The Lemonade Stand: Baby’s First Runbirthday

“You can spend days, weeks, months, or even years sitting alone in the darkness, over-analyzing a situation from the past, trying to put the pieces together, justifying what could have or should have happened. Or you can just leave the pieces on the floor behind you and walk outside into the sunlight to get some fresh air.” – Marc Chernoff

On September 5, 2012, I walked out of my apartment a very lost and damaged human being, and took off running down the street towards Who-Gives-A-Fuck; having no clue what the hell I was doing. Roughly 0.2 miles later, I was walking. I was sweating, breathing heavily, and walking slow. When I caught my breath, I started running again. I didn’t know why. I wasn’t a runner. All I knew was that I really wanted to get to Who-Gives-A-Fuck in a hurry. I wanted to get anywhere else as fast as I possibly could. So, if I could run, I did. When I couldn’t run, I walked. But for twenty-something sunny afternoon minutes and almost 1.5 miles, I did not stop.

When I got back to my apartment, sadly having not found the door to that wonderful world of Who-Gives-A-Fuck, something was different. I knew it immediately. I didn’t know what had changed, or what it meant. But I knew I was transformed. And that feeling was indescribable. I was reborn; a new man; right then.

Like any newborn, I didn’t know shit. I was moving on instinct; alone in a world I didn’t recognize and with so much to learn in order to survive in it. I had to grow up. But what did growing up even mean? At the time, it meant trying to find a light in the dark, warmth in the cold, or at least comfort in the absence of both.

I’m still working on that.

Hey, gimme a break. I’m only one.

On September 4, 2012, there was only one thing I knew for sure: I felt like total shit. I had never felt so physically and spiritually suffocated by pain in my life, or more incapable of dealing with that hurt. I was dead. I don’t mean that I was sad and wanted to die. I didn’t. I mean I was already dead; cold; lifeless. The fire: out. The fact that I was even making it through my work day still amazes me. I don’t think I said more than two words to anyone for days, and can’t remember if anyone had spoken to me at all. Dead.

In the days after my rebirth on the road, my new still blurry vision and simple newborn mind was now sure of a staggering two things. 1) When I wasn’t running, I felt like total shit – as described above. 2) When I was running, I didn’t feel like total shit. And with that simple and lone understanding of my new world, I began to run as much as I could.

“Sometimes you have to kind of die inside in order to rise from your own ashes and believe in yourself and love yourself to become a new person.” – Gerard Way

It’s interesting to me looking back at those days because I started tracking my running from day one. I do not know why. I was living entirely on raw impulse. I ate only when my hunger got strong enough to cut through my thick mind-fog. I was drinking water less aware of my need for it, and more because it was the only thing conveniently piped into my home. I slept whenever I was remotely still because why not be asleep. I wasn’t living. But even in my undead zombie-like state I was still marking each run on a calendar on the wall. Eat, drink, sleep, run. The answer is in there somewhere.

100_6694I started putting little check marks on that calendar for every day that I’d run. When I joined a gym two weeks later, I started adding a “G” to the square for each day that I would workout. Seven weeks after my first sloppy trek outside, I started recording the length of each run, and eventually adding the time as well. Without a whole lot of foresight, my numbers-nerd personality was starting to track my pace. Why? No clue.

I didn’t know it at the time, but what I was viewing as a simple activity to ward off a mental breakdown was becoming the first part of a personal experiment in wellness. The foundation of my “Me” experiment was unfolding without my full understanding. I knew running made me feel less shitty. I liked feeling less shitty. So I needed to run more.

“What do I have to do to be able to run more?”

“I have given up many things in this becoming process. None was a sacrifice. When something clearly became nonessential, there was no problem in doing without. And when something clearly became essential, there was no problem accepting it and whatever went with it.” – Dr George Sheehan.

Seeking the answer to that simple question has cascaded into areas I could have never predicted.

For several weeks after my first run, I went out almost every day. And after noting no perceivable improvement in performance, it was time to read. I started with online resources, and within days had purchased my first Runner’s World magazine. Of course, I subscribed immediately after reading it. I researched everything from running form, to proper dietary fueling, to cross training, to strength training. What do I have to do to run more? I wasn’t sure, but I was damn sure going to find out.

I learned that new runners should not run every day; that without rest days, the newbie body cannot recover. And running on sore, overworked muscles leads to injury. Injury means no running. And the idea of not running at the time left me paralyzed with fear. It still does. So, after almost four weeks, I finally started taking regular rest days. Surprise! My running improved.

Those rest days became dedicated cross training days at the gym. I originally joined the gym in case it was raining and I really needed to run. Little did I know that I would rather run outside in the rain or snow than inside on a treadmill. But cycling and weight training at the gym gave me another way to get my blood moving every day. It’s definitely wasn’t running, but in a pinch, a solid workout would even help with that “feeling shitty” thing I deal with. Both running and gym workouts were becoming sweat-meditation; “sweatitation” that I valued greatly. I still do.

As my activity levels continued to increase, my diet became a serious bastard to figure out. I needed to eat more, but I rarely felt hungry and only wanted to eat what I really needed. I had already cut out processed food. If I didn’t know what was in something, I didn’t eat it. I felt better instantly, and had noticeably more energy. In fact, as I’ve kept cutting out this food (meat, pasta, dairy) and adding that one (a lot more whole raw fruits and vegetables), I’ve ended up with an almost vegan diet. And I feel great. I’m running better. I’m getting stronger. And I am recovering faster. Food is supposed to give us energy. It is supposed to make us feel good, not make us want to take a nap.

“Learning about what you’re made of is always time well spent.” – Henry Rollins

Because I was consciously using running and exercise as therapy during that difficult time, I’d obviously become somewhat aware of the connection between physical and mental health. That connection is something that I probably would’ve accepted long before I actually explored the reality of it. It just makes sense to me. And with every step made towards a healthier body I also noted increased occasion of spiritual clarity.

It should be noted that “clarity” is not always a pleasant experience. There is a reason some people seek to numb their perception of themselves. Clearness of vision is sometimes just that break in the clouds we need to see all of the mistakes we’ve made, all of the negative habits we’ve collected, all of the toxic people and practices we’ve allowed to settle into our lives. Seeing these things just created new obstacles to traverse if I’m ever going to become my most authentic and whole self. But I can’t clean up messes I can’t see, so clarity is a positive thing, even if uncomfortable.

As I enjoyed strides towards better physical fitness and continued to research, discover, and experiment with different ways to improve those gains, it became increasingly clear to me that keeping a strong body was not the be-all, end-all solution to mental wellness. I’d experienced the direct connection between the two. But I was only actively working to improve one side of the equation, foolishly assuming that being physically fit would magically drag my spiritual self into a healthier well lighted place as well. It doesn’t work that way. If a strong, well-tuned body was the secret to mental health, then professional athletes would be the most balanced and spiritually centered people on the planet. You won’t have to search the web very long to debunk that idea. Cough, cough…Aaron Hernandez.

The spiritual self needs to be cared for and exercised as much as the physical self. This is an area that I have only recently started to explore. And as I approach this new thing with a beginner’s mind, I’m again researching and finding my way anew. Different people find balance in varying ways. I’ve adopted a daily meditation practice, and so far noticing small but appreciable benefits. I’m a newbie with a ton to learn, but I already feel less stress, calmer of mind, and generally more present. Life seems to move a little smoother and I seem to handle the bumps better. It’s new, and we’ll see how it goes, but I’m going to keep doing it. I think it is going to help me find some kind of balance. It’s the least I can do.

“When I crashed and found the wherewithal to get back on the bike and finish; that was what I learned about myself. If that hadn’t happened and everything had gone perfectly, I certainly wouldn’t have learned as much about myself as I did having to struggle with misfortunate and setbacks.” – Rich Roll

While catching up with a friend way back in February; discussing how my training was going and chatting about some of the other positive changes I was starting to observe, she noted that I may not have made any of those adjustments, or even started running at all, if I hadn’t experienced such a painful loss last year. I quickly replied “It’s lemonade.”

“Huh?”

“It’s the lemonade” I repeated. “My running and working out is lemonade. When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. All of this is just lemonade.”

She was not trying to make light of my feelings or to rationalize the true tragedy of my loss, but instead was simply recognizing it as a catalyst to this new phase in my life.

I don’t care for lemons. I don’t want them in my water at restaurants. And I don’t particularly like lemonade either. But no matter how shitty the realities may be, I refused to continue approaching so many things in my life with the internal negativity I’d ignored (or even embraced) in the past. I would love an occasional cantaloupe or some fresh blueberries, but if those sweet luxuries are not in the cards for me, then I will continue to seek out and develop the world’s greatest lemonade recipe. I might not be able to control a lot of the things that happen around me or even how I feel about those things. But I can certainly control how I respond to the hand I’m dealt.

“The human capacity for burden is like bamboo- far more flexible than you’d ever believe at first glance.” – Jodi Picoult

The human animal is incredibly resilient. No matter how far gone we might think we are, or how low we feel, very few things are unrecoverable. We can lose the weight, learn the new skill, move more weight, prevent and cure diseases, and just fucking feel better if we dedicate our energy to our own wellbeing and focus on our goals. We can do anything.

In the last 12 months, I’ve become healthier than I have ever been. I eat better and exercise more than I ever have. I stopped smoking cigarettes after almost 15 years. Along the way, I’ve gone through three pairs of running shoes. I’ve logged 730 miles on the road, run nine races, including two half-marathons (each under two hours), and I’m in week 14 of my training plan to run my first full marathon later this fall; with bigger plans beyond that. And while I believe that weight is a sometimes distracting and over-celebrated metric in the pursuit of true health, I’ve lost 70 pounds too.

And my run journal is still growing strong as well.

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I’ve made a lot of lifestyle adjustments this year and discovered a confidence in myself that makes my hunger for change even stronger, the slow pace of it even more frustrating, and that frustration can be incredibly distracting. I’m finally learning to make the effort to live in the present, aim at the next step instead of the goal, and accept that stumbling is part of traveling.

Am I still lost? I don’t know. Technically, I know where I am. But the vast majority of the time, I do feel completely out of place in the world. That’s an odd sensation to walk around with every day. But I’ve made my decision in the “yellow wood” of that Robert Frost poem, and I have faith that I’ve chosen wisely. I’m confident that if I continue to run along this healthier path up the mountain, that I’ll eventually find the place where I belong and fill the void that still stings inside of me. The answer is up there somewhere.

Am I still damaged? Eh, I can’t tell anymore. Unfortunately I pick scabs, heal slowly, and wear thick scars. I think I’ve just acclimated to whatever this new grayer feeling is and don’t know how to describe it. I’m not damaged. I guess I more “haunted.” I probably always will be to some extent. It is what it is.

After only one year, I’m not even a toddler in this new healthier lifestyle, but I’m up on my wobbly legs, moving slow, and looking to get into all sorts of shit. Look out world! I’m only going to get faster.

This is one of my favorite songs by my friend Derek Smith. He’s one of those guys that drive negative people nuts with his positivity and general good nature. I like knowing him. And I appreciate that he plays this song for me almost every time I get out to see him live. “I took a gamble on this thing called love. I got just what I paid for, but not what I dreamed of.” I hope to someday look back on this time from wherever my “Best Years” are found and just laugh at my silly ass. Happy Thursday, it’s my rebirthday.

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You Can Do Anything

“Practice is the hardest part of learning, and training is the essence of transformation.” ― Ann Voskamp

Everyone should have a standing weekly taco date. On the way home from mine Wednesday night, a friend and I stopped by our favorite neighborhood pub where we happily ran into some familiar faces enjoying some quality local music talent.

During a break, an old friend of my buddy, and a new friend of mine, kindly told me that she had recently started reading my blog and how much she really liked it. That was pretty nice of her, right? She also mentioned that she had always wanted to run, but after a few unpleasant past experiences had accepted that some people love to run, and some people just don’t. And even though she wished that it wasn’t true, she was in the “some people just don’t” category.

I believe that is entirely possible. I really do. Just because I love something does not mean that it is intrinsically and undeniably lovable. All that it really means is that I love it. Me. I do. Luckily for us all, opinions vary.

She explained that she had tried running on a few different occasions and that she and a friend had even decided to run the Rock and Roll Half Marathon a few years ago. But after doing some training runs (I believe she mentioned getting up to at least a six mile run), it just wasn’t enjoyable. “I’ll stick to swimming,” she said.

Again, I can totally see that being the case. I love running. But I love Brussels sprouts and can’t stand marshmallows, so my opinions are probably pretty suspect.

(Unfortunately, one of the things that kept running from being enjoyable was the breast discomfort of running. That is something that I cannot speak to as I am currently boobless. Any well intentioned sports bra or other remedy suggestions anyone might have would be gladly accepted and passed along. Thanks)

Now, I’m not always the best conversationalist, or I would probably know simple things like how long had she actively been training before that six mile run, or if she ever ended up running that half marathon at all. But I’m a little lacking in my people skills sometimes and I rarely ask what, to most people, would be obvious questions. So for the sake of my eventual point, I’m going to allude to small errors that I suspect others have made whether my friend actually made them or not.

What is my point? You CAN do anything you want to do. But you may have to start small, maybe even very small.

Many people will say that they “can’t” run, or can’t do any number of other things for that matter. And I believe that is because they either set unattainably high early goals and/or they start so aggressively that they exceed their physical limitations and get discouraged by pain, discomfort, or even injury. But in most cases, a slower and smaller initiation into a new challenge can make all the difference between enjoying success in that venture and suffering discouraging results that eventually lead to cessation. And why wouldn’t you quit doing something that makes you feel shitty? I would. I have.

“Forget perfect on the first try. In the face of frustration, your best tool is a few deep breaths, and remembering that you can do anything once you’ve practiced two hundred times.” ― Miriam Peskowitz

I’ve tried to learn new things on the guitar several hundred times in my life, but I’m impatient. When I’m trying to learn or write a song, I’ll mess with it for a little while, maybe get a rough version of it down, and then immediately move on without ever fully realizing the song. Or I’ll never even get close to getting it right…and move on. At times, I’ve displayed a pretty incredible will to quit when faced with a goal that isn’t easily achievable.

Instead of trying to learn whole songs, I’ve recently started making myself practice guitar scales for a whopping five minutes a day. Five minutes! That’s it. I’ve got that time, whether I always want to admit it or not. Shit, I make a cup of tea at some point almost every night. Just waiting for the water to boil is enough time to fit this fledgling habit into my schedule. So I do.

old pic, but I'm too tired to pose for another one right now.

old pic, but I’m too tired to pose for another one right now.

It’s an easy goal to achieve, and it benefits me in at least two ways.

1) I’m practicing scales. I’ve played guitar for almost 18 years, and on my really good days, I’m decent. I’m not going to change the world with the instrument, but I’ve enjoyed countless hours with it, so I’ve already bettered my world. But after so many years of playing, I still don’t know a single scale. And ignorance is always limiting, whether it’s pertaining to something important like my required job skills or more recreational things in my life like playing guitar. Now I can honestly say I’m working on that…for five minutes a day anyway.

2) I’m playing guitar more. Just starting is often the hardest part of any endeavor. I love playing, but between years of poorly prioritizing my life and a current schedule that I keep pretty well full, I’ve let it slip a little bit from my routine. Making myself practice scales for those few minutes means that I have to pick it up. And because I enjoy playing it, I very rarely find myself looking at the clock and waiting for those five minutes to run out so I can throw it from my hands and get back to all of that really important facebooking I have to do. Starting to practice leads to playing, maybe for 10 minutes, maybe for 30. But it’s all more than I might have played if I hadn’t committed myself to five minutes of practicing that C major scale that I didn’t even know two weeks ago.

Five minutes a day and I get to claim victory, because I set a goal that is so easily achievable that it’s hard to justify to myself why I wouldn’t do it. Baby steps.

“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible” –Francis of Assisi

When I decided on a whim, four months ago, that I needed to go for a run, I took a few minutes on google maps and laid out a quick 0.7 mile route in my neighborhood. Then I laced up some old neglected running shoes, put on some headphones, stepped out my front door, and started running away from my apartment. I probably made it about 0.1 miles before I was completely winded, and maybe 0.10001 miles before I was walking. But when I caught my breath, I started running again…until I had to walk again. And I did that stopping and starting, walking and running, over and over again for two laps, 1.4 miles, or as I was saying at the time “about a mile and half.” It felt more respectable to say it that way. I think it took me over 20 minutes.

And after that very first “run,” I felt AMAZING!!

I cannot emphasize that enough. I never try to sell anyone on the joys of running. If I had not felt that immediate buzz after my very first outing, there is absolutely no guaranty that I would have ever done it again. And so when someone tells me that they don’t like running, I just assume that they did not get that feeling. And without that rush, I wouldn’t like it either. It makes total sense to me.

It was probably a month and a half before I could run a mile continuously and I know it was almost 11 weeks before I could run two. Everything takes time. I ran my very first 5K on December 8 and finished it in less time than that first run in September. I’ve run three more races since. And after work this afternoon, I ran 11 miles in an hour and 45 minutes. In a month, I’m going to run my first half marathon.

Anything is possible. But it may take a little bit of time.

I also didn’t get to my heaviest lifetime weight last summer by swallowing one giant deep fried cheeseburger wrapped in a stuffed crust pizza. I did it by taking several trillion bites of extra tacos, sausage biscuits, and hot wings on top of what healthier foods I was also eating to support the denial of my poor food habits. And the only regular exercise I was getting was a steady regiment of diminishing 12 and 16 ounce right arm curls as I washed so much of my diet down with too many beers.

I didn’t lose that weight with one lap around the block either. I cleaned up my diet. I used better portion control to eliminate excess empty calories. Then I started running and exercising regularly. The weight fell off. I don’t miss it.

I’m NEVER giving up my tacos though. Tacos are delicious…just can’t eat six of those wonderful treats anymore. I can live with that.

Very few things, good or bad, positive or negative, happen overnight. And you can baby-step your way into just about anything. You might as well try and make those baby steps towards a positive direction. If you don’t make it all the way, you tried. Even in coming up short, you’re that much closer to something greater than where you started. And the learning experienced even in what may be considered “failed” attempts can’t be taken away. All learning improves the chances of success the next time you try. And you will try again.

“Mere philosophy will not satisfy us. We cannot reach the goal by mere words alone. Without practice, nothing can be achieved.” ― Swami Satchidananda

During our conversation, the friend I mentioned earlier expressed a love of the trails at a park near her home. She even suggested that I might enjoy running there; telling me how beautiful and peaceful it is and how it’s roughly four miles long, but laid out in such a manner that with different crisscrosses could be stretched to any distance I desired.

She mentioned how much she loves walking that trail with her dog a couple of times a week. It later occurred to me that if she is already there two or three times a week, and she’s walking the trail, then she’s already crossed two of the biggest hurdles to becoming the runner that she’s wanted to be. Hell, if she’s hitting the trail a couple of times a week, running or walking, she’s already a runner in my book. She just doesn’t know it yet.

All she has to do now is find more comfortable workout attire (again, I’m counting on some help from any ladies out there), and start running. But start running knowing that she can stop any time she wants for as long as she wants, and start again whenever she wants for as long as she wants. And no matter how long those distances are, she’s a runner.

Anyone can do it. If running is intimidating, walk. Try walking faster than you normally do. How fast do you think you can walk? There are walking divisions in some races, and the pace that people are WALKING those distances is insane.

Go to your favorite park or even the street in front of your house and start walking. Walk fast. Then when you’re feeling sassy, just run to that tree up there. Not that one. The other one. Yeah, that one. And when you get to that tree, start walking again for as long as you want to; whether it be a few hundred feet or a few days. You already accomplished your goal. You ran to that tree. Congratulations. When you’re comfortable again, run to that other tree; that one just a few feet further away. And then start walking again. Do that for as long as you want, as many days as you want (providing you allow for recovery days when you know you know you’ve exerted yourself). And when you don’t want to walk/run anymore, don’t. You’re your only coach. Tell yourself to hit the showers. You’ve earned it.

If you want to run, stark walking. If you want to play guitar, practice. If you want to change your diet, start by changing the smallest part imaginable (e.g. eat the ice cream, but skip the chocolate syrup). If you want to swallow swords,…uh…start with knives? I don’t know about that last one. But you can baby step your way towards any goal. Everything takes time and trying to do too much all at once can seriously sabotage your success.

Do whatever you want. Do it at the speed of comfort. And if you don’t like it, stop. But don’t say that you can’t. You can do anything.

Bright side-note of running: Once you’ve burned 1500 calories in less than two hours, you will experience zero guilt in eating a mound of food like this for dinner. Baked sweet potato, quinoa, smothered in veggie chili, and a little avocado on the side. It was delicious. Happy Friday.

post run pile