Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Does anyone remember the story of The Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman? In it he describes his relationship with his enigmatic teacher who in the book goes by the name of Socrates. I have my own Socrates. Her name is Aracely--she is my running coach.

I've been working with Aracely on and off for three years at least. I sought her out to learn Chi Running-- a technique I read about in a book of the same name. I took up Chi Running at a time when I was learning about how we form our realities through our thoughts. I decided my new reality was to be a long distance runner. With the help of the book and 6 weeks of self training I ran my first half marathon in just under 3 hours. I weighed close to 200 lbs (very very heavy for me) but I only entertained thoughts of finishing--and I did!

It occurred to me that if I could run a half marathon with just what I learned in the book I would do even better with someone to teach me the technique in depth. I found Aracely's name and email address on the Chi Running site and sent her a note. We made a date to meet at the Cupertino track a few days later.
When I saw her across the field I waved to her. She waved back and motioned for me to run towards her. She had a small video camera in her hand.

When I bounded up to her she showed me the screen. I couldn't believe what I looked like. I was all over the place--a bouncy, jiggly mess of disorganized movement. Although in my mind I looked like a gazelle, the recorded image looked far different. I’m glad I didn’t see that before I did the half marathon!

Over the next few weeks we worked on correcting my posture and my gait. I told Aracely my plans. I had scheduled another half marathon a month later followed by the San Francisco Marathon at the end of July. I don't remember what she said but it was along the lines of saying I could run it on my will but she was concerned that I wouldn't be conditioned enough---that I was at risk of injury or over training. She said we should see how the training goes—because I had a baseline from the half marathon I had just completed she felt a little more optimistic about my chances.

Our work together started to pay off--my next half marathon had a 25 minute improvement on the time! I felt I was on my way to the marathon--2.5 months away. Aracely was still concerned about leaping to a full marathon less than 3 months away but put me on a schedule for week over week mileage.

Increasing the mileage after the half was more difficult than I anticipated it would be. A couple weeks after my last half marathon, I went for an 18 mile training run. I drove to Santa Cruz so I could do my mileage along West Cliff, running from Natural Bridges to the top of the hill beyond the Board Walk and back twice. I also was counting on a cool morning to make the long distance easier on me.

The morning was cold and foggy. I felt uncomfortable—cold and a little achy. I started at a slow jog expecting to warm up and fall into a rhythm after a couple of miles. I was exerting myself but I wasn’t getting warm. Every step sent shockwaves up my legs, jarring my body. At the half way point I stopped and called Keri for support. I hurt and wanted to quit—I basically fell apart on the phone. She just listened to me until I was done—by that time I had talked myself into starting up again and ran the remaining mileage. I was going slow but finally completed what I set out to do for the day. It took far longer than I planned.

The next day on my schedule was hill training. I went to the local hill to do some repeats. Despite the previous day’s difficulty I felt alright so I stayed on schedule. Finishing the final hill, I felt something tighten up in my inner thigh. The next morning I was limping--I pulled my groin.

With the marathon so close Aracely advised I pull back on my training and pick a later event--shoot for end of summer and something with fewer hills than SF. She said I needed to respect my body. I didn’t know what she meant by that. No pain no gain, right?

I didn’t reschedule the marathon. Months passed and my training fell off. My Mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Running fell to the bottom of the priority pile.

Over a full year later, Mom had recovered. I felt the need to reclaim my fitness. One of my coworkers shared with me that he was going all in with P90X. I had seen the cheesy infomercial of flabby couch potatoes transforming into rock hard gym gods the previous summer. I was skeptical but it’s a pretty compelling story for someone who wants dramatic change NOW. Having someone I know do it gave me permission to "bring it" (their catch phrase, not mine). A few key strokes later, a set of DVDs was on its way to my door.

There was a whole lot of P90X I couldn't do—moves that required flexibility or certain strength I didn’t have. Despite that I kept at it 6 days a week for the full 90 days. I lost a few pounds and had some overall improvement (especially in areas I was already strong). There were some things I could barely do and by the end of the program I could still barely do them!

Feeling all puffed up I decided it was time to approach the marathon again. However the challenge was only part of it.  I had a different motivation this time. Earlier that year my partner Keri had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. I really wanted to dedicate the marathon to her well being as well as to use it to raise funds to help promote PD treatment and research.

I started a Fox Foundation fund raiser and started reaching out to friends and collecting donations—I received so much support! The marathon needed to work.

I called Aracely.

Aracely met me at Starbucks. She asked me why I ran away from my training. I explained I had been dealing with my mother’s cancer and was overwhelmed with the prospect of running a marathon, the training, the commitment—all of it. I assured her I was ready to begin again. I assured her my endurance and strength were in good shape and that I was doing the marathon as a fundraiser. She handed me a written training program. We planned to meet every 2-3 weeks to check my progress.

I started almost where I left off—running three to four miles at a time. It wasn’t long before I started having problems.

I had problems with my calves. I’ve never had much flexibility there but I was feeling them every time I went out on a run. When I’d meet with Aracely I’d say "I can't believe it...I’ve been working out…I was able to blah blah blah..." and she didn't want to hear it. She said "you need to throw that away...this is a new experience". I wasn't listening. All I knew was that I had run a half marathon before and just did this P90X thing so everything should be great, right?

I paid lip service to the plan Aracely worked up for me. I continued to have calf issues.

I was signed up to do the Wharf to Wharf run as a checkpoint in my training. Aracely agreed that Wharf to Wharf was OK as long as I was pain free the week before the event. I wasn't pain free but I had done W2W several times before—I thought it wouldn’t be a problem.

Long story short I tore my calf muscle after just 2 miles. Using my already excellent thinking I ran the rest of the way in.

I won't go into great detail on how I spent the rest of the summer but the next 8 weeks were about me trying to convince myself that I could make my marathon even though I couldn't run a mile without pain. When I finally saw my doctor she told me to STOP RUNNING until it was healed.

I wrote my Fox Foundation supporters to let them know my effort was on hold until I could start training again. This was not how the story was supposed to go.

I wanted to get back to training—I wasn’t finished. That spring I met with Aracely again. Again she put me on a program--one mile no more than 3 times a week. Additionally she prescribed a multitude of small exercises, series of planks, squats and lunges to execute on every day. Our training at the track was very slow. She had me trot a hundred while she watched—she admonished me to keep my heels up, keep my toes relaxed, keep my abs engaged.

"You should be sweating from your abs" Our sessions always focused on my abs--elongating my body so I felt like a giraffe. If I felt any kind of stress in my calf she wanted me to stop.

Frequently her hand would dart up to brush away the furrow between my eyes. “Relax, you are always thinking.”  

Despite my lack of faith and half hearted behavior I made progress. At one point during a workout I genuinely felt like I was floating. There was a troubling stiffness in my left hip but otherwise I felt light and the running was nearly effortless--like nothing I'd ever experienced. I started straying from the program, doing a little more mileage than prescribed each session.

I planned to run Wharf to Wharf again—I didn’t tell Aracely. I had bought the entry months earlier but kept it to myself.

On race day my emotions were a mess. Keri and I stayed over at our friends-- on the surface I was trying to keep it light but I was worried. Only part of me was willing to look at running W2W as self sabotage. The larger part of me needed to run it.

At the starting line I put on my headphones and tuned out the world. An hour and 8 minutes later I crossed the finish line-- shaving 7 minutes off my best time for the course. Victory.

Two weeks later my hip collapsed during a routine run.

I don’t know for sure if it failed because of W2W or because it was already injured and finally gave out. Even before the W2W my hip gave me problems—I kept training because I thought it was normal to feel pain. I didn’t treat it as a signal to listen to my body and adjust what I was doing.

During our next meeting at the track Aracely didn’t criticize me—we talked and she sent me home. We agreed to meet after I saw my doctor and a physical therapist. Aracely said she had some “ideas”.

Now I meet Aracely at her studio twice a week--no running. She guides me through everything we do and I don’t object. I have a program I do at home as well—daily, non negotiable work.

During one of our recent sessions I asked her how she could stand the boredom of what we were doing. She was shocked that I looked at it that way. She told me she could see past where we are right now. She could see potential. She also reminded me I wasn’t the worst student she had ever had.

On the whole this process has been a painful learning experience—not just for my body.
My ego, my willfulness and my inability to accept my role as student have made my progress go so very slowly. I sought out a trainer to help me achieve my desire—to transform my body into that of a long distance runner. However, instead of submitting to Aracely’s instruction and training I kept doing my own thing.

I guess it takes time to learn how to be a student—not just assimilating information but working with a person to learn and grow. Also, “doing your own thing” is such an American thing to do—we love it when people rely on themselves and thumb their noses at authority (especially teachers). There isn’t much American mythos around the student/teacher relationship except for when the student breaks away. We have very little that celebrates patience and willingness.

A teacher is there to help when whatever talent exists has gone as far as it can alone. For me that wasn’t very far. In many ways I’ve never given a teacher a real chance to help me improve. If my body didn’t fail I don’t know if I would ever have been willing to accept what Aracely has to offer.  I’m just glad she didn’t give up on me.



  1. It's quite remarkable the way you watch yourself. . . .

  2. it is only recently that I felt it was alright to really receive advice and not explain it away. It is pretty amazing when you realize maybe you don't know all you think you did...