Monday, April 25, 2011

Running in Flagstaff

I went for a run the other night and I couldn’t help but wonder what I was doing living in Flagstaff, Arizona. The sky and mountains were an array of colors that is almost impossible to describe. The trees were huge; the temperature crisp. What a beautiful display of nature!!! It made me think about how amidst all the stressors and struggles of trying to live the life of a professional runner, I have so much to be thankful for; I am thankful that I can move freely, thankful for the great friends that I live and train with here in Allie Kieffer and Kristina and Tebor Vegh,; thankful for my coach Ryan Cole, and for many people in Charlotte who still encourage and support me. But most of all, I am thankful that I am close to God and that I experience His power despite being an undeserving, fleshly human.
Sometimes, when I run, I reflect and think about what I am really doing with my life and how I chose this particular life of sport; Soccer, basketball, tennis, softball and other team sports have always been a part of my life, but just what am I doing  training on some of the best trails in the world with some of the best runners in the country?  Racing competitevely is not how I envisioned my life in High School, College or even beyond that. And despite injuries, broken ankles, illnesses, rejections and a very unusual upbringing, I am here. I may have a long way to go in developing as a runner, but I am here in Flagstaff, Arizona trying to be the best athlete I can be.

At this point in my life, nearing 29, I remain as competitive as ever. I’m still not quite sure that I was created to be a high caliber distance runner:),… but I was created to be an athlete! And although I love contending at this elite level, I confess that it is beyond pride and ego that I compete for. I run for Jesus Christ and know that any gift that I do have, is from Him. I like to take the following verse to heart; “each one should use whatever gift they have been given…” (1 peter 4:12) I think Peter is trying to say that we all have different abilities and talents and we should use them for God, others, and ourselves. I’m not the best runner or one of the most talented in the country, and I don’t know if I will ever be. What I do know, is that for now at least, I was created to be an athlete and to use any ability I do have the best that I can.

As I mentioned in my last blog, I came to Flagstaff in January, 2011 and although I had a couple indoor track races, the real season really began in March with some road races and track tune –ups. I’ve had some good races so far this spring, but I have a long way in reaching my goals, as I continue to come face to face with the best of the best. So here is a little update of races that have gone on in March and what continues to go on in April.

March 12th – Mountain to Fountain 15k in Scottsdale, AZ

It was a different approach to any race I‘ve ever been in because it was by far the longest race I have ever been in. I really didn’t know what to expect, besides pain! My mind started to give many excuses for why I shouldn’t do well. “I’m tired from work, my legs are sore; I’ve been stressed about “xyz”. I have never raced this long of a race before.” One excuse after another. I finally decided that these were all just parts of life and that I would refute any negative thoughts that came my way.
I wrote about Matthew 7:7 in my journal the days leading up to this race. It kept coming up at church, in my daily readings and even on the radio. I really felt God teaching me about asking Him for things in accordance with his will. The verse says “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you .” Sometimes I’m afraid to ask God for things because I think I don’t deserve it or that I’ve made too many mistakes. And the truth is, I don’t deserve it, but because of Jesus, “I can approach the throne of grace with freedom and confidence.” (heb. 4:16) Any Christian can. This doesn’t mean that I use God as a genie or Santa Clause to get what I want. But it does mean that we are to come to Him, like a child going to their daddy for help. So for this race, that’s what I did. I asked that God would give me the strength and confidence to run a 15k to the best of my ability. And He did. I ended up coming in 2nd in a pretty strong field, and won some good money. It was very hilly so it served as a great strength workout for my future shorter track races. I won some $ and it was one step closer to getting me ready for the next few weeks!


March 26th- ASU Invitational (ASU)

 My days in Flagstaff have been mostly good, with new friends and nice clients to work with.  But sometimes I feel lonely, abandoned and frustrated.  At times, I stress and doubt myself for quitting a very good job in Charlotte and coming here. I was told that I would have help in certain areas of my life if I came here, but none of it was coming through.  However, the conclusion always came back to faith.  Faith that just like God had led the Israelites out of bondage into a new land, he would lead me too and provide like He said He would. 
“Do not think it strange at the painful trials you are suffering as though something strange were happening, but rejoice… that you may be overjoyed when glory is revealed.” (1 peter4:12)
The three weeks leading up to this race were all 80-85 mile weeks, which is pretty high mileage for me.  I had some good progression runs and long interval workout s during this time, but hardly any speed work.  Still, Coach Ryan said it would  be a good tune-up 1500m race to get me ready for the season, and I wanted to come close to my personal best for the event (4:21).  I ended up running 4:23 on a windy day.
 So although that wasn’t exactly what I wanted, the encouraging part of the meet was when Ryan made Kris and I do the 5k after the 1500m. He gave us specific orders not to win, but to treat it like a workout….running certain paces for each mile.  I fought him about it tooth and nail.  I didn’t like the idea of being in a race and not trying to win if I could.  Plus my legs felt tired from the first race, so I didn’t know how they would hold up anyway.  Of course I did what he said, but when the race began, it was very tough mentally to be in the back of the pack those first two miles. However, Ryan’s plan to run a fast last mile proved to be a great strategy.  Kris and I slowly moved up to the front of the pack by the end of the race.  It was a lesson for me on patience and timing. Often in my life I tend to rush everything, always trying to go hard from the beginning and not having anything left at the end whether it’s a physical or emotional task.  I need continued work in the patience area.  Anyways, the 5k gave me confidence to know I could run a descent 5k as a “workout” after the main race.  Not much time to recover after this meet.  It was back to Flagstaff for work, training and packing up for the next weekend.

April 3rd:  Carlsbad Road 5k (San Diego)
This race weekend proved to be once again a “pezz” special when it comes to traveling, racing, and encounters with new people.  It started with a shuttle ride to phoenix to catch a plane on Friday for the Carlsbad 5k race on sat., also known as the "fastest 5k in the world!" (which desn't make sense because there are obviously much faster 5k races on the track.....but whatever:) 
The bus stopped after an hour of driving because apparently there was a trailer accident where 20 cattle fell off a cliff and died.  I tried to stay calm, but eight hours on a very hot shuttle went by, and my legs started to cramp.  Then I tried to stay calmer as I missed flight after flight to get to San Diego.  Now believe me, I’ve missed flights before, but this was tough mentally because my race was the next morning. I honestly didn’t think I’d get there and be ready to run a very fast 5k with some of the fastest women in the world!

Thankfully, these dilemmas have happened often in my life and because of that, I found myself in a very comfortable sort of situation.  The situations where the only thing I can do is pray to God.  So I did.  “God I don’t feel ready to race in the morning after 14 hours of travel, but may your will be done.  All I can do is try my best and let you do the rest. Amen.”
Sometimes, I wonder if God gets sick of hearing those words from me. Other times like this, I think He laughs. It turned out that 2 hours after I finally arrived in San Diego late that night; I found out that the race was on Sunday!  I had told Ryan and everyone that it was Saturday but somehow I got the wrong day?:).  Anyways, it was a good thing, because that night after all the travel, I thought my legs were not attached to my body and it hurt to jog 8 min. pace!

Still, the next day in San Diego continued to have small trials.  I looked at the elite list and saw that of the 15 elite women on the list, my personal record of 16:16 from 2007 was one of the slowest.  These women all had a very long list of running accomplishments, and though I had had some success over the years, compared to them, I was definitely an underdog.  I was truly racing against some of the best women in the world including runners from Kenya, Australia, Ethiopia and England. Mental battle number one was to convince myself that I could reach the goal that Ryan and I had set; finish top 10.  I fought hard to believe that that was reasonable, and finally was starting to,…..until I had an appointment with a very different kind of masseuse! 
One of the last of the competitors to get a massage that afternoon, I’m sure the guy saw me and said in his head “Wow….this girl looks a little different than the smaller runners I just worked on.”  But unlike most people, he didn’t just think it!  And his first comment while working on my legs was about how much bigger they were than the rest of the girls.  “Don’t take this wrong way” he said, “but if you went on a vegan diet your legs would become thinner and you will feel free as you lose more muscle and weight.”  He in no way meant to be negative; he was actually a very nice, positive and eccentric person.  But he continued to talk about how my physique was not typical for what I do and how he really believed that I needed a drastic change in my diet.
 Having been classified as a runner instead of a soccer player for the last few years has made me come face to face with these situation lots of times.  Other coaches and runners have made comments, and even some doctors are surprised to see that I am an “elite distance runner."  Since I started running competitively back in 2006 with Zap Fitness, I always knew that I was different.  Playing soccer my whole life and being born with the genes that I have, I ‘ve never been “skinny” or “lanky”. In fact, though my body fat percentage is similar to a lot of  distance runners, my average weight is heavier than 90% of the Elite women I race against (even those who are significantly taller).  To put it simply, I am just broader and bigger than most women who have been runing their whole life.
It’s caused me many a time to second guess what I’m doing and I’ve had to have talks with some special people to encourage me that God created me a certain way and there really is only so much I can change. Being who I am, it hurts sometimes to hear comments like these, as it might for any girl.  I do strive to eat healthy and be lean, but I have to be reminded that if God wants to use me like I am, than He will. Thankfully to get me through, I talked to a dear friend and mentor from Charlotte after the massage and also meditated on Psalm 139.  It says, “For you created me in my inmost being. You knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made… frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place.”    After that, I decided that this situation; battle number two, was also in in my mind, and I would fight it.
After all the travel, I felt great the morning of the race.  I felt pop in my stride and energetic in my warm-up.  The weather was beautiful and I knew that although I may not look like these girls, and although I may not beat most of these girls, I could choose to run knowing who I was;  A strong, redeemed child of Christ, no matter the outcome. 
  I did end up running  a personal best in the 5k of 16:11 and ended up coming in 6th overall.  It was nothing crazy or super spectacular, but a good stepping stone for what could come in track. And also another lesson of not always taking to heart what other people think.

April 9th- Sun Angel 3k Steeplechase (ASU)…..

  I feel like I am getting fit and have had some great workouts with Allie to show that my strength is improving.  My first thought when approaching this race however, is how in the world am I going to get through this one?? It's my first 3k Steeplechase since last season and I cannot lie to myself saying that I've practiced a lot of hurdles and barrier jumps yet!!!  Ryan is great though,.... always saying that the time will come for that and to be patient in where I am at the moment.
The word vindication comes to mind for this race.  After making the USATF steeple finals last year, and then dropping out of the final race, it's tough to think about how hard a year it was.  The hard journey to comeback after my ankle surgery in 2008 and 2009, followed by compensating injury problems due to the ankle, did not set me up for much of a base in 2010 races.  So then to finally make a National Final after 3 years of being sidelined and have it end the way it did- it was hard to get back up physically and mentally! 
But I've been reminding myself all year, how free I am this year.  Free to not worry about results or pleasing people or redeeming myself.  God can be anyone's "vindicator" and  I love the idea that anyone, no matter their color, race, gender, ethnicity, backround etc., can seek and find the Lord as just that; their Vindicator. Tonight I want to run with freedom and confidence, while taking this verse to heart.;

"No weapon forged aginst you will prevail and you will refute every tounge that accuses you.  This is the inheritance of the servants of the Lord. This is their vindication from me."  (isaiah 54:17)

 This verse reminds me that the true victory here on earth is already won because of Jesus.  And with heaven being the prize, there really isn't anything greater to win!
Yes I have failed, and yes I have had some really tough times in my life including in the "running world", but I can choose to get back up time and time again, because God is my vindicator!   

So anyways, the goal for this race was to qualify for USATF nationals with the "A" standard. We all thought it would be another beuatiful weather weekend in Phoenix, but we were definitely wrong.  The rain and wind didn't subside the whole night and I give so much credit to the organizers, officials and athletes who stuck it out to the very end. My race was hard, but went well.  It ended up that I did qualify....barely, by about one second. It was not ideal conditions, but it was great to get back into Steeplechase mode, (a mode very different than regular flat racing:) and I was happy just to be competing.

Kris, Allie and Sleekis also ran well in each of their events.  And although none of us were completely satisfied or estatic about how we did, we helped and encouraged eachother during and after the races. In less than a week, we'd be competing again!

April 17th- Boston Marathon Road 5k
Time: 16:21
Place: 2nd

“He will keep in perfect peace he whose mind is stayed on you.”  Isaiah 26:3

Thanks goodness the devotional today mentioned this verse and talked about having a good attitude when life throws us annoying frustrations.  Because…Man! Do I get hit hard, when it comes to traveling sometimes!!  I mean here I am once again, stuck all day at the airport due to a canceled flight. I'm on my way to Boston for the BAA 5k, which takes place the day before the Boston Marathon and traveling is not going all that well.
This verse is key in the Christian walk because it is soo easy to get uptight, frustrated and worried, especially for me.  But when you keep your mind off of yourself and into “heavenly” things like Christ, and helping others, the worry disappears.  I may not get into Boston until an hour before the race at this point, but I will still run and try my best.  That’s the attitude I strive to have anyway!  In the meantime, I decided to call some friends, family and clients and see what their frustrations were.  It definitely helps to get my mind off me.
The morning of the race was rainy and windy and my legs were tight and stale from the travel and 3 hour time zone difference.  The fact hits me in the face again;  you can have all the confidence and positive energy in the world, but you cannot deny when you just don’t feel your energetic self.  And I am hurtin today!
When the race began, I was actually in 5th or 6th place for the majority of the first two miles.  I fought mentally to stay in the front pack.  I always want to do well in races, but there is something about racing close to where I grew up, that motivates me even more to do well.  It could have been the fact that I had a few friends spread out during the race to cheer me on, including Randy Ashley, a premier High School and Adult Coach from Asheville, NC.  But regardless, I didn’t as good as I did in the last 2 races, so I clung clung to the mantra  “One step in front of the other”. That’s really all running is if you think about it. And before I knew it, I was gaining, passing and finishing the race in second place.  16:21 was a pretty good time for me on that day and I won some much needed prize money.  With the end of my consecutive 4 weekend racing circuit coming to an end, I know I need a break before the next track race.