Friday, December 30, 2011

The good and the bad

A couple of good things:

1) A few weeks ago, the Jiu Jitsu ladies of NC had it's first ladies' open mat. It was well-attended at a lot of fun!

2) Mask and I did a little redecorating to our guest bedroom. What do you think?



3)  I've gotten absolutely hooked on Bikram yoga. My teammate Jeff piqued my interest - he's been going for years and he's as bendy as Gumby, but with stubbier legs and a healthier complexion. In fact, his back and hips are so bendy that once he gets me in side control, it's really hard for me to get out. And he shrimps as well as any crustacean I've met.

Now, I've tried yoga before and I wasn't a fan. To me, it seemed like a workout for people who didn't actually want to work out - some deep breathing, some stretching, a little meditating and wa la! Workout complete. What's more, most yoga schools have a no talking during class rule, and to be perfectly honest, I have a hard time shutting up for that long.

But Bikram is a little different. It is 90 minutes of deep stretches and body weight strength exercises (all at 105 degrees F and 40% humidity). Needless-to-say, you get your heart rate up. You sweat so much that the popsicles that they give you after class taste like fruity rods of frozen heaven. Plus, this type of yoga bypasses the spiritual mumbo jumbo that was always a turnoff for me. It's basically just a long, hard workout, targeting flexibility, strength, and balance. I do have to shut my yap, but some of the poses take so much concentration that I see the necessity of it.

Now, I have a lot of respect for how long it takes to truly develop a skill. I've been doing yoga for about a month, which is nothing. Like jiu jitsu, I'm quite sure it takes many, many years to get good at yoga. So, I think of it as a long term investment for my jiu jitsu. As a total and utter novice, I thought it would take at least a year of yoga before I would notice any real difference in my rolling.

But I was wrong! I was pretty shocked to notice a difference on the mats after only a couple of weeks. I'm still, of course, one of the clumsier, greener people in yoga class. But at jiu jitsu...

- I am throwing triangles a little easier
- I'm having an easier time inserting the 2nd hook after taking someone's back
- I'm able to get a little lower to the ground when working on wrestling takedowns
- When I am in bad spots, I'm able to shrimp more effectively to get back to half guard.
It's not a huge difference by any means, but I feel like I'm moving a little freer in all these spots.

I think the reason I felt improvement so quickly is because my flexibility was so deficient to begin with. (If an in-shape swimmer starts running, he might not notice much of a difference in his cardio. But if an utter coach potato begins a running program, there's a good chance he will soon be breathing easier when he climbs stairs. I think the same applies to flexibility). Thousands of miles of swimming has left me pretty unbalanced, with hypermobile shoulders and elbows, but with legs as stiff and crunchy as uncooked noodles.

Flexibility is strength, I have been told. And I'm starting to believe it. While no amount of strength training will get me to out-muscle a 220 lb man,  being more flexible can give me another type of advantage in scrambles.

But this brings me to the bad...

I landed weird after a light Judo trip and felt a sharp, hot pain in my knee. While I was able to get up a few min later, I had swelling and reduced range of motion in my knee for days afterward. I tried to hobble through it, but ended up taking a week off of rolling. I went back to rolling the next week, but since I couldn't kneel to pass a guard, I had to always start from bottom (which ended up being to my benefit, since I got to practice the butterfly and half guard sweeps that we drilled that week).

As much as I like yoga, I think it is the real culprit behind my bum knee, since I pushed my joints really, really hard the night before I hurt myself. I'm going to continue to get my "om"on, but I will be a little more cautious in the future. I don't think they know how dangerous it is to say "it's supposed to hurt" to a jiu jitsu person!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Grapplemania XIII

A few things made me proud this tournament:

1) My school had 6 first time competitors, including my hubby Jason Mask. There's nothing quite like stepping on tournament mats for the first time - it wasn't that long ago that I did it myself, so I remember what it's like. My new teammates all had great attitudes and put everything they had on the mats.

2) My training partner Jeff Shaw had the tournament of his life - at least so far (I have full confidence that there are even more impressive tournaments in his future). He entered all 8 divisions that he was eligible to enter, the first time that anyone has ever done so in US Grappling history. In the absolute divisions, he went against guys who weighed more than a "Jeff and a half" and still managed to take home 7 medals.

3) Team Royce Gracie really banded together. The head instructors from my school were unable to make it, but I was never without coaching, support, and some Royce Gracie bad-ass in my corner (big thanks to Drew Culbreth, Roy Marsh, Mary Holmes, Brandon Brown, Hameed Sanders, and Timber Clayton for coaching me).

4) For the first time EVER, I didn't pull guard a single time during the tournament. This has been my goal for several tournaments in a row, and finally I was successful. Take-downs have always been my weakness and a source of intimidation for me. Finally, I'm starting to feel more comfortable on my feet!

5) There was a HUGE female turnout...including 6 blue belt women!

It is often said that you will learn as much from a tournament as from a whole month of training. Well, this has never really been true for me. I typically pick up a detail or two directly relevant to my game, but to say that it's worth a whole month of training is a stretch. Until this weekend.

I leaned a TON!

And it's probably because I didn't have the tournament of my life. While I had some terrific no gi matches, I had some terrifically educational gi matches. I made a lot of mistakes. I wasn't aware of just how many until I came home and watched the videos (and read the comments from my coaches). I've come to the conclusion that small differences in skill level are more evident in gi than no gi. In  no gi, I can't really tell the difference between low and high level blue belts. In gi, however, it is clear that 2 and 3 stripe blue belts have more tools than I have. And that's to be expected - many have have their blue belts for longer than I've been training.

Also, in no gi, there's a little more room for hulk smash. In gi, on the other hand, weaknesses in technique are amplified. A  lot of where I went wrong was when I "got greedy" and tried to rush, when I should have been more patient and methodical.  I ended up getting 2 gold medals no gi, and a silver and bronze in gi.

Oh, if you don't recognize that gi on  me, it's because it belongs to Jeff. I was a big dope and packed 2 pairs of gi bottoms for the tournament and zero gi tops. Jeff, however, had prepared for the tournament in all ways, including packing an extra gi. Thanks for lending me the gi mojo!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

5 Gracies for the price of 1

As alluded to in my last post, Mask and I ventured to New York last weekend for some jiu jitsu fun. We had considered flying home to visit our families for Thanksgiving, but that would have been lame. Instead, we cashed in our frequent flier miles and went to New York for a seminar hosted by Renzo, Kyra, Gregor, Igor, and Rolles Gracie.

Yes, it was 5 Gracies for the price of 1, an offer too good to pass up. Plus the event was a fundraiser for Kyra's social project, the Kapacidade Institute, which brings jiu jisu (as well as food, tutoring, and other necessities) to impoverished children in Brazil. Here's one of their videos:

The seminar began as expected, with Renzo arriving very much on Brazilian time. But that's where the predictable ended. He proceeded to greet each one of us - all 100+ participants - with a giant, back slapping man-hug (what cool people would call "dap").

After making fun of his relatives and cracking some jokes, he introduced a bashful Kyra, who very humbly and very shyly talked about her project. When describing the living conditions of the children and how much jiu jitsu means to them, her voice cracked. She got teary eyed...and that was when Renzo lost it. To my astonishment, he started crying too.

I know, of course, that bad-asses have feelings too, but usually they aren't expressed so publicly. Through tears. Renzo talked about how proud he was of Kyra and what an amazing young woman she had grown into. He was one proud uncle.

All 5 of the Gracie hosts went on to present great jiu jitsu techniques, but that was not the most memorable part of the seminar. What I took home was that Renzo and his crew are quite possibly the most personable, most affectionate, most humorous, most human bad-asses on this planet.

I was lucky to have met them!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Rob's Pants

This weekend, Mask and I ventured to New York for an event that I will blog about in a later post.  While planning the trip, we made arrangements  to have dinner with our former teammate Rob, who had moved to New York a few months earlier.  

A little background information about Rob – he is a high level white belt in jiu jitsu, but a high level brown belt in baking.  The latter is a fact we discovered as he was planning his move, using up what was left in his cupboard, and baking treats for all his friends – that is, all his friends except me.  As cruel fate would have it, this was the same time that I was  trying to make weight for the Pan Ams, so I was unable to indulge in any of these scrumptious sweets. So imagine  my delight when I received the following message from Rob – “Can I interest you in a large batch of homemade baked goods?” Um, how ‘bout a big, fat YES!  I promptly responded with an affirmative. But, as with getting baited during a jiu jitsu roll, when something appears too good to be true, it usually is. 

“Concerning the goodies, there's just a small catch," Rob wrote. "I need someone to pick up a pair of dress trousers from my former apartment building...”

My jaw dropped. It appeared Rob viewed me on the same level as a golden retriever – a good pal and generally willing to perform for treats. I was insulted that Rob thought I could be bought with a sugary bribe. But, on the other hand, his brownies are really, really,  good. And like Lassie, I am not one to turn down a mission. So I drove to Rob’s apartment, talked to the leasing agent, collected the trousers from the building's dry cleaning, and then debriefed about the operation to my teammates. 

Now, by all appearances, Rob is a wholesome young man with old fashioned values. Indeed, he is the only person I know under the age of 60 who uses the word “trousers.” So I was shocked, absolutely shocked, to discover just how many of my teammates had gotten into Rob’s pants. I collected the following evidence:

Rob's pants: a photo montage

No wonder Rob had to have the pants dry-cleaned.
Of course, I did not release this evidence to Rob until long after I collected the baked goods and was safely out of striking distance. 

The one redeeming factor amidst all this depravity is that Rob and his pants appear to be equal opportunity philanderers.  They do not discriminate on the basis of race, gender, religion, nationality, or jiu  jitsu skill level. 

Still, how about a little restraint?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Meeting the Legend

This weekend was a big one for North Carolina jiu jitsu. Royce Gracie was coming. Royce Gracie was coming! The buzz in the air was similar to what I remember from the late 80's, when I was a young lass at St. Rose of Lima Elementary. Back then, the pope was coming!  Here's how the visits from the two legends stack up:

Pope John Paul II visits Miami

Royce Gracie visits NC
-          Local Catholics brush up on doctrine
          Local jiu jitsu practitioners brush up on self defense fundamentals
-          The faithful don their Sunday best
          Athletes don freshly washed gis
-          Portraits of saints and crucifixes are displayed prominently on church walls
           Portraits of Helio Gracie and tournament medals are displayed prominently on padded walls
-          Special people get blessings
           Special people get promoted
-          Volunteers work diligently to clean up the city
          Most of the gym works diligently to clean up their language; a few are placed under gag order
-          People stress about nervously forgetting to genuflect
         People stress about nervously forgetting to stand in base

As you can see, the two are very similar. And since I have never been particularly religious, I found myself way more excited about the visit from Royce.

I was told that there was some bad news about the Royce seminar, and my heart sank. There wasn't enough room for my team at the seminar in Raleigh. After all our preparation, we wouldn't be able to attend. But then came the good news - Royce Gracie was coming to Durham, to my gym, to give a seminar exclusively to Triangle Jiu Jitsu. That's right folks - I know people who have Royce's phone number. 

Royce Gracie commands quite a presence when he walks into a room. He is, after all, the biggest bad ass of our time. And when he puts you on the spot, you can feel like a pretty big idiot. I know I'm not a dumb person in general. Overall, I don't feel like I'm a slow learner at jiu jitsu either. But my visual memory is not so great. So my ability to watch a move and then replicate it is not my strong point. I am known at practice as the person who says "Can I see that one more time?" Only no one says that to at times I felt pretty lost. And suddenly, for the very first time, I felt insecure in my blue belt. Royce Gracie was looking at me with the eyes of scrutiny and I wasn't sure I measured up.

Then he split us up and asked us to roll, and instantly I felt more comfortable. For my first roll I got paired with a class A bad ass (Brad) and as expected, I got tapped. My second roll was much more competitive and after several minutes, Royce stood us up and said "Put stripes on their belts."

I was pretty thrilled to get this stripe for the following reasons:
a) They don't run trains for stripes. So I was not going to get beat up any time in the immediate future.
b) It's affirmation that I'm moving forward. Right now, the blue belt is a nebulous realm with no clear end point. The steps from going from white belt to blue belt were pretty clear  - spend time on the mats, learn the blue belt curriculum, and do well in tournaments. But how to move up as a blue belt is much less clear. I know it will be a few years before my belt changes color again, but at least now I know I'm moving in the right direction.

After I got my stripe, Royce Gracie said to me "you're doing really well." And suddenly I no longer felt stupid.

In bigger news, 2 of my instructors got promoted this weekend:

First, Ryan Hanseler got his purple belt

Then, Seth Shamp got his brown belt

Both of these belts were undoubtedly well earned. Rank is very hard to achieve in Brazilian jiu jitsu....and both of these guys spent more than 4 years at their previous belts. When they wear their new belts in competition, I know that people are going to say "it's about time!" I, for one, am proud to train with both of you.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Lady Grapplers

I am happy to report that there has been a steady influx of female jiu jitsu players on my team (we are now up to 5!).  This is pretty huge, since a lot of women have no female training partners at all.

For my first year training, I was the only girl on my team. And for a while, I was pretty desperate to find others. I constantly invited my girlfriends to come give it a try (and one actually did! Way to step up, Gretchen!).  But for the most part they looked at me funny, especially after my poor attempts to explain what jiu jitsu actually was. To most of them, it just didn't sound fun.

As with most sports, there is a history of bias against women in jiu jitsu. Watch this short Kyra Gracie documentary and you'll see what I mean:

Of course, I think this is absolutely ridiculous. Jiu jitsu is based in self defense, and its entire premise is that  by using technique, practitioners can overcome bigger, stronger attackers. Sounds perfect for women right? (And on a side note, guard attacks are basically rape defense...think about it. Also perfect for women).

Luckily, things have come a long way and the sport is becoming quite inclusive. Women aren't limited so much by lack of opportunities as much as by having too few female competitors. Unfortunately, as I hinted earlier, many women don't know what jiu jitsu is. And since there aren't that many female jiu jitsu role models, it's just not something that we think to try. I was no different. I had never heard of jiu jitsu  and would not have taken it up if my friend had not invited me to try some free classes. So a lot of women end up training mostly with guys, which has its pluses and minuses.

I certainly would not trade the fellas on my team for all the clean-smelling, female training partners in the world. Rolling with them makes me strong. I've learned all about "that's what she said." And I also know that I have dozens of brothers who would have my back if I ever needed it. However, it is really nice to finally have other women to roll with and I hope to find more - so I started a NC women's jiu jitsu Facebook group. (If you live in NC or a neighboring state and are not on the group, friend me and I will add you). This way we can figure out who will be at tournaments (it sucks to show up and have no one to roll with) and also coordinate women's open mats.

Some guys have asked facetiously if they could join the group or attend a women's open mat. Sorry, fellas. We are not trying to "discriminate against men," but I think there are some very legitimate reasons why it's good for women to have the opportunity to train with each other:

1) When we train with guys, we spend a disproportionate amount of time on the defensive and don't get to work our attacks or top game as much. Yes, all beginners will rightfully spend more time defending than attacking (you have to be the nail for a long time before you get to be the hammer). But for women, who a) typically are not as strong as their male training  partners and b) are not as likely to have a wrestling background, this period lasts a lot longer.

Before I joined my current team, I trained at a place where I rolled mostly with male 17 and 18 year-old high school wrestlers, most of whom weighed about 10 pounds less than me. We were all brand-spanking new and didn't know a lick of jiu jitsu. But I was on the defensive close to 100% of the time. Their technique was no better than mine, they were no bigger than me, but they were stronger and more explosive than I was. Rolling there helped me develop survival skills, but after months of training, I had zero experience passing a guard or doing anything on top. Now, I'm 5'8, built like a swimmer, and am basically strong as shit for a girl. So I know many females have it worse than I did. Within any skill level, guys will always have the attacking advantage, since they, on a whole, are stronger. 

2) We complete against women in tournaments. For self defense moves, yes, we certainly need to apply our techniques against men of all sizes and strengths. But for competition style jiu jitsu, we want to know what will work against other women. And if we never have the chance to roll against women, we aren't going to know what will work for us in competition.

3) Sometimes we have to deal with crap that only other female grapplers can identify with. My personal favorite is the "I don't want to tap to a girl" effect. I feel my blood pressure rising at the mere mention of this subject. Of course, there are lots of great male training partners out there who check their ego at the door and just want to learn and help their partners learn. And then there are those who tell you that they would go to sleep, let their joints pop, or let you eat their children before they would tap to a female. I have been told more than once "That was tight. I would have tapped to anyone else, but didn't want to tap to a girl."

The biggest culprits for the "don't tap to a girl" effect are brand new folks who are tired of being the nail. They identify the female in the room as the one person they should be able to take - then they attack like a velociraptor.  It's good for beginners to see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel - that women CAN survive against crazy muscle heads - it just takes time. And sometimes we just need to vent to each other about these stories...and discuss solutions for mat hair...and speculate who might be rolling in unnecessarily large cups. See, we really do need jiu jitsu girlfriends!

In other news, I went with two of my VERY BEST male training partners, Jeff and Lucky, to attend a fusion seminar with Robson Moura and Gustavo Dantes.

The subject was de la Riva guard and the seminar was full of a lot of really great information. I understood what was presented and thought, "hey, maybe this is the next step in my guard game!" Well, not so much. While I can replicate these moves drilling, I'm a long way off from being able to pull them off while rolling. According to my instructor, after closed guard comes half guard, then butterfly guard, then fancy guards like de la Riva. I'm been spending a lot of time in half guard lately, both on top and on bottom, so I think that's where my game is developing right now. But, I'm glad I went to the seminar, because I know the next time I see this information it will be that much easier to grasp. That's the nature of jiu jitsu.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Facing Fears

Tough Mudder

I'm going to let you folks in on a little secret. I'm a lot more chicken than I let on. In fact, one of the biggest obstacles I've had to overcome in jiu jitsu is my fear of falling (I'm not all the way there yet, but I'm a lot better than I used to be. When I get taken down, I now have the wits about me to land semi-correctly, the majority of the time). I've been learning some Judo off and on (they still make fun of the way I fall) and I've been learning some wrestling takedowns at MMA (they still make fun of the way I do just about everything). But, I know I have a ways to go before I am completely comfortable taking falls.

I had a unique chance to face this fear yesterday, along with some bonus fears I didn't know I had - fire, hypothermia, and electric shock. I say "faced" instead of "overcame," because I am still, quite reasonably, afraid of all these things. And I will continue to avoid them whenever possible.

Yes, the Tough Mudder is a special event. By its own description it is "not your average lame-ass mud run or spirit-crushing ‘endurance’ road race. Our 10-12 mile obstacle courses are designed by British Special Forces to test all around strength, stamina, mental grit, and camaraderie."

 The "before" picture

This isn't really something that I would normally do. But when my friend Karen moved to Minnesota, she promised that she would come back a lot, since she "can be talked into just about any athletic event." I was skeptical. I thought back to an article I had read about the Tough Mudder, an event that sounded absolutely dreadful.  "How about this?" I challenged.  Of course, I wasn't actually serious.

Karen agreed, much to my dismay. Our friends Rob and Mike joined in as well, and we formed a team, the Phi Dama Slamma, roughly named after our masters swim team. 

As an endurance runner, I wasn't worried much about the run itself. I thought I could cover the distance without much effort. (As it turned out, sure the distance itself wasn't a problem...but the course went up and down a ski slope, with an elevation change of  1,250 feet both ways). Much of the course was too steep to make running even possible. But the real challenge were the 27 oh my god I can't believe I paid to do this obstacles included on the course. Here were some of my least favorites:

1) Jumping in and out of a tank of 32 degree ice water (in our clothes, which remained on until the end of the event).
2) Running through a smokey maze of burning,  sometimes collapsing, hay
3) Taking a "leap of faith" jump. We climbed up about 15 feet, onto a dark shelf. We then had to jump a very tricky angle, in order to hit the slide below.
4) Running through a field of live wires, getting shocked by 10,000 volts in the process

One of the gentler obstacles

I was glad that my team decided to stay together. Before the start, the organizers emphasized that this was "a participation event, not a race" and that helping fellow mudders should take priority over finishing time. I was impressed with how the event seemed to bring out the very best in people. With the competition element eliminated, there were impressive displays of selflessness and cooperation, with mudders constantly helping each other get through the obstacles. Even without my bothersome elbow, there were obstacles that I know I would not have been able to navigate without assistance. I certainly would not have had the mental grit to run through a field of live wires without seeing others do it and survive (albeit yelping, screaming, and bleeding).

The "after" picture
The course took us over 4 hours to finish, but all in all, it fell within my twisted definition of fun.

My feelings now on getting hip tossed? - definitely not so bad in comparison. 

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Good things

My elbow is once again on the mend. I'm happy to report that, after taking a week and a half off, I'm once again back rolling (please don't mention this fact to the nice folks over at Triangle Orthopedics). While I enjoyed all my extra free time, it feels really good to be back on the mats. And after doing so much no-gi training before the Pan Ams, it feels good to  be back in the gi again too.

pop quiz - what is wrong with this technique?

At work this week, I have been reading one of my favorite fall books with some of my  language intervention students. In Too Many Pumpkins, Rebecca Estelle hates pumpkins, after being forced to eat way too many as a child. Through an unfortunate chain of events involving an accident, a general lack of foresight, and the unstoppable force of nature, Rebecca Estelle finds herself with an uncontrollable pumpkin patch growing in her front yard.   

She overcomes her feelings of disgust for the vile orange gourds and finally decides to make pumpkin treats for all her neighbors. She makes pumpkin pies, "pumpkin tarts, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin cakes. Pumpkin bread, pumpkin pudding, pumpkin cookies..."

After reading this story for the fiftieth time, I was overcome with the compulsion to go home and make a pumpkin treat for my family. I googled "healthy pumpkin bread" and found a recipe that looked good...only I thought I could make it even healthier.

Now, usually when I try to put a nutritious tweak on bakied goods, the result is disastrous - not healthy enough to eat for the sake of nourishment, but not tasty enough to have for dessert. The culinary "no man's land," if you will.  However, my version of pumpkin bread is packed with protein, healthy fats, fiber, vitamin A and is low in sugar. But it tastes pretty darned good too! Good enough that I want to share it with my fellow grapplers:

Pumpkin Power Bread (make 2 loaves)

  • 1cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 cup vanilla protein powder 
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1.5 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1.5 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1.5 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon pumpkin spice 
  • 2 cups Splenda
  • 2/3 cup egg white substitute
  • 2/3 cup olive oil
  • 2/3 cup low-fat buttermilk
  • 2 large brown eggs
  • 2/3 cup water
  • 1 (15-ounce) can purreed pumpkin*
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans
Preheat oven to 350. Combine dry ingredients, then add wet ingredients. Divide into 2 loaf pans. Sprinkle pecans on top. Bake for about 30 min (do not overbake!)

*This came out more dry than I wanted. Next time, I will use more pumpkin puree (25 oz?)

If you've just tried the pumpkin bread sample at Starbucks and wonder if this will be as good, I'm not going to lie to you. It's not. On the tasety pumpkin scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is a stinky, rotten pumpkin and 10 is the richest pumpkin pie you've ever tasted, my bread is a 6.5. But hey, it's power food! It will make you strong.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Exceptional People 5K

One of the side benefits to hurting my elbow while trying to drop a weight class for the Pan Ams was that it yanked me back into running shape. All at once, I went from running 10-15 miles a week of mostly easy, recovery runs to 30-35 miles a week.* I couldn't roll, but needed to keep my exercise up in order to burn calories. Since I'm one of those weirdos that genuinely loves running,  I was happy to have an adequate long-term running base to sustain such an increase in distance.

The special ed PTA from the school district where I work hosted a 5k this morning and I decided to sign up. It was a win-win: I've been itching to run a race (I haven't done one since March) and I was more than happy for the chance to support my students at the same time.

Now, there are some who might think that running should not be allowed to contaminate a jiu jitsu blog. But I think it's appropriate for 2 reasons 1) running counts as general cardio conditioning, a useful asset in BJJ and 2) my elbow is on the fritz again and I am under doctor's orders not to roll until it is better. So, quite sadly, I have no jiu jitsu news to report.

It was great fall running weather. I told myself that it would be nice to finish under 20 minutes, but didn't have a very specific time goal, since I was unclear about my current running fitness.

When the race stated, I took off and soon found myself a couple of minutes ahead of the other runners. I was in a position that I have never before seen in a running race - the lead. I don't attribute this to my running ability so much as to the makeup of the race participants. It appeared that the race had only been advertized within the school district. Participants were not from running clubs, but were teachers or parents from the schools  - a real community affair. Go Orange County!

We were told to keep running until someone told us to turn. Sure enough, there were volunteers at the intersections telling us where to go. About halfway through, we spread out to the extent that I could no longer see the runners behind me. This made me nervous.

Finally, the road that I was on came to an end - and there was no volunteer in sight. I had two choices - to turn left or turn right. I had a 50/50 chance of staying on track but had no idea which way to go.

In the end, I decided to veer right, a decision that I very quickly regretted. I found myself running along highway 70, a very busy street that had not been blocked off. This couldn't be right. In the sea of passing cars, I saw a man walking his dog. "Have you seen any 5k runners?" I asked him. He looked at me like I had escaped from a mental institution.

I knew then that I had to make a decision. I could continue at race pace, hoping against odds that I was going the right way. Or I could slow down, accept that I was lost, and find someone who could help me find my way back to my car. I knew that the latter was probably the more realistic move, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. I kept running until I had no choice but to stop, due to a red light. WTF! Now, I knew I was off course. I waited for about 30 sec until there was a break in traffic, then darted across the street, jaywalking - jayrunning - like I didn't give a damn.

I accepted that I was lost but kept running - what else could I do?  It was then that I started hallucinating. I saw children up ahead, children in race shirts, children waving at me, telling me where to go. It couldn't be - could it? I rubbed my eyes. Holy miscommunication, I was actually on track! I wasn't going to end up a streetwalker, doomed to jiu jitsu innocent folks for their wallets. I was going to finish the race and make it to my warm, safe car. Whatever happened next, I could trust my reliable GPS to take me home. I smiled, waved to the kids, and started sprinting.

In this unconventional manner, I won my first ever running race. A mom came up to me and said "My son is running and he is a boy, but it's really nice to see a woman win." This made me laugh. One of the volunteers told me I finished in 20 min, but I wasn't sure how accurate the time or the course was. I was happy, because at least it meant I wasn't way out of running shape.

I talked to other runners who finished, none of whom shared my navigational problems. It seems I was one step ahead of the race infrastructure - the intersections in question were identified and blocked off a few minutes late, after I had run by.

All in all, it was a fun time and it felt GREAT to be back in my racing shoes. I can't wait to do more races this fall!

* Do not try this at home. This sudden increase in mileage is neither safe nor reasonable. Most experts will recommend increasing mileage by no more than 10% per week.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


This weekend, one of my training partners, Chris Boyd, won his first amateur MMA fight. The battle didn't last long, and it was great to see Chris use his jiu jitsu to so quickly submit his opponent (rear naked choke in the 1st round).  

My team has been doing well in competition lately, from the cage, to the Pan Ams, to local tournaments. I was just having a discussion with my running buddy on what it takes to be successful in competition. I'm no expert in the area, but I have competed in sports all my life. I've gone through phases where I worked my ass off in practice but seemed to choke in races. And I've gone through phases when I'm not that into a sport anymore, don't train that much, but still dominate in competitions. In my limited experience, along with what I remember from a sports psychology class in college, these are some tools to bring out your A game when you need it:

1) Find your peak arousal level. That's what she said, right? No, you pervert - it's nothing dirty. But find that point where your heart is pumping but not pounding. Your pulse is elevated but not racing. You feel increased adrenaline but it's not making you stupid. You're ready to go from 0 to 60 at a moment's notice but are cognizant enough to use your energy wisely. You are not going to make dumb moves or blow your wad in 10 seconds.

There's nothing quite like your first jiu jitsu tournament. I told myself that it was a lot like a swimming or running race...except, or course, my competition was trying to break my arm or choke me out. I was such a nervous wreck that I was unable to eat my breakfast - which, trust me, does not happen often. So like a teenager on prom night, I was over-aroused.  I had to fill my head with relaxing thoughts and take deep breaths in order to chill out.

These days I tend to have the opposite problem. Pre-competition, I have the arousal level of a 90-year-old who ran out of little blue candy. I'm not naturally an aggressive person, so I have to take measures to get my blood pumping. I listen to angry music, jump around a little, and take some quick, shallow breaths. I do what I can to tune out distractions and put my game face on.

2. Develop unshakeable self-confidence. Sure, this is easier said than done. But belief in yourself is something that can develop over time. Before a competition, whether you believe you will succeed or whether you believe you will fail, chances are, you are right. If you see yourself winning and train accordingly, this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand, if you truly believe that someone is better than you, what chance do you have at beating them? You're already setting yourself up for failure.

Of course, you need a reason to be self-confident or your brain won't buy it. Train smart and train hard, which, I've heard, can be helpful in its own right.

3. Find your flow.
Have you ever been so engrossed in an activity that time passes on a speed of its own? Maybe a 3 hour marathon flies by at an insane pace or maybe a 10 second sprint stretches out indefinitely. You  feel so in control of what you are doing that all other thoughts and emotions vanish. In the wise words of Metallica, "nothing else matters." It is just you and your opponent, you and the water, you and your piano, or you and your computer. As far as you're concerned, the task at hand is all that exists.

If this sounds familiar, then you are no stranger to flow - a state of mind that focuses one's abilities, often leading to peak performances. I remember being in a state of flow when I took my SATs, when I wrote my grad school application essay, and, most recently, in the last few miles of the Tobacco Road half marathon. When I look back on all three of these tasks, I feel that I was "in the zone," was able to utilize all of my abilities, and that I performed the best that I possibly could.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I can be a little ADD at jiu jitsu practice. I might run through my work to-do list, plan what I am going to do that weekend, or wonder if I look fat in my new rashguard. These are not focused thoughts, just my mind wandering. I don't do this at tournaments, however. During tournament matches, I am 100% present. For 5 minutes, it is me, the mat, and my opponent...everything else can wait.

4. Visualize
This is a skill that I under-utilize.  Sure, if we learn a complicated move in practice, I might run through the steps in my mind before bed so that I cement them in my memory. But I am not one to visualize tournament outcomes - often in a conscious effort to avoid a "game plan" so that I can instead take what my opponent gives me. My fear is that if I visualize myself rear naked choking an opponent, this might backfire and I might miss the armbars that she gives me instead.

But folks who know more about jiu jitsu than I do say this is the wrong way to look at it. I should visualize myself rear naked choking an opponent and armbarring her well as wristlocking, guillotining, and winning by all means at my disposal. I still don't need a game plan -this is not the jiu jitsu way - but I should visualize myself succeeding through multiple avenues. You should  too!

Monday, October 3, 2011

You win some, you learn some

This weekend I competed in my first tournament as a blue belt, which, incidentally, was the no gi Pan Am games in New York. Also competing were my instructors Seth Shamp, Jacob Whitfield, and Ryan Hanseler, and my teammate Hameed Sanders. It was a very fun trip!

I survived my terrible, miserable diet and found myself only 1 pound overweight the morning before the tournament. But when I weigh myself at home, I do so first  thing in the morning, without clothes, and before breakfast.  With my fight clothes on and breakfast and coffee in my belly, I found myself 2.5 lbs over. So I jumped rope...

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), I'm not a super sweaty person.So I jumped rope for a good 20 min before I dried myself off, put my rashguard back on, and checked my weight again. To my dismay, I was still a half pound over.

I began to fret (which, lamentably, did NOT make me sweat). In the IBJJF rules, the phrase "immediately disqualified" is tossed around a lot. Participants are given 1 chance to officially weigh in, right before their first match. The scales are open all morning, however, so you can weigh in unofficially as much as you want. During your official weigh in, if you are anything over your registered weight class, you get immediately disqualified. Not bumped up a weight class, but IMMEDIATELY DISQUALIFIED! These are strong words, for sure.

So I once again donned my sauna suite and sweats and jumped rope (harder this time) for another 10 min. It wasn't fair! I'm not going to mention names, but there are guys on my team who would only need to look at a sauna suite and think about jumping rope and  they would easily sweat out 5 lbs. My mom looked on with a mixture of concern and amusement. "Your hair is not going to look as nice in pictures as it did in the last tournament," she cautioned me. I agreed that this was indeed the case.

So I once again dried off and put  my uniform back on. My no gi outfit was different than what I usually wear. Athletes who don't meet the strict uniform requirements are, you guessed it, immediately disqualified. I wore a brand new blue belt rash guard along with a very old pair of running tights. I had stopped wearing the tights about a year ago for reasons that I did not remember but dug them out for this tournament. (My regular tights have a tiny zipper in the back that I was afraid would not make it past the scrupulous inspection of officials. Plus, my old tights are really worn out, and thus a little lighter).

I hopped on the scale and yelped for joy when I was a half pound under - more than enough for the 3 Advil and swig of Gatorade I planned to take for my elbow.

While my minor weight cut caused me anxiety, it did not affect my performance. Really, I felt fine afterward. My matches started and I realized very quickly that gone were my days of hulk smashing. My weaknesses were magnified in my new division. I realized that, among other things, I needed to get better at wrestling takedowns and half guard.

But I was super thrilled to win my weight class and bring home a Pan Ams gold medal!

My instructor Seth Shamp won a gold medal in his division as well, further evidence that he might be the wold's most overqualified purple belt. I was almost as happy for Seth's gold as for my own because I watched how hard he trained for this tournament. He couldn't have deserved it more, both because of his skill level and because of the work that he put into training camp.

The top 3 in each weight class would qualify for the "open weight class" or  absolute division. While not everyone who qualifies for the division chooses to compete, we ended up with a nice group of 8 blue belt women. (No one signed up to compete again with Seth, not that I can blame them).

I spent my entire first absolute match stuck in my opponent's guard. I discovered 2 more things that I need to  work on - a) having a more upright, backward posture when trying to open a closed guard and b) more forward pressure when standing to pass a guard. We were at such a stalemate that no points or advantages were scored. I won by referee's decision because, according to my instructor, I was more active.

It was during this match that I remembered why I stopped wearing my old tights. Now, I know you were too focused on the jiu jitsu to notice, but my pants simply did not want to stay up. I tried to ignore it - an ass is an ass afterall...we all have them. I strongly prefer to keep mine covered in public venues, but jiu jitsu takes precedence over modesty. Needles to say, I am now sending these tights back into retirement.

I watched the other girls in their first rounds and quickly picked out the "person to beat." This was a chick with envy-worthy hulk smashing skills. I went against her in the semifinals, where I lost to take bronze.


This was my first time ever getting submitted in a tournament and it left me a little heartbroken. I didn't mind losing so much - I have lost before - but in the past, even if getting crushed by points, I have always been able to fight tooth and nail to stay alive and not tap. But this girl was bigger, and frankly, a lot better than me. (Jake told me that she was stronger, better looking, smelled better, and probably made more money than me as well). She went on to win her next match therefore winning the absolute division.

I congratulated her afterward and found out that she was quite the accomplished grappler. During her 2.5 years as a blue belt, she has been to 3 Pan Ams and 2 world championships. 

After we took our pictures, her coach asked to get a picture with her gi top on "for sponsorship purposes." She looked confused but did what he asked. Then, instead of taking a picture, he handed her a purple belt. I started to feel better about getting tapped!

The Pan Ams were my first IBJJF tournament and overall it was a great experience. If you are wondering how they are different from local tournaments, here are some things I noticed:

US Grappling
Pure jiu jitsu – no gi divisions are based on belt rank
More inclusive to wrestlers – no gi divisions are based on belt rank OR time on the mats
Very strict about weight classes – they will not “bump you up” if you fail to make weight or if there is no one else in your division
Want people to have as many matches as possible. Not so eager to immediately DQ people, even for eating too many cookies
Stricter uniform requirements, including no cups for the guys
Let me wear pink and purple;  let the fellas protect their family jewels
Organizers have sexy Brazilian accents
Organizers may or may not have sexy Brazilian waxes