You Are Doing a Great Job

Photo credit: Swim Bike Run Photo, 2017 EX2 Blue Crab Bolt 10k

I am in the taper weeks of training for my second ultramarathon attempt (the first was the North Face Endurance Challenge 50k in DC last year), which means I'm spending far less time running and far more time thinking.

People talk of "taper madness," and it's a real thing: runners (and other event athletes, I suppose, but I don't do other events) claim that in the weeks before a race, every little muscle twinge feels like the portent of a major injury, every day feels long and stretchy with elasticized time, every short run leaves your legs feeling like they are pulsing with energy, ready to go further, go faster, go harder.

Taper madness is a real thing. But what it fails to account for is the opportunity inherent in tapering. This is the time to think about what we are doing, and why. Why would anyone want to run more than a marathon? (Why would anyone want to run a marathon, for that?)

I don't have an easy answer to that question. There are lots of things I could say; like Catriona Menzies-Pike says in her incredible book, The Long Run, I want to "to run for long enough that being still would be a consolation." I want to "run for a long time and to be soothed by the incomprehensible emotional shifts this produced." I try to explain the difference between running on the roads, which I don't really do, and running for distance on windy, rooty, rocky mountain paths, which I do do. I wax poetic about the peacefulness of time in the woods, the camaraderie of long runs with friends, the sheer number of cookies and potatoes I get to eat while in the midst of a 6-hour haul.

Those are all true things. But there's more to it than that.

I also want to see what I am capable of, on a very literal, physical level, in hopes that maybe, it will let me see what I am capable of on another, more philosophical one. Last year, the mere thought of running 31+ miles was an impossible goal. A stretch. Now, having done it once, the goal has shifted; I know I could do it, but do I have the stamina and endurance and discipline to do it again? Knowing what lies ahead, can I push myself to power through the shitty weeks on the trails, to push through the little voice in my head that mimics the voices of my family and friends who say, "Why would you even want to do this?" 

I recently read Alex Hutchinson's book Endure (which I highly recommend), and took a lot out of it. At the risk of grossly over-simplifying some of his research, one of the things he talks about is the idea of self-talk: by simply telling themselves they were doing well, athletes could improve their physical endurance in running and cycling.

I took the lesson to heart. On my next long run, with my legs beyond tired and my brain slipping not only into "You cannot do this" repeats, but "You should not do this," I changed the narrative. "You are doing a great job," I told myself. "You are doing a great job. You are doing a great job. You are doing a great job."

It became a kind of sing-song, tapped out in my head--and sometimes out loud--in time to the cadence of my faltering steps. "You" (right foot, left foot), "are doing" (right foot, left foot), "a great" (right foot, left foot), "job" (right foot, left foot). It worked. I kept going. I don't know that I consciously believed I was doing a great job, but I kept saying it until I saw the glint of the sun on the windshield of my car in the distance. And when I finished, I really did feel like I'd done a great job that day.

The sing-song has no melody, and yet it is catchy. When I stumble through my overly-full to-do list on work days and start to berate myself for not finishing more each day, I find myself muttering, "You. Are doing. A great. Job." When I am frustrated by Mount Laundry, the not-so-affectionate name I have given the heap of clean, unfolded clothes spilling out of baskets in front of the dryer, I hum, "You. Are doing. A great. Job." When I sit in a committee meeting and bring up a somewhat controversial idea that sparks a polite, yet heated, debate about how to proceed, I wonder why I've even been invited to this table, and then I remind myself, "You. Are doing. A great. Job."

So I find I have a new answer to the unending questions about why I've taken up this somewhat insane sport: I do it because it teaches me to appreciate what I can do. To recognize that sometimes the barest minimum--simply putting one foot in front of another--is doing a great job. In two weeks, I'll have roughly 68,000 steps to tell myself repeatedly about the great job I'm doing. Or maybe I'll only make it 34,000 steps. Or 10,000. Maybe I won't even make it to the starting line. Regardless of what's to come, I'm starting to get comfortable with the idea that just getting to here and now counts as doing a great job. Just being, persisting, pushing forward. I. Am doing. A great. Job.

And this:

You are doing a great job.

You, wherever you are, whatever you are doing.

You are doing a great fucking job.

Reading Joyce for "Fun"



I had a dentist appointment a few weeks ago, and the doctor saw me a full 45 minutes late. I had rushed out of a meeting to get to the appointment on time, and forgotten my phone, and realized I left my wallet at home, so had 45 minutes of time to sit and steam a bit. But actually, I didn't steam. Because even though I'd forgotten essentials like phone and wallet, I'd managed to grab my current book, Dubliners. So I had 45 uninterrupted, unreachable moments to sit and read Joyce's short stories. What a gift.

When the doctor did finally come in, she apologized briefly for "running a bit behind," and struck up the requisite small talk when one has a book in her lap: Oh, what are you reading?

Dubliners.

Are you a student?

No.

Why would anyone read Joyce if it wasn't for school?

Book Review: Endure, by Alex Hutchinson

Ever wondered why you find yourself able to sprint the last hundred meters of a 5k race, when you spent most of the third mile feeling like you couldn’t possibly take one more step? Or why crowd support makes you run better? Or why people tend to collapse after they cross the finish line of a marathon, rather than before?

Alex Hutchinson, columnist for Outside and Runner’s World, tackles these questions and more in his new book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. Hutchinson organizes his research into the limits of human performance into three buckets: Mind & Muscle (with chapters on how the brain interacts with our muscle capacity), Limits (pain, muscles, oxygen, heat, thirst, and fuel), and Limit Breakers (the science of training the brain to go beyond what we think we can do).

January: A Monthly Round-Up

January came and went in a flash, as far as I can tell. I was sick for a solid chunk of the month, so maybe that's what made it fly by; something about losing two weeks to the couch and The Crown made my sense of time a little wibbly-wobbly.

Despite said setbacks, though, it was a good month for reading:


January Reading:


Love, Hate and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed: A YA novel that explores the life of an Indian-American Muslim teenager grappling with her parents' expectations of her, her desire to be a filmmaker, and the racist aftermath of a terrorist attack in her home state of Illinois. Excellently done, perfect readathon material.

The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg: I (regrettably) did not get into The Toast while it was still available, and I kick myself all the more for it after reading Ortberg's delightfully subversive, dark retellings of classic fairy tales. She plays with gender and familial roles and classic elements of storytelling in ways that make me super excited for this book to be available in the big, wide world. Book will be out in March 2018; review to come in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas: Another YA novel, another author writing about lived experiences of racism and hate in modern-day America--this time in the aftermath of a police shooting of an unarmed black teenager. 

Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance by Alex Hutchinson: I've gotten unexpectedly into endurance sports in recent years, and leapt at the opportunity to read Hutchinson's well-research book about the links between mental and physical performance as it relates to endurance. Book is out in February; review to come in the Frederick Steeplechasers newsletter (and on this blog).

A Dangerous Crossing by Ausma Zehanat Khan: I've really enjoyed Khan's Inspector Esa Khattack and Detective Rachel Getty series, and this new volume was no exception. As with the earlier books in the series (I reviewed Among the Ruins here), Khan sets a compelling whodunit-style mystery within the context of a greater geo-political crisis--this time the Syrian refugee camps in Greece. It's heartbreaking, it's honest, and it's excellently done. Out in February, review to come in Shelf Awareness.

The Rending and the Nest by Kaethe Schwehn: This book was really fucking weird, in a good mind-bendy-dystopian kind of way. The premise has been used before: for no obvious reason, a goodly portion of the world's population has just... vanished. But unlike others of its kind (The Leftovers, say), the world left behind after the Rending is not familiar at all. Schwehn brings new ideas and new energy to the age-old dystopian question of what it means to survive, and whether survival alone is really ever enough. Recommended. Out in February, review to come in Shelf Awareness.

The Bell Jar by Slyvia Plath: I put off reading this for a long, long time because... well, I don't exactly know why. But I'm sorry I did, because Plath's novel is excellent. It bore into me in unexpected ways, and the crisis of self that her protagonist faces felt eerily, uncomfortably familiar. Maggie Gyllenhaal's narration of the audiobook is spectacularly done. A+, highly recommend, will read again.

Dubliners by James Joyce: I read Joyce's story collection in college for an Irish lit class, but there's something about revisiting works outside of a school reading deadline that is deliciously necessary. I read this one with Stephanie, and we both agreed it was a) fascinating, if a bit soul-crushing, and b) far more accessible than either of us expected it to be. If you haven't read Joyce because you've heard too much about Ulysses to want to try him, consider reconsidering. Dubliners is surprisingly engaging, and well worth the effort.


January Writing:

One of my goals for 2018 is to get back to writing more (which, given how little I wrote in 2017, is a pretty low bar to set for myself). I'm also hoping to share more of what I'm writing across channels, so here's a taste of what I penned this past month:

Going Through the Motions, Getting Back in Gear // setting the intention of intention for 2018, and finding a rhythm for my days

Celebrate Martin Luther King Day with a Book (or Four) // recommendations of black authors writing about race in the United States

Novels Epistolary and Beyond // novels that break the traditional linear narrative style)



Essays on Feminism, Race and Identity // adapted from a list I wrote on this blog

An Interview with Fiona Mozley // on the unexpected announcement that her debut, Elmet, was shortlisted for the Man Booker



And the rest of it:


Watching: The Crown, Godless


Digging: the Insight meditation app, Bullet Journaling


Racing: No races planned for February, though I'm training for a 50k in March

Baking: I pulled off a chocolate souffle per Julia Child's instructions, and made some super-thin but still excellent Feel Better Cookies from Julia Turshen's Small Victories

Grateful for: The IRL friendships borne of the bookish internet world, and the #24in48 weekend spent in conversation/company with Kristen and Rachel and all the bookish love

---

How about you, darlings? What was the best part of January? What are you reflecting on at the end of this month, and looking forward to in February? What else should I try to include in these round-ups, if anything?

 

#24in48: Plans, Plans, Plans



IT'S 24IN48 WEEKEND, YA'LL. 


potential tbr for 24in48

I love books and I love bookish people, so a weekend of bookish people coming together across the world to read books is basically my favorite thing of all time. I'm excited to be joining Kristen in supporting Rachel with 24in48 activities again this go-'round, and I really really hope you all will come read along with us. (If a weekend of books with other bookish people isn't enough to sell you, will this amazing list of prizes tip your decision?)

My weekend is unfortunately slightly packed with non-reading activities (I'll be running most of the day Saturday, then attending a running club event Saturday evening), but I've got a stack of book set aside for Sunday nonetheless. As I mentioned on Instagram, the stack is born of indecision, not ambition; if I finish even one of these bad boys, I'll be a happy camper. Right now, Hearts Invisible Furies is at the top of my list, because SO many people have told me to read it now that I can't keep ignoring them all. But who knows; maybe something else will strike my fancy in the moment.

Are you participating? If so, let me know where you'll be updating and I'll do my best to stop on by as I am able. [It's not too late to sign up, either. Just head to 24in48.com to join in.] 

And I'd love to know which book from my stack you think I should start with!




30 Books I'm Grateful to Have Read by 30


When I made my 30 by 30 list a few years ago, I gave myself a bonus task of reading the 30 books Huffington Post recommended reading before your 30th birthday.

The short version: I failed miserably at this task.

The long version: By my count, I've read 7 of HuffPo's recommended 30 books. And of those seven, I read every single one of them because I wanted to anyway, not because it was on this list. I've come to realize that proscribed lists of books to read are just never going to work for me. There are books on this list I have absolutely no interest in, and books on this list I'm excited about, and books on this list that peak my interest but, if I'm realistic, I'll never actually read. So rather than calling this one a failure, I'm calling it a success: success in helping me realize that strict reading lists aren't my jam.

That said, I'm a sucker for a good list, and I love a milestone as much as anyone else. And so even though my 30th birthday was two months ago now, I'm sharing the 30 books I'm grateful to have read by my 30th birthday--even if they don't appear on anyone's master list:

The Classics Club, Redux(ish)

In September of 2012, a younger, more optimistic me joined the Classic Club, hoping to motivate myself to read 50 classics over five years (ending September 2017).

It's well past September 2017, and suffice it to say, I did not read 50 classics. I did read 24, though, so rather than calling this a bust, I'm readjusting my goals, and planning to read the remaining 26 over the next five years.

Here's what I've read so far:

  1. Emma by Jane Austen
  2. A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  3. The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 
  4. Middlemarch by George Eliot 
  5. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  6. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  7. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood 
  8. The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald 
  9. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith 
  10. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell 
  11. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury 
  12. The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway* 
  13. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  14. To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway* 
  15. Don't Stop the Carnival by Herman Wouk
  16. Diamond as Big as the Ritz by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  17. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  18. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  19. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  20. Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  21. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
  22. Wise Blood, by Flannery O'Connor
  23. The Moons of Jupiter by Alice Munro
  24. Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov by Anton Chekhov

And here's the list I'll be pulling from for the next five years:

  1. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott 
  2. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  3. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
  4. The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
  5. Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel
  6. Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin 
  7. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte 
  8. The Master and the Margarita by Michael Bulgakov 
  9. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess 
  10. Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote 
  11. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carre 
  12. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carre
  13. Collected Stories by Anton Chekhov
  14. Woman in White by Wilkie Collins 
  15. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens 
  16. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  17. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas 
  18. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner 
  19. Light in August by William Faulkner 
  20. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner 
  21. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald 
  22. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald 
  23. Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert 
  24. Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell 
  25. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman 
  26. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein 
  27. Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway 
  28. The Nick Adams Stories by Ernest Hemingway
  29. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  30. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo 
  31. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving 
  32. Dubliners by James Joyce 
  33. Lady Chatterly's Lover by D.H. Lawrence 
  34. Death in Venice by Thomas Mann 
  35. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez 
  36. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez 
  37. Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant 
  38. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier 
  39. Lolita by Vladimir Nobokov 
  40. At Swim Two Birds by Flann O'Brien 
  41. The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien 
  42. Collected Short Stories by Flannery O'Connor
  43. 1984 by George Orwell 
  44. The Portable Dorothy Parker by Dorothy Parker 
  45. The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allen Poe 
  46. Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allen Poe 
  47. Pedro Parama by Juan Rulfo
  48. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark 
  49. The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead
  50. East of Eden by John Steinbeck 
  51. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck 
  52. Robinson Crusoe by Robert Louis Stevenson 
  53. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson 
  54. Dracula by Bram Stoker 
  55. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien 
  56. The Warden by Anthony Trollope 
  57. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain 
  58. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh 
  59. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells 
  60. Birds Fall Down by Rebecca West
  61. House of Mirth by Edith Wharton 
  62. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman 
  63. A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf

#SJBookClub: Retirement Edition


I started the Social Justice Book Club in 2016 after a semi-joking Twitter conversation with fellow non-fiction lovers Shaina and Shannon turned into a chorus of "I'd join that!" type tweets. We read our first book--Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson--in April of that same year, and things took off from there.

After the election in 2016 and inauguration in 2017, there was an even greater clamor to read more, to understand more, to empathize more with the issues at play on both the domestic and international political scenes, especially as those issues related to matters of social, racial, and economic justice. The club grew. We moved to Slack. The ever-incredible Janani joined me as a co-host in 2017. We developed a massive list of potential books to read some day.

But now, roughly two years after it started, it's time to close this chapter. As I wrote recently, 2018 is all about re-allocating my time and energy. And as much as I've loved #SJBookClub (and I think Janani would echo me here), I just haven't had the time or energy to do it justice of late. So it's time to say goodbye.

The archive of the books we've read will continue to live here, and I certainly don't expect to stop reading--or writing about--books centered on themes of social justice any time in the future. I hope you won't either, and I hope you'll continue to share your book recommendations and thoughts moving forward. If there's interest, we can try to share the list of potential books we worked up at some point in the coming weeks.

I can be reached at ofabookworm AT gmail DOT com, on Instagram or Twitter @kerrymchugh, on Litsy @kerry, or here on this blog. (I'm admittedly not particularly active on Twitter of late, and generally bad at answering emails. But I'm trying.)

Going Through the Motions, Getting Back in Gear: Intentions for 2018

sunrise over cadillac mountain with words "intention 2018" overlaid
sunrise over Cadillac Mountain, October 2017

After a year of fits and starts with this blog, I unofficially took a few months off (you may have noticed my last post was in September, and even then, I was just re-posting piece I'd been writing for Shelf Awareness anyway). In that quiet space, I walked away from most all of my writing projects and the computer and, as made sense for me, the internet (though I still overshare on Instagram, and I'm not even sorry about it). I contemplated giving this space up and calling it quits, weighing the amount of work it is to find the time and energy to write something meaningful against the ever-limited amounts of time and energy I seem to have these days.

But something in me couldn't let go. Because even though I haven't been the best blogger, or the best reviewer, or the most consistent writer of late, a not-so-small part of my heart loves this space I've carved out, the time I find to write about books and running and the things that make me excited.

In a world full of bad news, I want to make an effort to make space for the things I'm passionate about. In a life full of ups and downs--and 2017 brought quite a few downs, both personally and politically speaking--I want to have a space to think through my thoughts, and this is that space.