What I learned from posting every day in October

I’ve been thinking about how making and keeping small commitments, no matter how small, can build character and lead to achieving bigger goals over time.  I first recall reading about this concept in Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  The idea is pretty simple, really.  When we make and keep a promise to ourselves, we’re building our character.  Similarly, when we make and break a promise to ourselves, we’re tearing down our character.  The bigger the promise, the bigger the impact.  But even the smallest promise can have an impact.  Over time, even small things can add up.  Kind of like the movie The Shawshank Redemption, where Andy tunneled his way out of prison with a tiny rock hammer and a lot of consistent work over time.

Over the summer, I had a really hard time keeping commitments I made to myself.  Getting out for runs, writing, yard work, eating well, the list is long.  I was just in a bad place and couldn’t make things work.  And failing to keep those (admittedly small) promises to myself created a lot of negative energy.  I felt the downward pull.

As September rolled around, I was doing a lot of stuff in fits and starts.  I’d make progress for a few straight days, but then lapse into negative land again.  This doesn’t make for very good progress.  This was an improvement over the summer, but still not where I wanted to be.

Along came this (at the time) wacky idea of posting every day to this blog.  I didn’t come up with it.  It was suggested by the good people at WordPress as “training” for getting ready for something even bigger in November (I’ll have more on that tomorrow).

I decided to give it a go.  Both the big November project and the daily posting.  Being a runner, I understand the value of training.

Given what I experienced over the summer, I actually didn’t think I’d be able to post every day.  I figured I’d flame out after a week or so when I didn’t have anything stunning to say.

But my expectations never materialized.  The flame out never happened.  I managed to post every day.  Towards the end, I got into the mode of doing whatever it took to get a post up, including writing one on my mobile phone when the power and regular phone lines went out.

And keeping that (admittedly very small) commitment every single day actually helped me get some positive momentum.  As Covey suggested, keeping the small commitments helped to start building something positive that I’m hoping to carry into the upcoming months.

Along the way, I’ve learned some other interesting things during my efforts to post every day in October.  A lot of them might be familiar to runners:

  • It doesn’t have to be “inspired” every time.  Like running, some days you just grind it out.  It’s ok to have some bad days…the consistency is more important than anything.  Just showing up matters.
  • Pictures often tell a better story than words.  You can never describe a visual scene well enough.
  • It’s better to focus on the current moment.  In the middle of October, it was pretty disheartening to think about the notion that I still had 2+ weeks of posts to go.  Before I knew it, I had only a handful of days left.
  • Inspiration comes from everywhere.
  • I enjoy writing this as more of a chronicle of my current state of mind.  When I started this blog, I never thought of it that way.  But it’s almost therapeutic to write.  It gives me a chance to reflect on things and keep some record of how I was thinking (for what that’s worth).
  • Doing something frequently helps make it easier.  And there’s a chance you’ll get better but it’s not guaranteed.  Just like running.

Throughout the month, my perspective shifted from being lukewarm to being excited about writing.  Maybe I caught the bug.

Either way, I’m happy that I made the effort and excited for what the future holds for this blog.  I don’t have any grand plans.  I just hope to keep it going.

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Riding the storm out…

I love snow in the winter.  The more the better.  If we’re going to get it, I’d rather have the big storm than the small nuisance.  It’s fun to be snowed in, knowing you don’t have anywhere to go.

In autumn, snow isn’t as much fun.  It’s wet and heavy, making it double trouble for trees that haven’t shed all their leaves.  When it snows in autumn, the trees bend to the ground.

Note to self:  cut down all trees within “bending” distance of the driveway.

Our house sits on a “flag lot,” which is a property with a long driveway and a house at the end of it (kinda like a flag).  It’s impossible to shovel or snowblow.  We need a snowplow.

Trees that bend over the driveway make it impossible for the plow to make it up our driveway.

This Saturday we got about 14 inches of snow…argh.

So on days like Saturday, every few hours I go out to knock snow off the trees so they can straighten up, allowing our snow plow guy to clear the driveway.  Tip:  If you do this, don’t look up after you’ve hit the tree.  You end up with a face full of snow.

It’s always a bit dangerous.  The last time we had a big October snow (2008), I managed to scratch my cornea.  I shook a tree, and a branch whipped out of the snow into my eye.  Not fun.  The other concern is the occasional cracking sound, which is usually followed by large branches falling to the ground.  Luckily, I didn’t get caught in either of those problems today.

Seeing the branches bent down makes me feel like I’m in another world.  Like I’ve traveled to some land in Lord of the Rings or Star Wars.  It was especially nice on Saturday night.  With the power out, there was just darkness.  The only light and sound came from the occasional car.  When a car came by, the light reflected off the branches to create a beautiful scene.  I felt really peaceful out there in the snow.  It doesn’t have the same feel as winter, though.  It’s not nearly as cold and desolate.

Beyond taking care of the trees, everything is pretty quiet.  We learned our major lesson from the 2008 storm—buy a generator.  Our generator is the best investment we ever made.  Given the frequency of power outages where we live, the generator has already paid for itself.  It allows us to have water, sufficient light, heat and some power to refrigerate stuff and cook.  Enough to get us by.

Found out today that the schools here are closed again on Monday.  That’s the second weather related school closing this year, and we are nowhere near winter.  Not a good sign.

Finally…9:30 pm Sunday night…power back.  Phone lines back.


Power out…

Heavy snow + leaves on trees = trees down
Trees down + above ground power lines = power out
Power out = network connectivity out

Posting this via mobile phone…

Not expecting power any time soon.

Hope to get power back in a day or so. Will post pics then.


Snow and great baseball

Got a 23-miler in again today.  Down the Columbia Trail to High Bridge.  Beautiful day.  Lately I’ve been drawn to the longer runs and rides for whatever reason.  I’m enjoying the nice easy pace.

I’m surprised by how dark it is in the morning.  I don’t remember it being this dark in the morning in late October last year.  Didn’t they recently change the date when we turned our clocks back?  Maybe that has something to do with it.

Snow in the forecast for tomorrow.  Not just a little…6-10 inches.  Snow at this time of year is a big problem.  The trees still have leaves, so they catch more snow.  The snow is also heavier, so a lot of trees end up coming down because they can’t handle the weight of the snow.  Trees coming down = power going out.  The last time we had snow in October was 2008, and that year we lost power for 4-5 days.  Ugh.

This year we have a generator, so we won’t have to endure 50 degree temps in the house like last time.  We’ll have some light and the food in the fridge won’t go bad.  Still, it’s no good when the power goes out.

In fact, in 2008 we got out of Dodge…I went to my dad’s place and the wife and little girl went to her mom’s.

I have vivid memories of watching the Phillies clinching the 2008 World Series from my dad’s couch.  Good times.

Speaking of the World Series, game 6 yesterday was one of the best games I have ever seen.  It looks like the Rangers are done…too bad.  I wanted those guys to win.

I’m searching for pictures from the 2008 October snowstorm.  Will post them if I can find them.


Trail running lesson: The need for conviction

I’ve been enjoying my weekly trail run in Schooley’s Mountain County Park.  The rocks and hills make it both scenic and challenging.  I’ve been taking it slow and steady (including walking when necessary), trying to improve my trail running skills.

Today’s run in Schooley’s was particularly challenging.  It was raining, which made the rocks slick.  I struggled to find stable footing.  My lack of experience was playing on my mind.

That’s when I fell.

As I was making my way up a hill, I got nervous and lost clarity on my line through the rocks.  I tried to regain my balance but it was too late.  I put my hands down and caught myself.  The fall wasn’t bad.  I was thankful to be going uphill—if I had been going downhill I might not have been able to stop my momentum so easily.

I learned a pretty simple lesson from that little slip—I need to have conviction and be assertive when picking and following my line through the trail.

Trail running isn’t easy, especially when the terrain is complicated.  I’m discovering that the ability to orchestrate the mental and physical elements of running is critical—I need to see the upcoming trail, pick the right line through the trail and get my body to step in the right places to follow the line.  My brain needs to be several feet ahead of my body, and my body must still handle the obstacle it’s currently facing.  Running on roads or crushed gravel doesn’t require the same kind of attention and coordination.

Indecisiveness makes it nearly impossible to effectively run trails with obstacles.  Conviction is key.  I’ve got to act with conviction that the line I picked can work, then I need to just go for it.  Hesitation is trouble.  It’s better to pick a bad line and have conviction about it than it is to pick a good line and be hesitant or passive.  If I’m passive, the trail will eat me up.

And “going for it” doesn’t mean being stupid.  I can still walk if I need to.  But even then, believing in my line will give me a much better chance of executing well.

The need for conviction about your path forward is the same in all sports.  Skiing / snowboarding and mountain biking come to mind.  Baseball too—I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a former pitcher say that conviction is the most important success factor in a crucial situation.  It’s better for a pitcher to throw his third best pitch with conviction than to throw his best pitch without it.

I suppose the same thing can be said about life.

=======================

I’m through the first three days of my monthly nutrition experiment.

I’m doing well.  I’m sure it sounds weird, but thinking about this experiment as a race has actually helped me.  It’s got me off thinking about the whole month and onto thinking about the current moment.  It’s also helped me find a bit more willpower to resist the frequent cravings.  Thinking about things the way I do in a race has worked (so far).  Hopefully things will get progressively easier.

My thoughts right now are just to get through the next 4 days, Thursday to Sunday.  Each day poses a potentially difficult challenge, especially after dinner.  The World Series, College Football, Sunday Night Eagles-Cowboys (Go Birds!).

After that I can worry about Halloween Hill.  But Monday’s too far away right now.


Reflections on a morning run

I opened the front door at 6 am and stepped into pitch black darkness.

It was a familiar feeling; I’ve been a morning runner for over 10 years.

This morning, however, something was different.  I heard an unfamiliar, rhythmic rustling sound in the front yard.  Even with dead leaves scattered everywhere, it couldn’t be the wind.  Recently we’ve seen bear, fox, deer and all kinds of ground animals in our yard.  I was most concerned about a bear—a bear seems to have found good breakfast in the neighborhood, and 6 am is typically the time he/she pays the neighborhood a visit.

I quickly went back into the house, fumbling for the switch that controlled the outside light.  After turning every light inside the house on, I finally found the outside switch.  I couldn’t see anything so I retrieved a flashlight and decided to head out.  I didn’t hear anything this time, so I stashed the flashlight in the mailbox, found the light on my watch and started running.  I spent the next mile running in the darkness down an unlit street, hoping that I didn’t bump into anything (living or dead).

Ahhh…the beauty of the morning run, especially in autumn.

As my eyes started to adjust to the darkness, my other senses became active.  I caught the familiar aroma of wood burning.  The smell of fire burning…it’s one of the things I love most about being outside in autumn and winter.  Most people in my area have wood stoves, fireplaces or outdoor fire pits so the smell of wood burning is familiar.  Yet it always picks up my spirits.  Maybe it brings me back to a time long past.

I spent the next two hours watching the sky change:  from all grey to grey / orange to orange / red / yellow.  It was beautiful.  Every time I looked, the sky was different—different colors, different cloud formations, different position of the sun on the horizon.  I was surprised at how long the color display lasted.  This morning’s run included an especially scenic stretch where I passed a nature preserve that surrounds a ravine.  Just incredible to see the sun rising over the ravine.  I wished I had a camera.

I was thankful that the predicted rain held off.  I don’t mind a rainy run in the spring or summer, but when the temperatures dip below 45 it can be really nasty.  I was happy to be getting the run in before the rain came.  After all, it’s Wednesday and lately Wednesday means rain around here.  Sure enough, the rain started about an hour after I returned.

I used to run only in the morning.  I did it mostly for convenience, before the craziness of the day started.  I wanted to finish my run before I got otherwise occupied.

Lately I haven’t been running in the early morning.  I’ve been trying to run at different times, experimenting with different ways to organize my day.

This morning’s run was like slipping on an old shoe.  It felt so comfortable to be out there early, before most people were awake.  Just really peaceful.

I realized how much I’ve missed that morning workout.


A new way of thinking about goals

“I know there’s a balance, I see it when I swing past.”

John Mellencamp, Between a Laugh and a Tear

I’ve been thinking about my goal for my next race ever since my original goal went out the window.

Like most things, I’m probably thinking too much about it.

I’ve been wondering whether I should set my goals based on a rational process or whether I should just discover (or uncover) them.  If the key to achieving a goal is being motivated and committed, it’s better to just listen to what my “inner self” is saying.  Those urges, and the stuff I find interesting, will probably motivate me more than anything I can cook up.

At least it’ll be better than saying I want to do something that seems reasonable until I actually have to get out and do it.

Along those lines, here is a preliminary list of concepts that I’ve been exploring, the things that are most interesting to me right now with respect to running:

  • Dial in on a new nutrition strategy.  I’ve written a lot about my eating habits and my exploration of Paleo.  It’s occupied much of my attention over the past 3 months.  I believe nutrition is the foundation of fitness.
  • Explore new training strategies.  These strategies include higher mileage running, shorter but more frequent strength work and different allocations of workouts over the course of a week.
  • Rest (sleep) more.  This isn’t overly complicated, but it does take more time!
  • Enjoy the experience of running.  No explanation required

Looking at this list, I think my current focus is on resetting the foundation of my running.  I did well in a couple of races in late 2010 and early 2011, and that led me to think bigger for the upcoming years.  But to get to those bigger goals, I need to build a better foundation.  I might have been able to PR on my old running foundation, but it was showing cracks.  I don’t know if I could have gotten much farther beyond a PR.

Recently I’ve also been thinking about whether I should (or how I can) bake running more effectively into my every day life.  Be more steady and consistent about it.  Get to the point where it doesn’t dominate for too long, and it doesn’t hibernate for too long either.

Right now the effort I put into running is a bit too extreme—it’s either unsustainably high or ineffectively low.  I emphasize 1-2 races a year and put a big effort into getting as fit as possible to race them.  Then, after a race, I let go and decompress.  I need time to recover from the effort I put into the race.  I don’t run much and I regress in my level of fitness.  Then, for the next race, I end up re-covering a lot of fitness ground that I’ve let lapse.

Compare that with what might happen if I focused more on the every day aspects of running as opposed to 1-2 races.  What if I just ran because I love to run instead of because I need to get faster for my next race?  What if I didn’t completely restrict eating junk food, but I didn’t go overboard either?  Could I create a sustainable running/fitness workload that I could manage for extended periods of time?

I wouldn’t stop racing.  But instead of using races as the prime motivator for all things fitness, they would be more like checkpoints where I would test my fitness.

I don’t remember ever cramming for a test during my four years in college.  Not once.  I didn’t have to cram—I had a routine of consistently studying and dedicating time to learning.  Taking a test was just a checkpoint along the way.  I didn’t need to find extra time to do it.  The time was just there.

I don’t remember ever worrying about a test either.  In my opinion, I either knew the stuff or not.  If I felt like I knew the material and still bombed the test, that was ok.  If I did great on the test but didn’t feel like I knew the material, that would be a problem.  My thinking was longer term than the next test.

These weren’t the thoughts of a normal college kid, but I still did well in school.

I’m thinking I should adopt a similar perspective on running as I had on studying.  That is, the first priority is to create a good, sustainable set of habits.  When races (tests) come, I’m going to rely on those habits to carry me.  I can do really well with a good, sustainable set of habits.  Sure, I might need to increase the intensity before one or two particularly big races, but I won’t do it for long enough to burn me out.

Adding it all up, I wonder if my goal should be to create a set of fitness habits that I can sustain for longer than 4 months.  It might mean running shorter distances more frequently.  It might mean getting away from a complete restriction on junk food (followed by the inevitable binge).  It might mean I run in the middle of the day sometimes (instead of only in the morning).  I’m not entirely sure what it means.

As for this race in November, I’m not going to set a time goal for it.  I’m going to run whatever I can.  If I can create a set of good, sustainable fitness habits by the time the race arrives, that would be a good enough outcome for me.  I’ll get back to worrying about my PR in 2012.