Not today.

A mantra isn’t necessarily aspirational, because repeating “I am strong” or whatever when you are actually scared doesn’t really help. It needs to be something that cuts right to the truth and gives you something to grasp, something concrete and specific, something evocative and relatable. It’s fun and it’s challenging and, like this blog, I find myself filling up with new things to say and new ways to frame them. Today’s mantra is Arya Stark’s mantra (sans spoilers!), but it’s definitely for you even if you’re neither a trained assassin with a hit list nor even a casual Game-of-Thrones watcher.

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To me, you are the CITGO sign

It’s easy to miss the things that only get big when you’re right up close to them. If you need a reminder of how big and bright you really are, then listen to today’s episode of today’s Morning Mantra podcast by Coach MK, featuring me, you and the CITGO sign. You do a lot of things that no one else notices (call it an educated guess). You don’t want to make a big deal out of all the things you do or make them hugely visible from far away, because you don’t want to come across as self-congratulatory, self-indulgent, or any of those other terms that begin with “self-“ that we use in judgment of others. But sometimes you think to yourself, does anyone see this work I do? Will anyone care? Does it still matter if I am the only one who really knows what went into it?

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You nailed it. I said so.

My run coach asked me to guest-host today’s episode of her podcast, the Morning Mantra. This is her conduit to her athletes and to everyone who relies on her in some way for support, courage, love, and affirmation. She records it every day, which is nothing short of amazing. Recording yourself is really hard and triggering and cringe-inducing, and even on a technical level it takes some skill (note that you can hear the difference between my sound quality and hers when they’re spliced side by side), but she makes it seem easy. And though she is a really good run coach, and though most of her audience is composed of athletes, her podcast isn’t about running. As she likes to say, even the running we do isn’t really about the running. It’s about a need for something that’s usually much, much deeper.

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In September, we RESIST.

“Embrace the resistance. Work is work no matter how slow. And we have WORK to do this month!” This is what my coach wrote to introduce us, her athletes, to the month of September.

From the outside, running looks like a sport that is about nothing but speed. Races are won at the top of the game by running faster than anyone else. Many runners define themselves, value themselves, and compare themselves to others based on how fast they run. My run coach, MK Fleming, has worked tirelessly for years to convince her athletes that being willing to go slow is one of the greatest strengths a runner can possess. Furthermore, she would argue (and the science definitely supports her), your pace is not telling you the things you think it’s telling you, even though it’s the one number we all focus on to the exclusion of all others. She makes us run easy workouts at an effort level that is truly, verifiably easy; she gives us a firm heart rate cap, we wear heart rate monitors, and they do not lie. Our beats per minute go above the cap, we slow down, period. She has apparently earned a reputation as “the coach who makes you run real slow,” which in itself proves her point that everyone is only focusing on one metric. Looking more closely, it is worth noting that her athletes also run a whole lot. When you actually run easy, you can run more, and if you want to build cardiovascular endurance, more is key.

Slow is not always about easy, though, and this month, all our strength exercises are to be performed for one minute, AFAHP (As Few [reps] As Humanly Possible). If we complete a total of one leg-lift over the course of a minute, she says, that’s ideal. She knows that our overachiever instincts will naturally drive us towards the AMRAP (As Many Reps As Possible, a bit of CrossFit shorthand) end of the spectrum, which isn’t actually going to get us where we need to go, even if it makes us feel in the moment like we are doing MOAR!

With AFAHP, we intentionally slow down and it makes us work harder. On our runs this month, we will work so hard that we involuntarily slow down. Example: this morning I found the steepest hill in Somerville and spent the core of my workout windsprinting up it for 10 seconds, doing jump squats at the top, jogging back down, and then repeating until I could not stand upright. Jog home, perform one minute of high knees uphill to the house. My cooldown jog was slower than the pace i run at recovery effort, because I could not have run any faster if you had offered me a hundred dollars. I get to do this workout, which MK has named "Miss Janet," every Tuesday of this month.

That's the incline. Lowell Street, the back side between Highland and Summer. It SUCKS!

That's the incline. Lowell Street, the back side between Highland and Summer. It SUCKS!

I'm a runner, right? Ask me about my pace. Average pace for this morning’s workout: four minutes per mile slower than my usual average pace on an easy day, let alone a hard day. Ask me about the number of reps I do for each exercise in my strength circuit: in the single digits. If you lived in my body right now, though, you would be experiencing that Sore As Fuck feeling. This morning, I groaned as I poured milk into a cup for my daughter. “Mommy, why did you make that noise?” “Because my muscles hurt!” “Oh, your muscles? Why?” “Because my coach loves me!”

Coach MK does not create these workouts in a vacuum. She does love us, and part of how she loves us is by taking away the meaningfulness of the metrics that we have all used at times to beat ourselves up. Pace means nothing in the workout I described above. Work means everything. She helps us define the work that needs to be done and gives us tools to do it effectively. A surprising amount of the time, what we need is less and not more. “Speeding through anything, she says, “from runs to pushups, is rarely a good idea. Rather, faster in these particular circumstances is LESS likely to achieve your goal, not more likely. MOAR isn't necessarily better and neither is faster.”

A lot of athletes do not like to hear this, and Coach MK also knows that the more-more-more mentality we bring to running goes much, much farther than running, and she is in a position to help us confront our type-A tendencies and assess how much they are actually helping us. Self-Care Sunday, as she calls it, asks us to seek out “activities and practices that we can engage in on a regular basis to reduce stress and maintain and enhance our short- and longer-term health and well-being.” If we are to work with her and expect results in our running, then we must acknowledge that taking care of ourselves is essential for “effectiveness and success in honoring [our] professional and personal commitments.”

This goes beyond determining which workouts are physiologically suited for runners chasing certain goals. This is high-level coaching about how to make intentional decisions about our daily lives, and how to think critically about which metrics matter and which ones are sexy but meaningless. How many more 800-word essays will the Miss Janet workout inspire?  Time, and resistance, will tell.