Looking for yourself

Gorgeous day for the Brooklyn Half and fun. at the finish!

Gorgeous day for the Brooklyn Half and fun. at the finish!

“Happy with your performance?”

It was a simple, yes-or-no, question, from Kevin McGuinness, my physical therapist, in a text message after the Brooklyn Half, but it caught me off guard.

I’m used to people asking me how I feel after a race or how I felt during a race. These are the questions I ask myself.

Ann Alyanak, my running coach, gets a live feed so she can see what I’m up to on hills, for example, or when I’ve decided to make a pit stop.  She looks at my splits and offers suggestions for how to make improvements, but when we talk on the phone, she always asks me how I felt during the race.

Nancy Accetta, my trainer, asks me how I’m feeling after the race so we can decide what to work on in the gym.

My performance?

For Kevin, who is also an athlete and a coach, it’s a natural question to ask a person who’s just completed a 13.1 mile race. 

Me? I’ve never thought about evaluating how well I performed during a race, or in other words, how well I ran. Just getting out there and doing it seems to be enough of a reason to answer yes.

But now that Kevin’s put the question out there, I’d have to say yes and no.

It’s always been about goal setting. My big goals are to finish the race and to finish it safely.  I want to come out of a long run healthy enough to hit the trail again and hopefully within a few days during a period of recovery.

For the Brooklyn race, my goal was to do the second half faster and stronger than the first. 

I finished the race. Check. I ran a tiny bit faster and stronger during the second half of the race. Check.

So if that’s what Kevin is asking me, then the answer would be, simply, yes.

Yet I don’t think that’s what he was getting at. 

Everything about my preparation for this race was casual. More than anything else, I slipped into the same chill vibe that sabotaged my triathlon effort in Bethany

I didn’t push myself to run the hills – there were several really long, steep ones. Instead I went into safe mode. 

If I had a competitive spirit, my goal would have been to beat my Parks Half Marathon time. Because I took it easy on the hills and made so many pit stops - even to say hello to Harriett Thompson, which of course I don't regret - my Brooklyn Half was 20 minutes slower than the Parks Half.

Here's what Harriett said to me after we chatted for a few minutes at mile 12. She had decided at the last minute not to run but showed up at the race to cheer runners on.

"I hope I didn't affect your time too much."

Even this easygoing 92-year-old concert pianist gets the value in being competitive.

Everything I’ve learned about exercise science tells me that I need to stress my muscles in order for them to adapt, to get stronger. And not just the muscles and tissues in my legs and core.

It’s my brain, too, that needs to adapt.

Thinking about running as racing is a paradigm shift for me, and I’m not naturally competitive. In my life and work I am driven to be sure, but I’ve always felt there’s enough room in the world for everyone who works hard to find success.

Kind of like the turtle versus the hare. Slow and steady.

Just get there.

During one of my last training sessions with Reuel Tizabi in December 2014 before he went back to school full time, he told me I needed to cultivate a competitive edge.

“Neile hit 20,” he said, as I was doing push-ups with my feet on a bosu ball. Neile Miller, my longtime Vassar classmate and friend, and I were doing a duet session with Reuel and although the hour started out with an air of friendship and lightness, soon he led us through progressively competitive circuits. 

“Ok that’s great,” is what I might have said. What I’m sure I was thinking was, What does that have to do with me?

If you want to progress you need to get competitive, is what I remember him saying, even if those were not his exact words.

At the time I didn't get the connection between competitiveness and progressing.

For me exercise is a tonic for aging. There's the obvious benefit of increased mobility, but more importantly I'm experiencing the powerful effects of endorphins and, according to a new study, endocannabinoids, which lighten my mood, even if I'm not looking as good in a bathing suit as I'd like. And this becomes particularly relevant as study after study continues to point out that although exercise is important for maintaining health and well being, even marathon training is rarely connected to actual weight loss. 

I searched online for some ideas to help me conceptualize the value of balancing a winning attitude with simply getting out there and came across the idea that it's the process of striving for excellence that is at the core of competitiveness. In a Psychology Today blogpost, mostly geared toward fostering competitiveness among college athletes, the author makes the case that the amount of effort you put in to your sport is really the only thing that is within your "zone of control."

So for example although you have total control over the amount of effort you put into your race, you have limited control over the outcome. It's that sense of total control that is ultimately your reward regardless of the outcome of your race.

I think that's what Kevin was asking about.

Despite the fact that it feels like our muscles are in overdrive as we push ourselves on the trail or at the gym, it's the mental energy that's critical here. Bringing out our best effort - in all things and not just in sports - can help us grow in other ways, including being more creative and in developing new skills that we all know set us apart from others in our personal and our professional lives and make us who we are.

Experiencing zen after exercising yet wiring your brain for greater intensity is one of the more interesting paradoxes of fitness.

My recent chilly and rainy early morning run in Warsaw had lasting positive effects on me as I waited around at the Warsaw airport for a flight to Vienna that would replace the one that was canceled. The guy at the airline ticket counter was so apologetic and so poised for me to lash out at him that I really just wanted to tell him to go take a walk and just breathe.

I completely enjoy the camaraderie among race participants. Yet at the gun start we are all competitors - with each other and with ourselves. Not because there's prize money or because we are Olympians. We're competing because that's how we improve, how we get that extra mile, how we progress to the next level.

I applied my lessons learned at the Brooklyn Half to push myself to run hard at an 8K in the hills outside Vienna with the Vindobona Hash House Harriers. Great group of expats from mostly the UK but also Canada and the US. They're all about having fun but the run/walk was awesomely challenging. I'm sore - but right now I think it's a good sore!

I applied my lessons learned at the Brooklyn Half to push myself to run hard at an 8K in the hills outside Vienna with the Vindobona Hash House Harriers. Great group of expats from mostly the UK but also Canada and the US. They're all about having fun but the run/walk was awesomely challenging. I'm sore - but right now I think it's a good sore!

If you're traveling and want to go for a run with like-minded folks, google Hash House Harriers wherever you are. The Vienna group finishes with Sekt - German sparkling wine - and homemade pastries (it was the 1800th hash run)! The "on after" was at Die Palette in Bisamberg - delicious pumpkin everything bistro food.

If you're traveling and want to go for a run with like-minded folks, google Hash House Harriers wherever you are. The Vienna group finishes with Sekt - German sparkling wine - and homemade pastries (it was the 1800th hash run)! The "on after" was at Die Palette in Bisamberg - delicious pumpkin everything bistro food.

Playlist highlights

I tweaked my rock n roll playlist from the DC Rock n Roll Half in March - this worked great for Brooklyn but now I wish I had added fun. to the mix. I couldn't get over how fabulous Nate Ruess is in live performance. He had just begun to perform "Carry On" as I ran across the finish. I grabbed a bottle of chocolate milk and walked over to the field where they were playing. Definitely a highlight of the day!

Drops of Jupiter - Train

Truckin' - Grateful Dead

Take Me to the River (live) - Talking Heads

In the Air Tonight (live) - Phil Collins

Aqualung (live) - Jethro Tull

Can't Get It Out of My Head - Electric Light Orchestra

Moondance - Van Morrison

Livin' On a Prayer (live) - Bon Jovi

Brandy - Looking Glass

Time of Our Lives - Pitbull

Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves - Eurythmics

Sugar Magnolia - Grateful Dead

Sympathy for the Devil - Rolling Stones

I'm Your Captain - Grand Funk Railroad

Feel This Moment - Pitbull

Firework - Katy Perry

Take It Easy (live) - Eagles

Stars - Grace Potter

Don't Stop the Party - Pitbull

Money - Pink Floyd

Go Your Own Way (live) - Fleetwood Mac

Low - Flo Rida

American Idiot - Green Day

I Don't Wanna Break - Christina Perri

Ramblin' Man - Allman Bros

Who Knows - Protoje

Billie Jean - MJ

Howl - Gaslight Anthem

Born to Be Wild (live) - Steppenwolf 

Summer - Calvin Harris

Bring Night - Sia

Home - Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros

Mozart's House feat Love Ssaga - Clean Bandit

Run-Around - Blues Traveler

Come with Me Now - Kongos

SexyBack - Justin Timberlake

Coastin' - Zion I & K Flay

Worth It - Fifth Harmony

See you next time!