Saturday, December 26, 2015

What I Think About When I Run

Today I ran 19 miles. It took me a little under four hours of time all by myself.

Some people have asked me "What do you think about when you are out running for hours at a time?"

Sometimes I listen to music, a podcast, or an audiobook. But other times I focus on becoming aware of my self -- I am practicing being 'self-conscious' in a good way. It is another angle on my perspective of 'running into my self'. In those times, I just let myself think whatever comes into my head, and play around with those thoughts.

Sometimes the thoughts are 'good' (read: creative and hopeful and positive) and I dwell there and see where they take me. I get energized and excited and uplifted by these trains of thought.

Other times the thoughts are 'bad' (read: destructive, defeatist/fatalistic, and negative/hurtful)...and like with 'good thoughts' I also dwell there, and see where they take me. I allow myself to dwell there for awhile in the hopes that I'll get to the root of those fears or angers, etc -- and by allowing myself to 'go there' I'll let those things out of me instead of keeping them bottled up inside me like I have done for so much of my life before now.

And sometimes after a train of thought (good or bad) finishes, I just. Stop. Thinking. For awhile. I like it when that happens too. My mind gets to rest so infrequently that I treasure it when it happens.

And recently, in that place of solitude and openness, I have begun to contemplate. Not just in the sense of turning an idea over in my head and looking at it from a variety of directions, but I mean 'contemplate' in a more spiritual sense.

Dr. Warren A. Kay, in his book "Running -- The Sacred Art" says
"Contemplation is the activity of self-consciously living in the presence of God."
And in "New Seeds of Contemplation", Thomas Merton says
" spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness, and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible and transcendent, and infinitely abundant Source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source. It knows the Source, obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes both beyond reason and beyond simple faith."
When I am running contemplatively, I am learning to see things I might not otherwise see -- in nature, in others, and even in myself.

Today I saw an outcropping on a tree which seemed to point to the sun so I paused to express my own reverence.

I reflected that even in the midst of the fog‬, there is still a right direction‬ to head; a way forward even if the future is unclear. I just need to keep looking for the signs‬.

And later after I got home and reviewed my run I realized that outcropping in silhouette also looks like Rocky Balboa at the end of his epic run -- also very inspirational!

~ Keith

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Loving the Me I Used to Hate

For those (probably very very few of you) who have never struggled with body image, please watch this video and learn what it is like to feel fearful, shameful, and even unlovable in your own skin.
And for those of you who DO struggle with body image; especially those who may read my (seemingly constant) posts about running and fitness and perhaps get discouraged -- please watch this video and if you shed some tears know I shed some too when I watched it. And know you are not alone.
I have struggled with self-acceptance and body image for most of my life. It is only in the past 7 years that I have learned to be OK in my own body...and it is NOT because I am thin and run a lot. I don't love my body because I am a runner. I am a runner because I love my body. And it has taken me a lifetime to appreciate the important difference between those two perspectives.
When I was in grade school, I was called 'skinny' and it was a negative term. People (family and friends and classmates alike) laughed because my belts were always so long the end of them wrapped around to my back belt loops. They laughed in the locker room and swim class because you could see my ribs and my knees were bony.
The summer between 6th and 7th grade I went to a football camp and learned how to workout and eat. But I really wasn't very good at it, so I only played (read: sat on the bench a lot and watched the acceptable people play) my 7th grade season. In 8th grade I ran cross country and at every. single. race. I was either last place or 2nd to last. Running was not fun, but I was trying to be acceptable; trying to make my body do what others' bodies could do. But I couldn't. So that was my last active sports season. I stopped working out. But I still remembered how to eat.
By late 8th grade I was no longer the skinny kid. I was the chubby kid; the fat kid that the Jocks and the Socs and the Hoods laughed at (and bullied) in the locker room and at school assemblies, etc. And I stayed that way all through high school. Aged 17, at 5'9" I graduated high school at just under 200#. By that time I had learned deeply the lesson that I was fat, and laughable, and my body was not OK.
In the Navy, in my 8 weeks of basic training, I lost 35# and at 165# I had learned my body could do things I never thought it could. That skinny was OK, and certainly better than fat. Or so I thought. Family and friends I hugged said I was too skinny, that I was bony and it was not OK. I should gain some weight.
I learned there is a narrow window between "too fat" and "too skinny" and the size of that margin is arbitrary, in constant flux, and the bottom line is my body is never "OK" the way it is.
My weight went up again as I went to various naval schools. Then down again just before I got married. Then up again after I got married. Then down again when I went to Jenny Craig. Then up again when I stopped following someone else's predetermined meal plans. Then down a little, and up a little more, yo-yo-ing over the years. By 2002 after my mom died I was 230# and a few months later tipped the scales at 250#. I hated my body and hated that I couldn't change. And I hated that others seemed to be able to control what they ate, and have svelt bodies that were acceptable and sexy and lovable.
In the fall of 2004 I went through something of a crisis of faith and came out the other side with a perspective I had not had since I was a little kid: I realized that I not only loved myself, I actually LIKED myself. Just. The way. I was.
Over the next 2 years I grew to understand that my body was not as physically healthy as it could be, and that is when learning to love it enough to make changes to protect and heal it became a priority. I tried a few things but nothing 'stuck'.
But then in the spring of 2008 at age 42, weighing around 220#, something just clicked inside me and I decided to start taking care of myself. I looked into eating for hunger (instead of all the other emotional reasons there are to eat). And as I lost a little weight I started walking. And as I started walking I added a little running. And as I lost more weight I added more running and learned that if I run slow enough to stay within my breath, I may not win any races but hey -- I can actually *enjoy* running!
So fast forward to today. I am 49, and am still 5' 9". I weigh around 165# and while many people see me as 'skinny' or 'thin' or 'in good shape' etc, what they don't know is I have man boobs, and loose skin folds. These are leftovers from when my body was 85# heavier. And since these are not medically concerning, I have decided there is no need for me to seek surgery just to make my body look different.
My man boobs and loose skin in my abdomen will never really go away. And I see those in the mirror every. single. day.
Some of the time I am able to look past them and look myself in the eye and love myself for who I am today, loose skin and all, with faults on the inside as well as the outside.
And sometimes when I look in the mirror I still see 'the fat kid'. And sometimes I look beyond that and see 'the skinny kid'. Either way I see a kid who is not happy with himself and wishes he could be something else so people would like him; so he could like himself.
I wish I could say that when I see 'the fat kid' or 'the skinny kid' I choose to feel love for that kid; that I choose to embrace him wholeheartedly and in that place of love and acceptance allow him the space to be who he is and feel love right there. And sometimes I do feel those things, and it is healing and wonderful.
But sometimes I just see a fat kid who feels unlovable, and I feel like an unlovable fat man.
And sometimes I see a skinny kid who feels unlovable and I feel like an unlovable skinny man.
And sometimes it still really hurts to not be svelt and muscular and toned. And in those painful moments, the fact that I can run marathons and ultramarathons and am 49 but have the metabolic fitness of a 34 yr old doesn't mean a thing because all I see is that I am not (and will never be) that unreachable ideal that I think I need to be to become acceptable; to be lovable.
So if you struggle with those same things, please know you are not alone.
I may not have the courage or the creativity to stand half-naked in a public place and allow people to mark my body -- but I can write from the heart and tell my own story here on my own blog.
I can tell you that it IS possible to come to the place were you love yourself and even like yourself. And sometimes when that happens, your body does begin to change, but not all at once. And even if and when the number on the scale or the body you see in the mirror becomes a more physically fit and healthful body, you know what? The ideal body you were chasing stays fleeting. So please, please, please: just learn to love yourself right here and right now. And let the rest come (whatever it looks like), if and when it ever does.
And like the video linked above, and like this blog post, please spread the word in your own way to let the world know that when courageous vulnerability is met with compassion and acceptance, something amazing can happen. It is called love.
Love yourself people. And love others. It really is that simple.
~ Keith

Saturday, May 09, 2015

I'm Still Just Me, Even After 'After'.

Recently an acquaintance gestured toward me and said to someone I was with: "Look at him, he's so fit! I hate him!" and we all laughed.
...but it made me think, and ponder. And then my courageous friend Darcy put this blog post on Facebook. It is a wonderful snapshot into the life of a young woman whose weight loss experience has brought her to a new perspective. I can totally relate.
I used to think "I hate myself, because I'm fat." but then somewhere along the way I realized I had it backwards. I was overweight because I used food as a comfort...because somewhere deep inside I was unhappy with who I was as a person; considered myself of no value to the people or world around me; of no significance. (cue pity party theme music and clips of George Bailey stumbling through town.)
And once I realized that I really could like myself, even love myself -- not just in spite of my flaws, but BECAUSE of my flaws (the strongest reasons for needing to experience love and acceptance from others and from myself!), then the weight began to come off, and I began to exercise and even discovered I liked that too, for various reasons.
And today, being at a healthy weight is sometimes a really scary thing for me, since my identity as a "fat guy" and even a "guy who used to be fat but who is now losing weight" took up so much of my life that to be "the guy who is not overweight" is frighteningly new sometimes and I don't know HOW to be 'that guy'. That guy who is " fit!" that someone else says (there's often a little truth in every jest) "I hate him!"
Yeah, me too, sometimes.
Because while it is true that as I lost weight and have kept it off, the use of food as a comfort and a run-from-the-internal-pain-of-the-moment tactic has sometimes been easier to avoid, sometimes it has been monstrously difficult.
Some days I experience freedom and I can just sit. And just. Be. With myself. And I look in the mirror and see past weight and height and body image stuff, and I can look directly into my own eyes without shame or judgment or guilt or condemnation. I see the work I've done to get free, while also acknowledging the inadequacy to have done it on my own. Creator and those placed around me have upheld me in this and so much more. And I feel connected and alive and vibrant and strong.
Other days I look in the mirror and I see the fat guy inside the thin guy. I may not have as much excess skin as the courageous Matt Diaz but I have enough 'sharpei skin' to make taking my shirt off in public an embarrassing thing still, sometimes. So that extra stuff is what I see. The stuff that will never come off; the 'hard lard'. And in that place of guilt and shame and condemnation and self-judgment, I sometimes experience a return to the slavery from which I was set free, and I eat without thinking and without really being present, and then I feel shame and guilt so I want to eat more, and then I feel worse, and so then I... Well, you know.
Vicious cycle.
These days instead of running away from myself I most often run into myself, and I do the work of digging deep and praying and asking hard questions of God and Cathy and close friends and even paying a professional counselor from time to time. And I do the even harder work of actually receiving their love for me. I allow them to love me when I can't love me, and in that space I allow them to teach me how to love myself in healthy ways. Because here's a little nugget for you to chew on:
Healthy self-love is sometimes just as elusive at a healthy weight as it is at a morbidly obese weight -- harder even, since there are no outward signs that I or anyone else can point to (like a big gut, or a number on a scale) and say "See!?!?!? UN-LOVABLE!!!! ...because of THAT!"
And I'm learning to move past the fears and the doubts and I can see so much love and hope. And I love to eat good food, especially when I am really present to the sensory experience and enjoyment of it at each bite. And with each bite I try to remember how it used to be, and be grateful for who I am today. Who I *AM*, not how I look, or what I weigh. I may be grateful for those too, but that is ironicaly immaterial.
Today I weigh 170 and my goal weight is 158. But whether I'm 158 or 170 or 258 or 370, I am still me, and I am still worth loving, and I'm the only me I can be -- so I am me, unapologetically, flaws and all. In process, yes; always. But I don't think I'll ever reach "After".
As the blogger in the linked article so eloquently says:
"There’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of weight loss because the rainbow has no end.
There is today. There is now. There is during. There is life."
Today, I'm living life.
~ Keith

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Running (Further) Into My Self

Here's a link to the run I went on today:

The hills were pretty difficult at times, but overall it was a good run and I tried to just enjoy myself and not think about pace.

As I was out there, I thought about a friend who is a new runner. I've been running about 6 1/2 years, and she's been running about 3-6 months. She'd asked me recently when I started trying to get faster; how long had I been into running before I started trying to increase my speed (note I said 'increase', not 'improve' -- my high school English teacher would've called that foreshadowing). =)

It has been a week or so since she asked me, and I've waited awhile to respond since it is something of a lengthy and complex answer -- and so I pondered that today as I ran.

The short answer is: It was probably around 6 months or 1 year into running, maybe 18 months -- whenever I ran my first bibbed race and wondered if I could do it faster.

And now, here is the long answer.

I had this impression that as I got more fit, my speed would naturally increase. And it did. I set PR after PR after PR and it was intoxicating. And while I knew at some point to 'get faster' would mean more work and cross training and etc etc, I somehow thought that if when I started a 90% effort gave me a PR then over time, that same 90% effort would simply yield more and more speed. In essence I thought I'd get faster without 'feeling' like I was working any harder. And that was true for a time.

I've hit a peak now, though, where I don't know that I can get any faster. I mean, if I think about it, it makes sense: If I started at a 12:00/mile pace and then later for the same effort I was running an 11:00/mile pace and then 10:00/mile pace etc... at some point there *has* to be a limit, right? If I just keep running and working harder, can I hit an 8 pace for a 10k? a 7 pace for a 5k? -- then a 7 pace for a 10k and a 6:30 pace for a 5k? Will I ever run a 5:00 mile? Where's my lower limit?

And for a few years, I had no idea where that limit was, so when it started to get harder to go faster; and PRs started to get less and less common, I just worked harder. I tried new training plans and different stretches and speed drills and different shoes and different fueling techniques. And sometimes it paid off. I saw a few more PRs and that was fun. 

But now I realize that the increased work and effort and stress to eek out a 2-3 sec/mile gain is just not worth it. In reaching for the prize of a reduced time on my watch, I paid the price of losing the joy of just being out there reveling in the movement and sights and experience of running just for the sake of running.

And couple that with this: seeing someone who has been running less time than I have, who is older than me, run faster than me! That's one of the main reasons I stopped reading RunnersWorld magazine. There's a section called "What does it take to..." and it is meant to be motivational, I suppose. This section has a few mini articles, with catchy headings like "What does it take to run a marathon on one leg?" and will tell the story about a soldier who has a prosthetic leg and ran his first marathon, for charity. "Yea! How inspiring! If he can do it so can I!!!"  But there's also the ones like "Jeff McSpeedy had a heart attack at age 54, weighed in at 285#, and started running 6 months ago. Today he weighs 152# and he just ran his very first marathon in 3:15, qualifying for Boston next year!!!" and those would actually DE-motivate me. I'd see person after person on those pages who was improving WAY faster and WAY more than I was. "What does it take to...?" Apparently, it takes a hell of a lot more than I have inside me.

And it is not just in magazines. A personal friend is about a decade younger than me. He was not overweight, but also not very active. He was a pretty aggressive hiker, but did not have a chance to go do that regularly. He said I inspired him to start running. Yea! I felt special! Until, 
after 3-4 months of running, he ran his first around a 7:30/mile pace. Now, after 1-2 years or so, he runs 10 mile training runs at a 7:15 pace just on a routine day. And yes it's not all sour grapes. I'm happy for him, I really am! But somewhere inside, my heart whispers: "How come I can't do that?" and that points me back to the gaping hole inside me with a neon sign that blares out "NOT ENOUGH! NOT ENOUGH! NOT ENOUGH!" over and over and over.

So between the 'motivational' articles in magazines, & the real-life stories of people I know, suddenly I was no longer as special as I thought. At least not on paper, looking at numbers.
I was just a below-average-improvement-rate guy facing the fact that I was never going to be as fast as "that person". And yeah, maybe someone else will never be as "fast" as I am, but somehow that doesn't ease the pain of knowing I've plateaued and the goals I once thought were realistic (a 4:00 marathon, or a 1:45 Half, etc) may be unattainable. Or the work I'd have to put in would not be worth the result. Especially since once I hit *that* goal, there would be yet another carrot out in front of me and it would be a never-ending procession of trying and failing...and that became hurtful to me.

And it all came to a head this January when I ran my favorite half-marathon, for the 5th year in a row. I had my sights set on a PR, and was well on my way at the 6.5 mile turn-around. Then at the 9 mile point I was hanging on...and around mile 11 "the wheels fell off" as we say, and while I finished faster than some people, I didn't finish as fast as I had hoped, despite hard efforts. I was demoralized, demotivated, and depressed.

So I had a choice.

So now instead of being upset by that, I've given myself grace. We are, all of us, faster than someone else, and slower than someone else. And instead of trying to be someone I'm not, I'm trying to just be who I am -- knowing some days I'll set a PR that will feel really good, and other days (MOST other days) I won't. And while I understand the value of always trying to 'be a better me' I now understand that speed or distance are much less important to me than they once were.

"Better" means something new to me now.

I've entered a new phase of my running where I set my super-fancy GPS watch to just tell me total time. I have no idea how far or how fast I'm going. I have to have a general idea, so I know when to turn around and come home, etc -- but I resist the temptation to do the math in my head of figuring out "Well, I know from my house to here it's about x miles and if my watch says I've been running Y minutes, then I must be averaging Z minutes/mile"

Instead, I really just try to just stay within my breath, and take in the experience; enjoy the time. Some days I put out a little more effort and some days I take it real easy. I vary things to spice it up a bit and play around. And when I get home and synch my watch, it'll tell me the data. Some days I'm faster than I thought I was -- and some days I'm slower, and while the former is still quite fun, the latter is no longer as upsetting as it used to be. 

Some day I may 'try for more' again, but I hope if that happens I'll be more gentle with myself.

So if you are reading this and are new to running or have been running for ages and are at a plateau, I encourage you to do the same. If there is a 'biggest' mistake I've made along the way ('cause there've been a few!) it's the above.

The most amazing aspect of becoming a runner is this: I get to spend time "Running Into Myself" over and over again. I now know that no matter how deep I dig, there's always a little bit more inside. There's always more inside me than I think there is: more muck to clean out, and more goodness and light to reveal and share. And that translates into every other aspect of my life and has given me confidence and courage in many ways.

But I've focused too much on the rush of the "I'm getting faster/thinner/stronger/etc!" aspect of the "I had more inside me than I ever thought I did" feelings. And each of those has a limit.

Now, I am trying to stay in the realm of "I have more inside me than I ever thought I did" but from the perspective of "Let's see how many minutes of this run today I can spend actually *enjoying* myself and spending time with God and creation and whatever I'm listening to, whether it is my thoughts or an audio book or music or whatever."

No matter what my time or distance, letting running stay "funning" is what will keep me getting out there again and again and again.

That simple joy is where it is at.

And there is no limit to that joy.

~ Keith