Saturday, September 13, 2014

YOU Have No Excuse NOT to Meditate: A 5-Minute 30-Day Meditation Challenge

"[M]editation is a way to get in the space between your thoughts. You have a thought here, a thought here, and there's little space between every thought." -- Deepak Chopra

YOU have no excuse not to meditate.

Yes, you...I'm talking to YOU.

Yes, I'm pointing at YOU...
I'm talking to all of you out there who claim your mind is too busy to meditate.

To all of you who claim you have tried meditation and it just doesn't work for you.

To all of you who claim you don't have any time to meditate.

To all of you who think that meditation is for a bunch of hippies who like to burn candles and make weird chanting noises.

To all of you who have used any kind of excuse not to meditate, I am here to tell you that your excuse  is a cop-out.  Your excuse is nothing more than a self-created justification to keep you from doing the hard work - and yes, meditation is hard work - that you need to do to live a happier life.  And if you say, "I'm already happy, I don't need to meditate," then think about how amazing it'd be to feel even happier.  

Before I go further, I want to make clear that meditation is not a cure all.  It won't fix all the problems in your life.  It won't make money suddenly appear.  It won't make that guy you see at the grocery store magically fall in love with you.  It won't make the girl of your dreams come walking through the door.  It won't cure cancer.

Meditation, however, will make you happier - and that's completely relative to how you feel from day-to-day, moment-to-moment.  It will also make you more productive.  It will help you open your mind and see new opportunities that you may have completely missed otherwise.  Most of all, it will make you recognize that the little voice that constantly runs in your head - the one that tells you stories all day long about how you look, how you feel, how someone else looks, whether you're doing a good job - is not the truth.  That's right.  That little voice in your head is only telling you some version of a story.  Once you recognize that, pause, and realize that's all it is - a story - then your entire outlook can change a little bit at a time.

For now, I'll save the science and details of the benefits of meditation for another post.  My only goal for this post is to get you to commit for one month to meditate for at least 5 minutes a day.  There's no science to that number.  It's just a place to start.

I mentioned in my post a couple weeks ago, Slowing Down for Speed, Efficiency, and Endurance, that I'd been trying to meditate for 20 minutes twice a day.  I'll admit that there have been days when I don't fit in the 20 minutes or I don't do it twice a day, and I was feeling guilty about that.  (Actually, that little voice in my head was telling me that I was being lazy and failing at my goal).

Then I listened to a wonderful podcast by my favorite podcaster, Rich Roll.  I've mentioned him before and if you haven't checked him out, then you truly don't know what you're missing.  One of his recent podcasts was with ABC News anchor, Dan Harris.  If you think that meditation is a bunch of hooey, that it's for hippy freaks, that you can't slow your mind down enough, or that it's just a waste of time, then this podcast is a must listen for you.

I promise that if you listen to this podcast, you will wipe away every excuse that little voice tells you to let you get away with not meditating.  

You can read Rich Roll's notes about the podcast to get a better sense of Dan Harris and his entry into meditation.  In a nutshell, as a broadcast journalist, he's one of the busiest, most overstressed people you will find.  He's not religious and is a self-proclaimed agnostic.  His mind races probably faster than yours on any given day, and he's in a constant pressure cooker with his job.  He would be one of the last people you would think would take up meditation.  Yet, after an interesting couple of years following an on-air panic attack, some news assignments covering different faiths/religions, and reading a book on Buddhism that his wife gave him (which he thought was ridiculous), he decided one day on vacation to screw it and try meditation for five minutes.

As he describes, it sucked, it was hard, and his mind wandered off all the time.  Over time, however, it got better.  And over time, he got happier.  Consequently, he wrote a book called 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works - a True Story.  I implore you to click the link and watch the videos where he describes how he came upon this journey, how ridiculous he thought meditation was, and how he came to realize the immense benefits meditation would have.  The video is actually quite funny and sarcastic (right up my alley) as Harris tells about his journey.   You can also watch the talk he did at the MindBodyGreen seminar, which is on Rich Roll's website.

His point - and mine - is a simple one:  focus on your breathing for 5 minutes every day.  Don't call it meditation if that you creeps you out.  You don't have to light a candle or chant sanskrit.  All you have to do is sit comfortably - in a chair, on a couch, on the floor, however you want - close your eyes, then focus on the breath coming in your nose, moving down your throat into your stomach as you inhale, and then moving back out your stomach, throat, and nose as you exhale.  That's it.

Yes, your mind will wander.  You may take one breath and then that little voice will start saying "oh, wow, good job, you focused on that breath.  I wonder how long we can do this? I wonder if I'm breathing the right way.  I wonder if I should be sitting differently.  Did I turn my phone off?  Oh wait, I'm supposed to be focusing on my breath."  Once you realize that the voice is running on auto-pilot, just turn your focus back to your breath.

Then your mind will wander again...and again...and again.  Don't get angry, frustrated, or disappointed, and most of all, don't give up.  Just recognize that your mind wandered and refocus on your breath.

Contrary to what you may think, the point is not to clear your head of all thoughts.  That's not going to happen.  The point is to recognize when that little voice kicks into gear and just bring your attention back to your breath.  The beauty of meditation isn't to clear your mind.  It's to get in touch with your mind - more specifically, to find the space in between the thoughts.  That's where the true peace lies.  It's where - and this may freak you out - you will find the true spirit, God, or whatever higher power you want to call it.  It's where you find your true consciousness.  It's the place where that little voice - the one that only tells you stories, not truths - ceases to exist.

Okay, that was a bit lofty...but that's the carrot at the end of the stick.  Your goal isn't to wipe your mind clean, so stop stressing about how you can't quiet your mind.  Your goal is to find the space between the thoughts.  And you do that by doing one simple thing:  focusing on your breath.

Doing that one simple thing doesn't have to be a huge undertaking.  So don't let that little voice tell you that you don't have time.  If Dan Harris can find 5 minutes a day (actually he does more than that), then so can you.  If not 5 minutes, then do 1 minute and build from there.  Just establish a consistent, daily practice of focusing on your breath for a set amount of time.  Do it when you first get out of bed.  Over your lunch break.  Right before you go to bed.  On the metro.  Just do it.

Don't get discouraged and say "I can't do it, my head is to busy.  It's just too hard."  That excuse is the equivalent of not going to the gym because it's hard, it makes you breathe hard, and you get too sweaty.  Let go of any expectation that meditation is easy or that you should be able to be good at it in a matter of days.  As I mentioned in my prior post, you wouldn't expect to get up off the couch and run a 5k without training.  So don't expect your brain to run a 5-minute mediation session without wandering off for most it.

Doing some amount of meditation every day (well, almost every day) the past few weeks has nearly blown my mind.  Just in the last few days, I've begun to notice opportunities and meet new people that I know I would have missed before.  How has meditation helped me do that?  It's made me notice when that little voice is rambling on.  It's made me decide that I don't have to listen to that little voice.    Instead of letting that little voice talk me out of introducing myself to a new person, I let that negative thought pass, and decide to take another course of action by walking up to the person.  Instead of pre-judging a situation and assuming that a certain outcome was sure to be the end result, I decided to open myself up to at least trying to achieve a different outcome or exploring the possibilities.  I've had a more empathetic response - rather than knee-jerk reaction - to other people and situations throughout the day.  It's allowed me to focus better and not get caught up in the constant storytelling of that little voice.

It's made me....happier.  

Am I happy all the time?  No.  But I'm happier more of the time.

Do I still flip people off in traffic?  Yes.  But I do it less.

Do I still get annoyed with people throughout the day?  Yes.  But it's less often.

Am I able to meditate for 20 minutes without my mind wandering off?  Absolutely not.  But I'm getting better.

On my Helpful Links tab I've provided some Meditation Tips that provide a couple of resources to get you started with a simple meditation practice.  Whether you do one of those or find your own, all I ask is that you commit to focus on your breathing - meditate - for 5 minutes a day for 30 days.

Drop the excuses.  Just do 5 minutes of focusing on your breathing for 30 days.  Then I dare you to tell me that you're not even slightly happier at the end of that 30 days.

Can you commit to that challenge? If you do, I'd love to hear about your progress, your struggles, etc., so email me at or leave a comment below...

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Slowing Down for Speed, Efficiency, and Endurance

"Sit down and wait 'til your hurry's over...because before you know it, in the blink of an eye, 
your life is over."
~ Norman Gibbs (my Papa Norman)

My Papa Norman - the greatest Grandpa ever to live - always used to say that to me.   He said it's something his Grandpa used to tell him.  I sort of understood it, but thought it was a little counter-intuitive:  how are you supposed to sit down and wait if you're in a hurry?  The past couple weeks, however, that little Papa Norman-ism has taken on a whole new that I understand on a new and profoundly deeper level.

We're a crazed, busy society for the most part, and nothing makes you sit up and take notice of how busy we are like returning from a relaxing vacation.   I spent three weeks in Nebraska and Colorado in July and August, and returned from that vacation with an unsettling sense of how much I've been sucked into the rat race of urban life. I'm a very adaptable person and think I could live just about anywhere I had or wanted to.  But the mountains of Colorado and the Boulder area spoke to me in a way that only one other place has before (Ireland).  They didn't speak to me in a whisper...they spoke to me in a loud, drill sergeant voice (much like my Papa would have used in the Marines, although he wasn't a drill sergeant) to say "You must, for the good of your soul and to live your true life, find a way to move here!"  Yes, the mountains of Colorado are pulling at my heart and soul with as much force as the gravity between the Earth and the Moon.

Happy mountains in El Dorado Canyon outside Boulder...
Usually when I return from vacation, I feel a sense of calm and joy to be back home.  I've loved D.C and northern Virginia in the 17 years I've lived here, and always thought this is where I would stay.  But upon returning from this vacation, for the first time ever, I had the feeling of "I'm done with this place."  Done with the competitive chaos.  Done with the politics and suited-up Type A personalities who saturate this area.  Done with only feeling connected to nature on the weekends.

But recognizing that I'm not in a position to just drop everything and move to Boulder, I decided I need to set about implementing a path that will get me there.  In the meantime, however, I still need to live here, still need to work, still need to somehow thrive in the chaos.

But how do I do that?

On the drive back from Nebraska I was listening to my usual podcasts and one was on the topic of Zone 2 heart rate training.  This is a topic that I know all too well (see my prior post on periodization), but for those of you who aren't familiar with the concept, here's a simple explanation.

Whenever you're doing any type of physical activity, your body is primarily burning one of two types of fuels for energy:  fat or carbohydrates.  Your carbohydrate stores are limited and break down quickly, whereas your fat stores are significantly more replete and break down slowly.  Theoretically, even a skinny person with relatively low body fat has enough fat stores for days of energy.

Because your carbohydrate stores are limited, an endurance athlete cannot realistically complete an endurance event by burning just carbohydrates.  Instead, the endurance athlete needs to train the body to burn primarily fat, for longer, sustained energy release.  This type of training is accomplished by training in your aerobic heart rate zone, which will teach your body to burn more fats than carbohydrates.  Thus, heart rate zone training focuses on determining your aerobic zones (where your body is burning primarily fats) versus your anaerobic zones (where you body is burning primarily carbohydrates and producing lactic acid - the painful burning you feel in your muscles after shorts bursts of hard efforts).

Heart rate zones can be calculated based on your maximum heart rate with different methods and metabolic testing that I won't get into.  For this simple explanation, all you need to know is that there are basically 5 heart rate zones:

Zone  1:  50-60% of your maximum heart rate.  Base aerobic zone that is typically used for warm-ups and is a pace where you can easily hold a conversation.

Zone 2:  60-70% of your maximum heart rate.  Aerobic training zone where you can exercise comfortably at this pace and still hold a conversation.

Zone 3:  70-80% of your maximum heart rate.  There is debate over whether this is still an aerobic zone or is an aerobic/anerobic combination.  This is a more challenging pace and isn't typically used for training, with the thought that it "confuses" your body as to whether it should be using fats or carbs.

Zone 4:  80-90% of your maximum heart rate.  This is the first aerobic zone, at which point your body begins to lack in oxygen and primarily use carbs rather than fats.  You can only spit out a few words at this pace.

Zone 5:  90-100% of your maximum heart rate where you'll be gasping for air after just a few seconds.

The idea behind calculating your heart rate zones is to teach you to train predominantly in the aerobic Zone 2, so that your body learns how to burn fat more efficiently to keep you going for longer periods of time.  In other words, by training your body at this Zone 2 pace, you develop better endurance.  Moreover (and somewhat contrary to what you would think), training at this slower Zone 2 pace actually helps you become faster.  Thus, your body not only become more efficient at burning your primary energy source for endurance, but you also become faster and, consequently, can run a quicker pace at the same lower heart rate.  Don't believe me?  Then check out the story of arguably one of the best Ironman champions in history, Mark Allen.  By training in Zone 2, Mark Allen went from running an 8:15 minute/mile pace, to a 5:20 minute/mile pace in a matter of weeks...all while still functioning in that easy-going, fat-burning Zone 2.

So what on Earth does this have to do with functioning in a fast-paced urban setting and me trying to figure out a game plan for moving to Boulder?  Everything.

Quite simply, this concept of slowing down to become faster and more efficient translates just as easy to your mind as it does to your body.  

It seems that we think the faster we can go each day, the quicker we can plough through our never-ending "inbox" of things to do, and the happier, more fulfilled, more productive we'll feel.  But does that really work?  Is what you're doing really working for you?  Does your inbox ever empty?  Sure, there are times when you have specific deadlines that must be met, where once they are, you feel that sense of accomplishment and completeness.  But those days likely are the minority.  For most days, your schedule consists of little "goals" that you feel must be accomplished:  walk the dog; workout; get ready for work; commute to work; work; commute home; do laundry;  fix dinner; feed the kids; do dishes; pack lunches for tomorrow; walk the dog; go to bed; get up & repeat.  Then somewhere in the midst of all that hurrying around, you also have to find time to pay the bills, see your friends, spend time with your family, clean the rest of the house, run errands and, oh yes, just sit and relax.

Unfortunately, it's that last bit - the relaxation - that often gets kicked to the curb (along with other self-maintenance "luxuries" like working out).

But what I'm here to tell you is that my Papa Norman was right all along:  just sit down and wait 'til your hurry is over, because before you know it, your life will be over.  What you need to understand is that your "life" isn't your commute, your house chores, or even your job.  Your life is what happens in between all the self- and society-imposed obligations. Your life is what happens in the seconds and space between all that...when you're not looking.  So the trick is this:  teach your mind to see the space in between.  Teach your mind to slow down time.  In doing so, you will find that precious gift of time, along with peace, happiness, and love.

It's no secret that our stressed out lifestyles are killing us.  So stop accepting that.  Stop thinking there's nothing you can do to change that.  Stop treating yourself like you're just another burnt-out, typical American.

Start slowing down.  Start training your mind to function in Mental Zone 2.

Think of it this way:  if an athlete tried to go out and do a marathon or an Ironman at a blistering Zone 4 or 5 pace, she wouldn't last more than a few miles.  If she tried to push through that burning pain of lactic acid building up in her muscles, she quite likely could cause a heart attack, collapse, and die.  Best case scenario, she'd just pass out or fall to the ground.  Athletes know better than to do this.  So why can't we, as normal, every-day humans, know better than to do this on a daily basis?

You may think you're winning your race by functioning in Mental Zone 4 or 5 every day just because you're still waking up every day.  You think this pace is sustainable simply because it allows you to keep slugging through each day.  Truth be told though, the race of life obviously (and hopefully) is vastly longer than any marathon or Ironman.  So the fact that up until this point in your life you've managed to function at Mental Zone 4 or 5, really only means that by comparison, you're only a few feet or maybe mile past the start line.  Trust me, your breakneck pace is catching up with you.  You will collapse in just a few miles...and it will be ugly.

I've said it before and, indeed, the entire theme of this blog, is that life is an endurance event.  Let go, right now, of any notion that you'll be able to get through this endurance event by continuing to function at Mental Zone 4 or 5.  If you refuse to let go of that notion, then you will fall well short of your finish line.  By that I mean, what should be a long and happy life for you, will be dramatically cut short by precious years.

So what's the solution?  Sit down...and wait.  Better yet, sit down, and meditate.  Yes, I said it...that lofty, weird, new-agey word:  meditate.  I'm not going to go into the benefits and in's and out's of mediation right now (I'll save that for a future post).  Right now, I'm just going to leave you with my experience the past couple weeks....

Since returning from vacation, I set out to start meditating.  It's been on my "to-do" list for quite a while now.  But given my burning compulsion to make some dramatic changes in my life, I finally realized that the only way to do that was to slow down and open myself up.

I started by downloading an online course from MIndBodyGreen by vegan Ultraman Rich Roll called The Art of Living With Purpose.  If you're not familiar with Rich Roll's life-transforming story, I highly encourage you to check out his website, podcasts, and book, Finding Ultra.  The dude will inspire the hell out of you...seriously.

His online course is all about how to set goals and achieve them.  Perfect for a Type-A, goal-driven person like myself, right?  Well, his approach is a little more holistic than just writing down some goals on a piece of paper and carving out time every day to devote to them.  Yes, his course starts with the "assignment" of meditating twice a day for 20 minutes for 30 days, and journaling for 20 minutes once a day, by hand (not computer).  Ideally, you do your journaling right after one of your meditation sessions when your mind is more free.  You can journal about anything and everything.  Just let the words and emotions flow.  

I can hear you now:  that's dumb.  That'll never work.  My mind is too busy.  I can't mediate.  This is crap.  And journaling?  Who has time for that?  I'm going back to how I normally set and achieve my goals.

Well just hear me out.  I was right there with you.  My head is as twirling as the spin cycle in the washing machine.  I'm sure yours is too.  But like training your heart to slow down in heart rate zone training, you also have to train your mind to slow down.  Yes, it's really true: your brain is a muscle that you have to train.  If you'd been eating McDonalds every day, living an unhealthy lifestyle, and filling your body with crap, you wouldn't expect your heart to be able to go out and run a marathon, let alone a 5k, with no training would you?  So why do you expect more immediate results from your brain?

I took my task to heart, put faith in the process, and began meditating twice a day.  It's not easy by any means and I've only been doing it for a little over a week.  I missed a couple days of meditation and journaling, and there were some days where I only meditated once.  But that didn't derail me.  I was gentle and forgiving with myself and just started anew the next day.  Mediation isn't about perfection.

My mind still wanders during meditation, but that's ok.  Again, training yourself to slow down - physically and mentally - takes time.  But I'm certainly better than I was when I first started.

Admittedly, it's hard to carve out essentially another hour of my day - 20 minutes of meditation in the morning, followed by 20 minutes of journaling, and then 20 minutes of meditation before bed.  Interestingly, however, I haven't felt like my "inbox" has fallen behind.  Whatever can be accomplished in my remaining time for that day gets accomplished, and what can't, will wait until tomorrow.

As for how I feel...almost indescribable.  I started this journey with the intent of freeing up my mind to ways of developing a game plan for moving to Boulder and, in the process, of opening myself up to great joy and happiness in my every day life.  Cosmically, however, another purpose has emerged.  My dog, Addie, was diagnosed last week with lymphoma.   While I obviously had a day of sadness and many, many tears -- and still have moments of sadness -- I also feel an extreme sense of acceptance.  As my Uncle Bud used to say when he was battling cancer, "It is what it is."  Another somewhat baffling saying that seems to now have more meaning.  I've accepted Addie's diagnosis with a clear head, recognizing that I can only control what's within my power - like her diet, her exercise, how I react to this illness, and what I ultimately decide is in her best interest.  I can't control how she'll react to the weekly chemotherapy treatments or how this disease will play out.  So we'll just take it a day and a week at a time, while enjoying every precious minute with her.

I know that I wouldn't have embraced this mindset if I hadn't started calming my spastic mind and opening it up to other feelings, emotions, and messages.  I feel a sense of calm determination - not just about Addie, but about everything.  Each day I now awake without a dread of the looming "to-do" list.  I simply wake up, walk and feed Addie, mediate, journal, do some yoga, and start about my day.  I feel more efficient - almost as if things are in slow motion like in the movie, the Matrix.  Life isn't about trying to get a certain list of things accomplished during the day.  It's about just moving through the day, unhurried, yet efficient.  It's something you have to experience for yourself to fully believe it.

Believe me, I'm nowhere near living in some zen-like state.  But the small amount of meditation and journaling I've been doing has opened my eyes to the vast power of our mind and what lies beneath.  We can be guided by something more powerful than our self-made drive to tackle our daily to-do list.

I am beyond excited about the infinite possibilities that will emerge as I slow down my mind.  It's even more exciting than the prospect of being able to run better than an 8-minute mile at a Zone 2 pace.  It's actually very fortuitous that I'm having to re-start my run training at the same time that I'm starting my mental training.  Due to some injuries, I've had to re-start my run program, so I'm slogging away at a very slow Zone 2 pace right now.  Yet, I know with time, that pace will improve, my heart will become stronger, and my body more efficient and faster.

Likewise, with time and training, by bringing my mind into more of a Mental Zone 1 or 2 pace, it will become stronger more efficient, and more open.

Many of you probably don't believe me.  Many of you may believe me, but think you're somehow different and that this won't work for you.  Trust me, you're not different, and trust me, it will work for you.  It won't necessarily work within the first day or even the first week.  But again - if you're out of shape, you won't go run a 5k within a week's time.  Accept the fact that right now, your mind is out of shape.  Commit to giving it the time and training it needs to get into shape, just as you'd made the same commitment to get your body into shape.

I'll post some resources on the Helpful Links tab, but here are some meditations and other resources that I've found most valuable in starting this practice, training, and journey:
  • The Headspace website and app and guided Take 10 Meditation with Andy Puddicombe:  This guy is amazing and his website and app are great resources for beginning mediation.  I became interested in him through his 10-minute TED talk, which you can watch on YouTube.  His app and website have wonderful visual aids, and his Take 10 series - a series of 10-minute guided meditations for 10 days - are an excellent way to break into meditation.  
  • Deepak Chopra:  That's right - the man, the myth, the legend - Deepak.  Seriously, his stuff is the bomb!  His website is a wealth of meditation and wellness information, as well as downloadable guided meditations.  I've recently been doing his 21-day meditation experience, which is almost over.  You can access meditations in this series for 5 days after they post.  But I'm hoping he'll have other series after this.  His voice is so calming, and the messages and mantras he delivers with every meditation are so powerful that I find myself repeating them - without even knowing it - throughout my day.  
I know many of you will use the excuse (let's call it what it is, it's an excuse) that you don't have time to meditate.  Don't elude yourself into thinking that you're any busier than the next person.  If this is your excuse, then check out these ways to squeeze meditation into your busy day.  

Even more of you will probably cling to your self-limiting story that for some reason, you are unique and you won't be able to mediate or that your problems are too insurmountable for something as silly and simplistic as meditation.  But ask yourself what is truly holding you back.  Whatever story or facts you're telling yourself isn't the "truth" - it's only the version you choose to see.  Ask yourself:  is my desire to hold onto whatever is holding me back more powerful than my desire to slow down?  A desire or need is only as powerful as you make it.  Only you can choose which one you want to give more power to.  

Are you meditating?  If not, what's holding you back?  If you are meditating, what helpful resources or tips can you share?  

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Two Trail Races, the Air Force Cycling Classic, & a New Charity Race Team

The 2014 race season has started off with a bang!  My race calendar is packed this year as I venture into the world of ultra trail running and continue to try to build triathlon strength for the brutality that is the SavageMan Triathlon in September.  So let's get right to the recap of this season thus far....

EX2 Adventures Backyard Burn 5-Miler

My trail running kicked off this year with a 5.8-miler at the EX2 Backyard Burn at Wakefield Park on March 16th.  If you live in the DC area and have any love for trail running, the EX2 Adventures Spring and Fall Backyard Burn series is a must.  With both 5- and 10-mile options for each race around four Virginia parks, these series are always a good time.  The organizers are awesome, the race support top-notch, and the post-race food can satisfy even the pickiest of trail runners.

The Wakefield Park run ended up being a 5.8-miler through the undulating wooded trails.  I pushed it hard from the outset, dodging around the other runners and hoping to stay vertical in the process.  Amazingly, I did.  The last mile or so, I noticed a woman just in front of me that appeared to be in my age group.  So, of course, my competitive side kicked in as I pushed a little harder to get past her.  She had the same competitive drive and stuck right on my tail.  With 25 yards to go, the course split between the finish line for the 5-miler and the rest of the course for the 10-miler.  Naturally, I went the wrong way onto the course for the 10-miler.  My detour only last about two seconds, but it was enough for the woman behind to shoot past me down the finisher gate.

I finished in 57:41 (a 9:44 pace) and finished 7th out of 24 in my age group, just missing 6th place by one second.  I missed 5th place and the podium by less than four minutes, but I felt better about that than missing 6th place by one second!  It just goes to show that seconds really matter in a race...

Fountainhead Offroad Half-Marathon

Another amazing EX2 Adventures race was the Fountainhead Offroad Half-Marathon on May 18th.  This would be my first real trail running test and my longest trail run at that point.  I'd done a couple of trail runs on the Fountainhead course and knew that it'd be a good test for a newly trail runner.    

I stuck to my plan for the most part and treated the race as a training run.  Given this was my longest trail run and race, I didn't expect a stellar performance and I told myself I'd be happy with under a 2:30 finish.  

Boy, did I surprise myself!  I felt great the entire race.  I restrained my competitive fire when people were sluggishly passing me to run the uphills.  But I held my ground, did my own thing, and power-hiked the uphills.  I figured that most of these people either were the 10k folks or were half-marathon folks who'd be kicking themselves toward the end of the race when their legs were shot.  I was right.  

As the race wore on, I started passing people (many of whom passed me running uphill).  Around mile 4 or 5, a woman and I were running close to each other, so naturally we started up a conversation.  She stuck behind me for much of the race, but I lost her the last couple of miles.  I was actually disappointed because I enjoyed running with her.  

My legs felt amazingly good - tired, but good.  So I just powered through and ended up finishing at 2:27:35 - under my goal!  Not only that, but I was 6th in my age group out of 23.  I've never finished that well in any running race.  Once again, I missed the podium by about three minutes, so I need to focus on a bit more trail speed.  For my first significant trail race, however, I'll take that finish!  

Fountainhead trail  
I have to say though, as happy I as I am with my finish, I'm even more stoked about my race wounds. Until this race, I hadn't really fallen down on any of my trail runs.  Around mile 5, however, I was talking to the woman who I ended up running with for awhile and we were trying to figure out if we were still on the half-marathon route instead of the 10k route.  Forgetting that I don't tend to multi-task very well on the trail, I was yammering away and gesticulating with my hands when a tree root reached up, grabbed my ankle, and threw me forward.  I took a pretty good spill.  Fortunately, runners (and especially trail runners) are very kind folk, so the woman behind me and another guy stopped to make sure I was okay.  Not wanting to hold up their race, I thanked them, waved them on, and popped back up.

As I started to run, my right knee felt pretty sore and for a few minutes I was concerned that I'd bruised it too badly.  When I looked down, I saw blood streaming from both knees.  At that point, rather than freaking out, a feeling of "damn, that's pretty badass" surged through me.  So I pushed on and finished the race with some bloody knees.  

A happy finisher...


and bloody...
My new saying:  It ain't a race unless you finish muddy and bloody.  

The best part about this race, however, was the fact that it was my first official trail race on behalf of my new race - Team Rescue Tails!  I'd done the GW Parkway Classic 10-mile road race as my first official road race for the Team a few weeks earlier and did a blog post on our Team website about that race.  But given my focus this year on trail races and ultras, I was particularly excited to be running my first significant trail race wearing my Team Rescue Tails t-shirt!  

I'm so thrilled and honored to be part of this Team.  It's no exaggeration to say that this is a dream come true because for quite some time, I'd been wanting to set up a charity race team for the Animal Welfare League of Arlington.  Finally, after months of work and thanks to the tremendous help of other passionate folks, the Team is up and running.  Our goal is to fundraise to benefit the League and all the animals it helps.  I see great things in our future and I look forward to the Team growing throughout the year.  So please check out my fundraising page and the Team's website at   

Air Force Cycling Classic

Mixed in with all my trail running and ultra training are some long bike rides.  I need to work on my bike strength in preparation for the SavageMan half-iron triathlon this September, which is dubbed as the toughest triathlon (or at least the toughest half-iron).  More on that later...

So as part of my training rides, I signed up for the Air Force Cycling Classic in Virginia on June 7th.  The entire event hosts two days of rides over the weekend, with a challenge ride for regular folks like me on that Sunday.  The course is a 15k (just over 9-mile) loop starting in Crystal City and going up into Rosslyn, Clarendon, and around by the Air Force Memorial.  With that short of a loop and all the riders registered, I envisioned a full-on chaotic crashfest...but I was pleasantly surprised.  

The race was controlled chaos and I actually felt very safe and in control the entire time.  The race goes off at 7:00 a.m. and you can start any time up until 8:00 a.m.  You must be off the course by 10:00 a.m.  You get a medal depending on how many loops you do:  3 loops or less is bronze; 4-5 loops is silver; and 6 or more loops is gold.  I was shooting for 5 loops and the silver.  

My friend and I waited to start until some of the crowd thinned out because I didn't need to get caught up in someone's wheel as we slow-rolled our way through the starting gate.

Yeah, no way in hell was I jumping in the middle of that in the beginning...
Great view riding up to the Air Force Memorial....
Once I got past the start line though, it was pretty smooth sailing.  The 9.3-mile loop took us up route 110, into Clarendon/Rosslyn, then back down to the Air Force Memorial.  There were only 2 little climbs that were enough to slow you down for a bit, but other than that, it was a fast course.  I was surprised at the variety of cyclists - everyone from kids with their parents to elite athletes gunning for the gold.

For a few moments, I thought I could push it hard enough to get six laps...but I slowly realized that I wouldn't make the 3-hour cutoff.  Next year, if I start right away and push it a little harder, I think I could go for the gold!

So in the end I got my 5 laps for the silver medal.  I finished in 2:46:17, which was good for 17th out of 78 female age 40-49 riders.  That number is a little deceiving, however, because it includes all those female age groupers who did at least one lap.  Out of the 19 females in my age group who did 5 laps, I was 12th.  My pace was 16.8 mph.  To get 6 laps next year, I'd need to pick that up significantly to 18.6 mph.  A tough feat....

Me with Cherry Cervelo and my silver medal after the Air Force Cycling Classic...
With these races under my belt I feel like the 2014 racing season is off to an awesome start...but I have a lot to improve upon.  My biggest goal, however, is to gain recognition and support for AWLA's Team Rescue Tails.  No matter what my personal accomplishments may or may not be this year, I will consider the year to be a tremendous success if Team Rescue Tails continues to grow and raise money to benefit AWLA.  

Next up on the list is my first ultra trail run:  the Rosaryville 50k on July 20...

Please share how your race season is going....I'd love to hear about your accomplishments! 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

If I Were An Olympic Athlete, I'd Boycott Sochi for Killing Stray Dogs

History is replete with instances of sports and athletes breaking barriers, changing the way people think, and bringing people together in solidarity.  In 1926, Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim across the English Channel, dispelling the notion that women were "the weaker sex."  In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier by becoming the first African American to play in a major league baseball game.  In 1954, Roger Bannister defied what were believed to be human limitations by becoming the first runner to break the 4-minute mile.  And in 2012, 78-year-old Harriett Anderson became the oldest woman to ever finish the Ironman World Championships in Kona Hawaii, which she did this after flying over a guard rail on her bike, injuring her shoulder.

These are just a few examples of how sports have defied expectations, pushed our limits, and caused a sea change in people's beliefs.

So why hasn't the killing of thousands of stray dogs in Sochi for the 2014 Olympics caused a similar sea change in how the world - or at least Americans - view and treat homeless dogs?  

You've probably heard by now about the thousands of homeless dogs that have been ordered to be killed by Sochi's City Hall.  The purported reason for this mass slaughter is "so they don't bother Sochi's new visitors."   I find this "justification" to be bullshit.  While there may be some health issues associated with homeless dogs (such as rabies) or random incidents, many people are reporting that most of these stray dogs are extremely friendly, affectionate, and healthy, as seen in these photos.

One of the dogs from The Scruffy Faces of Sochi website who looks like he could be really threatening...NOT!
So why is Sochi continuing their practice of killing as many homeless dogs as they can find, despite the city being in the limelight right now?  My speculation is that there are several reasons.

First, the homeless animal population in Sochi is out of control and, sadly, seems to be indicative of the problem throughout Russia.  In Moscow in 2012, it was estimated that there were tens of thousands of homeless dogs running Moscow's streets, with another 17,000 in private and state-owned shelters.  With such an overwhelming homeless animal population, the poisoning and shooting of massive numbers of homeless dogs is common practice in Russia.  Yes, that's correct:  Sochi and other Russian countries have been engaging in this type of mass killing of dogs for years.  Moreover, this is not a practice developed just for the Olympics, nor is it a practice specific only to Russia.  National Geographic reports that other countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Kenya, Egypt, much of eastern Europe, and the Baltic countries have "mass dog-killing programs."  Moreover, the "stray dog problem" also was an issue in the Beijing and Athens Olympics.

Second, the vast majority of Russians don't have the mentality about dogs that Americans or other Westernized countries do, nor do they have the animal shelter infrastructure that we do in America.  One organization in Moscow - Moscow Animals - reports that "there are few western-style societies that aim to protect the interests of animals in Russia."  It seems that like many things in Russia, the few state-owned shelters that exist actually are rife with corruption and bribery.  

Third, Sochi officials apparently think it's easier to kill the dogs than to sterilize and vaccinate, or even to sponsor legislation that would fund a better shelter network.  Russia, like other countries with an extreme homeless animal population, doesn't have programs for the mass sterilization and vaccination of dogs.  Why?  Because killing them is less expensive and/or more efficient.  Interestingly, in April 2013, when it was first learned that Sochi would institute this mass killing to "beautify and sanitize" for the Olympics, the Humane Society of the United States offered to help Sochi with a mass sterilization and vaccination program to discourage the city from following through on their killing program.  Initially, Sochi agreed last year to forego their mass killing plan.  Clearly the Russian city didn't keep their word.

As a consequence of all the media coverage of Sochi's massive dog-killing program, Americans and others throughout the world have become outraged, with many people saying they will not watch the Olympics.  As an athlete and an animal lover, I have a bit of conflict or confusion over this move to boycott watching the Olympics on television.

Although I commend and respect the sentiment behind such an approach, I think it inadvertently hurts the athletes who have worked for years to compete in the Olympics, and is too passive of an approach.  First of all, neither Sochi nor the IOC cares if you sit in front of your t.v. and watch the Olympics.  Granted, I don't begin to understand the moneymaking aspect of the Olympics, but the only thing a boycott on television watching seems to do is hurt NBC's ratings, which has no impact on or relevance to Sochi's massive dog killing program.

Second, what such a boycott really does is weaken the support for American athletes.  Although I am not nor will I ever be an Olympic athlete, I have a good idea of what it means to commit yourself to an athletic goal, train hard for years, and pour your heart and soul into that goal.  These athletes have committed their lives to this one goal.  They have trained countless hours.  They have shed tears, blood, and sweat that could fill an ocean.  Their families and friends have stood behind them at every turn.  They've made extensive efforts to obtain fundraising and sponsors to support their journey.  If you are an American who loves sports, you must feel compelled to support these athletes through something so simple as watching them on t.v.  After all, isn't that what we Americans do when it comes to major sporting events?  Professional baseball and football players don't know that you are watching the World Series or SuperBowl to cheer them on.  But you know it, and you feel a certain solidarity with the rest of Americans who also are huddled up in front of their televisions to support our American athletes.  So while the athletes may not know that you are watching them on t.v., they know that their country as a whole is watching.

Third, boycotting the Olympics by not watching them on t.v. is too passive.  If you really want to have an impact, then be active.  Again, I completely understand the motivation and sentiment behind boycotting the television viewing of the Olympics and I respect that decision.  If, however, you really want to put some meat on the bones of your intention, then make your actions more active.   Find an organization to which you can donate to help save the Sochi dogs.  (I am not personally recommending any particular organizations here because I cannot vouch for their veracity, so that decision is left to your judgment).  Or, if you want your actions to have a more local impact, donate to or volunteer at a local shelter where you'll be able to see first-hand the impact your actions can have.

At any rate, taking some action is better than nothing.  And what may seem like small actions by just one person, can collectively create a significant impact.

Which leads me to wonder why more Olympians haven't taken a stand against this massive killing of homeless dogs.  These athletes have the world's attention right now, so think of the incredible impact they could have on the collective conscience of millions of people if individual athletes stood together to speak out against this horror.  It has warmed my heart to see athletes like American Olympian Gus Kenworthy and Russian Olympian Oleg Deripaska take a stand.  Kenworthy found a group of stray puppies and their mom, and immediately took to social media to announce that he'd brought them food and made vaccination appointments for them.  Even more inspiring is Deripaska, who reportedly is taking action to build shelters just five miles outside Sochi in Baranovka.

There's also former American Olympian Tom McMillan (1972 U.S. men's basketball team), who has written a letter to the IOC urging the governing body to intervene to stop the killing of Sochi dogs.

It's individuals like this who are using their status as current and former Olympians to stand up and bring awareness to this issue.  Individually and collectively, their actions are making a difference - both on the ground at Sochi and around the world as other individuals are inspired by their actions.

That's why I can say, with 100% confidence, that if I was an Olympian in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, I would boycott my event because of the government's decision to kill thousands of dogs and the IOC's blessing of that action.  Now granted, I will never qualify for the Olympics, so maybe that seems easy for me to say.  But not so fast.  Although I may never be an Olympian, I am an avid athlete and an even more avid animal lover and animal welfare activist.  So while I've never devoted the effort and resources to training for the Olympics, I have done so in training for other events like Ironman Arizona and Ironman Lake Tahoe.  I was fully committed to each of those events.  I'd poured my heart and soul into training for each of them.  I was obsessed with making sure that I finished each one and was determined not to fail.  And when I came so close to not making the bike cutoff for Ironman Lake Tahoe, I started to panic over the thought of being pulled from the race.  All those hours of training would be down the drain.  All the people who came to support me would be let down.  I would have done it all for nothing...(thankfully I did finish Ironman Lake Tahoe!).  

Yet, despite all of that, if I'd arrived in Tempe, Arizona or Lake Tahoe, and discovered that the Ironman Corporation had decided it needed to "clean up" the town by ridding it of any animals - dogs, cats, deer, birds, whatever...I would have refused to participate in the event that I'd devoted so many months, hours, blood, sweat, and tears to.


Because I would want to show the world how important the issue of animal welfare is to me; how important it is to be kind and compassionate to all living creatures; and how important it is to recognize that at the end of the day, no sporting event is worth killing any living creature.

I simply would not want to be a part of something that resulted in the massive death of any creature.  It's how I live my daily life, and I would expect nothing less of myself just because it's a "big race."  At every race I do, I show up hoping that on that day, I will be the best version of myself -- the strongest person I can be, both mentally and physically.  If I participated in an event that was the impetus for the massive killing of animals, I'd be turning my back on that.  I'd become the worst version of myself all in the name of that one event.  All in the name of my personal glory.

I wouldn't be able to look at myself in the mirror.

So instead, I'd want to send a message that no matter what the event or situation, your belief system should always be at the center of what you do.  Sometimes that will require you to make an awkward decision that may make you unpopular or the outcast.  But at the end of the day, if you compromise who you are, what kind of message are you sending?

I certainly don't expect any other athlete - professional or amateur - to feel the same way or take the same action.  Nor do I think that the Olympic athletes at Sochi have compromised who they are.  I just think that they could all send a much stronger message - one stronger than "what it takes to be an Olympic athlete" - if they stood up for creatures smaller than them.  These athletes who are on the world's center stage right now could stand together to send a message that homeless pets are an issue throughout the world - not just in Sochi - that can be addressed through spay/neuter programs, vaccinations, education, and better shelter systems rather than massive killing.  These athletes don't necessarily need to boycott their events - just standing up on a different podium to speak out against this injustice would be a wonderful step in the right direction.

The power these athletes have is the same power that Jackie Robinson had to change an entire country's view of African Americans.  It's the same power that Gertrude Ederle had to defy all notions of women's strength.  And it's the same power that Roger Bannister had to change all understanding of what the human body can accomplish.  These Olympians have the power to change the world's view on how to treat homeless pets.  These Olympians have the power to shed light on a homeless pet problem that permeates so many countries.  Yes, these Olympians - like Gus Kenworthy and Oleg Deripaska - have the power to teach people all over the world that compassion, love, and kindness should transcend all boundaries, including those of an Olympic sports pavilion.

I only hope that the world follows in Kenworthy's and Deripaska's steps and learns from these Olympics not only what it means to have the spirit of an Olympic athlete, but what it means to have the spirit of a compassionate human being....

What would you do if you were a Sochi Olympian?  

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Stop Trash Talking About Each Others' Sports

(**WARNING:  this post contains explicit content not suitable for under people 18)
"Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions.  Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great."
-- Mark Twain
Seriously, the trash talk needs to stop.  It seems like every day I read or hear something bashing CrossFit, triathlons, ultra marathons, or cycling.  I'm not talking about the "scientific studies" out there taking issue with each of these - that's a topic for another day regarding how you can find a "study" to criticize anything you want.  I'm talking about the personal attacks and criticisms being made by people in one sport against another sport.  Now I have no problem with friendly jokes between athletes in different sports in the spirit of a little competitive ribbing, like the YouTube video below between Ironman and Ultraman.  What I take issue with are the gross generalizations and personal attacks that people are making against their fellow athletes from another sport.

Here are very few examples of some of the ridiculous trash talk to which I'm referring:

Comments like these from online blogs, forums, and articles are only part of the problem.  Personally, my bigger problem is with the statements and Facebook comments I hear and read from friends and fellow athletes.  Comments along the lines of how "trail running is just too slow," "CrossFit is just a bunch of beefed up dumbasses," "triathletes are a bunch of Type-A snobs," or "cyclists are self-righteous assholes who think they own the road."  To the people out there making these comments - you know who you are; but, in case you don't know this, the only reason you feel compelled to make critical generalizations about athletes from other sports is this:  to compensate for your own insecurities.

It's not rocket science; in fact, it's psychologically simple.  The only reason we gossip about, criticize, or put down other people is to make ourselves feel more important, more powerful, or "better than."  So it's not puzzling why some triathletes, ultra athletes, cyclists, runners, and CrossFitters feel the need to criticize and trash talk each other:  the athletes who engage in this type of negative behavior are insecure about something.  Maybe she felt snubbed by people in the other sport.  Maybe he wasn't good enough at the other sport.  Maybe she feels like her sport is the only "answer" and everything else is inferior.  Maybe the only way he can feel validated through his sport is to put down other sports.

Whatever the reason for your insecurity, knock it off.

Now before you get your tri-shorts or cycling shorts in a wad, let me be clear on two things.  First, all sports -- hell all areas of life -- have assholes in them.  There are asshole triathletes, CrossFitters, cyclists, and runners, just like there are asshole lawyers, doctors, police officers, and teachers.  Believe me, there are triathletes who make me ashamed sometimes to be a triathlete.  These "sportholes" are the ones who seem to be the fodder for the  negative generalizations out there.  They are the bad apples that spoil the whole bunch.

Second, not every athlete engages in this negative, cross-sport trash talk.  Although I don't have any numbers to back this up, I bet it's safe to say that the vast majority of athletes in all these sports do not engage in that behavior.  So I'm not talking to them.  I'm talking to the few insecure athletes in each group who engage in this behavior on a regular basis....and you know who you are (although right now you're probably taking issue with the fact that you have any insecurities...but trust me, there's no other reason to justify that kind of behavior).

In addition to the trash talking, these insecure athletes often have the tendency to push their sport on other people by claiming that his/her sport is the "only answer" and all other sports have various flaws.  I'm not talking about the enthusiastic people who have pure joy from their sport and try to spread that joy through positive, non-confrontational messages.  Rather, I'm talking about the athlete who posts about their sport and how awesome it is in 95% of his/her Facebook posts.  The athlete who (in response to anyone who wants to lose weight, become healthy, or address an injury) claims that the athlete's chosen sport is the only answer.  The athlete who dominates 90% of the conversation with talk about his/her chosen sport, how wonderful it is, how people in other sports suck, and how other people must do this sport.  

You know who you are...and you need to knock it off.

Why do you need to knock it off?

First, and most obvious, is the fact that it's negative.  It's soul-sucking negative behavior for both you and the person at whom it's directed.

Second, it's ignorant - as all gross generalizations are.  Maybe you think that calling triathletes "elitist snobs" or CrossFitters "stupid meatheads" isn't that big of deal.  But tell me this:  how is that mentality any different from saying that pit bulls are dangerous?  Or children are brats?  Or, worse yet, any particular ethnic group is lazy or a bunch of criminals?  Mentalities that lump any group of people together under one umbrella are ignorant.

Third, if your sport really is that awesome and all the others suck so bad, why are there thousands (if not tens of thousands) of athletes engaged in the other sports?  Why isn't everyone gravitating to your sport?  The reason is that no one sport fits all and, thus, no particular sport is that awesome for everyone.

Fourth, your insistence on criticizing other sports stems solely from your insecurity, and unless and until you find the underlying source of that insecurity, you will continue to be a small person who can feel big only by belittling matter how awesome you think you and your sport are.

Finally, and most importantly, you need to realize that you're not that special.  What gives you the right to criticize another athlete's chose course for physical health?  Presumably it's because you think you are that special....that you have been enlightened and everyone else is in the dark.  But you don't live in someone else's body.  You don't have someone else's schedule.  You don't have all the answers.  If you did - if you really were that special as to have "earned the right" to bash other sports - you wouldn't be an amateur athlete.  If you were that special at your chosen sport, you'd be able to quit your day job and become a professional...and even some professionals aren't that special.

If you really want to show how awesome your sport is, do it by being a humble ambassador...not by bashing other sports.  If you really want to "help" someone by convincing them to join your sport, don't push it in their face like the athlete equivalent of a Jehovah's witness espousing, ad nauseum, about the virtues of your sport (sorry to any Jehovah's witnesses out there).  In other words, don't be like the nauseating "enthusiastic guy" played by Alec Baldwin in Friends who couldn't shut up about everything wonderful little thing in life:

If you sound like Alec Baldwin as you blabber on about how awesome your sport is, you need to knock it off.  Why?  Because, again, if you and your sport really are that awesome, you shouldn't feel the need to be so "in your face."  Your sport should speak for itself, with just a little positive reinforcement from you.

Bottom line:  The negative trash talk is helping no one, including yourself and your sport.  In fact, you're doing a tremendous disservice to both.  And your overly enthusiastic, "in-your-face," self-promotion isn't helping either.  Both mentalities serve only one purpose:  to show how insecure you actually are.  So spend your time working on that, rather than working to rip apart other people who are out there working just as hard as you are to have a healthy lifestyle.

After all, isn't that what's really important?  Isn't it more important for the triathlete to support her overweight friend who has decided to try to lose a few pounds with CrossFit?  Isn't it more important for the CrossFitter to recognize how hard the triathlete has worked and the hours of training the triathlete bas devoted to becoming an Ironman?  Isn't it more important for the triathlete to realize that ultra runners want to appreciate nature and slow down the chaos of life?  And isn't it more important for the ultra runner to realize that short distances can require hard effort and training in a different way than long distances?

At the end of the day, the one generalization that can be made about all athletes is that we're all trying to find a healthier lifestyle, to find an outlet for our stress, and to become the best version of ourselves that we can be.  That noble goal shouldn't be tainted by small people who feel the need to belittle  another person's ambitions...

So knock it off....

Monday, January 20, 2014

Bikram Yoga: An Auctioneer, a Sauna, and Scantily Clad People

"I have been a seeker and I still am, but I stopped asking the books and the stars.  I started listening to the teaching of my Soul." -- Rumi

I've known for years that I needed to do some form of yoga.  My tight, inflexible body was craving it, and my racing, overly-stimulated mind was begging for it.  Yet, I never catered to either one of them; instead, I tried to address my body and mind weaknesses through other methods.  

Finally, thanks to the wonders of Groupon, I've answered the calls of my body and mind by signing up for a Bikram Yoga class.  (By a show of comments, how many of you have thrown caution to the wind and tried something new thanks to Groupon?)

Bikram Yoga is a series of 26 poses designed to warm and stretch muscles, ligaments, and tendons in the specific order they were designed to be stretched.  The real kick in the yoga pants is the temperature.  Bikram Yoga studios are kept at around 105 degrees Fahrenheit, with about 40% humidity.  The purpose of the heat is to protect the muscles to allow for better stretching, detox the body, thin the blood, and increase heart rate for a more aerobic workout…

You can learn more about Bikram Yoga here, but here's my simple description:

Bikram Yoga is less like this...

And more like this…

Pretty much how I look during Bikram...

Bikram yoga is unexpectedly, yet intoxicatingly different from what I thought it'd be.  It's unexpected because I knew it'd be hot; but, "make me want to peel my skin off" kind of hot - no.  I knew it'd be difficult (given my lack of flexibility), but heart-pumping, knee shaking, muscle aching kind of difficult - no.  I knew it would force me to focus on my breathing; but, "you will pass out and fall over if you don't breathe right" kind of focus - no.

The intoxicating part comes from how amazingly awesome, detoxed, and strong I feel afterwards.  It's a true rush.  All that sweat, all those challenging poses, all that focus on my breath, makes me fully aware of what's going on with my body, what's weak, what's strong, and what my body craves.

Coincidentally, what my body craves after Bikram Yoga is the most nutrient-dense, healing, whole foods I can get my hands on.  So naturally that calls for a smoothie or juice.  I immediately run home and make one of my green smoothies, the ingredients of which can vary depending on what's in the fridge.  Here's one recipe (made with all organic ingredients, of course):

  • 2 kale leaves
  • 1 apple (I prefer Fuji or Gala)
  • 2 large carrots (peeled)
  • 1/2 cucumber 
  • banana (optional)
  • fresh grated ginger (however much you like - I used probably 1 TBSP.  If you're using dried grated ginger from the bottle, you can use less because it's stronger)
  • 2 cups filtered water
  • 3-4 ice cubes
  • tear/chop all ingredients and place into a blender (preferably a VitaMix) and blend until smooth
Green smoothie heaven to continue to nourish & detox after Bikram...
But now back to the hotness….

What do I love so much about the Bikram class and what is it teaching me?  Plenty….

The Heat:  Drink, Breathe, & Calm the Body

At my first class the instructor said the goal is just to stay in the room.  If you feel faint, sit down, drink some water, but just stay in the room.  Easy enough I thought.  But about 20 minutes in I wanted to jump out of my skin, leave my sweaty carcass in that sauna, and go running outside in the 30-degree coolness.  I stayed though and, to my surprise, slowly started to acclimate.  Now mind you, at no point did I feel "cool."  I did get to the point, however, where by focusing on my breathing and my poses, I not only took my focus off the heat, but I started to control my body's response to it.  The focus on deep breathing slows your heart rate, which slows down your system and, consequently, slows down the heat your body is generating.

For me, this heat acclimation is critically important given my history of heat exhaustion at races.  I'm hoping that Bikram will help my body learn to acclimate better to the heat, and teach my mind how to calm and cool my body by focusing on my breathing and my movements.  In addition, Bikram is showing me that I need to drink even more water than I usually do during the day.  I'm pretty good about drinking at least eight glasses of water per day, which may be fine for an inactive lifestyle; but, for the days when I'm working out, particularly in the heat, I need to up this consumption a little bit.  The Bikram instructor said that we should be able to get through the first 20 minutes of class without needing a drink.  If not, then we probably didn't drink enough throughout the day.  Now, that's not necessarily a rule for other sports, and that certainly does not mean that if you're properly hydrating during the day, you won't need much hydration during an endurance event.  But it's a good indicator to me that my body needs to start off an event - be it yoga or a triathlon - with my muscles plenty hydrated to keep me going with the ability to top off (rather than totally replaces) my water reserves during the event.

The Poses:  Stretch & Strength

Bikram Yoga poses.  Source:  Independent Spirituality
There are 26 Bikram Yoga poses designed to stretch the muscles in the order they were meant to be stretched.  These poses are not meant to be done in the absence of the increased heat, so doing them at home in this manner is not advisable.  (The high heat allows the muscles to temporarily soften and increase their flexibility.)

According to, these poses:
"systematically move fresh, oxygenated blood to one hundred percent of your body, to each organ and fiber, restoring all systems to healthy working order, just as Nature intended. Proper weight, muscle tone, vibrant good health, and a sense of well being will automatically follow."
Well hell, that sounds awesome, right?  Seriously though, these poses are kicking my butt and reaffirming my long suspected weaknesses.  I've known for years, that many of my running-related injuries and my overall muscular "weenie-ness" comes from lack of flexibility, muscular imbalances, and muscular weaknesses.  I'm addressing those imbalances and weaknesses through PT and a chiropractor, and the Bikram Yoga is adding a much-needed compliment to that.   The strength and flexibility needed for the poses, as well as the mental focus, is a triple whammy for triathlon and running.

Keep in mind, however, that the competitive nature possessed by most triathletes and runners has no place in yoga.  Don't try to keep up with the rest of the class.  If a pose causes pain, stop.  If you can't do the pose fully, don't push it.  Yoga is all about accepting where you are at that moment.

The Breath:  Focus & Presence

Breathing is definitely one of my weaknesses.  Sounds odd I know; but STOP, right now, and notice how you're breathing.  Chances are you're breathing very shallow, into your chest.  This is how most of us breathe throughout our normal day.  In fact, the only time I'm consciously focusing on my breath is during my workouts.  Maybe that's part of why I love my workouts:  it's the only time I'm truly present, focusing on every deep breath, and every movement.

There's a wonderful quote about yoga and breath:
"When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady.  But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life.  Therefore, one should learn to control the breath."  Hatha Yoga Pradikipa
In Bikram Yoga, I think the importance of the breath is even more symbolic of its importance in life.  If you don't focus on the power of your breath - on the rejuvenation of the inhale and the release of the exhale - you will pass out and fall flat on your ass.  The Bikram instructor kept saying that if you start to feel faint, keep your eyes open and focus on your breath.  The same can be said of life:  when you start to feel like life is going too fast and your head is spinning, instead of closing your eyes and hoping it will pass, open your eyes, focus on your breath, and steady your mind and body.

As cliche as it sounds, focusing on your breath brings you into the present.  If you take your focus off your breath, it pulls your focus off the movement, making you unsteady, wobbly, and again, likely to fall on your ass.  By focusing on your deep inhale and exhale, your mind is pulled to the connection between your breath and your body.  Thus, your mind can focus on the pose, making you stronger and fully present on what you're doing at that particular moment.  How strong would we be in life if we did the same thing….

My Attention:  Mindfulness

The auctioneer-style of the Bikram classes I've attended is no exaggeration.  Imagine being explained how to do this pose by someone who spits out all these instructions in quick, successive order in about five seconds:

My over-stimulated little brain can't always keep up!  I find that by the time my brain has transmitted to my body what movement I'm supposed to be doing, I've missed the next five steps and am stuck in some yoga-pose-limbo where I don't know how to finish the rest of the pose or get out of the position I'm in.  Combine that with the fact that my brain is simultaneously saying "how the hell am I supposed to do that?" or "holy crap that hurts" or "wait, which way are my hands supposed to go?"  It's all a lesson in mindfulness.  Yes, the Bikram instructors talk fast and, for a newby, it can take some getting used to.  But instead of letting my brain give its running commentary on what I'm doing, if I just focus on every word the instructor is saying, my body will intuitively follow.  Another strong symbolic gesture of how your body will follow if your mind leads the way….

The Scantily Clad Yogis:  Letting Go of Self-Consciousness

I'm self-conscious.  I hate women's locker rooms because I feel like women are going to stare at me thinking "wow, she looks thin in her jeans, but she really has cellulite on those thighs and a muffin-top to go along with it."  I try not to wear anything too revealing, even in races, because I'm afraid of the teeniest bit of cellulite or untoned muscle flapping around.  Silly and narcissistic, I know.

So when I showed up to my first Bikram class and saw people - of all shapes and sizes - dressed basically in the 60's style bikinis, I was taken back:
Compare this...
to this...

And the attire for some of the men was even more shocking:

NOT my instructor, but looks like some of the guys in my class...
So I felt a bit out of place in my full-length yoga pants and tank top.  And about thirty minutes into the class, I was wishing I could strip off my clothes!  Yet, despite my thin yoga clothes feeling like a fur parka, I still can't bring myself to buy some of the teeny little yoga shorts and a mid-riff tank top.  The most I've done is wear my knee-length yoga pants instead of the full-length ones...  

The people in my yoga class are real people.  Even the instructors.  They are not professional models or people who work out 24/7.  They have jobs, kids, friends, and a million demands.  They have bodies of all shapes and sizes.  I'm no different.  Yet, I can't bring myself to let it my muffin top hang out like some of the women in the class.  So I can't help but say to myself:  I need to be more like these women!  I need to not give a crap if my muffin top hangs out.  I need to recognize that all women have cellulite.  I need to embrace what society has labeled as "imperfections" and realize they are not imperfections at all; rather, they are only one part of a whole that in its entirety is me in my perfect form.  I'm not there yet…but hopefully I will get there.  

Yoga therefore has given me insight into self-love, beauty in all its forms, and the potential I have if I just let go of the self-consciousness.  Ironically, despite the strenuous poses, the sauna-like heat, my inflexibility, and my shallow breathing, I think my biggest obstacle will be in letting yoga teach me this concept of self-love.  Accepting where I am at this present moment - be it in a particular pose or a particular body shape - will be the key to unlocking my greatest potential.  Only then can I do as Rumi suggests:  listen to the teachings of my soul - instead of letting the incessant questions and doubts of my rambling mind be my focus…  

Do you practice yoga? Why or why not?  

And have you drank the Groupon Kool-Aid and tried something you haven't done before just because it was discounted on Groupon?