We’re all born with it, the mind/body connection. As infants, we react immediately and instinctively to physical discomfort. Over time, of course, we develop the ability to take care of ourselves and we learn to consider our discomfort before reacting, even when doing so is hard. I think the ability to rationalize a body’s signals is a necessary ingredient to living a healthy adult life - if everyone reacted to everything in the moment, all the time, that would create its own kind of stress and negative health impacts. That said, the ability to rationalize or ignore what your body is saying is often taken too far, resulting in anxiety, exhaustion, injury or worse.
I honestly thought I’d be better at it than I am. In fact, training for, and completing, 5 ultramarathons in a year’s time required me to be highly tuned into my body’s signals. Spending hundreds of miles a month on foot causes a person to notice the slightest maladjustments and dial into even minor aches and pains, while burning through shoes, socks, and (gross, but true) toenails with cyclical predictability.
I completed my last ultra about a year ago, and though I’m not currently training for ultra distances, I maintain an agenda of frequent and intense physical activity. The discipline that ultrarunning has taught me, not to mention healthy habits like fueling, sleeping, and goal setting, all serve me well.
Though I mastered the self care of an athlete - a daily regimen of running or cross training, movements for mobility, stretching and smashing of muscle, frequent sports massage, maximizing diet for performance - I also learned to minimize physical discomfort. I rationalized, delayed, downplayed and disregarded the kinds of sensations that, if experienced in the course of ‘normal life’, would make many people call in sick, at the very least. I disconnected mind from body at will, and with crystal-clear awareness.
Anyone who considers herself an athlete; anyone with a physically demanding lifestyle; anyone who prioritizes performance above comfort will understand this: The challenge I see most clearly, and hold in highest regard, is respecting - and strengthening - my mind/body connection. That means having the patience to sense what’s happening and slow down, and willingness to take the time to act, adjust, or rest, all while cultivating the ability to take care of myself physically in the way I’d take care of a loved one - not just when it’s convenient, but in all moments. No matter what feats of strength or endurance are in my future, I know this challenge will be the greatest of my life and - with any luck - the most rewarding.
What is a vision board? Here’s a Google-fresh definition: Literally, a vision board is any sort of board on which you display images that represent whatever you want to be, do or have in your life.
Last year around this time, I posted about my latest vision board, as well as the one that got me started a year before that. This weekend, ready for a new creation, I invited a group of my closest friends to join the fun. The invite went out about a month prior, so we had time to consider what to include and stockpile magazines to help get the job done.
Before I dive into what my board means to me, I should preface: My resolution for 2017 is to approach life focused on quality over quantity; the word I’ve chosen for 2017 is “thrive”.
My board is more orderly than those before it, and - I think - represents my 2017 themes well. The idea of focusing on quality over quantity, for me, means raising my standards and becoming more selective in all areas - from how I spend my time and who I spend it with, to the things I buy, places I visit, even the way I work out. I am still driven to explore life, the world, and the people around me; I want to spend more time with my mom; I want to prioritize love; I want to leave space for new possibilities, maybe even a new pet.
Though I only have a few vision boards under my belt, I’ve observed some common threads among them:
My New Zealand vacation - a two week whirlwind that included an ultramarathon and backpacking two of the country’s “Great Walks” - took place over two months ago, and I haven’t been able to distill all the activities into separate blog posts as I thought might be ideal - organized by activity, summarized with action items and resource links - you know the kind. I’ve tried several time, but instead, I keep coming back to a journal entry I made at the trip’s end. It recaps my sentiments exactly, and if there’s more to say, I suppose it’ll come later.
One note of explanation - I wrote this as a message to Erin, my best friend and travel buddy. In our two years of friendship, we’ve traveled to more new places than I’d been in the previous five, our wanderlust matched only by a mutual thirst for adventure and desire to explore everything this diverse, beautiful, chaotic world has to offer.
The Tarawera Ultramarathon 50K ends on the rocky Hotwater Beach, not far outside Rotorua, on New Zealand’s North Island. After 7 hours, 59 minutes and 17 seconds of near-solitary running, the cheering crowds along that final narrow track are disorienting but welcome, and I focus carefully on each step as I navigate the rugged terrain, climbing the final steep, but brief, hill to the finish line.
Upon crossing, I immediately enter the open arms of a cheerfully costumed race official. Crowds are cheering, music is playing, but after 8 hours of constant and demanding physical activity, the refuge of an embrace that envelops my entire being is exactly what I need - no matter that it’s from a complete stranger. I exhale deeply, sinking into the comfort, and time stands still as we hold on for a few seconds more. He asks how I feel, and I answer honestly, smiling - I feel great, wonderful in fact. The course was challenging, but I am content with my performance. “You did very well,” he says, placing the finisher’s medal around my neck, evaporating the seclusion of our private moment. I notice my best friend and travel buddy standing closely by, moving in to offer her own congratulations before leading me to find dry clothes and a warm meal.
In actuality, while my performance at the Tarawera 50K was strong and consistent, with only a few minutes’ down time to refuel, it was also my slowest 50K pace to date. With 5,643 feet of uphill climbing - more than any other race I’ve completed - I knew it would be challenging. But the mythical destination that is New Zealand, and its landscape that is like something from a fantasy world, fueled my curiosity to participate. I wasn’t disappointed - the course wound through a towering redwood forest, across vast expanses of sheep-dotted farmland, over several fences (who saw those coming?!), and its many hill climbs offered gorgeous views of the expansive Tarawera Lake.
Just over a year earlier, I signed up for my first ultramarathon (the Patagonia International Marathon 60K), motivated by a quest to achieve something audacious - to see exactly how far I could run and still feel good. It was to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so I trained as perfectly as I could, and was, amazingly, the first woman to finish. That accomplishment felt very good, and I decided to maintain a high mileage lifestyle for as long as it kept serving me.
Since then, I’ve completed 4 subsequent 50K races, including the Tarawera, pounding a path to self discovery, making personal strides that had nothing to do with pace or finishing time. The determination that drove me to complete ultra after ultra in quick succession over the past year was as much about testing (ok, pushing) my limits as it was about following my passion. Learning to run through rain and snow, over frozen earth and through ice-cold streams provided perspective and patience. Experiencing a low blood sugar bonk because I failed to sufficiently fuel taught me to respect my body’s signals, and view doing so as an investment, rather than liability. Training alone in the woods for hours at a time taught me to rely on myself in the most fundamental ways and to make calculated decisions quickly. And though ultrarunning can appear to be a solitary sport, ultrarunners look out for each other and are quick to create community among complete strangers. Meeting and racing with runners of all ages and stages of life has been both humbling and satisfying. Those lessons and experiences have given me strength, confidence and perspective that will forever be a part of who I am.
I wouldn’t trade my first 5 ultras, or their impact on my life, for anything. I completed them because I was driven to achieve things I’d never even contemplated before, and because some part of me needed to know that I had the toughness it took to do so. And over time, the pressure of training to pass my own tests has fallen away, and the possibility of chasing experiences purely out of desire has replaced them.
When I crossed the Tarawera 50K finish line and melted into the arms of that complete stranger, I knew in my heart that the test I’d somewhat subconsciously set just one year earlier was no longer of consequence. Whatever I’d been trying to prove to myself about my physical ability, stamina, toughness and grit, had been done. I will continue to run distance, and am strongly considering the possibility of conquering a 50 miler in the near future, but I know I’ll do so only when my body is ready for the challenge, when my mind has sufficiently relaxed from the pressures of training, and when the passion in my heart will rest for nothing else.
Standing at a finish line on a remote beach in one of the world’s most beautiful places, the feeling that enveloped me just as reassuringly as that hug was one that surprised and pleased me - it was the confidence of closure, and the excitement of finding out what’s next.