(Warning: This post has little to do with trail running. Some of you may have expected a UROY post in which I geek out about my Ultrarunner of the Year ballot picks like many esteemed blogging peers. I decided to write a middle-aged-mom diary entry instead with some real-life, empirically untested self-help tips.)
I recently devoured a book that rekindled the joy of reading—the feeling that I want to take time to do nothing but read and lose myself in the pages, temporarily suspending the compulsion to check my phone. The title and cover hooked me:
Today will be different, I tell myself so often. Today I will speak to others the way I would like them to speak to me. Today I will shower, dress and deal with my hair as if I worked outside of the house. Today I will finish drafting the past-due article, develop the training plan for the new client and figure out an agenda for the board committee’s call. Today I will do a full upper-body workout. Today I will call my mother. Today I will eat mindfully and not past 8 p.m. and savor two glasses of chardonnay but no more, no more.
Then, like the day before, I blow it. I raise my voice or speak with snark. I get ensnared by a political debate on Facebook that feels futile. I obsess over replying to one sensitive email—because I feel too awkward to talk on the phone, though the best reply would be, “let’s talk; is there a good time to call?”—finally hit “send” and ignite an email thread that makes the situation worse. I take a break from my desk to fold and put away laundry, then feel compelled to organize my husband’s sock and underwear drawer immediately, because that’s a task I can accomplish, or so I think until I freak out about all the unmatched single socks—what’s to be done about them? I get a gallon-sized Ziploc, stuff all the single socks in it, label the bag MISSING and leave it front and center in his closet, as if he’s committed a crime. I return to my desk and write one shitty paragraph, to be deleted tomorrow. I snack on a few almonds and get up from my desk three more times to eat three more handfuls. I go to the grocery store, still in running clothes (because I intend to do a core workout and lift weights before dinner, really), with a frizz ball for a pony tail. I pretend to read food labels to avoid eye contact with shoppers with whom I used to sort of be friends when our kids attended elementary school together.
Desperate for the day to be done and for a do-over tomorrow, I indulge in cooking. We savor a meal that I don’t want to end, so I serve seconds and feel stuffed. I escape to Netflix on the couch with my husband and pour another glass of wine. Tomorrow will be different. Tomorrow I’ll take a shower, take care of my clients, take care of my deadlines and call my mother.
Because I repeatedly act in ways that undercut productivity and happiness, I loved the well-intentioned, semi-neurotic protagonist in Maria Semple’s Today Will Be Different,whose aspirations go hilariously unfulfilled as she loses control of her day.
But, here’s the thing that saves me: Almost every day, I do go for a run. I clear my head, feel better and rekindle motivation. And I do make progress and change over time.
In spite of hang-ups and bad habits, I managed to do some things well and differently in 2016. I made the following list to remind me (and, I hope, inspire you) of things that I accomplished or did better this year.
1. Adopt an Ultra Mindset: I leveraged an “ultra mindset” to tackle the biggest, most daunting project of the year: producing a book manuscript. I’m waiting until it’s through editing and in production to share the news about its title and content, but suffice to say, a publisher approached me about writing a book. At the beginning of the year, I developed an outline, agreed on a contract, and then it was all up to me—and I felt totally flummoxed and inadequate. Not only did I question my ability to write it; I doubted my worthiness to write it. I kept thinking, “I know so many others who have already written better books or would be better at writing this.”
That’s when I drew on lessons from ultras, such as: Don’t compare yourself to others or worry about the competition; run your own race. Don’t think about all the miles that lie ahead; break it down, and take it aid station to aid station, or when you’re really struggling, course-marking ribbon to ribbon (chapter to chapter; sometimes, paragraph to paragraph). Believe in yourself; you are stronger and can do more than you think. You will get through the rough patches. Be tough and stop whining. Even slow progress is progress. Reaching the finish line will make it all worthwhile.
My deadline was December 1; 16 days later (not too late), I turned in the final chapter. Somehow, in spite of days like the one described above, I wrote more than 88,000 words that I feel confident enough about. (Note: “The Ultra Mindset” is the title and topic of a worthwhile book by Travis Macy; read more about it here.)
2. Eat a Better Breakfast and Leftovers for Lunchtime: A year ago, I modified the way I eat and lost a stubborn five pounds. (Related blog post.) Of all the tweaks to my nutrition, these two things seemed to help the most: First, having a more protein-oriented breakfast that makes me feel more satisfied throughout the morning (scrambled eggs with veggies like kale is my favorite; or if I had a too-big dinner and want something lighter, then plain Greek or Icelandic yogurt with berries). My old, favorite breakfast used to be a high-carb concoction of a large serving of oatmeal mixed with warmed-up Grapenuts or granola and sliced banana, which would make me stuffed for an hour and then suddenly hungry again.
Also, when I feel an urge to eat past fullness at dinnertime, I resist the urge by saving leftovers to eat at lunchtime the next day. That way, my lunch tends to be more satisfying, too, and I’m less likely to go to bed stuffed. This doesn’t always work—I still blow it at dinnertime sometimes—but when I do it, it works well.
3. Do Pre-Run Dynamic Stretching and Some Bedtime Yoga: This year, I cemented into habit a five-minute pre-run dynamic stretching routine that involves ankle circles, toe taps, three kinds of leg swings, walking lunges, toe sweeps (stepping forward and flexing the front foot toward the sky, then bending forward and sweeping hands in front of it, to warm up the lower back and hamstrings) and “monster walks” (holding arms straight forward like Frankenstein, kicking legs up to touch hands, to warm up hamstrings). By warming up and regaining full range of motion through this routine, I’m able to run with better form and less stiffness. Along with the yoga below, I’m convinced this habit deserves credit for keeping me injury free.
On most nights, even when I feel full and/or tipsy, I do about 10 minutes of yoga poses in my PJs at the foot of the bed. It’s not complicated; it’s a simple sequence to open hips, stretch calves and relax the mind. I generally do a combination that includes Mountain, Downward Dog with split leg, Warrior, Lunge, Tree, Seated Twist, Pigeon, Cobra and Child’s Pose. I’ve only taken a few yoga classes—most of this is self-taught off the Internet—and though I may be doing it less than perfectly and for too short of a time, who cares? Some is better than none, and it makes me go to bed in a better frame of mind.
4. Try a Totally New Activity: When we returned from Colorado in September and I hit the trails in the Oakland Hills, I temporarily lost the inspiration and motivation to run. The too-familiar trails looked brown and worn down. I had been spoiled by the San Juan Mountains. Running these trails felt boring. I wanted to attempt something completely new, different and challenging.
On a whim (while procrastinating on the book project), I tried a class at Oakland’s Hipline studio, where women of all ages, races and sizes twerkout around a life-sized cardboard cutout of Beyoncé. What’s more different from trail running than an urban, indoors, music-blasting hip-hop class? I take a spot in the very back corner to stay out of everyone’s way and avoid attention. My shimmy alternates from robotic to spasmodic, and I’m always two steps behind and turning the wrong way. I am Elaine.
But I sense a thrill of discovery and of letting loose not unlike I felt in my first years of running. I’m going to take a class here once a week in the coming year.
5. Declutter Your Life and Make Do with Less: Seven years ago, in 2009, we got rid of a lot of our stuff and moved the rest of it into storage so we could rent out our house, and then we lived nomadically during a year of travel. All my clothes and toiletries for the year fit into a large backpack; I made do with only three pairs of shoes (trail-running shoes, sandals, and one pair of black leather shoes that were dressy but comfortable for walking). After we returned to normal life in 2010, clutter and clothing began to refill drawers and closets.
When our family foursome moved into a very small living space in Colorado this summer (an Airstream and tent annex), I loved having only essential, utilitarian belongings under our roof. My clothes fit into one medium-sized plastic storage bin, tucked under the bed. When we got back to our regular home this fall, I thoroughly cleaned out all the closets (while procrastinating on the book project). I made hundreds of dollars selling most of my clothes and my kids’ cast-offs to resale clothing stores, and I gave the rest away. Now, my closet and drawers contain only a small number of tops and bottoms that I genuinely want to wear. I also sold some unused appliances and furniture on Craigslist. Then we had a basement flooding disaster two weeks ago that forced us to get rid of a bunch more nonessential items. It felt so liberating, and now when I look around, I see only things that we genuinely want and need, and everything has its place.
Some of My Favorite Images and Memories from 2016
2016 was marked by unpredictability on both a personal and macro level, with increasingly depressing and anxiety-producing events in the news. More than ever, I found comfort, joy and security in family time and trail running.
New Year’s resolutions? Yeah, I’ve got ’em! I made a whole list of (not-so-serious) trail-running resolutions, for my column in Trail Runner magazine. Check it out: A Trail Runner’s Resolutions: Six Habits to Break for a Happier New Year.
Did you change for the better in some way this past year? I invite you to share what it was in the comment section below, or share your new year’s goal(s).