Friday, December 27, 2013

Workout Inspiration: 360 Degrees of Core

By Susie Crossland-Dwyer

"The mind, when housed within a healthful body,
 possesses a glorious sense of power." 
-Joseph Pilates

Most people think of your core as just your superficial abs (rectus abdominis) or the traditional six-pack abs. But true core work covers muscles surrounding your pelvis, rib cage, shoulder girdle as well as those that follow the length of the spine--from tailbone to crown of the head. This includes your all-important transverse abdominis, which is the deepest layer of abdominal muscle that connects to the spine and aids in posture. This type of core work aims to stabilize and support the spine, allowing for freedom of movement in your extremities. Imagine if you took a Barbie doll, popped off the arms and popped off the legs--what you have left is your core (more than pictured below). 

I could go on and on about the benefits of core strength/spinal flexibility but let's just say it makes you a significantly better athlete and should be a daily requirement for any human who wants to live to an old age in this sedentary society. In fact, one piece of research I read recently cited that it was the number one indicator of overall health.

In every core workout, I aim to create symmetry in the body. If we work the front side of the core, we also work the posterior. If we challenge the right side of the obliques, we also challenge the left, etc.

This workout is 360 degrees of core and engages both the superficial and deep layers of muscle.
The key to these exercises is slow, controlled movement accompanied by a steady inhale and exhale. Consciously connect to each movement you are making and become aware of each muscle you are using to create the exercise. The more we connect with our movements, the more powerful they become--even on a cellular level. 

Pilates Roll-Up
8-10 repetitions
1. Start on your back with your arms overhead, palms toward one another. Feet can be pointed (harder) or flexed (easier) and together (harder) or apart (easier).
2. Very slowly begin to roll-up off of the mat one vertebra at a time, making a c-shape with your spine as you do. Your abs should be pulled in during the entire movement, creating a hollowing feeling through the low abdominals.
3. Continue to roll forward into a stretch, checking to make sure your shoulders are still staying away from your ears.Your body should be in an elongated c-shape, with the spine still rounded.
4. Hold the spine/hamstring stretch for 10-15 seconds and begin to roll back down, keeping the c-shape in the spine and the abs pulled in. Return all the way back to the starting position and repeat.

Oblique Twist 
10-20 repetitions

1. In a seated position, shift the spine back until you feel weight on your tailbone. Knees are bent at 90 degrees and feet can be lifted (harder) or on the floor (easier).
2. Feel the navel pull into the spine and keeping the abs engaged twisting side-to-side slowly. Inhale to one side and exhale back to center. Repeat on the opposite side.
3. Aim to keep the head in line with the rest of the spine and the shoulders wide, even if it limits how far you twist.
4. Make the exercise more challenging by leaning back more or adding a weight in the hands.

Tabletop to Leg Reach/Scissors
8-10 repetitions

1. Start on your back with your legs bent at 90 degrees, knees together stacked over top of hips (tabletop).
2. Making sure your spine stays in neutral (maintain natural curves of the spine) reach the legs away from the body. Legs can reach parallel to the floor (harder) or more toward the ceiling (easier). Check to be sure you haven't created any extra space under the back, that the ribcage is still pulled together and that the shoulders are still wide/ grounded into the mat.
3. As an option, criss-cross the legs in the lengthened position, keeping the pelvis grounded into the mat.
4. Bend the knees back to 90 degrees as you pull the legs back into tabletop and repeat the sequence.

Straight-Arm Side Plank
Hold 30-60 seconds on each side.
Alternate, repeating 2-3 times on each side.

1. Start seated on your side with the legs stacked.
2. Press up into side plank by lifting the hips off of the floor using the shoulder of the bottom arm as well as the underside of the waist (obliques).
3. In the full side plank, your shoulder should be stacked directly on top of your wrist. Your hips and shoulders should be square to the wall in front of you. The opposite arm should be lengthened toward the ceiling (harder) or the hand placed on the top hip (easier). Reach through the crown of your head and keep your head in line with the spine OR look at the top hand.
4. Shown above are three options for leg positioning, progressing from easiest to hardest.
a. Legs staggered--top leg placed in front on the floor
b. Legs stacked--legs in parallel on top of one another
c. Legs in star--top leg reaching up toward the ceiling

Back Extension w/Arm Hover/Reach
6-8 repetitions of each type
1. Start on your stomach with the arms bent alongside the body. Your gaze should be down at the mat, keeping the back of the neck long. Fingertips should be pointing toward the head and the elbows are tucked into the ribcage. Legs can be together (harder) or about the width of your mat (easier).
2. Before starting any movement, engage the front side of the core by drawing the navel into the spine and pressing the pubic bone gently into the mat. Keeping this engagement throughout the exercise is very important to protecting and supporting the back.
3. First practice your back extension with the hands still connected to the mat as you press up.
Aim to just use the hands for balance and not to push into it. Your back (supported by the front side of the core) should be doing the work to lift you.
4. As you lift, keep length through the spine and imagine your head reaching away from the feet. Lift up only as far as you can keep the spine long from tailbone to the top of the head. The goal is not height but alignment of the spine on the lift.
5. Once you feel confident, you can advance the exercise by adding in the hand hover on the lift, as well as an arm reach overhead. 
6. When reaching overhead, keep the shoulder blades down the back as well as shoulders away from ears. Aim to keep the same height with the back as you reach the arms overhead and bring them back to your side.
7. Return to the starting point on each repetition.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Living #FullOn: My 30-day Challenge of Doing More of What Scares Me

By Susie Crossland-Dwyer

For the past 30 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: 'If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?' And whenever the answer has been 'no' for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
-Steve Jobs from a commencement speech at Stanford University 

A few weeks ago I was sitting in my car, waiting outside of the local Thai eatery, Wild Ginger, for my take-out mango curry when lululemon's latest blog post "what do you do that's full-on?" popped up on my iPhone. There was something in both the title and the timing that froze the moment, making my stomach do a butterfly dance. 
(link to lululemon blog post)
First, I need to go back. The last three plus years of my life, since starting studio s from scratch, have been both VERY taxing and equally exhilarating. I started my business with the simple strong desire to make a positive, lasting difference in peoples' lives and to create my own playground where any/ all ideas I produced could hypothetically come to fruition. After years in the business and a deep desire to continue my work, I did my research, made a plan, searched for locations, secured the loans and pulled the trigger.
studio s opening night....the party is over and I'm christening the machines in my party dress.
I can distinctly remember the moment I signed the lease. It felt like every Christmas morning I'd ever experienced was put into one giant instant.  Minutes later I walked out of the bank where the notary public had firmly stamped the lease with my signature on it and I thought, "OH SHIT, now I have to make this happen." I didn't have an inheritance or a pile of cash saved up for emergency use. I didn't have a business degree. I didn't have any woman (I hate to say it, but being a woman in business is different) in my life who had traveled this exact path. I didn't have an existing fitness business whose model I wanted to mirror. Some may call this stupid, naive or too risky. But I knew that to succeed it would take more than numbers on a spreadsheet or extra money in the bank. I had passion. I had conviction. I knew I was a hard-worker with decent ideas and a hell of a moral support system. Most important of all, I had belief in myself and my vision.

My #1 supporter taken during the studio build-out. 
The process of building a business is forever life-changing. No one wants to hear the story of woes. If you've started your own business, you know what it involves. If you haven't, then you probably don't care about the details. To say that studio s has dramatically changed my life for the better is to drastically understate how much I love my "job" and my community. But, there are difficulties--late night, early morning, around-the-clock, use every physical-mental-emotional-spiritual-resource difficulties. I recently read in a blog post by Stephanie St. Claire that "entrepreneurship is the most life changing relationship (like marriage or parenthood) that a person can have." I can vouch for that.

Business involves risk. Risk is scary. I don't care who you are or what you've endured, it's damn scary. Luckily, I didn't realize how scary until I was already knee deep in the process. But, thank goodness. I couldn't be happier. Every day I get up, I'm terrified ... and I'm fulfilled. For me, the two go hand-in-hand. To get out of my comfort zone and see what awaits is to be truly alive. Despite the many, many hard days I can go forward without regret, without wondering what could've been.

You can measure opportunity with the same yardstick that measures the 
risk involved. They go together.
– Earl Nightingale

So, when I saw lululemon's challenge to live full-on, I thought, "Sure, I know what that feels like and it's produced a lot of good in my life, but could I expose myself in new ways?" November 2013 was to be a trial of literally doing one thing a day that scared me. The month was incredibly memorable. I succeeded. I failed. I started out the month strong, invested myself in the process, and then life reminded me that sometimes things aren't as neat and tidy as checking items off of a list. Sometimes life itself is uncomfortable and requires growth.

November 1st was a bittersweet and very scary day. I had taken more than six months to make the difficult decision to let go of personal training one-on-one. I did this in order to focus more on the business end of studio s as well as regain some personal balance after working 80-90 hours a week for the last four years. (I know this sounds like an exaggeration and I wish it were, but it's not.) My personal training clients are not just my clients but my friends. I spent upwards of two hours per week with most of these people, some of them for the last five years. We would work out, sweat hard, weigh in, talk about life difficulties, insecurities, hopes, dreams and experience the ups and downs of time together. It was sacred, it was special and something I know I was born to do. But, it slowly became clear that letting go of something I love dearly was the only way to continue to grow, as a business and as a person. I needed more time to not only practice what I preach in life/fitness, but to be able to live full-on in more and different ways. November was the start of a whole new chapter, one I had not seen in quite some time--a 40-hour work week.
Diana, one of my long-time clients and friends at the 2nd studio s anniversary party.
On November 2nd, I was in bed reading as evening began to fall. I realized I was reaching the end of day number two without having risen to the challenge. And that's when it hit me. Day two was the time to cross off one of the crazier items: running naked through the woods. I quickly recruited Chris--like that was hard--and we got busy undressing and then redressing with just winter coats, sweatpants and headlamps. 

We pulled up on a back street near Ault Park and hiked with purpose towards the woods. I couldn't believe how my heart raced as we approached the entrance. I was really nervous! We quickly clicked off our headlamps and as we ducked down one of our favorite trails, our eyes began to recalibrate, making the pitch black a fuzzy shade of gray. At first, all we could hear was the cracking of branches and the rustling of leaves. But then the outlines of the familiar trail began to take shape, including a bench just on the edge. One layer of clothes became no layers and we were, as they say, off and running.
Yes, I have real proof of the deed but it's not internet-friendly.
It was more than fun. It was freedom in it's rawest form. I could've tromped through the forest darkness all night. I had let go and the cold air against my bare body felt like the true meaning of happiness.

As the days passed, I grew in my ability to pull the scare trigger faster and faster. What before would've been a major pause in my action became a quick curiosity to see how I felt each time I tried something new. And something else happened. I began to notice my general hesitation in life; my tendency to yield to what I'm used to, to do what feels comfortable and familiar. I realized I didn't only need an item on a list that I thought scared me. I needed a new approach, a willingness to be a little bit uncomfortable in many moments versus a lot uncomfortable in a few big moments.

Speaking with one of my heroes--NY Times best-selling author and powerful, passionate human--Anne Lammot. At various time in life, I've been transformed by her writing and inspired by her boldness. 

Yup, I registered to run in my undies for charity. Cupid Undie Run

Mid-run just after signing up for North Face 50-miler #2. Can you see the apprehension on my face?

My beautiful best friend.
But the big moments weren't over either. Mid-November late one Friday night as I was preparing my classes for the following morning, I got an unusual phone call from my step-dad Ben. He seemed alarmed. My mom, who had just returned from presenting at an event, told him she couldn't remember anything that had happened there, how she got home, nor a few events from earlier in the day, including her workout with me hours prior. First you must know, my mom is one of the sharpest, best thinkers I've ever met. She is also the picture of health and has taken care of herself, as we all should. This was REALLY out of character. We decided to meet at the ER and rule out the worst imaginable scenarios--stroke, brain tumors, etc.

The hours that followed felt like a nightmare coming true. Seeing her first-hand in such an unusual state was a shock I hadn't prepared for. This was my super fit, healthy mother after-all. This just wasn't what I had ever pictured. During this strange window of time, she ceased creating new short-term memories and, as a result, we had the same conversation 40 times. Literally, the same three sentences. If you've ever watched the movie 50 First Dates then you know exactly the phenomenon I'm speaking of. As it started to sink in, I became physically sick. The room started spinning and I felt a wave of nausea come over me. As the nurse entered the room, I quietly excused myself and found the closest empty bed to catch myself on. I didn't care if it was dirty or clean--I was getting ready to pass out.

Four hours later, after pulling myself together as she underwent a litany of tests, we left the ER with very few answers. We knew that her brain wasn't bleeding and there had been no stroke. She was still very mentally fuzzy but seemingly starting to come out of it--repeating less and less.

By the next morning, she was completely back to normal.

Days later, she was diagnosed as having experienced a very rare amnesia event that can happen to perfectly healthy people with little chance of recurrence. But for a few hours that night in the hospital, I thought my life as I knew it was over. As we waited for answers in the days that followed, I was anxious, worn down and unsure. I couldn't mentally escape the traumatic night in the ER. It's been said many times that our reality can change in an instant. I didn't know precisely what that meant until November 15th.

In the weeks that followed, I needed a break from my list. I didn't need to add scarey to my days, I was already terrified of the doctors finding something more and by the possibility of what could've happened that night. I put the challenge on hold. But as I began to process what had happened at the hospital and the days following, the need to live full-on became more apparent. Making my list, undertaking the challenge and then being surprised with life events were directly connected.

I don't know how many more moments I get with my mom. I pray and hope thousands upon thousands more. But, none of us are guaranteed a single one of those moments. Life's fragile and fleeting nature is precisely why we MUST live full-on. The challenge does not end with November. It will be an ever-evolving list as well as small interactions where I step out of what I'm comfortable with in order to experience more of what this spin around the sun has to offer.

The List (for now)
Let's be honest here, this isn't my full list. Some of these items that are personal in nature I'm willing to share and others are for just me ... and ... well ... me and Chris. Here are some items I crossed off and others I'm working on completing. The criteria of items on the list was that they had to carry some significance. Of course watching a horror movie would scare me but, most likely, not yield change or growth within. Other items, I'm not necessarily afraid of, but I know once I did them they would force me out of my comfort zone. This is what full-on means to me. Heck, half of the battle is admitting these things scare me. Does that count as an item (or two)?

1. master a headstand
2. buy a stranger a drink, make a friend 
3. blog about my own imperfections/general body image (in progress)
4. do a race I haven’t trained extensively for
5. change my schedule to make ME, FAMILY and BIZ a priority
6. run through the woods naked
7. juice cleanse
8. rock climbing
9. be radically honest with loved ones (in progress)
10. cook a 5-course meal
11. private 
12. speak up for animal rights
13. re-invent my schedule
14. practice being super direct 
15. private 
16. workout in my sports bra more often
17. ride my bike on the road more frequently post-crash (in progress)
18. Cornell's program in plant-based nutrition (research/registration done)
19. sign up for Landmark in Seattle with lululemon
20. sign up for undies run
21. private
22. private
23. meet a few of my heroes and make a confession
24. register for next epic race=NFEC 50-miler 
25. write a book (in progress)
26. admit to some of my BIG goals
27. snowboarding
28. private

"30,000 mornings, give or take, is all we're given. If you're 26, you still have 20,000 left. If you're 54, you still have 10,000. An accident or illness could change all that, of course. But let's count on you to remain safe and healthy all your allotted life--in which case you still have plenty of time. Sort of. 'We get to think of life as an inexhaustible well,' wrote author Paul Bowles, who lived to ripe old age of 32,442 mornings. 'Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.' 30,000 mornings. We'll spend some of them on the treadmill, or fighting traffic, or standing in line at the bagel shop. Just be sure to spend some of yours seeking and savoring the real beauty, mystery, and adventure of your days. This is your life; don't miss a day of it." -Excerpt from 7: How many days of the week can be extraordinary?

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Workout Inspiration: Three Combination Moves for Total Body Strength

By Susie Crossland-Dwyer 

Since I'm a multi-sport athlete, I don't have a ton of time for any one discipline. I also love many forms of movement--Spinning, Pilates, yoga, running, strength training, cycling, plyometrics--which means I need to maximize my time with each one. 

When it comes to strength training I love using combination moves (movements that combine multiple muscle groups) to elevate my heart rate and pack as much as possible into one workout. 

There are so many various combinations so it's hard to choose. But, since it's a three-day weekend I thought I'd share three of my favorites. All you need is a pair of weights (or two) and your body.

Reverse Lunge with Shoulder Press

10-14 reps total (5-7 each side alternating)
1. Start in standing with your weights by your side.
2. Step back with one leg into a reverse lunge. Both knees should be bent at 90 degrees with the hips pointing forward. Pay attention to your front knee. It should be in line with the ankle (not forward of or behind it).
3. Hold the lunge while you flip up the weights until the palms are positioned away from the face.
Press both overhead at the same time.
4. Bring the weights back down to your side and step back up to standing.
5. Repeat with opposite leg back.

 Side Lunge with Bicep Curl
16-20 reps total (8-10 each side)
1. Start in standing with your weights by your side.
2. Take a giant step to the side into side lunge. In the full side lunge your butt should be in line with the lunging leg and the weight should be on your heel (almost like a single leg squat). Your opposite leg is lengthened. Take a look at your lunging foot and make sure it is still in parallel position (not rotated open).
3. Hold the side lunge and pull the abs in. Keep the abs engaged as you curl both weights up, stopping just short of the shoulders.
4. Bring the weights back down in front of you and use your lunged leg to push back up to standing.
5. Repeat on the same side before moving to side two.

Plank with Single Arm Row
10-20 reps total (5-10 each side alternating)
1. Start in high plank position with arms straight and hands gripping your weights. Shoulders should be stacked over top of the wrists, hips are parallel to the floor,  feet are together (harder) or apart (easier) and gaze is toward the floor.
2.Stay in plank and with minimal lift or rotation in the hips lift one weight off the floor, rowing the elbow toward the ceiling and bringing the weight toward the armpit.
3. Slowly set it back down (I aim to not even let it make a sound hitting the floor) and switch sides while staying up in plank.

Try them and let me know what you think. Good luck!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Alive in Leadville: The Story of My First DNF

By Susie Crossland-Dwyer

For nine months I thought about a single sign. Almost every time I ran or trained from November until June 29th, I visualized it. But the more I pictured it, the more questions arose. What would it be made of? What direction would it face? Would it be covered in snow? What would the path be like that would lead me to it?  What would I learn making my way to it? After so many races apart, what would it be like to have Chris by my side the whole journey? It was a sign that read simply, "Mosquito Pass, Elevation 13, 185 ft." 

I knew it was an odd desire to crave seeing a random sign on the top of a mountain in central Colorado. But, I wanted it ... badly. I've come to highly value the power and unseen knowledge of our deep desires. Our heart knows the path even though our mind doesn't yet understand it. On race day, this desire was deep enough for me to fight through five hours of altitude sickness and associated dizziness, continual vomiting and racing heartbeat starting at mile 1.5.

The Leadville Marathon is the very first race I did not finish. In fact, it is probably the first anything I haven’t finished. It is an unfamiliar sensation and one that feels like a relief to finally experience. 

Despite my DNF (did not finish), I could write the story of my overcoming, of my ability to keep going when everything in my body told me to stop at the first aid station three miles into the course. I could recount that I threw up close to 20 times and pushed up the second mountain of the day-- 2,000 ft. of elevation gain over the course of three miles--through intense self-doubt and even fear of death. I know it sounds dramatic, but I wanted to take myself there. I wanted to give everything I possibly could to a mountain and an internal process that I don’t fully understand, nor do I ever expect to.  I could tell how I had to focus literally on one step at a time, the phrase that became my mantra for the day. Or, how I had to halt in my tracks many times in the thin, oxygen-void air of the extraterrestrial-like landscape of 13k+ ft. to simply be able to breathe and put the next foot forward. I could describe how I struggled to stay upright as my feet skidded on fine gravel, hurdled over boulders and crunched through snow high above where trees think it makes sense to grow. 

I could tell it that way, but this time that's not the whole story. It is a lesson of letting go, a story of serendipity and ultimately an account of being okay with who I am. I would never use the word “failure” to describe my latest adventure in the wilderness of Colorado. Instead, it is a new definition of success, one that might mean more to me than many of my journeys over the finish line. 

I must go back in time to start to explain why letting go of a finish in Leadville means so much to me. I must divulge that most of my life I have been swallowed by trying to fulfill others' desires instead of my own--a pattern I've semi-successfully discarded in the last five years. It is not that people in my life have forced their opinions on me or that they've tried to persuade me to be someone other than myself. It is that I have always yielded to what I think other people might want instead of what I absolutely need. It was easier to see their needs instead of searching for my true desires.

To date, my training, my races, and even my finishes have existed outside of this realm. They have been a sacred space where I can run, ride or swim within myself and use it as a time to go deeper without the outside world bleeding in. But, as the day unfolded in Leadville and thoughts crept in about not finishing the race, the alarm of, what will other people think? sounded in my brain. It was an old familiar ringing, a feeling that fed on my weakness of the day and asked me to push even harder. But my deeper self said firmly, "NO." I had found my limit and even my ego couldn't change that.  For the first time I realized that the DNF, not the finish, would be for me. Had I attempted a finish, I would have risked not only my health, but also my self-respect.

At mile seventeen, after telling the officials that I was done for the day, I plopped down in the single metal folding chair under the aid station tent. The earlier raucous and cheering of the aid station, the one and only place on the course accessible by back mountain roads, had quieted as most athletes had already passed through for the second time and moved on toward the finish. In the silence of the mountain air, Chris, my mom, dad, and step-father huddled around me and hand-fed me Gatorade, pretzels and M&Ms. My body needed something, anything, to replace all of the calories and nutrients I had lost over the last five hours. I sat for twenty minutes as relief rippled through my interior and my body began to awaken from the land of the half-dead. As I came to my feet again and we loaded into the rental car and started down the bumpy service road back into Leadville's sleepy ghost town center, I began thinking about the power of visualization. I realized that in all my months of mental preparation and sheer focus, I had not once visualized the finish shoot. It had always been about Mosquito Mountain. It had been about making it to the sign and celebrating that victory. What I had put my attention on is precisely what I accomplished.

At the same time, there are many things in life beyond our control.  For me on this race day it was that my sea-level body did not like the altitude. In fact, it HATED the altitude. After almost a week in Colorado and two days in the higher elevation of 10,120 ft of Leadville, Chris and I were still huffing and wheezing just lying on our backs in bed the night before the race. It is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before and precisely why I wanted to try this race. I imagined the change in oxygen feeling as if I couldn’t take a full breath, as if my lungs were in a vice. But that wasn’t the sensation at all. I could breathe fully but my body could do very little with each breath. So, I could’ve trained harder but it wouldn’t have made a difference to how my body responded. Black Swan theory states that there are hard-to-predict, rare events beyond the realm of normal expectation. My Leadville marathon was a black swan and there is nothing I can do about it except to recognize the alternative opportunities for growth that it presented me.

I refuse to believe that my black swan only describes the unfortunate side of my experience in the mountains of Leadville. There were many positive things that took place that just can't be explained by the rational, seen world. There were many moments, even amidst my severe sickness, where I felt oddly at home on a terrain I had never seen or experienced before. I found slivers of time in which it felt like I was reuniting with a piece of myself instead of experiencing it anew. And there were signs. There were signs you could argue were purely coincidences, purely emotional. But I would argue otherwise. It is the unseen, unexplainable events in my life that have possessed the most power and have encouraged me to further explore my potential.

The start line was my first (internal) sign.  As the announcers counted down the start of the race and hundreds of nervous bodies decked out in trail running shoes and Camelback packs bounced all around me, time stood completely still. In a single mental flash, I saw the last nine months from making the decision to come to Leadville, through all of my training as if it were a seamless timeline. As K’naan’s, Wavin’ Flag anthem echoed from building to building just before the gun went off, I felt all the way to my cells what it was to be fully alive. It was as if nothing else in the universe existed.
After leaving town and trotting up our first ascent past the crumbling mining shafts of what was once a hay day industry, the surreal moments of the start line quickly vanished. All of my energy shifted to continuing to move despite the ever-increasing aching in my gut. I have run many marathons and I know what it takes to successfully get to the finish line on a flat road without sickness. I know that it is no joke. As the reality of my condition began to sink in, the “a NORMAL marathon is no joke” thought is what began rolling around in my head. How was I going to tolerate 20+ more miles of this? And then I remembered the purpose of mental training. I remembered the reason I had spent so many hours in my head editing, editing, editing my thoughts through winter snows, early morning alarms, smothering Cincinnati humidity and heat, long days teaching Spinning classes and building spreadsheets, a three-week-long illness, and two-a-day workouts. It was for now-- right NOW. 

 "I will follow my instincts, and be myself for good or ill." -John Muir

But there was no hiding that I was emotionally raw. Almost immediately, I knew having Chris alongside of me would be the saving grace of the day. He contends that we are lucky we are still married after our hours on the mountain. I don’t remember it that way at all. I remember he was a saint and a moving target of hope, always two steps ahead of me. He listened as I called the mountain a bastard, a crazy cruel god and a M-F-er. He encouraged as we picked up pace and he gently reminded if we paused too long. He took his job seriously and I will never forget the unwavering love he showed me that day.

In one of my many bottomed-out moments, Chris revealed what I saw as sign number two. He opened his palm like a magician revealing his next trick and in it I saw magic. Let it first be said that we stomped over millions, heck trillions, of rocks that day. Combine that fact with another, that Chris has horrible eye site and minimal awareness (sorry babe it’s true!). In his sweaty palm he revealed a rock in the shape of Ohio. My eyes welled. It was the perfect symbol. It felt as if somebody, something, somewhere was saying, “Susie, remember your home. Remember all of the people there sending you love right now. Remember that you are not alone in this task."

 The third positive sign of the day made me chuckle. It was so perfect that I had to laugh. We had just come off of a curvy descent, through the aid station at mile 9.8 on our way to climb to Mosquito Pass when a woman, for no particular reason, caught my eye. I hadn’t really been paying much attention to anything but what was right in front of me when I looked to my right and there she was. As I looked closer I noticed she was wearing a Matisyahu t-shirt. It is no secret that Matisyahu has been a huge inspiration to me this year and is the source of some of my favorite lyrics; lyrics I have listened to over and over and over again in training. Immediately, the words from his song Crossroads entered my head. 
"I'm done stalling, I’m free falling.
I'm done crawling up this mountain top
I won't stop till I manifest my crop
The top is close
I'm sky scraping
They stay chasing
I'm like a raisin in the sun
I'm running from death's invasion
They're done, I'm going gray
I'm still young having mystic visions
Of the one, I hear the hum, the melody comes
Rushing in like some wind
Cuts close like a knife
All I got is my life"

In that moment, I knew no matter what it took, I would soon be “done crawling up this mountain top” because the mountain was mine. Little did I know that the hardest section of terrain was yet to come.

I have run the distance of three miles probably hundreds--if not thousands--of times in my life. I had three miles to go to make it to the highest elevation on the course and to the Mosquito Pass sign I had envisioned so many times. I could do that. C’mon it’s only three miles.

“If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion.” –Robert Pirsig

As we started up the switchbacks, the energy on the course was high as many runners were already making their final descent, their legs screaming down the steep incline. I could tell I was already beginning to look like death as many of the athletes paused in their concentration to offer a “good job,” “keep it up” or “you can do it” as I passed. In moments like this, one person’s encouragement can make a difference and each positive word provided me with more strength; strength I badly needed.

Chris was still playing faithful cheerleader as well as time-keeper and I cannot imagine the patience it must have taken for him to continually usher me up the mountain. I believe he quickly realized how behind pace we were falling and he devised a simple but genius plan. The path to the top was a predictable pattern of switchbacks. I could see them ascending for miles with no idea where the true top sat. He encouraged me to take one switchback at a time. Instead of stopping to catch my breath and throw-up whenever I felt like it, I had to make it the length of a whole switchback before doing so. I quickly added one switchback at a time on to my one step at a time mantra and we were in business.

As the air got thinner and I placed one slow foot in front of the other I was also paced by tremendous fear. Chris jogged to the top of each switchback and even the short distance between us was enough to set me into panic mode. I was so faint, so close to sitting down and never getting back up that I feared passing out, cracking my head open on one of the giant boulders and having it take hours to get someone up the mountain to rescue me. I was tired. I was scared. I was ready to have my reward and end the day.

It was in the most intense moments of the day that I decided I had to LET GO. Let go of disappointing everyone. Let go of the fear of death. Let go of being anyone but who I am. Just LET GO. Moments later, in what would be our final surge to the top of Mosquito Pass, I finally felt calm. I could only do my best and the rest would be okay.

As we made our final approach along one of the steepest straight-aways of the day, the winds began to pick up. The temperature had dropped close to 30 degrees from the base and we knew we couldn’t stay in these conditions very long. Since our three miles had taken a lot longer than planned, we were both out of water and badly needing the aid station at the top. The whole way up I had fantasized about plopping down on the ground, someone putting a pillow under my head and resting for a few minutes before we made the journey back down. Chris ran ahead to restock our water and by the time I had caught up, it was apparent that there was no way I was getting that catnap. Two amazing race volunteers were huddled in the bed of their truck with their winter jackets on, the wind whipping their hoods on and off. As I approached the station, Chris yelled, “We have to get the hell out of here! There is a lightning storm coming over the mountain and we have to get back down!!” But, I wasn’t leaving without a meeting with my sign.

There it was--a simple wooden sign propped up with rocks and worn by the ever-changing weather. It’s Southern orientation and bare simplicity was not at all what I had pictured but it felt monumental. I was at the top of my mountain and I knew the day was complete.

“Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”  -Ed Viesturs

The only issue was I was at the top and still needed to get back down. In what was my biggest “episode” of the day, I let loose and finally got out the last contents in my stomach. Wow. I felt worlds better and knew I would have just enough energy to get back to my parents at the bottom.

I obviously don't know what it feels like to die and be completely at peace but I imagine it to feel something like I did as my legs were free-falling as I came down off of the mountain. Against all odds, among a path that was covered in rocks and pebbles, large and small, my feet landed perfectly one foot strike after the next. I remembered recently reading in The Longest Race by Ed Ayres, that our feet have a sort of “autonomic guidance [system]…that bypasses conscious decision-making.” I knew firsthand that it was true. My feet had eyes that I had to trust. The more I thought about it the less control I had. Again, time to LET GO. And let go I did. Like an eagle soaring freely on waves of air, I let my body be carried easily over top of the footsteps that just hours earlier had been so arduous to take. 
We were back on pace and Chris was still making sure he did his job. He wanted us to have the option to continue and not be cut off by the officials. But my body was empty and my spirit was settled. I knew my finish was at the base of Mosquito Mountain.

As we ran the last section into the arms of my parents, I felt immensely proud. No one around me knew the internal transformation that had taken place. No one knew that I had overcome the demons of my past to allow myself to be okay with not finishing. No one knew that once and for all I was doing this for ME and no one else.

I can’t help but wonder what Edmund Hillary experienced as he conquered Everest for the very first time ever and wrote the words, "It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves." I would make one amendment to his quote because on June 29th I conquered BOTH the mountain and myself.