over.

It was a subtle change. Rather than feeling like I was making good decisions, I felt that there were no decisions to be made. I didn't keep the schedule; the schedule was kept. In a way, it felt a little out of my hands. That I would do my workouts was a forgone conclusion.

I can't remember ever feeling this way before, where working out has become a no-brainer and I'm truly enjoying it. Where I'm working out six days a week and staying consistent. Where I can actually track my progress in ways that matter: the weight I'm lifting, my pace on my easy runs, the definition in my biceps.

Over time, as I checked off workout after workout, week after week, I began to see growth like never before. I began tracking NSV —  non-scale victories — and was amazed at what I was accomplishing. 

This new mindset has been consistent and sustainable for me for about six months now. The routine took about six weeks to become habit. It took approximately three months for me to realize I had developed a new relationship with and attitude about working out. Four months in, I finally started to notice real progress, and it wasn't until a week or so ago that I had a chance to step back and realize, holy shit, this is really paying off.

So basically, patience was key.

Seeing my strength and stamina increase, I'm reminded of another quote I saw ages ago that stuck with me: fall in love with the process, and progress will follow. I feel like, for the first time ever, I'm truly there.


Thursday, February 17, 2022

My Better Half 10k

I've always wanted to ring a PR bell, and this weekend, I did just that!

It should come as no surprise that I love to run a race on my birthday weekend. Last year, we were still so new to Seattle (and COVID was still so present) that it didn't really cross my mind...and that ended up being for the best, since it absolutely dumped snow that weekend.

February 2021. Yeah. Not racing in this.

But this year, I didn't want to pass up the opportunity. I found the My Better Half race early in the fall and was immediately interested in running the 10k, but wanted to wait to sign up until I was sure we wouldn't have another snowpocalypse. Then, when I finally went to register, it was sold out.

I added myself to the waiting list and found a backup race that would suffice but wouldn't be nearly as exciting, just in case. I kept a close eye on my email for two weeks, wondering how long I should wait before I officially gave up and signed up for the backup race.

Then, the Wednesday night before race weekend, I was doing my warmup ride on the Peloton when I saw the email come through. I'd been selected!

I signed up right then, as Alex Toussaint urged me to "ride to greatness!"

A couple weeks before this, the second toe on both my feet had been hurting on and off, so once I knew I'd definitely be running a race that weekend, I changed my schedule, deciding to skip my runs for the rest of the week so my toes would be rested for race day. That worked out okay, seeing as Matt and I were dog-sitting Brewsky and Kogi all week, so I had access to the Peloton.

Race Morning

Race weekend brought some deceptive weather: sunny skies and freezing temps. I expected it to be 45° or 50° on race day, but when I lined up at the start, it was 31°. The grass was frosty but at least we weren't getting snow.

I've never felt as blasé about a race as I did this time around. The route was at a park I'm familiar with, I hadn't been training specifically for a race so I didn't have a goal in mind, and I've been running at least 10k for my long runs every weekend since October, so the distance felt more than doable. Basically, everything felt like just another weekend long run.

I was also feeling strangely comfortable with running this race alone. It's been awhile since I've raced by myself, without even a spectator at the finish line, but something about being alone lowered my anxiety and expectations. I was truly just racing for myself.

Unbeatable views!

The 10k was set to start at 8:05am. During the 30-minute drive to the park, I ate half a large banana and sipped some coffee. I was trying something new with the banana because my usual pre-long-run breakfast of overnight oats hadn't been settling well the last few weekends. 

The drive was incredibly foggy — I'm talking barely 20 feet of visibility and invisible streetlights — so I drove slowly and was worried I'd be late. Still, I only missed one turn and arrived around 7:35. I found street parking a block away. I changed shirts (since it was colder than anticipated) and got my bib on, glad that I'd made the trip to pick it up the day before. Gloves, Shokz, headband, gum. I meant to bring Honeystinger chews, but forgot to stick them in a pocket.

Around 7:50 I got out of the car and jogged the half mile down to park bathrooms, using that as my warmup. Only one stall had toilet paper, but just as a line was forming, the custodian came by with a sack of rolls to distribute, like a Bathroom Santa Claus. I did my business and jogged to the start. I barely had to wait three minutes before the 10k runners were given the Go! I couldn't have timed it better!

The Race

My plan for this race was vague. "Take it easy" and "just run it" were my top priorities. Having run a similar course on Halloween, I knew the big hill in the first half mile was really a lot and I gave myself permission to walk it or walk at the top. Whatever I needed.

What ended up happening was that I ran up the hill, quads burning, and somehow managed to just keep on trucking at the top. The worst part was actually that the hill was divided, so passing people meant getting in the way of half marathoners already on their downhill sprint. Having to run slowly on the heels of a bunch of people while going uphill was tedious and burned worse than if I could've just powered up at my own pace with an open road ahead of me. Then again, maybe the forced slower pace kept me from totally burning out at the end.

Once I cleared the top, there were two additional, gentler hills, but there were some downhills, too, so all in all that first mile was taxing but it didn't sap me the way it did back in October. This was my first indicator that I've made some amazing progress since then, but I wasn't too focused on that at the time because I had no idea how I'd fare the remainder of the race.

Once I came back down that first major hill, I knew the rest of the course was flat. I settled into a comfortable rhythm and let it roll.

Mile 2.5 and feeling fine!

I'm about to age myself, but around mile 2.5, a group of cool-looking young adults were walking on the dirt trail adjacent to the course, against race traffic, shouting compliments and encouragement to runners. I don't think they were there to spectate but had gotten swept up in it during their own morning walk. As I started coming up to them, one of the women shouted to me: "Great outfit, I like the look you got going on!" and I swear I started flying. (Compliments from Gen Z just hit different.)

I couldn't ask for a prettier route.
The sky was cloudless and the sun was high, but it hadn't quite thawed the north side of the park yet, and around mile 2.7 I suddenly found myself slipping. The asphalt was slick with a thin layer of invisible, iced-over frost. I left the road for the dirt trail and stayed there until the ice disappeared.
You can see where I slowed down for ice (dark blue) at the north end of the park.

I finished the first lap without much ado, still feeling proud of myself for holding off taking a walk break. I tend to walk a lot in 10ks. The end of the first loop brought us through a parking lot and up onto a narrow sidewalk, where I lost some time stuck behind slower runners. Coming out of that turn, the course split — left to continue, right to the finishing chute. I veered left and crossed the halfway timing mat.

Of course, as soon as I did, I began to feel fatigued. My breathing was getting a little ragged and my legs were tired.

I told myself I could walk at mile 4, but I passed that same cheer squad ("Still looking good!") and managed to get myself to 4.6 before I finally took a break. By mile 4.65 I was running again, but my watch was showing dashes where my pace should be. It hadn't connected to GPS at the start, either, and when it finally kicked back in a few minutes later, it said my pace was in the 12s. I knew that had to be wrong and decided not to let it worry me. I just kept trucking along.

Just a l'il walk break selfie.
By the time I got to mile 5.5, I knew I'd manage to finish this race without another walk break and I was already feeling incredibly proud of myself. Compared to how the Run Scared 10k went, I couldn't believe how much stronger I was!
Digging in around mile 5.
Because the route was a double-loop, I could easily visualize the last few turns; when I came out of the interior loop of the park and into the parking lot, I knew exactly where to stick to the street and where to cut back onto the sidewalk to avoid any bottlenecks. This time I veered right at the split and straight toward the finish.

I found I didn't have a lot of energy left for my usual sprint at the end, which tells me I pushed myself just enough during the race. As I drew closer to the finish, I heard the emcee call my name. "Welcome to the finish, Alison!" There's nothing quite like that at a race!

Post Race

I grabbed my medal and water and shuffled off to the water's edge to get out of the crowd and take a look at my watch. I had seen the clock as I came in, but I wasn't sure how behind I had been on the gun.

57:14. That had to be a mistake. The last time I ran a 10k under 60 minutes was...I didn't even know when! Had I really managed a PR without actually training for one? Without setting any sort of time goal at all?

I went to the race website to confirm. 57:12.

I looked up my old PR. In 2012, the first 10k I ever ran, I ran a 58:41. That was so long ago that for years I've thought my PR was an hour because I forgot I'd ever broken 60! And now, ten years later, I broke that record by over a minute without even trying!

6th place got me by a second!

I was flabbergasted. I knew I'd run a great race but I hadn't realized just how well I'd done until that moment. There was a PR bell in the finisher's village and I worked up the nerve to ask someone to take my photo while I rang it. I'd never gotten to do that before!

Bucket list item, fulfilled!

I didn't hang around long, although the vendors and oatmeal bar were tempting. If the oatmeal had been gluten free, I would've! I'm annoyed at myself for not finding the photo booth before I left, but I wasn't thinking straight — too excited about my PR — and being alone post-race always makes me just want to get in the car and head out.

Back at the car, I took stock. My toes were feeling good. My legs felt pretty good. My asthma was starting to set in now that my adrenaline was cooling, and I took a puff off my albuterol. I sent my race results to Elizabeth, Sarah, and Matt. I was still in shock.

All told, this was a fantastic race and a great way to say goodbye to 35. I had a great time, it was so well organized, and I feel like it's the first kind of "big" race I've done since the move. I will definitely be back next year, barring another mid-February snowpocalypse. I may even do the half, finally reinstating my birthday half marathon tradition.