Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Embracing the Pain

If you’re like me, at the first sign of pain you back off and begin to worry. I’ve been dealing with knee pain off and on for about a year. As a result I missed two marathons (-$200), and I spent a ridiculous amount of time and money visiting various specialists from acupuncturists (-$65 per visit for approximately 30 visits), to physical therapists (tried one out of network, -$243), to sports massage therapists (5 times at -$125 per visit). I bought orthotics (-$70 twice), muscle hugging running pants (-$115), knee braces (-$40), calf brace (-$40), I attended a ChiRunning class (-$125)—you name it, I did it (or bought it), all in a vain effort to avoid pain.

Now let me just clarify, some pain DEMANDS attention, but in hindsight, I’ve realized that my pain was manageable. All I had to do was embrace it, and allow myself to fearlessly go through it. Running is as spiritual for me as it is physical. As a result, I began to allow myself to experience my knee pain and not go to pieces at the first twinge of discomfort. My natural inclination when I would feel knee pain during a run was to stop running and totally give in to the pain. Recently, when I feel pain, I scale back my effort (and as long as the pain doesn’t cause me to change my gait), I allow myself to fully experience it. I breathe through it, move through it, and give it to God.

I’m not suggesting that runners do this with all pain—if the pain is sharp or severe, by all means stop and get help. But if it’s just a little nagging pain, and you believe you can get through it without causing further damage, allow yourself to embrace it. This acceptance of pain hit me full force when my 91-year-old grandmother, Celia Frances Smith, passed away peacefully at her home on December 13, 2010.

When my devastated dad called me to tell me she had died, I fought to keep my emotions in check. I was determined to be strong for my father, and I did not allow myself to fully experience and embrace the pain of loss. A week later, my emotions washed over me like a tidal wave, and I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to pull myself together. After five days of no running, I was finally got 4 hard miles in, and I felt so much better. I pushed myself through the last mile, thinking of my grandmother’s strength and fortitude, and vowing to always allow myself to embrace my pain.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

I Hate Running...There, I Said It!

Maybe it was because I spent most of my time last week running in the streetcar tracks on the cushy “neutral ground” of St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans, but when I set out for my run along the concrete, tourist-crowded sidewalks of Washington, D.C. yesterday, I was not enjoying it at all. In fact yesterday, I hated running. As I ran my 4.25 mile route (underdressed I might add, I’d gone from luscious 70 degree runs in NOLA, back to 47 degree runs in DC, and I brought shorts and a technical T-shirt to run in, instead of something more substantial), I came up with a few good reasons why I, Courtenay Brown, endorphin-addicted, sweat-induced sanity seeker, three-time marathoner (with a fourth on the horizon) self-proclaimed runner for life, hate running.

I hate running because I’m vain. I hate that on Mondays at noon, my carefully coifed, freshly shampooed, shiny, silky hair is going to “sweat out” no matter how carefully I ponytail it. After I shower, my perfume will be washed away (I’m simply not lugging all that stuff in with me every morning), and my makeup will not be as flawless as it was before I ran (even though I wash my face before and after I run, and reapply some basic makeup).

I hate running because I have to be disciplined. I used to live to sleep late on Saturdays, but these days, I’m out the door before the sun comes up, which means I have to go to bed early and eschew my favorite pomegranate martini and other fun nocturnal activities (but only the night before a big race or a long run!).

I hate running races because they stress me out. I generally train well, and no matter what the distance: 5K, 10K, 10-mile, half-marathon, or marathon, I toss and turn all night, and come race morning I will be totally and completely freaked the freak out. I spend hours in the bathroom at home (aw come on, you’re a runner, and you’ve been there, done that), completely losing all the good stuff I’ve put in my body to fuel it for the race. Without fail, my husband always asks, “Are you sure you enjoy racing?”

I hate running because I don’t like to think of myself as competitive. In addition to being a runner, I am a yogini. I’ve been practicing yoga for approximately three years. I’m all about being non-judgmental of my efforts and others efforts. Being competitive just feels wrong to me.

Then on my way back to the office, at about 2.25 miles into my run, with my pace well established, my breathing easy, and the gentle incline of 15th Street ahead of me, I realized that I actually LOVE running and the reasons why are as follows:

I love running because I’m vain. At 41 years old, I look damn good. I totally credit running with the fact that I am fitter than most people my age. I started running to lose the “baby fat” almost 12 years ago. Today, I weigh less than I did before the birth of my first child, and I am as energetic as ever.

I love running because I have to be disciplined. Running forces me to take good care of myself. I get the rest I need, I eat healthy foods, and I love that after rising early and putting in anywhere from 10-20 miles, I have the rest of the day to feel good about my efforts. Not to mention, seeing the sun rise on the National Mall, with no tourists in sight, is simply amazing!

I love running races because they stress me out. Once I finally calm down and the race starts, I am able to channel my nervous energy into speed and focus. I’ve learned to do the same thing in life when I’m facing a stressful situation. I know how to channel my stress and do what needs to be done.

I love running because it allows me to be competitive. I’m covering the ears of my inner yogini—I am competitive. I generally compete with myself; I’m always focused on beating Courtenay’s last PR. But truth be told, I love to see how I stacked up against other runners. I love to see how many people I “beat” who are younger than me (in some case decades younger!).
By the time I finished my run, I realized that I LOVE running because more times than not, after a good run I realize that I’ve gained far more than I had to put in.

Run well.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Ruminations of a Race Well Run

I ran the Athens Classic Marathon in Greece a year ago today. Here’s the recap that I shared with my friends and family when I returned. After taking a year off from marathoning, I have a renewed enthusiasm for the sport I love so much, and this recap reminds me of why I do.

I went to Greece primarily to run the Athens Classic Marathon, which is the original course that Pheidippides ran in 490 B.C. It was, without question, the hardest race I’ve ever run to date. For starters, it was pouring on the morning of the race. There I was, dressed in my singlet and shorts (and my hotel-issued red trash bag) in a vain attempt to keep myself dry and warm.

We were bussed from the Panathenaic Stadium (where we would eventually finish) to the start line in Marathon. Once we got to Marathon, we still had an hour to wait before the start. While I was waiting, I had the unique opportunity to meet and talk to Edwin Kipchom, an elite Kenyan athlete, who ended up finishing second in the race! He was amazed that I was an African-American (he mistook me for Kenyan) and I, of course, was dumbfounded that I was standing around casually chatting with an athlete of his caliber. He encouraged me to simply relax and finish the race. As he jogged away to warm up, he shouted back to me “success!”

I knew the race would be difficult. Despite the rain, I knew the course itself was going to be a tremendous challenge. The first 10k of the race was all downhill, and I was doing well. I hit the 5k split in 29:30. I reached the 10K split at 58:34. I was feeling pretty good after I’d shed my trash bag and long-sleeved t-shirt. But then—the gradual incline, from which we’d experience a rolling course for the next 32.2K began. By mile 7, my knee was in agony (the incline, plus the rain were beginning to work against me). It’s one thing when you’re running a marathon and you see the splits marked as miles (there’s only 26), but when the splits are marked as kilometers it’s 42K, and it’s mentally tough!

Then I made the mistake of eating a half of a banana around mile 10. I was crippled by gastrointestinal distress shortly thereafter, and I ended up having to take a 5-minute bathroom break. But, that actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because while I was waiting my turn, I met an American couple, who were living in Berlin, who reminded me to simply “enjoy the journey.” I was running in Greece after all!

At that point, I simply released my need for speed. I walked when I needed to, which was several times; I stopped by the medics to get my knee sprayed with this awesome cold mist. And I just took in the scenery around me. I dedicated miles to friends and loved ones; I had several deep mental conversations with God; I cried; I laughed; I clapped back at the spectators, and I let myself ENJOY THE JOURNEY.

When I approached the Panathenaic Stadium (which hosted the first modern Olympics in 1896), I knew my mom and dad, my husband, and most importantly my daughters, would expect to see me finish strong, so I ran the last 120 meters with all I had left in me, and I finished the marathon in 4:34:46. Not my best finish, but certainly my most rewarding.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Running Watchless….

I planned to do anything but run today. I’d expected the weather to still be rainy, and God knows I could NEVER run on my lunch hour in the rain and be able to put myself back together for the rest of the work day. So, I did the next best thing: I brought my yoga mat to work with me, but I left my Garmin at home, figuring I wouldn’t be running anyway.

Then it turned out to be an awesome day, so I decided to get in an easy run in deference to the 12-miler I’ll be doing tomorrow at 7:00 a.m. As I changed clothes, I remembered I’d left my watch at home. It bears mentioning here, that I would generally rather run stark naked than to run without my Garmin. I am a data junkie. I have to know how far, how fast, and how many calories I’ve burned on every single run (bad, I know). So today was a unique opportunity for me to run in a state of true oblivion. Much to my surprise, I discovered I enjoyed running in blissful ignorance of my pace. (Of course, I immediately checked my distance at, when I returned to my office).

But the beauty of today’s run is that I really tuned into my body and my breathing. I was able to make the necessary adjustments as I ran, without worrying how it would impact my pace. And perhaps the best thing of all is that as I tuned into my breath, a breathing mantra just came to me, and I used the words “power,” “energy,” and “life” to regulate my breathing and finish the run. Good stuff.

Will I wear my watch for tomorrow’s 12-miler? You betcha! But I will dedicate at least one run a week as a watchless run.


Monday, August 30, 2010

ChiRunning: Is It All It's Cracked up to Be?

Let me set the scene for you: I’ve been a runner for almost 12 years. I never had a running injury until I started training for my first marathon in 2007. About halfway into my 16-week training program, I ended up sidelined and had to get a medical deferral due to IT Band Syndrome in my right leg. Since then, I’ve completed three marathons (and countless shorter distance races) and I’ve suffered a number of running injuries: patellar tendonitis and piriformis syndrome among them. As a result, I’ve tried every treatment under the sun from physical therapy to acupuncture to active release massage therapy—you name it, I tried it. Not running was never an option for me.

During a random session on Amazon, I stumbled across a book titled, ChiRunning: A Revolutionary Approach to Effortless, Injury-Free Running, and I was so intrigued that I immediately downloaded it to my Kindle. The author, Danny Dreyer, suggests that the road to running effortlessly starts with returning to our childhood. He encourages runners to return to the time when running felt like fun, which really resonated with me, because a good run always feels like recess to me! In the book, Danny provides detailed instruction on how to modify your running style to ensure pain-free running for life.

Although I had a pretty clear understanding of what Danny was suggesting (I’ve only read half of the book so far), I wanted to see it in action. I found a ChiRunning Half-Day Workshop in DC. The price was steep, $125 for 4-hours of group instruction (but I thought it was more feasible than $225 for a full-day session). I took the class on August 22. It was led by Lloyd Henry, who is a significantly accomplished athlete based in the DC area. There were a total of 12 people in my class: a few moms, a few men, and at least one trust-fund baby. Lloyd instructed us on how to correct our posture, lean into the run (let gravity do all of the work), and literally let our feet “peel off the ground” as we fell forward into the run. It was a lot of information squeezed into a 4-hour class, but in the end, I felt it was worth it.

I’ve been able to employ some of the things I’ve learned in my recent runs, and it has helped. But, it’s a lot to think about, which is OK for me, as I tend to be an associative runner. I check in with my body often during a long run, and ChiRunning has taught me to pay that much more attention. Am I a believer? Not sure, but I’ll keep you posted.

Run well,

Friday, July 30, 2010

Just Let The Run Happen

My last run was on July 27, so when 12:00 PM finally rolled around, I grabbed my bag and darted out for my lunchtime run. I had no idea where I was running to today; I just knew I had to get it in. The plan was to run an easy 4 miles in deference to the 13-mile training run that I’ll be embarking on tomorrow AM.

The weather in Washington, D.C. has been brutal. But today was a treat, no humidity a slight breeze, and the temperature was about 85 degrees. I took off headed towards the White House. I focused on my alignment, my breathing, and my foot strike and reminded myself how much I love running. I’m reading ChiRunning: A Revolutionary Approach to Effortless, Injury-Free Running, in preparation for a ChiRunning workshop that I’m taking on August 22. Basically, the ChiRunning method focuses on making running an effortless endeavor. Although I’ve only scratched the surface of the book, I can see how what I’ve learned so far is helping me become a better runner.

I blazed through my first mile at a pace of 8:11. That’s the fastest mile I’ve run since recovering my last injury, and the thing is, I felt great! I didn’t even realize I was running at a faster pace until my Garmin rang out that I’d completed one mile. When I saw the pace, I was both thrilled and terrified. I backed off it a bit, in hopes that I could sustain it.

From that point, I just let the run happen. I took in the sights of the city, and I even stopped at the Corcoran Gallery of Art to snap a photo of a father and son. When it was all said and done, I'd run 3.67 miles at an average pace of 8:52 and I felt incredible! It was a glorious run, and tomorrow will be too, all 13 miles of it.

May you run effortlessly well.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

It’s OK to Eat the Cheese Steak: Or the Top Five Lessons Running Has Taught Me About Life

Lesson 1: Take nothing for granted. I’ve been a runner for 11 years. Although, I never considered myself a runner until I began to run races (folly, I know that now). There have been occasions when I’d come home (or back to the office) after a run, and begin to rip the run apart because it wasn’t long enough, fast enough, etc….That is until I sustained a running injury, (patellar tendonitis plus piriformis syndrome) that caused me to have to step out of my sneakers for roughly three months. It was three months of agony for me (and my loved ones, I was no treat to live with). But during that time, I learned the art of appreciation. When my doctor OK’d me to run two miles at a stretch as I regained my strength, I was ecstatic. Being sidelined made me realize that every day I can lace up my shoes, and get out and run, is a gift. I know longer disparage my run or the effort I put into getting it done.

Lesson 2: Don’t contemplate your bruises. I was training with the DC Road Runners for the SunTrust National Marathon in 2009. We were out on a 14-mile run in 30 degree weather. At about seven miles in, we approached the top of a hill. I was fatigued and my form was sloppy. On the descent, I lost my footing and went crashing down into the gravel. My right knee screamed in agony. As I pushed myself up from the ground, I decided that I had no other choice but to pull myself together and finish the run. So I didn’t even look down at my knee, because I knew I would not be able to complete the run if I actually saw my knee. I felt the sting of pain, but I could still bend it. When we arrived back at the Georgetown Running Company, I looked down at my ripped running tights and I saw my bruised and bloodied knee. I celebrated my ability to overcome my bruises with a new pair of running tights and a renewed sense of my own personal strength.

Lesson 3: Celebrate your body. I started running to lose the baby fat I’d gained with the birth of my first daughter 11 years ago. I’d gained 26 lbs while I was pregnant, expanding from 144 lbs to 170 lbs. I’ve never had the lean, lithe body of a runner. I’m built more like Serena Williams, much to my husband’s delight, with strong powerful quads and an impressive glute to boot. Yet, I used to yearn for what I considered the true “runner’s body.” Eleven years later, I love my strong, able body that has allowed me to complete countless races, including three marathons, since 2007.

Lesson 4: You never know who is watching. Today I broke down and ate a cheese steak hoagie for lunch. While I was standing in the cafĂ©, mentally berating myself for my lapse in food judgment, I saw a woman who I used to regularly see at the gym where I’d change clothes before heading out for a run. She looked fabulous. I remembered when she first started working out—her hard work was evident. I told her about my guilty lunch selection. She told me, “It’s OK to eat the cheese steak. You’ll run it right off.” She further stated that she missed seeing me at the gym (I change at a new gym these days) and that I had been the inspiration for her to start running.

Lesson 5: You can do more than you ever thought you could. Three years ago, if someone would’ve told me that I’d be a marathoner, I would’ve thought they were nuts. I had just finished my first 5K, and while I thought perhaps I should try a 10K, a marathon was another matter altogether. Yet in 2008, I found myself at the start line of the Marine Corps Marathon. Crossing the finish line 26.2 miles later was one of the greatest moments in my life. Although I was spent and every part of my body ached, I already knew I wanted to do it again. From that moment on, I have never doubted my ability to achieve ANY goal in life.