Thursday, August 25, 2016

Zahida's Tips for the Grouse Grind

For my readers outside of Vancouver, sorry for this post as it's about a very local topic. The Grouse Grind is a popular and challenging hike to the top of one of the local mountains in the Vancouver areas - Grouse Mountain, in North Vancouver, BC, often referred to as "nature's stair master". It's only about 2.9km in total distance, but this is straight up and therefore challenging with 2,830 stairs taking you up to the ~1100m summit. A novice hiker can complete it in about 2 hours, the average hiker likely takes about 90 min. A regular runner is likely to finish it in about an hour or so, as the common thinking is that the effort is similar to running 10km. The fastest ascent recorded is something crazy like 25min.... Anyway, as you can see, it's a perfect little workout with a big fitness impact!

I decided to write about the Grind because it's one of my favourite non-running workouts to do, particularly in the summer. Stair climbing certainly uses the legs yes, so it's not necessarily something to do to rest the legs entirely or to recover from running. But stairs work the legs in a different way from running and there are huge benefits to this:

  • Plyometric workout that builds strength and power in the legs - this is very important for both endurance and speed.
  • Uses stabilizer muscles such as gluteus medius which gets neglected running (and we cannot neglect this as runners). Stability is so important for injury prevention.
  • Improves your ability to run up hills by improving your VO2 max.
The above benefits are from an article I pulled from Runner's World. See the full article here

Many of my runner friends agree that this workout is great for cross-training and I'm a bit of a regular on the hill. I thought I'd tell you a bit more about why that is as I outline my tips for a great experience on the Grind. These tips are numbered, but they are not truly in priority order.

Zahida's Grouse Grind Tips

1.    If you want to improve your performance, go often: 

If you want something to feel easier over time, practice can only help. The first time you do the Grind, you'll probably hate yourself for choosing to do the workout. Next time you do it, it will automatically feel easier and you'll hate yourself a little less. Some of that is mental (I now know I can do this), but some of that is adaptation, especially if you don't wait too long before you go again your second time. You want your body to adapt to the stresses of the workout so it can handle it more easily. Also because this workout includes lots of stairs and a bit of hiking on rocks, getting a good rhythm / cadence in your stride comes with practice and confidence. I recommend going once a week at minimum if you want to see such improvements because any longer than that, your body or muscle memory forgets any rhythm it's learned. 
One of my ink drawings, this one titled "A Fine Grind"

2.    Invest in a Grouse Grind local's pass: 

No, this is not an ad for Grouse and they haven't asked me to endorse them. I am just all about getting the best deal. For $129, you get a full year of use of the mountain, meaning unlimited use of the Skyride plus additional perks. Each time you hike up, you need to take the Skyride to get back down the mountain and if you pay per use, this is at a cost of $10 each time. As mentioned above, if you want to make progress and improve your performance on the Grind, the best way to do that is to go often. 12 hikes later, or 3 months of going weekly, and the pass has paid for itself, and there's still the rest of the year. For a bit more, you can get a parking pass and a timing card to track your progress. There is even a 2-year pass available with more of a cost savings. These additional benefits are worth it, but I opted for the basic 1-year pass. The investment means I am prioritizing going to the hill more often (a bit of buyer's remorse doesn't hurt!). And I'm making a point of taking advantage of the additional benefits of having the pass such as using the peak chairlift (which is free with a pass but would otherwise be at a cost) to/from the very top of the mountain, taking guests up/down the hill for tourism and nature programs for 50% off, etc. And when Christmas comes around, I won't be hiking, but I'll be sure to go up the hill using the pass to enjoy the holiday-themed events and attractions such as the outdoor skating rink etc.
Birds in Motion nature program at Grouse Mountain.
3.    Respect the rules of the trail

I firmly believe in following the rules. They are in place for safety and also for the maintenance of this popular trail. I never hike the Grind when it's in its off-season months. The trail closes because of climate-related safety concerns and also so maintenance work can be completed. Some people hike when the trail is closed and put themselves at risk. In the same vein, hiking down the hill is prohibited for both safety reasons (for yourself and other hikers) but some choose to do it to save $10. My thinking is that if you want to hike for free, there are literally hundreds of other options in BC for this as we're truly blessed with trails, mountains, and works of natural beauty to explore. Paying $10 for a workout is truly not a big deal when you think of what gym memberships or fitness classes can go for. Also, if you do something risky and get yourself in trouble, you put someone who has to come rescue you at risk. I know I am opinionated about this and that some will disagree with me and think I'm uptight, but to me, there's nothing more important than staying safe, both for your own well-being as well as for others.

4.    Be prepared with appropriate gear

This goes along the same theme of staying safe. I think some who aren't familiar with our mountains don't realize they are hiking up a real mountain. Proper clothing will allow for a comfortable and safe experience. Or perhaps when you're at the base of the mountain, the summit doesn't look far away (it's because what you can see isn't the top of the mountain, so it doesn't look high). Or they hear it's a 90min hike, and that sounds easy, but it's 90min straight up! So you will see people in jeans or inappropriate footwear, and I can only imagine how miserable they will feel on the trail, let alone how the bad shoes could lead to poor footing and perhaps a slip or fall. The bare minimum should be a running shoe; I choose to wear trail runners so I have additional traction and a harder sole and toe guard for any steps I take that may be sloppy when I start to fatigue. Definitely wear comfortable, breathable and moisture-wicking clothing as you will sweat...a lot. I usually hike up in shorts and a tank regardless of the outside temperature because otherwise I feel too warm from the workout and elevated heartrate. I take a small waist pack (I prefer to not wear anything on my back because I get a very sweaty back) that has room for my Grouse pass, safety whistle, ID, keys, cell phone, water, and a clean shirt to change into when I get to the top. The clean shirt is a must in my books because while you're comfy hiking, once you stop and you're in a wet shirt on a windy mountain peak, you will feel cold quite quickly. I make sure to eat a good breakfast before I get to the mountain, but if I don't have the chance to eat before, I might pack a small snack with me in case I need a sugar boost.

5.    Water, it's non-negotiable

I always take water or sport drink on this hike. For me, it's about an hour's workout, so I might not actually feel the need to drink water during. But it's nice to have the option should I need a sip or two along the way. Sometimes I drink none of it, and sometimes, I drink all of it and refill at the summit. Either way, it's nice having the option as staying hydrated is important and there's nowhere to get water on the trail. You don't want to be so thirsty but be stuck without. Also, it's important to remember that you are out in a natural setting and that there's always the possibility of something going wrong. Weather could change suddenly, you could get hurt and need help or extra time to get off the hill, or even though unlikely, you could get lost (it has happened before). Anyway, regardless, you're not 100% in charge when you're out in the wilderness; even though this trail is well traveled and not out in the middle of nowhere, it's still a mountain and deserves respect. A bit of water with you could be something very important if you got stuck somewhere for a bit. Or you could encounter a struggling or unprepared hiker and you could help them out by offering them a much needing swig.

6.    Be aware of and encourage others

I get it, some people like to listen to music to tune the world out and get into their own zone. But I like being aware of my surroundings and aware of when a faster hiker is behind me and wanting to pass. I also like to be able to engage with and acknowledge other hikers. Some people, myself included, really care about their finish times. You could really impede or frustrate them by not letting them pass (or by not even knowing they need to pass). I like to at least say "hi", "good morning" or something like that to every hiker I see. But I will often crack a corny joke or say something encouraging along the way to those I see on the trail. You're sharing the trail, might as well contribute to it being a positive space. And as a regular, I feel I know my way around that I can genuinely offer encouragement to other hikers. I know for a fact that the first and third quarters are the hardest. I know which sections are easiest. So when I see someone struggling, I can both congratulate them for being there to start with, and offer then reassurance that something easier is around the corner.

My very first time I did the hike, I was indeed a "novice hiker" who needed 2 hours+ to finish. I was very overweight and had very little cardiovascular fitness. When I got home from the hike, I took a bath and then went straight to sleep, slept for about 15 hours, and could barely walk the next day. It was too much for me, and although I felt sorry myself, I was still very proud that I finished. It was empowering but eye-opening too, as the friends I went with had a much easier time with it. But the barrier I had of being very overweight wasn't a complete barrier - I still did it. When I see struggling hikers, I can't help but recall this old version of myself, when this hike was seemingly impossible for me. I remember fondly this one complete stranger who saw me struggling on the 4th quarter of the hike. She was super encouraging and told me she was a regular on the hill and at the point where we were, we were definitely only 10min from the summit and that I was definitely going to make it there. It was likely 10min for her and 25min for me, but regardless, this little tip filled me with a feeling of "I can do this". Now, literally every single time I hike the Grind, whenever I get to this point, I think of her and I say to myself, "just 10 more min." With this positive self-talk, I'm able to brush the sweat off my brow, smile, and put aside any feeling of fatigue or discouragement brewing.

7.    Count your "kills"

I know this is seems like the opposite of encouraging others, but my advice is to not do this out loud! I like to count how many people I pass on the trail and also count how many people pass me. I make sure I pass more than I get passed. When I do pass others, I will be encouraging yes, but I might catch myself singing in my head "another one bites the dust". A group taking a rest break is great because after you say a friendly hi, you can fully break out in song in your head "and another one gone, another one gone...(keep going depending on how many there are)..... another one bites the dust". I feel a bit of competition wills me to move faster. It's not meant to sound or be disrespectful, but simply a way to keep myself honest and pushing my pace. I don't want to get too comfortable hanging out behind someone who isn't going as fast as I am capable.

8.    Measure your progress

Especially if you go regularly, find a way to measure your progress. Then you see you're making change and it'll only motivate you to keep on. You can purchase a Grind timer so you can use the official timing system and track your hikes on the Grouse web site, etc. I take my own stop watch and start and stop it at the same official timing areas. What I like about that is that in addition to my completion time for the full hike, I can also see my splits for each marked quarter of the hike. This allows me to set goals during the hike and a realistic finish time. I record my splits when I finish so I'm able to compare how I do next time.

9.    Don't stop! And don't look up!

If at all possible, don't stop moving when on the hill. You can easily slow yourself down when it's gets hard or your breathing gets taxed. I sometimes take a 3 second break to reset my breathing and take a swig of water, but my feet are always moving, even if slowly. I find this helps, again with keeping a rhythm, both in stride/cadence as well as with breathing and heart rate. Stopping can also make it harder to get going again in case of any pooling of lactic acid as your legs fatigue.

And while it's tempting to look up to see what's next, it can really mess with your head if you see what look like miles and miles of stairs to climb and you're feeling tired. I will look up maybe 10 feet ahead of me just so I make sure I'm staying on the trail and who's ahead of me that I might be needing to pass, but that's all. I want to stay focused and positive!

10.  Celebrate your achievement

There's little to see along the journey up, so be sure to check out the view at the top once you get there. It's really breath-taking, and it is empowering to notice that you got that high up on foot. You may not be the fastest, but regardless, marking your time at this photo spot is well worth it. Go ahead and brag! 

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

5 Lessons Learned on Run With Zahida's 5 Year Blogiversary!

On August 4th, 2011, the Run With Zahida blog was born. I am so pleased that I have reached this milestone with my blog - my 5 Year Blogiversary!!!

I thought I'd briefly recap a little bit about my story here, the history of this blog, and what I've learned over the course of the last 5 years.

Before launching this blog, I had been blogging for some time already, namely through my art blog titled Art By Zahida  where I have been writing about my artist process for each piece I have created, as well as to talk about events I have been part of as an artist.

Alongside my artistic pursuits, in 2008, I started my journey to health, which led itself to the 130+lbs of weight loss that you now know about. It began with me wanting to get heart healthy in memory of my father who we had just recently lost to a heart attached. Over time, the goal transformed and the rest is history. But I'll continue to recap :)...

2010 offered its share of road blocks: emergency gall bladder surgery, followed by a blood clot (DVT) in my right leg, months on anti-coagulant medication (blood thinners) and finally surgery on both legs in the fall of 2010. I had lost much of the weight before all this happened (about 80lbs), was reaping the benefits of improved health, and had recently completed my first 5km event in a long time, so these several months of inability to exercise was certainly a major setback. It seemed like my body was fighting against me; I was getting healthy and NOW I was running into issues because I used to be obese - in past tense? How was this fair? I had stopped being lazy and stopped ignoring my health. But I didn't let it stop me or get me down and as soon as the bandages were off my legs and I had the strength to be on my feet more than 20min at a time, I started running again. It didn't take long for me to get it back and I set the goal of running a half marathon in 2011.

The half marathon wasn't my first (I had done 2 previously in 2003 and 2004, the first time I lost my weight...but then I didn't keep the weight off). But I would argue that the half marathon in 2011 was the most important one I have ever done. It set this whole "thing" in motion.

I remember telling a colleague about my goal, and he encouraged me to share my story. He convinced me that my story could help others and they would find the story of me training for a half marathon inspiring. I agreed with him, somewhat hesitantly (although I knew he was right) and so, this blog was born. The title, "Run With Zahida" was to mirror the title of my art blog, "Art By Zahida". Thank you, Stuart for encouraging me to start. Not sure I ever properly acknowledged your influence on me in this journey.

I was not entirely sure that my blog could inspire or help others looking to improve their health. But I did know that publicly declaring my goals and talking about my health, my struggles, my fears, this would hold me accountable. Even if nobody was reading, or if very few were reading, I was publicly declaring my goals. You know, if it's on the internet, it has to be true (ha!), or it's somewhat permanent a declaration. I couldn't risk failing like I did back in 2004, when I completed my 2nd half marathon and then let myself go to the point where I put on all the weight I had lost and then some. My lifestyle change would be a permanent one this time around.

And so I began. The hardest part of starting this blog wasn't the writing. I can type stupidly fast and language has always come naturally to me. The hardest part was being OK with being open and vulnerable. I had always been ashamed of my body, my health, and that I let myself do that to myself, you know, I got fat....again. I had to stop being ashamed. How could I possibly not be ashamed though? I assumed that the world would judge me if they knew I once weight 285lbs. Should I not be embarrassed? Shouldn't I pretend that photos of me "fat and ugly and worthless" don't exist? Why would I post photos like this one here for the world to see when I should hide?
With Cam in 2008, before I began my health journey.
I forgot that I am human, and like every single other person in this world, I was not perfect and I had struggled. But my imperfections only make me human; they do not make me shameful. They do not give me reason to hide. My struggle may be different than yours, but that doesn't mean you can't relate. Show me one person who is without flaw, or has lived a perfect life, or who has never struggled with something difficult? It's impossible. That's part of the human experience. Perhaps those who didn't have 130+lbs to lose wouldn't relate to my specific struggle, but they could relate to my attitude toward mine. Perhaps my unwillingness to give up and my drive to achieve were something to look up to.

I had a following right away for this blog, I lost another 40lbs, and training for the half marathon went so very well that I finished more than 30min faster at this half marathon than at my previous one 7 years before. That had a lot to do with my wonderful running friend, Patti, whom I trained with, who encouraged me every step of the way, and ran the Victoria Half Marathon with me in October 2011. I learned so much from you, Patti. Thank you!!!! <3

At the finish line with Patti at the 2011 Victoria Marathon finish line
But the blogging journey didn't end there, as my running journey was only really getting started!

I don't need to recount the next 5 years to you now, because the rest is here on this blog. If you don't know it, you can certainly read on. It's no secret that I am obsessed with running, and run all the time. My health and lifestyle change, have been permanent changes. I see no possibility of ever slipping back. Races I've completed, well there's no sense listing them off. And I see no end in sight to this passion or this writing pursuit.

So instead of recounting the last 5 years since this blog was born, I thought I would share 5 positive lessons I learned over the last 5 years that have translated from this blog or from the sport of running to my life in general. Here you have it, in no particular order:

  • There's no place for shame in my life - I do not have to be ashamed about the body I used to have or the body I have today. Who cares if anyone sees a "fat" photo of me. Those photos are part of my story, as I am the same girl today as I was in those photos. I just look a little different, I'm a bit wiser maybe, and I like sports now. But the other version of me is just as pretty, intelligent, and worthy. Now I am slim with an athletic build, but I will never have a flat tummy. I have extra skin hanging off my tummy, my inner thighs and my arms and this will never go away naturally. Who cares! It's a symbol of my journey, my battle scars, so to speak. I used to shy away from wearing shorts and tank tops but now I wear them proud. I am proud of my body and what it can do. I am proud of my many miles my legs have traveled. I am proud of me. I don't have to pretend I was never that other girl as she is still me.

  • Vulnerability is OK - I am no longer afraid to share what makes me human. I don't hide when I am not doing well. I openly talk about my struggles and triumphs here and in conversation and this attitude has set me free. I hope it has helped others overcome their own barrier.
  • Community is everything -  This might have been a reason why after running my first 2 half marathons, my health slipped away. I didn't know any other runners well. I trained by myself, traveled to and from the races alone, spoke to nobody at the races, and didn't really share the experience with anyone. Now I have the opposite approach. Races are my social time. Catching up with friends often involves running. I am involved and have been involved in the running community the last 5 years. I have coached runners, I work at a running store, I know race directors, I have been ambassador to races and write about them here etc. I have become friends in real life with people I met online because of this blog or my social media presence. I show up at races, no matter how small, and find I always know a bunch of the people in the crowd by name. The difference it makes, being involved and social vs being introverted and quiet (my natural tendency) is a huge one. You can share the joys of the sport, share knowledge you've gained, learn from others, and most importantly, you never ever feel alone.
  • Be held accountable - If you want to achieve your goal, tell someone about it. Even if you only tell one very special person, tell that one person. I choose to declare my goals on this blog. I post my workouts on Dailymile. There's always someone watching. But I also talk about what I want to do when it comes to any goal I set. This is not just with running but I will always at least tell my husband or whoever is listening, about any other goal that's important to me. For example, this summer, I wanted to paint a new canvas. I said it out loud to a few people so I had to do it because they would one day ask me about it. And I did do it!
  • Celebrate success, no matter how small - Sometimes we get caught up into believing that only major milestones in life are worth celebrating. I think running has taught me that that is no true. I shouldn't just celebrate the marathons, but every small victory, every finish line crossed, every workout, every new running friendship made, every bad weather day that wasn't made an excuse, every injury I recovered from, every new place discovered on foot, and every day I am alive, well, and healthy. 
So now I'm thinking I should run the Victoria Half Marathon this coming October to mark the 5 year milestone. What do you think?

Thank you for all your support thus far on my journey this last 5 years. To 55+ more!

<3 Zahida

Monday, August 1, 2016

Race Report - Squamish Days 8K

Yesterday was the Squamish Days 8K, and boy was it an awesome day!

I ran the Squamish Days 10K a few years back on a very hot midsummer day. I remember that experience fondly as it was a great race (even though I struggled in the heat), I had a fun time as I had friends running too, and I was invited to a post-race BBQ as well. I hadn't run the race since, although I certainly wanted to. Any visit to Squamish is always special because that's where my husband, Cam, used to live when we first met and started dating, and so we have lots of fond memories there together. Also this race is one of the last of the Lower Mainland Road Race Series so a good chance to try to change your points and positioning if you're competing (although I am not sure if I will place in the top 5 of my category this year or not)....

This year the race got changed up from a 10K to an 8K, but with a similar out and back course. I am not sure about the reasoning, but I am assuming that the road further ahead is undergoing or has already undergone some changes. Aside from that bit taken out, the course is exactly the same. I love how the 1km mark is pretty much right at the front entrance of the building Cam used to live. So although the building looks much different than it did back then, and still doesn't look like anything anyone would live in, it's nice to have that as a marker at the 7km mark on the way back (or the 9km mark when it was a 10K race). I was able to say to myself both times I'd run this race, "get yourself to Cam's house, then push to the finish."

I like a nice 8K, because in a 10K race, I'm usually hurting by 7K. So in an 8K, when that moment comes (here at Cam's old house), there's only 1K to go, and it's then 'easy' to push yourself. It had been a while since I raced an 8K though as I missed both the Shaughnessy and the Modo 8K this year. My last one would have been the Icebreaker 8K in January 2016. To give you some context, at that race, I was 20lbs heavier, and just getting back into running after my back/hip injury last year and finished in a sluggish 51:25 or so (don't remember the exact figure).

My friend Megan came up to Squamish with me to cheer me on and so we could spend the day adventuring around Squamish. We left my place around 7:15 and got to the race venue with enough time for me to collect my bib, find the washroom (a pre-race must-do) and get in a warm-up before the 8:30 start. During my warm-up, I bumped into Natasha Wodak, the incredible athlete who is Rio-bound, likely seeing this race as a tune-up opportunity. I said hi to her and wished her well in the race and ahead to the Rio Olympics. I have a feeling that little interaction inspired me to find my inner competitive athlete and go fast!

My legs were feeling a bit heavy from 8 hours on my feet working the store the day before the race. I also had a rough sleep the night before the race, with unexpected insomnia. I wasn't nervous or over-caffeinated, so not sure what the problem was! So given these factors, I wasn't sure how I'd fare. My warm-up didn't feel great, my joints felt stiff, my muscles felt heavy, but I assured myself that by warming myself up, I'd get into the groove of racing in no time.

And I was right. There were some kms where I felt it more than others, but overall, I was able to maintain my pacing exactly where I wanted it. My goal was to finish this race in under 45min. I figured that would be realistic, given that's a 6min improvement from the Icebreaker, but still without the unrealistic expectation of being suddenly fast enough to be closer to my 41min range best finishes from a few years back. A 45min 8K would be in the range of the 56min 10K I hoped to achieve at Summerfast, but didn't. It was my second chance at trying for this (but without the last 2km to really prove it - although I felt so good at the end, I know I could have).

I started out a little too fast, but quickly noticed and held myself back. After a fast first km at 5:15, I found my pace and consistently finished each km after that point in the 5:30-5:40 range. I kept my watch set to the "pace and distance" screen so I couldn't see my elapsed time, but I could monitor my pace and ensure that I wasn't quickening or slowing down too much at any point. I could adjust accordingly and stay consistent. I am really pleased with my ability to do that.

I liked that this course was out and back because in ways, this makes it easier mentally. Get yourself to the 4km turnaround and then you just have to get back! It also meant that I could see the elite runners at the front of the pack when they turned around. I was thrilled that as I passed the 3km mark, Natasha Wodak was passing me in the other direction on the other side of the road. Her powerful (yet effortless-looking) stride zipping past me on the other side must have inspired me to the 4km turnaround. I tried not to do the math, you know, if she can do 5km in the time I do 3km, what time will she finish the race? How far along in the race will I be when she finishes? Regardless of how much faster she is than me, and how I'm hardly competition to her, it's somehow inspiring as an athlete (even a very amateur/recreational athlete like me) to know I'm competing in the same race as an Olympic athlete.

Because I had my watch on the "pace and distance" screen, I actually didn't know what my finish time was going to be as I neared the "Cam's house" 7km marker. I was simply looking down long enough to see if I was keeping under the 5:40/km pace. Even though I knew with no doubt I was achieving this the entire race, I didn't actually know for a fact or had seen proof that I was on pace to achieve my goal for the race. So as I got closer to the finish, I chose not to switch screens to check where I was at, because I liked not knowing, and I didn't want it to mess with my head if the time I saw was not what I expected, if it was disappointing or indicative of missing the goal.

As I turned the corner at the high school and neared the finish line, I saw the race clock glowing bright red at the finish in the distance. It showed just over 44min. I knew if I pushed, I could get there before it turned to 45. I quickened my pace and gradually increased this pace more, then a bit more, giving it all I had in my engine, and going even harder until I was in an all-out sprint across the finish line. I was thrilled because there was a significant gap between me and the finishers behind me, so I knew all the cheers at the finish line were for me and only for me. I think people saw what I was looking to do because I was running hard and my breathing was definitely audible (maybe a bit grunty!). Boy do I love the running community, because most of the people at the finish line cheering, were fellow runners who already finished long before me. They are faster than me, yet excited for me and supportive of me trying my hardest. I squeaked in officially at 44:58, just under that 45min mark I was hoping for. This race doesn't have timing mats at the start line so only gun time counts, but I started my watch when I crossed the start line myself. I clocked 44:53 as my time on my watch, so that's what I'm going with :)

After the race, I enjoyed the treats offered by the event, chatted with fellow runners, and then freshened up and changed clothes. I skipped the awards ceremony as I didn't want Megan to have to wait around for me any longer. We left the venue and headed to the Chief. We took the opportunity to go up the Sea to Sky Gondola as neither of us have done that, and we did some easy hiking up at the top on some of the trails there. That was a great way to stretch out the legs and although the legs felt tired at the time, it definitely aided recovery. It also made me even hungrier! We enjoyed lunch at the local brew pub in downtown Squamish and then headed back home to North Vancouver.

Next up, the Eastside 10K which takes place on my birthday!