The Team, the Team, the Team

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The power of a team is a beautiful thing. When seven girls come together and pour their heart and soul into 21 minutes of pure fight, striving for a goal bigger than any of them alone, the final outcome doesn’t matter; you’ve already won.

I could not be more proud of the Michigan women’s XC team this weekend for their second-place finish at the National Championships. Second place was better than we had even imagined, but finishing just one point shy of the victory was incredibly bittersweet. I mean seriously, one point?!

But what more can you ask for than your absolute best? We came focused, determined, and confident. Everyone expressed complete commitment to the team and a willingness to dig deeper than ever before this season. Experiencing this journey from a coach’s perspective has been a joy. I love seeing how the girls have handled adversity with calmness and success with perspective. Every time we screamed at them for more in a race, they responded. Every place was fought for, and nothing was given away.

More than anything, I just want the team to realize how much respect and admiration I and the other coaches have for what they just did. Girls, you represent everything that Michigan stands for. You upheld a legacy of constant success that Coach Mike McGuire has established in his 25+ years at Michigan, and you’ll walk away arguably the best team in that history. Your performance inspired everyone who saw it, and you can stand tall with no regrets because you gave your all.

It’s something special to witness the bond on a cross country team. Day in and day out, a team must mentally and physically break down barriers and come together as a cohesive, supportive unit to achieve success. Our team is filled with individuals with different strengths, from pure talent to grit to positive attitudes. Only seven of these girls competed this weekend, but all 37 girls on the team contributed to the success of second place. My heart is so full with joy from watching these girls encourage one another and run harder for the team than they would for themselves.

I wish so badly they could have walked away as National Champions, because to me they already are. I’m just thankful I got to cheer them on, and I hope that I can fight as hard as they did to go after my dreams.

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Three Races that have Shaped my Running Career

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Every so often a race leaves a lasting impact on you that’s far more than just a good time or a nice win. Over the past 14 years of my running career, there are three races that stand out as defining moments to me.

The first race was way back when I was a freshman in high school. All year I had wanted to make the state meet in the 1600, which meant I need to run a time of 5:26.0 or faster. I had consistently been running in the 5:40s and 5:50s throughout the season, and the week before the regional meet I ran all out to hit a PR of 5:39. But that was still a whopping 13 seconds away from the time, and I only had one week. I had never really tried race visualization before, but that week I focused more than ever on imagining running a 5:26 and believing 100% in my ability to do so. I had a white board in my room, and each day my Dad would draw a little picture of a train, the little engine that could. And above it he would write “I think I can, I think I can, I know I can, I know I can, I will, I will”.

The morning of the race finally came, and I lined up completely terrified out of my mind but believing that I was going to run faster than 5:26. The gun went off and I jumped right behind the top girls, who were significantly better runners than me. I remember being shocked at 500 into the race that I was still right up front and hanging on. Finally, as I came off the final curve, I heard my coach yell out “20 seconds!”, and I threw back my head and started pumping my skinny arms and legs as fast as I could. I crossed the finish line and saw 5:23 on the clock. I was elated; I couldn’t stop smiling for days. This was the first race that really showed me how powerful your mind can be in running.

The next race was the 2011 DII NCAA Outdoor Championships my junior year of college. I qualified in the 1500 and made it to the finals. I actually don’t remember anything about the first 1400 m of the race; all I know is that it must have been a tight pack the whole way because the majority of us were still in contention with 100 to go. I was running on the outside of lane 1 behind a few other girls, and as everyone unleashed that last surge down the homestretch, I stayed in the outside of lane 1, behind the girls in front of me, running strong but not passing anyone and not digging deep. I ended up finishing 5th and less than a second off the win.

For about 5 seconds I was okay because 5th matched my highest finish ever and I was All-American, but then I walked off the track incredibly disappointed. It was like a switch flipped; I suddenly realized that I had the potential to win a National Championship, and I had just completely blown the opportunity to go for it. Before the race it never crossed my mind that I could accomplish something that big, and so when the opportunity came, I had already mentally removed myself from that battle. I was so furious with myself after that race, and I immediately set a goal to win the following year. And one year later, I won the 1500 at DII NCAAs, my third National Championship of the year.

The last race, as you may have guessed, was the Olympic Trials final. Once again I faced a daunting task, but this time I came to the line completely prepared. Physically the rounds went better than I expected, and I came to the bell lap of the final race believing I had a legitimate shot and going for it. I kept repeating to myself throughout the entire race that I was okay, I was still in position, I could still make the team. That kind of engagement during every second of the race was huge for me. At some point I usually start to doubt a little or worry when it’s getting really tough, but I didn’t allow those thoughts to even enter my mind in the finals. And although I fell just short of my goal, that doesn’t mean I failed. Instead it proved to me that my dreams weren’t unrealistic. Most importantly, my performance at the Trials backs up my belief that I can make World and Olympic teams and compete with the best in the country. The mental side was there before, and now I have complete confidence that physically I can be there as well.

These three races don’t stand out as physical accomplishments; instead they each reflect a mental breakthrough and turning point. Each time I was able to make that leap in my mind that I could compete at a higher level, and from that point I had a new set of standards to hold myself to.

One of the hardest things about our sport is the mental battles we wrestle with every day. But every so often there’s a race or a workout where suddenly it clicks in your mind that you are capable of so much more. I try to hold on to those moments and use them to both motivate me and remind me of what I should be striving for.

As the summer season has finally ended and I’m gearing up for a new year of training, I like to look back on what I’ve learned from these races. I use that to set my new goals and mentally refocus myself for the challenges ahead. I also love looking back at these three races to see just how much my goals have changed over the years and how far I’ve come. I hope this inspires other runners to think “Why not me?” Sometimes it takes only one moment for your perspective to change and open up new doors.

 

0.03 Seconds

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0.03 seconds is about the amount of time it takes to blink your eyes. It’s also the amount of time that separated me from becoming an Olympian. It’s funny, in an ironic sort of way, because you see the scenario playing out in your head thousands of times, sprinting down the homestretch battling neck and neck with another athlete for that final coveted Olympic spot, and you wonder if you’ll really dive for it when the time comes, so you just imagine that you throw yourself across the line and the crowd will scream like crazy because you just slipped into that third spot and will forever be an Olympian. And that’s exactly how the story played out, with a fairy tale ending, only it wasn’t my fairy tale.

Track and Field: 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Track & Field

Jul 10, 2016; Eugene, OR, USA; Brenda Martinez (right) outleans Amanda Eccleston to finish third in the women’s 1,500m, 4:06.16 to 4:06.19, during the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials at Hayward Field. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-Press-Enterprise

The last two weeks have been a whirlwind of racing and travel, but I’ve had some time to finally process the Trials final. I lay there on the ground just past the finish line with my hands over my face, not because I was too emotional or in pain from falling, but because I was trying to block everything out and listen to the announcer. I heard “Jenny Simpson… Shannon Rowbury…” then a pause. I was repeating over and over in my head Amanda Eccleston, Amanda Eccleston, Amanda Eccleston, and then, “Brenda Martinez!” Someone helped me to my feet; I remember looking into the stands in daze, trying to find my family because I knew they were just past the finish line. I gave them a small wave and then slowly stumbled off the track. I didn’t feel devastated or heartbroken at that point; I didn’t feel a lot of anything.

I had a hard time at first describing how I felt because it was like swinging back and forth on a pendulum. On one side I am absolutely thrilled and so proud of my performance and competitiveness through all three rounds. I sailed smoothly through the prelims and semis feeling very relaxed and controlled, knowing there was more there for the final. And in the final, despite the fact that I made a few tactical errors with being too far back to cover moves and place myself within reach, when the time finally came with 100 to go and I could see third place, I went for it heart and soul, and I know without a doubt there’s nothing else I could have done at that point. But the outcome was tough to swallow. On paper it may seem like a surprisingly good finish for me, but I expected nothing less; I expected top 3.

Luckily for me, there wasn’t a whole lot of time to dwell after the Trials. Three days later I boarded my first international flight ever to Italy, and that’s when the story starts to get good again. Running has literally taken me to places I’ve never imagined and given me incredible opportunities to both run and explore the world. I just got back from my first ever Diamond League race in London, a race that I was only able to enter after my performance at the Trials, and ran two 1500 PRs in 5 days. I’ve received overwhelming support and condolences, with the general theme being that I’m young and will be there in 2020. And you better believe I’ll be out there, God willing, going for the Olympic team in four years. But I won’t worry about 2020 until 2020. Although the title Olympian is the most coveted honor our sport offers, it should not be the only definition of success. There is so much more to strive for in both racing and life between now and then, and I plan on taking advantage of each and every opportunity.

I really thought fourth place would be incredibly painful, but now my heart is so full of joy from support and getting to do what I love that there isn’t much room for sadness. God has blessed me abundantly this past year and given me the strength and ability to go after my dreams. So many things have to go right to have a chance at the Olympic Team. I was blessed enough to have everything fall into place at the right time, and that is a very rare gift. I don’t know if that will be the case in 2020, but I had my chance this year, and lining up for the Olympic Trials final is a memory I will always cherish. I can think back to that race and smile because I have no regrets.

There are moments when heartbreak still gets to me, like when I walk into a coffee shop or store with no thoughts of that race at all, and suddenly a TV begins playing a commercial for Rio. It’s hard not to feel a slight stab of pain seeing Olympians and the inspiring music set on the beautiful backdrop of Rio and not wish things had ended just a little differently. But 0.03 seconds doesn’t have to define me. The joy I receive through running and the people involved far outweighs that fraction of a second. I have countless goals left and things I want to accomplish in this sport, and I feel like I’m just getting started. I honestly can’t wait to see where running takes me and all the incredible people who get to share this journey with me. Thank you to all of you, because you are what picks me up from disappointment and keeps me running strong!

 

The Privilege of Chasing a Dream

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The first round of the Olympic Trials 1500 is one week away. It’s hard to believe that the culmination of thousands of miles, hundreds of hours of cross-training, and countless rehab and strengthening exercises are all centered around a race just over 4 minutes long that comes once every 4 years. But that’s the reality of chasing an Olympic dream. We often fight in obscurity, balancing full-time training around real life, quietly dealing with setbacks and obstacles but reveling in every sign of progress. Society rarely fully understands the professional track and field world, but add the word Olympics, and suddenly it makes sense.

This year I’ve been incredibly blessed to be able to chase my dream and see myself making physical strides towards reaching that dream. This was the first year I’ve voiced my goals out loud to more than just my family. I told my coach at the start of the year that I wanted to make the Olympic Team. At the time I had a PR of 4:08.08 and a 2015 season best of only 4:13 after some injury issues in 2014-2015. I thought that third 1500 spot would be wide open and that I wanted to be one of 5-6 women who could legitimately contend, and my coach agreed.

But even more than an outcome-based goal, I decided that I wanted to do everything physically and mentally possible to put myself in the best position to make the team when I step on that starting line. I wanted to be able to look back and know with 100% certainty that I did absolutely everything I could to prepare myself every single day. There’s nothing special about this goal; everyone chasing an Olympic dream has incredible drive and motivation, which is what makes the Olympic Trials so emotional. But for me, it has provided a sense of confidence to know there isn’t a single thing I could have done differently, and I can step to the line with a sense of peace.

It hasn’t been smooth sailing; hardly a week has gone by since December where I haven’t had to alter my running to cope with various ailments, and the past four months in particular I’ve dealt with a nagging ankle injury that forced me to take a couple steps back. But hindsight is always 20/20, and my limited running in March and April has now set me up to reach the Trials on an upward trend, feeling stronger and more fit every day.

I don’t feel much nervousness when I think about the trials. I feel confidence, a sense of peace and excitement, and I just feel ready. I’ve stepped to the line in my last several races very relaxed because I finally trust completely in my body and mind’s ability to lay it all out on the track. I’ve always been a confident runner, but I used to be wracked with nerves to the point where I felt sick to my stomach and wanted to quit the sport entirely every time I stepped to the line. Now I feel calm, fueled by the fact that time and time again this year I’ve asked my body to give more and I’ve always found it. All doubts and fears have left my mind when I race. I used to be terrified about the last 100 in a race, to the point that in high school I would try to win races in the first lap. Now the final 100 is my favorite part because it forces me to be completely vulnerable, and only then can I can see what I’m truly capable of. It’s about placing yourself in a position where you have no choice but to find an inner strength when you think you’ve used everything up. I feel the most free the last 100 of a race because at that point the only thought going through your mind is to give more, push harder. It’s those moments that define what you are made of as an athlete.

I know it’s going to take something special for me to finish top 3, but I truly and completely believe I can do it. I’m giving myself up completely to this goal and not looking back. Everyone comes to the Olympic Trials wearing their hearts on their sleeves and with their eyes full of dreams, and sometimes you have to be emotionally vulnerable and exposed despite the consequences. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I have had so much fun this year training with this lofty goal in mind. I am literally living my dream each and every day right now, and making the Olympic Trials in itself is a cause for celebration.

So with the trials a week away, I can’t help but smile because I feel so ready. I don’t know if I’ll get knocked out of the first round or qualify for the Olympics, but I know I’ll be able to find the strength inside to run the best I absolutely can, and that’s all I can control. I’m coming to the starting line in the best physical shape of my life, having PR’d in every event I run (800, 1500, mile, 3k, 5k) this year, with 3 PRs in the last month. And I’ve reached a state of mental peace where I trust in my ability to give my all every time I step to the line and run to glorify God, and I’ll be able to walk away with no regrets. This next week I’ll keep dreaming, I’ll keep believing, and I’ll relish the chance to go for a dream that’s far bigger than me alone.

 

 

Embrace the Mental Side of Running

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Running is a very simplistic, raw sport. It places you at the absolute extreme of your physical abilities, and it pushes your mind to places of pain, doubt, and fear that you either succumb to or choose to breakthrough. I’m far from an expert in these matters, but I’ve had a lot of practice working on my mental game the last several years, and I’ve shared some of my thoughts below.

Control the things you can, and don’t stress about the rest.

The number one thing that comes to mind that you can’t control is your competitors. I can’t control how much anyone else is training, what their race plan is, or what their abilities are. While it’s important to be aware of your competitors and their abilities, concern about them cannot consume you because it will take away focus on yourself and your strengths.

So what things can you control? You can control how hard you work in your training, how much time and effort, both mental and physical, you put into being the best possible athlete. You can eat well, get plenty of rest, focus on recovery, and give yourself a mental break from running, whether you’re a “Netflix and Chill” kind of person or a social butterfly. And even when you do all that you can to prepare and plan ahead, some things will inevitably come up and disrupt your plans, like a canceled flight, twisting your ankle on the warm-up, or 50 mph winds and rain on race day. You just have to learn to shake those things off because stress will only take away from your positive mental energy.

Focus on the task at hand.

This is one of my go-to mantras for tough workouts. The whole workout can sometimes seem overwhelming, so I break it down to small, achievable steps. Say I’m running 15 x 200 @ 31 seconds. I tell myself the task at hand is to run a single 200 m at 31 seconds. That’s all I think about, and that’s a very doable step. This works great for me in tempo workouts too, which are the most taxing mental workouts for me. A 4-mile tempo seems to drag on for ages, so I tell myself that all I have to do is focus on running a 42-second 200. (You can tell my focus is best for less than a minute). A 42-second 200 is basically a jog, so I just tell myself to run that one at a time instead of focusing on maintaining a 5:30ish pace for 4 miles.

This works for looking ahead in training too. At the start of the season, and particularly after injury, you often feel out of shape and struggle to complete runs at what was once an easy jogging pace. Your first workout is laughable, and you can’t imagine how you will ever get back to your peak. Instead, focus only on what that day’s objective is, and focus on being just the slightest bit better than the day before. Taking it one day at a time helps break down a seemingly impossible goal into manageable steps.

Self-confidence. Believe in yourself more than anyone else believes in you.

Most starting lines I step on these days I’m not the best runner. I’m not the most talented, I don’t have the best credentials or PRs, and I probably don’t run as much. But that doesn’t stop me from believing 100% that I have the ability to win the race. I definitely don’t win every race, but I put myself in a mental mindset ready to do what it takes to win. To me, self-confidence means setting high goals and having an unbreakable belief in your ability to go after those goals. You will have setbacks and injuries, and it may take much longer to reach your goals than you wanted, but you keep striving relentlessly towards them, knowing you have what it takes. You have no doubts of what you are capable of.

Visualization.

The best way I’ve found to prep for future races is through visualization. I begin by imagining the start line, which is the scariest part for me. I focus on how I will feel strong, confident, like a coiled spring ready to explode. I imagine several different race scenarios, from a sit-and-kick race where I close in sub-60 to front-running in a PR. I like to be ready for anything, and by imaging any possible race scenario in my head I can practice how I will respond in a real race.

I try to go further than just seeing different race scenarios in my head; I imagine how I’ll feel at different points in the race. I imagine how it may feel too fast at halfway, but I’ll be able to hold on. I think about the burning that will already be starting when I hit the bell, but how I’ll be able to sprint even faster off of that pace. I especially focus on that final move, somewhere in the last 150, where I hit my absolute top gear and how from that point I won’t let anyone past me. And of course, in my visualizations, I always win 🙂

 

Learn to cope with bad workouts.

Everyone has bad workouts. They’re a natural part of training! If you never have a bad workout, you probably aren’t trying hard enough. I’ve had my share of horrendous workouts (I once ran 4 x mile in 6:27, 6:30, 6:46, 7:06 when I was supposed to run 6:30, 6:20, 6:10, 6:00. My running log says “Worst workout time-wise in my life. Moving on, gotta have one horrible workout a season and now mine’s out of the way”).

The key to bad workouts is how you bounce back. I usually run through a brief check-list in my head (Were the weather conditions bad? How was my eating/hydration/sleep? Was this workout too ambitious or was I not mentally engaged?) Sometimes I see a pattern and have something tangible to fix, but other times there’s really no explanation, and you have to have a short-term memory about those bad days. One bad workout, or even a few in a row, does not indicate that your season is done or that you can’t continue to improve. Take bad workouts in stride, accept that no one is perfect, and move on with a fresh attitude for the next one.

Learn to be happy with your best, even if you wanted better.

So many times I’ve walked away from a race where I didn’t quite hit my goal time or just missed out on the win or my goal place. I feel frustrated and anxious for the next time out on the track to prove to myself that I’m better than that. Sometimes I even ran a PR in these races or beat people I’ve never beaten before!

The problem with this reaction is that my goal time or place is an arbitrary number. A time doesn’t determine your effort, just as a loss doesn’t mean you didn’t try. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have  time or place goals; these are essential to keep focused on improving and being competitive. Instead, consider your physical effort and mental engagement during the race. Did I really do everything I could to respond to moves and tactics, get the most effort out of myself, and kick with everything I had at the end? If the answer is yes, then you have to accept that you gave everything you had and be proud of the achievement.

Never set limits on yourself.

It’s easy to watch people way faster than you and think “I’ll never be able to do that. How do people even run that fast?” I felt like this when I first went to college and my coach told me her 5k PR was 16:40. I didn’t even know women could do that! And when I learned that women in my event, the mile, were running in the 4:30’s, that blew my mind. I just wanted to break 5 minutes. But every time you take a step forward, the next step becomes a bit more realistic. Once I broke 5 in the mile, the next goal was to run a little faster to qualify for nationals. After finishing 5th as a Junior, my new goal was to win the following year. And even this year, when I ran 4:26 at Boston, a time I once thought inconceivable, I felt GOOD. So good that 4:20 no longer seems unattainable, just maybe a few years down the road.

The point is, no one knows exactly how good they’ll get one day. So don’t set boundaries on yourself before you have a chance to break them. As Albert Einstein once said, “Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them”.

 

You do You and I’ll do Me

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The Importance of Individualized Training

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over my years of running, it’s to listen to my body and train in a way that suits me, not just how the best or greatest runners train.

There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to running. In fact, an individualized approach is more often the best approach for optimal performance. Everyone reacts differently to different training stimuli, and one of the greatest ways to improve performance is to discover what works for you as an individual.

For me, the key is moderation. Despite my wishes, my body does not handle high mileage that well. But I’ve found ways to work around this, particularly through cross-training and eliminating any junk miles. I have been aiming for about 45-55 miles a week since November, which includes a run on the Alter-G once a week. I only run 6 days a week, generally in singles, and add in about 3-4 hours of cross-training (aqua jogging, ElliptiGo, spin bike) to simulate 70-75 total miles for the week. I try to keep my training well rounded, with lifting, core work, strides, drills, recovery, and lots and lots of PT. One of my biggest strengths from this type of training is that I generally feel fresh, recovered, and ready to tackle the next challenge. The fact that I’ve been injured so many times has actually allowed me to discover how I train best and made me a much stronger athlete in general.

Focusing on what you can do as an individual to become the best possible athlete can also take away some of the fear of competition. When I begin to think about all my competitors and how hard they train, what their PRs are, how in the world can I hope to beat them, it becomes straight up terrifying. Instead, I think about what I can do each and every day to get the best out of myself. I prepare mentally and physically so that when I get on the line, I have complete confidence in my training. It doesn’t matter what anyone else has done; I know I’m ready to perform my best.

Don’t get me wrong, I love reading about other athlete’s training. It’s so interesting to me to see how runners structure their training, what types of workouts they run, etc. Different training works for different athletes, and as I hope to be a coach myself someday, I scour the internet for anything and everything I can find about running. And while I occasionally find some tips or new ideas to implement in my training, the training of others doesn’t change what I do as an athlete. I stick with what I know best and rely on how I feel, letting my body tell me when we’re training just hard enough and when to back off.

These past few weeks of racing have given me renewed confidence that what I’m doing is working. We haven’t done anything crazy or extreme this year; it’s just the result of being healthy for the past 13 months, continued training, and natural progression. Each year I try to train a little bit harder, a little bit smarter, and a little bit more focused. I stay focused on the positive and enjoy every moment because it’s not that often that you can live your dream!

 

So What Do I Do All Day?

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October 16, 2015

Being a professional runner is about more than just running fast. The little things day in and day out, such as eating right, getting enough rest, working to build strength and prevent injury, and recovering properly, all go into becoming the best athlete possible. The training varies day to day, but every day has a purpose to help me reach my goals. Here’s a look into how I trained and spent my day this past Monday:

7:00 AM Wake up, typical breakfast of steel-cut oatmeal, granola, and honey. I spend some time reading emails and checking on the latest running news.

8:15 ElliptiGo. 30 min. My mileage isn’t too high, so I generally do a second session of cross-training several days a week. I love the ElliptiGo because I can get a great aerobic effort without all the pounding.

8:45 Weight lifting/Strength training/Core work

10:00 Recovery snack. Apple and peanut butter.

10:30 Work. I work as a scientific editor. Essentially I proofread and revise scientific articles to get them ready for publication. This is the ideal job as a runner because it’s incredibly flexible, allows me to work from home, and it can be done while relaxing on the couch 🙂 I usually work 20-25 hours a week.

12:30 Lunch. Turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread, cucumbers with dill dip, crackers.

1:00 Grocery shopping.

2:15 Work. More editing.

3:30 Snack. Nature Valley granola bar.

3:40 Household chores. Fold laundry, wash dishes, tidy up the house.

4:20 Hip mobility routine. Includes strengthening and flexibility exercises. Also some general stretching/running prep.

5:00 Fartlek run. Went to the Radrick golf course with my husband. This was my first harder effort of the season, so it wasn’t too crazy. After some warm up drills, I started out with 10 minutes of easy running and then went straight into 8 sets of 2 minutes hard, 2 minutes easy, followed by about 8-9 minutes easy to end up at 7.5 miles total. The hard segments were about 5:30-5:50 pace with the easy segments at 6:30-7:00 pace. This was a good aerobic effort for me and a nice transition to the harder strength workouts that will come later. Did some stretching and rolling out once I got home.

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7:30 Dinner. Garlic chicken with orzo and spinach with a side of zucchini, broccoli, and cauliflower sauteed in olive oil, oregano, and Parmesan  cheese. Followed by dessert (Coco Marshmallow cereal. I always need something sweet).

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8:15 Relax. Waste a little time browsing online and log my training for the day; then I generally read for the last hour before bed to wind down. I’m a big fan of Victorian literature (I’m currently reading Vanity Fair).

10:00 Sleep! I aim for 8-9 hours of sleep a night, sometimes more when I’m really tired.