Sunday, September 4, 2016

American Medals; Sport-wide Doping

I didn’t watch much of the Olympics.  A big part of my inattention was I was sulking as a result of my poor Olympic Trials performance.  At the same time, I am having a really hard time watching track and field when doping is widespread and our governing bodies seem more interested in big stars and world records than holding cheaters accountable.  For example, the International Olympic Committee was given information about state sponsoreddoping in Russia in 2013.  The IOC decided to ignore that information, let a super corrupt Olympic Games occur in Sochi in 2014, and only dealt with that information in the past few months when it was forced by wider media attention.  Even when a training group is caught red-handed with banned substances, it’s athletes and coaches don’t seem to held accountable.

Even with my disillusionment, it was great seeing Americans kick so much butt in the distance events during these Olympics.  We had seven athletes medal in events ranging from the 800 to the marathon.  And it wasn’t just these superstars.  Many American made the finals and placed well.  This is usually unthinkable with Kenyans and Ethiopians historically winning most, if not all, the distance event medals.  So why where Americans able to place so well this year?  Is it because our training getting better?  Or do we just have an incredible group of athletes?  Or are we better at cheating?

Runners World argues that Americans did so well because of our environment .  According to Erin Strout, we won medals because as a group, USA track and field has: 1) figured out how to use altitude training; 2) changed the timing of our USA championships; and 3) better planning for logistical challenges.  This analysis is much too simplistic. 

Yes, we have some logistics figured out, but I think a lot of credit goes to specific coaches (Schumacher and Wetmore, for example), an incredibly talented group of American athletes, and, in some cases, better doping methods. 

On the other hand, I think almost all of our USA podium runners are clean, so I can truly celebrate their accomplishments.  Their success is even more incredible when they are certainly competing against some dirty runners.  Further, I think some of our clean runners will move up in placing when cheaters are discovered in the future (Molly Huddle and Jenny Simpson come to mind as athletes who will likely benefit from future doping discoveries).  I am grateful the three women in the steeplechase all seem to be extremely talented, clean athletes.  Nothing would be harder than watching an event when there is good evidence to think the athlete that beat you out is cheating. 

Unfortunately, I think we did have quite a few distance athletes representing the United States who are cheating.  No, they may not have been caught, but Lance Armstrong’s cheating went undetected for years, even with frequent testing. And cheating has become even more difficult to detect as technology evolves.  Kenyan’s track manager asked for only for 12 hours notice for his athletes before testing, when he thought he had the opportunity to bribe a testing official at the Olympic games.

I am grateful to the many athletes who put their careers at risk to call out cheating, especially the Stepanovas, who had to flee Russia after exposing the state-wide doping.   The path to a doping-free sport is unclear to me, but athletes and coaches and a vital first step to put pressure on our governing bodies to enforce clean sport to the extent possible.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Running Eastern Europe

Training always requires flexibility, because as much as you plan, there are always unexpected obstacles, whether from internal or external structures.  Training while traveling demands even more patience.  The external conditions are more unpredictable and the support structure you create to take care of internal conditions (injuries, eating healthy foods, sleeping well) aren’t there. 

Nowhere I have traveled required more openness than when I visited Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for two months.  Runners had three options for training: 1) Run on city roads before daybreak at 5:30 am (After dawn, all sidewalks and roads were literally unrunnable because of the people/chaos); 2) walk the one city park with a one-mile dirt loop, and run circles; 3) Take public transportation to mountains just outside of city, and run (after full light, of course, when the hyenas won’t eat you).  This was my first time outside North America, and it was an incredible lesson in privilege for a recent NCAA Division I graduate.  Forget the piles of Nike clothes and fancy hotels.  I learned from my training pals how incredibly fortunate I am to have consistent calories, to consume protein, to have shoes that fit and a sports bra, to have a home – a shower!, and to have education.  The list could go on for a long time.

As I traveled through Eastern Europe for these past three weeks, I tried to continue training hard to prepare for road races in September.  It ended up being really hard to get quality training in, and I was too often cranky.  My plantar fasciitis flared up from walking on cobblestones, tour groups of fifty people clogged up an entire path, and I never knew where I could find an open track.  I had one workout that went far better than expected, which was followed by one so terrible, my coaches and I decided to wait until I get home to try anything up-tempo again.  I wish I could always clearly hold onto the knowledge of how fortunate I am to be able to train as much as I do, but I can’t.  If I did, I would love every single second I got to spend running in comfortable shoes and had a protein bar waiting at the end of my run.  At the very least, when I remember to reflect, I can appreciate the flexibility I learned, even if I'm not always happy about it.

                                                                 Run in Riga, Latvia

                                                      Another selfie in Berlin, Germany

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

London and Karlstad Racing, Baltic Vacationing

European Racing Plan:
3k at Gothenburg Swedish Grand Prix 7/16 Result: 9:11.04
Steeplechase at London Diamond League 7/23 Result: 9:47
1500m at Karlstad Swedish Grand Prix 7/27 Result: 4:15, Rabbit 1 mile of Steeplechase
3k at Joensuu Games in Finland 7/30 Skipped due to heel injury
Travel Eastern Europe 8/1-8/21

My racing was mediocre until my 1500m and rabbiting in Karlstad.  Racing the steeplechase in London was an amazing opportunity.  I got to race in the 2012 Olympic Stadium, in front of 70,000 fans, with lots of tough women in the race, including the 2012 Olympic gold medalist. 

                                                                    London Stadium
                                          Shalaya Kipp, Genevieve Lalonde, Jessica Kamilos, Me

Karlstad went a lot better.  We ran most of the race a tad bit slower than our all-out race pace, so I kicked as hard as I could at 300m to get 3rd.  20 minutes later I rabbited the steeplechase.  I was worried because I am so bad at pacing my own workouts, but I was able to be right on 9:40 pace through one mile.  Rabbiting is a lot different than racing, because you know you are only going half the distance, but I was amazed at how good I felt.  I felt like I could have pushed through to a 9:40 steeplechase right then and there, which makes me frustrated my last two steeplechase races have been so poor.  After feeling so good rabbiting, I know the poor races are due to my mentality.  I am overwhelmed by how much my mental state can affect how I physically feel in a race.  Amazing.

                                                                 Karlstad 1500m

Now I am traveling through Eastern Europe with my Dad.  We have seen Tallinn, Estonia, Riga, Latvia, and now we are in Vilnius, Lithuania.  I love the contrast between the medieval, soviet, and modern European architecture.  

                                                                  Tallinn Old Town
                                                           Tallinn Soviet Church
                                                                     Riga Church
                                                                    Riga Old Town
                                                       KGB Interrogation Room, Riga
                                                                  Vilnius Church

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Euro Racing 2016: Gothenburg

European Racing Plan:
3k at Gothenburg Swedish Grand Prix 7/16 Result: 9:11.04, 6th place
Steeplechase at London Diamond League 7/23
1500m at Karlstad Swedish Grand Prix 7/27
3k at Joensuu Games in Finland 7/30
Travel Eastern Europe 8/1-8/21

In the couple days before the Gothenburg race, I got to spend some quality time with running buddies Amber Shultz (Club Northwest Steeplechaser), Sasha Gollish (Haute Volee Canadian Mid-distance), and Victoria Mitchell (Australian Steeplchaser).  With quite a bit of down time in the couple of days leading up to the race, and not having close family or friends around, I appreciated having awesome women to hang out with.

                                    Amber, Me, Victoria, Sasha - post 3k.

                Track officials never seem to disqualify athletes for breaking rules.  Runners blatantly shove, drift over to prevent people from passing, slow races down to let their teammate catch up, and cut others off.  Maybe a yellow flag will be raised, but almost never is anyone disqualified.  So, I was very much surprised that when officials started to get annoyed with some of the women’s conduct in the staging area, they had tools to get racers in line. 

We were all supposed to be lined up and ready to go out to the track, but one of the women was still changing into her uniform, holding the rest of us up from being able to continue warming up before racing.  One of the officials walked over (once the runner had her buns on), and pulled out a yellow card as a warning, soccer style.  I was thankful an official was willing to defend the rules, first, because it was hilarious to see a card being thrown outside of a soccer stadium, but also because if you have an 8:40 3k pr, you have run in an international race before, and you know how things work.  I know I’m my dad’s daughter when I’m that excited about officials enforcing law and order.

The race itself was fine.  I went through 1600m in 4:50, but then slowed down to 5:00 pace, finishing in 9:11.  The time was a one second PR, but it hurt, and I didn’t have anyone to race against after I lost contact with the top five after the first two laps. Right after the race, I was questioning if I should pull out of my remaining three races, because I felt so bad.  But, with a little distance, I’ve remembered how terrible I usually feel when I race a couple days after traveling a long distance. 

Race start.


                                        Pain face.  Maybe if I close my eyes, the hurting will stop?

Now I’m staying with Amber and her husband, Jedd, in an Airbnb for a few days before heading to London.  We are using the time to rest, read, and cook.  Michael is chiding me for not taking full advantage of being in Gothenburg, but I have a lot of racing to do in the next couple weeks, and I know I’ll be on the go once Dad gets here to travel with me in Eastern Europe.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Trials Prelim Bummer

I’ve been trying to figure out the reason(s) for my terrible race at the Olympic Trials prelim, and I haven’t come up with any totally convincing answers.  I know I am in shape to PR (sub-9:29), but after three laps in the race, my body started to shut down, and I ended up running somewhere around 10:00. 
                There is no clear answer this time.  I believe I did everything in my power this year to give myself the best possible opportunity to make an Olympic Team.  Going into the Trials, and even on race day, I thought I was in a really good place – in my body, my mind, and my heart.  I had times of being incredibly nervous, but I had skills in place to calm myself down.  Yes, some things were off.  My chronic heel pain had cropped up again in the past couple weeks.   I was a couple pounds heavier than my pre-surgery race weight.  But nothing life-shattering.  I went through a list of other possibilities.  Am I just the type of person who buckles during the most high-pressure events?  I don’t always thrive, but I’ve also had some great performances at high-stakes, high-pressure races.  I don’t think I’ve ever completely fallen apart without a good reason.

                So how do you get past a hugely disappointing race without having any big issues to concentrate on or fix?  I’m not entirely sure.  But each day is getting better as I remind myself my failure was not a reflection of the worth of my person and as I find new goals to focus on.  I’m in Europe and have three or four more races to use for going after new PR’s and prize money.  I am not an Olympian, but I can still try my best to be a badass.

I'm not very pumped about it, but at least I get to drink alcohol and eat sugar again after a 10 month hiatus.  

Friday, June 24, 2016

Olympic Trials Mentality

This year’s Olympic Trials is the race I’ve been training for my entire professional running career.  During all the downs of my running career over the past few years, I’ve made myself feel better by remembering the ultimate goal is to be ready for the Olympic Trials, 2016.  And now it is almost here.  I can’t come out of this race telling myself, “it’s okay, you’ve got a bigger picture to think of.”  This is the big picture.

I have a hard time comprehending all that is on the line.  And, quite frankly, I don’t want to dwell on it.  I will say that there are large differences between the have and have nots in track, and the difference between getting 3rd place instead of 4th place would have an incredible effect on my career.  How can I stay calm and collected when I know what is at stake?

I’ve thought about how other people approach high-pressure races.  The few accounts I’ve read of very successful athletes seem to paint their mentality all in a similar light – their careers were so fruitful because they were so determined on winning.  They trained, eat, slept winning.  Failure was not an option. 

While this makes sense to me, and I know there are benefits of that drive to win, I can’t, and don’t want, to have that kind of thinking.  In my first couple years as an undergraduate, I made myself sick with stress about my athletic performance.  It seemed like so much was on the line.  Certain things were – getting to travel to meets, scholarship money, media attention, admiration, not getting yelled at by the soccer coach.  But some things I thought were on the line, were in fact not – my worth as a person, my identity, my relationships.  I was improving and performing well, but it wasn’t until I was able to separate my running success from my personal value, that I was really able to break out.  And this separation came about when I no longer felt I had to perform at the very best of my ability every time I stepped on the line.  I grew to realize it was enough to try to perform as well as I could on that day (and that doesn’t even mean going 100% all the time, as I talked about in my last post).  I learned this lesson  again after recovering from the depression and athletic burnout that hit me my last two years of college.  After I was freed from my own demons of pressure to perform, I not only excelled again, but I had so much fun doing it. 

So, over the past year or so, I’ve been using meditating and yoga to practice relaxing and coming into the present moment.  I’ve also used positive imagery to see myself doing well in races.  I’ve used positive self-talk ease my nerves, “You are in-shape and ready to run fast.  You are tough enough, talented enough, and have put in the work to run well.”  But I’ve also had to tell myself, “it’s okay if you don’t win.  It’s okay if you don’t hit your goals.”  Letting myself off the hook on an intellectual level lets me be more calm, which in turn lets me run with more freedom, both in my muscles and my mind.  I don’t think this has hindered my performance; I am an incredibly competitive person, and my will to win and to challenge myself and others is there as long as I’m not struggling against depression, burnout, or too much self-imposed pressure. 

Another incredibly special, but also difficult aspect of the race, is how many people are coming to support me. My brother is biking to Eugene from Denver.  My best friend is bringing her 6-month-old baby. My neighbors and family friends are coming for the entire week, even though they have rarely watched track before.  My boyfriend and parents are taking a week off of work.  They are making big sacrifices to come support me.  But I know they are there to support me as a person, and while they will be ecstatic to celebrate with me after a great race, they will also be glad to be there to hug me if the race doesn’t go as well as I hope it will. 

I am already feeling anxious about the Trials; like I said, there is so much on the line, and I have so many wonderful people coming to Eugene to support me.  Even though it sounds counter-intuitive, I am trying to play the race down for the sake of my sanity and my performance.  I am reminding myself I am so much more than my performance – I am the total badass who came back from surgery, trained with my boyfriend and long-distance coaches, and got into the best shape of my life.  All the people coming to cheer me on will love me whether I finish last or first.  My decision to run has never been about the financial rewards or recognition, or I would have quit long ago.  And, although this is a big one, there are many more races in my bigger picture.

Monday, May 16, 2016

When To Go To The Well

Come mid-May (Division 1 conference championship weekend), I am always reminded why I am so glad to be done with college racing.  I miss the nice hotels, the prepared itinerary, and especially the per diem, but, without exception, I was so burned out by this time of year I could hardly get over a barrier.  I opine that three seasons of NCAA distance running is too much to expect out of collegians.  Runners are likely to get injured or burned out at some point during the year, but there is usually a lot of pressure to push through these setbacks.  Another qualifying meet/conference championship/national meet is always just around the corner.  For this reason, it seems very rare for a collegiate runner to compete well throughout all three seasons. 

Of course the body gets really run down, but so does the mind.  I believe mental training is an overlooked aspect of competitive running.  In an earlier blog, I wrote about three levels of training I put into my mental fitness:

1.       Knowing where to direct your mind over the course of the race
2.       Carefully choosing when to race and how often to give your all-out effort.
3.       Getting your mind in shape before racing through mindfulness and workouts.

I wrote about #1 in my last blog post, so today I want to tackle #2.  College kids rarely get to choose when they race and they can get in big trouble if they give anything less than 100%.  I am fortunate I get to make my own choices now.

                An important part of growing as a runner is to know how often and when you are able to go your absolute all-out.  I was taught by my high school coach, Ben Zhao, the difference between a hard effort and red-lining (that edge of pushing your body as hard as it can go without breaking down).  I was able to peak at state cross country and track meets in high school because I started the season slowly.  I treated the first few races as a workout, then progressed to red-lining at the end of a race, and finally ran as hard as I could at the state meet.  In college, I wasn’t able to regulate the build-up as well.  I was able to perform well in cross country, indoor track, and the first race of outdoor before my body and mind started to shut down.  I kept up that pattern until my mind completely rebelled during my third year, and I had to struggle to compete while treating a disabling depression. 

                In this Olympic year, peaking at the right time, both physically and mentally, is key.  I know that while my mind is gritty and fierce, I have to be very frugal about the amount of times I red-line, whether working out or racing.  The amount of redlining a body/mind can handle is different for everyone.  There are some runners who seem to be able to crank out an amazing amount of successful races in a year and are able to sustain that success over the long-term. 

                My plan was to do a couple workout races this fall, hit that red-line briefly during indoor races, and now, in the couple months leading up to Olympic Trials, get more familiar with that red-line state of being while not going overboard.  As with every other part of competitive running, it is a tricky balance, but one I’m glad I’ve had many years to practice.

                                                        Sometimes you have a lot of fun.

                                                      Sometimes you are in a lot of pain.

                                                        Hopefully it's a good mix of both,

With cool people to celebrate with.