Hardcore Race or a Chick Walk?

This past weekend, I completed 30 miles over the course of two days as part of a breast cancer charity event, It’s A Journey Atlanta 2 Day Walk. Each participant was required to raise $1000. Most of these are women touched in a personal way by breast cancer. They are survivors. They are daughters, mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and friends of those affected. Many had experienced the loss of someone very close because of breast cancer. Walking 30 miles, even over two days, is not easy for most people – people that don’t consider themselves athletes, people that are not participating to prove athletic prowess or for a medal that affirms some sort of fitness performance. These are real folks that want to gain to power over disease.

When I signed up for the event, I did so in a hurry. I was traveling and got an email from a friend telling me that a group of my friends was doing it and that I must join in. She sent me the registration link. In my haste, I did not read anything. I went through the clicks, paid my fee, and was done. Done?! Not by a long shot. On that day, I did not know what was in store for me. Several months went by. In my mind, it was like any other ‘race’; I’d think about it as it got closer. But, that was not to be the case. I quickly learned that I was to raise $1000, or I would come out of pocket. WHAT?!


And so, the efforts began. Getting over my resistance to asking people for money, I put up a Facebook post about the walk and asked for contributions. I explained that all the money stays in Georgia to support patients, and I was careful to point out that my event was not a Susan Komen event (as these are now steeped in controversy). I nervously waited to see if my Facebook posts would elicit anything. They did! My Facebook posts alone generated over $1300! With every donation, I felt like a kid at Christmas. I would literally run through the house yelling to whoever would listen that another donation came through. I got so excited thinking about the money that other people desperately need.

My group of four fiends and I planned and held a tennis round robin to raise funds. People showed up! They wanted to support us because breast cancer touches too many families. People are ready to end the horror of this disease. Another friend arranged an informal run in honor of his grandmother to help us meet our monetary goal. He and his friends even donated a day’s wages. With so many supporters, our little group of five raised $7000! We were over our team goal! Amazing.


The event itself was held the same weekend as the Spartan World Championships in Lake Tahoe. A little part of me felt sad that I was not there experiencing the brutality of the course and imagining the badass feeling I may have at the completion of such an endeavor. As a veteran of two Vermont Beasts, on a personal level, I was craving the thrill of a serious fitness challenge. Running and walking are very different. Serious running leaves one with that ‘beat up’ feeling that enlivens the soul – you know you did something meaningful, hard, and that you are indeed, alive. Hardcore running and OCR even provide a powerful reset – reminding what is really important in this world. It is perspective that can change as a result of a grueling experience.


The breast cancer walk is much different. It is mostly women – women of all sizes and shapes and varying fitness levels. Women are out there for deeply personal reasons. There are tears and smiles through tears. Admittedly, for me, in terms of a fitness event, the walk does not make it on my hardest events list, BUT…that does not take away its value.  And, the walk was not about me or for me.  This event was about others, patients of breast cancer.  Just like in hardcore running and OCR, there are battles raging within many of the participants, and they are walking through and in spite of pain. For them, what is going on inside is grueling and getting to the end (of 30 miles) gives meaning. These ‘walkers’ and volunteers have my respect. They are badass in their own right.

Perspective is all about how we choose to look at things. Life is precious. It is short. It is worth fighting for. The next time I am out doing a hard running event, I will recall the lessons and the faces of those I saw at the breast cancer walk. Their willingness to forge ahead, in the wind and rain and on pavement, with no other motivation but love, will propel me forward – ever thankful of my own health and blessings.


And, for a moment in time, hundreds of people came together, in unity, for a single effort – the support of breast cancer patients and their families. It is a great lesson in the power of Oneness. When the trivial drops away and the most important of things becomes the focus, amazing things happen. The love, encouragement, support, and smiles I witnessed, along the 30 mile walk, could change the world if we treated and received each other this way in our daily lives. To be part of a sea of pink is an incredible experience and deeply personal for so many. It was an honor to be a part. Thank you to all who contribute to such efforts. This event raised over one million dollars.  I saw first hand how much it matters!

Running With A Weight Vest: Go Heavy or Go Home?

You gotta know…it is one thing to run but another to run weighted! And for little ol’ me, this could not be more true. I am just a hair over 5 feet tall, and I weigh about 120 lbs. I am a small person. To think about adding weight makes my body revolt before I even start. But…last winter, I participated, without any training, in an event: One Heavy Mile. The idea is meet the criteria for Clydesdale or Athena running wherein men must run one mile weighing in at 220lbs and women must weigh at least 165lbs. For me, this meant I added thirty five pounds (I was heavier last winter) to my weight vest. Then, when the gun went off, I took off. Well, not really. Surprisingly, I did finish the mile, without stopping, and actually did so respectably.

Was I hooked on weight vest running after that? No.

But… I’m doing it anyway.

Running weighted does present some amazing benefits, as you might imagine. For one, I now easily realize how being overweight makes running, working out, and just getting through a day that much more challenging. That weight IS a drag. 10 years ago, I lost about twenty pounds. I truly had forgotten what that extra bulk felt like. It makes a significant difference. Without that extra, nothing on my body jiggles in discomfort. I don’t get winded. But, with the weight vest, I instantly remembered exactly how I felt back then.


Obviously, running with weight builds strength and endurance – that is the point. It is slow going in ramping up, increasing the pounds, with the weight bricks. And, then there is time, how long can I hold up to running with varying amounts of weight? At what point does it become too much? And, weight vest are HOT, not alluring hot, but rather, I am so hot I am getting irrational hot. Someone get this off of me – hot. That is called adjusting one’s heat tolerance: just another benefit 🙂

Running heavy is a physical and mental test of stamina. It takes everything I have to keep moving forward. But, I do. The payoff is that running without the weight vest is light and free. Even on a hard day, I can be thankful that I don’t have on the damn vest. Perverse? I know.

I am not going for the extra calorie burn or the improved core strength, although these are great perks. I am donning the vest as a fun and challenging alternative to traditional speed work, with an extra emphasis on strength and power. It is a way to change things up, get out of my routine, and once per week is enough for me. Plus, in a weird way, running weighted is a confidence booster and an escape. When you have an extra 20 or 30 pounds on your back, you no longer think about what pace you should be running; you simply focus on the struggle, and on overcoming it. At the end of the day, no matter how fast you were, you can still say you ran X number of miles with your torso enveloped in iron – like a knight in armor or a spartan carrying his shield – and that feels pretty badass.

One Heavy Mile

Photo: me running with 35 pounds at the 2015 event.

So, if you see me on the trails with a black vest that looks like it could be filled with explosives, don’t call the police. I only intend to torture myself. And, if you see me splayed out, looking like a burnt noodle, well, let’s just say: the vest won.

The event, One Heavy Mile, that was the impetus for running heavy, in the first place, is around the corner again, in January. This year, I will be ready!

Happy Running.

Click here for more information about One Heavy Mile. You can compete in the Atlanta event on January 23rd, 2016, or compete virtually. There are prizes for both.


Photo: this year’s female winner, Brenna Calvert.

‘MAF’in It’

I’ve been running for about 10 years. With zero athletic background prior to that, the beginning of my running was pretty sad. Mostly, I was just walking as I graduated to baby jogging and then a walk/jog combo, over several years, before actually running. I have only identified myself as a ‘runner’ for the last five years.

Melanie Blenis Article MAF

As a runner, the last several years have been challenging. I badly sprained one ankle and just as it was in full service again, I sprained the other. Those literally affected my run for two years! Sigh. Many runners can relate to being sidelined by an injury. Admittedly, I did not take the time off that I should have. In the midst of that, I did the Spartan Vermont Beast – twice! I also had two crazy ‘flus’ that took me out for several months. But, the biggest thing that has affected my running has been Crossfit.

Initially, I began Crossfit as a way to get stronger and be a better runner. Pulling back on the running, due to the sprains and sickness, meant that I was self limiting, without really thinking about it, my daily activity load. For the past 6 months, I have been perfectly well and injury free. So, I have been going full throttle, doing two a days and loving it until this summer – meaning, running 6-10 miles most every day and doing CrossFit WODs. I began to break.

I began to notice that my running times were stagnating and that my weigh lifting was going nowhere. I was battling frustration. I was considering quitting CrossFit. And, I was pushing hard running, with most runs at 80%. In hind site, it is all so clear. But, of course! Here’s the deal: I love doing all of it. I want to do all of it. It is fun!

barbell orm

But the reality is…I cannot do it all, at least not every day and certainly not well. What was I thinking? I wasn’t. I was just living in the moment.

To make a correction, I now have a running coach. In just a short time, about two months, I can see a difference. I have actually set three PR’s with a strong dose of tough love and through pulling back on everything some. This means looking a the CrossFit WOD ahead of time and skipping METCON days in favor of running programming. It means letting go of the need to focus on things at CrossFit that are not necessary for my goals, like double-unders. It means that strength training takes priority over extra cardio. Also, it means that as a runner first, I may not be able to kill it at CrossFit and that’s okay. I also must understand that, as an endurance athlete, the norms of weightlifting may not necessarily apply to me. Standard one rep max charts may not work for me. I may have muscular imbalances that need addressed. One day off per week is now mandatory.

Most importantly, coaching has brought more variety and specificity to my run training. This means not just going through the motions of a daily, moderate-intensity run. Sometimes, I run as fast as I can, but I’ve also been coached to do a lot more easy runs – both recovery runs and “MAF” runs.  Essentially, MAF runs are heart rate based runs designed to develop the aerobic system. The formula is 180 minus your age and then plus or minus 5-10 beats based on certain personal variables. You can figure out your heart rate zone here. This is slow running!

heartrate orm

MAF may be boring at times, but I credit MAF runs with my ability to set new PR’s at forty-seven. I had no idea what MAF running was a few months ago… and, boy did I detest it. After my first MAF run, I was nearly in tears as I slammed the car door after I had finished. Running slow enough to reap the benefits of easy running requires a big ego check. It took a month of diligently attempting MAF until I actually settled into it – just another mental exercise in discipline. Now, I understand that MAF running is like making deposits that allow the ‘fast’ days to happen.

Thanks to these MAF “deposits”, I’ve gotten to experience the thrill of running faster than ever before (for me)! I have spent years running at 80%. Running faster is crazy addictive, but I would never have experienced it if not for MAF. The daily grind of running at 80% eventually leads to chronic fatigue and performance plateaus, but a balance of easy days and faster days leads to continuous progression. MAF is a forced easy day. For me, MAF means watching my heart rate monitor and not letting it over 140.  It takes practice and patience to begin running faster within your heart rate zone. MAF training incurs many benefits, but at the end of the day, you have to run fast to run fast. This is why tempo work and high-intensity workouts are still extremely important! I was simply going too hard too often.


Lastly, as a way to counter over training, I understand that a day off, at least one per week, is essential. This is, perhaps, the hardest aspect of being coachable, for me. Just knowing that on my off days, I am ‘allowed’ to take a walk makes it palatable. couch1While I am no elite athlete, I still face similar challenges just on a different scale. Accepting that and slowing down, just a tad, is making a huge difference in my life and in my performance.

And…my lessons in running and taking on more than I should apply to life because who we are in one area reflects who we are. There is nothing wrong with working hard, every day, and pushing personal limits – those are great qualities. It is, however, important to be mindful that we don’t have super powers – unfortunately!