Sandstorm

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Sometimes fate is like a sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out. Like some omnious dance with death. Just before dawn. Why? Because the storm isn’t something that blew in from far away. Something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give into it. Step right inside the storm. Closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in. And walk through it step by step. And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.

I first was introduced to this quote last year when a few members of my team were training for fall marathons. Sarah Cotton and Stephen Kersh followed us all fall and created a documentary series. At first the passage resonated with me as I thought about the hundreds of miles I would log on Lake Mary. The long and grueling workouts my teammates and I would conquer. We would be walking through our own storm, and when it became painful, we would close our eyes and take it on step by step. And we did. This storm however I chose. I chose to race the NYC Marathon and to devote all my energy, my determination, and my motivation to see how good I could be on Sunday, November 5th. I finished 10th, in 2:31. It was a disappointment but for reasons that led me to discover some things about my blood levels, that in turn has carved out a path of success in 2018. So for that storm I'm grateful.

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Other storms in my life have come at me hard and without choice. My dad passed away when I was 18 from Prostate Cancer. I didn't see him in his final months, but I saw a picture. A picture of my 55 year old father who looked 90, decrepit from chemotherapy, and the cancer taking over his body. My dad's name is James. I look exactly like him. He never met Ben. He never saw me get married, or met Riley and Hudson. Some days I look in the mirror and I see his face in mine and it takes my breath away. I have so many questions for him. I miss having a dad yell at me and threatening my husband to not break my heart.

In 2016 my mom was diagnosed with late stage breast cancer. This fi'ng storm is still chasing me. I can't possibly lose both parents to cancer. But you see you can. That's life. The first few months there were questions, doctor appointments, surgeries, chemotherapy. She lived in Phoenix, I lived in Flagstaff. I was conflicted to drive down there every week, to make every appointment. But my boys were 1 and 2 and I didn't want to miss their moments. I was training hard for CIM Marathon and it's my job, my passion, my savior. I was pulled in every direction emotionally and physically. We moved her up to Flagstaff to look after her permanently. She's cancer free at this moment, but the storm is always shifting direction.

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Then there's my brother Jamie. Jamie was my best friend growing up. His friends used to call me Jamie with a wig on because we looked so much alike. He is the smartest and wittiest person I know. Jamie got lost into drugs about 8 years ago. It happened slowly and gradually. Our conversations were fewer, and our interactions more impersonal. See after our dad died, I think Jamie didn't have anything that fueled him, or that he loved. We almost lost Jamie last year in a drug overdose. There were many nights I went to sleep wondering if I'd wake up and my brother would no longer be with us. I tried to help him for many years but to no avail. He needed to dig himself out of the desperation he was living and find meaning. I'm happy to say Jamie is in a rehab program that he checked himself into and I actually got to visit him last month and essentially reintroduce him to his 2 and 4 year old nephews that really never got to know him. His smile was back, the Jamie I once know was resurfacing. There is hope for him. And I believe there is always hope.

Sometimes I feel unwarranted guilty that I have been blessed with such healthy children, this amazing gift to train and race as my profession, and a voracious love for life. Some of my family have walked through storms much stronger and scarier than I. But we all face our own storms, and we can weather them alone or with help. Running is the path I've chosen to channel my passion, my frustrations, and my own personal struggles. Throwing myself into the challenges I face in training and racing is how I walk through the other storms in life.

And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.
— Haruki Murakami

Today's a good day to Grind

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I wrote a blog 2.5 years ago called Finding Yourself in a Failed Workout yet it's one of those experiences that I think cycles through most training segments. It was April of 2016. I was 7 months post partum with Hudson.  I had one of the worst workouts I’ve experienced in probably the last 4 years of my career. By worst I mean, how I felt, how I failed the paces, and how I was so far off of what I expected to be able to accomplish on the day. Coach Ben had written the workout as 3 x 3 mile with 1 mile jog rest at 5:35 pace. Coach Ben is never wrong.  I mean he nails our prescribed paces to the T. I was stretched from the first mile to hit the pace. Hands on my knees I told him the effort felt like I was reaching and not comfortable or relaxed. He said, “today’s a day to grind”. I dug down the next 3 mile and just got in an effort and forgot about the pace. I thought I was done, gassed, nothing left in me.

“Well you’ll find something out about yourself on this last one.”

“Well you’ll find something out about yourself on this last one.” Try to run 5:45s. Clearly my target pace of 5:35s was out, I was nowhere near this. Then I pictured myself out on the race course, in the middle of a bad patch in the marathon and remembered one bad mile can’t define your race, but fighting through to find one good mile can make it. Everything hurt. I was tired and thirsty. I closed the workout with a 5:45 mile and a revelation about bad days. 

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Bad days will happen in training cycles. They are inevitable. Bad days also become less of a measure of success vs. failure, and rather what did you find out about yourself. You test yourself on the days that feel like a grind. Last week I had an NAZ Elite staple session. 20 x 400m with 1 min rest or 200m jog. The backdrop was a road loop at 7300ft called Mt. Shadows. I was solo, with Coach Ben alongside on the bike. 

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It was the first morning the temperature had dropped, and I felt the early whisperings of fall. 42 degrees and I needed more layers. I warmed up, thinking my legs were so heavy but it's been a fantastic week of training behind me. I was on track to hit around 105 miles this week. My body is slow to get going. 8:50 1st mile, "what am I going to have post workout? 7:58 2nd mile, "I'll text the ladies, Local Juicery would hit the spot". 7:35, "it's getting quite warm already."  I see Ben and Jen putting down the cones along the loop and I get the gulp in my stomach. The pace isn't terribly intimidating, 76s, but 20 of them is. 

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I feel springy doing my drills and strides, and coach Ben mutters "what a perfect morning." His usual chipper attitude tries with all it's might to evade any negative thoughts you might have creeping in before the workout. Every morning to him is perfect when this is your job. I feel that way too, but I also know the pain of the workout is coming and so I work on ways to break it apart mentally. The loop is marked so as to go out 400m, jog easy 200m, go out another 400m, jog 100m and flip and repeat the other direction. One direction is slightly uphill, the other down. It's subtle but when you're amidst a tough session at 7000ft you'll welcome any ounce of downhill. 

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I set off, trying to forget the volume of the workout and check in on things like my breathe, my form. I run the first one in 76, and think "oh man this is going to be a long day." The rest is long enough to gather my thoughts, and short enough to not allow me to fully recovery. I wonder if Ben hears me gasping for air, on every jog rest. I try to hide and stay composed but I'm laboring. I start comparing my last 20 x 400 in June where I averaged 75s on the track and they just came to me. Why can't I feel like that now? Because that's running Steph, and that's foolish to think you will feel the same at every workout. It's also stubborn to try to mimic a previous workout. Today it's about effort, and it's about grinding.  

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"Now you're breathing heavy" he says. "Now?" I say on my 16th 400. "I've been breathing heavy since about 6 in, so I guess I had him fooled. I've come to know the 60-70 % of a workout and race are always the most challenging for me. I doubt myself, the hurt starts to creep in, and I wonder if I can make it with anything left. Every time I get through that patch and choose to forge ahead, I come out stronger and braver on the other end. So yes there will be a moment of "this is too great for me to handle" but if I choose yes, that moment fades. 

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Somehow, 19 400s have been run and I have 1 more. It's a friendly stretch the last 400 and he says "nothing crazy." It's always tempting to let it rip when you know you can smell home. But there are times and places for that and today was not one. My breathing is controlled, my legs are heavy, and I finish the last one in 74. The workout never flowed necessarily and I had to talk myself through almost everyone one after about 6. The paces were right for me, I simply was fatigued going in, and would have to keep the pressure on each interval. I've had days where it felt I could go on forever. And days where I wished I was done after the first one. But you get to decide what day today is. For me, today was a good day to grind. 

Dream Big

Steph

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A day in the life of my stomach

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I realize how weird that title sounds but it seemed more interesting than here's what I eat during a day. The reality is that's what so many people I come across are interested in. How do I fuel myself during high mileage training, with 2 toddlers, and with the restrictions of a few food allergies. The biggest rule I try to follow when it comes to diet and nutrition is viewing food as fuel. You want what you put in your body to serve a purpose for what you are asking of your body. For me I'm running between 90 and 115 miles a week on average and so I essentially am eating around the clock. There are no right or wrong times of the day to eat. I've heard and read a lot of articles that tell you eating past a certain time of the night will make you gain weight. That is false. Your body doesn't know what time it is, it simply knows whether it's in caloric deficit or if it's sufficiently fueled.

Lastly one thing to remember. What works for someone else, might not work for you. I know I should eat more clean as an athlete but for me a salad isn't a meal. I believe everything is moderation. I don't actually like the taste of coconut water. Fruit isn't dessert to me. Chocolate is. A glass of wine will not make the difference of who I beat in a race. You have to find a diet routine that aligns with your lifestyle and is sustainable.

Here's what a typical day looks like for me and the timing of my meals so you can get an idea of how I manage my calories throughout the day.

6:00-6:30 Wake Up: Drink 8-10 oz of water.
6-8 oz of black coffee or an almond milk latte in a really fun mug.
Breakfast: Picky Bar or Bowl of Bob's Red Mill Gluten Free Brown Rice Hot cereal. I make about 1/2 to 3/4 cup of uncooked. Add a few spoons of maple almond butter, raisins, cinnamon, almond milk, walnuts

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Homemade Corn Flake Granola: corn puffs, corn flakes, almond butter, maple syrup, sunflower seeds, dried cherries, cinnamon. BAKE at 350 degrees for 15 minutes or until golden.

8:30-10 Post Run: Gatorade, water. Picky Bar + smoothie (banana, frozen cherries, peanut butter, almond milk, rice protein powder, try to add a green like kale but I usually forget)

11-12 Brunch: Here are some of my go tos:

  • Leftover dinner.

  • 4 corn tortillas with 3-4 stripes of bacon, black beans, avocado, cilantro. Side of Jasmine rice. Glass of OJ or apple juice.

  • Rice bowl with chicken, avocado, stir fried veggies.

  • Dine out at Tourist Home or Toasted Owl: Hash bowl with sweet and regular potatoes, bacon, cilantro vegan pesto, avocado + orange juice.

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Post lunch: Theo's dark chocolate and sea salt squares or apple with peanut butter.

2-3 Pre run: another Picky Bar or bowl of Gluten free corn flakes with raisins, walnuts, black coffee.

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Cookie Doughpness

4-5 Post Run: Gatorade, water. Whatever I haven't eaten during the day. Maybe a smoothie if I didn't have in the morning.
Tortilla Chips + guacamole or Bowl of cereal with almond milk, hummus + veggies.

6-7 Dinner: Here's where it gets important. I'm very lucky to have my husband Ben as the chef of the house because really if you're not that great of a cook why pretend to be just because you're the mom. That's me!

  • Tacos: ground beef with taco seasoning, bell peppers, onions, black beans, jasmine rice, avocado, cilantro over corn tortillas

  • Chicken and veggie stir fry made with apple cider vinegar, olive oil, honey mustard, turmeric, and ginger. I'm big on turmeric and ginger as they are great additions for inflammation and gut healing. We use boneless chicken thighs.

  • Meatballs and gluten free pasta with red sauce. Ground beef, basil, almond flour, garlic, spices, canned diced tomatoes. + Arugula salad with olive oil, apple cider vinegar, pepitias, strawberries, sunflower seeds.

I'll have a glass of Pinot Grigio maybe 2-3 nights a week. .

8-9 Dessert: Usually Theo Dark Chocolate bars or peanut butter cups. Lemon and Ginger tea + honey: every night.

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The Goody Drawyer

Everyone should have a goody drawyer

I don't count calories as I eat but I do weigh myself regularly. That's been important for my career and my body. So a scale is not scary or a dictator of what I eat. It's a helpful tool as an athlete. I would guess I consume between 2800-3800 calories during my normal training weeks.

Snacks: Picky Bars, apples, nuts, nut butters.

Vices: Target/movie popcorn and soda. French Fries from 5 Guys Burgers, Bacon, Potato Chips. I do eat these items a few times a month especially knowing with how much I train I can afford them calorie wise, but I try not to have these as the bulk of my nutrition.

Inspiring Recipes or Chefs: my husband Ben Bruce who cooks all our dinners, does most of the grocery shopping and keeps our house together.

Run Fast Eat Slow Cookbook

My good friend Ali Gregg 

In running I feel free, I feel like me

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Running isn’t stressful, life is stressful. Last year during the spring of 2017 I was getting ready to race the Gasparilla Half Marathon in Tampa, FL. I had just run US Cross and qualified for the World Team in Uganda, but wanted a race before Worlds. The week of Gasparilla, my mom was texting me complaining of stomach pain and not feeling great. 3 months prior she was diagnosed with late stage Inflammatory Breast Cancer and was now in the midst of chemotherapy. I thought her pain and discomfort might be attributed to the treatment so I felt bad but nothing else crossed my mind. The next day she said I’m going to the hospital Steph I’m in incredible pain. For the next 20 minutes I paced around my house wondering whether I should drop everything and drive down the mountain to Phoenix and head to the hospital. The boys were at daycare, I had my workout the next morning, and my race was in 5 days. Ben would take care of the kids and home life but ever since I became a mom I suffer from immense guilt every time I have to leave them even if it’s for something that is truly important and necessary. I packed a bag, and drove down to Phoenix that afternoon. Walking into the hospital, with my mom hiding her balding head with a baseball cap, I felt the terror of my past rushing in. You see my father died 15 years ago of prostate cancer and I couldn’t fathom how I would do this again with my other parent. It turned out she had suffered a terrible episode of a few hernias in her stomach finally presenting themselves. After spending an hour visiting with her and knowing there was a treatment plan, I got my shoes out of my trunk and ran along the Greenbelt for my 2nd run. As I jogged out of the hospital parking lot I couldn’t help wonder how strange it must look for someone to be in a sports bra and spandex effortlessly going out for a run. It’s my job and unless I’m sick, hurt, or there’s no option I run when I’m supposed to and when I need to. Running isn’t the stressful part, life is.

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Coach Ben and my husband Ben told me to take all the time I needed in Phoenix with my mom. I stayed with her until we saw the doctor and they scheduled emergency surgery the next morning. All she could do was rest and wait. I got back in my car, drove up to Flagstaff, went to sleep and the next morning ran 8 x 1000 with my teammate Amy, while the guys did the same workout. My legs were heavy from weights but not from sorrow. I feel safe and home during practice, during my workouts. The greatest part about training and competing to me is that you choose the amount of suffering you can endure. In life, that suffering is thrown at you, at any moment, with any pressure and you don’t know if you can handle it. The workout went great, 8 x 1000 @3:20s with 2:30 rest. I went home, showered, ate, repacked my bag and headed back down to the hospital. I missed Riley and Hudson and wished they could go everywhere with me. I stayed at my brother’s the next 2 nights and went back and forth to the hospital while mom was recovering. Her surgery went very well but it was also very labor intensive. As kids we are used to our parents being our role models, strong as hell, rock solid. So when I had to lift my mom from her bed to sit up for the first time since surgery and she grabbed my arm tighter than anything I had ever felt from her I was shaken. It’s a glimpse into what’s to come. When as children, the clock turns backwards and we become responsible for taking care of our parents. I don’t even know if I’m doing it right raising my own 2 sons, how the hell can I now take care of my mom?

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The next day was Thursday and Ben packed the boys up and drove down to Phoenix to visit Grammy and come stay with me. I greatly appreciate his efforts because lord knows single parenting, traveling and training is no easy task. Riley lightened the mood by peeing in the courtyard right outside the hospital, he was just beginning potty training. I debated canceling my race, thinking running is so trivial in a time like this, I shouldn’t leave. It’s not trivial. I’ve seen running help people in the midst of divorces, illnesses, losing loved ones. Running is a constant and an outlet. It’s gives me purpose and direction in a world where there’s so many unknowns. So I got on a plane Friday morning and headed to Tampa, FL. The moment the wheels lifted off a wave of relief brushed over me. I stopped worrying about my mom and focused my energy on what I could control, my effort in my race. I hadn’t raced a half marathon in over 3 years, since both of my boys were born. I knew how to run it and of course could cover the distance but a part of me was nervous. Would I remember how to gauge my effort, when it started hurting would I push through? Could I race where I did before the babies? The race was on a beautiful, warm and windy morning. I embraced all the joyful moments, the crowds, and the painful last 4 miles. I won the race in 72:55, splits: 5:22, 5:26, 5:24, missed a few, 5:24, 5:30, 5:27, 5:25, 5:49, 5:43, 5:33, 5:30. I called my mom first thing and of course she asked “did you win?” “Mom wins don’t come very easily these days”, as my mom always expects that of me. Laughing I said “well yes I did.” She recovered very well over the next few weeks. We then packed her things up and moved her up to Flagstaff to live with us while she would be receiving chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation.

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Life changed a lot for us these past 18 months. The boys got a new dog, with my mom’s moving in with us. Our house got smaller, frequent trips to Phoenix for chemo sessions, doctor appointments, surgery, and all of adjusting to life that took a twist. Cancer is fucking brutal. When I was younger I never experienced the ugly part that is sometimes hidden from kids and well hidden from anyone not in the thick of it. I became a nurse to my mom, changing her drains and dressings after her double mastectomy.  She recently returned last summer from radiation down in the valley and I’ve never seen a body so burnt and destroyed from something that doctors suggest for you. Mom is done with her treatment (hopefully) and she is handling with amazing poise and strength. I lost my dad to cancer, my good friend Lauren Fleshman lost hers to cancer, my running friend and fellow pro runner Gabe Grunewald had her cancer resurface this spring,#bebravelikeGabe and many more stories out there like this. We are given obstacles in life and we are given choices. I have seen those who choose strength and love and fight (even though my mom hates the word fight or battle) conquer.

I like to think of myself as a fighter. Those who know me, know my infatuation with the Rocky movies and their inspiration to me. I choose to fight when I race. It gives me power and makes me feel brave. Brave is what we all could use a lot more of. I’ve seen brave in the running community over and over again. I love the community we exist in. There’s hope and stories and meaning. I used to believe running was trivial and pails in comparison to some of the things we face in life. Don’t let the meaning of running be trivialized to you.  “Human beings are designed to need resistance. We need gravity and friction to do anything. We need work. We need a rock to push that is recognizable as our own.” – Alec Duxbury in an excerpt from Believe I am Journal.  Running is my rock. I wake up most days and regardless of the pressure and pain in life, for the 2 hours I’m at practice, the 2nd runs with Ben, the workouts with the team, solo runs through the trails and the heavy lifting gym sessions I feel joy, I feel free, and I feel like me.

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