Trust your Body

This is a lot easier said than done especially if you are someone prone to illness, injury or a general dissatisfaction with your body. I have written about the mental aspect of running and even threw out the stat that 90% of running is mental. But what about that other 10%?  I believe that the power of our minds is undeniable and yet I also know that we need to honor what our bodies are telling us.

In a recent race, I abandoned one of my biggest coaching philosophies, which is to listen to your body and adjust your run expectations accordingly. From the start of this race I knew that my legs just did not have any juice in them most likely a result of the 100 miler that occurred three weeks prior. I attributed my struggle to the early climb, my allergies being triggered and waited for the easy rhythm to kick in. As I started to descend the first downhill my fear turned into a reality. My legs were simply not ready to run the pace that I expected them to run for 24 miles. Instead of accepting my fate and enjoying the day I yelled at my body, slammed gels and prayed for something to change. Even with these efforts, I could not get my legs to fire and noticed that all of my stabilizers were incapable of doing their job.

I doubted my body the whole way, not because I cannot run 24 miles but because I was not running it the way I wanted. I lost the value of the experience brainstorming ways to try to fix a situation that was not broken. My body was doing what it could, which was to carry me the distance. It was uncomfortable doing it and needed to go about the effort at a sustainable pace that would not tweak any brewing injuries. However, when I got to the final downhill, my favorite type of switchback, I was determined to finish strong. I could hear the crowd and channeled my sprinting days as I turned the last corner.

Then everything turned black as I crashed to the ground harder than I ever have before. My calf muscles seized and I let out the most embarrassing scream that I could muster up. I looked up to see the RD heading towards me and all that I wanted to do was crawl under the vegetation surrounding me. Instead I got up, tried walking, then jogging, then stumbling across the finish line. I found the nearest chair to slump over with my head in my hands not knowing exactly what hurt the most. Waves of nausea alternating with shooting pain in my right leg continued for the next couple of hours. I could not put any weight on my leg and tried my best to hide from all of the other competitors asking me if I was okay. The struggle of my race was now a distant thought because the fear of injury had taken over.

Fortunately, I am not injured. I had to take some down time because of a fairly large hematoma on my upper thigh/hip area.  More importantly, I learned another lesson in my 20 year career as a runner. My body needed more rest and it certainly was not ready to challenge the local speedsters for nearly a marathon. I had the gift of a morning on beautiful trails with a wonderful community and I failed to appreciate the moment. I tried to will myself to do something that my body was not capable of and the result was a close call with a long term injury. My body is strong, capable and has carried me through so much in my lifetime and I need to trust what it is telling me and stop being so damn stubborn.

So as much as we all enjoy challenging our physical limits we also need to relish in just simply being able to move. I believe that intuitive training and racing takes years to develop, yet even veteran athletes can make the mistake of pushing too hard. I encourage all of my athletes to know their bodies, which really means knowing when to hit the gas and at times when to chill in cruise control.

Silent Grind

I have been intentionally quiet for the last couple of months because sometimes you just need to lower your head and get shit done. It seems that the spring is always a bit chaotic, which may be because I am an educator, but probably has more to do with the fact that we always seem to be making some major life change. This year it was another move that came right in the midst of what should have been a dedicated training block. The move meant that I had to become a power lifter over night and manage the emotional toll moving can have on a family of five. Living in between two houses for a few weeks spending endless hours scrubbing baseboards and shower doors does not make for an ideal training environment. However, I made the most of what I had and managed to get in a few hours each weekend working on my weaknesses and using each minute as a reprieve from the stress of life.

When I registered for the Bighorn 100 in January I had a vision of long training days in the mountains filled with epic ascents and tired legs. Ha, well mother nature had another plan and I didn’t see the trails until a few weeks before the race. Leading up to the spring I embraced a cold, long winter that left me alone many mornings braving the conditions. I know that those challenging mornings built the strength and resolve that I would need on an all day journey.

The week before the race I finished out the school year, did last minute cleaning on our rental and traveled to and from MI for a wedding all while experiencing excruciating back and neck pain. In the back of my mind doubt crept in as I compared my training to those of others and reflected on two previous DNF’s at the distance. I also hadn’t raced since September and felt like I had more than a few cobwebs in my legs. However, I kept reminding myself that my only goal was to finish and that it was going to be a silent grind most of the way, much like my training. I also thought about the loss of Gabe Grunewald and the tremendous impact that she had on so many of us around the world. I found myself mourning the loss of someone who I had never met, but looked up to as a light of positivity. She wasn’t given a lot of choice in the last ten years of her life, yet she showed up everyday fighting to live while running with an infectious smile. I had the choice to run Bighorn, which I could now see as a gift and I owed it to those out on the course to wear the same smile that Gabe did.

The day before the race came with some stress, nerves and fatigue that was exasperated by my seasonal allergies. I am a very early morning person but found myself relieved to have a 9am start and to see some familiar faces loading the busses. The first 30 or so miles went so quickly and I owe that to meeting a new friend, Khris, at mile 8. We ended up running the entire race together after meeting assuring that we both got that buckle at the end. This was special to me because in addition to wanting to finish, I also wanted to connect more with a community that fills me heart and spirit up. I could go into many details about this race, especially since it took me a little over 29 hrs to finish, but my biggest takeaway is gratitude. I appreciated every minute of this race and was almost saddened to see the finish line. I didn’t experience the expected silent grind (Khris is quite the talker!), as the course was filled with both natural sound and the voices of an endearing community.

I have learned so much about myself and life in the last couple of months as I have spent more time being present and less time worrying about things that do not matter. I am not sure if I will ever train optimally for a race or if life will ever become simpler, but I do know that I will never take for granted the start of a new day and the choice to keep on running.

Transitions

Despite the strain of moving this past summer, I found that I had a lot of time to think and reflect on my past. There was a period of time where I felt like I was either so present or incredibly stressed because I seem to remember every single minute detail, especially related to my emotional experiences. It was 1999 and I had just graduated from Villanova where I had played soccer for four years, which most of you who read my blogs already know.

I spent most of my childhood engaged in structured sports and really gravitated and excelled at both soccer and basketball. My true passion was basketball, but I seemed to have more luck with soccer. In between my junior and senior year of high school I slipped on my front lawn and broke my elbow. It could not have been any worse timing as I was supposed to attend recruiting camps and was playing on a team that would allow me to get more exposure with recruiters. I was devastated and a non compliant patient who shed the cast as soon as I could. I did not have enough time to rehab the elbow, which happened to be on my shooting arm, so when it came time for camp and other crucial games I fell short of the level I was trying to perform at.

For a variety of reasons, which I do not need to identify, basketball did not work out for me. However, I could not shift from the fixation of playing Division 1 sports. In fact, when this dream seemed fleeting I considered a post graduate year at another prep school. Fortunately, soccer was still in my life and opened doors that I tried to close. I ended up where I needed to be and do not regret at all my decision to attend Villanova or playing soccer. I had a healthy four years filled with a lot of playing time and relationships with teammates who I hold in the highest regard. I was beyond blessed and by no means prepared for what would come when I graduated.

After the fall season of my senior year, I did my fair share of letting lose before I settled in to the spring semester. I had changed my major from Comprehensive Science to Psychology at the end of my sophomore year letting go of my other dream to be a doctor. During my senior spring I took several Psychology classes with the plan to attend graduate school after I gained some work experience. I had a plan, but a it was murky and not very realistic. I spent the summer after graduation working at a therapeutic camp in New Hampshire. I thought this opportunity would lead to a position in the Boston area working with struggling youth. That summer I learned the hard way that I was doing really hard work that made me feel pretty traumatized for less than minimum wage. I returned home thinking WTF I am I doing and experienced that very vivid existential crisis.

See, when I went to college I was more focused on performing on the field than in the classroom because I was afraid to lose my scholarship (which was a partial one). I wanted to remain a science major, but the labs were killing me because I missed so many classes with our travel schedule. When I went into psychology I thought I would immediately transition into graduate school, yet my two years as a science major ruined my GPA and chances of getting into a doctoral program. I am not making excuses because I am fully aware of the fact that my partying also was an issue here too. In any event, the narrow focus that I had did not lend itself well to transitioning my skills to the workforce. I was a dedicated, hard working athlete who exuded confidence on the field, yet who never believed in herself elsewhere. I was playing the highest collegiate level of soccer and then nothing but a huge sense of loss.

It seemed that my peers were able to make this transition better than I could, which I attribute to my personality. I am an intense athlete, but that trait is truly compartmentalized. I could not figure out why I did not get the message or the tutorial on how to do real life, so I felt like an absolute piece of shit. There is so much support for collegiate athletes when they are playing, but once their last season is done all of those supports tend to dissipate. One second you feel like a hot commodity and then a short four years later you are considered stale toast.

So, why am I writing about this especially on my coaching blog? It is because I believe that running saved me. The day that I had a meltdown in September 1999 was the day I started to make decisions about my life and also committed to training for a marathon. I determined that I needed to feel like an athlete everyday to carry the same mindset that I had in college. I knew that if I was working towards an athletic goal that I could thwart off the dark thoughts that crept in my mind about my self worth. I realized that I could quiet the self doubt and open the creative thinking on my daily runs, while also feeling like myself…. an athlete.

I created my business name because each and everyday I become more self aware when I am out running. I use each step as a place of self discovery and also to bring clarity to my life’s work. I am telling you this story not only to emphasize the benefits of running, but also because I am constantly thinking about the other Jeanne Hennessy’s transitioning out of the collegiate or professional ranks. Who is there to support these stellar individuals who possess traits that can never be taught and which are well developed over the course of decades? I think about former athletes suffering from anxiety, depression and substance abuse as a result of grieving the loss of sport or their identity as an athlete. I cannot say if any of them are reading my blog or are interested in a running coach, but I do hope that some day Cooper’s Conscious Steps becomes a resource for these athletes and can help them transition the drive and passion they have for sport into their career and/or personal lives.

Body Image

In a previous blog, I mentioned an unhealthy relationship with food that I had early in my running career. I did not go into too much detail because it was not the focus of the blog or my intention to fully disclose my past. However, as I read more pieces written by athletes about disordered eating I felt compelled to share. Yes, my disordered eating patterns may have took my family and friends by surprise, but they were brewing like a strong cup of coffee for many years beforehand. I hate to say this, but it just took a long time for me to find the willpower to break up with my love of food. Fucked up to admit, but true.

I try hard to take full responsibility for my actions and when it comes to my eating issues they were mine. However, I know that there were comments made throughout my life that had an impact on how I viewed my body. There is a possibility that I misinterpreted these comments and was overly sensitive, but the fact of the matter is that I used them as motivation to become thin. I have been 5 “10′ since I was a freshman in high school, which served me well as a soccer goalie and basketball player. I felt a bit awkward in social settings, insecure with my larger frame and how I towered over alot of boys my age. However, I could always retreat to the field or the court to lose myself in the game; appreciating the functional body that excelled in sports. A couple of times my senior year of high school I heard people say negative things about my appearance, which really destroyed my self esteem but managed to not change any behavior.

Throughout college my weight fluctuated depending on how much I drank, which was often way too much. During soccer season the weight dropped off due to conditioning (how I miss 120’s) and having less time to party. By the second semester of my senior year, I was over the party scene, scared of my relationship with alcohol and more committed to my health than ever before. I made the goal to run a marathon even though I was too embarrassed to share it publicly. Following graduation from college I moved back home and had no clear direction in life, yet became fixated on the notion of running a marathon. I remember watching the Boston marathon and envisioning myself with the leaders but not in the physical form that I was currently sporting. Instead I saw myself much thinner and enviable to my peers and all those who had called me the “big girl”. I was relentless with my quest to prove that I could alter my body in a way to resemble the elite marathoners that I watched on the television. As you can imagine, my ignorant approach landed me in the orthopedics office with severe patellar tendonitis in addition to other injuries. The day I went in to see the doctor, which happened to be my birthday, he greeted me with, “aren’t you carrying too much weight to be a runner?” I can still remember the sensations that went through my body as I choked back both rage and tears. My BMI was 20, but this asshole was telling me that I did not fit the runner profile. I was fragile and had already felt like an imposter in the running world, so his words became the catalyst for the change that nearly sunk me.

Doctor Fuckhead was not alone in his opinion of my size. I was shamed by others in the running community both in person and on message boards. I felt the pressure to conform when I stood on the start line and looked around as I outweighed most of the men. I quickly lost a significant amount of weight and created stomach issues in my head to justify my food choices. The more unhealthy I became the more alone I felt. I hated my body. I hated myself. Fortunately, I was saved from the perils of an eating disorder by a wonderful support system who loved me regardless of how fast I ran. They confronted me about what they were seeing, enforced boundaries and helped me develop a healthier relationship with food. I was heading in the right direction, but struggled with my demons, which were mostly in the form of self doubt, for about 10 years.

Then something magical happened.

I was pregnant!

I suffered from amenorrhea for about three years when I restricted my diet the most. I also had ovarian cysts that landed me in the hospital on a couple of occasions. I was told that I may not get pregnant easily or at all and now in the midst of a heavy training block my pee produced two lines. I felt a wave of relief knowing that I could let go of my restrictive ways and allow my body to grow a baby. It sounded so easy, yet in reality I struggled. I had a challenging pregnancy that put me on bed rest around 31 weeks. I gained roughly 50lbs, but because I asked to be weighed backwards due to shame I could not tell you for sure. I was so uncomfortable in my body and kept praying that my baby would arrive early so that I could resume training. I realize that my thinking was selfish, but I do not find it beneficial to hide the truth. I was bombarded with women telling me how wonderful pregnancy was and I simply could not relate to them. At 38 weeks, I went into labor and it was ugly, like really really ugly. My labor started on a Saturday night and my daughter was born on Tuesday right before noon. It was by far the hardest physical endeavor to date and truly incredible. As I brought my baby girl to my chest, I announced that I would stay pregnant for 10 years to experience that moment of love all over again. Yes, I was high on the natural endorphins that can flood your brain post delivery, but I finally was able to truly appreciate my body not only for what it was but how it allowed me to bring this little being into the world.

There have been moments of self loathing over the last nine plus years and every time I start to go to that negative place in my  head I think about the three amazing creatures that my body made. There is nothing in the world that I wouldn’t do for them and I feel an immense sense of gratitude to be a mother. I also have the responsibility to raise my children to love their bodies and how they function. I want them to grow up looking in the mirror only to remind themselves how much value they bring to this world. I never want anything anyone says to them about the way that they look affect them so much that they neglect a basic need such as food. I want them to continue exploring physical activities that empower them, instead of placing them in a box created by other people’s ideals.  I will be honest with them if they ask about my past but I will never ever say anything negative about my body in front of them because if it wasn’t for my body they would not be here.

I am sharing this blog for other athletes who may be using running as a weight loss tool when they do not need to lose weight. I did not start running with the goal to get skinny, but a combination of low self esteem and a desire to fit in caused me to make choices that I am not proud of because of the pain they caused me and others around me. I realize that I have left out pieces of my story, some of them I am not ready to share and there are other parts that I have let go. If you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating or a diagnosed eating disorder please reach out and get the help that you need. Our bodies are amazing vehicles that are capable of so much when treated with love and admiration.

Fear

I have tried to write this blog for a few weeks, but it has been a challenge to capture my thoughts around the topic of fear. I referenced fear when I publicly shared this blog, but neglected to provide much context aside from confronting my fears. In the last year, I have made several life changes that impact all areas of my life. To say that I fully jumped into a life change would be putting it somewhat mildly. Most of these changes have been for the better and I have been fortunate that things have gone relatively smoothly. However, I would be remiss by not admitting that I have days and nights filled with fears that I cannot ignore.

Ironically, it has not been the major life changes that are most pronounced, but rather the simple shifts that have caused the most fear for me recently. Writing this blog has been a tremendous fear inducing experience. I have been wanting to write a blog since blogs became relevant and it has taken me this long to do so. This fear is not unfounded but goes back to my early years in high school when I had two teachers who scrutinized my writing and intellect regularly. I have two graduate degrees that required a significant amount of writing, yet I still can’t shake the notion of being inept. I wish it took me a lot less time to work through the self-doubt created when I was 14, but here I am finally facing my fear with writing.

In addition to writing, I also struggle with self promotion, especially in a public forum. I have no fear when I go into interviews, in fact I enjoy them! However, when it comes to selling myself on the internet I start to panic and question my approach. I have no doubts in my ability to be an effective coach or guide other individuals through this wonderful thing called life. However, when I am told to share my site, make myself a product, push notifications, etc. I want to close my laptop. I am not someone who enjoys the spotlight and also feel that I am being a bit inauthentic advertising myself through technology when I believe the reason for hiring a coach is to get an individualized plan that is derived from the connection between a coach and an athlete.

This topic is going to lead to another self disclosure because I fear being perceived inaccurately, especially by those of you who are interested in working with me. If you are looking for a coach with a strong online presence or influence then I can direct you towards a better resource. If you are seeking someone who has been a student of the sport for twenty years alongside raising a family and managing a career then I am your person. If you need a coach who is relatable, accessible and who can empathize with the challenges of life then look no further. I want you to invest in someone who truly cares about your progress and takes responsibility for your failures, which is what I will always do. I owe it to everybody who is apart of my life to get the real version of me, especially my athletes.

Time Management

Often times when I tell other people, particularly those close to my age, that I am a distance runner I hear a few common things. Sometimes, it is a straight up, “I hate running how can you do it so much?”, other times I get asked how my body holds up, but mostly I hear “how do you find the time?”. The idea of being too busy to run is not far fetched for many people including myself. However, lack of time may really be an excuse to avoid the impending pain that will occur when you start to push you body outside of its comfort. I have been a runner for two decades and aside from illness and pregnancy I have been able to carve out time to run regularly. Sure, I am not able to do back to back long runs, tag multiple peaks, choose the best training locations or finish up my runs with brunch at a trendy cafe. However, I make the daily commitment just like I do to shower (except when camping) because running benefits me in so many ways beyond just being race fit.

I found it really funny that my older two children recognized the psychological benefits of running about the same time they learned to speak. They could tell immediately on our way to school/daycare if I had ran. Somehow, they sensed the tension in the air when my daily fix was neglected. I struggled with rest days even before I had them, but now I am truly aware of how my mood is impacted by the natural endorphins and time spent outside. This time may be as short as 20 minutes and even at times happens on the dreadmill, but the point is that I make it happen. My daily run has different intentions depending on training cycles and whether my other priorities need to take precedent. Running is important to me, but so are other things and especially people!

I like to stay organized in life and try to have as much control on how I spend my time. I believe I do this well, but when it comes to relationships you will find it hard to manage your time with the humans in your life. I cannot tell my child to adjust their needs to fit into a time slot, just like I cannot tell my husband that he gets a five minute snuggle.  Fortunately, I am a morning person and have always enjoyed running first thing in the morning before the light of day shows and the energy of the world changes. When I first started running I felt like I was a step ahead of the rest of the world and somehow this made me feel empowered. Now, I am just relieved to get the run in before my children are awake and I am pulled in twenty directions. I also am lucky that my husband is not a morning person and is never racing me to the door to get the first workout in.

I may be partial but I would suggest to those of you who are very busy and have the responsibility of other humans, to run early. It is so easy to lose time as the day goes on or to lose motivation when every system has been drained. Life happens, but you cannot blame it on interfering with your training because if you make running a priority you will find the time. I firmly believe that starting my day with a run increases my energy and mental acuity, in addition to what I already mentioned about stabilizing my mood. As your coach, I will not tell you when to run but I will encourage you to make it a priority because it will help you in all facets of life. The daily grind does not have to be glamorous or worthy of enviable posts. It just needs to be for you!

 

 

Illness

I have been down and out for about a month now and before I got my diagnosis, the doctor stated, “this just doesn’t make sense because you are so healthy”! Yes, even healthy individuals get sick and as runners we are not immune to illness, especially if our stress levels are elevated due to training or life in general. My recent illness has been one for the books, but a good reminder to be careful with what you ingest on the trails! In any event, my training has taken a major hit just when I felt my motivation return.

Runners are generally a tough group of people who can push through a tremendous amount of pain, as well as illness. However, there is a time when you have to relent and realize that you body needs to recover. I am a terrible patient and always take medical advice with a grain of salt, but for this illness I knew that I had to slow the fuck down. My body could barely keep anything in for nearly four weeks, which made me susceptible to dehydration amongst other concerns. Every time I tried to resume normal activity I found myself back in bed for a solid day. This was not an illness to push through and this damn parasite reminded me everyday that I was no match for its potency. However, there are some illnesses that you can work through, but I would suggest connecting with your health care provider first. I believe that runners are very attuned to their own bodies and if you feel that your illness benefits from some fresh air and movement then go for it, but use those days as easy days. Just like my suggestion in the motivation blog, start with ten minutes and if you start to feel worse turn around and head home.

Now, when it comes to racing I don’t think it is a good idea to race with illness. Even if its a key race, I would suggest having a plan B. It is hard to hold back in a race and the likelihood of worsening your symptoms is very high. I have seen athletes who have raced sick and even have raced well, but it could also be a recipe for disaster. For most illnesses, taking two to three solid days of no running will help fight the illness faster. You will not lose much fitness at all during this time and it far beats being laid up for a few weeks or in my case over a month!