The Difference Between Serious Training and Just Working Out

Somehow, recently, I slipped back into training ‘for serious.’ I’m still sort of messing around, but my fitness is coming back so nicely (and I have a month now to build up a big base), that it’s hard not to imagine what could happen if I had a whole year without any major injuries, accidents, or other disasters.

But, the difference between serious and not serious is so thin. It’s all in your head.

The other day I had one of those one-thing-after-another afternoons that used to happen all the time when I was training a lot. Because when you’re training a lot, there’s always something that doesn’t work right, so there’s going to be a lot of ‘When You Give a Mouse a Cookie’ days. Thursday, I needed to change the tires on my bike, but it was really hard to get one of the new tires on and I cut my hand. Blood and grease everywhere. Then, I finally got them on and couldn’t get the wheel to fit into the bike. So, I let some brake cable out to loosen the brakes, but it still wouldn’t fit. Finally, after lots of finagling and yelling, I decided the tire must be too thick for the frame. Took it off, put the old tire back on, re-aligned the brakes. And, by then, it was too late to go for a ride. (I also dropped a drawer on my foot, and tripped and fell into a door frame during all this.)

This would never have happened when I didn’t give a shit. I would have just given up much earlier in the process. That’s one of the major differences between serious training and just working out. These are some of the other things I do distinctly differently when I’m serious:

  • Actual workouts on the treadmill
  • Rain riding
  • Bothering to make sure my equipment works
  • Writing schedules
  • Swimming

Things I have not yet started to do, but will mark when I am really serious:

  • Stop eating all the desserts

‘I Never Had a Bad Game’

There is a quote in Once A Runner to the effect that the thing about running is you always know how you stack up. There is a time, clear and simple, and that time is either the best or the fourth best or the 37th best or far, far lower on the list. You know exactly who is better and who is worse. You can not lie to yourself.

(Unfortunately, this is not one of the more famous or inspirational quotes in the book — it’s pretty much the opposite of inspirational — so I can’t find it anywhere. But, this is why the book is much-beloved, despite it’s strange word choices and cloud of general late-1970s sexism. It’s beloved because there is a truth in it.)

I was thinking about that section of the book and how hard it is to hide from yourself in sports. I was thinking about it because it’s actually pretty easy in the rest of life to hide. It’s pretty easy to tell yourself that you’re doing better than you are, to pretend that if this was quantifiable you would totally be #winning.

I am not winning right now.

For a variety of reasons, I have been screwing up all kinds of projects. It’s really rare for me to miss deadlines or drop the ball on work. Things always come together. Right now, they haven’t been coming together so much.

There are a number of benefits to playing sports as a kid. It teaches teamwork and hard work. It also teaches you how to deal with failure, which is definitely why the whole ‘everyone wins’ part of youth sports is funny. (Sorry to let you in on a secret, but everyone will not continue to win the rest of forever.) Because of that I’m used to not doing as well as I want at races, to working really hard and not having it work out. You cry for a day. You evaluate what went wrong. Then, you move on and try again.

Or, if you want to be truly great, you forget that you ever failed in the first place.

Stop Asking Me Why I Run

In one of my classes the other day, we had an editor come in to talk about his experience and listen to our story pitches. He was funny, a former high-flying New York writer who succumbed to drug problems back in the day and is now on the rebound.

It was all cool until we got to my pitch. I had decided to write about what it’s like to race as a pro triathlete, yet never quite be good enough to actually make it. I thought it’d be interesting to people and interesting to talk about the system of never-was athletes underneath all the successful ones.

I got one sentence in — “I raced as a professional triathlete for three years.” — and he interrupted to say, “As an addict, you know what it sounds like to me, it sounds like you’re addicted.”

Um, yeah, I dunno, shrug, shrug.

He kept going: Why else would you do it? You must be addicted to it. Endorphin rush and stuff, right? I’ve heard of that.

Everyone thought this was genius. I kept shrugging — yeah, I dunno, this sounds more about you than me — until eventually I got really annoyed. Later, the rest of the class couldn’t quite figure out why it was really annoying, what if he just called it “passion” instead of “addiction.” And, anyway, they just all find the question of why anyone would do these sports so fascinating.

It’s not.

People tend to think that comparing a desire to run (et al) to an addiction is super witty. So original. So funny. See it’s supposed to be healthy, but it’s an addiction, so it’s not healthy; you’re addicted to being healthy. Hahahaha, I am so clever.

It’s actually probably the second or third most common thing people say. The first being, “Oh my god, that’s just soooo amazing. I could never do that. I don’t even know how you do that. It must take so much discipline.” Not that I’m not amazing, obviously, but there’s a creating of otherness here that I find strange. At the highest level of sports, yes, there is a degree of commitment and self-sacrifice that is not normal and that is also no different from what you would find at the highest levels of music or dance or writing or competitive holding your breath to see how deep you can dive. Any of these things are exceedingly hard and require a stunning degree of discipline, talent, and luck. But, I am not at that level. Neither are most of the people who run or do triathlon or bike or swim or Crossfit or whatever. I have very little insight into what it takes at that level. I am, most likely, at the same level (in our respective interests) as you, as the person asking the question and acting like I am so different from them.

Some people play video games. Some people sing a cappella. Some people are in competitive chess leagues. Some people are recovering drug addicts and former hard-partying New York writers. And, some people run. We are not so different, you and I. And, we are not all the same either.

Here’s the answer to your question: People do sports for all the different reasons that people do anything.



Awesome Marin Run Route: The One Hour Run

Phoenix Lake is MY running spot. From Protrails.
Phoenix Lake is MY running spot. From Protrails.


Yesterday, since I’m home from LA for five days, I did my favorite one hour run. A warning: it’s only like 6-7 miles (depending on your route), but has about 1,000 feet of elevation. So it’s not the easiest one hour run ever. But, it is the best.

I started out tired and hurting — because I decided to get back into things again by strength training and box jumping the other day, which totally makes sense — and it’s so easy once you’re not working out every day to just keep not working out. And, anyway I’m slow and out of shape and this guy who did not look like he should be faster than me just kept speeding up to stay right ahead of me on the trail and it’s probably because I suck (or because I’m judgmental). I was not feeling the run.

But, it’s hard to not feel it once you’re up on the single track on the ridge all by yourself. So. That’s probably why it’s one of my ‘re-motivate yourself’ runs. Try it:

  • I always start at Phoenix Lake. Phoenix is my bang. (Which is something I have weirdly started saying, even though the phrase is actually “my bag.” But I’m sticking with my version.)
  • If you park at Ross Commons and run in on the road/path, then it’s a bit over a mile longer and just under an hour. If you park at the Lagunitas Country Club and run the same speed as me, then it’s more like a 50′ run.
  • From the trailhead, go up the fire road and stay to the right/straight around the edge of the lake until you get to the base of a hill. Go straight up Shaver Road at that intersection, which is actually a large trail. It’s about a 1.5 mile climb, but it’s not too steep or rough.
  • At the top, at Five Corners, where there’s a number of trail options and a bunch of signs that warn you to watch for mountain lions, take the insanely steep trail to your immediate right.
  • The steepness only lasts about 100m, then you’re on a single-track ridge trail that winds in and out on the side of the hill.
  • Eventually it dumps you at another trail intersection, Six Points (or maybe this one is Five Corners and the other one is Six Points, I can never remember). Don’t take the trail to the immediate right, because it’ll drop you back down into the valley. Take the trail to the right that says “Yolanda Trail – to Phoenix Lake.” Like this:


  • (If you are an avid reader of Sunny Running, you may notice that this is the same start of the route I usually take to get up Mt. Baldy, but in that case you would go left towards Worn Springs here.)
  • The single track continues up and down along the ridge. This is the best part of the run, because it looks like this:
Not my photo. Someone on Yelp's photo. But pretty accurate.
Not my photo. Someone on Yelp’s photo. But pretty accurate.
  • The trail rolls and some of the short little uphill sections can feel like a bitch, but on the whole you’re headed slightly more downhill than up. As you go, it gets noticeably more down because you’re dropping back down to the lake. Duh.
  • You will want to look at the awesome views of Mt. Tam and the hills and the drop into the valley. But, it is a rocky single-track trail, so you may also want to look at where you’re setting your feet. Don’t step on the newts! (Or rattlesnakes, obviously.)
  • You’ll hit one more kind of Y-intersection. Stay to the right to get back down to Phoenix Lake. That last section is very downhill and can be narrow and overgrown, depending on the weather and the district’s budget for maintenance. Don’t think too hard about what might be in the bushes and brush yourself off for ticks at the bottom.
  • At the bottom, it’ll dump you out back on the fire road around Phoenix that you started on. Turn left to head back to the trailhead and your car, or loop around the lake for an extra 2-2.5 miles. I sometimes like to loop the lake first just to get some running in before heading uphill. Plus the singletrack on the backside of the lake is fun.
  • Last step: Feel better about yourself and running.

What’s your favorite go-to run? (Can you tell me one in the LA area?)


Mighty Kacy

I was taking a 10 minute break from work and sat down on the couch. Best of America Ninja Warrior happened to be on, so I finally saw the one with the girl from last month that everyone’s been talking about. Now I’m tearing up a little. Anything is possible guys.

Watch it.

The last 10 days have been a little rough with the round-the-clock “bootcamp” grad school orientation — which includes lots of night and weekend work on things that are NOT my specialty. And, it’s hard to remember that it takes practice to get good at something. And, even when you are good, you still mess up sometimes. Even Michael Phelps misses the wall on his flip turns sometimes, even in the big meets, just like the rest of us.

How Serious Do You Have To Be To Be A Serious Athlete?

This weekend we were down in LA at a wedding with a bunch of friends. It was fun and exhausting and probably not amazing Ironman prep. All weekend people kept looking at the wine glass in my hand or the piece of pizza and going, ‘OH MY GOD, don’t you have an Ironman next weekend?!’

Clearly, I should have been locked in my bedroom resting and eating appropriate amounts of lean red meat and kale.

Friday I got fried swimming in the sun. Saturday my planned long trail run + open water swim turned into 40 minutes of running early because when the groom wants to go early you go early. Duh. And, then I needed to nap and meet up with other friends and OOPS! Saturday night I had four glasses of wine at the wedding and then was suddenly very sick. It didn’t seem like I’d drunk enough to feel as abruptly terrible as I did, but I didn’t think too hard about it. Sunday, though, when I got up, I started breaking out in a cold sweat and my stomach felt like it was ripping in half. I had to lay back down until about noon — when I was forced to get up to check out of our hotel. By then, I hadn’t kept any food down in 15 hours, so I was pretty pale and shaky. (It seems the burger I had earlier in the afternoon Saturday may have not sat great and the combination of things made me pretty sick.) Eventually, I had some soup and then a sandwich, but any workouts for Sunday were out. Now, I have blisters on my feet from my shoes — even though Erin lent me flip-flops halfway through the night — and one of my ankles is twisted and my stomach still hurts a little and I could sleep for days.

This does not seem like ideal Ironman prep.

There are lots of very good athletes I know who are very, very good because all they do is be athletes. They skip going out; they eat at home where they can control the food and know what they’re getting; they go to bed at 9 p.m. and pass on social outings. They’d have worn comfortable sandals and gone home early from the wedding after splurging on one glass of wine.

There’s a degree to which you have to be serious if you want to be serious. Otherwise, you’re just wasting your time and setting yourself up for failure. But, in the times I’ve tried to be super serious, turning myself into a swim-bike-run machine has never gone well. It’s too easy for me to get burned out and over it. What’s the point if you’re not having fun?

The problem with this philosophy is that if you’re not the check on yourself, then who is? In the past, Steve has been the backstop, since he’s not as prone as I am to eating a brownie sundae every night or throwing ourselves a party of two for Cinqo de Mayo. Only Steve isn’t training seriously anymore, so there is no backstop anymore.

People asked a lot of questions about Ironman this weekend. (Also I asked a few people some questions about it too: like are you sure it isn’t a mass swim start?) One of the most common, though, was how did I think I was going to do? I was just doing it for fun, right? Just to finish? But, I’d definitely win my age group, right?

No, no, and no.

When I decided to do Ironman last fall and started training for real again, I was going to do it for real. Train for real, be serious about it, take things seriously. I don’t want to pay as much money as Ironman costs, go all the way to Canada, and spend all day racing without aiming to do it well. But, no, that doesn’t mean I’m the most serious or for real athlete there. I don’t expect to win my age group. That’s sort of the GOAL; winning would be winning. I expect that there will be a number of other people in my age group who didn’t accidentally drink and eat too much this weekend (or didn’t have their car break down on the way to a race last weekend, or didn’t go out the night before their last big workout, or screw up all the other things it’s possible to screw up). I know that my “serious” is not the same as other people’s “serious.”

What I don’t know is if my version of taking things seriously has set me up well enough, created a better balanced athlete, enabled me to deal with whatever comes my way, gotten me in the right spot for ME. I hope so. Because things are really about to get real. This week is serious.

This saying occurred to me the other day, because I was thinking about everything I’ve put my body through — all the concussions, the multiple broken teeth, the stitches, the heart condition, the cuts and bruises and tears — and it’s safe to say I will not arrive at the end well-preserved. At least I’ll use up what I’ve got. At least.

Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a Ride!’