Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A Simpler 2016

It's been no secret around this blog that I've had a challenging year. Every time I say that, I have to stop and think, because it's strange: this isn't the year my grandmother died. This year wasn't like the tumultuous childhood I had, shuffling between houses and dealing with my parents' bitter divorce and custody fight. I didn't get dumped this year; instead, I entered what has doubtless been the best relationship of my life. But I still consider 2016 one of the hardest years of my life, because I remained unemployed and on the job search nearly all year, after my brief stint as a freelancer (that I accidentally fell into) proved to be exactly what I had previously thought it would be: not worth it, and totally not for me.

Even though this year was full of good things—two half marathon PRs in back-to-back races of that distance, some fun travels and getaways with people I love, meeting and falling into life with David—the bad thing was ever-present and it touched everything. Job (or lack-there-of) stress led to money stress, social stress, self-worth stress, apartment/housing situation stress...it touched everything, and it spun me into a depression the likes of which I haven't seen (thankfully) in a really, really long time.

It's a vicious cycle. Depression and unrelenting stress and reasons to lose faith in yourself cycle into bad sleep, disinterest in hobbies and things that take any effort at all, but which bring joy, which feeds depression, and round and round we go. I've tried as much as possible to look at my life this year from an outside perspective, look at the whole picture rather than the small piece I'm drowning in, and I think that's helped. I was emailing with Kristen this week and said something about how I feel like a downer, constantly writing about how hard 2016 was, but I feel like each time I examine my feelings about this year critically, I come up with a new perspective, a new solution or action plan, a new *something* that helps keep me out of the depths of that dark water.

In that vein, thanks to that constant reflection, throughout this year (and oh, man was it a long one) I've made a couple small but big changes in my daily life, in my habits and routines, and they all add up, I think, to a big happier, more intentional me. Of course, there's no way to control for this so my hypothesis may be way off, but I think these 6 things contributed to the sanity of yours truly this year. Some of them seem so obvious, but some are less so, so I wanted to share...

1. Deleted the Facebook app and turned off all social media app notifications.
You guys know what I always found really annoying? How the Facebook app for iPhone (the primary way I use FB, which already is little) sends push notifications for really insignificant things. I used to complain every time I had a red-encircled number pop up on the icon, opened the app, and saw that it was to tell me about something completely unimportant like June liked Jake's status that I commented on 6 months ago. It was maddening, because I hate a) wasting time and b) app notification bubbles on my phone. I also learned how much data and battery my Facebook app was sucking and got even more mad at the Zuck and Co. It was actually Tracy's husband who suggested to me that I delete the app and just place a bookmarked Safari page on my home screen for quick nav to Facebook.com, and I am HONESTLY happier since I did that.

It led me to turn off notifications for all my social apps—no Twitter push notifications, no Instagram like pop-ups. I just realized that there really is NO need. If someone needs to urgently get in touch with me, they have my phone number. And also, let's go ahead and start redefining the meaning of "urgent" now that we're in 24/7 contact. I check all my apps at least once a day. There's nothing that can't wait. There's nothing so pressing that its lighting up my phone screen is a worthy distraction from whatever else I'm doing at the time. I already hate excess noise and keep my phone on silent with no vibration; this year I realized that "visual noise" is a thing too.

I feel like I wrote more about this than I should have, but it has made THAT much of a difference in my life that I want to scream about it. It shocks me that I didn't do it earlier.

2. Adopted a “one page inbox” system.
Inbox zero sounds great, but I can't do it. I can't get to everything the second it lands in my inbox, and sometimes I need to hold onto emails for a few days (for example, event details or race info) and moving all that info to a different place just moves the clutter to a less compact or foldable location. Emails I'll need to reference in a few days or reply to after something happens, I need them visible. I'm very much an "out of sight, out of mind" person, so my inbox is a good way to keep something on my mind. But after going through hundreds of emails sitting in my blog and personal inboxes, plus all the other ancillary folders I had and deleting what was no longer (or never was) necessary, I now keep a strict one-page inbox, with an added rule that if I have to scroll to see the bottom of the list, I have too many things in there. My folders are more organized, I feel more in control, and am way less bombarded with information I don't constantly need.

3. Changed my planning system.
I was about two weeks into 2016 when I realized I was done with paper planners. They just don't work with the way I plan. I don't have a ton of appointments or meetings, but I use a planner to keep track of habits, workouts, time-blocking, and other essential time-management stuff to make sure that just because I work from home doesn't mean I work until midnight. I hate cross-outs and I hate not having an up-to-date planner, so I switched.

I'm working on a post about how I plan now, but it's taken me a long time to really refine the system and get into a method that works perfectly for me. I currently use a combination of Google Calendar (for the big stuff, appointments, meetings, time-blocking), Reminders app (for non-essential personal tasks and other lists like shopping), and a sort-of bullet journal. With this combination I manage all my long-term planning, short-term views, and daily to-do lists. I also accepted the idea that what I'm doing doesn't have to work forever. It has to work for now. There's no need to get bent out of shape when I realize my once-perfect planning system doesn't align with how my daily tasks have changed; I just have to change it too, and that's fine.

4. Committed to (week-)daily journaling.
I've been keeping a gratitude journal since January 2014. There have been silent periods, but 2016 has been, by far, the most consistent year ever of both gratitude journaling and just...journaling. I've had journals off and on since high school, and I really can't bring myself to read old old entries, but I have absolutely flipped back through the pages of journals I've filled this year more than once. I tried the "morning pages" technique where you just sit down first thing and empty your brain; I've tried the nightly brain dump technique where you write down the thoughts that come before sleep. I've landed somewhere in the middle. I basically have my journal with me all day and write when it feels good.

Here's what I do now: on the left side, I write my day's to-do list, usually the night before. I pull from my Reminders app and a weekly to-do list I keep a few pages back and fill in anything I didn't complete the previous day, sort of using the bullet journal method. (I don't go insane with illustrations and stickers though, because ain't nobody got time for that. I mean, I know a lot of people make time for it, but I don't. Also, can't draw to save my life so there's that too.) It's a simple list, sometimes flagged with ! to mark priority. On the opposite page, I journal. Whatever I need to. Sometimes it's a recap, sometimes it's things I've been thinking about, sometimes it's another list, whatever. And before the day is over, I write down at least three things I'm grateful for.

Some days, coming up with three things is hard. But those are the days I stop and think, "Hey, I'm inside my apartment, drinking clean water, wearing clean clothes, looking at my warm bed, smelling my dinner cooking in the oven," and remember how very much there is to be grateful for always.

5. Stopped tracking my workouts.
I wrote Sunday Sweats posts every week from January 2015 through late September 2016. And then I just stopped. Because I realized I was drafting my run recaps while mid-run, taking myself out of the moment. Most runs just don't need much said about them; my Garmin tracks and saves all the data, and coming up with a description of each run was getting tiring and ingenuine.

But even worse, I found myself obsessing over what qualified as a workout: "We walked a lot in the city today; can I count that as a workout?" "I stretched for like 20 minutes before running, does that count as a restorative yoga practice?" "I demonstrated a lot while teaching tonight, should I qualify that as a practice?" and counting minutes during my most special moments on the mat: "She started a few minutes late and we had a really long savasana at the end; can I really call this a 75-minute yoga class?" and just UGH. All of that is SO besides the point of why I do any of what I do, and yet I was doing it. It's not like you guys are going to hold me accountable for a short class or scold me for not counting a 2-mile walk around the city as exercise. What on earth? I stopped, because for me, when I get to obsessing about something, cutting it off is the only way to gain balance.

6. Took myself off of unnecessary, unfulfilling, or unsustainable projects.
I took myself out of three projects this year. One was paying, two were not. All, in some way, contributed to negative feelings, stress, angst, and simply too much going on with not enough brain space to cover it all. One of them was actually a MASSIVE stressor—to the point where I hated unlocking my phone because if I saw the app I used for that project with a notification on it, I would freak out and panic spiral. Really, really, really not okay.

I realized this year that sometimes you have to set free things you love when they just don't love you back. I realized I cannot operate out of guilt or a sense of commitment or obligation that *I* am imposing on myself. I realized that feelings about people, places, things can evolve, and that when that happens, your relationship to them absolutely should follow suit. I was making myself crazy over this idea that I just had to keep cutting myself in smaller and smaller pieces in order to give a piece to everyone who was asking for a part of me, and it left me too scattered to do absolutely anything well. It was hard to say the words, but absolutely nothing bad happened to anybody when I took myself away.


All of these things happened at different points throughout the year, as I came to realization after realization (upon excessive self-reflection and analyzing. Sometimes there is some good to be derived from over-thinking things, I guess!) about what my life was too full of or too short on. What I hope most is that I can continue to think critically about what I do on a daily basis, and what about that works and what doesn't. It probably saved my life, in a sense, this year.

On this good note, here's hoping for a simple 2017, right from the start!

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Late Autumn Lately

I've been thinking a lot about what I think we mean when we say things like "I can't believe the year is almost over" or "I can't believe it's almost 2017 already." I haven't come up with anything definitive, FYI—just thought circles.

It's like, I can't believe 2009 feels like such a recent time but it's actually the better part of a decade behind us. And also, it's hard to believe how much has happened, been documented, been felt and experienced over the past 11 months. I can think back to January 1 this year and it feels like only yesterday, but I can think also about how many high highs and low lows have happened since then—how is 11 months enough time for all that to have happened in? And also, it's hard to think about how this year is almost at its close and I haven't done much in the way of getting to where I want to go.

I can't say, of course, that this year has been a wash. It's the year I finally earned my RYT-200 teaching certificate and became a yoga teacher—something I've literally been talking about since college. It's the year I met David. It's the year I fell completely apart and started to pick the pieces back up, forming a new picture of life along the way.

It makes me think of a quote told to me by Steph during one of my particularly steep valleys this year: "There are years that ask questions, and years that answer. We truly need both because that's what life is." (Zora Neale Hurston)

That's what life is: a collection of questions and answers. A collection of daily movements and happenings, of laughs and tears, of hugs and fights, of highs and lows. Of moments at the breakfast table and glances across dinner plates. Of alarm clocks and bus schedules and train tickets and doctor's appointments. A collection of little things and big things, and big things that make little things seem so little and little things that show us just how big the big things are.

Sometimes the mundane things that make up the everyday aren't interesting or noteworthy at all, the "life lately" updates and the "currently" verbs. But I have a thought: They can be the things that stabilize, that help us keep equilibrium when balancing on one hand while juggling knives. Some of them stay constant because, hopefully through all our ups and downs, there are some parts of us that stay constant: things like how we laugh and love and where we find comfort.
Lately, I'm...

burning | Flannel and Marshmallow Fireside

writing | cover letters, still or again; job applications; christmas cards; love notes

reading | the Harry Potter series on audiobook, and not much in physical book form

eating | soup, pretty much daily, and candy in between... it's the most wonderful time of the year?

listening to | the new John Mayer and similar, slow strummy sounds

planning | to plan. I am wary of making plans for outcomes that haven't been reached yet, but I can't help but fantasize about new job things, new apartment things, possible vacation things...

watching | Gilmore girls: A Year in the Life. I loved it, and I'm kind of weirded out by the people absolutely freaking out about how much they hated it and how depressed it made them. But maybe that's just me

drinking | red wine and hot apple cider

running | a few miles, a few days a week. A big training cycle is scheduled to start in a couple weeks, and while I'm looking forward to it, I know it's going to be an intense couple of months. I am trying to maintain a base fitness level but not burn out before I begin the long road to a second 26.2

There's not much notable about life lately, other than maybe this: it's going on. So many times this year I thought the sky was about to fall, the world was caving in, I didn't know how I would make it through. But the fact that I'm sitting here watching Gilmore Girls with a Flannel candle burning on the coffee table and a glass of red wine sitting next to me is proof that life continues to move forward, or at least continues to beat on, even in the years that seem to ask more questions than they give answers.

Linking up with Kristen.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

While You're Waiting

While you're waiting to hear back after a recruiter meeting, a first interview, a job application, or a recruiter submission, remember that the holidays are coming, people are starting their vacations early, and everyone has a full workload.

Check your email constantly, and unsubscribe from everything non-essential so that little (1:1) that shows up in your Gmail inbox tab and gives you a temporary mini-heart attack while you think, hope, wish might be a response or an update doesn't turn out to just be a notification from Netflix that they added new episodes of a show you don't even watch.

Write a marathon training plan, schedule spring training races, and map out new courses.

Reread the Harry Potter series.

Rewatch all of Gilmore Girls, even though you just did that like a couple of months ago, because the revival is almost here and you must be prepared.

Change one word on your resume and then be tempted to resend it everywhere it's already gone in the hopes that that one change will be what tips you over the edge.

Remember that you are not your circumstances, and that not getting the job doesn't mean you're a failure or a terrible person. Remind yourself that it just means you're in a tough industry in a saturated market and you can't take it personally.

Take it personally more often than you want to admit.

Read every single job board you know of daily, troll your favorite sites and business' websites for openings or hints about hiring, send cold emails and more LinkedIn messages than you ever thought you could muster the strength for.

Reevaluate your methods no less than five times a day.

Go for a run. Take a yoga class. Be grateful you have these outlets, but struggle with feeling motivated sometimes. Many times.

Go private on Twitter, just in case.

Check your spam folder daily, just in case.

Cook, even though your kitchen is way too tiny for it. But that's okay, because you have nowhere to go, so you have plenty of time to do 11 loads of dishes in the span of one meal prep.

Feel extremely grateful for the yoga classes you teach and the freelance work you've secured for keeping the lights on.

Keep trying. Try to be patient. Try not to lose faith.

Write things to post on your blog so you don't write badgering emails to recruiters and people who interviewed you 20 minutes ago about whether or not they've made a decision yet. Stay busy.

Remember that you are not your circumstances. Say it twice if you need to.

Never forget that having a hard time doesn't mean you shouldn't still be a good person, so be a good person.

Monday, November 21, 2016

For Life

​I’m thankful for life. 

I’m thankful for my mother, brothers, grandparents,​ extended family,​ and my partner in life and adventure. 

I’m thankful for running shoes, yoga, pizza, and coffee. 

I’m thankful for blog friends, "real life" friends, when the former become the latter, and the cars, roads, trains, and airplanes that bridge the gaps between us. 

I’m thankful for fall leaves, winter snowflakes, springtime buds, summer sunshine. 

I’m thankful for scented candles, Netflix nights, ​a​ warm bed, the roof over my head, the food on my table. 

I’m thankful for books, education, knowledge, opinion, free speech, literacy, ​writing.​ 

I'm thankful for challenge and triumph ​and battles and victories. 

The thing is, this year has been one of unrelenting challenge in my life, and there were more days than I can count where it almost seemed like there was nothing to be thankful for. 

But there always is, even during a year as trying as this one, even during the darkest nights and coldest mornings.

I’m thankful to have been reminded ​this year ​of all the reasons​ there always are​ for​ pure​ gratitude—may I never forget it again.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work: Richmond Half Marathon

I didn't want to go to Richmond. But that's another story for another day.

I used to want to go to Richmond. In fact, last year, the day after Tracy and I trekked to Richmond to support our friends as they chased down marathon and half marathon goals, we both registered for the 2016 event—so taken I was by the awesomeness of this event's production and attendance and course. It was just two weeks after I'd run my first marathon, and having conquered what I still believe to be my ultimate distance goal, 26.2 miles, I set my sights on getting fast in 2016.

And then 2016 came. And while I did run fast in my first two races, taking home back-to-back personal records at Cherry Blossom and the New Jersey Half Marathon, I lost everything after that. Anyway, long story short, it was just a handful of weeks into my Richmond Half training plan, somewhere in September, that I completely let go of what had once been my goal—to run it in less than two hours.
The Lead-Up

I arrived in Richmond instead knowing that I had a team behind, ahead of, and beside me that would propel me to the finish, come hell or high water, despite my pathetic lack of training in the most important weeks leading up to race day. I arrived knowing that making it to the city at all was half my battle this year, and hoping I wouldn't run my worst half marathon ever, but knowing ultimately that if I fell apart on the course, I had no one but myself to blame. I knew it could be a terrible day, but I held out hope that my tradition of making it from start to finish on grit and determination alone would hold.

The Race Day

I couldn't have asked for better weather. It was cold at the start for sure, but I do prefer to run with a slight chill on me. But it was sunny and clear, the wind wasn't nearly as bad as they had predicted, and after a cold start it warmed up to a perfect fall morning. The fall foliage was the perfect backdrop too—oh, how much I love those flame-colored trees!

Weather aside, race morning arrangements worked out really nicely. David and I were a few doors down from Tracy and Kristen, and Lisa and Brian were a floor up. The latter pair had to head to the start line early to prep Brian's training group, so David ferried Kristen, Tracy, and me to the start line where we quickly met with Lisa and Brian before lining up in our respective corrals.

The Race Course

One of the best courses I've ever run, in a nutshell. I've been hearing for over a year how Richmond is a fast course and this is "America's friendliest marathon," and though I haven't run them all, I can definitely vouch for that. We ran through the city of Richmond, through a couple of quaint suburban neighborhoods, and through a park before being spit back out into the city for the final downhill to the finish. There were a few hills along the way, including an overpass, but I do enjoy running hills (as long as they relent eventually, which they did here) and this race gave us the HUGE benefit of a net downhill. In fact, this course finishes on a downhill so obvious, you have to be careful not to lean too far forward as you pedal down it!

My Race

Like I said, I was half-expecting to fall apart on this course. But I knew what I had going for me: David waiting at the finish (the first time he'd ever see me cross a start or finish line), Brian running for a half marathon PR under 1:15 ahead of me (he's just super inspiring to run near), Kristen and Tracy at the start line with me, and Lisa a few corrals behind me. The team was out and ready that morning. Tracy and I decided again to run side by side the whole way, making this race number four for us to run at least some portion of together.

Kristen, Tracy, and I stepped over the mat together at 7:34 a.m., with the agreement that we'd stay together as long as it made sense. Tracy asked me what I was thinking of for pace, and I think I said something like "Let's see how 9:30/mile feels?" and then we both did some quick math to calculate what that total time would be. I forgot about it and decided I would like to see those numbers, but would rather run this race on feel.

Within the first 100 yards I said hello and goodbye to David on the sidelines and then started to settle in. The first few miles are slightly downhill and we coasted. I remember mile 1 chiming much earlier than I thought it would, and barely glancing at my watch to see the pace (9:19). And honestly? Most of the rest of the race went just like that.
 Kristen parted ways with us around 3.5 miles in, and Tracy and I kept going as the miles came in hovering usually around 9:25 or so. Some were slower, some were faster, and I didn't take note of many of them at all. I just kept trying to put the same amount of effort in, recenter my mind onto my breathing when necessary, powering up hills and coasting down them. I had a few pains pop up here and there, the tell-tale sign of undertraining for a race, but luckily there was nothing so severe or long-lasting that I couldn't power through it. I walked a water stop somewhere around 6.5 I think, but other than that kept moving. At the top of a hill that I think was around mile 8, I told Tracy I was going to just keep this up until mile 10, see where we were then pace-wise, and decide at that point whether I wanted to phone it in or calculate and make an effort for something like 2:10 or better. My PR at this point in the game was from May 1's NJ Half, 2:06:13.

After mile 10 chimed, I wanted to take a quick walk to stretch out my hips and text David an update, which I did while Tracy made a pit-stop. This was good because it gave me a kind of time constraint: as soon as she was back by my side, I was back to running. I'd been worried that if I let myself walk a bit after mile 10, this would turn into a walk/run 5k to the finish. But my total time at this point was just below 1:36, and I remembered my Cherry Blossom 10-miler total time was around that too. I was doing well.

Miles 10 and 11 were a little challenging because my legs were just so tired, but I had texted David to look for me in less than 30 minutes. What's 30 minutes after an hour and a half? That rationale kept me going, and then somewhere in mile 11 the following conversation happened:
Tracy: "Do you want to PR today?"
Me: "Umm, I dunno..." (Thinking about math wasn't working for me at that moment, and I didn't know the numbers I'd need to make that happen.)
Tracy: "Can you run two 10-minute miles?"
Me: "Yes."
Tracy: "That's all you need to do to make that happen?"

I think I replied with "really?!" because honestly, 10-minute mile is my baseline right now. If I can't run a 10-minute mile, I better be either a) injured or b) in the middle of a marathon. I trust Tracy's math, knew there was a big downhill waiting for me, and knew a PR was in the bag.
Mile 13 chimed at 8:39 as we flew down the hill. I saw David on the right and thankfully he saw me too, and the next thing I knew I was leaping over the timing mat, stopping my watch, and unbelievably seeing a 3-minute PR. I hugged and thanked Tracy, my personal pacer and race day guru, we got our medals and FLEECE BLANKETS (best finisher swag ever), and then I literally almost threw up. Fun visual, huh? I didn't; I never have from running, and I don't know why that happened, but getting away from the crowd and some deep breathing leveled me out after a minute or so.
Anyway. David came down the hill for us then and I was so, SO happy to see him. I've never had a significant otter at my finish line before, and he knew what this race was for me mentally and emotionally, so him scooping me up was just the icing on the cake. We took a few photos, tried to get back up the hill in time to see Kristen finish and failed, caught her at the finish and then stayed there to see Lisa come out of the chute a few minutes later. Kristen hit her goals, Lisa and Brian PRed, and this team went home winners.
"You guys are so short." – Kristen

Watch: 13.2 miles, 2:03:22 (9:21 pace)
Chip: 13.1 miles, 2:03:21 (9:24 pace)

That's three minutes off the PR I set back in May, on little training nonetheless. I owe a TON to Tracy and the Richmond course, of course. This may not have been my sub-2 half marathon, but I know now that it was never supposed to be. Not after what this year has looked like, and not after everything I've been through. It was my back to business race, and my fastest half marathon to date, out of the five I've run. But most importantly, this race gave me back what I've been missing—what I was worried I'd lost forever: My love of running. My exhilaration over finish lines. The pride I know I can feel when I do something I said I would do.
Absolutely nothing wrong with that.