Results came back

My leg isn’t broken, but my ferritin is low. Ferritin?!!? I feel like such a dunce. That is distance running 101: keep your ferritin up.

In a sport where the gains are made by increasing oxygen-carrying capacity, increasing blood volume is one way to do that. We go to altitude camp at 8000 feet to get a natural boost, and we have to insure that our bodies are properly equipped to do their blood-building thing. Hemoglobin is the oxygen-transport protein in your red blood cells, and hemoglobin picks up oxygen molecules by having them stick to an iron ion. The process doesn’t work without iron, it’s a limiting factor in increasing blood volume.

Ferritin is another protein that carries iron. If your blood ferritin is low, it means low iron stores. We test ferritin every 3-6 months to keep ahead of any issues. They (exercise scientists) say it’s not even worth it to go to altitude if you’re under 35 ferritin. I’m 29. 🙄🙄

Have I defeated the purpose of those grueling six weeks in Mammoth? Jerry essentially says so. Or at least that I wasn’t optimizing my training. This is the 6th year since I’ve started this journey, since I verbalized my goal to go to the Olympics (at that time, I said I wanted to bring home a medal for my coach, Frank Gagliano), and dedicated my life to that pursuit. I’m a veteran, dammit. How could I fall in such a rookie trap. THIS IS YOUR ONE JOB.

I tell my parents and we have one of those conversations where I feel like I’m 12 again and they’re chastising me for procrastinating on the school assignment. Sheesh, people, can it be enough for me to be hard on myself? Mostly, I’m embarrassed, and I don’t like getting called out on that. I’m also confused. I’ve been supplementing with an iron pill every morning and night while in Mammoth. I follow protocol, I drink it with vitamin C, away from other food (as much as possible) and especially dairy products.

Anyway, let’s keep this in perspective. While it’s embarrassing, it’s probably the best possible thing to find wrong. Low iron is fixable, almost immediately. And it gives me a reason for some of the fatigue these past few months. As long as I have an explanation, I can convince myself it’s not just me, I’m not inadequate.

I do quickly identify a few things that could have gone wrong. A few months ago, on recommendation from a nutritionist, I stopped using the slow-release iron that has worked for me in the past and switched to a new supplement brand. I was taking it with Emergen-C packets for vitamin C (that helps with absorption), but those also contain calcium (which blocks absorption, hence the no dairy with iron rule). In trying to aid absorption, I may have been inadvertently blocking the supplement from doing its thing.

I switch to a Nature Made vitamin C, and back to the slow-release iron pill. Also, I do a deep dive on iron-rich food sources. Here is the list of food products and the amount of iron they contain. Some sources may not be as easily absorbed, I’m not sure how to distinguish those. (It would be nice if someone came up with a ranking for the amount of bioavailable iron per serving. That could be a one-day research project). Above all, I try to stay thankful. Last weekend, I was scared I may have a season-ending injury. Now, I’m already more optimistic about the US Champs and summer season. What a change a week makes.

Recovery champion

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After Prefontaine we did make an alteration. Jerry had me plan to return to sea level two weeks before US Champs. Altitude response is unique to individuals, and some athletes feel sluggish in the first few days down from a camp. Common knowledge is that it’s best to either race immediately, or two weeks after returning to sea level. For me, we are going with option #2, I’m staying in Portland from now until we head to Des Moines.

The plan was to run an 800m at Portland Track Festival. But my leg has been achy over the past few days, and we decide to pull out of the race and get some diagnostic tests. I’m freaked out that I’ve hurt myself, and I am exhausted. I fly home Friday, and stay in bed for the whole weekend. I read, and binge watch a new find on Netflix, Sneaky Pete. We are ten days from my prelim race at USAs.

Everything is so much better after the rest. I get an MRI to check the leg, and a blood test for low iron. A day or two after the low point, I’m scrolling Instagram and see an inspirational post about the importance of “process”. I have to give a cynical laugh as to how far off my process I am right now. A long weekend spent in bed watching Netflix, no running, and less than two weeks before the US Championships. I feel like a slob.

But I don’t actually think that’s a bad thing. Running has a “no days off” culture and I want to fit in. And process is important, heck, process is all I talk or think about 99% of the time. But the motivational quotes about process leave out a key point: results matter. In sport especially, all the pretty talk can’t hid that in the end there’s a race and there’s a winner. And sometimes talk of process goes awry when we obscure that point. Or worse, we hid our race anxiety by getting too fanatic about training. As if training were the goal. As if we turned in our training logs and they handed out the medals.

This year I’ve tried to average 70 miles a week. I try to the point of pulling silly stunts like going for a 10 minute evening run to hit an even number for the week. But there is no podium for perfect 70s. There is a podium next week. And in the end, I’ll do whatever is necessary to line up as ready as possible. My mileage is shot right now, and while I make self-deprecating jokes, I believe that between the injury scare and the exhaustion, this is exactly what I need to be doing. And I believe I’m about to beat all the people who would ignore their signs and do otherwise.

Photo by Talbot Cox

Workout matchmaking

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This Tuesday my strength session overlaps with Gwen. This is our first workout with just the two of us. She is a champion triathlete, currently training for the marathon. That doesn’t lend itself to much overlap with a mid-distance runner. But we are both planning to compete on the track at the USA Championships in a few weeks. I’m entered in the 1500, she’s in the 10k.

The workout is sets of tempo 800s with short rest. I’m going to do 9 reps, and she’ll continue with 3 more. It seems like it should be pretty manageable. We are getting closer to USAs. It’s not yet a taper, but Jerry does seem to have pulled back from the impossible sessions. This helps with recovery from accumulated fatigue, and it’s nice for confidence.

It’s a treat to workout with someone new. Usually we are segregated by distance. On event specific days, I’ll run with the other 1500 specialists. A new pairing is a bonding moment. You laugh and banter to get out the pre-workout jitters, and learn to rely on each other as you switch leads. And at the end, you share the accomplishment.

Still, I’m a bit nervous. It’s Gwen!! I really respect her, her athlete accomplishments (Olympic gold medalist in triathlon, for one) and the career she’s built, and I want to be a good workout partner. In this situation, we are given the pace, and we take turns leading one rep at a time. Being a “good” partner means that I hit the prescribed pace on the reps I lead, and do so evenly (if the goal is 2:34 for two laps, an ideal leader would run 77 and 77). It also means pulling my weight throughout the workout. I don’t want to blow up and leave a workout buddy hanging at the end, right when it gets hard. It feels like more responsibility with just two people, but it’s not as if any of this is new to me. If anything, I’m more experienced on the track than Gwen is. Still, the thought crosses my mind, “don’t mess up.”

Tempos are a unique kind of pain. They hurt, but not enough that you have to stop immediately. And it’s a slow build, so you start feeling the pain long before the end is near, long enough that your brain can get in the way. Today, I find myself forecasting. It’s maybe the 4th or 5th rep, only halfway through, and I start to worry about how much is left. I’m suddenly very aware of everyone at the track, especially those taking pictures. I let it start to agitate me. Stop with the camera, turn away! What if I can’t finish?!

I don’t usually get thoughts like that in the middle of a rep. The goal is to stay too present for the negative predictions. But tempos are just easy enough that my mind can wander. And I’m probably predisposed to a bit more performance anxiety right now. I ignore the mental interruption, or don’t add emotional importance, and focus on each piece individually. By the last set, I’m thinking I could have done one more.

Back to altitude

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Returning to Mammoth means I have to relive the post-race lull for a few days. People ask about my takeaways, I give some lightened version of the last post. There is no escaping the result, and the result is a buzzkill. I want to hide from their questions. I don’t know how to say this except to say it, at this moment I feel like the worst of the group. And when my confidence is strong, I see that as an incredible opportunity; I will never grow more than when pushed by these people. But my confidence is shot right now. A cheap boost would be nice.

I have Tribe of Mentors on my Kindle. It’s a collection of quotes and advice from the guests on the Tim Ferriss podcast. One question I highlighted is: “where do you go when the ego is low?” I believe it’s from a trainer talking about how the best performers will seek to be challenged even when they are down. He says it’s a mark of the good ones that they don’t back away in difficult times, when the first instinct is to run for comfort and reassurance. I’m clinging to that thought now; I can stand this discomfort. I try to not overthink results and just keep moving.

The mountains help. Up here we’re isolated physically, it’s easy to disconnect from news or social feeds and enjoy the camp atmosphere and the training. We are connecting with other runners in town, the Mammoth Track Club hosted us for a group dinner. I’m thankful for the camaraderie and distraction.

Mentors

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You are your own business, your race results are the product, who do you pick for your board of advisors? (Okay, maybe most small business don’t have boards, but this is my imaginary scenario, and anything is possible).

Call them mentors, #1 fans co-conspirators, there are going to be people in addition to a coach who play a role in your athletic career.  You can call them family and friends, though I’ve found that I prefer to consciously choose who I let in on the details of my training and development. My parents love me, but I’m not texting them after a bad workout. That’s why I like the board of advisors thought exercise. It helps define who plays which roles for me, especially when roles can overlap. As I navigate bonding with a new coach, a rocky first few months, and a new training program, I am especially aware of these supportive figures in my life, and so thankful for them.

Aren’t mentors irrelevant if you have a good coach? Maybe for some, but I’ve found they hold different functions. I want a coach to keep me accountable, to raise the bar high and keep me reaching for it. I’ve found that I push myself hardest in practice when I have more of a “tough love” relationship with a coach. If I never break the seal and ask for mercy, that in itself strengthens my resolve… it’s a nonnegotiable. I want a coach to be honest and realistic, because only in that way can the relationship maintain its integrity. We both want big things, and we won’t pretend to have reached the goal until we are there. Trust grows in this way, and we can have direct conversations about what’s going well, and what’s not. I believe that a working relationship based on high standards, trust and psychological safety will produce the best results. And when those results come, they come with the satisfaction of mutual achievement.

But the growth phase is hard. The coach isn’t going to baby me, but man, I want someone to! Whereas I’m going to always try to bring my best self to interactions with a coach, I sometimes need to be able to admit when I’m scared, or unsure. I want help with nurturing my confidence, maybe now more than ever. And I love me a partner in crime. This person can be a significant other, a dear past coach, a trusted mentor. In my reality, it’s all of these people at different times, hence the board analogy.

Sometimes it’s helpful to have someone who will shamelessly make me feel better. At others, it’s nice to be able to brainstorm about what I might be overlooking in training, the auxiliary parts that my coach doesn’t oversee. For example, how do I process the “failure” of the workout last week? Should I re-evaluate nutrition, strength and recovery for missing links? Or is it better to reframe, realize that I’m completing longer and more intense sessions than I ever have, that it’s only in comparison to training partners that it seems I’m coming up short? Questions like this are always popping up through the duration of a season… when to make changes, when to stay the course. Improvement is a dynamic process. Of course I could come up with answers on my own, but seeing my development through an advisor’s eyes can be enlightening and reassuring.

I believe my ability to stay positive, long-term focused, confident, purposeful, joyful, has been due to an incredible support group. People like this impart a feeling of security, they enable me to take risks and dream big. I can’t imagine my career and track accomplishments without them.