This article, by Alejandro Yanún, was originally published on June 12, 2015 in the Spanish language publication “Vívelo Hoy”.
Translation by Jeffery Lung
Edna Jackeline Vazquez is used to adapting to circumstances and meeting new challenges. For this reason, when she was informed back in March that the ultramarathon of the Sahara Desert in Jordan was going to be canceled due to political problems, she quickly changed her chip to focus on a new goal: a 250 kilometer, 7 day race in the stunning Gobi Desert of northern China.
“The ISIS guerillas entered Jordan and the race organizers sent us an email informing us that the race would be canceled over concerns of terrorism, just a week before flying there. I had to totally retrain because in Jordan I would have been facing pure sand dunes while the Gobi Desert, in China, is the windiest desert with more rocky terrain, which would be faster but painful for the feet,” says Vazquez, who has been based in Chicago for several years.
The change worked to perfection because Vazquez, 34 years old with a degree in human resources and a masters in business, won her category for women aged 30 to 39, finishing fourth overall female in the competition and 26th among the entire field of 164 athletes.
To get an idea of the dimensions of the race, running 250 kilometers in the Gobi would be equivalent to running from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico (Vazquez’s hometown) to McAllen, Texas, after crossing the border into the United States.
It should also be added, that among the difficulties presented by the actual competition itself, there is also the immediate change to the ‘biological clock’ for the athletes with a 14 hour time difference from China, as well as confronting an inflexible natural climate.
During the competition Vazquez also had to face extreme conditions, from temperatures as low as 5 degrees Celsius and snow storms that began the race up to temperatures of 47 Celsius (120 Farenheit). “The hardest moment was crossing the canyons,” she remembers. “You already get there tired and anything you touch on the ground causes you to lose your balance; in this moment the only thing you want is to leave that place.”
There, in those subhuman conditions, is when the blood of a champion surges. For Vazquez, this quality is the result of a constant daily practice. “All of us desire to come here to America for the American dream,” says Vazquez, who believes that society forgets their ultimate goals while being entertained by momentary gratification. “The main thing is to let go of the economic issues and things that give instant pleasure in favor of developing other skills. The final goal is to have passion and be persistent. The thing that has helped me most is being dedicated, working hard and being persistent.
Vazquez’s consecration in China was not coincidental, but rather the result of a great team. The Monterrey native had a base strength program developed by Jeff Lung of Iron Lung Fitness, with a desert ultramarathon training plan developed by Nahila Hernandez. It also included a swimming program for muscular recovery, a yoga practice taught by the instructors at Tejas Yoga which also helped complement her concentration with muscle and mental relaxation, and the medical advice of Dr. Victor Garza Hernandez.
The China competition is part of the Racing the Planet series, a circuit of elite ultramarathons for a limited group of athletes who could very well be considered some of the best prepared in the world. “We are an elite group and we can say that we are involved in one of the Top 10 most demanding competitions in the world,” explains Vazquez.
For the Gobi race, Vazquez flew to Beijing, the capital of China, then went on to Urumuqi and finally arrived at the small town of Hami, in northwest China, close to Mongolia, where Genghis Khan ran with his wild hordes 800 years ago.
In these arid and indomitable lands Vazquez arrived at the end of May to compete with ultramarathoners from 40 countries and all continents.
Vazquez ran with a backpack full of food that weighed 11 kilograms at the start but dwindled down to just 5 kilos at the end. In her backpack the Monterrey native carried dehydrated foods like precooked and compact lasagna and chicken with rice and noodles, to cover the necessary 1900 daily calories.
After completing ultramarathons of 100k in Spain, Belgium and Taiwan, as well as 250k in the Atacama Desert of Chile, considered the driest place on the planet, Vazquez focuses her attention on the next goal, the ultras of Namibia (Africa) in May of next year and Antarctica in November of 2016.
And facing new goals is her specialty. “When you think you have arrived at one goal, another is going to come, and later another. The the extent that you discover your abilities, you are going to discover more,” says Vazquez.
“I believe that we all have the capacity to develop our abilities and sport is one element that helps us face life and believe in ourselves,” she argues safely. “The important thing is to have passion for what you do and focus on your dreams.”
Edna Jackeline Vázquez
Mexican Ultramarathoner Living in Chicago
They must always stay in the moment.
They must face their greatest fears.
With all of the above, I could be talking about the long distance runner.
Or I could be talking about the boxer.
I’m talking about both.
For the last four years, boxing has been an integral tool in my long distance training kit. An all-body workout that requires combined leg and core strength paired with hand-eye coordination and mental toughness, the aerobic and anaerobic training potential boxing provides is as varied as its practitioner is creative.
And you don’t even have to take punches.
In fact, most people who train in the sweet science don’t take punches. They train to be in shape, to burn calories, to de-stress. I love running long, no doubt, but I admit, there is no stress reliever quite like punching something. Walk into any boxing gym and you will find people of all sizes — all backgrounds and states of fitness — doing just that: enjoying their stress relieving workout.
For the long distance runner, boxing is a low impact cross trainer that takes advantage of strong, seasoned legs. With proper technique, it also builds upper body strength with a conscious core and allows for increased blood flow during those “off” days where one would need to rest from pounding pavement.
For many boxers, the hardest part of training is conditioning. Sustaining an elevated heart rate with sudden bursts of explosive movement can prove difficult, even for seasoned vets. Long distance runners tend to have a lock on this aspect of training, and therefore set themselves up for success.
At some point the long distance runner who boxes may decide he or she is ready to spar. It’s not for everyone, I admit. I remember the first time I was hit in the face. I didn’t like it very much. But I didn’t like the fire in my legs at mile 21 of my first marathon either, yet I keep coming back.
And so here I am, 36 years old, a seasoned distance runner with two Boston finishes, a 100-mile buckle and a 3:03 marathon PR, signed up and ready to fight in the Chicago Golden Gloves boxing tournament. It begins March 4.
I knew sometime last year, during my training for Pinhoti, that the next big challenge would be to test my might against other boxers. I had been enjoying my sparring sessions over the last couple years, seeing them both as mental chess matches and larger tests of anaerobic endurance. But around mile 80 of my 100-mile trek through the Talladega Forest — my master class on pain management — it became clear to me, that if I could withstand 100 miles of affliction, something that would take me 28+ hours to complete, then I could certainly handle 6 minutes in the squared circle.
So I will.
Indeed, I, Jeff “The Iron” Lung, will get in the ring and let my hands go.
My training for this event began in earnest on January 1st. I have to make weight (fighting at a maximum of 139 lbs), so I decided to cut out all alcohol and as much sugar as possible from my diet. I keep a close track of my food intake. I make an effort to eat as healthy as possible, staying within 1-2 pounds of fighting weight while all the time living my mantra: the better you eat, the better you feel, the better you train.
Running (what boxers call “road work”) is the crux of my conditioning. I run about 30-35 miles a week. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I generally run 3-5 miles as a warm up to my concentrated boxing training. I hold 2 lbs weights in my hands as long as I can during these runs, usually for 20-30 minutes.
On Tuesday and Thursday mornings I run 6-7 miles, whatever I can accomplish in an hour, but I mix in three or four intervals of 5-8 minutes of speedwork. On Saturdays I run longer, about an hour and 15 minutes or 8 miles, whatever comes first. I avoid the traditional long runs of distance training. I need to maintain my endurance, but I can’t afford to waste energy on additional miles when I will need that energy in the ring. Just as it can be for the long distance runner, overtraining is a real threat to peak performance.
In addition to the running, I do boxing-focused strength training on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays as well as technical boxing drills. I choose to work on different aspects of my game on different days. Like in any athletic discipline, variety in training is key.
On Tuesday and Thursday nights I spar.
On Sundays I rest. Completely.
I practice yoga. I get regular massage. I sleep a lot. I even take naps if I feel like it.
And I watch lots and lots and lots of fights, in person, on TV, on YouTube — wherever I can.
But like in my long distance training, perhaps the most integral portion of preparation occurs in my mind, usually just before I fall asleep. I envision myriad “if/than” scenarios in my head, calculating countermeasures for catastrophes and methodologies for exploiting weaknesses. Most of all, I try to embrace the nerves that I know are bound to come.
Even in the comfort of my own bed, I can close my eyes, hear the crowd, and feel the nausea that threatens to throw my concentration. It’s the same sick feeling I had before my first marathon, before my first ultra. It’s that same uneasiness I felt toeing the line for each PR attempt at 13.1 and 26.2 miles.
Pre-race jitters. Stage freight. Terrified of getting hit the face.
It all goes away once I’m in the moment.
And after all, that continues to be the thing that keeps bringing me back: living in the moment.
Whether it’s running for hours, working through a yoga practice or squaring off with someone trying to punch me in the face, the thing that keeps me coming back is the very real experience of the now. Nothing makes me feel more alive than being present.
And you can bet I will be present on March 4.
Hands up. Chin down. Mind focused.
In the wake of running 100 miles on my own two feet, chilling out has been a high priority. Post-race, I took a full 10 days off from running, mixed with some light cross training and gentle walking.
I also made sure to get on the mat.
It was during the shavasana (or relaxation/meditation) portion of a recent yoga class that I began to wonder what it would feel like to do a yoga class every day, for a week. Surely, lots of yogis do this, I thought to myself. Why not give it a try?
So I did.
Before I report my experience, I should first explain my own personal relationship with yoga. I came to the mat a couple of years ago, as a grumpy, injured runner looking for healing, both for body and mind. Having recently explored the power of meditation, the in-the-moment connection to the breath was something I could easily relate to, and it wasn’t long before I found myself in a yoga class once a week. The more I practiced, the better I felt.
Part of that betterment was encouraged by the environment in which I was practicing. I was lucky enough to find Tejas (pronounced teh-jus) Yoga, in the South Loop. From the very beginning, the owners, Jim and James, were so warm and inviting, that one would have a hard time not wanting to practice there, if for nothing else than to hang out, drink tea and have good conversation.
Considering that foundation, it’s no surprise that the teachers there also carry the same spirited warmth. Contrary to my pre-yoga reservations, I never once felt intimidated or overwhelmed at Tejas. In fact, it seems to me the teachers there go out of their way to make sure each student is comfortable, that modifications are always accessible, and that each person is set up to succeed, whatever his or her goals may be.
For me, this is essential. As an ultrarunner, as a boxer, as a person who makes his living teaching and practicing exercise, I come to the mat for mostly gentle, regenerative movements. I come to wind down, to heal, to focus on the breath, one inhalation and exhalation at a time. For me, yoga is not about wrapping my leg around my head. It’s about connecting breath to movement and staying present, the same cornerstones of running 100 miles or answering the bell.
But a class a day for seven days?
*Correction: there was, at least, a little sweat.
– – –
Monday, December 1, 2014
Pranayama Class with Jim Bennitt
3:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Pranayama is described as the “extension of the prāna or breath” or “extension of the life force”. Simply put, this class focuses on different breathing techniques alongside a gentle physical practice. On this day, we held a bandha (physical lock) that seemed to get deep within my hamstrings, while also exploring meditative visualizations connected to the breath. Jim asked us to project any thoughts on a screen within our minds. I was quite amused at the random relfections conjured up from deep within my consciousness. Inexplicably, Roger Rabbit made several appearances.
Overall, I left this class feeling super energized and awake, acutely aware of my hamstrings.
– – –
Tuesday, December 2, 2014
Open Class with Adam Grossi
7 a.m. – 8 a.m.
Like I tell my clients all the time, I have never heard someone say, “Man, I really regret getting up and doing that workout.” The same seems to be true for the yoga practice. While getting out of my cozy, warm bed at 6 a.m. didn’t sound very appealing, starting my day off with the immediate boost of a yoga class was well worth it. While the open class offers more challenges than the classes I typically attend, Adam provided me with options and modifications to suit my own yogic level. It felt good to sweat and to use more strength and balance than I’m used to. But most of all, it was a real treat to watch the sunlight slowly crescendo through the eastern facing windows with the progression of our class. I left feeling like a rockstar — a very grounded, introspetive rockstar.
– – –
Wednesday, December 3, 2014
Gentle Class with Monica Stevens
9 a.m. – 10 a.m.
Another great way to start the day, this gentle class is the type of class I typically attend at Tejas. The slower pace and focus on restorative poses is essential to my own yogic identity, offering the type of healing I need after running as much as I do. Monica’s clear instruction and warm sense of humor always puts me at ease, and she seemed to read my mind by getting us into a deep pigeon pose — indispensable medicine for my chronically tight hips and IT bands.
– – –
Thursday, December 4, 2014
Gentle Class with Marcelyn Cole
12 p.m. – 1 p.m.
Gentle classes on consecutive days? Thank you, sir! May I have another?
During my two years of practice, I have taken Marcelyn’s gentle class more than any other. Her calming voice and quirky sense of humor have been staples of my own yogic development, helping me heal, relax and grow to the best of my ability. This class was no exception as we explored familiar twists and deep connections to the breath. Despite my familiarness with this class, for the first time all week I did have a little trouble staying focussed and using my ujjayi breath. My mind was wandering more than usual, something I liken to bonking in the marathoning world. Luckily, I got it under control by the time we entered shavasana, my favorite pose.
– – –
Friday, December 5, 2014
Open Class with Zach Zube
12 p.m. -1 p.m.
Though small in size, this open class was a great mix of gentle and more advanced asana, with plenty of options for every practioner. There was a theme of groundedness, of forcing movement downward, as explained by our teacher, Zach. This meant plenty of forward folding and sequencing that promoted a sound connection with the earth beneath us. It was a pleasure to be back in a class taught by Zach. I took his Introduction to Yoga series a couple of years ago when I first started. His clear and thoughtful sequencing always puts me at ease, allowing breath and movement to flow naturally.
– – –
Saturday, December 6, 2014
Open Class with Adam Grossi
8 a.m. – 9:30 a.m.
My second open class with Adam this week, and again there were no regrets for getting out of bed early to attend. Unlike the Tuesday class, this one was packed! There were probably close to 20 people in attendance, and as such there existed a powerful vibe in the room. So many dedicated practitioners provided me with extra focus and a desire to be a part of the group mind, even as we were lead through more complex movements. I sweat more in this class than any other and I left feeling accomplished, strong, and ready to take on the day!
– – –
Sunday, December 7, 2014
Gentle Class with James Tennant
4 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.
I started this week of yoga by knowing exactly how I would finish. James was the very first person I met at Tejas and I remember how nervous and self-conscious I was entering those doors, only to have such feelings disappear after a mere two-minute conversation with him. His tangible, supportive spirit put me at ease and in a position to succeed with yoga. I never looked back. Since then, James’ teachings have been a regular and welcome exploration into my own higher being. Finishing the week with his gentle class was just an extension of that. The sequences flowed, my ujjayi breath connected me to the present, and time moved so quickly that I couldn’t believe 90 minutes had already passed.
When I got home that night, I was so relaxed and serene that I had no desire to watch a marquee NFL match-up on television — a rarity in its own right. I was ready for bed. Ready for peace.
– – –
While seven classes in seven days may be a lot more yoga than I am used to, one thing I did gain from this experience is the realization that despite not always being in a class setting, the yoga practice is deep within me, at all times. Over the last two years, I can’t remember a day where I didn’t do a forward fold of some kind. I can’t recall a day without invoking the ujjayi breath. There hasn’t been a day where I didn’t connect movement to breath, whether running, boxing or just working out.
It’s more than just attending a class.
It’s being present, connected to my body and its place among the stars.
It seems so silly now to think how defiant I once was against even trying something like yoga to supplement my running habit. To think how I secretly questioned Scott Jurek, my running idol, and his unabashed dedication to the practice seems so immature. My prior disbelief that I could actually benefit from yoga seems, now, to go against all practical sense.
And such disbelief only existed because I thought… *GASP*… that I would look foolish.
Floundering in the land of what-ifs is foolish.
And so it wasn’t until I found myself injured, unable to do what I love to do, that I finally listened to all those who had advised me. In my circle, there was no shortage of yoga proponents. Every single one of those individuals touting the practice was sincere in his or her belief that it would help me. How could I ignore such considerations any longer?
I found a local yoga studio, signed up for their beginner’s course and seven weeks later I’m here pondering how I ever lived without it. As a runner, there are myriad benefits to practicing yoga (flexibility, controlled breath work, increased synovial fluid production to name a few), but what I appreciate the most are the calming, meditative principles applied through movement. This is essentially what happens to me during a really good long run: I connect movement to the breath and allow my mind to experience the now.
Like running, yoga is a door to the present.
I’m just as susceptible as most to the infinite technocratic noises of the world, but I also know there is a way out. I know I am happiest when I exist among the calm of the present tense. Running gets me there. A baseball game on a lazy, summer afternoon gets me there.
Now I know yoga gets me there too. And even when the practice is over, I still feel like a glowing, hundred foot giant of awesome.
* * *
I am still out of commission, but staying active and positive. I’ve seen a sports medicine doctor now who is sure my condition is ITBS and nothing else. So I can only continue to do what I’m doing: stretching, icing, foam rolling, strengthening, yoga, boxing, watching Bulls basketball (despite this giving me headaches from time to time) and re-reading all my favorite Carl Sagan books.
I will not be able to run the Houston Marathon in 2013, but that’s okay. I am at peace with that. There will be plenty of marathons to run once I’m back to full strength. My focus now is on getting better in time to train well for Boston. I start physical therapy this week and aim to invoke my inner Derrick Rose as I focus on strengthening my hip flexors as well as my mind.
One thing is certain: this unscheduled time off from the sport I love so much has been as humbling as it has been healing. The majority of my other constant niggles, aches and pains have gone away with the time off and I am confident that the forced disassociation has strengthened my mind. When I do come back, I am going to be more hungry, more ravenous and more determined than I have ever been.
Special thanks to Lisa Kinlinger, who has provided me with excellent ART treatments as well as a final, swift kick out the door and into a yoga studio.