2019 goals, and a note about failure

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I love planning, and I love setting and chasing goals, and recently I got a new moleskine daily planner, and I’m pretty obsessed with it. I’ve included some (unrelated) images of the front pages that I’ve filled in my planner (and looking at them makes me so happy wow!)

Particularly at this time of year, it is of course the most common, expected time to write down all the long lists of New Year’s Resolutions, and share them to try to stay accountable, and I’ve been jumping on that bandwagon too. Kind of. Here I’m going to share the 10 goals that I wrote in the front of my planner for 2019, and also a letter I wrote myself next to the list of goals, thinking about failure.

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10 Goals for 2019:

  1. Consistent, injury-free, process-driven training. Keep moving forwards, keep playing the infinite game (as opposed to the short-term, unsustainable, finite game).
  2. Brave, intelligent, competitive, gritty racing. Chasing the Flow State place, renaming fear as excitement, getting the best out of myself in a way that makes other people want to do it too.
  3. Actively improve and contribute to a strong community of student-athletes that I want to be part of at UCT.
  4. Maintain my own practices of drawing, writing, exploring, making things — for their own sake, unrelated to my degree.
  5. Write my own essay or blog post at least once a month.
  6. Read at least one book (unrelated to work) every month.
  7. Keep loving the university work more than I don’t love it. Keep learning on their terms, and also on my terms.
  8. Look after my body. Keep it simple (because it kind of is). Eat whole foods that make me feel good. Sleep and stretch and floss teeth and take iron supplements.
  9. Be mindful of all the thoughts in my head that make me feel like a failure as a default state. Be prepared to consciously shift the internal conversation every day.
  10. Keep telling the people who matter that they matter. Keep reaching out, keep being emotionally and socially brave.

 

A note to myself about planning, and failing.

Dear Sophie

Planning is a good idea. Do it, especially because it genuinely makes you happy, and life is way too short to not do and pursue the genuinely happy things, however eccentric. Plan, but also — more than anything this year — please remember that things will not ever actually go exactly to plan, and you will be okay anyway. You will forget the morning routine and, and you will feel overwhelmed and out of control and messy and reckless sometimes, and you will hate this feeling, but you will still be fine.

The main thing is not about carrying out the pre-determined task absolutely perfectly every single time — rather, it is setting the intention to do it, and knowing that you can (and will probably have to) start again an unlimited number of times. Every day, sometimes. It does seem to be that any pursuit is just a cycle of re-assessing and starting again and starting again. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Please know that it’s impossible to plan meticulously enough to never fail, as nice as it would be. Maybe instead of thinking of failure as a disaster, it can be renamed as a natural inevitable thing that will always come and go in big waves, and you will remain regardless? Understanding the inevitability of ‘failure’ does take away some of its power, I think? And I hope that it can start to change the way you have always felt obligated to avoid it at all costs. You can’t! So maybe that will help you to breathe.

Also, please spend a while thinking about the times you did actually ‘fail’ on your terms. When you tried really hard and planned and gave everything to doing something, and didn’t manage to do it. When you dropped out of a race, when you didn’t run a sub 37:00 10k, when you got injured for so long and gained weight and lost fitness and felt so out of control, when anyone has ever rejected you, when you got a mediocre mark for a thing you loved and couldn’t have done better…it hurts, yes?

The hurt and the sting of failure is real and valid, but it does not last. Also, it is seldom that anyone else thinks you’re as much of a failure as you do. Even as a ‘failure’, the sun rises, the coffee is wonderful, you remain loved. The anticipation of failure is so much worse than the reality.

When the most dreaded, definitively failure-ish thing happens, you deal with it and it’s horrible and you wade through it, usually because the idea of not gathering yourself together and wading through it is even worse. And then eventually you come out the other side! And you are the same, but subtly more resilient. And then you get ready to wade through the next thing, hopefully with a little bit more grace and efficiency and humour than last time. That just seems to be how it goes most of the time.

I promise you are so well-equipped, right now, even if you don’t read any important books this year, or reply to everyone you haven’t replied to, or cross everything off your lists. Everything will be fine.

But yes, sure, some extra planning never hurt anyone. You go ahead and write your lists.

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And to you reading this now – I’m wishing you all the biggest joy and grit and growing and learning in 2019. I hope you that you’re able to just keep on starting again and starting again and forgiving yourself and re-commiting to the thing that you believe in and love. Failure can be like a big helpful prompt to remind you to keep doing this.

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Being injured, and coming back.

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With my first serious injury as a runner this year, in one sense it has boggled my mind that I could get to a point of physically breaking my own limbs in the pursuit of the thing I love most. How does that work?

I also know that it’s an overwhelmingly normal thing for most athletes, and can’t always be prevented, and both is and isn’t a very big deal. But it’s still worth talking about. This time has been long and scary and weird and hard (and still is), and at the beginning of the year I set the goal to ‘improve as an athlete’, and while I’m slower now than I’ve been for a long time, as a whole human and athlete I have been prompted to improve. It’s had me thinking and talking and asking so many questions, and I want to share some of them, because they’ve helped me. Even if few have very definitive answers: they might help you too.

What are some things that could contribute to injury and / or burnout?

My particular injury ended up being a hamstring tendinopathy on the left side, which I ran through for two months until an MRI revealed swelling on the bone (a stress reaction) where the weakened tendon connected to the top of the tibia. To avoid an eventual full-on stress fracture (which apparently would have taken a LONG time to heal, positioned so high up on the tibia), my doctor had me take 6 weeks completely off running, followed by a very very slow progression back (I am still progressing!).

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I have added a screenshot from an anatomy app highlighting the site of this hamstring tendon injury, which is interesting to me, but actually… pretty irrelevant to most people! Everyone would respond to the same kind of overuse in different ways. But below I’m going to list some specific things that I did in the 3-4 months before I had to stop running, which I believe all collectively contributed to the eventual injury. Would definitely recommend steering CLEAR of doing all these things at once:

  • I switched training programs, and made a large increase in mileage and intensity over a fairly short period of time. I don’t believe in blindly following the ‘10% rule’ for increasing mileage in every single circumstance, and everything is subjective, but in this case it wasn’t appropriate for me. There was no particular reason to go as hard as I did — just that I could, I was left to my own devices, and it felt amazing initially. (beware of feeling invincible! I promise you are not).
  • I was also walking 6-10km a day without any rest, which was new to me.
  • I moved into student res, and wasn’t sleeping particularly well.
  • In general, I was adjusting to my first year at UCT, with a high workload, and a generally high-stress day-to-day environment.
  • I was running and walking so much that I was too tired to do the strength training and prehab exercises I used to do.
  • I wasn’t eating enough or drinking enough water in the day, and would attempt to make up for it in the evenings or on rest days, but was usually too deliriously tired to make the most intelligent decisions. I also didn’t have a kitchen.
  • In May I knew there was something wrong with my hamstring, but ran through it for 2 months because it sometimes warmed up after 20 minutes (tendons often do warm up! It doesn’t mean that it’s all okay – especially if bone stress is involved.)
  • I had my wisdom teeth out in the beginning of June, and used the fact that pain medication and anti-inflammatories dulled the pain in my hamstring as a reason to train at full volume instead of taking a break after the surgery (this was one of the more distinctly unhelpful things I have done, and shortly afterwards I stopped running altogether, because the pain and exhaustion returned with increased intensity when the medication wore off).

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How is it possible to be really self-destructive, AND really invested in your own happiness and success?

How can you be your own most constant friend, and also your biggest obstacle?

When I tell people that I physically wore myself out in all the ways listed above, some have done similar things and really do understand, and others think that it’s completely unimaginable.

How did you literally run in pain for 2 months and not change what you were doing? Why did you keep at it when you didn’t have to? What were you running away from? Why do you always think that more is better? How do you convince yourself that you still love it? Why don’t you stop?

Other people have asked me these things, and I have asked myself the same things too, and I think the answers will be different for everyone, and even different for one person depending on the context / time / circumstances. At the moment, among other things, I think I kept on pushing unnecessarily hard because I have learnt to put a large piece of my identity and sense of purpose into the idea that ‘I can do hard things’. And that doing hard relentless things in running is like the training ground for being able to skilfully do hard things in life. I felt like relenting – listening to the pain in my leg, not waking up before the sunrise for my shakeout run, not always doing an extra rep and finishing feeling dizzy – might start to teach me to fail and relent in the face of everything else that is challenging, and that I care about doing in my life.

I still absolutely do still think that endurance sport is the best training ground for being brave and doing hard things in the world. But through this injury, what I have gradually found is that ‘the hard thing’ doesn’t actually always look like… running into the pain cave every day for weeks on end until you’re too deliriously exhausted to think about all the scary things you’re trying not to think about. For me, the hard thing was stopping. Thinking. Allowing things to not go according to plan, relinquishing control, asking better informed people to tell me what to do, being really really frustrated and afraid, and finding a (kinder, more flexible) way to keep on at it.

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(For a while last year I set the lock screen on my phone as a quote that said something like ‘you are far too intelligent to be the biggest thing standing in your way’, and this time has been like a forced returning to that idea, I think?)

Practically: what have I been doing to recover?

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I have essentially just been doing my very best to do as the various very fantastic sport / healthcare professionals who are helping me have prescribed. And that is of course the first thing I would tell anyone else to do too. I’m actually a big fan of the idea of learning and having enough experience in the sport to successfully be self-coached, but I essentially got injured by doing too much on my own, without enough knowledge or guidance. My approach to this injury recovery has been quite different, and my approach going forwards is going to be different too.

Initially, I got a diagnosis with an MRI and ultrasound from a sports physician, then I met with a biokineticist every 1-2 weeks for about 8 weeks to learn and progress all the right injury rehab exercises, until I was able to run without walking, and my coach took over the injury recovery process from there. For most of July, the intense fatigue that accompanied my injury honestly meant that I struggled to cross-train as much as I wanted to. Where the norm used to be two runs and a strength session most days as well as lectures and lots of walking around, I was reduced to having to spend the whole day in bed if I wanted to train hard (so I generally didn’t. I did a lot of hamstring exercises, and I slept).

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However, my energy did gradually return, and for most of August and September, an example of a week could have looked something like this (I started ‘running’ towards the end of August, but it took another month or so before I was allowed to run without walking for anything longer than 4km I think?).

Mondays:

  • Hamstring rehab exercises, stretch, foam-roll (NOT ever allowed to stretch hamstrings though)
  • 30min easy elliptical

Tuesdays:

  • Shorter higher intensity elliptical intervals (eg. 12-15 X 1min hard / 1min easy)
  • 45min hamstring, core, glute strength / rehab training

Wednesdays:

  • core and hamstring rehab
  • 40-60min easy elliptical or spin

Thursdays:

  • slightly longer elliptical intervals (eg 5 X 2min steady / 3min hard tempo effort)
  • 45min hamstring, upper-body, glute strength

Fridays:

  • pretty much always a rest day. With foam-rolling, stretching etc.

Saturdays:

  • 60-90mins of longer elliptical intervals (eg 6-8 X 5min on / 5min off with WU and CD)
  • Longer hamstring rehab / full body strength session

Sundays:

  • often another rest day / low-intensity elliptical session or swim.

YES the elliptical is even more soul-sucking than the treadmill because you don’t even have the illusion of going anywhere, and NO I did not maintain very much running fitness. But it kept me showing up for something, and when I could, I thought about it like…a long base season of mental toughness training? It was hard and long, and I lost fitness and missed many races that I cared about, and really missed training with other people, and at times the feeling of losing running was like…REAL grief. (I literally listened to breakup songs and cried about it. Which is hilarious, but only in retrospect…). It’s a scary thing when you realise how much of your happiness and the structure of almost every single habit in your life can so easily centred around being able to do one precarious thing.

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The good things and the surprising things

Obviously it’s horrible to not do the thing that you love doing, and to feel out of control. Whatever it is, I am sure you could fill in the blanks and write long lists about how unhappy you would be if your favourite thing was gone. But I don’t really want to keep doing that here. The reality is that with SO many things that I am afraid of and trying to avoid, they are infinitely worse in anticipation. And the day-to-day of it? It’s mixed, and it just kind of…happens.

Whether I can run or not, I still get to wake up and have my favourite oats and coffee, and listen to great music on repeat until I don’t like it anymore, and I get to see the sunrise even if I’m not running past it, literally NONE of my family or friends decided to desert me just because I lost fitness and wasn’t ‘the running person’, and I got to build myself up from scratch to be better, which was unbelievably slow but still satisfying. (Maybe it’s annoying and overly repeated to say that ‘it’s the little things’ that make it all doable. But I don’t know how else to say it? Big worthwhile things are only ever made of long strings of small ones. There isn’t something else. And it’s perfectly okay if the way you’re continuing is by finding just enough worthwhile things to carry from hour to hour, and eventually across afternoons and days. They do add up).

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A surprising and essentially very good thing from this time of being injured was how I was able to take the same focus I put into running, and disperse it across MANY things. And I honestly think I’m a better, more balanced human when I’m able to do that. I got a lot stronger in the gym, which I never used to prioritise. I had more time to focus on all the art school projects and essays, and I made things and wrote things that I was actually really proud of. Academically, I had a really successful semester, and became more distinctly grateful for the very good things about the university I’m at, and the group of friends I have (both student-athletes and not). Also, as a result of this whole process I was referred to my new coach, which has felt like an unbelievably lucky and positive thing, and has left me hugely less apprehensive (and actively excited) about running and giving it everything in the future.

About the future, and the comeback!

This has been a long post, but I did want to write briefly about where I am now, how I’m thinking about running, and about being sustainably faster and being stronger into the future.

At the moment, I still consider myself to be very much ‘coming back’, and so writing a lot about ‘my comeback from injury’ does actually feel a bit strange. I’m in the thick of it, but I’m doing it! I took the recovery process slow enough to mean that now I am almost never in pain anymore (which is amazing!! And I never thought it would happen! The reality is that most people don’t have a secret unknown injury that will never heal. ) I am able to train hard without pain, but still obviously have a lot of fitness to get back. Which is okay. I’m actually trying to think about it as…building a NEW runner, rather than trying to return to the old one. The progress is fast in some unpredictable areas, and slow in others, and I’m putting in consistent work, and still getting better every week, and I haven’t forgotten how to work hard. The plan is to be back racing by mid / late January, and to try some things that I’ve never done before. I’m very excited.

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Lastly, what I’m realising more all the time is that…while goals are hugely important and useful tools, the point is primarily to be invested in the pursuit. The process. Really genuinely loving and giving everything to the day-to-day of it, wherever you’re at, so that the goals fall into place as an inevitable outcome of what you’re doing every day. (I don’t think this approach can be externally / forcibly taught, but at the same time…its very worth sharing? I’m sure there’s a piece of everyone that knows this already. If I wasn’t in love with the process, I would have stopped a long time ago.)

Running and studying at UCT: the big things and the little things.

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holding onto the big things

I’ve waded through the first quarter of running and studying Fine Art at UCT, and I’ve been extremely exhausted, and busy, and essentially happy. I do feel like I am doing the right thing, and there are frequent pockets of time that are totally magic, and they carry through into the rest. People ask me how I am, and I say that I am tired all the time, and amazed by lots of things. Holding onto the amazement in each day. Fragile. Focussed. Drained. Happy.

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I feel like I have poured absolutely everything into holding onto the ‘big’ obvious things that I know I need to hold onto:

Doing all my work. Staying up to date.

  – Running a lot. More than I ever have, with a lot of care and intention. Staying injury free and making progress.

Sleeping enough. Religiously going to bed before 10pm every night.

 – Eating. Making all my own food in a place without catering facilities, and doing my absolute best to make it nutritionally dense.

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I have done all these things, and of themselves, if I do them well, they are a lot. I wake up for my first run at 5:30am, and I often get back to my room past 7:30m, after my whole day and my second run (if it is a double day) and everything has a a great tired blurriness. I sit around and procrastinate showering and stare into my little fridge, and then I shower, and eat, and am pretty much always hungry, and always ready to go to bed.

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It’s been a time of doing my absolute best in a general kind of way, and not necessarily getting it all ‘right’ the first time, and trying to allow myself a lenient grace period for not getting it all immediately right. With running (for example) along with running more consistent mileage than I ever have, one thing I didn’t quite take into consideration was the additional amount of walking I seem to find myself doing, just getting from place to place. Literally 7-10km every day. Last year, I was used to resting between hard sessions. The fact of being constantly on my feet – physically, but also in the sense of always having to be socially alert and tuned in – really did take a lot out of me. I’m sure my performance did suffer.

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Making all my own food was also a little but harder than I imagined. I went home every weekend and meal-prepped for the entire week, but I often ran out of food by Thursdays, and would then spend a little bit of a frantic while being VERY hungry and living off raisins and peanut butter and coffee, or buying food that my body wasn’t used to, or just…snacking in a state of exhaustion and boredom (rather than legitimate hunger), which it seems is a thing that a lot of humans do, but has always seemed quite foreign. I definitely felt less comfortable and stable in my body as a result, and made a point not weighing myself all the time, but I’m sure my weight has fluctuated slightly in the last while. Which freaks me out. And it’s something I’m trying to notice and alter in a sane and gentle way.

So I’ve been holding onto the big things. And they’ve done a very good job of occupying me. But what I have also noticed, while trying to streamline and prioritise the way that I focus, is that there are a lot LOT of other seemingly small peripheral things that absolutely fall off the edge of the table and get forgotten about completely. And that the sum of the small things is actually huge. And although I really CAN’T do everything, my intention for the next couple of weeks is to really try and also hold onto some of the ‘small’ things, across the board.

the small things

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The ‘small’ things are everything else. But in particular, the things that I’m talking about are:

Strength training, injury prevention, foam-rolling and stretching for running. These things really fell by the wayside quite dramatically! And then…replying to messages and phone calls and emails. Flossing my teeth. Not accumulating library fines. Making more time to tell all the important people in my life that they are important people. Drinking enough water. Filing the documents on my laptop in a logical way. Keeping track of money more consistently. Remembering more new people’s names. Keeping a record of what I eat. Moisturising my face. Being more socially proactive and brave. Watering my pot plants. Truly listening to my body and eating in a more mindful way. The list goes on.

I’m not sure how to think about this great chunk of abandoned accumulated things? Except that I intend to notice them, and gradually take them on. Not at ALL because I’m just looking for a whole lot more things to do (!!!!) but because a lot of the time the big things stand on the shoulders of the small things.

the magic things

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The last list I wanted to make is for the things that I’m loving at the moment. The collection of magic things that I wrote about in the beginning of this post – every day, the moments  that bridge the spaces between the very draining things, and make everything worth it. This is in no particular order:

  1. Almost every morning, I wake up and run with the sunrise. Inhabiting a new space with a new view of the sunrise is absolutely the best thing.
  2. Microwave oats and instant coffee are really not that bad. They’re actually great. I have oats and coffee every morning, and literally go to bed looking forward to it.
  3. There are so many good and interesting people that I encounter every day. More than I could ever have imagined. They arrive and I get to know some of them, and some I just observe in an appreciative way on the bus and never see again, and they leave me feeling thankful and overwhelmed and affirmed about the general state of humanity. As eccentric as that may sound.
  4.  Studying art is a big time-consuming thing, with the endless capacity to absorb all the energy and ideas that you give it like a sponge. But every now and then I look up and I realise that I also essentially get to spend hours every day where I’m allowed to…play. Mixing paint in all the ways its possible to mix paint. Getting really really messy all the time. It’s remarkable.
  5. Table Mountain. Being right in the city bowl, and traveling in with the early bus and the early light and sticking my head out the window and watching all the people having their lives in their cars in the wind. There’s nothing like it.
  6. And then of course running. Every day, it is the greatest joy. Inhabiting new running spaces. Finding new running people. A field and a forest for visiting every day. The way that it is so much easier to feel closer to people who do the same hard physical things, even if you haven’t known them for a long time. The fact of going to the grass track in the early mornings, and seeing all kinds of people – sprinters, joggers, a woman with a dog, girls from Rustenberg Primary – all on a separate meaningful mission. I love it a lot.

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(photo creds to Mike Ross!)

(also! The photographs are chosen more for general atmospheric purposes than anything else. Images from this term. Not necessarily relating in a very direct way to a particular piece of text)

This academic year: my plans for running, sanity, studying, joy.

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This year I am studying Fine Art at UCT, and doing a lot of things I have never done before. I’m moving into student residence (so that I can logistically balance studying on the Hiddingh campus in the city centre, and running more than I ever have), I’m making all my own food in a room without kitchen facilities (because I’m vegan), I’m relating to thousands of new people all the time every day, I’m not going to be able to have afternoon naps, and I’m studying something that I love, with all the facilities I might ever need to make and create and communicate anything.

I feel really lucky. Mostly just really excited and lucky.

I also feel really apprehensive and overwhelmed. I know that it will be very busy and very dense. I know there will be a lot of essays, a LOT of studio work, a lot of reading, a lot of room to feel judged and exposed and uncertain. That’s okay. I understand the need to work hard, to push boundaries, to be consistent, even while feeling unsure.

What I don’t understand is the need to get hysterical about it. I will not be that person working in the studio until 3am even if everything is open at all hours of the day, and I won’t be the person to take the task at hand so seriously that it loses its element of joy. I think it’s amazing that I get to spend these years exploring wild new ways to create and understand and relate and think, and I’m going to give it everything. I’m going to do my best. But ‘doing my best’ absolutely does not mean compromising my running or my mental and physical health in any long-term way, and it doesn’t mean turning my favourite things in the world into a daily drudgery, and it doesn’t mean letting go of the things I know I love.

I’m not completely sure what it DOES mean, but what I can do now is create a framework for balance and ease and and realistic goal-setting.

These are the tools and strategies and routines I am implementing this year, to keep running fast and hard, succeeding in realistic ways where I think it matters, and finding daily joy in the process.

10 goals: what would it look like if it was simple?

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I have many many detailed and deliberate goals in all areas of my life that I am pursuing every day. Each goal has a million sub-goals and a plan of action and lots of other plans of action for if the first plan goes wrong. But this year, with a lot going on, I sat down and looked at my goals, and I said, how do I pare this down? What is truly most important? How can turn it into a clear and attainable scaffolding of things to do, so that if I do them, the complicated littler things will fall into place anyway?

(What would it look like if it was simple.)

So across the areas of running, mental and physical health, academics, and a bit more broadly – the ways that I fit in socially and environmentally in the world – I chose just 10 things to do this year. And it has been very helpful. They are:

  1. Progress as an athlete: the only goal is to keep moving forwards.
  2. Look after my body, rest appropriately, and run injury free.
  3. Pass all my courses and stay up to date.
  4. Love the work that I’m choosing to do more than I don’t love it.
  5. Learn without diminishing what I already love and know.
  6. Stop weighing myself and promoting negative thoughts about my body.
  7. Buy and consume less stuff, produce less waste.
  8. Meditate regularly.
  9. Use social media mindfully.
  10. Be socially brave.

Productive morning and evening routines:

I am a morning person. I love being awake before everyone else. I love to wake up and draw strange pictures and write down my dreams before my conscious mind has properly arrived and instructed me to be overly critical and self-aware Most days this year I have stuck to some kind of morning routine that makes me feel good about starting the day. Listed below is what I do every morning when staying in my room in student res:

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5:30: Wake up

5:30-5:45: Open my curtains, sit down on a mat on the floor, meditate. Literally just 5-10 minutes of ironing out my busy dreams and following my breath. Then I do 5 minutes of yoga. Ironing out my body.

5:45 – 6:00: Draw anything I can see or any shape or anything that I’m thinking about. Then write down anything on a page until 6am.

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6:00-7:00: Then I have a small snack, get on my running things, and do a shakeout run. Or a strength session at the gym. Or just foam-rolling and stretching.

And then I come back and shower and make breakfast (always some form of oats in the microwave with cocoa powder and peanut butter and fruit) and am very ready to conquer the day.

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In the evenings I do my second run at 5:30pm, I return to my room and make my food, I turn my phone onto aeroplane mode, and I don’t do anything that requires intense focussing after about 8pm. I read things and look at pictures, I tidy my space, I reflect on the day, and plan for the next one. If I’m waking up at 5:30 again, I’m in bed before 9:30.

A lot of planning and meal-prepping:

Because I am staying in a catering res that doesn’t cater (at all) for vegans, I have to come home on weekends, meal-prep absolutely all my meals and snacks in labelled containers for the week, and store half of it in my small freezer and half of it in my small fridge.

For that one Sunday afternoon, I do have to think a lot about food, and it is an effort. But I’m actually glad it all worked out like this. In the week, once I have all my food stored away in its neat containers in my room, its effortless, and I only eat things that I know I like and are healthy and will help me to perform well.

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I also do a lot of other planning to completely streamline my days, simplify time-management and decision-making, and also…to just soothe my mind. I love a good list. And these lists include: weekly and monthly and yearly calendar pages in my journal and on my walls, templates that I use to plan each hour of each day as well as a generic timetable of the things I usually have to do in the week, separate lists and reminders for deadlines and tasks, a separate journal for logging all my running and training progress / goals, and…many things.

Obviously what’s most important with planning and organising is to try lots of things, and figure out your own kind of system that works. I am very visual, and I like to write a lot of words, and I like the pages to look somewhat beautiful, and so that is what I do. I am sure every single other person does something very different, with an equal potential to be effective.

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Rest and down-time

My three priorities this year, when simplified as much as they can be simplified, are: Studying, running, and resting. Resting in order to do the studying and running well.

Resting for me includes: rest days from running, rest days from studying and always feeling obligated to work, regularly getting enough sleep, giving my mind a break from the academic / athletic contexts and allowing myself to explore beautiful place, being with lovely people, and creating soothing physical spaces that make it possible to relax, feel contained, unwind,  and recharge.

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This is so important. I can’t emphasise it enough. Some more specific practises of resting that I sincerely hope I will always be able to make time for are:

– At least 8 hours of sleep every night

– 1 rest day from running every week (usually Fridays)

– 1 rest day from studying every week (I think this will be Saturdays)

– Allowing myself to say no to social engagements if I am feeling too exhausted or overwhelmed – needing rest is a legitimate reason to not go.

– Allowing some space for slightly more spontaneous outings / adventures that will leave me feeling recharged and inspired, even if I feel like I should stick to my schedule

– Never making a habit of regularly studying late into the night

– Whether it’s running or working or anything else: always planning to make the easy days easy, and the hard days hard. Resting with intention. Working with intention. Not leaving grey ares or running ‘junk miles’ or permanently feeling obligated to be doing something, but never quite having the context to focus and then leave when it’s done.

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Gratitude

A daily practise of expressing gratitude. Recording the gratitude. Holding onto it and using it to learn to see the good things more. Looking for the small joys that are the only things that ever come together to build up the big joys. I am not interested in working really really hard in a miserable way in order to one day be able to do what I love. I want to find things to love, every day, now. Even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard. I’m not always so very good at it, but I am trying to teach myself to get better, now.

Some things that help:

Writing it down. I bought myself this yellow notebook and this yellow pencil case, and when I carry them around I feel like I am carrying my own sun. They are only for writing about the good things. Every evening I fill a page with bullet-point memos of all the good things I can remember from that day.

Podcasts. I have only recently starting exploring the absolutely endless myriad of podcasts that exist in the world. Some of them are ones I love a lot. On the bus or in the car or when walking around, I sometimes listen to (to name a few) – The Good Life Project with Jonathan Fields, On Being with Krista Tippet,  On Coaching with Magness and Marcus, The Tim Ferris Show, and Magic Lessons with Elizabeth Gilbert

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Noticing beautiful things, saying beautiful things, and sharing. I like to walk past a hedge with flowers on it and pick some. And give some to a friend. And notice that the moon is full, and that I love it, and tell people. Make my food beautiful and photograph it and send it to my mom. Make my running socks match my headband because that brings me joy. Try to tell the people I love that I love them. Every day. Just doing what I can with what I have, with grace and tenacity, every day.

A quote from Ray Dalio’s book Principles that I liked a lot and have on my wall, is this – (referring to very elite athletes, but applicable to everyone):

‘Even after they surpass their wildest dreams, they still experience more struggle than glory. I realised that the satisfaction of success doesn’t come from achieving your goals, but from struggling well’.

I am not pursuing or glorifying ‘The Struggle’ for the sake of it, at all. But having big goals, running far, asking questions, studying, and just…waking up every day getting after it and being kind and trying to be a good person without crumbling under the realisation of how many people are hurting – this is quite hard. There is some struggle involved. I want to hold onto the joy that also exists, and I want to hold onto enquiry, and I want to struggle well.  And then it won’t feel so much like struggling.

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(Also! This is my first day of school picture. From the first day of orientation. With a lot of lightness in my hair).

A broad year of running and living, unconventionally recapped.

In 2017 I told everyone that I took a gap year to run. And I did that! I took a year ‘off’ after school to seize the opportunity, and give absolutely everything to running, which I love more than I could ever explain.

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The decision to do that has been worth every second, and although it inevitably didn’t unfold exactly as I planned it to, my year of running has pretty much been everything I could have wanted it to be, which is quite a dreamy thing to say:

I took big chunks off my half marathon, 10k and 5k times, and I stayed relatively injury free. I had a couple of races that were absolutely radiant breakthroughs for me, I stood on podiums more often than I expected to, I made friends with some incredible athletes who I love and admire a lot, and I remained so thankful for my coach and club and training partners every day. I traveled alone to Kenya! And trained in Iten at altitude, with all kinds of fantastic people, and learned that it is the biggest privilege to have the choice of taking running as seriously or un-seriously as I like, and simultaneously felt what it’s like to want to run away from all the dense organized busyness of my whole life, and live in a room in Iten without a plan except to run and eat and sleep every day.

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I learned a lot about doing some hugely hard things physical things (that always translate to being able to do hugely hard non-physical things), and continued to learn about hanging on and gritting it out, and making friends with that place where everything always hurts.

I read a lot of books, and fell in love with piecing together an understanding of racing and training theory – the endless versions which are out there, and joining bits to make my own –  which feels like a rolled-together version of everything I love about broad creative problem-solving and meticulous research and list-making and athletics.

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I also did a whole lot of other (I think equally valuable?) mixed and wonderful things that were completely unrelated to running, but that I probably would have been much more hesitant to do if I hadn’t had the structure of training every day to make me feel less lost: I did a lot of my own writing and creating, I studied and got transferrable credits for Psychology 1 through UNISA, I finally learned to drive, I tutored some English and Afrikaans, I secured a place at UCT to study Fine Art in 2018, and also… I really learned to relax, to always sleep enough, and to not compulsively plan every hour of every day.

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It’s been quite a time!

And so what I have done below, in an attempt to reflect on it all, is to put together 4 over-arching categories of valuable things that I learned and thought about this year, and am not going to forget. This is obviously not everything important that happened in my year, and not the most pared down, streamlined account. But each section mostly includes elements of the running-related things that I did, but also the cross overs into living, and everything else.

1. Learning to feel less like an imposter

Starting this year off not competing in the Junior category anymore, (now in the deep end with everyone from 20-39) and also not belonging to any kind of educational institution or daily context to share with other people, I did initially spend quite a lot of time feeling like I would have to keep on proving myself in order to not feel like an imposter, or a ‘fake’. There was also the daunting feeling of being solely responsible for my own happiness. (How can you ever be unhappy if you’re on a gap year after school, and can pretty much do whatever you want? But sometimes you are,  and that’s how it is, and it doesn’t help to add guilt). And.. I think the fear of not belonging is a very generic human thing? But maybe the difference is that some people have it but learn to not let it change how they behave and think.

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Now I don’t seem to let it change how I behave and think so much. I’m not even completely sure why, but I think the main thing has just been…to keep showing up. Just quietly being consistent with myself and my goals, and trusting that I am becoming the person I want to be, all in little bits. And that are adding up, even if no-one else can see them adding up. It’s also been extremely good and important to make friends with the people I compete against, and really try to get to know the ones I look up to a lot and find daunting, and to remind myself that they are all probably uncertain about something, while loving the same thing that I love.

2. Starting to learn how to race

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In the first half of the year I had a couple of good races, but more of them were disappointing. I just kept feeling like I wasn’t able to stick to a pre-determined plan, and I wasn’t racing to my fitness level, and every time I cared a lot about a particular outcome, everything miraculously fell apart on the day. Two Oceans Half Marathon was a notable example of this, and I was extremely hard on myself for not doing what I had set out to do.

Then I went ran the Knysna Half Marathon in July as a relaxed holiday thing after completing the bulk of a pretty solid cross country season, and it ended up being a massive breakthrough race for me. I don’t think I will ever stop referring back to it, even though I have since run quite a bit faster over that distance.

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I have made a whole separate blog post about the Knysna race, but it completely changed the way I think about racing because it taught me relax completely, and to just do it all for the sake of doing. I turned my watch off auto-lap and didn’t look at it, and I had absolutely no goals and no-one rooting for me at the end (except my mom, and there the only criterion was that I had to finish smiling – I wasn’t allowed to hurt). I was able to take the risk of running from the back, and give it everything whenever I wanted to, and pull back whenever I wanted to, and chat to people and admire the trees, and taste the absolutely remarkable joy of a 5th place finish and a 5-minute PB and a 5-minute negative split anyway, without planning any of it.

After that I was convinced that I only knew how to do well in races if I was somehow able to take myself by surprise and be fast without intending to. It worked a couple more times, and then (still) at the more important races where I did actively really want to do well (Western Province Cross Country Champs, and the Sanlam Peace 10k, for example), all intelligent race strategy fell out the window, and I was a nervous wreck again.

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This frustrated me a huge amount, and I think in my last two half marathons of the year, I finally managed to find a way keep the relaxed strategy of racing from the back, going by feel and then emerging with a surprise negative split at the end, and combining it with an actual intention to execute a race plan. And mostly, (though this may be obvious to many, it wasn’t to me) I felt confident enough to do it because I just put my head down and prioritized training really specifically and thoroughly and intelligently, more than before. So that regardless of whether I was having a good day or an amazing day or a really average day, I had absolutely no doubts about my objective fitness level, and didn’t  feel the need to construct an elaborate iron will to partially carry me through. That was a big relief and a good thing to learn: it helps to be really really prepared.

3. A general clarifying of things that matter, and the realization that introverts can also get lonely.

Moving on to the second part of this sentence: being pretty independent and introverted by nature, it was an important thing for me to realise this year – that yes, I too can miss people and get lonely, and it doesn’t mean that I’m suddenly ‘weak’ or super dependent on external validation or whatever. It just means that sharing a daily context with other people (like school) can be a really valuable good thing that we easily take for granted, and that not all social interactions have to be super intense and high maintenance to be meaningful. This actually meant that I found myself being socially braver than I might normally have been – meeting some new very wonderful people, and spending time with the existing ones who I love a lot. So it wasn’t the easiest, but it was good.

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Other things that I have realized are important to me, in no particular order, are:

Being able to say yes when I want to say yes, and no when I want to say no.

Spending less money on random irrelevant things, consuming less, wasting less.

Loving people without constantly anticipating losing them. And allowing the loving to be a separate entity that would always outweigh the hurt of losing.

Averaging 9 hours of sleep every night.

Not being coy or insincere or playing hard to get just for the sake of it (??).

Eating what I want, when I want it, with as few rules as possible.

Gratitude. And quirkiness. And having room to feel things strongly, and ask hard questions, and sometimes be wrong.

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4. Being able to articulate that the ‘point’ is not competitive running.

Lastly, being able to write down and say that for me, the point of giving absolutely everything to competitive running is not just for the insular sake of being ‘good at running’, but for being good at life: this has been pivotal. I’m going into the new year knowing that I love a lot of things, and can do a lot of things, and can be a lot of things, and one of my favorite things to be is a runner. But that’s only because ‘being a runner’ has happened to mean being a passionate focused goal-oriented person with a lot of time for attending to details and going to wild places and solving problems redefining what was previously impossible, and hanging in there with pain and extreme discomfort, and meeting similarly purposeful people who understand that you can absolutely adore something and also resent it, and waking up every day with a sense of direction – always feeling a little bit subtly on fire and a little bit amazed.

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I’m not going to let go of that little subtle fire any time soon.

Next year will be another broad and busy and dense one, and completely different, and I’m apprehensive and I’m excited and I’m ready. I hope you are too. I’m sending all the positivity and the luck and the love and the pain-free running.

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What I eat to help me to live my best life

I like reading about what other people eat. Especially other athletes or people who eat similar kinds of plant-based foods as I do, but also in general – I’m intrigued by humans, and I’m intrigued by the detailed window into their lives that you get when you see what they eat. And so sometimes, for similar reasons, I like writing about what I eat too, and sharing it.

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Like today!

Except today I realized that literally the only reason to include very detailed portion sizes and servings of the things that I eat in a particular day would be to allow other people to directly compare themselves to me. So I’m not going to do that. (There is no other human on the planet who has the same metabolism, body composition, activity levels, fitness goals or lifestyle as I do, so…exact portions sizes would always be irrelevant! As compelling and satisfying as it is to label and understand everything with concrete values / numbers).

Instead, what I’m going to do (which I hope could in fact be relevant and interesting to more than one kind of person, in more than one context), is to share the kinds of things I eat in an average day. A broader overhead view. And the things that work and don’t work, and the imperfect but realistic balance that I am always trying to get closer to – finding ways that allow me to live the life that I want to live as a whole person, and be the athlete that I want to be, with hard training and big dreaming and big goals.

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Things I do:

  •  To save time and effort in the week (things are usually different on the weekend), I generally eat the same thing every day, and mix up toppings / fruit / veg / things on the side to avoid getting bored. (For example, while I may eat some form of oats almost every day for breakfast, I can have it with many different kinds of fruit, nuts, toppings, etc. )
  • I eat what I want, when I’m hungry for it, and I stop when I’m full. Sounds simple, and it is for some people, and for many other people it definitely isn’t. But when I am truly able to listen to my body and give it what it needs, I am without doubt the best athlete and person I can be.  Exceptions to this may be…after a really hard workout or long run, when I know I need more energy when I’m hungry for, or at a celebration or special occasion: I hope there is always space in my life to step out of the routine a little bit, and eat food not JUST because it’s ‘optimal fuel’ but because the food is delicious and I’m with people I love.
  • I eat a plant-based / whole food balanced vegan diet, and I have for the last 4 years. For ethical and health reasons, this is just what works best for me.
  • Without allowing it to fill up an unnecessary amount of my mental energy and time, I do genuinely enjoy and look forward to all the food that I choose to make for myself. IMG_3232

Things I don’t do

  • I don’t count calories or macronutrients. Or at least – that is the intention. Once you know the caloric value of every single fruit and serving of grain and spoon of peanut butter, it’s hard to unlearn that stuff. But for me it is very helpful (and possible) to decide to tune it out a bit, and rather focus on other things, like eating a large variety of colours and flavours and nutrients, and observing how the food makes me feel. (In an isolated way, not helping me achieve any of the athlete / person-related goals that I care about in my life, but as a thing of itself, counting calories has sometimes helped me to create an energy deficit and lose weight. Which is a tempting compelling truth. But every single time my body has done some really hard thing that I want it to do, or when I’ve been able focus and write and draw and generate lots of creative work, or study and do really academically well, I have also spent that time listening to my body and fueling for life / performance over aesthetics. This is something I want to emphasize and not forget)
  • I don’t have cheat days, or ‘forbidden foods’ or forbidden food groups or anything that is completely off limits. If I am craving something that is considered a ‘treat food’, then I eat it in moderation, or I find a way to make it myself that is healthier or less processed. And if I eat something that is different or quite a bit more extravagant than what I’m used to, I try really hard to not ‘compensate’ for it or restrict what I eat in any way in the time that follows. I just go straight back to listening to my body and doing what I already know will work.
  • I don’t really consume protein powders or other nutritional supplements or meal replacements or other typical ‘sport food’. I take iron and B12 supplements, but apart from that I aim to get all the nutrients I need from whole foods. I do sometimes take an energy gel halfway through a long run or race (32Gi for taste preference and for its extremely good / minimal ingredients list, and Gu as an alternative with caffeine).

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The food of a typical day

This year (and it will change a lot next year), a typical weekday has tended to involve an early start, a morning workout and an evening workout (sometimes I train before breakfast, sometimes after, also sometimes just once a day in the evening), at least 3 meals and 3 snacks, an afternoon nap, time for getting other non-running-related things, and an early bedtime. I obviously eat more on days when I burn more energy, and less on the days that are more relaxed. But these things, in varying amounts, are what I like to eat:

Breakfast:

As I said, breakfast is almost always oats. But with lots of different things mixed in and on top, and many options to mix it up and adapt it to your taste preference, or to what you have in the house.

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The basic recipe for me is like this:

A staple whole grain: 1/3 to 2/3 cup rolled oats, or barley / spelt flakes, or sometimes I mix in buckwheat or pre-cooked brown rice / quinoa

A fruit or vegetable to grate in: grated apple always works well in oats, but I usually prefer to be a bit more adventurous, and grate in a small beetroot, a small peeled zucchini, or a floret of cauliflower. Sounds strange, but it really isn’t, and just adds extra texture / flavour, nutrients and volume.

A plantbased milk: The liquid ratio for cooking standard oats is 1 portion of oats to 2 of your chosen liquid. I generally do half plant-based milk, (or regular milk if you’re not vegan) and half water. (I use unsweetened non GMO soy milk more often than something like almond milk, because it contains much more protein, and is sometimes also fortified with vitamin B12)

Spices and things for flavour: I am very devoted to cocoa powder, and literally always add it to my oats. Cocoa and grated beetroot is my absolute favorite combination. But cinnamon, any other spices, vanilla, orange rind, whatever you’ve got on hand…these are all good things too. I also usually add a small pinch of salt.

A source of sweetness: I use stevia drops as a sweetener for my oats. But chopped dates, raisins, honey, other fruits etc are all healthy good alternatives.

A serving of seasonal fruit to go on top: This time of year, I LOVE to have chopped up watermelon on top of my bowl of oats, or berries, nectarine, other melon…whatever we have in the house! But I’m pretty much a fan of every single fruit. So I’m happy to use whatever is in season.

A nut butter / source of healthy fat: We make our own unsweetened peanut butter and tahini, and I always have a generous spoon of either one of those on top of my bowl of oats. But chopped up nuts or a sprinkle of any kind of seed is not a bad alternative (though nothing beats the way peanut butter melts into hot cocoa oats!)

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Putting this all together is really simple, and once you’ve done it every single day for a long time (as I have) you will find that it has morphed into an extremely streamlined routine that you can do while making coffee, cleaning up after yourself, drinking a tall glass of water, listening to a great playlist, and planning your day in your head.

What you do is just put everything into a pot except the fresh fruit and the nut butter, and stir it occasionally, until it’s at the consistency that you want it to be (I would say for quite thick oats, maybe…a maximum of 12 minutes?) Then pour it into a bowl, add the toppings, pair it with a great mug of coffee, and…you’ve just made yourself a magnificent and tasty and healthy breakfast!

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Lunch:

If I’m not just doing a shakeout run or easy swim or something, I generally do my morning workout after breakfast, and my post-workout meal is lunch. And I’m pretty hungry by lunchtime. So I do my best to make it quick, nutritionally dense, hydrating (with lots of fresh things – I do obviously drink lots of water too though), and with balanced sources of carbohydrate, protein and healthy fat. Also a decent amount of flavour. With these things in mind, I either make a massive salad with lots of different things in it, or I cook up a whole lot of vegetables and legumes together in a pan, and add fresh things on the side. The two are pretty similar – the one is just a cooked slightly denser version of the other.

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Lunch salad – you just combine all these things:

Lots of greens and fresh things: I really love baby spinach, and add it to everything. All other kinds of salad greens are great too, as well as cucumber, celery, red pepper, tomato, and any / all other fresh salad vegetables. I also usually add in some kind of steamed green vegetable, like broccoli or brussels sprouts.

–  A source of protein, generally legumes: we buy in bulk and freeze a large amount of legumes, and a larger variety than what you can buy in regular supermarkets (chickpeas,  black beans, kidney beans, mung beans, black-eyed beans, lentils, adzuki beans etc). I always use one kind of bean in my salads.

A source of healthy fat: if we have ripe avocados, I always have 1/4 to 1/2 an avocado in my salads. Sometimes instead of that, or in addition, I add tahini, or seeds / nuts like pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts etc. The nuts and seeds are also great for protein.

A starchier vegetable or fruit: To make it a little bit more dense, I always also add something like steamed or roasted butternut / sweet potato, or grated beetroot and carrot, or even something like diced apple or pear. Or combinations of all of the above.

Things for flavour and seasoning: if I have something like avo or tahini, I don’t really add extra oil. But I do like to mix in lemon juice, salt, pepper, fresh herbs, spices, balsamic glaze, even sometimes soya sauce, tomato paste…whatever sounds like a good combination.

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This is SO incredibly quick, versatile and tasty. Salad combinations like this are also a great way to use leftovers, and are easily made more interesting with pre-made things like hummus, falafels, dressings etc.

Afternoon Snack:

This has its own category because it’s actually kind of like a second lunch, and is more substantial than the other snacks I have. I have this 2-3 hours before my evening workout, and every single time it’s either a yoghurt bowl with soya yoghurt, cocoa powder, homemade nut butter, a banana, and sometimes a sprinkle of oats or buckwheat. Or I have a smoothie. The smoothie usually has 1 – 2 frozen bananas, some other frozen fruit (berries), baby spinach, homemade peanut butter and / or avocado, cocoa powder, and also sometimes oats or buckwheat on top, depending on how hungry I am.  Both are filling but quite easy to digest, contain a good balance of carbohydrates, protein and fat, and…are really delicious! My afternoon snack is always a favourite thing.

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Supper:

This is pretty much always the meal when I come home and I want to eat the whole kitchen. Sometimes one of my parents has made food, which is great. Other times I whip together something that is really quick and filling and as filled with as many colours and textures as I can find (hah while consuming a couple of cooking snacks just to tide me over..). The individual bits change every night (much more flexible than my other meals), but the essential food groups / components of the meal stay the same:

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A whole grain: this is usually wholewheat pasta, brown rice, quinoa, or rye / wholewheat toast. But also sometimes millet, bulgur wheat, polenta, barley, or any other interesting-sounding grain I can find and figure out how to cook.

A protein, cooked with vegetables in a stew or sauce: Again, I return to a broad range of legumes / beans, and have some kind of bean cooked with a whole lot of green veggies and tomatoes and peppers and whatever is in the fridge, almost every night. Sometimes I switch it up with some form of soya protein. This would usually also include some olive oil for cooking, and maybe something like olives or cashews to densify it a bit.

A healthy fat – Avocado is another showstopper for this one. I always add avocado if we have it. I also often just toast a whole lot of mixed nuts / seeds and sprinkle a spoon or two on top of my food, or have a tahini dressing. (I’m not at all a fan of adding extra oil to my food or to salad dressings, but if you are, then…go for it!!)

Lots of salad things – without fail, I find every opportunity to pile on the greens – baby spinach, lettuce, kale, rocket, cucumber, and all the other salad things.

A piece of fruit (sometimes with vegan yoghurt) to finish it off. I don’t always do this, but quite often a slice of melon or an apple or something equally fresh and lovely is a great way to finish off a meal.

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Other snacks – between meals, and pre / post-workout:

– If I’m just doing an easy morning shakeout, I generally do that fasted, first thing in the morning. But I don’t like doing hard workouts on an empty stomach, and definitely notice that I take a lot longer for my legs to get going if I haven’t eaten before.

– A very very standard staple pre and post-workout small snack that I have at some point every single day is this: 2-3 teaspoons of unsweetened peanut butter with 2 teaspoons of cocoa powder and a little less than a teaspoon of honey. I stir it all up very well in a small container (like a little espresso cup or something), and it’s the best thing! Like a little chocolate energy ball, but one that is so easy to make, and can be eaten with a spoon. I often have this before a run. If I’m doing a long run, I’d have this around 30 minutes before leaving, plus a serving of fruit or some other quick carbohydrate.

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– Another really obvious quick snack is just around 3 dates with some almonds or seeds – a deconstructed version of a raw energy bar. (Speaking of energy bars, when I’ve just finished a workout at my gym, and Kauai is right there, I do quite often turn to the convenience of their very minimally processed raw energy bars, which literally just contain nuts, dates and cocoa powder. They’re the kind of thing that I could definitely make more cheaply at home, but when I’m feeling tired and disorganized, this is not a bad alternative).

– As a post-workout thing for a really hard long run or one of the more endless half marathon interval sessions (or  for after an actual half marathon), I have around a cup of chocolate soya milk (almost 8g of protein! And obviously lots of sugar, which is necessary), as well as 2 rehidrat sport sachets in a liter of water. I also try to have a proper meal as soon afterwards as possible

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I could carry on adding detail to this for a long time! But this is pretty much my entire food system all summed up and written out with as much clarity and simplicity as possible. I think really the main thing that I want emphasize (again) is:

Everyone is different, and has very different nutritional needs. But if we were all to follow similar dietary guidelines I think they would be to remember that there are NO short-cuts or sustainable hacks to get you to where you want to be. Your best bet will always be to truly listen to your own body. And just…eat a variety of real whole foods! There’s a reason why so many people have returned to telling you to do ‘everything in moderation’! Think about the kind of life you want to be able to LIVE, in the real world, and find a way to eat that allows you to have that life. Don’t do it the other way around – don’t let your eating habits dictate what you can or can’t do. Eat for functionality, longevity, enjoyment and performance, and remember that no matter how long you’ve been doing something, it is always possible (and often advisable) to change. (And while you are changing, it is also still possible to keep saying ‘I am okay as I am’)

I hope you are having a very happy weekend! Eat some yummy things!

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3 years ago I decided, in earnest, to ‘be a runner’

It’s a little under two years ago that I joined a running club, found a coach, started running consistenly, bought running shoes, and decided to set some goals that went a little bit beyond seeing how tired I could get myself to be by the end of the week. But this month, it’s been three years since I sat down (after reading the blog post of someone who could run 11km without stopping) and decided that I wanted to ‘be’ a runner.

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(above: aged 10, I liked sprinting because the pain was over quickly. Things have changed..)

It was a very good and very earnest decision, but also a very abstract one. I wanted it – I wanted to cultivate the image of it, I wanted to be fit and motivated and to have something to chase that nobody I knew was chasing – but I didn’t really know what it meant. Thinking about it makes me smile a lot now, and I’m thankful for this time, and it’s what I’m going to write about: really really wanting something, being completely in the dark about how to get there, and just DOING a lot of things anyway. Trial and error. Falling down and getting up again and doing a lot of ‘wrong’ things. But for me (and probably a lot of other people too), learning like this was undoubtedly the best way.

A start: actively prioritising living over thinness

I wasn’t completely unfit when I made this decision to ‘be a runner’. I come from an un-sporty family, and went to a very un-sporty school, but did find ways to run around the field sometimes, and run with the boys in the sprinting events on sports day, and play tennis and soccer, and swim and dance and do karate. I liked those things, and I guess I was building some kind of aerobic house. But it was all very inconsistent and didn’t last long, largely because (as I have mentioned on here before?) I spent most of my time as a teenager swinging between regimes of eating disorder recovery and relapse, and it was absolutely the biggest thing on my mind, and (physically and mentally) it didn’t leave room for very much else.

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I clearly remember announcing that ‘I care more about being thin than about being able to exercise’, which was absolute rubbish, and a terrible over-simplification of everything, but I did beleive it at the time. And so later, when I decided I wanted to ‘be a runner’, it was a decision that followed a gradual recognition of the need to fuel myself well. And of a great desire to learn how to prioritise living my own physical real life, rather than somehow… spending all my time piecing together a safe idealised image of a life that couldn’t actually be lived in very well.

This was very pivotal. And also self-perpetuating: the more I wanted to be good at running, and the more I actually ran, the more I realised how important it was to look after myself. I think it would have taken me a lot longer to get to that point otherwise.

And then I thought all running kit was a gimmick

When I started running, For about a year I genuinely thought that ALL running kit was an absolutely gimmicky waste of money, and that everyone was just wearing running shoes and synthetic clothes and watches and sports bras and special socks (and everything else!) as a fashion statement. I didn’t want to buy into it, and for some reason I was just really against (and also daunted by) the whole #athlete aesthetic. I avoided looking like a runner at all costs. And so I just resolved to make do with what I had (to the horror of my physio, who dealt with all the injuries that followed my footwear decisions):

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Running shoes were definitely out of the question. For a long time I ran on the road in my ankle-high Converse All Stars, and I ran anywhere else (treadmill, beach, grass, dirt road, sometimes concrete) without any shoes at all. I never tied up my hair. I ran in denim shorts or full-length cotton leggings, or leggings that I had cut off at the knee, and sometimes jeans. I usually had a bikini on under my clothes, because my absolute favourite thing was to swim in the sea after running. (still is!)

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I got ALL the injuries

In this first year of wanting to be a runner, I didn’t run that much. Partly because I was unfit and running was a lot harder than it is now (so I only needed to do quite small amounts to improve), and mostly because I always tried to do too much too soon, with all the eccentric kit and training schedules, and got injured very often. I had calf strains on both sides, an achilles injury, hip-flexor strains, post-tibial tendonitis on both sides, and (this was actually the worst), a badly strained ligament in my back. In the end I spent LOT of time (much more than the actual running) getting crazily good at devising sessions on the elliptical and the stepping machine that would be hard enough to make me want to vomit. (As a result I really don’t love cross training on the elliptical now. Not even a little bit).

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I only ran at one speed.

This is a real pet peeve of mine now – when people only know how to run at one speed, and just do exactly the same thing for every session and every distance. But I was just like that: I ONLY ran at 5:00/km. Anything slower than that didn’t qualify as running, and anything faster than that was just a little bit too hard to do for very long, so I generally avoided it. If I wanted to do a run that was longer than 4km (20 minutes) I was only able to do it by breaking it up into segments of 15 – 20 minutes in order to keep the same pace throughout.

I didn’t have a running watch, but I ran on certain routes where I knew the distance (for example, it had to ‘always’ take 15 minutes to run from my house to Kalk Bay), or I would just go out in one direction for as long as I could before phoning my parents to pick me up and measure the distance that I’d run with the car  – the longest was 8km to Fish Hoek. But I actually did more than half of my running on the treadmill at the gym. I think running so much on the treadmill (which is not something I recommend) is a big part of why I only ran at one pace – because it was so easy to force myself to never slow down, and get quite obsessive about keeping the speed at that one perfect number. It also had a 20-minute cut-off, which taught me to implement all these little breaks before restarting the treadmill again and again.

I ran my first half marathon on almost no training.

A classic newbie-runner assumption of mine was that Two Oceans was the only road race in the Western Cape. I was not at ALL tuned into the running scene, and had literally never heard of any other local race. And so when the decision came to ‘be’ a runner, it was immeditaely followed by ‘And I want to do the Two Oceans Half Marathon ASAP’.

I didn’t get a Two Oceans entry for 2015 (and would never have been fit enough), but managed to find out about the Knysna Half Marathon in July of that year, and entered, and decided to make it into a road-trip adventure with my mom. It was VERY exciting.

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(running shoes were insisted upon for this race. Didn’t really look back..)

As a fairly random goal for what a ‘good’ half marathon should be, I decided that I was going to break 2 hours in Knysna. 3 weeks before the race I pulled / strained a ligament in my back quite badly, and couldn’t run at ALL (or even walk very well) until race day. My physio thought it was a terrible idea to go ahead and run as planned, but I clearly didn’t, and I stood on the startline with my last run being 3 weeks prior, and my longest run being 12km on the treadmill, broken into 3 segments of 20 minutes.

It is not like me to be unprepared for things! But this was unprepared in a strange / painful / thrilling kind of way. Very exciting and very compelling. I finished in 01:55, and was in a ridiculous amount of pain, and didn’t run for the next month, but was (I don’t know why?) elated and amazed and completely inextricably hooked on this hard horrible running thing, and pushing harder and doing more.

It makes me wonder why I carried on:

I carried on and on in a very big persistent way! Running is now the greatest joy and the most central thing in every single day. And initally when I wrote this post, I thought to myself…why? Starting out I wasn’t good or competitive at all, and it wasn’t easy or enjoyable, and I got injured all the time, and I knew so little about how to improve and how to get it right. But the more I thought about it, I realised that I had carried on for reasons that are in fact very obvious, and they are things that I hope will keep me carrying on for all the years ahead too:

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1. As I said before, running provided the ultimate context and motivation for me to look after myself, and to value my body more as a something that could do hard things rather than as an object that had to look a certain way in order for me to feel valuable. Running brought logical reasons to eat enough food, drink enough water, sleep and avoid being chronically iron-deficient.

2. The assumption was not that I could be competitively good. This is important, because it meant that I always prioritised running for myself and against myself. I did not come from a sporting background, I had no idea what athletic success felt like, I didn’t have any idea of how attainable it was, and for so long I felt like the eternal underdog / imposter in every race.

3. I held onto the novelty. When I started running (and this would obviously be the same for everyone), I constantly amazed myself by how much joy could be found in doing something for the first time. At 18, I was not at all jaded or weary or weighed down by all the technical running lingo and the experienced talk of interval sessions and this mysterious thing called a ‘fartlek’. I was just very happy to keep on redefining things that I thought were impossible, and now weren’t: doing a half marathon without walking, breaking 45 minutes for a 10k, my first cross country season, my first set of hill repeats, my first kilometre under 4 minutes. It was wonderful. I never want to forget it.

4. There was NEVER any external pressure to keep at it. All of my friends and family were surprised that I wanted to run, and they supported it. But it is only because they would support whatever it is that I choose to do. Also – everyone who knows me will know that I put more than enough internal pressure on myself to make external pushing feel irrelevant and unhelpful. But it has always meant a huge amount to know that absolutely nobody (at least the none of the ones I care about) would think to value me as an athlete before valuing me as a person.

5. Running is the biggest focus in my life right now. But because it hasn’t been like that for very long, it means that there is also so much else in my life that I can love and be defined by. I am not afraid of losing my identity if I were ever to lose the ability to run competitively, and so in a way I can give it everything without it feeling precarious – I don’t depend on it. I love it, and it’s a choice. I also love writing, painting, swimming, dancing, hiking, reading, acting, yoga, making beautiful food, going to beautiful places, doing research, learning new things.

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The picture is broad. And because of my sometimes-limiting tendency to apply a very all-or-nothing approach to the things that I want to do, I know that I will always thrive best as an athlete and as a person by remembering that I am so much more than one thing. Also, by interpreting inevitable past ‘mistakes’ not so much as mistakes but as opportunites to innovate and change and grow. By doing that –  I think perhaps the sky is the limit.

And in that vein, I love this quote by John Steinbeck too (which I might have shared on here before):

‘You must not worry about losing. If it is right, it happens. The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away’.

Competitive Distance Running: What’s The Point?

FullSizeRenderThese are six things written by my most sane self, for my less sane / over-thinking / panicky self to read as I finish up this year’s competitive road racing season in the next few (two) weeks. Everything here has almost certainly been said and owned by a million other people before me, but here it feels important to collect and write these things in my own words:

What are we doing here?  Why run? Which parts matter? Why are we hurting so much and working so hard every day? Why does it so often feel less like flying and more like a fight?

WHAT is the point.

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1. Of itself, the point is not competitive distance running. The point is LIFE.

To affirm life. To hold onto it and chase it and know it and fear it and love it bravely and celebrate it like we will never know anything else (which we really won’t).

To see this, you’ve got to take a little bit of a step back and realise that running is just a vehicle. An empty (powerful) vehicle, ready for you to make it be whatever you want it to be. Here where most of my action is happening, I’m using it to help me to do hard things with grace and tenacity. To connect with incredible motivated people who teach me about teamwork and not giving up. And to chase and chase and chase the things that I love about living.

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2. There has got to be light in it if it is something that you’re choosing to do. While gritting it out and doing all the hard things, you’ve got to love it (while it’s happening) more than you hate it or fear it. A happy person is a happy runner, and a happy runner is a fast one. Though easier said than done, the key really is to relax and to love what you’re doing.

Before every race, I used to always write the Haruki Murakami quote on my arm that says, ‘Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional’, but I have since found that depending on how you look at it, even pain is not necessarily inevitable every time. Sometimes the things just flow and fall into place, and you have to let them. No-one gets extra medals for choosing hold onto / expect pain, or being self-deprectating. Just say thank you and run!

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3. Listen to your body. Relentlessly, unconditionally, every single time, regardless of everyone around you, regardless of external numbers or results. Rest when you need to rest. Learn the difference between pain and fatigue, and learn the tricky balance act of traveling between gentleness and grit.

Fuel for performance. Your body knows what it needs – you just have to tune in and listen. The point is to be able to do hard things with grace and skill – not to be an idea of something that feels aesthetically pleasing or acceptable or safe. (To be blunt: you have more to give the world than JUST being the person who is fragile and thin. Step up to your potential).

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You need to be able to look back, many years from now, and be thankful that you chose to be your own friend so many times that it became automatic. There are no short-cuts to ensure long-term success. Consistency and striving towards longevity in the sport as a result of intelligent self-care will win every single time.

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4. Perception is everything: the way that you choose to look at it is the only lens you will ever be able use to see the world. Pretty much everything around you is a set of patched-together sensory assumptions about how your brain expects the world to be, based on everything you have done before, and the narrative you have constructed around it. Think carefully about how you’re constructing the narrative! Honest self-talk is a million times more powerful than overly optimistic internal cheer-squad rountines. Tell yourself things that do not rely on an uncertain external outcome in order to remain true.

Remember that you are probably very well versed in shooting yourself down, especially when things get tough. But also remember that you always always have the power to change the conversation. A lot of the time it feels like they’re not, but all of your thoughts are your own, and being able to decide which ones get to dictate your performance is a very powerful thing. (Patience! Kindness! Practice!)

5.’The road is the goal’. Nothing is certain about where you are going, even if you want to be going somewhere important and magnificent. There is only now. And now and now and now. You have got to love and live in each insular every-day piece of it. You are allowed to look back and see how the pieces added up, and you are allowed to believe that they will add up again. But you can’t ever know how. The only way to move forward is to keep dedicating yourself fully to wherever you are right now.

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6. You know…? It’s all unimaginably simple.  The secret is that there is no secret. The hardest part is probably just trusting that everything you need to know is already within reach, and that the simplest choice is the best one, and that everything magic is made of mundane things.

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What I ate: Running in Iten, day 3

All things eaten on Thursday 27 July:

Looking at the food one has eaten in a day is often an interesting way to get a clearer picture of the narrative of the rest of the day, happening around the actual eating. Especially when the food is unusual and new and actively worth writing about, like now. So this is everything I ate on my third day in Iten. This has been my first day of actually feeling really good, not struggling so much with the altitude, and not feeling terribly sick! (Which are all very pleasing things).

7:30AM: Breakfast, post 20 min stretching and 20 min pool running in the rain:

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As depicted, I had a bowl of plain oats with a banana and hot chocolate powder (just cocoa and sugar) plus a combination of black coffee and hot chocolate powder with hot water. One of the other (very friendly and nice) people at the camp here had managed to find some cinnamon in the village, and he let me put some of that on my oats too. Was tasty and filling!

11:30AM: Post (very muddy) 8k shakeout run:

A small ripe delicious banana + lots of water

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12:30 PM: Lunch:

This was a bowl of butternut / bean soup, and a piece of bread, followed by a large  plate of regular penne pasta with mung beans (kind of like lentils), lots of steamed vegetables, and a shredded carrot / cabbage salad. I had seconds of the beans and steamed vegetables. I could probably eat this for lunch every single day.

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5:30 PM: Post 8k run and many complicated drills on the track:

I just had some almonds that I brought with my from Nairobi, plus lots of water and an electrolyte / rehidrate sachet.

7:00 PM, Dinner:

Feeling like a very hungry person! This is a terrible photo, and I only remembered to photograph it when I’d already mixed it around and eaten a fair amount of it, but for dinner we had (and always have) Ugali (the traditional very thick maize porridge) with a cooked kale / spinach mixture of greens, as well as lentils cooked with carrots and some other vegetables, and the same shredded carrot / cabbage salad as lunch. I had more of the vegetables and spinach and lentils again.

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I have never eaten such big meals (and so few snacks) in my life! And I have very seldom eaten such a high proportion of carbohydrates in my diet, and..I’m feeling completely awesome! I do of course notice that being in a group of rather focussed obsessive runners, there is a big ongoing conversation about eating ‘right’ and staying lean and comparing how we eat here to how we eat at home, and (in some cases secretly being terrified of eating all this unusual food and going home with an extra kilogram hanging around our waists or something…

But this makes me think two things: firstly, this is an absolute chance of a lifetime, and everything is huge and incredible and new, and the most important thing is to LIVE it and soak it in and get home with so much to think about and do and talk about. And in comparison to this incredible opportunity to grow and learn…who the hell cares about an extra kilogram? Or rather: there is a lifetime to care about an extra kilogram, but right now should not be that time.

And secondly, as it happens, with so much running and walking and adventuring at high altitude, I think we would actually have try very hard to really put on any significant amount of weight. I have never felt stronger in my body, or hungrier. If I avoid over-thinking it, and really do listen to what my body is asking for, things seem to fall into place pretty effortlessly. (This applies to many things beyond eating and hunger and habits around meal times)

I think I might take some of the maize flour home for making Ugali often!

What I did: Running in Iten, day 1

fullsizeoutput_1daI arrived in Nairobi, Kenya, late on Thursday last week, and I stayed there with some very wonderful family friends (to acclimatize a little bit, and breathe and settle) until I was due to leave for my two-week training camp in Iten on Monday.

I really want to write properly about Nairobi. We went on the most incredible adventures, and saw such a wide range of people and things, and I’m still processing it. I don’t want to write about it in a way that feels ignorant or shallow or narrow or any of those things. So I think a more of a reflective / multidimensional / considered write-up of Nairobi and visiting Kenya as a whole will have to wait until I get home and am not constantly moving between one thing and the next.

Here I think I will try to just write more anecdotal / journal-type entries about the people and the running and the shapes of the days? I don’t want to come across as being very narrow when I write about Iten either, but most of what fills up every day is running, eating, sleeping (and discussions about running, sleeping, eating), so it is easier to just write about those things.

Tuesday 25 July:

Here is an outline of everything we did on my first full day at the High Altitude Training Centre in Iten:

(when I say ‘we’, I am referring to the 20 runners from all over the world who are attending this training camp. Also the Kenyan pacers and coaches who are totally fantastic, and Adharanand Finn who wrote the book ‘Running With Then Kenyans’, and is equally fantastic).

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5:50 AM: My alarm went off. I woke up feeling like I had slept really well. The roosters were crowing with a lot of enthusiasm, despite the fact that it wasn’t quite dawn. I got ready for the morning run.

6:10 AM: We all met at the gate of the High Altitude Training Centre, people decided if they were going to do a 5K or an 8K easy run (all the running is meant to be easy and not to long at the moment. The Altitude is 2500m, and we are still acclimatizing). We went off with some very lean and friendly and encouraging Kenyan pacers, who showed us where to go, and dispersed themselves across the front, middle and back of the group.

This first run in Iten:

The first half was most downhill and the dawn was breaking and the fields were green and the children were waving and walking to school all along the side of the road, and it felt completely wonderful! Euphoric, even. (Like a dream! I have been thinking about this place for so long. And now it is real and here).

Then somewhere around 4km in, (when I expected to be turning around, if the run was to be 8km long), my stomach started cramping terribly, remaining nausea from a reaction to the Yellow Fever vaccine I had started to set in with great intensity, and much suffering was involved. We turned around after 5km, and ran the whole way back uphill, and the altitude REALLY hits you on the hills, and I felt like…a very miserable excuse for a runner. That’s what running up hills at altitude with a cramping stomach feels like: you’ve just suddenly become a really REALLY bad runner.

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This first run was quite an introduction to running in Iten! I have a lot of adjusting to do. I just keep reminding myself that I have nothing to prove – I am ONLY doing this for me.

7:30 AM: Breakfast! Kenyans (and we are included in this now) seem to do all of their morning runs on an empty stomach. So breakfast felt like a very good thing, when it did happen. And as a vegan, I am doing very very well with the food here: breakfast was oats, a banana, peanut butter, jam, and a piece of bread with more peanut butter / jam. Everyone here eats simple whole foods that are very high in carbohydrates, low in fats, extremely low in processed foods, and good for people who are running many kilometers every day. The Kenyans seem to just eat a lot of whatever the available food is when they are hungry for it, and no fuss or ‘diet mentality’ is involved. This in particular is hugely refreshing.

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8:30 AM: We drove to the Tambach dirt track just out of Iten, to get a glimpse of the very REAL magnificent superhuman-fast Kenyan athletes doing their Track Tuesday session, in a very radiant  setting surrounded by forest and cows and a view of the green green valley. (Hah… after this morning, maybe I can die in peace, knowing that I have seen one of the most beautiful easeful human spectacles that ever there was?)

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(with Wilson Kipsang!)

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We were lucky, and on this particular Track Tuesday, we chanced upon the very gracious and friendly (and magnificently crazily fast) Wilson Kipsang and his training group, doing their 25 X 400m workout. Tearing around in synchronized circles, each rep being around 63 seconds, with a fairly long 90 second rest – apparently ideal for marathon training, and getting used to lots of extremely consistent, steady, prolonged pain. What I really liked was that in the group of about 12 athletes, everyone took turns to set the pace and lead – they weren’t racing each other, they were sharing out the hard work, and getting it done together. In a way that was efficient and unfaltering, to the point of being quite business-like: just getting through a necessary hard task. No questions asked.  I could have stood and watched forever! (And I was very thankful that they didn’t mind us watching at all).

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11:00 AM: We walked around the town of Iten for the rest of the morning, and saw where Adharanand Finn lived with his family when he was writing his book, and looked down on the great green sprawling Kerio Valley, which makes me think of a tapestry: every texture and colour and shape of green, connected up like stitching.

12:30 PM: Lunch. My experience of Kenyan eating patterns thus far seems to be that they don’t really do much snacking, and instead have three very substantial meals. This takes some getting used to! (I am the opposite: I generally have about 6 much smaller meals, spread across the day). But I was very hungry by lunchtime! And it was good: butternut soup, followed by spagehetti, borlotti beans, and lots of fresh salad and vegetables.

1:30 PM: Nap time! I slept for at least an hour. Kenyans (the who are fortunate to not really have anything else to do except be an athlete) take their sleep VERY seriously! I would say they easily sleep around 12 hours a day.

4:30 PM: Run number two – an easy 5k shakeout run. But this one didn’t work out very well for me…my stomach was still feeling terrible, and I had to walk the last kilometer or so. (This contributed to the imposter syndrome…feeling like a terribly fake, awful runner! But I do realize that really…not a single other person cares enough to think like this).  When I got back I got in the pool and did a couple of laps, which was cold but extremely refreshing and wonderful.

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5:30 PM: We gathered as a group, and had a long and really (really! Completely!) inspiring and interesting talk from Godfrey – the former elite Kenyan runner who played a big roll in Adharanand Finn’s book – and Timo, a coach and a top Kenyan 800m runner. They covered so so much about everything to do with Kenyan running culture and training and racing, and I took so many notes, and I plan to do a separate post about this. There is so much to say!

7:00 PM: Dinner. This was Ugali (the traditional Kenyan maize porridge, so famously loved by athletes and everyone else) with a cooked spinach / kale dish, steamed vegetables, and mung beans. Finished off with fresh pineapple. Very tasty.

9:00 PM: Everyone went off to their rooms by about 9pm, with lights out by about 9:30, ready for another early busy hugely interesting day!

I have only seen a tiny window of Kenya, and a tiny window of Iten and the running community here, and I love what I have seen so much, while knowing that it is not the whole picture, and that I am the most definitive kind of outsider. I so look forward to being able to fill in a little more of the picture, finding an many bits as I can. These are two very precious weeks.

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