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