Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Nature's Student

Today Chris said to me, "You know, I think I stopped the habit of getting outside every day when recess ended in 6th grade." Wow, how true and how sad that is. Nature has a lot to teach and we have a lot to learn. So, let's re-institute recess and vow to get outside every day. This may just be the overly simple solution to a lot of life's problems. I know it has been for me in 2012.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Significant Risk

By Susie Crossland-Dwyer

Today as fall started to turn into winter, I felt myself once again getting itchy--itchy for a new challenge, for something that will help me remember why I'm here and what it's all about. This isn't your typical, "Hey, Susie! Stay busy!" itch, that I've begun to recognize as the internal unhelpful monkey on my back asking for "more, more, more." This itch is deeper, much deeper. It is more the gentle, repeated elbow nudge of the Universe softly and calmly reminding me, "It's time, my dear."

As I look toward 2013 and envision my year, it's not necessarily the long training hours, the will power that it will take to follow through, or any of the other step-by-step parts of the process that I look forward to. It is the lessons within and on the other side of all those elements that draws me in and beckons me to pick something risky.

As I explored the streets of my neighborhood today, I uttered the question aloud, "What is it? What's it going to be? What is waiting for me?" You see, when I make decisions about my upcoming year, I find it's one part Susie and one part Universe. I cannot make the decision on my own. I have to look to what's calling me.

I hope it doesn't sound egotistical to say that any significant goal I've ever set, I have accomplished. I don't credit this to my own self will or even to good fortune. I strongly believe it's turned out this way because with any big decision, I've first listened and only then when my excitement matches what I "hear," do I go for it.

Many of the goals I've set have been big risks and many of those risks have been laced with loneliness. When you take a risk you are by definition on the edge and the edge doesn't attract very many. 

In college, against the advice of more than a few people in my life, I decided to study Comparative Religion. Most people I told had never even heard of such a degree, let alone approved of its pursuit because they had conquered practical studies. Even though I knew it was a choice that felt right, it also felt like no one else in the world could possibly understand why. 

It wouldn't be until later in life that I would fully comprehend why I needed this degree. At the time, I didn't know that a big part of my work and life's mission would be to understand what motivated individuals. Religion is at the very base of how people shape their worldview. All of this would be information I would have to understand to be the best physical and life coach possible. I would also need to understand the world on this essential level in order to make choices about my own religion and path.  

When my heart was telling me to move to Spain, I was reluctantly excited. I craved this type of adventure but thinking of leaving my home and my family, learning a new language, and being completely outside of my comfort zone felt unthinkable. I would be leaving everything that felt safe and trading it for a foreign land. I distinctly remember my first night in Valencia. As I crawled into bed the only words playing in my head were, "What the hell have you done?!" It would take me a solid month to unwind those thoughts, accept my move and fully embrace the experience.

To this day, Spain plays such a big role in who I am. The culture taught me so much about the type of life I wanted--how to slow down, how to enjoy simple pleasures and how important family is to a meaningful existence. It influenced how my brain sees/hears language and even what type of music I select for my Spinning classes. More than anything, Spain taught me that there is more than one way to do things in this world and our American version is just a slice of the pie. 

Living in the realm of ultra-endurance sports also feels, at times, like an alien existence. I receive a lot questions and sometimes scornful looks about why someone would want to spend so much time training to do an Ironman, run 50 miles or climb a mountain. There are very few who truly "get it" at it's deepest level (see this blog).

Yet, I thrive in this alien landscape. This lifestyle provides me with healthy structure and the space in my crazy busy life to be creative, to process my world and to notice the beauty all around me. Extreme sports teach me that I am a capable of ANYTHING I have a passion for and set my mind on doing. 

Being an entrepeneur can also be lonely and is, by definition, highly risky. Only a small percentage of the population knows how all-consuming this type of work is. Add on the fact that I'm a FEMALE business owner and I'm down to only a few people (if that) I can call to mind who understand my struggles/triumphs.  
But, in 2010, with very few dollars in the bank, no business degree to speak of and only limited resources to call upon, I took the biggest leap to date. I opened studio s. It is a risk that is also my biggest source of joy and strength. The magic that happens in my life because of studio s is a recipe I can't imagine living withoutThrough interactions and connections with many everyday incredible people, I see immense hope in an often-harsh world. I see how much we are all connected. I see that most of us are just doing the best we can with what we've been given. I see that we ALL have great wells of strength just waiting to be tapped. Most of all, I see that we all simply desire to love and to be loved.

So I can't, for even one second, imagine my life without any of these (among other) self-imposed challenging choices. The gift within each has always been greater than the risk, loneliness and struggle. In fact, the gift has been because I was willing to take the risk. I know some of us are more cut out for taking risks than others. But, what we fail to see is that playing it safe is also a risk--and one that more often than not results in disatisfaction.

Each year, at the time I set my goals, the reasons aren't always completely clear on why I need to do them or what I will learn from them. But if I feel the steady nudge from a voice deep inside as well as from something even deeper in the ether, I must at least attempt it. 

And so with history and my own trust in the Universe on my side, I renew my vow for another year. I vow to take our limited time on earth seriously, to risk again and, in the end, to hope for a better me and a brighter world as a result. 

Here are the choices/goals I'm risking in 2013:
-Leadville Marathon in the Colorado Rockies (topping out at over 13,000 feet)/ delve deeper into trail running and ultra-marathoning.
-Meet at least two of my heroes (to remain unnamed).
-Spend time in nature every day (at a minimum a few rays of sunshine on my skin).

-Practice all I teach about wellness (sleep, food that is life-giving, daily movement, connection, mental health).  
-Hike one of the natural wonders of the world. 
-Make my food source ultra-local=grow it in my yard or be related to the person that it comes from (Matti Dwyer). 
-Learn to surf and to ride a horse.  
-Read, read, read. 
I would love to hear/help with yours! 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Life is Colorful

By Susie Crossland-Dwyer

A collection of my Fall 2012. I'm a visual learner and very affected by my surroundings.This fall I found such simple beauty in my everyday world.

Oscar keeps me laughing and feeling like we all have a fresh chance at life.

Noticing all the amazing ways life takes form.

My husband knows my favorite thing and takes care of me while I'm sick. It's the small things in life.
Bro-in-law Mike conquers his first race like a veteran. Pure joy watching someone embrace the sport I so love.

Celebrating the life of cyclist Andrew Gast with a memorial ride. May we be always vigilant.

This was a particularly hard day. Walking through the trees did give me hope.
My middle son, Jaden. The best cuddler in the whole world.

Young life in both of these men.

Oh, whoops. But, it provided a spot for a beautiful sunset with the love of my life.
Cincinnati proud-- a necklace of the city.  A surprise from Christopher.

Emmett picking tomatoes from his garden. Every child should have this relationship with nature & food.

Running on the trails continues to be my favorite part of any day.


Our "nephew" Brady whom I've written about before.  Amazing strength can be found at any age.
Many fall weddings require that I change out of my lululemon and into "real people" clothes.
What a privilege to live freely.

Reds clencher.

Life changes right in front of my eyes.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Season of Slow

By Susie Crossland-Dwyer

I am in a season of change. On a short run through Ault Park today, the red leaves on the trees reminded me of what is so obviously in front of my face. I'm going from a season of pushing my limits into letting go--from green to red, from go to stop. After an injury-free, feel-good year of tough training, it is the strangest feeling. Letting go, resting, breathing deeper, and being still are much, much harder than pushing, going, pushing. But, why is this so?

In the stillness and rest, I'm finding my world to be a magical place. Instead of momentum, I have clarity. Instead of miles, I have sleep. Instead of reaching for a goal, I have space to deeply consider what's important to me. Momentum, miles and goals aren't bad things--in fact, they make my life very rich and also teach me a lot about who I am in this crazy world. But if I only had those things, without their absence, I believe they would feel more like shoulds and less like privileges.

But, really, why is it so hard to give ourselves this time of recovery from anything, at any point in the year? Nature does it year after year after year. But, NO, we are productive humans. MUST. KEEP. GOING. After only thirty two years, though, I've found that ignoring nature has its consequences. I see it all the time, not only personally, but in my profession as a trainer. Without proper rest between workouts, periodization of training within a year, or simply space in a life to stop, progress doesn't occur. Though lack of progress isn't the only consequence, monk and scholar Thomas Merton called busyness, "a pervasive form of contemporary violence." I too believe it's a form of self-violence. Nevertheless, it's a value upheld and encouraged by our culture where worth is measured in productivity.

One of the best decisions I ever made, in school or otherwise, was to study abroad in Valencia, Spain. Spain was a place and experience that ripped my world wide open. For four months, I slowed my pace to the rich, easy-going, sensual clock of this Mediterranean culture.

I can remember feeling antsy the first few weeks in my new home where the work day didn't get started until 10AM, hours for lunch and siesta were spent at home and no one anywhere seemed to be in much of a rush to do...well....anything. This wasn't just the life of a student, it was the intentional schedule of an entire people.

There is no other like Spanish coffee.
My misunderstanding about Spain's slow culture lasted for weeks. Every day I would go out to "get stuff done" during our lunch/siesta hours and be frustrated that not even the 7/11 was open. At night, I would want dinner around 6PM and didn't understand why the restaurants would let you sit at the table but refused to serve food. When I finally could get a meal at 9PM, I found it rude that the waiter would totally ignore our table and we'd have to beg for the check.

Learning to salsa dance in Valencia, 2002.
But what started as misunderstandings, quickly grew into respect for a culture that refused to change its ways to make a few bucks or appease a foreigner's frustration. What I began to see is these seemingly small mechanisms of the system allowed for space, conversation and an ease of living. There were many times built into the day to sit on a park bench, drink coffee in the sunshine, chat with friends on the metro, share wine with neighbors and wander the city without a particular task in mind. In the months to come, I learned to walk everywhere, sip hot chocolate, visit the grocery store daily for fresh food, dance, take three to four hours to eat dinner out and, definitely, to laugh often. Although Spain faces a very different economic climate today, in 2002, their lack of fast-paced ways made them no less productive than our hurried American culture.

One of my favorite places on the planet--Mallorca, Spain.

The year Chris and I got married, we returned to Spain to live with some native friends we had made while studying at the University of Valencia. After our extended visits, on both return trips to the US, I was determined to keep the slow, easy-going schedule that I had experience with such comfort while in Spain. I took measures like driving slowly, inviting friends to coffee and making sure I took a nap everyday. But, America has a way of drawing you into its hamster wheel and making sure that you stay there. Over time, I found it harder and harder to maintain the leisurely traditions in a world that was going twice the speed I desired. And, so, without the built-in slow mechanisms of a system, I gave in.

But, in the last few years I've begun to make a compromise between a world I know so well and one that I long to fully embrace. A compromise between a culture that prides itself on production versus one that values health, community and connection. I'm learning to uphold my own values (and coincidentally many of Spain's) in a world that encourages me to do otherwise. I'm creating my own universe where quality of health, community and connection rank high above money and productivity.

After a sweat-producing nine months, 2012 was the first year ever where I did not want my training to be over. It had become such a part of me and a way of life that worked marvelously for me and my husband. But with the completion of my "A" race and the fall setting in, I know it's a necessary cycle in the year.  So even though my body mostly prefers to be in a state of movement, it also knows that the goals I'm planning in 2013 can't happen without this dormancy. The leaves may be off the trees but that doesn't mean they are dead--quite the opposite. They are preparing for a spring and summer in which they will become bigger and more brilliant. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Three Labors, Three Babies = 50 miles

By Susie Crossland-Dwyer

After Saturday, September 15, 2012, I will never hear the words "50 miles" again and think about them in the same way. There are so many things, beyond the measure of mileage, that now describe 50 miles. Doubt, perseverance, deep friendship, dirt, overwhelming support, darkness, mental toughness, pain, family, hills, belief, tears, natural beauty, blisters, selflessness, labor, and VICTORY. Each one of these things played an important role in making my first official ultra-marathon a truly memorable, rewarding, yet unmistakably arduous day.

The day before we previewed the beautiful ICE AGE trail and made new friends.

Leading up to the race one of the things I was most excited about AND most fearful of encountering  was what's often referred to in ultra-sport as, the pain cave. In racing, it's a form of self-imposed suffering that you can choose to face head on or let it destroy you from the inside out. It's basically physical challenge at its max meets mental challenge at its max. It's one of the main reasons I race-- to put myself in the path of something challenging that will make me a better human and teach me something about life.
But, it was the AMOUNT of suffering or time in the pain cave I had committed to that was giving me pre-race jitters. The Tuesday before, I had a dream that I gave birth to three babies. They weren't triplets, but three separate births within hours of each other. During the dream I remember thinking, "Oh, that wasn't bad and I'm not even swollen or banged up like I imagine I'd be from birthing three babies." I woke up with a new confidence that my psyche was telling me all would be okay in my labor to come on race day.

As Chris and I arrived, checked-in, and got busy resting in Delafield, Wisconsin, the full meaning of the dream came to me. The race required that I meet three time goals/ checkpoints throughout the day. I would have to "give birth" three times, just hours apart from one another.

4:45AM--nervous and ready to start.
After waking up at 3AM, we headed down a dark, deserted country road, caravanning with the other athletes from The Holiday Inn into Kettle Moraine State Park. Our favorite pump-up CD, Cirque du Soleil "Dralion", was blasting as we pulled into the park. The temperature required multiple layers even as we huddled around one of four outdoor space heaters provided by the North Face organizers.  The small grassy area was almost silent with 250 athletes--200 of which were men--waiting to start.

5AM-ultra-running legend, Dean Karzanes, sends us across the start line.

Unlike many other races I've done, the announcers very casually called everyone up to the line at 4:58AM and within minutes we were off into the pitch-black of the morning. As we headed out of the start gate and into the forest, it was a breath-taking sight. There we were, bobbing head lamps in a wilderness and a sky packed full of stars. As everyone settled into their pace, I hadn't anticipated how spread out we'd be (at most points I was totally alone) or that the trail would be COMPLETELY dark.

So, for the first hour and a half until the sun came up, I struggled to stay on my feet not being able to see the trail shift beneath me. On one hand, it was a feeling of exhilaration, adventure and strength--a kind of instinctual blood-pumping movement that I imagine our early ancestors felt in the wild. But on the other hand, I was very scared. In fact, for most of that first section I was begging the sun to rise and simultaneously praying that I wouldn't roll an ankle. I took a tumble early, landing with a lung-emptying "huuuaah." But the sand padded my fall, and so I quickly got up to keep trucking into the forest.

As the sky above the pine trees got brighter and brighter, I let out a giant sigh of relief and looked down at my watch. I was on my intended pace but my heart rate was way too high and the adrenaline of the start was wearing off. Into labor with baby #1 I would go, as I set my sights on checkpoint #1 at mile 21.

It is during these times of extreme challenge that I'm reminded of the amazing mechanisms of the mind. I found as I ran toward that first cut-off, I was experiencing two different parts of my brain. My "maintain-the-status-quo" self was doing everything in its power to get me to stop, and to experience comfort, homeostasis. "You can't keep this up all day. Just walk as much as you want. Don't worry about actually finishing, any mileage will be an accomplishment on this terrain." The second, equally powerful, "carpe diem" self was reminding me that my true desire was to continue forward. "You trained all year for this, Susie. It's one day of hard effort. You CAN do this.  There is nothing in life stronger than you." If you've ever seen the Nike "Reincarnate" ad (to the right) it's a very similar ping-pong of the internal voices. Over and over, my mind played this game. At times, one voice would start to overtake the other, but for those first 20+ miles it remained pretty much an even match. At mile 21, my first baby was in my arms. I had made the first cut-off with an hour to spare. I could stop and sit for a moment to bask in its beauty. But not for long, I knew I still had two others to deliver.

Aid station #4 / #6 was adjacent to a shooting range. The sound of shooting actually felt comforting as I knew it meant I was close to food & supplies.
The labor of baby #2 was by far the hardest. From mile 21 until mile 35 (cut-off #2), I faced a lot of doubt and had to lean very heavily on my amazing support crew, thoughts of all of my people back home, and the most incredible friend/pacer there ever was, Lee Ann Werner.

Like a perpetual pendulum, the moments of power and pain alternated turns. As the day went on, I found the swings between the two points to be greater and faster. In moments of power, I felt guided by a deep internal knowing that I was stronger than anything the trail could throw at me. I felt a magnetic pull toward a finish, I felt as if I was exactly where I was supposed to be in space and time. In moments of pain, I went outside of my aching body for strength. I thought of my best friend, Anya, who was just told by her doctors she wasn't allowed to run due to a disease she is battling. Her love of the sport is as deep as mine. I thought of another set of close friends, Katie and James, who just successfully made their way through three months of having their premi son, Brady, in the NICU. They showed such incredible endurance and courage through this unbelievable difficulty. I thought of the dedication and bravery of countless clients at the studio and what we all do on a daily basis to survive/thrive in this life. And, so, amidst the pain, I ran as if Anya's legs were my legs, Katie and James's strength was my strength, countless friends and clients' courage was my courage. It wasn't just me running, it was anyone who ever had a goal to do something risky, daring and out of their comfort zone. With this energy, I pushed toward mile 28 where I knew my whole family and my pacer would be anxiously awaiting my arrival.

To say that my family is supportive is a vast understatement. My dad, step-mom, mom, step-dad, sister, bro-in-law, two nephews and friend Lee Ann all made the journey to Madison, WI to crew us in our epic day. My sister made special, matching t-shirts. My dad spent an entire week working on overlaying the course map with the surrounding roads and figuring out the timing of each aid station.
My brother-in-law trained for many months to be able to pace us. My step-mom baked oatmeal cookies & her famous fudge bars to be stuffed into my gear bag. My mom and step-dad eagerly awaited me at each aid station and were there crouched beside me, silently touching my arm in my lowest moment of the day. Finally, my friend Lee Ann saved the day when she picked me up at mile 28 to pace me to the next cut-off and eventually all the way to the finish.

As I entered the aid station where pacers were allowed to join, I plopped down on the ground and tried to catch my breath. My nephews lifted my spirits with their fresh, young energy and shy smiles. As my family asked me how I was feeling, the only thing I remember saying was, "Let's just say, Lee Ann has a GIANT job to do." As I got back on my feet for the next 7.1 mile stretch, Lee Ann looked me in the eyes and said confidently, "Susie, from now on just turn your brain off, I've got it from here."

We were on a tight time table to make it back to mile 35 cut-off and I knew we'd have to run faster on the way back than what I had done on the way in. I remember glancing at my average heart rate (cumulative from the start) and it reading 89% (a number that is dangerously high for this long). I already had the skin of one toe completely gone, my back had been spasming since mile five and it was starting to travel down my right leg. But, somehow with Lee Ann by my side and the knowledge that I was more than half way to the finish line, my "carpe diem" self kicked back into high gear.

It's my belief that we are all made to run. Yes, every one of us. Our history as humans, our DNA and mechanics show that it's so. Yet, I also think we are all given different assets as humans who were meant to move. Earlier this year, as I was reading ultra-marathon champion, Scott Jurek's book, Eat & Run I took note of this sentence, "An ultrarunner's mind is what matters more than anything."  It became a mantra for me during training as I already felt that my mental capacity is naturally stronger than my physical abilities. Luckily, they can both be trained! As my physical pain increased toward mile 35 it was amazing and somewhat frightening how the mental muscle took over.

Mile 35--my hardest moment of the day.
The rolling hills and associated waves of nausea were coming at me fast as we pulled into cut-off #2 with 22 minutes to spare. In what would be my darkest moment of the day, I laid down to try to stretch-out my back and hips. As I closed my eyes, I could think of nothing that would help the way I was feeling EXCEPT for getting to the finish. I knew that if I didn't get up right then, I would end up with a big DNF by my name-- "Did Not Finish". No matter how slowly, I HAD to keep moving.

It's somewhat comical to me that the biggest gift of the day was one that was unexpected, if not resisted. Leading up to the race, I had been hesitant or indecisive of how I wanted to be paced. I tend to be an introverted, solitary runner and I assumed that having someone by my side would distract me. I also have a hard time letting go of control and trusting that others can do an adequate job (just some brutal self-honesty).  But, as it turns out, distraction and direction are exactly what I needed.
Me and my guardian angel for the day, Lee Ann.

For 23 miles, Lee Ann embodied selflessness, love and showed me the true connected spirit of running. Let it first be said that Lee Ann is a bad-ass athlete and veteran of many 50s and a 100-mile run. I couldn't have asked for anyone more perfect who knows the territory and all of the associated feelings that go along with racing for hours and hours on end. She told me story after story to keep my mind in another place, she ever-so-gently nudged me to run more and walk less saying, "let's take this gift" every time we'd hit a down slope or flat section of trail, and she continued to do the math to make sure we were keeping up with the cut-offs. We shared life history and life dreams as well as ran in silence. At every aid station, she filled me up with the proper nutrition and made sure we were set for the next section. More than anything, she was simply by my side and I knew she wanted me to get to the finish as much as I desired it.
Toward the end of the day, Coke and ice chips were the only "nutrition" my stomach could tolerate. Here, my step-mom is holding up the phone for me to listen to a call from my sister, Molly, in Boston. I was so depleted, I couldn't even return a "hello" but her love fueled me as I got up to keep running. 

I will never forget my time with Lee Ann in the forest. She taught me that it's okay to accept help, that sometimes we need to lean on each other to reach our goals and that ultimately I don't always have to be fearless and strong. 

As we checked off the miles and got closer to the aid station at mile 40, I got word that Chris had made it across the finish. Picturing him crossing that final line gave me great joy and a surge of energy. Then, as Lee Ann and I made our way across an intersection of road and trail, I saw Chris hobbling out of my parent's car and I burst into tears. He had come back out on the course to cheer me on and make sure I finished! I took one salty kiss, we momentarily gazed into each others' teary eyes, and I was off into the woods once again.

In any endurance race, no matter the location, the internal workings of the mind and the external sensations of the body remain the same. But, one element that set this adventure apart from any other I had yet to take on, was that I was surrounded by nature the entire time. Over the course of 50 miles, I got to experience one of the most beautiful trails in the US--a section of Wisconsin's Ice Age Trail. I ran through pine forest, shuffled on sanded horse trail, snaked through tall grasses, traversed over miniature boardwalks and streams, and jogged across wide-open meadows. But at the end of day, there was no sight more beautiful than a simple red arch with the words "North Face Endurance Challenge" printed on it. In what would be my fastest and final mile of the day, the tears began to flow. In his book, The Lure of Long Distances, Robin Harvie argues that it's the return to a place called home that allows us to go out, put ourselves in the path of danger, and seek new worlds. After 50 miles, all I knew was that MY home were the people waiting for me at the finish--my family. A day of epic achievements had been accomplished, but none of it would matter without my home to share it with. And, yes, my third baby was beautiful.

Friday, September 7, 2012

See YOU On the Course

With a week to go until I toe the line in Madison, Wisconsin and run 50 miles through beautiful Kettle Moraine State Park, I am a person divided--one part thankful, and one part doubtful.

It is a phase in my training that has always occurred. Just before my race, I find myself completely in awe of the completion of training, and equally in doubt that I've done enough to complete the task at hand. The real me knows I'm completely capable of the race challenge. The false, but necessary, me wants to give me one last push of mental preparation by handing me doubt.

But, this is very reason each year I decide to challenge myself a little further by choosing a race I'm not absolutely sure I can complete. It will, after all, be first a test of spirit and only second a test of training. It will be overcoming that doubt and getting back to the real me that will be my victory.

As I've spent the week reviewing 8+ months of training, preparing my game plan and beginning to pack gear, the ONE THING that continues to enter my head is YOU. Yes, you reading this. I'm only able to do all that I do because of the amazing people in my life. I think about you all more than you know. If I'm totally honest, it will be thinking of you next Saturday that will get me through each mile. It will be all of the big and little things people have said, done, or been this year that will remind me, "I am because you are." So, I will see you on the course next week and THANK YOU.

P.S. I made it a tradition to document my run every Wednesday (36 weeks) with a picture. I ran through ice, bees, snow, wind, stones, sun, rain, cold (-8 degrees) and heat (102 degrees). Here's a reminder to my false self that, "I trained, damn it!"