Little Miss Careful

I don’t put a ton of stock in astrology, but the traits that describe my zodiac sign, a Virgo, are pretty spot on: practical, methodical, hardworking, careful, overly critical, and constantly worried about missing a detail that will be impossible to fix. I’d much rather do something simple and have it turn out perfectly than take a big risk and fall flat on my face. I think there’s something to be said about that approach- learning to do something correctly and well lays a foundation on which you can build greater strength/speed or learn a more complex and intricate skill. It’s why I like running so much, and classical piano and ballet.


Since the year began, however, I’ve noticed a reoccurring theme in almost everything I do. It may be my subconscious or the universe, who knows, but it’s telling me to trust that all of my hard, meticulous work is seeping in and that it’s time to just GO!

In a recent core/strength session with Rose City Track Club, our trainer Amy had us do a series of forward jump squats. Hesitant and unsure of how much weight I could/should bear on my hamstring (I tore it last year), I jumped forward lightly and delicately, like a little baby bunny. Meanwhile across the room, two of my teammates were in an explosive, side-by-side, all-out jumping war, propelling themselves forward in a show of pure athleticism. Little by little, I dared myself to go a bit farther and squat a little deeper. And I was fine! The next week we did a fitness test in which we applied our months of practicing proper squats to seeing how much weight we could dead lift. The most weight I’d ever squatted with was a 25lb dumbbell and I didn’t think I could possibly be ready to lift more than twice that, because what if my knees buckled in, or I strained my back, or pulled a weird neck muscle? With Amy watching, I gave it a go, and guess what? I lifted 95 lbs and nailed it, and even got a few compliments on my form. She set a goal for everyone to lift at least their own body weight by the end of the season, which seemed scary before but now seems totally within reach.

After taking most of 2017 off of ballet due to my injury, I signed up for a beginner ballet workshop this year to ease back into it. Last week we executed a series of rond de jambes at the barre followed by holding a single leg balance on demi-pointe (on the ball of the foot). I felt very little confidence in my ability to balance after so much time off, so I kept one hand on the barre while holding the position. The instructor marched over to me then very pointedly said to the whole class, “You will never learn how to find your balance if you don’t let go of the barre.” Eek. This week in a similar exercise, I let go of the barre to balance on my right leg. It was horrible and I couldn’t hold the pose for even a second. We turned to face the opposite way and I tried the same balance on my left leg- and would you believe it, I held the balance for several seconds. A mighty feat!

Last Tuesday marked my third week in a row doing speed work in preparation for the spring racing season. The two weeks prior, I noticed that my hamstring would twinge just a bit during my easy jog warm up. That day the same thing happened- just a faint little pinchy feeling in my leg. It never did that on regular easy or long run days. It’s as if the muscle had a mind of its own, asking me, “Are you sure you really want to do this?” I paused as I had in the weeks before, wondering if it was really a good idea to be straining my leg with a hard run. I thought, I’ll just give it a try, and if something hurts I’ll stop. I set off for the workout, a six mile tempo run, starting conservatively at first, my first miles in 6:28 and 6:27, then gradually brought it down to 6:18, then two 6:14s in a row and finishing in 6:09. I felt great and wondered what I had ever been afraid of.

The truth is, it has been over six months since my leg has given me any trouble, but the thought of something going wrong again haunts me daily. I ran a whole marathon in November yet still I worry if all is well. I just attended a high school track & field coaching clinic, where NOP‘s physical therapist Matthew Walsh spoke a bit on the mind of a recovering athlete. He said athletes that have been injured learn to be fearful and hesitant when their sport requires them to be explosive. It’s a horrible and potentially detrimental combination. It made me think of the way I protect my hamstring by holding back on doing anything that might harm it. Maybe those seemingly phantom pains in my hamstring (conveniently only specifically while warming up for a workout) were my subconscious sending alarm bells to my leg- “better freeze up now, Liz is about to do something really hard!”

This is all completely anecdotal, but it seems pretty clear to me that I’ve been running in fear for quite some time. I’m ready to let go and be free from it. There are zero guarantees that I won’t get hurt again, but I can do my best to prevent that by listening to my body, recovering well and sleeping more, getting stronger at the gym, rolling out, the list goes on and on. Beyond that my aim is to set absolutely no limits on how far, fast, or high I can go.

A couple weeks ago I set off on a 14 mile “push” long run, essentially meant to be at a hard, but not all out pace. After an easy three miles, I picked it up to a gingerly clip around 7:15ish pace and thought, hmm that seems okay. Maybe a little faster (7:06). Then a little faster (6:59). It took me until mile ten to feel confident that I could keep it up and push even more to the finish, hitting 6:34 twice and once even 6:29. I finished strong and felt on top of the world, but the end result was more of a progression run opposed to a true push run.

I had a chance to try again this past Sunday, this time over 16 miles. It was the day after the coaching clinic and my thoughts were swirling around what Walsh had said, and all of the recent interlinking events. How I’ve been so fearful of getting hurt, and so quick to set boundaries of what I could and couldn’t achieve. You will never learn how to find your balance if you don’t let go. In a similar vein, how will I ever reach my running goals if I don’t start asking more of myself? I started with an easy mile with the team, then took off. I just tried to think fast, light, and free. The next four miles were in the low 7:00s. Okay, okay, a little hot for the beginning, maintain that. The next few were in the 6:50s. Easy, you’ve got a ways to go. Can you really hold that? Then from there, a slew of miles in the 6:40s. Every time my watch buzzed with a new mile split, I expected it read slower as my discomfort grew, but in fact each one was a tad faster. I felt my absolute worst at the last mile and was positive I’d look down at my last split and be disappointed, when in fact it was my fastest at 6:32. I finished feeling spent but totally thrilled. I texted my coach later with a screenshot of my splits and said, “Good run but probably ran too hard!” His response, “Great work. That’s what it should look like. If you can’t walk right tomorrow, it was probably a little too hard. Ha ha.” My walk the next day was just fine, thanks!

At the beginning of every year, I like to pick a theme to live and train by that resonates with me. 2018 will be the year I take chances. My next race is coming up March 2nd and it’s my very favorite event- 10,000m on the track. Wish me luck!


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Who is Mercury?

Liz Derstine, trail name “Mercury”, is a distance runner, endurance hiker, writer, and musician residing in Boston, MA. She holds fastest known times for women on the Appalachian Trail (supported, northbound), Long Trail (self-supported), and Pinhoti Trail (self-supported).

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