My Existential Running Crisis


I ran a half marathon last weekend.

It was, I’m a little surprised to say, my first half marathon since October 2014.

I registered for the Beach & Bay Half way back in December because the early bird fee was relatively cheap. It was one of those “flat and fast” courses, along the Mission Beach boardwalk and around Mission Bay, and I thought, hey, maybe it’s time for a new PR. I had ordered a Compete training journal and I was making grand plans to get back into racing and reach a new level of strength and fitness in 2017.

I’m not entirely sure what’s been happening with my running this year. For the past few years, really. Oh, I’ve been running. I’ve even been running hard from time to time. I decided I wanted to get familiar enough with Mission Trails Regional Park that I could drive to any park trailhead and just start running and make up a route as I go and not get lost in the park.

(If you’ve ever been to Mission Trails beyond Cowles Mountain, you know that their trail maps and wayfinding signs are kind of a huge joke. I once mildly panicked when I got there to run 6 miles and realized my phone was already down to 20% because I rely heavily on my AllTrails app to keep me from getting hopelessly lost.)

And yet, it felt like my running/training wasn’t really building to anything. I’d have a great week where I nailed all my workouts and mileage goals and the next week I’d get out for three or four runs, maybe, and run barely 15 miles. I wasn’t building a strong base or tracking improvement or following any sort of structure. And then all of a sudden it was the beginning of April and I was like oh shit, that half is less than two months away and I haven’t run more than 8 miles at once all year.

Also on April 4th, I registered for Wharf to Wharf for the first time since 2012 and was a little surprised that I got in.

Suddenly, my focus flew from the half marathon to the end of July. To bagpipes and high school marching bands playing Jimmy Buffett songs. To six miles instead of 13. To a race with no expo whatsoever, one that mails bibs to all participants in advance and hands out cotton t-shirts to finishers after the race (one of the many things that make me roll my eyes is when race shirts that are handed out before the race say “FINISHER” on them. Like, there will be a handful of people who go to the expo but then don’t show up race day for whatever reason. Or will show up but won’t be able to actually finish the race. If you’re gonna wear a shirt that says “FINISHER” you should have actually finished).

I hadn’t even done any double-digit long runs and I was already resenting them. I wanted to run intervals and focus on speedwork, not slog along for 10-12 miles on a Sunday morning. I eyed my road shoes suspiciously and grinned when I laced up my trail shoes. I took Onyx on runs that were partly boulder-scrambling, jeopardizing my whole race with a potential sprained ankle or worse. I pushed my way through a couple “long” runs in late April/early May, but my heart wasn’t in them.

So I showed up at the start line Saturday morning feeling ambivalent. I didn’t want to just take it easy and phone it in, but I knew I wasn’t in shape to go for my original sub-1:45 goal. My options, as I saw them, were to start with the 1:45 pace group and see how long I could hold on, or to just run by feel and see what happened.

Now, I hate sounding like a bitchy buzzkill, but there’s a lot about road races today that just really don’t work for me. Mainly the whole “let’s make this a fun party!” atmosphere. I think it comes from running cross country and track in high school, where races were races, and I miss that. We didn’t care about getting PRs as much as beating someone from another school. We might be playing music on our own, but the people with the loudspeakers were yelling at us to line up because our heat was next, not exhorting us to “make some noise!” and “high-five the person next to you!”

I’m sorry, but 6:30 in the morning is just way too early to be that damn psyched about anything.

I found the 1:45 pacers and stood behind them, wishing—for literally the first time ever since moving here—the May Gray had stuck around a few more days. Corral 1 wasn’t too crowded and it seemed like, for once, people were respecting the corral system. My Garmin found a satellite almost immediately and finally we were off.

Almost immediately, I knew that 1:45 was nowhere near where I’d be finishing. The pace felt controlled but far from easy, and if I know one thing about distance pacing, it’s that the first couple miles should feel ridiculously slow because all the adrenaline and people around you can make a pace that’s 30 seconds per mile too fast feel like a breeze.

When I checked my watch, I was sort of encouraged but also annoyed to see that the pacers were holding at a 7:45 – 7:50 pace, not the 8:00/mile pace they should be at. Give it a few miles and see if they ease up, I told myself. Try to stay with them until mile 5 or so.

I started to drop back at mile 3. That was how long it took for us to get on the nice, flat boardwalk path—before then we were on roads, which I hate because the slight slant tends to jack up my hips or knee. I was irritated at the pacers and generally questioning all my life choices and settled in for a long run up the boardwalk with plenty of time to think.

(Side note: this was only the second time I’ve run with a pace group. The first time, in the Carlsbad Marathon in 2015, it was a fantastic experience not only because it’s so much easier to just follow someone and run without having to constantly check your pace, but also because the women leading that group talked to us, encouraged us, shared tips, and really showed that they cared about how we all finished. In this race, the pacers just ran together silently. If you’ve run with a lot of pace groups, or led them yourself, what tends to be normal? Does it just depend on the race or the pacers?)

I thought about what I want out of running, out of competing.

I thought about why I still feel this need to run road races and go after PRs, especially in half and full marathons, when I’m so much happier running trails and shorter races.

I thought about how truthfully, I’d rather be running around Lake Hodges or through Penasquitos Canyon or Rose Canyon with Onyx than up the boardwalk with thousands of other runners, most of whom with blaring headphones.

Was that just because I knew, once again, I hadn’t trained well enough to expect a “good” result? And why have I never truly had a “successful” training cycle for anything longer than a 10K? Is it because deep down, training and running that way isn’t what I really want? Why do I still want to race? Can I be happy and fulfilled as a runner without these benchmarks showing me how good I am at certain times? Would I be able to keep pushing myself to run faster and harder if I didn’t have a start line to get to? Or would I settle into week after 15-20 mile week of easy runs? Would it be so bad if I did?

I know I want to get stronger and faster and fitter. I want to lose a couple pounds and tone up some muscles, but more than that…I know I’m running out of time, fast, to reach my peak physical ability (at nearly 31, I’m probably already past that potential peak). But I still want to find out what I’m capable of. I feel like I haven’t really pushed myself physically since I tried desperately to PR in the mile when I was a senior in high school. I’ve kept running and I’ve kinda sorta stayed in shape, more or less, since then, but I’ve always felt like, if I really tried, if I gave it my all, if I really pushed myself, I could reach some higher level of strength and fitness.

Also, my goal is to still be out there running races in 60+ years, God willing, so I want to lay the groundwork now for a long and active life. No canes or walkers or nursing homes for me.

I know that I feel alive on trails and they serve me in a way that roads just don’t.

I know that while I hate the time leading up to speedwork, I love the feeling afterward. Even if the feeling afterward is almost throwing up and feeling slightly dizzy.

I know that as much as I prefer running to any other form of exercise, yoga and strength training need to be regular and significant parts of my fitness routine.

I know that I want to focus less on the longer distances and more on speed. I think the 10K might be my happy distance, the perfect combination of endurance and speed and guts. I know I would love to see a 5K PR that starts with 1 instead of 2, but that would most likely involve lots and lots of road racing instead of time on the dirt so maybe I’m more ehhh on that? We’ll see.

I don’t know how or when or where or what I want to race. I currently have about six tabs open to different races for later this year—all trail races (and one beach race on packed sand), none longer than 15K. When I got home on Saturday, I told husband, “don’t let me sign up for any more road races and no half or full marathons for at least a year.” I’ve got Wharf to Wharf and another half marathon next April (again, suckered in by the “cheap” early bird registration fee. And it’s in SLO, one of my happy places). I will add at least two more trail races this year.

When it comes to training, I’m trying to find some structure to my weeks, especially for the next two months leading to Wharf to Wharf, without going all in on a regimented training plan (which never works for me; I tend to rebel against prescribed tempo runs and long runs at precisely X pace).

I’m trying to get to at least two studio yoga classes each week and adding a couple home practice sessions.

I’m trying to find a simple yet effective strength training routine that I’ll actually do on a regular basis. I have a year subscription to Grokker because they had a 50%-off sale around Christmas and I’ve been trying different videos and instructors and series/challenges. My favorites so far, if you’re also on Grokker, are Kelly Lee’s HIIT Club series, but doing those every single day isn’t sustainable.

I’m trying to figure out what running and competing means to me and what goals will make me happiest and proudest to pursue. And I’m going to keep running while I figure that out.

I Have Conversations with My Legs (A Running Update)


Is this just a runner thing? An athlete thing? I don’t think “talking” to your body that unusual. In yoga, teachers frequently tell you to “check in with” or “scan” your body to pay attention to how the different parts are feeling. And you go “oh, wow, my hips are kinda stiff” or “there’s a weird pain in my shoulder. Huh” or “hmm, my calf itches. Can I scratch it even though we’re in savasana?”

I guess it’s one thing to occasionally really focus on how your body feels, both holistically and each individual part.

But then I go and have full-on conversations with my legs during runs. Usually when we’re not getting along. Take an attempt at a tempo run back when I was marathon training…

Me: Okay, we’ve got six miles with a three-mile tempo run today! Let’s do this!

Legs: Yeah…no.

Me: Wait what? What the hell?

Legs: Eh, we’re just not feeling it. See?

Me: But…come on, we’ve gotta stay on the training plan! I don’t have time to reschedule this workout later in the week. Let’s go.

Legs: Nah.

Me: Okay, fine, buttheads. What if we just do a two-mile tempo?

Legs: Nope.

Me: A one-mile pickup?

Legs: You could try, but it probably won’t go well.

Me: What if we just do some fartleks for a couple miles?

Legs: Hahahaha, nice try.

Me: Fine. Screw the speedwork. Can we just do six easy miles?

Legs: Six miles seems like a lot.

Me: Five miles?

Legs: When’s the last time you got new shoes? These aren’t feeling too good.

Me: They’re not that old.

Legs: Really?

Me: Stop being babies. We haven’t been working that hard this week. It’s only week three. We can’t start skipping workouts this early.

Legs: Meh.

Me: Fine. Three miles. Can you suck it up and handle that?

Legs: Fine. But you still won’t like it.

Me: …sons of bitches…

Then there’s my knee. The one I had surgery on seven and a half years ago. The one that took nearly a year to stop bugging me and feel normal and let me run on it again. The one I babied for several years, avoiding running more than two days in a row, wearing a knee brace, icing it religiously after workouts. The one that got me into yoga.

When I finally decided to ditch the knee brace and just run like I used to, five, six, even seven days a week (sometimes), with the occasional speed or hill workout, my knee responded brilliantly. Every so often, though, it still twinges — usually not from running, I think, but from some combination of running + other activity. Like recently I’ve added more strength workouts and weight lifting, and even though strengthening the muscles in my legs should, theoretically, help my knee by providing more support for the tendons and ligaments (my brother’s almost done with med school. I totally know this shit), there’s an adjustment period where everything’s sore and tight and angry with me and letting me know it via pain in my knee.

Actually, now that I think about it, I’ve also been incorporating HIIT workouts once or twice a week. HIIT workouts typically including a buttload of jumping — jumping jacks, plank jacks, jump squats, jump lunges. Jump squats and jump lunges are the fucking worst. I think I’m in decent cardio shape until I’m told to jump more than five times in a row. Anyway, one of Cal Poly’s track and field trainers once told me that running isn’t bad for your knees, but plyometrics — jumping — is what will tear them up. So maybe I should just stop with the stupid jump squats.

Anyway, usually, nowadays, when my knee tries to get in on the conversation, I tell it to suck it up and move on. “You’re fine,” I’ll say. “Stop being a little bitch. Remember? You don’t hold me back anymore.” My knee isn’t as talkative as my legs. It’s (thankfully) much more stoic — it might whimper a little, but it soldiers on with the run.

But a couple weeks ago, when it started acting up on what was supposed to be a six-mile run with a massive hill and got shortened to a three-mile run with a massive hill, I tried a different tact.

“Hey buddy. What’s up? You’ve been through a lot lately, huh? Yeah. I get it. Sorry I haven’t been great about yoga and stretching after runs. I’ll work on it. You wanna foam roll tonight? How would that feel? Good, right? Okay, just keep it up — you’ve got this — and we’ll foam roll when we get home. I can even ice you if you want, a little. Yeah? Cool. Just a little over a mile to go, okay? Hang in there. See? You’re already feeling better. There you go.”

I’m telling you, it totally worked.

For a week.

Then last week, something twinged in my hip/hamstring/IT band area and a few days later, the pain started quickly spreading to my knee and then, weirdly, the spot on my inner calf that’s sort of between my Achilles tendon and where I’d feel shin splint pain. So I started easing up on my runs (both intensity and mileage — I’ve barely clocked 10 miles this week) and foam rolling every day, twice a day when I do lace up (or trying to, at least). I’ve determined I need a new, larger foam roller that has one of those trigger point grid things (like this one). I’ve been favoring YouTube yoga classes that focus on the lower body (classes that are heavy on hip openers or promise to help you progress to the splits tend to be good bets — I’ll probably never fully get into the splits, but the process leading up to them involves hip and hamstring openers from all directions, which feel fantastic).

It has gotten better, but I have a feeling the first long-ish or fast-ish run I do will make it flare up again. If that happens, I’m (for once) not going to screw around and put off getting professional help. I tried ART (active release technique) in the past and it was a freaking (painful) miracle cure, so if insurance allows, I’ll probably go that route again.

I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, my legs say hi.

Why I Run


You know the “reasons to be fit” or “why I run” things you see all over Pinterest and Tumblr?

To feel strong…to be better than I was before…to get in shape…to look good in a bikini…to look good in my wedding dress…it’s cheaper than therapy

Etc etc etc…

I used to think that, in general, none and all of them applied to me. Sure, I run to stay in shape, for the “endorphin high,” to improve my race times, all that jazz. But none of those are the single driving force behind why I lace up my Brooks most days.

The thing is, running is just something I’ve (almost literally) always done. My elementary school had a track team, which my parents signed me up for when I was six. Our “practices” were running laps around the asphalt at school. While we were driving to my first ever meet, my dad told me he thought I should try the 800 — two laps around the track.

Little 6-year-old Allison didn’t know any better, so she said okay. And we got to the track and I “jogged a warm-up lap” with some of the “big kids” and thought “This is so far! I don’t know if I can run this!”

But I did, and I did it again, and again, and again, for pretty much every single track meet up through the 8th grade. I was far from the best or fastest runner (there was another girl my age who was one of my only consistent “competitors” and she usually smoked me by at least 30 seconds), and I don’t really remember if I even liked it that much or not (actually, some of my fondest memories of those track meets are getting donuts at the snack stand after my race), but I just kept going out there and doing it.

Then in high school, I joined the cross country team and it was the single best decision I ever made (and again, it was really at my parents’ suggestion — I initially joined the team figuring it would get me in shape for soccer). The coach and team were AMAZING and for the first time, I truly fell in love with running. I made varsity, but again, was nowhere near the best or fastest and didn’t join any team in college. But I kept running. Sporadically some years, more regularly in others. Towards the end of college, I ran my first half marathon. Eventually, I ran a full marathon (after years of swearing I’d never do something so crazy). Now I’m entertaining thoughts of maybe, one day, trying for an ultra. Maybe.


For awhile, I tried to insist that I truly enjoyed the act of running, that it wasn’t something I hated but forced myself to do for some supposed reward (a smaller size, a healthier heart, mental clarity, whatever). And I do. But there are definitely runs or times during runs (like the last 12 miles or so of a marathon) when I’m really not enjoying any part of it.

Then I realized what it was when I ran the La Jolla Half Marathon a couple months ago.

I like who I am when I run.

I don’t run with music, ever. I listen to podcasts on the treadmill but that’s because treadmills are terribly boring, and I usually use them for speedwork so I need to distract myself from the intensity and pain. And I rarely run in groups — most of my runs are solo or with my dog. So it’s just me out there with myself for company. And, somewhat surprisingly, I actually really enjoy that company.

I lecture myself, I think back to how stupid I was when I did XYZ last week or month or year, I worry about where I’ll be in five years, if I’m on the right track in my career, what I’m gonna do about whatever issue I’m having. I replay embarrassing or unpleasant memories and cringe.

But I also support myself. Tell myself to focus on the positive. Tell myself not to worry so damn much. I make jokes. I observe things around me. I think about what I’m going to eat later. I plan my week. I make up stories. Sometimes I just zone out. In my own mind, when I’m running, I’m the funniest, wittiest sumbitch I’ve ever met. And it’s an honest-to-God pleasure to spend 30-60+ minutes, 5 or 6 days a week, in my own company.

This means that, when I’m not running, no, I don’t always like myself that much. I’m super critical and hard on myself, I compare myself to Facebook friends and other people on the Internet, I make mistakes and screw up and don’t react appropriately to certain life events and I’m not always a good friend and I forget birthdays and don’t eat healthy or make doctor’s appointments when I should. I’m not exactly an easy person to get along with (seriously, ask my dad. Or my husband) and sometimes I get really, really down on myself.

But not when I run.