Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Cheerleaders Don't Always Have Pom-Poms

A sign made by my cousins before my 4th Marine Corps Marathon in 2014

A few years ago while out on my very first 18 mile training run on the Columbia Trail in High Bridge New Jersey, I stepped off to the side of the trail to collect myself. I was beginning to chafe everywhere (this was before I was aware of high quality tech fabric and BODY GLIDE.) There was substantially more weight on my body than there is now and I felt extra heavy and in pain, everywhere. I was wearing the wrong kind of shoes. It was hot, and unbearably humid. I wanted so badly to stop and lie down in the poison ivy at the side of the trail.

I didn't even have a chance to throw in the towel. Just as these negative thoughts began floating around me like the filth does around that dirty kid in Charlie Brown cartoons, an angel in the form of a man named Ralph Abramowitz ran by me, and then stopped when he realized there was a person standing, half hidden behind a tree at the side of the trail. I can only imagine how I must have looked.

"Hey! Are you okay?" he asked, smiling.
"Um, I think so. Just taking a break."
"How much ya' doing today?"
"Eighteen" I said, incredulously. Did that number just come out of my mouth?
"Wow! Whatcha training for?"
"The Marine Corps Marathon." Did I just say that? Holy shit, I'm really training for a marathon.
"That's great! You're gonna LOVE IT!"
I bet I am, said that negative voice of mine that loves to present itself when I least need it to. I. Bet. I. Am. But I smiled and said, "I hope so. I'm trying to figure out how I'm going to run for 9 more miles."
Ralph smiled his big, radiant smile. "You got this far, you can do it again. Take a break. Drink your water. Have a gel. And then get started again. YOU GOT THIS."
Who was this overly chipper guy and why was he trying to convince me of the impossible?
"I'm Ralph by the way, and I've got a group called Ralph's Runners, and we're out here every weekend. I've got my runners doing 22 today. They're also doing MCM. Listen, I gotta go but we have a group on Facebook. I'd love for you to join. Look us up! What's your name by the way?"
"Mirna, it was nice to meet you. Remember, you got this far..."
And then he ran off.
TWENTY-TWO miles? I couldn't even wrap my head around 18. Wow.
I did exactly what Ralph said and managed to finish the second half of my run, albeit with tremendous foot pain from plantar fasciitis, back soreness, brain fatigue. But I completed it. This was because of two things--I had to (my car was 9 miles away) and because this stranger had encouraged me to finish it, even though he didn't KNOW me from a poison-ivy covered tree or a menacing looking black bear on the prowl. He was cheering me on, encouraging me, transferring his energy and positivity to me.
In sports as in life, the purpose of cheerleaders, whether they are the pom-pom wielding ones in brightly colored ribbons and short skirts or the super-acrobats catapulting themselves into thin air, is to "energize the team and the crowd." I would take it a step further and say that the most important aspect of cheerleading is to SUPPORT the team, loudly and energetically so that that any negative thinking or juju from the other team is drowned out in positivity and er, cheer. 
As a non-traditional runner and fitness enthusiast, it has become increasingly clear how much support and encouragement I needed and still need in order to be able to do the things I am able to do, like complete an ultramarathon, backpack in the Appalachian Mountains for few days with a 60 Lb pack on my back while being responsible for myself and ten students, or to keep it real, just to be able to run whenever and wherever I want to. 
After about 6 hours of switchbacks in Pisgah National Forest heading toward Pinnacle Mountain.

The running and fitness communities are incredible, as are those who are spectators. Everyone who has ever said, GET IT!, YOU GO GIRL!, YOU GOT THIS!, FINISH STRONG!, SMILE! ONLY 26 MILES LEFT!, OMG YOU ARE OUT HERE!, JUST A FEW YARDS TO GO!, LOOKING GOOD, UM, THAT SEXY MARINE JUST SMILED AT YOU!.....is a cheerleader. Anyone who has ever made a sign to hold up for hours and hours at a marathon is a cheerleader. Anyone who helps you get up in the morning so that you can workout like you promised yourself you would is a cheerleader. Anyone who gives you that encouraging smile or a simple thumbs up is a cheerleader.
Surround yourself with cheerleaders so that they help to drown out the internal and external saboteurs that loudly question your ability or commitment to your body. Be a cheerleader for those on the path to fitness and for those who need a smile or acknowledgement that yeah, this is hard. Finally, thank your cheerleaders and acknowledge them. They deserve it.

I'm seven marathon distances and 2 ultramarathon distances in since my encounter with Coach Abramowitz. Thank you, Ralph.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015



Tammi Nowack, Photographer
As you may or may not know, a few days ago I was one of two bigger gals featured in a Wall Street Journal Article "Weight Loss or Not, Exercise Yields Benefits" by health and fitness writer, Rachel Bachman. What an incredible honor to be recognized for what I love doing by the friggin WALL STREET JOURNAL! I also got a shout out from Clark Howard during his radio show on Feb 10 (start the podcast 43 minutes in.) How's that for major kudos? What an honor to have such an overwhelming response by all of my family, friends, colleagues, and a slew of people I don't even know! 

If you haven't had a chance to read the article yet, HERE it is. Also, be sure to read my long-time friend and colleague Derrick Gay's excellent response and deconstruction of the concept of  LOOKISM on his blog Diversity Derrick.

I haven't been able to sleep for the past week or so. I am so excited to have been profiled because of the mere existence of this here blog and this post in particular. I thank all of you who have read it and participated in all of my adventures, either in real-life or vicariously! RUN ON.


Thursday, February 5, 2015


Waldeinsamkeit: Classical music, KESHA, and running in the woods

The view from a trail in Juneau, Alaska!
Some of you may know that I am a classically trained singer and on occasion, I geek out on all things classical. Although I don't sing much anymore, I find much pleasure and satisfaction in connecting my singing past to my running present.  There are many similarities between expressing the beauty that is life with the human instrument and running for hours, alone with yourself, your legs, your mind and the flora and fauna that give us life and sustenance. There is such basic humanity in both, and each is a metaphor for the other.

Photo of me, Courtesy of Tammi Nowack, Photographer
Have you ever wandered into the woods and become struck with a sense of awe, peace, and complete connectedness to your own self and to the surrounding beauty? That is Waldeinsamkeit, German for the feeling of being alone in the woods. To experience Waldeinsamkeit is to experience a sort of visceral spirituality. It satisfies that basic human longing to connect with nature, the universe. I love running trails because I am and have always been an introvert. Even though I have a job which requires me to be around and engaging with people constantly (and TEENAGERS at that!) all the time, pretty much every day except during the summer, I prefer to be alone immersed in a hefty tome or experiencing flow, running amidst trees, on pebble and boulder, splashing in puddles, crossing cold, rushing brooks. Running like this, even in a race situation is a meditation and complete envelopment of body and soul. Anytime I'm in a forest, whether it be the Chattahoochee National Forest in the South, or the Bronx's Van Cortlandt Park in late spring with the distant hum of cars and trains, I am immediately soothed by an exquisite solitude in running through trees.

Dem Schnee
One of the pleasures of singing classical music is becoming intimately acquainted with with sublime poetry set to most vivid piano accompaniments. Many composers, particularly those from the romantic era, had and expressed a strong, almost ethereal connection to the outdoors. They read and  obsessed over poems and novels, particularly those about love, unrequited love, and nature. Sometimes nature offered solitude and time to ponder all things existential.  Other times it proved to be a huge life metaphor; there were things humans simply could not overcome, although we tried and still try.

I sing a lot while running--or power hiking, as is the case on many a trail run. Sometimes it's a Schubert song with an energetic accompaniment that mimics driving rain and snow (been there, done that) that I imagine my friend Sylvia playing spiritedly. Other times it's a more pensive and slow-moving piece like Brahms' Feldeinsamkeit.  Ach! The Germans and Austrians knew. They simply knew the cleansing and mind-clearing and mood-enhacing abilities of the outdoors! NO DRUGS NECESSARY.

Trail with creepy cave, in Spoleto, Italy
I recall each section of a particular trail or race by the music that I associate it, and sometimes it is decidedly not classical. In my last ultra, The Georgia Jewel 35 Mile, I distinctly remember singing, well...yelling Kesha's Crazy Kids at at the top of my lungs. It was a very long uphill section after the 17.5 mile turn-around. I was in last place at that point (and remained so for the rest of the course) and happened to be asking myself "WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING and WHY?" when miraculously, this song started playing on my Pandora, deep in the woods somewhere on the Pinhoti Trail. I totally needed the affirmation of crazy. After three miles of power hiking uphill, stopping, crying, thengetting angry, and being okay, and then not being okay,  I changed the station to Maria Callas. The aria (an operatic solo) from Puccini's Sola, Perdutta, Abandonata sung by Renata Scotto came on (Alone, Lost, and Abandoned). Perfect. Just perfect.  Sometimes the universe just knows.

School Cross Country Trail
Other times, I listen to and sing Luther Vandross songs, like I did at the Wildcat Ridge Romp--that was because of a particularly scary section of trail. Everyone's fair game. Extreme, the Indigo Girls, The Cranberries, TI, Missy...and Debussy. Jay-Z is GREAT by a rushing river with few rock-hopping opportunities. Sometimes, the flood of testosterone is all that is needed to overcome any fears of being sucked into a hydraulic. But I digress...

So happy to be on a trail in Italy
Alone in the woods, running, I am able to focus on the pure physicality of existence. When I am singing, there is a physicality, spirituality, and direct connection with the world that can only be expressed with the human voice, which is an essential part of the human body--just as your legs and heart are. Prancing about in the forest is the perfect fusion of of pure physicality, nature's awe-inspiring and silent yet noisy poetry, and solitude that is simultaneously stimulating, sensuous, and calming. Singing while running only enhances this experience (in addition to making you less scared of the imaginary cougar stalking you in the trees.) Go run and sing!