Just over a year ago I went to my first November Project San Francisco (NPSF) free workout. I'm not exactly sure why I chose that particular morning of 2013-10-30 to show up but a year later I'm very glad I did. It's the biggest physical fitness change I've made since I first started running in January 2011.
Seeing #NPSF chalkings in Golden Gate Park late summer of 2013 and especially meeting Sam Livermore and reading her enthusiastic posts had made me want to check it out. Maybe I decided on a whim the night before.
Confession: I took a bus to my first November Project and it wasn't the only time. I woke up to a 6am alarm, made it to Haight & Masonic by 6:20, realized I wouldn't make it on time, and hopped on the 71 bus that was pulling up. Took it just a few blocks to Haight & Scott then jogged 2 blocks up to the park and ran out of breath on that slight incline. More on that later.
I hiked up to the middle of Alamo Square, barely in time for introductions in the predawn darkness (just-before-PDT-to-PST-changeover). Standing on a rock on the edge of a circle of grass, dressed in a full-body penguin suit, NPSF founder and leader Laura McCloskey told us to hug someone we didn't know, and then introduce ourselves.
Betny Townsend cheerily hugged me as a newbie, the first person I met at November Project. I saw Sam Livermore too. The open kindness of strangers and a familiar face was enough to make a strong positive impression. This was a workout group like no other.
Laura explained the workout, which turned out to be a PR (personal record) Wednesday workout (as I've blogged previously, except thankfully in 2013 without the first lap around Alamo Square). It took me ~45-50 minutes by my watch and pretty much destroyed me. Exhausted and humbled I walked home.
It was way out of my league.
Yearbook Photos & The Huffman
Two weeks later I noticed NPSF was taking yearbook photos so I decided to try it one more time. Same morning timing, took the bus again, ran out of breath again.
That's me in the back near the left, with the white cap, red t-shirt, and white shorts, starting my second NPSF workout.
This time we did what Laura called the "Huffman" partner workout, named after its inventor, Jessica Huffman. One person continuously does an exercise like pushups / sit-ups / lunges while the other runs a short downhill/uphill loop in the park as fast as they can, then they tag-off and swap places. We alternated for ~25 minutes working our way through two sets of four exercises if I remember correctly.
Laura had us partner up with someone we didn't know, and that was how I met Erin Hallett, who also warmly welcomed me. I was starting to understand what NP was about. Partner workouts are very different, especially the Huffman. There's something about knowing that your partner is doing exercises non-stop while you're running that makes you push yourself paticularly hard, because you don't want to keep them waiting. And after we finished our sets, we did a final lap around Alamo Square lined up for yearbook photos.
These photos turned out amazing. Rebecca Daniels photographed us in our fiercest post-workout faces, edited them and posted epic black and white headshots of everyone that showed up that day. I'm still using mine on my site and other sites too.
Impressed and Scared By Hills
One of the great things about NPSF is all the work the organizers put into not only the workouts themselves, but in documenting them, with group photos and blog posts. When the photos of the hills workouts started showing up, the incredible vistas, the small group of super athletes that participated, it was impressive and inspiring. I knew I could never do that.
I can't run hills. When I started November Project, on all our runs around Alamo Square, downhill: no problem; uphill: I'd jog a few steps, and then have to walk the rest. Hills are scary because not being able to breathe is scary.
Why I Ran Out Of Breath
As embarrassed as I feel admitting to having taken the bus a few times to November Project, that's nothing compared to what I've told very few people about, which is that I grew up with asthma, and still wrestle with exertion induced asthma. In short that means if I start running from a cold start, after a dozen or so steps, my lungs feel anxious, my bronchial tubes start constricting, eventually each breath makes a louder audible wheezing sound, and I have to stop while I can still breathe standing up.
That's why I ran out of breath after two blocks up a slight incline. I live on a reasonably steep street and could not run half a block up without having an attack. The way asthma attacks work for most people, either you have to get medication (i.e. use an inhaler), or you might also be able to rest, calm yourself down (if you've practiced various techniques beforehand), and recover in about 15-30 minutes.
I tend to be fairly stubborn. I also hate admitting to weakness. There's an element of shame to it (even if there shouldn't be), and there's also an element of hey, everybody has issues they're dealing with, mine aren't special, don't look for any sympathy, just do your best. I also refused to run with my inhaler, because I'd rather learn my limits, and build self-confidence within those limits. I knew I could walk home if I had to.
Secret Solo Hill Practice
Going to November Project changed this for me. After participating a couple of times and being frustrated that I (was the only one who) couldn't run up the hills in Alamo Square, I decided to try practicing running uphill by myself even if it was only 25-50 feet at a time.
When you've lived with asthma you learn to recognize what it feels like just before it happens. Hills workouts were out of the question, yet I knew if I very deliberately paced myself, breathed, and listened to that anxious feeling that builds in your lungs, I could push myself to that edge, and back down before an attack manifested. I wondered if repeatedly pushing to that edge might make a difference.
From out my door I counted every house I could run up to before I had to stop and walk. One week I made it up a few houses to the green house. Next week I made it one more to the blue one. Another week the grey one. Then the tan one. Finally I was able to jog to the top of my block, just barely without losing my breath. I stopped and cried. I had run half a block uphill. I felt almost normal.
It's something invisible that I live with. I'm not looking for sympathy or any special consideration; perhaps just understanding, and a broader understanding that you never know what anyone is going through, personally, privately, invisibly. We all have our struggles.
I chose to write about this publicly for three reasons:
- Laura asked me what's my story. I couldn't tell it without this. It's part of who I am.
- Inspiration from Andrew and Shannon's posts of their personal stories & struggles.
- Most importantly, if I can help just one more person with asthma believe more in themselves then it's worth it. That they have more potential than they think they do, and to dare, to face the fear, to try, even in small steps, to find their limitations, persist, and maybe even grow beyond them.
My First NPSF Hills Workout
I kept practicing my own personal mini-hills workouts in secret. I kept running up my block, and beyond, up into Buena Vista Park, continuing my progress. Then NPSF announced a hills workout in Dolores Park on January 17th.
Less than three months from my first time at NPSF, I decided to #justshowup to hills. Despite being familiar with Dolores Park, I was scared. I didn't care. I would run what I could, then walk if I had to. Judgment be damned. But of course there was none, no judgment. Everyone was nothing but encouraging.
Yes I took the bus again that morning. It was a much smaller group than Wednesday. I met several NPSF regulars whose consistency had inspired me since I started: Josh Zipin (AKA "Zip"), Greg, Jorge , Pete Kruse, Adrienne, and more.
I ran and made it most of the way up the Church street hill from 18th to 21st streets. I think I walked the last block. Then I ran down and up again. I finished four repeats before our 25 minutes were up. Apparently I could now do hills.
Half Marathon, Running to Hills, and Track
16 days later, emboldened by the progress I'd made at NP, I ran my first half marathon (Kaiser) in 2:22. That particular cold, wet, solitary, painful experience is a story for another blog post. Suffice it to say it's still my PR, and I've been training hard to beat it, hopefully this Sunday at the Berkeley Half .
I started going regularly to hills workouts, getting a ride, driving, carpooling, whatever it took. Finally a little over a month after that first time at hills, I ran with our "rungang" to the first NPSF Corona Heights hills workout.
A week and a half after that I braved our informal trackattack workout and couldn't even keep up on the warmup laps. Didn't care. Just kept showing up and running nearly every week, twice a week at NP, and most Tuesdays at track. In just under 5 months I finally completed a trackattack workout.
Positive Community — Just Show Up
Despite all these personal triumphs, what November Project means to me is positive community: from smiles and eager hugs, to the coast-to-coast friendships, to last-minute Sunday long runs, to our informal #nopasoparungang which now consistently gets people to NPSF at least twice a week.
My friend, one of the first people I met at NPSF, Natalie O'Connor asked me why I run.
I told her, I run because I can. Everytime I walk outside in my running clothes, I know I've broken through limitations I thought I had, thanks to a supportive positive community like no other.