road running motivation

Motivation is broken into two parts: wanting something and believing you can achieve it; you need both to be successful in whatever it is you’re aiming for. Always believe in yourself. Call me crazy, but I think that is more powerful than anything.
—  one of my doctoral supervisors when discussing the importance of helping our clients find their strengths 
This Race is Feminist AF and I’ll Tell You Why

Originally posted by thebrazenqueens

When NYU professor Wendy Suzuki first got the idea to start teaching an undergraduate course on exercise and the brain, she came up with an ingenious plan: she’d hire an aerobics instructor to be her co-teacher, combining a traditional lecture with an actual workout.

“So I went to the department, and I said ‘I have this great idea!’,” she told me one afternoon a few weeks back. “And they said no - we pay you to teach.”

“And so I went back to my office,” she continued, “and I decided to do the next most obvious thing, which is go get certified to teach the exercise class myself. Obviously.”

Suzuki practices a very particular kind of aerobics, called Intensati, which involves working out while you yell positive affirmations (“I am worthy of my own love!” “Everything I need is within me!”), so it’s not just that she’d be sweating in front of her students. She’d be getting them to do something… kind of goofy.

But this is how strongly she believes in the power of exercise to reshape the brain: she is willing to get up in front of a bunch of undergraduates, in full spandex, and not just sweat, but lead them through mantras. Then: she gives a lecture on neuroscience.

I went to talk to Suzuki because, after I realized that training for a half marathon wasn’t going to make me any skinnier, I wanted someone to convince me the effort was really worth it.

“It’s absolutely clear that increased aerobic exercise changes the brain’s anatomy,” Suzuki says. For years, she’s studied one particular part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is involved in memory. Suzuki says exercise can actually stimulate the birth of brand new brain cells there, which is a pretty big deal, and why exercise and the brain has become the major focus of her lab.

But she also had a warning for me: “You have to be careful. Because while exercise can improve brain functions and particularly improve hippocampal functions, stress levels can undo that good.” This is based on rodent studies, showing forced exercise can actually hurt the brain.

“So nobody’s forcing you to do the marathon,” Suzuki warned me, “but if you do the marathon and you’re sleep deprived, and you have thirty things to do, and a podcast to produce, and, you know, a deadline to do that in – that’s a lot of stress. You have to understand that that stress is is fighting with your exercise.”

This worried me, a lot. Suzuki had basically just described my life: constant juggling, always running from one thing to the next. I’d always thought about all that stress as a nuisance, not as something that could actively wreck my brain. And as my runs got longer, the stress got worse. I’d leave my family on a Saturday morning for my long run, and when I came back a couple of hours later, feeling great, the kids would be going bonkers.

It reminded me of something Gretchen Reynolds, the science writer for the New York Times, said about race training when I spoke with her: “It’s very selfish. It has to be selfish.” Training for a half marathon involves hours of running beforehand. “If you have kids and a husband and work, that is a big chunk of time that you’ve just taken for yourself,” Reynolds said. “You have to make sure everyone’s on board for that.”

I’ve always tried to exercise regularly. But I haven’t always succeeded, mostly because life gets in the way. For me, having a race allowed me to change how not just I, but my whole family, talked about what I was doing. It wasn’t negotiable.

This worked both ways: while my family made space for me to train, I found ways to squeeze running in on my own time. I started running to work on Tuesday mornings. One day, I ran to an oncology appointment.  (When I showed up at my cancer center sweaty and in yoga pants, i figured: well, it’s kind of this person’s job to deal with my body at it’s worst, right?)

Today, I’ll run as far as I ever have: 13.1 miles around Prospect Park and out to Coney Island. I haven’t lost a pound, and there’s a chance I won’t run so much as crawl across the finish line. But it’s been worth it.

In the end, I ended up disagreeing with Gretchen Reynolds: training wasn’t selfish, but it was self-interested. And for a working mom, maybe that isn’t a bad thing.

[This is part three of a three-part series on the science of exercise and what it takes to run a half marathon by WNYC’s Mary Harris, host of Only Human podcast and health reporter. To see the earlier posts, click here.]

How Long Can I Wear This Medal Before It Gets Weird?

I didn’t believe my trainer when she told me I was ready for race day.

For starters, in all of our training, we never ran the 13.1 miles required of a half marathon. Once, I accidentally went too far, and made it to twelve. It completely exhausted me. When I brought the Brooklyn race map home, my 8-year-old son, Leo, looked at it, looked up at me, looked back down and said: “that looks… long.”

I tried to make it seem achievable: I remembered how, when I was a child, we’d calculate distances on a map by using a piece of string, threading it along the twists and turns of a travel route before pulling it taut to measure it against the mileage key. When the string unfurled, the distance always surprised me: it was longer or shorter than I’d imagined, every time.

This, I said to myself, was surely like that. It seemed so impossibly far. But it couldn’t be. Right?

The morning of the race, Leo got up early with me, pacing the kitchen as I ate a bowl of cereal and waited for a sudden rainstorm to pass. Then he gave me one last hug as I headed into the chilly morning on my own.

I tried to remember something that Gretchen Reynolds, the fitness writer for the New York Times, said when we spoke a few weeks ago. “There is something very distinct that happens to most people during a race,” she said. “Adrenaline does get released, all kinds of other hormones get released, that don’t usually happen when you’re just training.” She told me most people set their best times when they’re racing: no one really knows why. (My trainer had said the same thing: I didn’t believe her, either.)

By the time I got to the start, thousands of runners were penned up in front of the Brooklyn Museum. We stretched, and yawned. I found a mom friend I knew from my daughter’s daycare, Beth. Her hometown has an annual 15K, which made distance running seem like something everyone just did; she’s hoping to run the full marathon in 2018. She had no doubts. I was not so sure. As the crowd moved forward, I asked, “Are we starting?!”

For a few moments as we crossed the start line, the sun broke through the clouds. And I realized Reynolds was right: there was something about the race itself, something about bumping forward with a bunch of strangers. I passed some people. Some people passed me. We were New Yorkers, so, occasionally, we practically collided.

I loved the signs: “Worst. Parade. Ever,” or, “You’re Running Better Than the Government is Right Now!” I loved the musicians: traditional bands, but also one guy in the middle of Ocean Avenue playing cello, all by himself. I high fived anyone who reached out: guys with those big foam hands, elementary school kids, even a baby. As I ran, I laughed!

Reynolds had warned me that how I felt about the run afterwards would come down to the last few miles: my body would either give out, or get a surge of strength that pushed me across the finish line. During one of her own races, she said she stayed motivated by focusing on another runner, someone with a dancer’s body who seemed to be running on springs. I looked around for my own competitor.

I kept seeing one particular head bob up and down in the crowd: a woman with twin fishtail braids in her short blond hair, and a blue shirt. She looked strong, slightly faster than me. She was always a few meters ahead. For the last couple of miles I lost sight of her completely, and figured she’d surged forward. 

Suddenly, at mile 12, we were shoulder to shoulder. She’d been behind me, not ahead.

I could see the boardwalk approaching, see the road ahead disappearing into the hazy ocean beyond. We moved forward together, neck and neck. Then: she pulled ahead, zoomed up to the boardwalk, across the finish, melting into the crowd beyond. And I was a few feet behind, realizing as someone slipped a medal into my hand: it was over.

I looked for the woman in the fishtail braids to thank her but never found her. I hope she’ll be back next year: I want to be. “You looked amazing!” my friend Beth texted me when we were done. Then she sent me the details for her hometown race. It’s just seven weeks away.

[This is part of a series on the science of exercise and what it takes to run a half marathon from WNYC’s Mary Harris, host of Only Human and health reporter. To see the earlier posts, click here.]