Most of us are probably feeling it, the tangible levels of tension and dread. The restless sleep. The bizarre dreams and outright nightmares.
These are the reasons I run.
Or used to, before the last time I went out and ran myself into a full-blown case of COVID-19.
I’m still recovering, still not totally feeling normal, still having trouble with concentration and focus sometimes. External events are obviously a bigger deal than my private little hassles. Still they are real to me.
We all work with what we’ve got.
I’ve been trying to rebuild my base level of fitness on a cheap, clunky, creaky elliptical machine next to my bed. I skipped a day, and I paid for it.
Wandering around all day with that anxious feeling in the belly, that tax-audit, principal’s office, performance review, collections agency, uhoh Dad’s mad feeling.
Sirens all day
Running feet and panting breath in alley below our apartment
Protestors marching within a mile of us
Helicopters, sirens, helicopters
I smell smoke, where is it coming from??
What the heck is going on, will it ever stop
What can I personally do
Sometimes it isn’t clear at all what you can personally do in a situation. Sometimes it takes time to figure out. Sometimes it’s better to stay out of the way. Sometimes you realize you’re in someone else’s movie, and not only are you not the star, you’re not even an extra, in fact you’re blocking the shot.
Other times, it’s clear that it’s your time to step up, because you’re the one who is accountable, or you are the only person who can really fix something.
Either way, it doesn’t help anyone to have a toxic stew of stress chemicals burning you up from the inside.
Burnout is largely physical.
We have to pace ourselves, and the more that is on the line, the more important it is... yet paradoxically, the harder it is.
The same predictable things happen every time, when we aren’t sleeping, we don’t have enough down time, we aren’t eating right and we have no way of dumping all that cortisol.
Our sleep is disturbed even more
We lose patience
We get snappy, irritable, and mean
We feel weepy and we’re not always sure why (except when we are)
We can’t think straight
We get spun up over even minor decisions
Something that is the same in martial arts training and in leadership is a thing called “stress inoculation.”
It’s possible to gradually train out the stress response in your body, so that you don’t react the same way even in the most intense conditions.
In both roles, you take ownership of yourself as first responder and chief decider. Nobody is coming and it’s your problem to figure out. There is no more time and the moment is now.
Some of this comes from having a plan. Some of it comes from having a formally acknowledged title and clearly defined responsibilities. Some of it is just that training in managing the physical stress response.
After a while, you feel it. You can feel the difference between when your neurochemicals are messing with you and creating the artificial sense of a real problem, or an actual real problem.
For some of us, a crisis is actually less stressful, because it’s obvious what to do. There is a specific issue that might actually go away if the right steps are taken. All this physical anxiety is *for* something.
I felt that way when my husband badly hurt his eye and I needed to get him to the hospital. Weirdly, I’ve also felt this way during the stay-at-home order, and again when I got COVID. “Just get through this, nothing else matters right now.”
Right now, three days into a riot-induced countywide curfew, I have no idea what to do.
So I do what I always do when I don’t have a plan, which is to try to run it off.
Five miles a day, miles of nowhere, going yet more nowhere.
It feels like a metaphor for life right now. Perpetual motion, tension, stress, with no end in sight and nothing to show for it. Like a hamster on a wheel.
For now, at least, the ball of tension is gone. I can chill for an hour or two.
Later tonight, sure, I’ll probably wake myself up every two hours. I’ve been having social distancing nightmares - have you? - including walking down the street six feet apart with my ex-husband, and accidentally bumping into the Plandemic lady on the sidewalk. (We both went UGH). This is in addition to the COVID nightmares - fighting a twelve-foot spider with fireplace tools in each hand, millipedes crawling out of my veins, downloading the virus by wi-fi into all our electronics.
The sleeping nightmares and the waking nightmares.
With all this going on, it’s easy to lose sight of how great it is that I can already do five miles on the elliptical. I survived! I lived through a month of coronavirus and I’m getting my body back! Reclaiming my flesh and staking ownership of myself.
In the midst of everything else, I can hit pause for an hour. I can try to get back into my body. I can try to remember that it’s the only vehicle I have to navigate this dumb old world.
It isn’t wrong to center yourself, or to sleep, or to do whatever you need to do to restore your focus. There are still 16 or 23 hours a day to worry about everything else. World events will keep happening, whatever they are, for good or ill. One of the few things you can control is your interior ability to cope with things.
“I can tell the difference already,” he said. “You’re back up to a seven.”
I’m six weeks into my post-surgery recovery plan, long enough to notice some changes. He’s been out of town just long enough to see that things have changed since he left.
These aren’t physical changes in *me* - it’s everything else. The ripple effect.
I spent four days rearranging our apartment, including the contents of all our closets and cabinets. The place is gleaming from stem to stern. It’s the sort of thing I like to do as a surprise, or at least the sort of thing I like to do when I’m feeling energetic and upbeat.
On the opposite end, one of the first ways I can tell that I’m coming down with something is when I somehow don’t feel like I have enough energy to make the bed. It takes 45 seconds. I’m usually done before I’m even awake enough to realize I’ve done it. If this is disrupted for some reason, it’s a telltale sign that something is off.
I rate my mood and energy level on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 on the low end and 10 on the “someone I like is planning a wedding” end.
After I took up distance running, I started to realize that it had worked some impressive changes in me. Not in my physique per se, but in my general attitude toward life.
“It’s like my baseline mood when I was chronically ill was a 5, or a 4 when I had a migraine. Then when I got better, it was more like a 7. When I’m running it’s like... a 9!”
It’s true. When I’m running twenty or thirty miles a week, I feel like I’m getting ready to go to a parade or something. Everything seems simple or easy and I’m brimming over with fun ideas. I used to say I had so much energy, I felt like I could kick down a fence. Sometimes I would be running, and around the 45-minute mark I would just jog along with my arms over my head in victory. Sometimes I would burst into song.
Then I blew it. I overtrained and borked my ankle.
I had to quit running because I was in so much pain. I would wake up in the middle of the night because it would feel like someone was kicking me in the ankle with a cowboy boot. I had to wear a brace. I had two MRIs and I spent six months in physical therapy. I spent a truly stupid amount of time with my foot in a bucket full of ice cubes.
I was mad at myself and mad at my ankle and mad at asphalt and mad that we had to move away from the regional park where I used to train. I used to see other runners pass by and I felt like a dog on a leash, watching other dogs chase a frisbee.
I changed sports and started getting quite fit doing martial arts. There were physical changes, yes, a different type than the changes that happened when I took up running. It seems that if you dedicate yourself to any one type of training, you can tap into a certain variety of super powers.
Running gave me mood powers and endless energy.
Martial arts permanently removed my needle phobia and the white-knuckled anxiety I used to feel on airplanes. It helped me eliminate my stage fright. Martial arts gave me an extra dimension of executive presence. I finally learned to really use command tone, and my dog suddenly started paying a lot more attention when I spoke. I learned to make a convincing war face, a crazy expression than can quickly cause people to back up a step with little more than a widening of my eyes. My arms and shoulders bulked up. I found that I could suddenly intimidate big dudes twice my size. For superpowers, these are pretty excellent!
I missed the mood effects that I got from running, though.
Then I went through a rough patch. I had minor surgery that resulted in an incision right in the middle of my torso. I couldn’t twist, bend, sit up straight, or even move my arms much. After a month of doing hot compresses every two hours, I had to start a routine of changing bandages. This was all very tiresome, but it did provide a massive surge of motivation to start working out again as soon as I legitimately could.
I got back on the elliptical. We had to sell ours when we downsized, but there is one in our dinky apartment gym. Nobody is ever down there and I get the whole room to myself. I call it the “news machine.”
An hour a night.
The first few nights were rough. Not only had I not been working out, I had barely gotten off the couch in two months. I was out of breath and I wanted to quit after twenty minutes.
I know how to distract myself, though. I had a long news queue to work through. I focused on how much I wanted to “catch up on reading.” I only let myself do this type of reading during my workout. It felt like a reward. After the first week, it was more like playing a game than exercise.
I started getting a taste of the old post-workout glow. If I work out long enough at a high enough level of intensity, I can get an endorphin rush that lasts for two hours or more. It feels awesome, wipes out soreness and fatigue, and helps me sleep better.
I didn’t really notice the change as it happened, but over the next several weeks, my baseline mood and energy level started to improve too.
A couple of months ago, I was at a real low point. I couldn’t do much of anything, three courses of antibiotics made me sick and headachy, and my incision hurt. I would definitely have agreed that my mood hovered around a five most of the time.
Now I’m heading back in the direction where I like to be. I’m starting to feel like the person I think of as the “real me” - upbeat and cheerful. I’m ready to head into Phase Two, where I start running outdoors and enjoying the scenery, hunting for the payoff that keeps all distance runners inspired and motivated. A few months from now, I could be feeling like a nine every day again.
I had to take my husband to the emergency room on Friday night. This is the year that I turn 45 and he turns 52, so it’s unsurprising, right? Two middle-aged people in the ER?
What may be more surprising is that, as usual, we were in there for a sports injury.
Friday night is sparring at our martial arts school. Muay Thai. We also have an MMA team. The rest of the time slots are for organized classes, and sparring is the one time that students have license to fight “for reals.” My husband took a boxing glove to the surface of his eye, probably the thumb but maybe part of the strap. It happens.
That’s dangerous! I’m thinking it so I know that everyone else is.
It’s his body to ruin, though. Bodily autonomy means we accept one another’s right to get tattoos, donate blood, have cosmetic dentistry, and, yeah, sign the waiver to get punched in the eye if we want.
The guy who “did it” is my husband’s good friend. He doesn’t know yet that his errant blow put my hubby in the hospital. We probably won’t tell him because he would be horrified. He’s a middle-aged dad and he certainly didn’t do it on purpose.
The injury was a corneal abrasion. It will likely heal so completely that a couple of weeks from now there will be no evidence that anything ever happened. The copays for the ER visit and the antibiotic eye drops were under $100. No harm no foul.
We accept these types of outcomes as acceptable risks for our hobbies.
What’s strange to me is that most people would shy away from such a dangerous sport, and yet the likelihood of being in the emergency room on a Friday night is far higher for other, more ordinary, types of activities.
I would have assumed: bar fights, car accidents, maybe an overdose or alcohol poisoning?
It hadn’t occurred to me how full the room would be simply due to flu season. There was also a large notice on the door in red ink, giving special instructions to anyone who might have MEASLES.
Oh great. One of us gets punched in the eye wrong and now we’re both at risk of exposure to freaking measles because a bunch of our neighbors can’t comprehend the concept of herd immunity. Get your shots, people!
It seems obvious to both of us that infectious disease epidemics, or pandemics, are far more dangerous and deadly than a punch in the eye. It’s just that we’ve all seen a lot of action films but, in our generation, we haven’t yet seen many of our relatives, neighbors, and coworkers DIE from measles, whooping cough, mumps, influenza, etc. Not yet anyway.
The other thing it’s hard not to notice is that we are likely the only people in the ER who got there due to a sports injury.
In our culture right now, it’s almost impossible to say anything true and useful about my observations without risking an affront to someone’s sensibilities. Instead I’ll try to skirt around it.
At our age, nobody would be surprised, at all, if either my husband or I had to go to the emergency room due to a heart attack, stroke, or other coronary type event. I know that’s true because we hear about this kind of thing all the time in our social group, among our colleagues and neighbors. After age forty nobody is surprised by anything.
When we go to the doctor, they ask us what medications we’re on. I can still pass for somewhere in my thirties, so I can say ‘none’ without pushback. When my husband says ‘none,’ they always assume he didn’t understand the question. “NO, what PRESCRIPTIONS are you on??” “NONE!” Medical professionals can’t believe that my husband, in his early fifties, doesn’t take anything. At his age he’s supposed to be on statins and a raft of other stuff, at least five separate prescriptions on average.
With his heart rate, blood pressure, and cholesterol level, it doesn’t compute. They think there’s no way that a guy of his age group can have those results without medication.
I can also say that nobody is asking the right questions. I’ve been plant-based for nearly thirty years, since I was a teenager, and my hubby has been 98% plant-based for the past decade or so. It literally never comes up. Nobody is testing us, or enrolling us in any studies, or even asking, “So, what do you eat?” There are absolutely no data being generated about our lifestyle for the rest of the world to ponder.
We’ll just keep waiting. If he’s still practicing Muay Thai in his seventies, like our friend B, maybe then they’ll ask. If I’m still out trail running in my sixties, maybe then they’ll ask, but I sincerely doubt it because all kinds of people run ultras at well above that age.
The data come from the people with the worst outcomes. Data come from “patients,” not from healthy people. Not from men who can kick a target six feet off the ground in their fifties. Not from women who can crank out fifty full push-ups in their forties.
Why? Because people hate hearing about it!
I think this is because we aren’t able to connect emotionally with the image of Old Me. We can’t truly imagine ourselves being elderly. It’s also very, very difficult to extrapolate from our minor daily behaviors to any kind of decade-long trend line. We hate nothing more than the idea that what we do today can add up to trouble at a later point. It’s preachy! Stop talking about it!
When we think of bodily autonomy, and the concept that it’s “my body to ruin,” what we mean is “hey, everyone buzz off and leave me alone” as far as body image, habits, food intake, sleep schedule, how dirty my coffee mug looks, or anything else, anything else at all. I DO WHAT I WANT DO WHAT I WANT. It’s much harder to think of in terms of, “I have the full and total right to wreck myself doing burpees in the mud, sparring, and going on wilderness expeditions.”
We think exertion is more dangerous than what everyone else is doing. Though personally I’d rather go blind from martial arts than from diabetes.
One thing I did notice in the emergency room was that almost everyone had a buddy. A spouse, kids, grandkids - everyone had someone to call and ask for help. Everyone had at least one person who was willing to sit with them in the middle of the night on a Friday. Probably what is really dangerous is to become isolated, to refuse to connect or engage, to avoid ever asking for help.
It’s worth thinking about. What do we think is truly dangerous, and how do we structure our lives to include or avoid certain things because of our perceptions?
Spending time with a group of people that includes a 40-year spread of ages is so revealing. We were talking about where we were in 2010 and where we see ourselves in 2030. One person said, “Ten years ago, I was fourteen?”
Thank goodness, I thought, I’ll never have to go through my teens or twenties again. My skin alone!
On the other hand, the most senior member of the group was a bit discomfited by the topic. That happens when you perceive yourself to be closer to the end of your life than the beginning, and at sixty-plus that’s statistically true.
(Although such a long way to a 114th birthday, which is possible though still newsworthy).
Younger people tend to be very focused on how they look and whether other people think they are good-looking. Probably because they’ve spent their entire lives being photographed. Middle-aged and elderly people tend to be more accepting, or at least philosophical, about their appearance. It can be relaxing. Older people always think you look young and refreshed.
My experience with becoming middle-aged has been great. My body has been and looked a lot of ways over the years, enough that I know change is not just possible but inevitable.
The trick is that we can conduct body transformation willfully. We can choose to transform our bodies in so many ways.
For some reason, our culture seems to revolve around this suspicion that OTHER PEOPLE ARE STARING and that everyone is J U D G I N G.
OMG who cares
Ride mass transit long enough and you will soon feel like one of the best-looking people of world history. Visit a hospice, or just a nursing home. Just be glad at your relative healthfulness for once.
The trick is to turn inward. Direct your attention away from the external and ask yourself what you think of yourself on the inside. How does it feel to be you, to stand up and walk around as you?
If it looks culturally beautiful but feels physically terrible, then forget about it.
Look at all the paintings of medieval women with high round foreheads, no eyebrows, and big swaying pregnant-looking bellies. That’s what they found attractive. Shave your hairline up to the top of the head, hawt! Then put on a tall pointy hat.
Our century of stiletto heels is one day going to look just as ridiculous. Why did all those people limp around bow-legged, grimacing in pain? Why did they carry their shoes and walk barefoot down the sidewalk on festive occasions? What did they wear for warm outer layers? You can’t convince me they just stood in line shivering in the rain. The archaeological record must simply be missing some key garments.
This is how I feel about whatever supposed social pressure about how my body is supposed to look: Get back to me after you’ve read my monograph.
I read “body acceptance” and “body positivity” now all the time, and what I understand it to mean is “be big enough.” I don’t feel that it literally means “be proud, strong, and muddy.” I truly don’t feel that it means “thin and small is okay too.” I haven’t felt that it includes me or other women like me.
That’s okay, though, because I don’t honestly care that much!
I don’t care because I’ve felt my own body transformations over the years. I have lived a body that is different from one year to the next, sometimes by accident, sometimes through intense bouts of purpose. There is no way I’m going to trade my strong body for a weaker version just because it’s trendy.
Twenty years ago, I wore a clothing size that was six to eight sizes bigger than I wear today. Weirdly, my body weight is only about ten pounds lower. That’s because I dropped about forty pounds of body fat and built about thirty pounds of muscle.
It sounds hard to believe. I should probably dig up some old photos and spreadsheets for documentation. Again, though, it’s my body to live in and inhabit, and my body is not an object for society to critique. It’s my home.
In my early twenties, I was ill. I went to a lot of doctors who did not have a lot of answers. I felt tired and ill all the time. I fainted at the grocery store a couple times. I saw black spots when I walked up a flight of stairs. For a young woman, I felt like an old woman, one who clutched railings.
Now I’m in my forties, old enough to be the mother of my younger self. I feel like I could pick up Younger Me and carry her up the stairs. Maybe not a fireman’s carry but certainly a piggyback.
Younger Me would have been angry and hurt to feel so judged by Today Me. Get up, get up, I want to tell her. Don’t quit! There is still time for you!
I look how I look, she thought, just like I do today. At the time, though, she believed in a fixed body. That how we look is a million percent genetic. That the head of anyone who thinks differently should simply explode, because nothing is stronger than my internal rebellion or determination of my identity, of what counts as me.
It turns out that that same resistant feeling was exactly what I needed to propel me up a lot of hills, along thousands of miles, through hundreds of burpees and all the rest. My rage at anyone who dared tell me about my body or criticize my personal autonomy, that was the fire that consumed Young Me. Stubborn, I found myself a warrior of sorts.
When I was young, I felt just as judged as any other young woman. As an adult, I find it hilarious to walk around covered in mud, or carrying my kali stick. Men, even very very large men, get very squirmy and nervous when they find out I do martial arts. “Just don’t attack me and you’ll be fine,” I say, which usually makes it worse.
Posture is what makes the change. A vertical posture says a lot. A comfortable stance says more. I reside in a strong body and I can use it to do some pretty surprising things. Ten years ago, none of that was true, because I hadn’t yet seized ownership of my identity as a midlife athlete. Today, I feel that I will be stronger at sixty than I was at thirty. I know it will be true because I know how to make decisions and I know how it is done.
I was in my apartment alone one night when a strange man knocked on the door.
I answered it.
The strange man asked if we had change for a twenty.
At this point in my life, my husband and I live at a pier, a busy tourist area with a lot of foot traffic about ten feet from our front door. Anyone who shows up at our door could be, quite literally, anyone, from a transient to a yacht owner.
The smart thing for any true crime aficionado and student of the martial arts, especially a small female one, would be to ignore a knock at the door entirely. If you know me, text me or call out my name and prove it. If you don’t know me, vamoose.
I’m a trusting soul, however, and I answer my door.
The man introduces himself as my new neighbor and says he needs change because he’s trying to sell a piece of furniture to someone from craigslist.
A likely story!
Surely this dude is trying to convince me of something. He wants to find out if I’m by myself, he wants to know if he can trick me into showing him where I keep my money.
Or, he’s purely honest and he believes that neighbors can approach each other and ask for small favors.
I have the luxury of taking him at face value, for several reasons.
There’s also the fact that this guy fits. He’s from a different ethnic background than me, but he clearly looks and sounds like the software engineer he describes himself to be. He seems like the kind of guy we would hang out with.
This is the funny part. Everyone in this story definitely has twenty dollars, or, rather, the ten dollars needed to make change for the furniture sale.
We just don’t have it in cash.
What, like, bills? From the ATM? Do they still make those?
Where we live, we can go weeks at a time without handling paper currency. We can go days without touching a plastic card for credit or debit as well. Neither of us has had a paper checkbook for several years. Often we can pay for things with our phones, which for people who grew up with rotary dial phones still sounds utterly preposterous.
We have at least three separate caches of paper money, no, wait, four? Five? None of them have anything smaller than a...
The fairy jar!
I have a glass jar filled with money, all of which I have found on the ground since I moved to California. More accurately, I’ve found it in the street, since I don’t take coins if I find them indoors. It has to be “free range,” which my husband finds hilarious. If it’s indoors I put it in the next available tip jar.
Fifteen years of pennies and nickels tends to add up, especially if you walk a lot, especially if you have a dog who likes to stop and sniff every blessed thing.
Whenever the jar has gotten full, I’ve “bought” coins out of it with paper bills. When the wad of paper money gets too big, I’ve bought the small bills with bigger bills.
It turns out there’s nearly two hundred bucks in there now!
You’d think there’d be more, but we don’t really generate our own coins in change because we don’t really pay for things with cash.
Sure enough, there is easily change for a twenty in the fairy jar. Our new neighbor has been patiently hanging out on the porch while hubby and I scramble around looking for small bills. We make the exchange.
Now there’s a new twenty-dollar bill in the fairy jar where there used to be pennies.
More importantly, we’ve met a new neighbor who feels like a kindred spirit. We’ve done a tiny favor for him. Through this transaction, we’ve gotten to learn each other’s names and recognize each other’s faces. When we see each other around the complex, we’ll recognize each other as ‘NEIGHBOR’ rather than ‘INCIPIENT THREAT.’
With the pennies I’ve found on the street over the years, I’ve bought another layer of safety and connection in my neighborhood. I’ve added trust to the world, or my corner of it.
This is abundance. This is how it works and how it feels.
I open my door freely to a stranger because I feel like I can do that without real risk. I’m happy to meet someone new who might be a new friend, or colleague, or an eligible date for one of my single friends.
This person asks me for money (well, kinda) and I have it. I have this specific money because I find it all the time, on the ground, like a walnut or a crabapple or a blue feather.
I find money because I believe that I “have the time” to walk my dog, to walk on errands, to go out and hold hands with my husband while we watch the sun set. I have the identical twenty-four hours as everyone else who has ever lived, and I’m one of the few who feels like I “have the time.”
I put the $20 in the jar, in place of the smaller bills and coins that were there before, and it looks mighty fine.
I’m creating something out of nothing.
I’ve recognized subtle opportunities and taken advantage of them.
I’ve made my own fairy jar and I’ve filled it with coins that other people never bothered to pick up. I’ve made my own bit of whimsy and I’ve used it to work a bit of magic in real life.
Not everyone realizes this, but it’s not okay to change your fitness routine. It’s not okay - it’s MANDATORY. First of all, doing the same routine over and over can eventually lead to stress injuries. Second, it’s boring. Third, the body adjusts and the law of diminishing returns sets in. Perhaps most importantly, any single routine may neglect entire areas of the body. This is why it’s so vital - and fun - to occasionally pause and pivot.
I first started switching up my workout because my college gym had strict 30-minute cardio sessions. If you tried to stay on the machine longer, a bouncer would come over with a clipboard and evict you. I used the cardio equipment while I read my homework, and a half hour wasn’t enough. I learned that I could get a better/longer workout if I signed up for adjacent time slots and simply moved from one machine to another.
I also learned that more than five minutes on the stair climber made me want to barf.
Sometimes all the cardio machines would be booked. That’s when I started learning to use the weight machines. I was getting over a bad breakup, so my girlfriends would spot me and encourage me and keep me company. That boy was no gym rat and it was one place on campus where I could sulk in peace.
I started to see the gym as a place of refuge, a solace, and a mood adjuster.
Over the next fifteen years, I learned that Gym Me had high energy and a good mood, while Default Me was mopey and got sick a lot. I also had to change what I was doing many times due to relocation, job change, injury, or forgetting who Gym Me was. For a while.
Being fit has a tendency to reveal mysterious superpowers that weren’t even what you were training for. I’ve astonished myself with the suddenly revealed ability to climb a rope, do a headstand, or whip out a new hula hoop trick after watching someone else do it for a few seconds. The fun stuff!
The fun stuff, like toppling a 250-pound huge dude with a jiu jitsu throw.
I’m doing a pause and pivot right now. It’s been really emotional and difficult, because I’m stubborn as all-get-out, but it has to be done. I recognize this. It’s my own idea and my own plan, and still I’m struggling with my traitorous emotions. My feelings, always getting in my way and trying to ruin my strategic vision.
I’ve been enrolled in a martial arts school for nearly a year and a half. I convinced my husband to join, and we’ve been going to kickboxing classes together, a lot of the time at least.
There have been problems, though.
On his end, he’s lost nearly twenty pounds. His neck mobility has vastly improved and his chronic back pain is almost completely gone. He revels in fighting and he’s been getting the blue belts to teach him higher level secrets. He’s in the best shape of the fourteen years I’ve known him. He’s as happy and excited as a little kid with his first skateboard.
On my end, I’ve been going through several months of health struggles. I got a bad cold in the beginning of August, and that somehow turned into being sick 40% of the time between August and January. I missed (and paid for) weeks of classes, which unfortunately cost 25% more because I had just leveled up to the advanced classes. I went to the doctor to find out why I kept getting sick, fearing the worst, and she said she had known a fellow doctor who had the same problem. She wasn’t getting enough sleep during her residency, her stress level was high, and she could never quite recover fully before she was exposed to another cold. This doctor told me I would probably keep getting sick until the end of this year’s cold and flu season.
I mean, at least my blood work is good.
I did some research on my own end. It turns out that intense exercise can lead to being more vulnerable to colds and flu. Yeah. It makes sense. I would keep pushing myself a little too hard and trying to get back into classes a little too soon. I’d start going out and trying to work out at my normal intensity every time I reached 80% recovery. It was like trying to shut a door and having a mosquito fly in. Again and again and again.
After literally the twelfth time I got sick in eight months, I finally realized I had had enough. I need to give myself a break before I wind up on an inhaler. I paused my gym membership and told everyone I’d be back in six months or so.
This has nothing to do with grit or perseverance or fortitude. Those are the qualities that got me into this mess.
This also has nothing to do with abdicating on my body and burrowing into a recliner. I know I can’t do that because sedentary behavior impacts my thyroid, and I feel far, far worse when I sit around all the time.
This is a sabbatical, a pause and a pivot.
The first thing I’m going to do is to get over this most recent cold. I’ve been organizing my digital files, catching up on email, reading, and sleeping as much as I can between my neighbors’ centaur races or whatever they’re doing up there.
My pivot is to focus more on cardio over the summer. My husband and I talked it out, and remembered that when I was training for my marathon, I felt great all the time and I never got sick. I didn’t get sick that entire year! The only reason I quit was that I overtrained my ankle and wound up in physical therapy for six months.
I know more about stretching and cross-training now. I also know the warning signs. There’s no way I’ll do that to myself again.
The other thing is that I gained fifteen pounds in my shift from endurance running to boxing. Granted, some of it is muscle, but it doesn’t seem to be doing me many favors. My weight regain is perfectly correlated with the return of my night terrors, migraines, and vulnerability to seemingly every passing airborne virus. It’s gotta go.
The great thing about testing weight gain or loss as a variable is that it’s temporary. If you don’t like the results, you can always go back in the other direction. If I lose “too much weight” I can just eat more and put it back on over the weekend. *shrug*
The most important factor in a pause and pivot is the feeling of returning to center, of fully inhabiting one’s physical vessel. I am my body and my body is me. High energy is my birthright. I’ll do whatever I need to do to take care of myself and give myself the utmost strength and mobility.
First off, don’t get in the van. This is an R-rated post about physical danger and self-defense. When you read the phrase “Get in the van,” hear it in a grim and menacing voice, the voice of a highly trained sadist and criminal who intends to do you great harm.
If you’re looking for motivation, here is your motivation.
Someone might try to throw you in a van one day. Worse, they might grab a child, your child, your friend’s child, and throw the kid in the van right in front of you. What are you prepared to do about it?
I train in Krav Maga, a system of martial arts designed for smaller, weaker people to fight larger, stronger people. A core training goal is the fighting mindset, to continue to fight when you are physically exhausted and confused and demoralized and experiencing a massive adrenalin dump. Part of our discipline is to vividly imagine specific physical threats and then confront them.
As a result, I have practiced several ways of getting out of chokeholds and wrestling my way out from under attackers. I have practiced gun and knife disarms. I have practiced fighting with knives, hammers, screwdrivers, and ink pens. I can throw eight different kinds of elbow strikes, and that’s just to the rear. I have fought five people at once. I have fought with my hands duct-taped together. I have fought in the dark. I have fought with a sack over my head.
(You have to pay extra for that, though).
The owner of our school is a man so physically imposing that it’s impossible not to notice. He trains police officers and soldiers and military contractors. He has the natural ease and stance of pure confidence. It’s arresting. He holds the room effortlessly. This is what he has to say about training in self-defense.
There are predators in this world. They’re angry because they didn’t get what they wanted in childhood and they’re looking to take it out on someone. They pick on women because we’re easier targets. We’re smarter, but we’re smaller and weaker and we don’t have the same drive for aggression. We’re also distracted by our constant multitasking, and that makes us easy marks.
We should be on the lookout, aware at all times of who is within fifty feet of us. We should have our eyes up and our hands free. We should hold our keys so that we’re ready to unlock the door, not to fight with them, because punching with keys hurts and because you might break your keys. You need them to get away.
Even though intellectually we know that we should be alert, rather than distracted, we let ourselves get distracted. We’re distracted by our phones, our music, our to-do lists, our many bags, our children, and all the other things that distract the typical multitasking, busy woman. We don’t look up even when we know we should, and we have our eyes down when we don’t even realize we’re doing it.
That’s one takeaway. No matter how else you feel about anything else I write, please take away that anyone is capable of being more alert. At least a minute or two each day, keep your eyes up and your hands free when you’re going between your door and your vehicle.
Let’s think about predators and prey. What do prey animals do? How does a predator choose its prey?
Prey are weaker. Slower, older, younger, less physically capable. A predator cuts them away from the safety of the herd and takes them to a secluded area. A predator is excited when the prey animal runs faster, getting tired and further isolated.
How do we stop acting like prey? Stay alert, yes, but what else?
Take care of ourselves.
In the context of self-defense, this should not be considered controversial. It is a basic, quantifiable measure. Fitness literally means the ability to physically survive. By definition it is a biological survival trait. It applies to a vole or a sparrow just as it applies to us.
When someone yells RUN FOR YOUR LIVES, can you? (Wildfire, flash flood, gas leak, tsunami, tornado, terrorist, bomb threat, active shooter, home invader, serial rapist, murderer). How far can you run? When is the last time you tested that ability in yourself?
How much of what we do is visualization, the momentary excitement of watching a tense sequence in an action film? How much of what we do is physical, real action in real conditions?
I know how fast I can run up a flight of stairs because I run up flights of stairs every week. I know how fast I can sprint down the street because I sprint down the street. I know I can fight five people because I train it in class. I don’t have to imagine what it’s like to get my wrists taped together because I just did it.
I do have to imagine someone trying to kidnap a child right in front of me, because fortunately that has not happened. I have, though, had to sprint to grab a child (more than once) because little kids suddenly try to run out in the street or into danger. If I were slower I can’t say what might have happened.
This doesn’t have to do with body image. I don’t concern myself much with that. If I did, I wouldn’t be able to leave the house with a black eye and a big bruise on my face. People Will Think: my husband did it, I have no self-esteem, anything other than “she is a kickboxer.” It’s none of my business what other people think about my body and what my body looks like. If they notice me at all, they must have nothing better to do, and that’s boring and sad.
What I do concern myself with is what my body can do. How much energy do I have? How capable do I feel? The feeling of “no, no, I can’t” extends everywhere, into every part of life.
No, no, I can’t try for that promotion.
No, no, I can’t update my resume.
No, no, I can’t afford X, Y, or Z.
No, no, I can’t get sweaty or dirty.
No, no, I can’t set boundaries with other people.
No, no, I can’t make a fuss or inconvenience anyone.
No, no, I can’t make a mean face.
No, no, I can’t raise my voice and yell BACK OFF.
No, no, I can’t make a fist.
When someone yells at me to get in the van, I’ll get in the van, and there I’ll join the endless parade of dead women, made beautiful in their final photo, sainted and martyred by senseless violence. Even better, the photo of the little lost child who was stolen right in front of me, that photo will look great on the news. It’ll be a movie of the week.
“There was nothing I could do,” I’ll say, weeping prettily, because I never knew I could. I never knew there was something I could do.
That’s a visual that is motivating to me. I run through pictures in my mind, images of children who are important to me, laughing and happy, and then I picture the hands of an experienced predator grabbing at them. It gets my blood up.
There’s another visual that is motivating to me. It comes from horror films and it’s reinforced by true crime. I sometimes watch movies or TV episodes before I go to class, while I’m eating the large, heavy meals I eat before I train. A man, a scary man. Chases a woman, grabs a woman, chokes a woman. Stabs a woman. Pop culture runs almost purely on images of vulnerable femininity, and this is useful for training purposes. Picture that it’s you. Picture that it’s your friend. Notice a pregnant woman out in the world, and picture yourself standing between her and danger. I got you, honey, now RUN!
The fastest I ever ran was out with my husband, trail running in our favorite park at sunset. I slapped his butt and took off, and he sped up and came after me. I imagined he was an axe murderer, coming at me through the trees as the sun went down. It was exhilarating. I could hear his heavy tread behind me, his big boots thudding as we both ran as fast as we could. He couldn’t catch me and I got away. When I explained later what I was doing, he laughed and shook his head. “Whatever it takes,” he said.
I don’t give a damn about body image. If I do, it’s because I like to make people flinch when they see my big arms. I can ballroom dance backward in high heels, I can bring a crowd-pleasing lasagna to a potluck, I can plan a wedding, I can carry a child to bed without waking her up. I can also fight five dudes with my hands taped together. All of these images are consistent with womanhood. It is a core duty of an adult female to protect children, and fighting like a crazy bitch from hell can easily be integrated with that.
I hope at least one thing I have written here makes you angry. I hope it gets under your skin and that you can’t stop muttering about it. I hope it gets your attention enough that you make a change to your default behavior, and that if you pick only one, it is to keep your eyes up and your hands free.
I also hope it gives you cause to reconsider your relationship with your physical energy level and your body image. Come join me and lace up your gloves. You can hit me first if you want, I don’t mind.
“Don’t overthink it!” I hear this a lot in my martial arts classes. True to form, now I’m overthinking overthinking. Or am I? I’m getting my head around the difference between athletes and people like me.
It’s also the difference between anyone who is “natural” at anything and those who aren’t.
What am I doing in class that qualifies as “overthinking”? I’m asking questions when I’m doing something wrong, for instance trying to block a head shot and instead smacking myself in the face. What “everyone else” is doing is practicing the block over and over.
Makes sense, right?
The part that doesn’t really make sense is why an otherwise intelligent person would keep showing up in a room only to make hundreds of mistakes and punch herself in the eye with a boxing glove.
This is the essence of growth mindset versus fixed mindset. I’m in the room because I believe I can be taught, eventually, despite all evidence to the contrary. I believe it is necessary to my wellbeing to push myself to learn new things. I believe strength comes from facing obstacles and overcoming them.
“Everyone else” is there for more or less the same reasons: enjoying the difficult workout, needing an outlet for intense competitive drive and physicality, or simply loving martial arts culture.
Why are my fellow students grasping things so much more quickly than I do?
A young man in my classes hit upon it the other day. He’s young enough to be my son and he started training as a beginner around the time I got into the advanced class. He’s already better than I am.
“Did you do sports in school?”
I explained that when I was in school, girls weren’t allowed to play sports because Title IX wasn’t being enforced. The only option for us was girls’ softball, but that was a league sport.
“That makes no sense,” he said, mystified, and then explained why he had asked. He had two female friends who wanted him to teach them how to skateboard. One got it right away, and she had a sports background. The other, a musician, struggled terribly. He saw it as a matter of time spent rather than a matter of aptitude.
I’ve thought about this for a long time, and it’s interesting that it would be obvious to a young person. My husband, for instance, started on athletics as a preschooler. He can’t even remember exactly when he got on the swim team. It’s just always been a part of his life. He participated in every possible sport offered in his region.
Does swimming at age five have anything to do with swinging a sword at age forty? Evidently!
What all these “natural” athletes have that I don’t is a track record. (Sometimes literally on the track team!). They were up and moving their bodies at a younger age. Every year of our lives, these “natural” athletes have spent a significant part of their day in motion while I sat on my butt reading a book.
They acquired what I have to learn. It did NOT come “naturally” - it came from deliberate practice. It came from doing different things as children. It wasn’t always even their choice; their parents may have pressured them and insisted that they do stuff they deeply loathed doing.
In some cases, they’ve built a different physical framework than I have. For instance, my thirteen-year-old training partner is shockingly heavy for her size. If someone told me she had a titanium skeleton, I wouldn’t be surprised. She’s been practicing martial arts since the age of three, and her bones are undoubtedly denser than those of another child. Her body composition is also probably much more muscular and lower in fat.
These “natural” athletes have been building better cardiovascular fitness all this time. By ‘fitness’ I mean that exercise actually grows more blood vessels and expands the lungs, among other changes. While I was sitting around reading for thousands of hours, I was not building that same infrastructure.
The biggest difference is in proprioception, I’m sure of it. My classmates are able to watch something demonstrated once, maybe twice, and then copy it. I watch the same movements and I’m completely befuddled. I have to see the same motions at least five times before I start to get it. Often I’ll misremember whether to go left or right.
I have trouble knowing where my body parts are. I can only seem to track three out of four limbs. If I’m moving both legs and grabbing someone, my other hand seems to float off on its own. After a year I’m still being constantly reminded to keep my hands up. In my mind, I am! I can’t tell when my butt is sticking out. It feels like motions that should be in 3D are only 2D for me. What I’m worst at is moving with my face blocked, when I can’t see what I’m doing.
What I have is like being tone-deaf, which I’m not, or having a tin ear for languages, which I don’t. Colorblind, I’m not either. I’m fairly good at yoga, probably because I’ve spent so long in two dozen familiar poses over the years. I’m competent at ballroom dancing because I went to the kind of dance school where you drill the box step hundreds of times and learn where to put your arms separately. What I’m telling myself is that I’m already good at certain things, because I spent time on them when I was younger, and I’m not yet good at other things, because they are new to me.
I seem to be overthinking things in class because I lack the facility to copy what I see. This is strange to sporty types who have done it all their lives. They can’t understand why not everyone can do it. They don’t understand why everyone isn’t like them. They’ve never experienced being awkward or inept in the kinetic world. To them, it isn’t a subject of study. This is part of why I stay in a class where objectively I don’t belong, because I have as much to teach as I have to learn. If they can teach me, they can teach anyone.
I had a bad night. There are always at least three things going on during heavy training: the physical battle, the mental battle, and the emotional battle. Sometimes there’s also some social conflict thrown in just for fun. On this night, I had a mix of all of these.
It goes something like this. You want to train, but you’re out of condition and training makes you sore, tired, sweaty, and uncomfortable. That’s the physical battle. You aren’t convinced that this activity is a good use of your time, money, or resources. That’s the mental battle. You feel like other people are judging you, that your body is your enemy, and that you’ll never get the results of those awesome people over there. That’s the emotional battle. Then maybe you have a naysayer who keeps trying to get you to quit, and that’s the social battle.
That’s not me, by the way. Well, the physical part is, but that’s honestly part of why I train in the first place. I don’t do anything at all unless I’m convinced that it’s a good use of my time. I couldn’t possibly care less if other people are judging my physical appearance, and I’m not particularly competitive. Naysayers just make me double down on my commitment, because their presence means I’m onto something. I recognize the mainstream battles around fitness. That helps me to shrug them off.
No, I have to go out and dig up my own special fitness issues.
I’m studying Krav Maga, a non-joke sport that is officially not for sissies. Mentally I am convinced that Krav is the best and most effective martial art and that I’m training at the best school in the region. I believe that the combination of bodyweight, impact, and HIIT exercises is the optimum and that it is more time-efficient than other workouts. I also have all the grit and persistence in the world.
Keep telling myself that.
My mental block is that I am usually the weak link in class - slowest on the uptake, slowest in speed, physically weakest, lowest stamina - and that it holds others back. I keep coming back to the idea that I should put my membership on hold for a few months and come back after I put on a few more pounds of muscle. It’s when my head isn’t completely in the game that I start having more emotional issues. When I’m 100% convinced of something, then nothing but nothing can stop me.
Finally, tonight, after a couple of hours of processing, I realized that this mindset problem is emotionally driven, and it’s compounded by my overall physicality.
Everyone has the occasional difficult moment. They come in flavors. Some people default to anger and “why do these idiots always.” Others default to depressive “this is pointless, why bother.” For some it’s the self-hating “ugly stupid.” Mine runs to helplessness, specifically feeling physically powerless.
My demons: night terrors, being susceptible to the common cold, this fainting issue I had in my mid-twenties, fear of Alzheimer’s disease, and, apparently, being pinned to the floor.
Objectively, plenty of people have far worse issues. I feel dumb even thinking about mine.
Thinking about it, it’s weird that I have no problems with certain things when I do with others. For instance, I’m not afraid of snakes, the IRS, public speaking, or being seen naked. In fact, I wouldn’t even be all that bothered by speaking nude at the IRS in front of some snakes.
What I’ve learned from martial arts is that I’m not particularly troubled by wrestling or being thrown to the ground. I’m relatively unphased by choke holds, being lifted off my feet, or being attacked with my eyes closed. I can shake off being hit in the mouth, nose, or eye and keep going. I’ve been throat-tagged and continued on without a pause. I’ve had small cuts that bled and had to get a bandage (DON’T BLEED ON THE MAT) and gotten right back to it. Hands taped together? Yay, cool. Pinned under a blanket? Okay, got it. Bag over the head? Not my favorite but hey, I’m here to train. Gun disarms, knife fighting? Bring it on!
I have two problems.
Okay, now how dumb is that? Ooh, yelling, help me officer. Out of all the dumb things to set someone off... At least the other one is more obvious and realistic.
It was processing my issues with being pinned that helped me finally understand why this is a demon-level emotional block in my world. It’s that “physically helpless” feeling. Like any emotional block, it’s a package deal. Another person’s self-loathing might lead to a variety of self-sabotaging behaviors, while someone else’s contempt and rage might lead to an entirely different type of self-limiting issues. Mine is this emotional trigger that I am somehow powerless.
It’s worth looking at where else I do and don’t feel powerless, or rather, where I do feel powerful and how I can bring that into the mat room. Powerful: bureaucratic red tape, foreign languages and writing systems, wilderness survival, panel interviews. Powerless: navigation, math.
I’m good at lots of things! I’m good at learning! I’m good at talking myself back into commitments!
Keep telling myself that.
Now that I’ve found my demons and given them names, I can deal with them. I can come up with some strategies to take their power away. It’s my life and my body and I can make choices that make me stronger.
Quitting, what would that do? Because certainly I have felt like quitting. The thought has crossed my mind so many times: “you don’t belong here, nobody wants to be your partner, nobody will judge you if you switch to CrossFit.” Those are emotion-driven and temporary distractions, irrelevant to my aims. 1. Be a quitter for life. 2. Lose all the many benefits of this training. 3. What, sit in a chair? Just start quitting things and become boring?
I have another emotional demon hidden in there, the “nobody wants you here anyway, nobody likes you” demon that is a remnant of childhood bullying. When I’m pinned and I can’t get out and the instructor starts shouting advice at me, this puny feeling starts up this story. “Nobody is coming, nobody will help you, nobody is on your side, nobody is looking out for you, friendless and alone.” Really that’s pretty solid evidence that studying Krav Maga is a terrific and practical plan!
Another person would ball up all that energy of being picked on, tricked, set up, and bullied and use that to fuel an intense and sacred flame of righteous fury. I mean, that’s one way. Some natural and biologically based reactions to being pinned would be aggression, an adrenalin surge, tenacity, and territorial instinct. GET OFF ME. My feeling of helplessness is contrary to survival; it’s not innate, it was learned - and that means it can be unlearned.
I know exactly what I need to do, and the insight came as I was lathering my poor bruised shoulders with gardenia-scented soap, proof that I am fine and I do have control over my world. I need to build upper-body strength. I need to keep training. I need to visualize the specific circumstance of being pinned every time I go to my gym, and use it to fuel a strong sense of AW HAIL NO.
I also need to tell the instructor that yelling triggers me, so she’ll yell at me more.
The whole point of this training is, like everything, to enter the arena and fight the fight. Life is an endless rain of trouble and strife that will never stop. Quitting won’t make it stop. Nothing will make it stop. Might as well figure out a way to carry on, or maybe even prevail. If there are demons to be wrassled, at least I’m going to hit one with a chair before I tap out.
“I’m going to thump you in the noggin.” That’s an example of the type of comment she just made to me, only not as funny. A threat, not a veiled threat. I laughed and brushed it off, and she doubled down.
What’s going on here?
This is a basic business transaction, and this woman just implied that she wants to use physical violence on me! Twice!
“Well,” I grinned, “I’m a kickboxer, so let’s do this!”
The weirdly rude woman frowned and said nothing.
Hey, you started it, lady.
The truth was, in that moment, I was ready. If for some bizarre reason this person insisted on fighting with me, if I had made her angry or if she just couldn’t stand the sight of me... okay, fine. Let’s do this.
If she needs to get it out of her system, I’ve been shoved, kicked, punched in the stomach, thrown on the ground, and hit in the eye, nose, and mouth. Lots of times! I don’t mind, not really. If she thinks she can lay a few strikes on me, all right.
It’s a serious offer. You wanna box me? Let’s do this!
Alternatively, I’d get her on the ground and pin her until she apologized and promised to quit being rude to people for no reason. She would remember the whole thing as me being the villain. Result: even more rude to more people, because it’s so unfair that she never gets her way. Bullies are like that.
In the normal world, there are two things that have made me tough (besides living past the age of forty). One, improv comedy. I’ll “yes and” anything with anyone at any time. Two, my midlife sports background of martial arts, endurance running, and adventure races. If you want to attack me with mud, insults, cold water, heckling, shoving, kicking, or strikes to the torso, well, it’s not my first rodeo.
How have I offended, milady?
I’m the kind of person who goes to the store and constantly gets stopped by random people who think I work there. It’s a family joke that every time we go on vacation, someone will ask me to take their picture. Customer service face. I’m nice and approachable, probably too much so. It’s unusual for me to have an unpleasant interaction with anyone, whether in person, on the phone, or through email.
Nobody who sees me in business casual is going to guess that I do Krav Maga, put it that way. That’s how it should be. Secret weapon.
There’s a threshold that you cross when you cast off conventional anxieties. In the mundane world, I’m unstoppable because I know myself to be a person of high agency. Kindness and patience will get you virtually everything you could ever want, and detached amusement will probably get you the rest.
A little bit of leadership training, a little bit of comedy, a little bit of stress inoculation, a little bit of physical conditioning. Unstoppable.
In the mat room, on the other hand, I’m weak and slow.
I put myself in that situation on purpose. I strive to always be the most clueless student in class. If I’m the smartest or best, then I’m in the wrong room. I need to be pushing myself, partly so I’ll learn, mostly so I’ll stay humble, and also because I get bored easily.
If you’re willing to feel completely awkward, embarrass yourself, and do things you find crushingly difficult, and you can get through the first few months, you’ll be well on your way to developing superpowers. The areas where you struggle are the areas where you can grow the most.
The first year I spent training in martial arts, my stated goal was to work on humility and self-discipline. Find out you can’t do a pushup or a sit-up, and the humility takes care of itself. Stay committed until you can do fifty and you’re on your way to the self-discipline. The most important thing I learned that year is that I’m not afraid to take a punch.
I also learned I was afraid to land a punch. I didn’t like hitting people, I didn’t like it at all.
This got to be a problem. My partners would sometimes complain that they needed me to be more forceful. They would shout and encourage me to kick harder, shove harder, strike harder. I talked it out with several other women, and they all told me the same thing. I needed to give as good as I got. As much as I wanted to learn to take a punch, to be unafraid in hand-to-hand combat, they needed the same from me. It wasn’t fair for me to have a double standard.
I wasn’t doing anyone any favors by being “too nice.”
My training partners want their money’s worth. They want the full value of every hour they spend training. That means, when they partner up with me, I need to show my fangs. I need to go past my little bubble of niceness, at least during that hour, and I need to be scary and mean.
I scare myself sometimes.
All I’m doing is exploring something new in a controlled environment. It’s a classroom. Everyone agrees that while we’re in the mat room, we’re trying to accomplish something very specific. It’s a thing with a certain amount of physical risk, and also eerie noises and unlovely facial expressions.
This is where we cross the threshold. This is where we pass back and forth between the ordinary world and the world of controlled violence. This is why it isn’t funny to make “jokes” about fighting: because there are those of us who are prepared to engage if necessary.
Also, don’t you know any real jokes? Funny ones?
In some ways, martial arts training has made me funnier than I was before. There’s something about the confidence that comes from trusting your body and knowing you are prepared for mayhem. Garden-variety insults and threats are comical. What, you think you’re going to wound me with words? What you just said, that’s supposed to make some kind of impact?
I’m having to learn how to throw a punch, not just take a punch. It means I have to learn how hard to hit. I have to learn to strike with appropriate force. Learning to throw a punch has shown me that it’s almost never necessary. Smile and carry on.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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