That Time I Ran 18 Miles

Last fall, my sister asked if I wanted to join her yoga studio's Ragnar relay team for a race in June 2015. The details: Park City, Utah + 200 miles in 24 hours.

I had never heard of a Ragnar race before but I said, sure, why not? 

The months flew by, I semi-trained (aka ran whenever I had time to), and then all of sudden I was boarding a plane to Utah to run 18 miles in a new altitude, with new people, in a new city.

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Why not indeed.

We arrived late Wednesday to a rented condo in downtown Park City, and mostly got to know the whole team, talked about our fears and goals for our individual leg distances, and then hit the hay. Thursday kicked off with a hot yoga session, which felt amazing after all that cramped travel on the plane and in the car, and headed out for lunch at a Mexican restaurant (can't remember the name) where we enjoyed drinks, chips and tacos on a patio.

One huge thing about Utah: NO HUMIDITY. Like, it was hot, but you didn't feel as though you were being smothered by a heavy, wet blanket at the same time. I did get a couple of nose bleeds over the course of the weekend, due to the dry air, but for the most part, I loved the lack of humidity.

We spent the remainder of Thursday preparing for Ragnar. While I knew that we would be in vans some of the time going from location to location as part of the race, I didn't realize that we would actually be . . .  living in a van for almost 48 hours. Hence the need for coolers chock full of Gatorade, coconut water, bottled water; snack bags brimming with almond butter and raspberry jam sandwiches, trail mix, granola bars, Clif bars, shot blocks (basically gummy, sugary energy bites --  gross yet effective), pretzels, apples, bananas, etc; bags with changes of clothes and pillows and blankets and extra shoes and race belts and reflective vests and hats and sunglasses; printed directions for when cell service disappeared in the mountains . . . you get the idea.

Thank God I only had to show up and run. The team at the yoga studio was incredible -- they rented the house, collected the money, scheduled the vans, assigned the runners, handled registration, bought food and drinks to cover all dietary needs and desires, and much more. 

Friday morning, my sister and I walked to grab coffee from Main Street, which is the core area of Park City, super quaint, and fairly hilly. The views, of course, are beautiful, and it serves as a neat area to walk through all kinds of boutiques, stores and restaurants. We went to Atticus almost every day during the trip and picked up iced coffee (their fruity iced tea was also outstanding), but also tried some neat nitro brewed coffee at a sweet dog-themed place called Hugo.

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Then we were off! After an almost two-hour drive north to Logan, UT, we found the starting line and hung around until our first runner, my sister, began. Interesting fact about Ragnar: teams start at various times on the first day depending on their collective pace; our time was 11 a.m. but teams started as early as 7 a.m., which meant that there were probably only 75 or so other people there with us at the starting line. So if you imagine a big crowd, as with a marathon or half (or pretty much any other race), it was kind of the opposite: a small group of runners with folks cheering from the sidelines.

Liv kicked things off with six miles, and our team hopped in the Explorer to travel alongside her. Following along in the van became absolutely essential during each runner's leg -- the temperature quickly rose to 92 degrees, and everybody needed constant encouragement and most importantly, WATER, nonstop. When we reached the first exchange and started watching runners come in, they all had the same look on their face: "That was so hard, and so hot." Many runners flopped on the grass to exclaim their gratefulness that it was over, red faces and all. 

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Our next runner went, and killed it since he was super fast, and then it was my turn as runner three. Seven miles -- not an easy-peasy distance by any means but one I'd accomplished back in Iowa multiple times. I became almost immediately humbled by the heat and direct sunlight and straight roads. I'm a runner who needs constant distraction: music, water, hills, turns, scenery, shade, anything to get my mind off the fact that I'm running until I hit a groove. This particular run? No trees for shade. Minimal turns, which had me feeling like I was running with no end ever in sight. Spotty wi-fi service and a cell phone battery depleting faster than I anticipated.

But the scenery? Stunning.

I felt incredibly grateful for my teammates, who kept stopping every two miles or so to offer water and words of enthusiasm, and I picked up my speed slightly toward the end when I realized my phone was definitely going to die if I didn't get moving. 

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Once I finished, our next three runners went in order: up mountains, down dusty red paths, through tree-lined gravel roads. Then we had about a six hour break while the other van, and other half of our team, started their first leg. Our downtime included showering, resting in the cool grass, dinner, a quick nap, and then before we knew it, it was midnight and our second leg set to begin.

I had thought that I would sleep while the first few nighttime runners ran, but the exact opposite happened. Honestly, the overnight running turned into one of the best parts of the entire race. The temperature dropped quite a bit, which made a world of difference. I personally prefer running when it is 60/65 degrees or lower, and so at 55 degrees, it was perfect! 

I had two fears about late night running: 1) that I would get lost, 2) that I would be afraid in the dark. Neither occurred. A van, either your team's or someone else's, was pretty much always visible ahead or behind you, and just as we did during the day, we kept pulling off to check on our runners and make sure all was well. That's why I ended up not sleeping much more than an hour -- my sister was the first nighttime runner, and I really wanted to cheer her on and follow along to check in. By the time my route rolled around, I felt wide awake, and took off at a clipped pace feeling like a million bucks. Even as a giant hill rolled around, I felt full of energy and excitement. It was so quiet and peaceful running by a lake, with only the sound of your footsteps pounding the ground. (Note: runners on our other team had many more experiences with wildlife and feeling more scared/lost, so it depends on the route, I think.)

More downhill running had me feeling crazy fast, and then, it was all uphill. For the rest of the run. It didn't help that my leg was 0.5 longer than the map originally said. Trust me, half a mile feels like forever when you thought you were technically done! Again, thank goodness for my team encouraging me from the side of the road, because running up, and up, and up for 2.5 miles was so challenging. 

Still, it was over before I knew it, and by the time the next two runners powered through, daylight broke to show us the most incredible views.

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(Yes, we put a Go Pro on the hood of the car. Seemed like a good idea at the time.)

We finished our 2nd set of legs around 7:30 a.m., and the other van took off. Around this time, we realized that we didn't have that much time in between our 2nd and 3rd legs -- partly because the other group of runners were collectively a little faster, but also because their 2nd set of legs distance-wise was slightly shorter. After a group conversation, and in talking to other teams plus some of the race officials, we decided to start our 3rd leg at the same time: both vans would begin running, in the hopes that we would be able to finish by 6 p.m.

Now, nobody on our team was running for time, but we had all indeed been running for almost 48 hours -- and we wanted to be able to enjoy our Saturday night! The thought of not being done until 9 p.m. made everyone cringe. Due to the heat, multiple teams were behind schedule, and so this recommendation was widely distributed to anyone not running for time. I'm so, so, SO glad we did this and finished at a reasonable hour.

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Luckily, the 2nd leg ended fairly close to Park City, so we were able to run back to the condo, shower, eat and take a quick hour-long nap before carrying on with the race. This break was CRUCIAL for my mental game -- I was totally reaching that "this sucks, I don't wanna doooooo this anymore" moment and it felt so good to refresh and reset before finishing strong.

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We began again around 11 a.m., and our new conditions meant that the first few runners would essentially start at the same time. It ended up being another incredibly H-O-T day. My last run was also my longest run, more than 8.5 miles. It started off entirely uphill and on concrete (fun), again in broad daylight with barely any shade; however, the first mile also went through a golf course at the very top of aforementioned hill. I kept my mind distracted by thoughts of "Is this the golf course for the rich and famous of Park City? What is it like to golf on top of a giant hill? Do a lot of balls get lost?" And so on. Really important questions, I know.

The next two-thirds of my route consisted of running up a mountainside, and then back down the other side, all on a rocky, bumpy trail. I walked off and on quite frequently during this leg, mostly because I was nervous I would sprain my ankle on a rock or trip and fall off the side of the mountain. Ha. Yet again, the views were outstanding, and the higher I ran, the more I felt motivated to reach the top and see the sparkling blue lakes, the snow-capped peaks and valleys, and the greenery stretching as far as my eye could reach.

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Ahh. So gorgeous! I remember feeling very triumphant at this point, and glad to only have a few downhill miles left before being done, done, DONE! 

Of course, those last miles ended up being the longest miles of my entire life. I'm not kidding. My shins screamed due to the sharp decline, my mind was over it, and again -- no water, no shade, no nothing in sight except the beautiful views I just mentioned. Which, I mean they were beautiful, but I had started to feel so tired and hot that the novelty wore off fast. Luckily, I saw my sister and another teammate in the distance, waving a water bottle at me; they had brought me ice cold water and a wet towel to put on my neck. Sweet relief. They also informed me that I only had a mile left, which revved my engines to finish strong.

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We picked up the rest of our crew, all equally hot and sweaty and sick of running, and headed back to the condo for a quick shower before meeting up with the other half of our team at the finish line.

Amidst a huge crowd, we inched our way to the giant Ragnar balloon indicating the conclusion of the race, and waited in the bright sunshine for our last runner to come through. I have to admit that this took a while, but it couldn't have felt as long as it did for the runner to make it through 6 miles in 95 degrees at 5 p.m. after already running 10 or so miles. Yuck.

We finished with cheers and claps, and felt so proud of ourselves. As a whole, we collectively ran almost 200 miles in less than 48 hours!

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Go Team Downward Dog!

I learned so much about myself  by participating in Ragnar, namely, that I'm stronger than I think, both mentally and physically. The race also reminded me that team support makes a significant difference in terms of experience and attitude. I've always been a casual runner, but running so many miles in a different location showed me that moving by foot in an unusual environment allows you to see things you never would have otherwise. There's nothing quite like it.

Traveling to new places continues to be a top priority for me. For all the people who asked me, "Why go to Utah to run?" Well, why not? I love to challenge myself with new opportunities to do something I've never done before, and go to places I've not seen before. The world is a big place, and I'd like to see as much of it as possible. 

What's your currency?

My entire life, people have told me that I'm pretty.

But like Beyoncé says, pretty hurts, and it took me a long time to realize the impact of hearing such well-intentioned, yet destructive, words. It's true -- for years, I've been told that I am cute and pretty and beautiful and lovely in terms of my physical appearance.

And for years, good looks became my thing.

The thing I could control. Being pretty meant attention. It meant feeling important and valuable. I learned rather quickly that being attractive led to more smiles, more opportunities, more positive assumptions about my intentions, more getting what I wanted. More, more, more.

I also realized this attention rooted in appearance opened space for manipulation, hollowness, and miscommunication. 

I started to notice that being beautiful often meant I could get away with behaving however I wanted, however poorly, which led to unhealthy power balances and a lack of integrity. Nobody ever thinks that the sweet, pretty girl will lie, right? I started to feel incredibly insecure, always wondering if people liked me for me. In relationships, I constantly stressed about being a "trophy" girlfriend -- but I also desperately wanted to BE that prize for someone -- which resulted in a substantial fear of commitment. I worried that I would only be loved, known or accepted . . . as long as I was deemed attractive. This concept dug its nails into my developing perfectionism, and boy, did it do a number on me.

The more compliments people paid me, the higher my self-esteem rose, and the more emphasis I put on my appearance: being thin, wearing makeup, always smiling, perfectly kept hair, great style, white teeth. The media, as it does for all women, continued to hammer these thoughts into my brain, and I listened, taking all of it to heart.

You see, when you're pretty, you don't have to be brave. You let your looks open all the doors, and you settle for a lot less than you deserve. Beauty becomes something to be traded and used and micro-managed.

In college, things started to escalate. I still got good grades, but all of a sudden, classes became more challenging. I had a few part-time jobs, but student loans started to build up, causing great stress and anxiety. I gained the freshman 15 I swore I wouldn't, which led to late night hours on the elliptical machine; because I ate so little during the day, I snuck fast food in the evenings, and even (to my great shame) forced myself to throw up a few times to destroy the evidence.

Then I graduated, moved to Chicago for a new job downtown, went through three heart-wrenching break-ups in the span of three years, and finished a full-time graduate program at a top university. I said yes, and yes, and yes, to everything, until it all came crashing down.

When I ended my engagement to my college boyfriend, I felt so alone, for the very first time, as if my security blanket had been ripped out from underneath me. I knew it was the right decision, but it didn't make it easier, and I threw myself into other relationships, work, and school.

Mostly, I kept trying to be perfect and beautiful . . . because that's what had always worked for me. 

When the next guy informed me that he "preferred girls who are almost anorexic, but not sick, just extremely skinny," I stopped eating lunch. I didn't  need it, I reasoned, and besides, I was always rushing between class and work anyway. The pounds started to slip away, and I felt light as a feather -- so light, in fact, that when the same boyfriend became controlling and obsessive about our relationship, the damage seemed miles away.

When another man whom I adored, and I thought I was dating, started secretly seeing a friend of mine, my heart filled with rage. I was prettier than her! I thought. Why would he choose her? I wondered, filling the pages of my journal with frustration.

Even now, I can remember precisely that sick one-two punch of rejection, that powerful feeling of not being good enough. 

When my grad school professor gently noted that it didn't seem like I wanted to pursue a PhD, I strode ahead with applications, desperate to prove to others that I was not only pretty, but smart as well.

That's the double-whammy, or so says our society. It's not enough to be just good-looking, you've got to be wildly intelligent, wealthy, thin, funny, successful, the whole shebang.

When my therapist asked if I ever thought about hurting myself, and I paused before answering that no, I would never -- that's when I knew something was really, really wrong.

So I cut out the toxic relationships. I stopped dating. I acknowledged that I was too thin and fairly depressed. I quit skipping meals. I let my family help me. I moved to a new city for a new job. I stopped spending an hour getting ready for work each morning. I started to think hard about my own self-worth, my priorities, my values, my dreams. I wondered how my heart and soul had drifted so far away from my body and mind.

It took three years to rid myself of the belief that being pretty mattered most. Three years of a healthy relationship (for once) and a stable environment led to new freedom to consider what actually filled me up and made me feel whole. Turns out, it wasn't being beautiful or perfect.

For the first time in my life, I began to worry less about what I looked like, and focus more on what I felt like.

Writing and yoga helped immensely over time. A stable environment and a healthy relationship also served as a salve. But it wasn't until I picked up Yes Please by Amy Poehler this year that I finally found the words to talk about this experience of obsessing over appearance.

I assumed I would like her memoir -- after all, I think Poehler is absolutely hilarious, and her comedy work continues to break down barriers for women everywhere. (Also, she and Tina Fey are just the absolute best together and I want them to host all award shows ALWAYS.)

But Yes Please resonated with me in a major way due to one quote about deciding one's currency.  Poehler talks about not feeling pretty as a young girl, and how after a certain point, she decided that being funny would be her currency. Instead of trying to get people to think she was beautiful, she only wanted them to think she was hilarious. That became her goal, her career, her core sense of identity.

I love this idea. For so many years, I truly believed that being beautiful was my only currency. It led to a lot of physical, emotional and psychological damage that took years to repair. The worst part? I still feel hesitation about sharing my experiences because I am embarrassed and ashamed. I feel like it was my fault, and it shouldn't have happened. I'm intelligent, and I've experienced no major trauma or tragedy, and I have a loving family and plenty of privilege.

In other words, I'm just like thousands of women out there who don't have a "reason" to experience disordered eating or depression, and yet, I did.

I'm thankful, because even though it was really bad, it could have been much worse. I managed to clean up my destructive eating behaviors without delving into having a more serious disorder; I felt able to change my negative mental patterns about worth over time through yoga, church and friendships. But when I heard Poehler talk about deciding one's currency, I remembered my years of struggle around external validation and appearance.

One of my strongest memories from childhood is hearing my mother say,

"Honey, you are so beautiful, but remember that beauty fades. It can always be taken away from you. You could get into an accident tomorrow or get sick and your beauty could disappear, at least in the way you know it. So make sure you stay pretty on the inside for the long run."

I didn't know I had misunderstood her. She meant that beauty is enjoyable and fun, but not the most important trait. I thought she meant I should protect my beauty at all costs, because it is THE most important thing about me. I was wrong.

I know now that beauty is a bonus. It's nice to get a compliment about your appearance. It's great and fine to want to look good, or get in shape, or lose weight, or gain muscle. It's fun to delight over a fantastic outfit and revel in a long run or hot yoga class.

However, looks are no longer my currency. It pains me to remember how much time and energy I spent, I wasted, on believing otherwise.

I'm grateful to shift to such a mindset, but others remain locked into the idea that appearance matters most. "Thinspiration" and "pro-ana [anorexia]" abounds on social media sites. 24 million people in the U.S. suffer from an eating disorder, and about 85-90% of them are women. Anorexia is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents, and over half of teenage girls participate in unhealthy eating behaviors without ever being diagnosed. 81% of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat. 50% of people diagnosed with eating disorders experience depression to varying degrees, and 70% of antidepressant prescriptions are given to women. (Source)

This emphasis on beauty, on appearance -- it's killing us. Literally.

This is why I support movements like #AskHerMore and Lisa Bloom's work on talking to little girls about ideas rather than looks. This is why I continue to adore outspoken women in today's media landscape who are making a difference and speaking loudly when it comes to portraying real, diverse women on screens -- Amy Poehler and Lena Dunham and Mindy Kaling and Shonda Rhimes and Tiny Fey and Amy Schumer -- creatives who are challenging the lie that all women need to be thin, beautiful, white, polite and perfect. This is why I appreciate the honesty of blogs like Choosing Raw and Momastery and so many more.

What makes me feel happy and sexy nowadays is no longer a flat tummy or size zero jeans or curled lashes or the adoring gaze of strangers. All of that is just temporary, anyway. Sometimes I forget that truth, but I always remember.

I feel happy when I see the smiles on my parents' faces, when I hug my sisters, when I take my dog on a walk, when I write these blog posts and write anything at all, when I walk into the yoga studio, when I feel fed and rested and not too busy. I feel sexy when I'm jotting down essay ideas, when I try something new, when I go outside of my comfort zone, when I tell the truth about what I want and need from someone, when I invite connection, growth and intimacy into my life.

And even on the days when I feel happy and sexy, I still have moments of feeling sad, or confused, or angry, or jealous, or anxious, or scared.

I just don't turn to my appearance and try to "fix" myself as a distraction from feeling my full range of emotions as a human being.

I strive to be smart, or kind, or generous, or thoughtful, or creative, or reliable, or honest, or funny like Poehler. And if someone tells me I am beautiful, I say "Thank you," and carry on being my best, brightest self. 

Hard leads to soft.

I went for a five-mile run around Gray's Lake yesterday, mostly because I had spent the majority of the day thus far watching House of Cards.

During the first season, I mostly felt shocked by Frank's "how low will he go" bad behavior, and Claire seemed like his perfect, smart trophy wife who ran her own version of manipulation behind the scenes. All true.

This time around, even though the politics are ridiculous and many reviewers are calling it the worst season ever of the show, I am loving the character development of Frank and Claire. I mean, how is it possible to have even an ounce of compassion for Frank? And yet, I had moments of feeling . . . sorry for him. (I know.) I remain incredibly intrigued by Claire, and I think her storyline is almost more important than anyone else on the show right now. Robin Wright is such an amazing actress, and nails the role of Claire perfectly: the icy good looks, the lack of a smile, the warm candor that turns on like a lightswitch.

Not to mention the fact that girlfriend's got an awesome wardrobe, one I like even a bit more than Olivia Pope's; they both aim for the structured, classic look with plenty of pastels and pencil skirts, but there's a difference. In Scandal, Olivia confidently dresses the way she prefers, the way that showcases her beauty as a mark of competence. By contrast, Claire plays a role -- the beautiful First Lady with impeccable taste and great shoes, to be sure -- and it's one that seems removed from her real self.

Within a single episode, Claire can be warm, friendly, inviting -- and then all of a sudden sharp, restrained, dignified. She goes from hard to soft in an instant. There's one scene about midway through the season wherein she stands and gazes offscreen while Frank and another president negotiate in the background. The two men are a blur, but the camera lingers on Claire for almost a full minute, as she stands with crystal clear blue eyes full of loss and grief and anger and steely determination. 

IT'S SO GOOD.

I also went for a run yesterday because my sister and I are participating in a Ragnar relay in Park City, Utah this June. Know what a Ragnar race is? I didn't, either. It's basically a long, intense relay in various locations throughout the U.S. where you run a collective 200 miles as part of a team over the course of 24 hours.

200 miles? Overnight? Why the hell am I doing this?

Look at that view!

Also, I don't know, ha.  I am 100% a fair-weather runner, but my sister asked and I thought, why not!? Lately I am all about traveling and new experiences and saying yes to new things, so it should be an interesting experience.

I definitely need to get new running shoes, because for this race, I'll be running 16 miles total, split across three different portions. My training plan starts later this month, and though I went on a lovely 4-mile run last weekend in LA (looking at all the crazy homes in Beverly Hills, to boot), I haven't really ran since like, Christmas. And I don't want to injure myself. And I hear there is elevation, so . . . we will see how this goes.

And finally, the sunshine and 55 degrees meant I felt morally obligated to get outside. 

My feet pounded the pavement, earbuds ringing with melodies, and every time I passed a fellow walker or runner, we exchanged a smile. Because we all live in the Midwest, which means we are part of a special club. The "we've made it through winter, thank God!" club. The "if it's 40 degrees out, socks are optional!" club. The "SPRING IS HERE!!!!!!!!!!!" club.

Being in this club is one of my favorite parts of living in Iowa, of living through four complete seasons of weather. As often as I think about moving to California or anyplace with year-run sun, part of me enjoys experiencing each spring, fall, winter and summer to the fullest, over and over over, since it reflects the cycle of life as a whole. The moment I get sick of a season, we're on the brink of another, and I am reminded that not everything lasts forever.

Yes, winters always feel incredibly long and cold and quiet. That's why on a 55-degree day in March people spring out their doors with no jacket for the feeling of sunshine on their face and the sound of birds chirping.

Because we know what it's like to go outside in the dead of winter, look up at a black sky gleaming with stars, and revel in the eerie quietness while gazing at drifts of pure, white snow.

I do like winter; it can be beautiful, and the holidays make it special. But the dark and cold wear you down, leaving you desperate for the newness of spring, when everything can change and be made different again. Spring brings forth enticing possibility, and the promise of hot, lazy summer days with calmer schedules and late sunsets and cold beers outside in plush grass.

Running five miles yesterday felt extremely hard and slow, just like winter crept along in a challenging way. But as the ice of the lake melted, and the bright blue sky beamed down, I remembered that it will get easier, because "Hard leads to soft."

Just how winter finally, always, does transition to spring, all hard things soften with time.