Sunday, February 15, 2015

In Search of Flow: The Journey of My Second 50-mile UltraMarathon

By Susie Crossland-Dwyer  

"Pushing your body past what you thought it was capable of is easy; the hard part is pushing yourself even further ... past what your mind wants to let you. That's what ultrarunning is all about; introducing you to a self you've never known." -Rex Pace

Ride the wave. Breathe, Susie. Keeping riding. Just breathe. Let it take you up, let it take you down. Breathe. The wave will carry you. 

This exact sequence of words I must have repeated to myself hundreds of times over the course of running 50 consecutive miles on Saturday June 7th, 2014. It wasn't a mantra I had practiced over my eight months and 600 hours of training prior to the race. But, four days before the North Face Endurance Challenge Washington, D.C., in the midst of the most pre-race nerves I've ever experienced, when I asked for a dream, a feeling, or a sign that all would be okay on race day, it was the image of a giant tidal wave that washed across my brain.

In the months leading up to TNFEC I had begun immersing myself in the study of "flow." The investigation was part professional research and part personal intrigue, based on my previous experiences with endurance sport.

I wanted to know the answer to questions about what helps us endure any type of suffering in life, including chosen suffering. I wanted to know what was actually happening inside of our bodies--chemicals, brain waves, neuro-muscular connections--and inside our spirits to make this possible. I wanted to know what it was about this "flow state" that made me look forward to, instead of dread, taking myself to my physical and mental limit.

Previously called "peak experiences" in a happiness experiment conducted by Abraham Maslow, the new term flow states was coined by psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. "Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does." 

In 2009, on the marathon course in the Louisville IRONMAN, for the first time I encountered what I now know to be flow. It snuck up on me, and in a literal instant, it permanently changed my life. In the first blog I ever wrote, not knowing much about this state, I nicknamed it "the truth zone." The feeling was that of time slowing down, heightened awareness of everything around/within me and full use my personal potential. It would be out of this experience that would firmly press play on my life and within weeks I had pushed the plans forward for creating studio s.

As Csikszentmihalyi observes, "Flow is more than an optimal state of consciousness--one where we feel and perform our best--it also appears to be the only practical answer to the question: What is the meaning of life? Flow is what makes life worth living."

In almost every endurance race after IRONMAN it has visited me again. Some encounters are short and sloppy--like trying to grasp one of those ever-moving water wiggle worm toys and feeling it plop to the ground. Others times I'm able to inhabit it with more precision--as if writing a poem even though it feels like someone else is moving my hand to scribe the words. But no matter how rocky or smooth, each dip into the river of flow has only left me with more questions and the desire to be able to access it again.

Two weeks before I toed the start line in Washington, D.C., my husband Chris asked me if I could explain what it was about racing an ultra marathon that made it so deeply satisfying to me. I only needed one word to answer the question-- curiosity. The curiosity of whether or not I would find flow again and the curiosity of seeing what is possible for an everyday athlete like me, given a perfect, injury-free training season, an amazingly supportive community, and the desire to go all out.

The big day approached and time moved like a slow cruel joke. A week felt like a month, a day like a week and the day before the race like a never-ending, slow, deafening gong the Big Ben inside of my head.

When the enjoyable, predictable routine of running six days a week for eight consecutive months, sometime hours and hours on end, comes to a screeching halt during taper mode two weeks before the race, it's like stopping a hundred ton freight train in milliseconds. I had stopped, but my body's momentum wanted to keep going. No matter how I tried to distract myself, my steam engine's wheels where sparking and screeching against the rails. It was painful but necessary to slow the force of momentum. I knew I needed rest to be ready for the big day and past precedent told me the taper would work. 

My incredible crew planning their route for the big day. They were such a gift! 

"Most people live in a very restricted circle of their potential being. They make use a of a very small portion of their possible consciousness, and of their soul's resources in general, much like a man who, out of his whole organism, should get into a habit of using and moving only his little finger." 
 -William James 

As I stepped up to the start line in the pitch black of the 5AM morning with only a few boom lights projected out onto a dormant meadow, I could feel my heart beating in my chest. I felt sick to my stomach and, at the same time, like a strong caged animal rearing for the lock to be unlatched. I stood in the dark, nervous silence of 350 or so other runners clutching their flashlights, tying and re-tying their shoelaces; each looking like the first moment a headlight catches a deer's eyes.

It is in the presence of intense risk that flow most often presents itself. As discussed in The Rise of Superman, athletes in "extreme" sport are known for their ability to quickly tap into flow states. In these moments, there are two response options for the body/ brain 1) go into the high stress state of "flight, fight or freeze" or 2) to flow. Researchers have found that if one's fight or flight reaction is accessed then flow is impossible. I stood just one step shy of entering fear and therefore possibly negating flow. I knew I couldn't over-think it but that I needed to stay ahead of this deeply ingrained human mechanism. I had many, many hours ahead of me and I needed to flow not to fight. 

The announcer called the second wave of runners up to the start line and as the others sheepishly hesitated, I hopped right in front. Fifty-miler #2 here we go! And with that, the countdown three ... two ... one of the start and our first footsteps were behind us. 

“Control of consciousness determines the quality of life.” -Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

In the first miles of the race, even though the mind is fresh, not getting too far ahead of oneself is crucial. Thoughts like, “Forty-nine miles to go,” cannot be allowed to enter the brain, it must be highly controlled and kept locked tightly like a vault. Focusing on one breath, the feet in front of you, the subtle shift of light in the headlamp or some other repetitive detail is the only way to survive. 

As the anxious, overly-ambitious pace off the start line wore off and our headlamps lit the dewy grass underneath our feet, we began to shuffle into order. After working our way across a few muddy boardwalks, down a gravel path and double-backing a figure-eight section of trail with the elites whizzing by us, a silent, rhythmic cohesion began. Unlike my first 50-miler, where the lonely darkness of the early morning set my race off to a bad start, this time I felt like part of a powerful tribe. We merged from individuals into an unstoppable and unified pace line. Like a giant serpent weaving its way through single track trail, outlined by waist-high wildflowers, prairie grasses and poison ivy, we grew in cohesive momentum. What would normally be a deserted mud path outside of the suburbs of D.C. came alive with the sound of breath and foot strike. Occasionally in the distance I could hear faint words of runners swapping stories or telling jokes, but for the most part we ran in silence. It was a meaningful silence though, and one that spoke way more than any sound potentially muttered.

Our pace didn’t budge, there was no room for a mis-step, a pee break, or even wanting to scratch my nose. I couldn't get out of line or the momentum of the group would be ruined. “Stay put and begin the ride,” I began repeating to myself. 

Like any experienced distance runner, I had studied the course repeatedly and formed a plan. My strategy was to gain as much pace as possible in the first 11 miles of relative flat trail and make up for any time I would certainly need later on during three laps of vertical intensity. Moving in time with this powerful human pace line gave me just what I needed to accomplish that goal. Occasionally, I would glance left to take in the majestic Potomac River, still steaming from the morning fog and getting wider as we began to approach the Great Falls. But, by the time I looked at my watch, we had hit the 10-mile mark and I began climbing.  

 "Success is never so interesting as struggle." -Willa Cather

Over the course of the day, never did I doubt that I would finish the 50 miles. But, around mile 13, I began to wonder how I would make it to my next target. I had successfully completed my first section of the trail ahead of schedule, but in doing so had failed to eat according to plan. I had watched the minutes tick by knowing I was entering the danger zone of low carbohydrate stores, a move I would inevitably pay for later. Instead of eating and therefore loosing momentum, I kept running---my first and, probably, my only mistake of the day.

I needed to make it to mile 15 where I knew my crew would be waiting for me. I needed to make it through a tough section of climbing and out of the woods that were beginning to feel like The Never Ending Story
I needed flow but I knew this elusive state wouldn't simply appear when I wanted it to.

Ride the wave. Breathe, Susie. Keeping riding. Just breathe. Let it take you up, let it take you down. Breathe. The wave will carry you. 

The day before the race, Chris and I checked out a section of the course that I knew I'd soon be approaching. Knowing what to look for in those moments made all the difference in the world. My eyes scanned the trail for anything that looked familiar. Just around the corner ... anytime time now ... it has to be soon. I rounded the bend of a tall grass field and, suddenly, I saw the dirt path from the day before. I had made it and I knew my crew had to be close. That's when I heard it--the hooting and hollering of my team cheering on runners ahead of me! I was only a small portion of the way through my day but something inside of me knew I was coming out of what would be my most difficult moments.
As I approached my crew, I wanted to cry. I wanted to wrap my arms around them and stay safe for the rest of the day. But all I could muster was a half smile as I passed through their love. I had work to do and I needed my energy. As I exited their tunnel of joy, I yelled, "When do I get to see you again?" I needed my next goal and upon hearing Chris enthusiastically squeal, "Two miles," I knew I was going to be okay.

"Fatigue gets worse up to a certain critical point, when gradually or suddenly it all passes away; and we are fresher than before. We have evidently tapped a level of new energy, masked until then by the fatigue-obstacle usually obeyed. There may be layer after layer of this experience. A third and fourth "wind" may supervene. Mental activity shows the phenomenon as well as physical, and in exceptional cases we may find, beyond the very extremity of fatigue, distress, amounts of ease and power that we never dreamed ourselves to own, sources of strength habitually not taxed at all, because habitually we never push through the obstruction, never pass those early critical points." -William James

Two miles down the road, I began a three-loop section of the course. Three times through and I'd only have one section left-- a ten mile segment back to the start/ finish line. The farther away I stepped from my support system, the more nervous I became. And then, somewhere around mile 19, on a downhill in the middle of the dense woods, I found flow. I have no idea where it came from and I didn't know how long it would last. But as soon as I felt it click into place, I mentally re-engaged the image of my tidal wave. I was going to surf right on the edge of that wave and see if I could get this powerful state to stick, even if only minutes instead of seconds. 

Ride the wave. Breathe, Susie. Keeping riding. Just breathe. Let it take you up, let it take you down. Breathe. The wave will carry you. 

There are moments and feelings in life that change us forever--ones, like my Louisville IRONMAN experience, that are so powerful that we will never forget them. Through miles 19 to 21 I felt like nothing in this universe could stop me from anything I wanted ... ever. I remembered that this is why I run. I remembered that I am more powerful then I allow myself to be. And I made a promise to come here often, to have a tactile sense of what it means to live freely and fiercely, without reservation of who I am and what I want in this life. 

Flow states are often compared to drug-induced states because they are thought to shut down the same filtering mechanisms in the brain. As a result of minimizing one section of the brain, another portion is able to magnify with greater details, taking in the surroundings at a much higher rate. This explains the often found "one-with-the-universe" feeling that accompanies flow states. Due to the lack of filters, your brain is not able to determine where self stops and other begins. 

And so, it felt as if everything around me was cheering me on--the trees, the rocks, the air moving through my lungs-- all, powerful helpers aiding me in the difficult journey. I was riding my wave, I was flowing and I was on such a roll that I feared loosing it to stop for water and fuel. I needed this energy and I didn't want it to go away. But the tighter I gripped, the more it dissipated, and by the time I hit the end of loop two at mile 29, the wave had slowly crashed and washed ashore.

I rounded the final bend of loop two to find Chris suited up as my pacer. Though in my power state of flow, I doubted whether I would even need a pacer to finish the day, his new energy gave me another lift as I escorted him along the course that had begun to feel like home over the last half marathon. 

He entertained me with his normal mix of philosophical ponderings and joker-esque banter. Most of the time I unenthusiastically grunted in response, even though I was filled with gratitude for what he had agreed to that day (I often joke that it's easier to run an ultra then to crew/pace one). Finishing the third loop once more along the Great Falls, he shared some history about the geological wonder we were passing and I apparently retorted with, "Fuck the Great Falls!" I don't remember saying these words, but I do remember feeling raw with very little care about anything else but finishing the task at hand.
In my experience, mile 40 is where the reality of an ultra-marathon truly sets in. Nothing is appetizing, nothing is funny, everything hurts and your body is urging you to be done. And yet, it is also in this space that the rhythm of your body moving in the same pattern for over nine hours straight, becomes amazingly automatic and almost melodic. Rationality and sensitivity have long since disappeared and you are running on grit and momentum. 

I didn't want to stop, I wanted to be done--at mile 50 (what actually ended up being a solid 52). Stopping, slowing, eating, peeing, all meant delays of a finish line that I knew was close. I had accomplished almost everything that I had come for--another powerful encounter with flow along with the realization that success is often achieved with equal parts willpower and letting go. All I was missing was the last step across the finish line.

At the final check point of the day, mile 49, I got another gift. My best friends Shelly and Katie were waiting for me, as they had been at every pit stop along the way, and side-by-side down the gravel path we made our way toward the finish. They smiled and trotted alongside of me, observing my need for very little talking, as I squeezed out every ounce of focus left within me. Though I couldn't express it, I felt as if life couldn't get any better than it was in those last moments of this long day. I had triumph, but more importantly, I had people in my life who understood my need for this crazy journey and loved me nonetheless.  
"Perhaps the genius of ultra-running is its supreme lack of utility. It makes no sense in a world of space ships and supercomputers to run vast distances on foot. There is no money in it and no fame, frequently not even the approval of peers. But as poets, apostles and philosophers have insisted from the dawn of time, there is more to life than logic and common sense. The ultra runner knows this instinctively. And they know something else that is lost on the sedentary. They understand, perhaps better than anyone, that the doors to the spirit will swing open with physical effort. In running such long and taxing distances they answer a call from the deepest realms of their being--a call that asks who they are ..." -David Blaikie
Though the red balloon-like arch of the finish line sat in the exact spot where I started my 50-mile adventure many hours earlier--everything looked different. Not only had the light of day changed, the contours of the trail come to life, but I had become more of myself. 

A GIANT thanks to all of my crew & pacers of the day! I couldn't have done it without you.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Running is_____________.

By Susie Crossland-Dwyer

    “The real purpose of running isn’t to win a race, it’s to test the limits of the human heart." 
-Bill Bowerman      
For the past six months, I've been spending 6-10 hours a week coaching a group of about 35 people, many of whom started out as strangers to one another in November. Together we began with one common goal: train for and complete the Flying Pig Marathon or Half-Marathon the first weekend of May in Cincinnati, OH. We call ourselves Team S.

This snowy scene defined a lot of our practices this year.
Some participants started the journey having only taken their first running steps months earlier. Some began with many races under their belt and grand running goals in mind. Some had experienced a taste of racing and wanted to see what happened if they kept the momentum going. A few had just delivered babies weeks earlier or were still getting acquainted with the sleepless routine of having a toddler at home. Others were looking to defy the unfamiliar realm of middle age. Some were managing 50-hour work weeks or caring for ailed parents. Some were planning weddings or taking CPA exams. Some were coming off of surgery where they were told they'd "never run again", dealing with a heart-condition or nursing injuries of races past. Some had hope. Some had doubt. Some just wanted to run. 

But, no matter the distinction of age, experience, or circumstance, each person began willing to take a risk and see what was possible. Each runner was able to put perceived limitations to the side and make it work. Each runner came ready to enter new territory and make use of the next six months of life.
Evidence of running in the pouring down rain. Beth and Kelley come back to studio s soaked but smiling.
Our weekly Tuesday 6AM run--this one when it was -25 degree windchill. Don't worry, we were layered up, but after 5 miles our eyelashes became popsicles. 

Hayley and Pam finishing out a 17 miler on one of our nicer training days.
Snow, snow and more snow!
As the hours and miles have passed, although the over-arching physical goals have remained, something else---I would argue even more life-changing--has also begun to emerge. Through repeated footsteps in crunching leaves, tromps in foot after foot of snow, shallow breaths in negative windchill mornings, goosebumps in the dumping ice-cold rain, five-a.m. alarm clocks, shadow-covered sidewalks, Saturdays without sleeping in--something beyond fitness has happened. 

Through mile, after beautiful, joyful, painful mile--the power of the human spirit has broken through. 

Spring has arrived! Sixteen days and counting to race day.
Paralleling the new life of spring and the emergence of sunshine and shorts, we have come back to life and we have done so as new and stronger people. Depth of winter created opportunity for a persistent, powerful spirit to be grown, and soon, to be harvested as we complete of our final miles as a team. 

Last week, as one of our finishing steps of preparation, I asked  Team S to go through the following mental training activity. 

Why do you run? What does it mean to you? What does it do for you? What does it help you do in the rest of your life?
As some of you may have experienced on our last long training run, at some point in the marathon/half-marathon your body will be pushing back and asking you this very question. Why did I decide to do this? It is important to expect this to happen and know exactly what your response will be. In tough moments we need to remind ourselves of the context, of the why, in order to keep moving toward our purpose/goal.

Running is_____________________________________.
I run__________________________________________.

Crossing the finish line of the Flying Pig will represent_________________________.
At the finish line of the Flying Pig I ________________________________________.

The phrase I will repeat to myself as I race is_________________________________.

The responses I received blew me away. I'd like to share a very inspiring, powerful example with you.
The following was written by Kris Donnelly and shared with her permission. After four months of hard training, Kris found out that her mom was very sick and would need a bone marrow transplant the week the race was to take place. 

I will never forget the morning she told me the news. It was chilly but the sun was out. We had gathered in downtown Cincinnati's riverfront park to run sections of the Flying Pig course for race-day practice. As we began running and chatting as we normally do, Kris turned to me with tears streaming down her face. She said simply, "My mom is sick and I don't know if I'm going to be able to complete today or this race, but I'm going to try." Here are her reasons for running...

Kris pictured here in the orange on the morning she shared the news.

"Running is power.

At the finish line of the Flying Pig I will probably start crying.  They will be happy bittersweet tears. 

The word I will repeat to myself as I race is gratitude.

Why I started running...
I was not active or athletic growing up; I never learned how to play any sports. When I was a freshman in college I found myself homesick, depressed, and thirty pounds overweight.  One day I decided to go run.  Everything changed from there.  Despite how awful it was because I was so out of shape, I immediately felt better about myself: body and mind.  I began running regularly in an effort to take control of my body.  I found so many benefits beyond just losing weight.  I felt pride, strength, control, calm, and power. 

When I moved back to Cincinnati in 2006 my sister and I walked the half marathon.  I had never been to such an event.  The excitement of the crowd, the determination of those running, all of the time they had invested in this one morning ... it was intoxicating.  I knew that I wanted to be a part of this experience. 

Why I kept training...
When we learned of my mother’s relapse, I assumed I would quit training. I couldn’t imagine continuing with what felt like such a selfish time commitment while my mom prepared to fight for her life.

When she was treated four years ago I became totally consumed with her care.  I filled every moment with worry and grief.  I overextended myself to the point that I lost a huge part of myself--my job suffered, the relationship that I was in suffered and eventually ended.  I couldn’t see the necessity of self-care and preservation as a tool in caring for someone else. By the end, I was empty.

When we learned of the relapse, I kept training at first because I didn’t know what else to do.  Stopping would have left a giant void in my schedule, which only meant more time to worry. Training has provided some consistency during such a chaotic time of my life.  It has been something to control and measure.  It’s been a comfort, a way to pass the days.  It’s provided quiet time for me to think, worry, cry, and stop all thinking and just breathe.  Some runs have been very hard to do; I have felt slow, tired, and questioned my priorities. But at the end of each run I have felt such gratitude, clarity (if only temporary) and strength. 

On the days when we’ve been so consumed with worry, when my mom’s felt sick, when there has been nothing to talk about, we’d talk about my run ... where I went in the city, how the distance felt, the weather.  It was a good distraction for us both.  It provided some normalcy when everything else wasn’t. It made her feel better to know that I wasn’t stopping my own life. 

On my refrigerator the [Flying] Pig [Marathon] training calendar is posted next to my mom’s treatment calendar. Each day I compare the miles and distance with her drugs, tests and care.  Last night I realized how similar her journey is with my journey of training for this race.  Both are long, hard and epic. There will be setbacks, pain, and sadness. There is a science and method behind both the treatment process and the training calendar. And both require such a communal effort. I wouldn’t be ready to run the Pig if I didn’t have the support of the coaches, team, and my family.  My mother’s support system is just as vast. It will take a village to get her through this.  I am confident we will do it. All of the support has brought her comfort and strength.

If I had to select a word for why I’m running this, my word would be gratitude. It’s not original; it’s become my mom’s mantra and she prepares for treatment and reflects on her past three years of remission.  She has found a way to feel grateful for the challenges and blessings of her life.  She is not angry, doesn’t question why this is happening to her, and doesn’t feel cheated.  She’s appreciative of her three years of remission and all the beautiful things that have happened during that time. She’s confident there is a reason she has to go through this and intends to find beauty and give thanks during all process.   

As I begin to run my first marathon I can’t help but be filled with gratitude. I have made it through six months of training with no injuries. Despite the effect of stress and insomnia, I know that I am strong and capable of running a marathon. As I run it I will be so aware and thankful for all of the things that led me to be here, for my friends and family who will be there cheering, and for my mom.  She is the kindest most wonderful person in my life.  She has always been my role model, friend, advisor, and hero. As much as I am terrified that her time might be cut short, I am so thankful for all that she has given me and for the person that I have become because of her. 

I am so thankful I chose to train for this and thankful I chose to stick with it."

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Real Food: How My 7-Day Experiment Stuck

By Susie Crossland-Dwyer
"The body never lies." -Martha Graham

At age twelve I became a vegetarian. It wasn't a rash decision. I knew my convictions surrounding the issue and I got to work researching the topic. Even at this young age, my modus operandi in life was highly developed. But I did it all in silence. I kept to myself because I didn't want to ruffle feathers or upset any of my peers or elders with my decision. I also didn't want to be second-guessed by those who knew nothing about it but what the culture and mainstream media told them was right.

My family finally noticed on Thanksgiving when the turkey was passed around and I refused it. My step-brothers made fun of me and told me it would never stick. A year later, the questions and doubts really started to emerge. Surely it wasn't healthy for an active growing teen to be meat-free? Where would your protein come from? Every season I had to get a sports physical for soccer. Upon admission of the vegetarian factor, the doctor would look at my pale skin, do blood tests and be sure to check for anemia. Each year I passed with flying colors. But maybe this was just my young age and it would eventually catch up with me, right? Twenty-one years later, I'm an endurance athlete, my blood work still checks out and I haven't had a bite of meat since that day in 1993.
One of the books that began my deep dive into vegetarianism two decades ago.
To be honest, not much has changed about my communication style surrounding the topic. I'm a fitness expert and I professionally help people achieve healthier lifestyles, better sports performance, and weight loss--more than 50% of which has to do with diet. But, I still don't like to talk about food and my own choices. I want everyone to go their merry way and be healthy. Only I know it's not that simple.

One of the very first things you learn as Personal Trainer is to NOT discuss nutrition. After all, Personal Trainer does not mean licensed nutritionist or certified dietician. To this point, I've agreed and for the most part abided by this rule (even though I have studied and researched the subject for over a decade--both traditional and "alternative" models of nutrition). But as time passes and our culture gets sicker and sadder every day, I can not separate the two. I can no longer be silent about what I see and feel invading our everyday existence and choices. During my time as a trainer I've also witnessed methods that work, and don't work, well for my clients. I prefer to think long-term, which clearly isn't the American way. What may provide quick results, good looks, or temporary increased performance, isn't necessarily what is good for lifelong health.

In addition, I have had several important intersections in my own life that I feel need to be shared. I plan to live to a ripe old age, traveling the world and doing everything my body is capable of. I want to eat in a way that will let me do that until I'm 100. What I do with my own nutrition doesn't mean it's best for every single person--even though I do believe a lot of poor health and disease in our culture is a product of a specific type of consumption.

What we do with our bodies is intricately linked to how we live our lives. I'm not just interested in how you look or how much energy you have on a Spinning bike, I'm interested in what that means for the rest of your life and your personal potential.

There is a lot of conflicting advice out there on what is good for you. I'm sure the story could be told a million different ways. But, this is my story and my version of success. I know what MY body needs, prefers and thrives on and I'd like to share it with you.

New Year's Eve, stocking up with a green cart
I'm a pretty good eater and I like food. I have many good habits that I've worked on establishing over the years. I've been a vegetarian for 21 years and I cut out fish/seafood about ten years ago. I've been mostly vegan (no animal products like cheese, eggs and butter)--two of three meals in a day, for the last two years. But, I have two downfalls--coffee and sweets.

Starting January 1, 2014 I wanted to go all-in and see what was possible with my nutrition. It was a seven day experiment that was driven mostly by curiosity. For a while, I had been noticing that whenever I ate gluten or refined sugar (duh!) or dairy, I felt very mentally foggy and my energy would rise and fall frequently. I traditionally tend to have pretty consistent high energy, even with the amount of output it requires to run a business and live a very active life.

Tweaking my nutrition regimen is something I've wanted to do for quite some time. But I also understand the law of "exhaustible willpower," wherein you have a finite supply of willpower or restraint on any given day. Use of it in one area of life--be it workouts, work stress or relationships--pulls from whole. When it's gone, it's gone. I knew that the long days of opening/ getting a business going had been using ALL of my willpower. To start this experiment at any earlier date on the calendar would have ensured frustration and failure. The time had finally come and I was ready.

Additionally motivating was watching how my husband went from a typical American diet in his twenties--he actually used to tease me about being a vegetarian--to two years ago, going completely raw vegan for a full year. He has adapted his daily habits a bit since then, but the positive impact it's had in his life has been a huge inspiration to me. The full story is his to tell but in the year he started eating mostly plants, I watched his severe depression turn into energy, passion and vitality for life. I also witnessed his capabilities as an athlete grow by leaps and bounds in that year. I knew that this connection was no coincidence.

Our dining room on Jan 1st. The kitchen also looked like a jungle.
So, I was curious about cutting out the last few impurities of my own diet to see how I would feel. I wanted to be strict but I also wanted to be realistic enough to succeed. So, I ditched refined sugars completely but kept coffee in the mix (this part just may have kept my marriage intact). Coffee is still a great pleasure of mine, yet I can admit that I have both a chemical and emotional addiction to it.

I knew that how long I performed the experiment was also important. I wanted to make it long enough to feel a difference, as well as cycle through the normal highs and lows of my workout week. Yet, I wanted to make it short enough to be true to the process and have a foreseeable end date. I established a few ground rules going in.

Here are the original "rules" I used:
1. seven consecutive days
2. fruits and veggies only (no limitations on how much) except for...
3. exceptions established ahead of time = rice or quinoa (which don't contain gluten) and one black cup of coffee in the morning

Observations from my week of fruits and veggies (in no particular order):
1. Energy
Even though my energy is normally high, I could tell a difference in the amount of consistent energy I had. I experienced fewer lows within a day. In fact, there were several nights where I was up late reading or working because I had so much energy. This also translated into my workouts (as mentioned in "body metrics" below).
Smoothies galore! I had at least two every day.
2. Phasing In
On day one my stomach wasn't sure what was going on. It felt full but then would very quickly feel REALLY hungry again. The meter it was using to register "full" didn't feel the same due to the higher amount of liquid (smoothies). Also, the types of foods I was eating digest much faster and would literally leave my stomach quicker. By day two and three it was used to the "new normal". 

3. Less Water
Fruits and vegetables contain the most pure form of water.  I forgot that eating more of them meant I would need to drink fewer glasses of water. This is neither a positive nor negative, just an interesting tweak in my behavior of always having a water-bottle in hand.

This is probably the most remarkable part of the week. My brain felt lightening fast. I believe at one point I even asked my husband to start talking faster because his words seemed slow. Not only was I able to intake more information and remember it, I was feeling highly creative. I gained clarity on a few issues I'd been working through as well as developed new business ideas. I really hadn't expected this part of the experiment. I knew I had been feeling foggy but my hunch that it was food related was more than right.
Spinning photo courtesy of lululemon athletica Hyde Park and Simone Jowell
5. Body Metrics
I didn't do the experiment for weight loss but I did see changes in my body. Yes, I lost weight but more importantly, to me anyway, I felt VERY powerful during my workouts. If you've ever had that dominating feeling in a workout where you could run/ride to the moon or lift the Empire State Building, that's what I felt like all week. I work out a lot so the fact that I was able to maintain that feeling was amazing.

My heart rate also stayed lower during my workouts. I first noticed this phenomenon during my typical Sunday long-run, four days into the experiment. It wasn't a short workout (13 miles+) so I had plenty of time to gather data. My heart rate was an average of ten heartbeats lower than normal--at my usual pace. I was completely floored as I really didn't think these diet tweaks would yield such a change.
I discovered an amazing black rice (Lundberg brand).
I knew right away it had to be because my body was experiencing less stress (meaning stress from foods that cause inflammation or irritation to my system). The body doesn't differentiate between types of stress (diet, work, relationships, lack of sleep, exercise) which is the importance of using some kind of biofeedback tool to measure the impact/effectiveness of exercise/lifestyle.

I also felt my body composition changing. Even though I saw a lower number on the scale, I'm personally more concerned with what my body mass is compromised of (muscle vs. fat), not what number it's showing. I could see and feel my muscle increasing and/or fat decreasing. I know it was just seven days but when you know your body well you notice these small changes.

 6. Constant Eating/Cravings
I was constantly eating all week. I didn't count calories or limit myself to certain portions of fruit, veggies or rice. My goal was to eat until I felt satisfied and sustained. I knew that the type of foods I was consuming are less calorie dense yet more nutrient dense. 

My biggest surprise of the week was that I didn't get any of the normal cravings I have for refined sugar. Honestly, this was the part I was most worried about going into the challenge. Could I do it without eating any sweets? But, I found that when I was eating enough "good" calories, my body wasn't concerned with dessert. Shocker.

7. Training Solutions
My favorite from the Portables book--sweet potato cakes.
In the midst of the experiment I realized I needed to improve the food I use during training. I wanted more real food. If you are an endurance athlete, you know that eating in the midst of long workouts is needed/common. I've found a lot of good organic brands like Honey Stinger that use real ingredients but I had also just been introduced to a book called, Feed Zone Portables by a company called Skratch Labs. This book contains recipes for "75 portable foods that taste great, are digested quickly and help you perform at your best." Not all of the recipes are vegan but many are gluten-free and can be easily modified. I will share some of these recipes/variations in an upcoming blog. (Locally in Cincinnati we have a new company, TriCycle Portables, that's been launched to supply these types of foods and I think it's an awesome concept.)

8. Celebration 
On day eight I wanted a reward for how well (flawlessly by the way) I'd done with the experiment. I'm not a big fan of using food as a reward but in this case it seemed fitting. I had my eye on my favorite candy, peanut butter cups, to top off the week. I already had a sense that I would continue with my new routine. I felt so good, was seeing progress in my workouts and thinking better. I couldn't imagine returning to my previous, albeit relatively good state. My husband was out of town the day I celebrated. I sat in my bedroom alone that night, ate three peanut cups, felt like complete crap and fell asleep. I'm glad I did it because it helped solidify my sense of how this type of eating was not doing me any good.

"If you are eating healthfully, the idea of 'I can never eat [blank] again' 
is poison to your long-term goals."
-Matt Frazier, No Meat Athlete

I prefer to think of what I'm now doing--over a month later--as a plant-based diet instead of a diet with a specific label like "vegan" or "vegetarian". Labels are for other people anyway and this is about doing what's best for me. I want a diet filled with certain things instead of void of certain items. I'm thinking of all I want to eat instead of what I'm cutting out. And I don't plan to be absolutist about it. I know myself too well and musts or shoulds won't be mentally sustainable for me.

My new guideline, developed not just from this week experiment but from years of research, is           I want 85% of my nutrition to come from plants. If I have a piece of cake or eat a burrito during the week, that's okay. If I want to occasionally have cheese or eat an ice cream sandwich, that's okay but it's not the norm. I want to fill my body with things that make me feel more alive, not less.
Trader Joe's brand mango slices were great between meals.
What's included in the vegan powder, Vega, I use in my smoothies.
My Vitamix has certainly taken a healthy beating but you don't need any fancy blender to get started. I will be sharing more smoothie ideas and recipes in a future blog.
"The best way to predict your future is to create it." Abraham Lincoln

Some people may read this blog and think, "Well that's not normal and it sounds like a lot of work." And they may be right. But I'd like to ask, when did it become normal to eat items (that can't really be called food) that are processed to oblivion and that don't require any effort on the part of the consumer? When did it become okay to sit back and let the people making this so-called food tell you what to eat? And, as a culture, when did we get so disconnected from our bodies that we can't even distinguish the things that are limiting us and causing us ill?

Personally, I want to take my life back in this way. I want to connect with my food in a positive manner that yields more energy and vitality in my limited time on this earth. I want to feel good and give more of that good feeling away to others. I want to promote a food system that is sustainable to our planet and to other species. I also believe that our culture is capable of more than the system we have now.
If you want to start your own journey or want to know more, these are some resources I've enjoyed or found helpful. There are many examples of plant-based athletes performing at the top of their field (Scott Jurek, Rich Roll and Tim Van Orden listed below as just a few) which has also helped me realize what's possible as someone who values daily movement.

1. Forks Over Knives movie (This can be found on Netflix. Their website is also helpful for getting started on nutrition change).
2. The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study Every Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-Term Health by T. Colin Campbell, PhD (Warning: This is not light reading but you will be changed by it.)
3. No Meat Athlete: Run on Plants and Discover Your Fittest, Fastest, Happiest Self by Matt Frazier & Matthew Ruscigno, M.P.H, R.D.
4. Thrive Fitness: The Vegan-Based Training Program for Maximum Strength, Health and Fitness by Brendan Brazier
5. Eat & Run: My Unlikely Story to Ultramarathon Greatness by Scott Jurek
6. Tim Van Orden and his project, Running Raw
7. Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World's Fittest Men and Discovering Myself by Rich Roll
8. The Kind Diet: A Simple Guide to Feeling Great, Losing Weight and Saving the Planet by Alicia Silverstone

Friday, January 24, 2014

2014 Goals: The Year of Not Normal

By Susie Crossland-Dwyer
"At least once a day, allow yourself the freedom to think and dream. 
[I] didn't write that headline. Albert Einstein did. He was saying: Beware of the ever-present 'experts' in your life. Don't let other people tell you what or how to think. Don't let them tell you who you are, or what you can become. Whether in science or everyday life, Einstein knew the folly of accepting someone else's opinion about what's possible or factual. Those who have never run a race in their lives are happy to give you all the reasons why you can't win yours. Be your own best expert. Form the habit of saying yes to your own ideas, dreams and aspirations. Then make lists of all the reasons why you can and will achieve them ... because there will always be plenty of people around who are willing to tell you all the reasons why you can't and won't."
-excerpt from What's on your top 10 list?

            My Goals/Intentions for 2014 (& a little beyond)
1.     Eat real food—get 85% of my nutrition from plants.
2.     Spoil my family and friends with love.
3.     Fill my world with meaningful sensory input that educates me and positively contributes to my existence = books, pod-casts, documentaries, people, images, music, etc.
4.     Sleep at least eight hours per day.
5.     Spend time moving outside everyday.
6.     Indulge in music through listening and choreography.
7.     Share my deep love of fitness/running with others, especially beginners, and help others realize their own potential in all aspects of life.
8.     Push my emotional, psychological and physical (perceived) limitations through exposure to new ideas and experiences making this the “year of not normal.”

1.     Visit and run in four national parks. Mt. Rainier (Feb 2014), Zion, Bryce &  Grand Canyon (May 2014).
2.     Run the North Face Endurance Challenge 50-miler in D.C. on 6/8/14 and improve my previous 50-miler time by at least 30 minutes.
3.     Complete 15 unassisted pull-ups (by July 2014).
4.     Ironman 70.3 Muncie (July 2014) and/or Ironman Louisville (August 2014) and improve previous IM time by at least 15 minutes.
5.     Learn from my heroes/teachers in person (two people by December 2014).
6.     Climb Mount Kilimanjaro and visit Serengeti, Africa (January 2015).
7.     Write a book. Complete draft by Spring 2015.
8.     Make Cincinnati one (in the top 5) of the healthiest cities in America (as soon or as long as it takes).

A few pictures from this past week that remind me of what's important 
and how I want to live...

 Birthday dinner with my family! Sister Catie & bro-in-law Mike made a delicious homemade version of my favorite cake. 

Long weekend run on our rails-to-trails system with my amazing friend Katie K. I feel as sunny as it looks.
Playtime on the trails of Ault Park on my 33rd birthday. Logs + snow = obstacle course.
Skiing with my one true love. Thumbs up for a healthy head.
Day one of my pull-up goal. Time to get started! 
Team S running group meets at Ault Park in -7 windchill to complete their daily mileage. I love seeing others excel at their own goals.
Quality time with my men (even though Jaden is saying "get me out of here!").