7 Takeaways from the 12 Days of Fitness Challenge

As I wrote in my guest post for the American Heart Association’s #BreakUpWithSalt initiative, about six in ten caregivers in a national survey by the National Alliance for Caregiving reported that their eating (63%) and exercising (58%) habits are worse than before. I am among those six in ten.

When I stopped running in early October because my rapid heart rate kept breaking through despite taking a beta blocker before exercising, I stopped other exercise activities too. The “reasons” mushroomed easily: once my son was able to drive himself, he was able to stay out after school finished, hanging out with his friends (or whatever). Going to an early morning class so that I could be home before my husband left for work involved an early wakeup that felt increasingly impossible to do. I was embarrassed about my weight gain.

Then the 12 Days of Fitness Challenge happened.

In December, BA Fitness posted on their Facebook page that there would be a “12 Days of Fitness” challenge. The challenge was set to begin the next day, so I had to make a quick decision regarding whether I was “in” or not. I decided! I was in! The basics: Do 12 classes within an abbreviated period of time (15 days). Don’t miss any classes you signed up for (or the clock would start over). In return? More fitness and a lovely custom workout towel (plus a chance to be entered in a drawing for free classes and other goodies.

Fitness Goals

Fast forward to the end. I *did* earn my towel (yay) and gathered a few insights along the way:

Why A Challenge Made a Difference

The Towel

Having done many efforts such as Relay for Life and Making Strides Against Breast Cancer, I have always been *amazed* at how hard people will work to earn a tshirt that may cost $5 to make. How many hundreds and thousands of dollars they’ll raise. That was me with the reward towel. Granted, it was exclusive to participants of the challenge who met the 12-class minimum, but in the end it was “just a towel.” But I wanted it! Like Joe, the swag was calling my name!

Fitness GoalsThe Finite Time Line

Because the Challenge had a specific begin and end date, I had to fit my 12 classes in within a specified period of time. That short-circuited any “I’ll get to it eventually” thoughts in my head and made me overcome barriers I had been allowing to stop me from showing up.

Detailed, Transparent Updates

The challenge scoreboard was posted on Facebook at least once a day. Why did that matter? For starters, we could see each other’s progress? A perfect recipe for lots of support sharing (and a tiny quantity of good natured prods (as in, I’m getting up at 4:30 am to make the 5 am class — you can too, friend!)). Since the towels were limited to the first 25 people to complete the challenge, seeing a line of people ahead of us who were closer to hitting the 12-class mark than we were was motivation to step up our efforts and get our butts to class.

Accountability Matters

I had gotten out of touch with the fact that the best thing people and fitness lovers can do for one another is hold each other accountable. I stopped being on “active status” with my team (although my incredible coach still goes way above and beyond to track my workouts). I wasn’t racing so there was no “let’s get some runs in so we are prepared for the next 5K” type activity going on. When I knew my fellow challenge participants would be expecting me in class, and that my NOT going was stealing a spot from someone who needed it (it got pretty hard to find space in classes as the challenge proceeded), I showed up. 

Planning Ahead is Your Friend

Like I mentioned above, as the challenge progressed, it got harder and harder to find space in class. I missed an opportunity to check off one (or two, if I had been willing to do a double) class of my list on a premium Saturday when I actually could go, because I waited too late to sign up. If you have a goal, plan ahead in order to execute it.

Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone Is Good

Because I had to take whatever classes were available, I took some classes I would not have traditionally picked. I got to exercise different muscles (literally), meet new people, and explore exercise alternatives I would not have tried before.

Excuses Hurt Only Ourselves

After I had to get carted back to the start area a mile into a walked 5K in October, something in my willpower deflated. Years of consistent exercise (some of those years with rockingly consistent nutrition (some not so much) felt like a waste of time. I know they weren’t a waste of time, but I was feeling sorry for myself. I was afraid to work out in the event my tachycardia acted up, afraid I would “cause a problem” for the staff or fellow students at the studio if I had an episode, just AFRAID.

Thanks to the challenge, though, for all the morning classes I did as part of a challenge, I drank only decaf before class, took my beta blocker, tried not to feel self conscious about bedhead or wearing colors that didn’t match, and DID IT. If I felt like something was pushing me too hard, I took a break. It was hard to stop worrying about what others thought (lazy/out of shape/unmotivated) but it was an important reminder that not everyone knows our stories.

THE HAPPY ENDING

Yes, I got the towel. More importantly, I got the push I needed to look those excuses, the extra pounds, the logistical challenges, and the health issues in the face and recommit to taking care of myself.

Fitness Goals

My bedhead and I earned my towel after my 12th class, an Indorow class. Pictured here with David Griffin, instructor.

Looks like I am going to need a few MORE towels.

Heart on the Run

It’s my heart that’s on the run. Unfortunately, my heart is an overachiever when it comes to being fast, and that’s creating a problem.

I don’t know when my trek down tachycardia trail really started, but data-wise the first time I noted a high heart rate in my workout log was February 16, 2013, when I wrote off the much-higher-than-usual high heart rate I experienced in the last mile of the Flash 12K as a fluke.

Cardiac Issues

Though the ensuing episodes of high heart rate, the cardiologist visit (when I was initially cleared), the blog post about the 2014 Turkey Trot (after which Shannon Sullivan, Mary Jean Yon, and David Yon insisted I seek other answers), the electrophysiologist visit, the implantable loop recorder, the electrophysiology study, and the year of attempting to manage my symptoms with a beta blocker (because an ablation was contraindicated), I kept identifying myself as a runner, kept saying, “it’s a pain but as long as it’s confined to my running,” I just need to make adjustments.

It was when I was “just” walking a 5K on October 2 that I hit a physical and emotional wall on this trail, and I haven’t figured out a way around it.

Cardiac Issues

At the Stop the Violence 5K, BEFORE the race. Turns out Harper (the dog) and I each had our own struggles that day.

Besides the actual facts of what occurred over the hour which changed everything for me, my hesitancy to ask for help makes me want to kick myself in my OWN butt. I had not taken a beta blocker before the race because I’ve never needed one in a “walk” situation before. When my HR goes up precipitously, it does so with no warning. When it happened that day, I tried to stay calm, continuing to walk and do vagal maneuvers. I was passed by one couple who said “do you need help? And made some reference to one of them being qualified to help if I was having a problem.” Turned them down. I sat down on the curb (side note: I hate sitting down during races. I especially hate sitting down within sight of the finish line.)

I decided to walk back to the start area instead of trying to finish the 3.1 mile route. I walked past a man washing his car and made light conversation about his dog who was barking from the window rather than explaining I may be having a health issue. I was in a neighborhood where I know several people who probably would have come to help me if I had asked. During the attempt to walk back to the start area, my HR increased to an unhealthy rate again. I sat down on the curb, again. Throughout, I was texting my husband, explaining what was going on. I needed someone to be in the know.

I was participating in the race as part of a team, but I didn’t have anyone’s cell phone numbers I took my smartphone out and sent a message to the team’s event page on Facebook and one to our captain via PM. I explained that they should take their time (again, I might could have mentioned that I was possibly having a health crisis) but that I was going to need someone to pick me up. Eventually the race organizers sent a volunteer in a golf cart to come pick me up. Arriving at the finish line as a passenger in a golf cart rather than crossing it under my own power was so humbling (and, honestly, embarrassing).

Cardiac Issues

I didn’t share this publicly on 10/2, but this is the pic I sent my coach and team as I waited on my golf cart rescue chariot.

Here’s where things stand for me at this point:

This Is Not Just About Running Anymore

It was one thing to change my approach to running as the tachycardia issue got worse. Now that it’s affecting walking, the situation has gotten more serious as it impacts a proportionally larger part of my life. I’ve always had a sort of “I’m not fast but I can hang with pretty much anything endurance-wise” approach but now I find myself evaluating EVERY activity, not just the ones that are labeled as “exercise,” on its likelihood to be affected by my issue. When I was at a conference at Disney recently, my companions and I were running late to get to a dinner reservation in EPCOT because of some transportation changes (the Monorail to EPCOT was not running). We were under the gun to get to the restaurant before our reservation was cancelled and my credit card was charged. It’s a pretty long way from the admission gates of EPCOT to “Japan,” and I was praying I could keep up with their brisk pace, and popping a beta blocker hoping that would help me hang with them (it worked out fine).

I need to be able to walk a mile without stopping, both for exercise and because my life just involves a lot of “going.” 

Being Stubborn About Doing Things on My Own Can Be Dangerous

The double-pronged issue of a) loving doing things solo and b) being hesitant to ask for help is an issue that could just be classified as “that’s how I am” but now it impacts my health and survival. I’m grieving the limitations I feel now — I am not going to go out and spend an hour isolated on the Greenway — who would find me if I passed out? And although I would advise anyone in my circle to ask for help if they need it (and hopefully I would be the first to offer if they asked), I hate imposing. This is not an easy change to get used to.

We need each other. My biggest adversary here is myself, and I need to reach some detente with me.

The Exercise/Fatigue/Caffeine Cycle

Maybe none of this would be an issue if I had followed the cardiologist’s advice more than ten years ago and stopped caffeine altogether. I have tried a few runs without caffeine and still experienced problems, so I can’t say it’s the caffeine. But I am in a cycle (that I’ve almost always been in) of dealing with fatigue. I think some of it is low blood pressure — I’ve always struggled to stay awake … in meetings, singing in the choir (i.e., facing the congregation as a minister gives the message and dozing….THAT’S special). Lately I’ve had friends I’m conversing with say “you’re clearly tired” as I’m simply trying to stay with a conversation. Driving pretty much anywhere requires a cold brisk water, soda, or other beverage to keep me alert. One of the things I love about working from home is the ability to take a ten minute micronap when the fatigue hits — it makes all the difference and doing it in the privacy of my home doesn’t bring with it the indignity of getting drowsy in public.

If I don’t drink caffeine (or find some other way to not get drowsy/fatigued), my professional and personal life are impacted. I guess I should make a big summarizing point in this particular italicized sentence but: I love and need coffee and would find it almost impossible to break up with it. That is all!

The Gray Areas In Dealing With Cardiac Issues Are Vexing

It is irritating and a little humiliating to try to explain a health issue others can’t see. If I had a cast on my leg or some other outwardly obvious sign that I am working through something, that would be different, but as it is, many people start every conversation with “the usual”: “So when’s your next race?” “What are you training for?” Etc. Etc. Etc. My social  network is largely comprised of runners. My social media content is liberally filled with running. The first place I head when I walk into a store is the fitness/running section.

When Running Is Bad for Your Health

Although this post has been percolating in my head (I had lots of time to think about it sitting on that curb in Southwood waiting for the golf cart (sigh)), I hesitated because I do not want it to be a whining, “poor me” post. I guess in a way it’s an attempt to put down in words the fumbling around I do when conversing about this when the zillionth person says “when’s your next race?”

I feel more keenly aware of the fact that I’ve spent years throwing out platitudes to other injured/ill runner friends: “you’ll get back to it,” “every step matters,” “people understand.” I feel aware of the challenge my father in law must feel when he is feeling faint and I’m screaming at him “PUT YOUR WEIGHT ON YOUR LEGS” because honestly, there was a moment there at Southwood on October 2 when the 1 mile back to the start line might as well have been 10,000 miles. No amount of willpower on my part would overcome the fact that my heart was done. with. ambulating. for. that. hour. DONE.

It’s a pain when well-meaning relatives say things like “well now that you’re not running but eating like a runner, there’s a weight issue.” (Yes, there is. I weigh more now than I did at the max of either of my pregnancies and my food consumption, especially the stress eating, really needs to be separated out (by me) from my runner persona.) It’s a process.

The Finish Line

This is not a post with a nice neat ending.

I guess my best advice right now is …..if your health enables you to fully engage in what you love for exercise and an outlet, do it and don’t take it for granted. If someone in your circle drops off the radar, give them an opportunity to try to process it and know that they themselves may not really be capable of explaining it or responding to their personal challenges, but they do still need you.

Their heart may still be putting in the miles even if their race reports don’t show it.

Cardiac Issues

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Five Magical Motivations to RUN

So many conversations I have had about running over the past few months as I have made modifications to deal with my tachycardia issues have ended (on my part) with some variation of “but I am still grateful.”

My goal of running a 5K in less than 30 minutes is almost certainly not attainable at this point. Maybe if I checked in to a fitness retreat, ate 100% clean for an extended period of time, trained intensively, put my life on hold and went without the medication that slows my heart rate down and makes it feel like I’m running through mud long enough to pull it off it would happen. It’s not realistic, though, time-wise or budget-wise to put my life on hold. I’m doubtful it would be a good choice for my overall health, and the mere fact that cupcakes exist in this world is some type of evidence that it is possible to deny yourself too much!

Motivations For Running

Enjoying Baked by Melissa “Snowstorm” cupcakes after a run!

Jane Mahoney, a runner in the Kerri On: I Run for Remembrance group, a companion group to I Run for Michael in which members run in memory of people’s loved ones, said this today, after describing a run she and some friends had done in memory of a fellow runner and friend who had died of cancer:

Running is a magical thing, giving solitude, peace, friendship, honor and joy to life. ~ Jane Mahoney

In that one sentence, Jane captured the assets of running which have enabled me, one by one, to put a knot in the rope and hang on when I was almost at the end of my rope with running the last few months.

The Solitude of Running

I won’t lie. Despite the social benefits (discussed below), I still love running by myself. Especially since I am a primary caregiver for my father-in-law and almost never have the house to myself, I love being alone. The repetitive footsteps are like meditation for me; my thoughts have a chance to unfurl and wander, and the fresh air is rejuvenating. I also have the pleasure of listening to various Rock My Run mixes (read here for how you can benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society by downloading this free app!).

Peace

We have a number of scenic running trails here in Tallahassee. A few weeks ago, I went out by myself and ran the Swamp Forest trail in preparation for last weekend’s Swamp Forest Quarter Marathon. It was just me, the trees, gorgeous views of streams, streaming sunlight; and a few animals skittering and fro. No screens to be stared at, no one who needed anything, just peace.

Motivations For Running

The Swamp Forest Trail. Photo courtesy of Robin Bennett.

Friendship

Everyone who knows me knows I am a sucker for working toward a measurable goal. Even though I had heard about groups running from a local running store every Monday and Thursday night, I had declined to join for several reasons. Once a member told me the group was trying to get to 2016 miles in 2016, though, I was in! I joined them this past Thursday night, and Chris (the leader) said “I’ll stay with you.” Now, I have been told “I’ll stay with you” before and many times that commitment, which was sincerely meant at the time, goes out the window when the individual realizes how slow I am relative to them. Not this time. Chris stayed with me every step of the way, and the miles flew by. Three miles later I had a friend and a reminder of why the running community is second to none.

Motivations For Running

The Capital City Runners 2016 or Bust Group.

Honor

I didn’t attend the Gulf Winds Track Club awards ceremony last night, but as the names of the awardees (which are kept a secret until the ceremony) started rolling in on social media, I was thrilled for so many runners I respect who were recognized for their achievements. Although I am happy for everyone, I am exceedingly happy for my friend Maria Matheu, 2015 Female Runner of the Year. Maria worked so hard this year as she ran every race in the Gulf Winds Track Club Extreme Challenge series. Six of the hard miles were the ones she ran for me smack in the middle of a scorchingly hot Tallahassee summer when we ran from Madison Social to Capital City Runners and back, all for a free beer (okay, it was for more than a free beer but still….). She’s another one who said, “I’ll stay with you” and actually did stay with me. She had already run 8 miles that day, and only someone with a bit of a crazy streak would have headed out in the 100 degree heat index day, much less with someone who is going to take FOREVER to get it done. Maria proved (to me) who she was that day. She was (is) a friend. She honored her commitment. No one in our club deserves this award more than she does.

Motivations For Running

2015 Gulf Winds Track Club Female Runner of the Year, Maria Matheu

Joy

So much of 2015  has been spent staring at the screen of my Garmin, trying to figure out if my heart rate was going to behave or not. Over the past two months, it was reading exceptionally high. Skipping past the frantic calls I made to the pharmacist (is this batch of beta blockers bad?) and my electrophysiologist (WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME?!), it turns out my Garmin sensor needed to be replaced. Everything is still not perfect, but the malfunctioning electronics had me in a misguided  mental (and emotional) spiral of “this is never going to get resolved.” I have a new strap/sensor which seems to be recording correctly. When I ran with Chris Thursday night, I didn’t look at my Garmin for the whole run. Not fixating on my HR allowed me to be more open to the whole reason we do this: JOY.

Lastly, in addition to those five reasons, my son has started joining me at running events again. This may be pushing me even farther away from a sub-30 finish than my medical issues have, but it has me speeding toward something much more important: miles, memories, and, like Jane, a magical thing.

Motivations For Running

Billy Bowlegs 5K. Photo courtesy of Fred Deckert.

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