I’ve got several 2018 goals in play, and the one I’m most excited about is the intention to read more often. The specific goal is to complete 40 pages each week - whether that happens in 5 sittings or 1 is no matter.
Reading is a healthy goal, right? It’s a way to learn new things, and can be a relaxing diversion, all while providing fun facts for your next dinner party. And while any one of these things is a strong motivation to keep the pages turning, I’ve realized there’s a reason far greater - reading has the power to change your life. There are a few books that have served as serious catalysts throughout my life. They include:
Skinny Bitch: A No-Nonsense, Tough-Love Guide for Savvy Girls Who Want to Stop Eating Crap and Start Looking Fabulous by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin
Looking at that sensationalist title today, I can’t believe I ever picked up the book, much less paid for it, but a co-worker on a health kick gave a passionate recommendation, and I succumbed. Those Skinny Bitch writers pack a punch, because by chapter 4, I was seriously considering vegetarianism for the first time in my life, and by chapter 9, I’d stopped eating meat entirely. Thus ensued 1 year of strict vegetarianism followed by 7 years of full veganism, all of which resulted in a me that was fit, healthy, engaged in a greater cause, motivated to cook creatively, and inspired to learn more about nutrition and wellness, constantly. I made new friends, ate new foods, and felt consistently healthy for the first time in my adult life (I hadn’t been an adult for very long, but that made the revolution all the more significant).
Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work & in Life, One Conversation at a Time by Susan Scott
I’d taken a course at work called Crucial Conversations, which provided me with helpful tools to use as a manager. It included the kinds of situational cues and questions that help a work team arrive at beneficial conclusions and produce positive outcomes. I don’t remember what prompted me to pick up the next volume in Susan Scott’s series, but by some stroke of fate or fortune, Fierce Conversations ended up on my desk, then quickly moved to my nightstand. This book, as promised, provides guidance and motivation to tackle the most challenging conversations in life, period. Without getting specific or situational, its step-by-step instructions walk the reader through interrogating her unsettled feelings, putting words to the (often yet unrecognized) desired outcome, then getting it out in the open, with the goal of seeking resolution, even and especially when the stakes are high. When I started reading this book I assumed it would further my expertise as a manager and leader. By page 149, I’d ended a years-long relationship that was no longer serving me. Mic drop. This book changed the course of my life.
Hal Koerner’s Field Guide to Ultrarunning by Hal Koerner with Adam W. Chase
I learned about ultra running after my first marathon, at which I reached the finish line and wanted to keep running. It didn’t take me long to find Hal’s definitive guidebook, which is incredibly comprehensive, realistic and actionable. It explains every little detail of ultrarunning, including differences in distance, terrain, weather, altitude, gear, nutrition, pacing, camping, and more. When the chapters about chafing, hypothermia and kidney failure only strengthened my resolve, I knew I was meant to run a distance beyond 26.2. Using Hal’s training plan, I finished my first ultramarathon in first place at age 31, truly a defining moment in my life. I mean…there could be no better endorsement for a book about running, right?
So, when I contemplate the 2018 reading goal I’ve set for myself, I know it’s about more than conversation at the water cooler or fulfilling a quota. It’s about being open to the information, inspiration, and guidance that might just reveal a path I’ve not yet considered, and nudge me to do something amazing.
I’d done some reading about The Class prior to taking it. In fact, a Fast Company article, titled "Is This Workout for your Feelings What American Women Need Right Now?" is what piqued my curiosity in the first place.
From what I’d read, I expected an aerobics-like experience in a yoga-like studio with mostly women, and maybe some yelling. I was excited about the yelling.
Founder Taryn Toomey operates a studio in lower Manhattan, where the majority of The Class sessions take place, but on a recent visit to New York, I was lucky enough to find a single session in a Bandier retail shop, much closer to my hotel in midtown (though still a 20 block hike).
In the name of research, I pre-booked this experience a few days ahead ($35/class) and found myself on the 3rd floor of Bandier, just blocks from the Flatiron Building, in a dimly lit studio, yoga mats arranged in a grid, many already occupied by a decidedly female millennial crowd, quiet music pumping as though anxious to go full volume, the air rich with delicious earthy aroma- sandalwood? Or was it vetiver? The scene was set for the senses.
Though scheduled to teach, Toomey was replaced that morning by a sub, who turned up the volume on the music, and opened the class with a series of air squats, to the rhythm of a soulful song by Florence + The Machine. Was that 4 minutes.. maybe 5? Probably the longest period of consecutive squats I’ve ever done, but the loud music, accompanied by a drumbeat of mantras and reflective questions spewed out by the teacher, the addition of arm movements and periodic yelling - the time passed quickly, the room warmed up, the energy palpable. It felt tribal. It felt exciting.
Over the next 90 minutes, we were lead through a series that was mostly cardio, with some body weight movements thrown in. In addition to the squats, there were burpees, “skating” in place, planks, various ab strengtheners, bicep lifts, dancing, yelling. The dancing was my favorite part, freeform with the beat, evolving into jumping jacks, then devolving into a slower, calmer groove. Lots of heart touching. Lots of body scanning. Lots of music with motivating beats by some of today’s cultural icons - Of Monsters and Men, Kings of Leon, Cold Play and Eminem among them. (A quick Spotify search pulls up several The Class inspired playlists, which I recommend perusing)
Perfection was not encouraged. Fitness was not discussed. Performance was not emphasized. Narratives in The Class focused on self accountability, self discovery, acknowledging life's challenges, and working through them, owning your destiny.
The time passed quickly, and when it was all said and done, I had worked up a good sweat. My quads felt like jello from so many squats, but The Class wasn’t close to the best workout I’ve ever had. For the time (and money) investment, I’ll stick to my crossfit and running regimen, no question.
But, I enjoyed the opportunity to dance and move to loud music - by myself, but not alone. I enjoyed the invitation to introspection, and the mentally cleansed feeling that resulted. I enjoyed the yelling. I enjoyed the aromatherapy. I enjoyed the catharsis - a big word, but also an important one that is discussed too rarely in our society.
So yes, I’d go back. If The Class were in my city, I’d probably find myself there a few times a year. I’d take my girlfriends, then follow it up with brunch or coffee. I think we'd all agree that it was time well spent.
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.
I’m a running purist. I’ve earned my stripes running on road and trail, at distances ranging from 5K to 60K. And through simply running those races, I’ve encountered a multitude of unexpected, uncomfortable, and sometimes unsafe situations, all of which have taught me something about myself, and made me stronger as a result.
As a rule, I stay away from races that involve costumes, tutus, cloudbursts of paint, zombies, or obstacles. I’m not even attracted to the more “hardcore” events that promise to challenge with muddy water plunges, barbed wire low-crawls, and maybe the occasional electrocution thrown in for good measure. Don't get me wrong - I appreciate the role these events play to make running a fun activity for family and friends to enjoy, often for the first time - but, I’m not comfortable inviting gimmicky elements into my running experience.
So, when a group from my CrossFit gym signed up for a Spartan Super challenge, I considered it carefully. Of course, there are countless ways to hurt yourself at any time, but signing up to endure a total of 28 obstacles over 8+ miles seems an open invitation for injury. The last thing I want is to break a toe because I miss a hay bail jump, or something equally pointless, that takes me out of my running routine unexpectedly.
A few years back, I read Spartan Up about Spartan Race founder Joe DeSena, whose original endurance event “Death Race” had been formulated as an extreme challenge designed to take its few elite participants way out of their comfort zones, mentally and physically. The 24-48 hour Death Race included challenges like “crawling through mud and barbed wire, running two miles through moving water and climbing hills while lugging bicycle frames and tree stumps…they’re also forced to perform various mental feats, such as memorizing a list of U.S. presidents or reassembling a bunch of Lego pieces in a precise configuration.” And since the challenges were kept secret, participants could only train generally, and hope for the best on race day.
Spartan Race is DeSena’s evolution of Death Race for the masses. And though it’s still an incredible physical challenge, obstacles can be skipped in exchange for 30 burpees, the course includes frequent aid stations, and photographers dot the event to capture participants working their hardest.
I found that the obstacles along the course were a nice complement to the movements practiced in CrossFit - lots of climbing, hanging and pulling up - mixed with short spurts of trail running. Though somewhat skeptical at the start, the traditional runner in me actually welcomed the mental break each obstacle presented, and the novice CrossFitter in me was pleased with my ability to complete most without assistance.
Surprising myself, I finished the event feeling open to doing it again, keeping these things in mind: