Saturday, August 17, 2013

Listen To Your Body

If I could offer any one piece of advice to a runner, it is this - listen to your body. It's a piece of advice I also need to learn to take; yes, Zahida needs to learn how to practice what she preaches. I am very good at hearing what my body tells me, but sometimes I'm too stubborn to listen. My ambition and ego get in the way. They forget that my body is the best judge of what my body is capable of taking on. My ego hates being told what it can't and shouldn't do. It had spent the last several years defying its own low self-confidence and achieving whatever it set itself to do, even when it didn't believe it could.

After completing the Victoria Marathon last year, I decided I was going to run it again this year. In fact, I registered at pretty much my first opportunity. I completed two marathons last year, so I assumed with full confidence that two again this year was a realistic goal. I had numerous people remind me to take a break between races, and I explained how I was doing that. In reality, those breaks weren't all that long. Two marathons a year is possible yes, but not really the norm, nor a sustainable model for my future running career. I don't have a magic number of marathons I need to run to feel accomplished so it's not like I need to cram a bunch in and exhaust myself. I am young and have several years of running ahead of me.

The reasons for wanting to do Victoria so desperately are twofold. First of all, I have yet to achieve a marathon finish time that meets what I know I'm capable of based on fitness. Something always goes wrong on race day, and my finish times are a reflection of this. I've been telling myself that if I run another marathon, it'll be easier than the one before (I've bettered my time by 7 minutes each time), and eventually I'll achieve a finish time I can be really proud of. I'm going to get to the bottom of why my muscles cramp, and have it not happen at the next race. I need to keep running.

And secondly, I think it's just the way I'm currently programmed. Since taking on this fitness journey, it's always been about the next bigger and better goal I can achieve. I went from 5km to 10km. Then from there to half marathon. Then from half marathon to marathon. Then from marathon to improving time in a 2nd marathon...then a 3rd. The next logical step is another marathon, according to this model. To prove I'm achieving something, I must prove I can run longer and stronger. But I am learning to reframe how I'm seeing things. "Downgrading" the distance for the Victoria race to a half marathon is not "downgrading" my achievement. What it is is simply a different goal. I can work on running a really strong half marathon, maybe even my fastest. Running stronger, faster, and smarter are just as much an athletic achievement. 

In 2012, I ran 6 races - 2 marathons and 4 half marathons. I didn't even bother with shorter races as for me, I wanted to prove I had what it took to run the distance. Maybe it was because of all those years as an overweight girl, that girl in gym class who'd fake injury or illness to get out of the school's annual run because she knew she couldn't run even a block, let alone a mile. Proving I can run long has boosted my ego out of a dark place to this happy confident place it finds itself in now. The further I go, the bigger the difference between who I am now versus who I was back then.

This year has been my most active year of my life, having already run 10 races this year by the end of July. I chose to take on a series of shorter races this year, unlike last year. It started with the Steveston Icebreaker 8km early this year, which I registered for just for fun to see what I could do in a shorter race. I had so much fun and experienced such a high finishing that race in just over 41 minutes, I realized I was onto something. I maintained a pace I didn't know I could over a respectable distance. Since then, I've had a strong 5km, another strong 8km, a decent 10km, and some half marathons I'm pretty proud of too. Running different distances offers different challenges, they require different strategies, and they involve pacing yourself in ways you wouldn't dream of trying on a full marathon. It mixes things up and keeps things interesting. Your body has to work in different ways. I had always said I was not fast so I had to focus on running longer. But I'm starting to see that I am capable of being fast, capable of getting faster, and short fast races are something I might be good at. Freeing up training energy to focus on shorter races in the coming months is an exciting prospect. I've got goals in these shorter distances too, and hitting those milestones will be just as much an achievement as any other goal I work toward for longer distances. And perhaps those goals are more within reach than the marathon improvement goal. I just have to remind myself of this. Not running a marathon this fall doesn't make me any less of a marathoner.

So yes, my body has been telling me to not run the marathon this October and it took until a week ago for me to finally listen. I had a momentary lapse today where I thought, maybe I can do it afterall (the results of a very encouraging ferritin test) but then realized what my body told me all along.

It first hinted there was something up a month after the marathon when I realized I must be iron-deficient and noticing how slow and sluggish my running was getting and how I was feeling after a run. I convinced myself that if I get on supplementation and continue to work hard and follow a plan, I'd get 'er done. But my long runs were feeling really hard. I was running out of gas early, and cut the last two long runs short and went home early, something I never dreamed of doing before. I had a very slow finish to the Kamloops half marathon too, there also running out of gas really early on in the race, not being able to maintain my pace beyond 14km and had a slow slog the last 7km, finishing in one of my slowest times ever. Again, I told myself to not give up, to continue to work hard, stay fit, and eventually my energy would come back and all my base mileage would be in place to make the marathon within reach. My shorter runs were getting stronger and my intervals getting faster, it was a matter of time my long runs would see improvement too.

But last week was the real kicker. I went out for a lovely run with two of my dearest running friends, Humphrey and Nancy. Both are training for their own fall marathons and both are people I've done plenty of longer runs with before. I couldn't keep up. I ran out of breath at one point and was gasping. I needed several walk breaks. I felt horrible for slowing my friends down. And at one point I just got emotional and broke down into tears. In the company of good friends who understand, I was ok, and they assured me that dropping down to the half marathon is not a disappointment, and they in no way think less of me. It's a solid athletic goal and the right decision for where I am now. If I keep slogging through long runs, I'm going to start dreading them (in fact, I had already started that), and probably even start hating them. The last thing I want is to lose my love for running. Humphrey and Nancy talked me through things and I immediately looked into how I can change my marathon registration. They also reminded me of how much I've been through this year and how many more reasons there are suggesting I need a break. I didn't just run a marathon and 9 other races, I also started a new position at work with higher demand, had minor surgery, dealt with a major insurance claim at home due to a flood, among other things that have caused stress. The more I think of it, the more it all makes sense, and the more excited I am about focusing on shorter distances, and having time to do other athletic activities because I'm not giving my all to training for a marathon. 

I got home from my long run last weekend to a very sore shoulder. It was bothering me slightly before I even left. But after the run, the pain intensified to extremely painful, making mobility to the left side of my body quite difficult for days. I haven't run since and it'll likely be a few more before I run again. It's finally improving a bit, but I chuckle a little at this whole thing. Had my mind and my friends not already convinced me to not go for the marathon this fall, my body had a plan to send me a message. This unexpected injury -- having no idea how I did it, I just woke up with it -- this was my body's way of forcing me to take a break. It didn't realize I just made the decision to do that for myself. I clearly listened a little too late.

Anyway, the good news is that my shoulder is improving. I doubt I'll be off running for too much longer. And my ferritin level has moved up to a 91 in only 5 weeks. I'm thrilled as I've heard from others who can't find a supplement that works for them, and this one appears to be doing the trick. So a few more months of this to fully restore my levels, and I'll be in a good place. Until then, I have a 10km and a couple half marathons to keep me plenty busy.


  1. I remember reading an article a couple of years ago where the author was running the 10K race at a marathon event, and ran into John Stanton before the start, who asked him what race he was running. He told him "Only the 10K.", upon which John proceeded to tell him never to say he's "only running" any race. He told him "That is your race, the distance you've chosen to run, and it's just as important than any of the other races." So now I never say I'm "only running" any race. I was running track this year and talked my friend Arnold, who I always beat in road and cross country races, into coming to a meet and running the 800. Well, he kicked my ass, and it was exciting because we seemed to have found his forte! I also met marathoners and ultra marathoners who ran the shorter distance races at track meets because they said it was speed work that helped them in the longer races. Then again, to me, any race is a good race, it's all good! Great article Zahida, you're on the right track (no pun intended) as far as I'm concerned. Gord Flett

  2. Thanks Gord! This is all very true - important reminders. A chosen race, right for its own reasons, is just as important as the "bigger" races. Their importance should not be measured by distance but by all the other factors in place. It excites me to investigate whether I have a forte for the short distances and just don't know it. I'm still a marathoner even if I run more 5K races. Thanks for your support! You are an inspiration.