Sometimes, Just Finishing is Enough (File this under things I never thought I’d say)

 

 

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Two weeks leading up to my fourth marathon, I started to believe I was cursed. My running partner, Robin, got suddenly sidelined and the doctor said she may never run again. Lindsay’s father-in-law went into the hospital—then her mother-in-law—and so she pulled out of the girls’ weekend she was going to share with us. My foot ached, my car broke down, my retainer fell out, I smashed my nose on the door (my husband says I need whiskers), my throat was starting to feel scratchy and the grocery was out of beets.

During my last 8-miler before the race I nearly face-planted while crossing the highway. Like, arms windmilling frantically, feet flailing behind me in big loping strides so as not to crash into the pavement with my recently un-retained teeth.

“I can’t catch a break,” I complained to my husband when I got home. “I’m having the worst luck.”

“Or,” my husband began, “maybe you have good luck.”

“How’s that?”

“Well, you didn’t fall, did you?”

Usually I’m totally a glass is half-full kind of girl, but when you’re about to do something as crazy as run 26.2 miles, you look for anything as a sign not to do it.

The day before the marathon—on Friday the 13th nonetheless—the stars aligned a bit.

Robin was treated and cleared by a super-awesome sports PT to run. I didn’t come down with the flu, didn’t break my leg, my foot miraculously healed, and I settled for a jar of pickled beets.

Robin and I checked into our hotel and it was surprisingly nice for the price. The expo was a breeze, we had a great dinner, got to bed early and I actually managed to sleep a few hours.

The next morning, I felt good. Like, really good. Like, Boston-qualifying good.

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Race morning!

I got to the start in plenty of time with my satellite secured and my intestines emptied. I pushed my way to the front so as to avoid getting caught in a crowd of runners. And then I was off.

By mile 8, I had already built a three-minute buffer into my qualifying time. It felt easy. Like I could hold an 8:20 pace forever.

Or at least until mile 11.

The drop was sudden. Without any warning, my body announced, “I think this is as far as we’re going to go today.”

I know all too well that mile 11 is much too early to encounter “the wall.” And yet, there it was, an impenetrable concrete metaphor standing firmly between me and my Boston qualifying time. Maybe even between me and completing the race altogether.

I wanted to cry. I wanted to stop running. I did both.

Then I thought about Robin, running her first marathon. And Lindsay, watching my pace from home, cheering me on. And the $100 I spent to run 26.2 miles, which really stung.

I pulled myself together best I could, gave myself permission to let go of the goal I’d work 5 months to reach, and just tried to put one foot in the front of the other for 15 miserably long, hot and humid miles.

Because when there’s nothing else to do, you might as well just finish.

Finishing that race as a biped was absolutely the hardest thing I’ve ever done. After crossing the finish at 4:19, I flopped down on the ground in complete exhaustion. The sun beat onto my worn body until I caught a glimpse of Robin heading toward the finish. I rose as awkward as a newborn colt, trying to gain my balance on cramping legs. And then I forgot everything—about my curse, my missed goal, and my crappy race. In short, I forgot about me and cheered Robin in to her very first marathon finish. She was beat. Broken. Humbled. Exhausted. She was absolutely amazing.

That, after all, was the real reason I had to finish.

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So proud of her!

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And…that’s a wrap.

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What I Gained from the First Race I Didn’t Race: Another Perspective

I set myself up for success by setting myself up for failure. No really, hear me out. By not training for the Critz Tybee Run Fest—all 5 legs which equal 26.2 miles—I couldn’t even worry about racing. I told myself my only goal was to finish. And I was only halfway committed to that goal. If it was raining, I wouldn’t show up. If it was below 30, I wouldn’t show up. If I had a bad dream about snakes, if my floss broke, if I sneezed…

I kept an eye out for every omen to tell me not to do it, but nothing revealed itself but a big ol’ green light welcoming me to the start line of the 5K on Friday night. I hate 5Ks. The distance, while short, is just over 22 minutes of absolute hell. I’d rather run 20 miles at a comfortable pace than “just” 3.1 miles at breakneck speed. I’m not one of those people who say, “Just pull the Band-Aid off quick; it’ll hurt less.” No, it won’t, and you’ll spend another week trying to grow back a 3” strip of dermis. Pull it slowly and you lose a few hairs you should’ve shaved off anyway.

But I knew I had to take it easy because at 7 the next morning I’d have to run a 10K and if I still didn’t dream about snakes or sneeze, I’d chase it with a half-marathon, a 2.8 beach run and a 1-miler.

No big deal—I wasn’t racing.

But dammit if I didn’t race.

About a quarter of a mile in, my body felt good. My feet were turning over to one of Taylor Swift’s songs with 96 BPMs (don’t judge) streaming from my new Plantronics BackBeat Bluetooth headphones (I’m only including this detail because tech tends to fails me, but these are an exception–they’re awesome and you must get them). I glanced at my Garmin, which revealed a 7:15 pace. Much too fast.

I dropped to about 7:30 which made me feel even better. At that point, I decided to see what would happen.

Here’s what happened: I almost ran a PR. I got third place in my age group. If I felt uncomfortable, I’d pull back just a bit because if you recall, I’m wasn’t racing. The last 500 yards I sprinted, which I never do. And I didn’t retch at the finish. Which I always do.

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Third Place in the 5K!

 

About 5 seconds after crossing the line, I texted my running partner who signed up for the next morning’s 10K—and was waiting for me at dinner.

Who you text immediately after a race says a lot. It’s the person who won’t reply to your “I just ran a 22:28” with “Is that a good time?” or “Cool. When will you be home?” Lindsay gets it like only a running partner can—she knows my splits, my PRs and my bad hip from my good one.

I got my medal, hustled to dinner, drank too much wine (again, because I wasn’t racing) and crashed with Lindsay and our other friend, Robin, at a beach house just a mile from the next morning’s start line.

I woke up energized. My floss didn’t break. My toast didn’t burn. I was ready to race—er, I mean, run.

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Lindsay and me having just survived the 10K

I paced Lindsay on the 10K even though I said I would rest up for the half. As we crossed the finish, I had 30 minutes to change my socks, use the bathroom and eat before the next race. The point is, I didn’t have time to give myself a reason not to run again. In fact, I kept encountering reasons to press on. Robin, who just ran the 10K, decided she would join me for the first six miles of half, for which I was eternally grateful (she ended up running all 13.1 miles). By mile 3 I felt like hell and couldn’t stop thinking of hamburgers. But I popped some Stinger chews—a far cry from the quarter-pounder I craved—and got a surge of energy.

There were other inspirations along the way—sharing a couple of miles with some running friends I hadn’t seen for awhile, seeing Lindsay, showered and rested with a glass of wine sitting in a folding chair at mile 10, and being cheered in by my Savannah Striders friends and the finish. I was about 12 minutes off my half PR, but I had just run 19 consecutive miles. And I wasn’t racing.

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Staying warm post-half, pre-beach run.

I was on autopilot for the final two legs. Luckily, another friend, Christine, was willing to keep me company, even after she had already accomplished her goal of running a 10K PR.

I survived. I sat in the car for about 15 minutes texting Lindsay, Robin and Christine all the results (19th woman overall!) and gushing about how I couldn’t have done it without them as if I was on my third glass of wine rather than my third pack of energy chews.

As I drove the 10 minutes from the island back to my house, I felt incredibly accomplished (and wildly hungry). But more than that, I felt really, really loved.

In the couple of weeks that have passed, I don’t remember much about those few solo miles of the race, but I can vividly recall every mile I ran with one of my girlfriends. Because it was fun.

Let’s face it, racing isn’t fun. It’s what I image it feels like right before you die, except you stay that way for hour and you never die.

I pushed myself during the races, but I didn’t push myself over the edge because I wasn’t sure what I could do. I found out I could do a lot more than I imagined. But I don’t think I could’ve done it without my running partners.

Either way, I wouldn’t have wanted to.

Being Thankful Sometimes Takes a Little Convincing

 

United Way Turkey Trot

I love me a Turkey Trot!

I like to run on holidays, especially on my birthday and Thanksgiving—the two times of the year I’m acutely aware of the good things in my life. Today was no exception. I’m a pretty regular “turkey trotter,” running the 4-mile race every year I’m in town. Because the distance falls between a 5k and 10k, I don’t have too many expectations about my time; I just want to beat improve (or so I tell myself). This takes the race-pressure off as does the fact that everyone out there is in the holiday spirit. The atmosphere just feels a little “lighter” than usual—because if you don’t have a good race, it would be selfish not to be happy simply be thankful that you can race.

Right?

I wanted to race because after the Rock ‘n’ Roll debacle, I needed to know that the training had gone to something more than a missed opportunity. And I had a third-place age-group medal to defend, which is a bit like saying you graduated college with a 3.75 GPA. No one cares. No one remembers. But you do. I mean, I do…

Things went well from the moment I woke. I put my bib on straight at the first attempt. (If you have ever pinned a bib, you can appreciate this.) I had remembered to charge my watch the night before; I swiftly found my lucky hat, earrings, necklace. I had successful bathroom experiences (3) and I was on time as I headed out the door. Being entirely superstitious, I took all of these as signs pointing to a strong finish.

I decided right before the gun that I would attempt to hold a 7:30 pace. I went out too fast as always, but settled in at mile two. And by “settled in,” I mean I was so uncomfortable I wanted to walk. Or throw up. Or walk while throwing up. I pulled back at mile three and started to see the women I was pacing off of pull ahead.

Coming toward the finish line, I heard my husband and daughter yell, “Go, Mommy!” At which point I heaved. Loudly.

Pressing my fist to my lips, I kept it in. Just keep going, I thought. Heave. Go. Heave.

The people cheering on the sidelines suddenly paused and made that face when you know you’re about to see something really bad but can’t look away—somewhere between sympathy and horror.

But I was not going to throw up. Not in a 4-mile race that is supposed be lighthearted and fun. Not on Thanksgiving. Not on the nice guy, Chris Ramsey, who announced my name over the microphone as I crossed the line

“And here’s our New Balance Race Ambassador coming across the line!”

I lifted my hand ever so slightly in acknowledgement and managed what I thought was a smile but probably looked like someone whose face just endured a hard right-hook.

And then: HEAVE.

It was big. It was loud. But I somehow kept it together. Somehow I kept it in.

I finished at 29:23 and with my breakfast still in my stomach, which should have been reason enough to celebrate.

But when I looked at the posted race results, I didn’t see my name. Turns out I perfectly aligned the wrong bib; I had grabbed my dad’s bib instead. Before someone could call Runner’s World to report that an 82-year-old many just ran a sub-30, I cleared things up with the race officials.

I got 5th place in my age group. Boo.

I thought again of all the reasons I should be thankful—my health, the beautiful weather, the fact that I’m not yet 82—but I couldn’t shake the pangs of disappointment. On the way home, I called my running partner, Lindsay, who, like any good running partner, assured me that faster runners had been shipped in from out of town, and that no else but me could run a sub-30 after drinking a bottle of wine and some change the night before. And then she told me to look up my time from last year. I beat it by 2 minutes.

A PR outweighs a medal any day (I mean, not at that moment, but in the big picture). My daughter, however, sees it differently. When I got home she presented me with this:

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The best award around.

And there it is: Profound thankfulness.

A Girl and Her Running Shoes: A Love Story

“You got another new pair of running shoes?” my husband inquired, not bothering to hide his disgust.

As I lifted my purplish-blue (this color has always confounded me) New Balance 860 v5 from the box, the smell of rubber washed over me like warm sunlight. So bright. So clean. So … new.

“My other pair was like 6 months old.” Okay, 3 months, but only runners understand that 3 months in shoe years is like 40 for humans.

“You wouldn’t let me spend $100 on a Halloween costume and you bought a pair of shoes?” he said, accusingly.

Clearly Ray doesn’t understand logical fallacy. A one-time Halloween costume and a pair of shoes that takes me to my next PR pain-free, are not like things. They aren’t even in the same universe, unless your universe is inhabited by red herrings and straw men.

No, I did not spend $100 on new shoes—I spent $120. But that really breaks down to only $60 per foot. Figure in the free shipping and that these shoes will protect my $12 running socks and $20 pedicure, and they’re basically free.

And, these are not mere “shoes.” They’re wings. Jet packs. Hover boards.

Friends.

That’s right, I love my running shoes.

I’ve been wearing the New Balance 860 since I first started running somewhere around the mid-90s. Before that, I was a shoe whore. I’d find the cheapest, most colorful shoe, try it out a couple of times and quickly discard after realizing it wasn’t a good fit. Too spongy. Too stiff. Too geriatric. Too moonboot-ish (that’s a real thing). I was always searching, without ever really knowing what I was looking for.

After a bout with shin splints, my husband suggested that I get fitted for a shoe by someone who actually understands the mechanics of running. It was awkward at first. Having a pretty man tell you to “run naturally” while he watches you is a little like telling someone to breathe without thinking about it. Everything gets weird and labored. I jogged down the sidewalk like a ostrich—upright with my arms close to my body, paddling through the air as if I was shooing flies from chest. It was even worse when he instructed me to run back because then I had to think about my face. What’s a natural face for a block-long jog? I settled on a bizarre catalogue-model smile mixed with perceived effort—best described as my “stanky face”—which caused the pretty man to avert his eyes, and understandably so.

Back in the store, pretty man told me I had a wide toe box and that I pronated—neither of which is sexy. He handed me a rather unattractive and oversized predominately white New Balance shoe with navy accents. Jackie Joyner-Kersee wouldn’t touch these things with her 10-foot vaulting pole—even in the ‘80s.

At the time, when I thought of New Balance, I thought of old men in long velour robes shuffling along in the gray 574, going to retrieve the Sunday paper from the front yard. But my very next run felt effortless. I was cloud-running. Unicorns were flying. Angels sang. It was a perfect fit.

You know the shoe I'm talking about...

You know the shoe I’m talking about…

I’ve stuck with the 860 ever since—besides my marriage, it’s the most committed I’ve ever been. Sure, there was a time or two I was tempted by a deal or a trendy color and I justified, “I won’t run in these, just look cute in them.” But even then, after a week or two, the adulteresses found themselves relegated to the dark corners of the closet amongst the other misfit shoes that caused me pain and regret.

Runners get it. My running partner Lindsay recently learned that New Balance updated her New Balance RC 1400 to a new version. My shoe has had 5 version upgrades, which I’m okay with, but Lindsay is a purist. She spent an evening scouring the internet for every pair in her size she could find and ended up buying six. It’s safe to say that the size-9 original RC 1400 is now obsolete.

Lindsay's loot arrives!

Lindsay’s loot arrives!

I’m fickle about a lot of things in my life, but not my running shoe. The 860 has seen me through three marathons and five half marathons. It’s run on trails in the Northwest and through vineyards in the South of France. It’s been in rain and snowstorms. PR’d and peed on. And 40 years from now, when I’m shuffling to my mailbox in my velour robe, you can bet I’ll be in my 860—v 48.

New Balance 860

Even our running shoes like each other! *smooch*

Trust the plan: Just when you think it isn’t working…it is.

Rock 'n' Roll Savannah

Last year: A different time, a different plan. (Lindsay, Kelley and me)

“Maybe when we train for the next half-marathon, we should try a different training plan,” I suggested to Lindsay, two miles into our Sunday morning long run, already dragging my leg like something from “The Walking Dead.”

“I remember liking Hal Higdon’s plans–maybe we could try the advanced one,” I offered.

“Andrea, we are doing the Hal Higdon advanced plan,” Lindsay said, exasperated.

See, I don’t actually follow a plan–at least not in the normal, self-reliant way. Instead, I show up to each run and ask Lindsay, “So, what are we doing today?” She’s given me the plan–in the form of email, text, hardcopy taped to my forehead–but it’s so much more fun to be surprised.

Texas Tech head coach Bob Knight reacts to the officials as Stanford beat Texas Tech 62-61 Saturday, December 22, 2007 during The O'Reilly Red Raider Christmas Classic at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. (Tom Pennington/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)

“If my Garmin doesn’t record my miles, it’s like they never happened!!!!” — Lindsay

Lindsay doesn’t seem to mind that she’s the gatekeeper of my training–the one who wears the running pants in this partnership, telling me what to do when and how fast. She’s good at it, too. She syncs her Garmin after every run like it’s her job (I haven’t done this once since buying mine in 2009), and if she forgets to start it and a quarter-mile goes unrecorded, she gets mad. Like, Bobby Knight mad.

She’s also a natural statistician when it comes to running. She remembers PRs, medals, race pace–both hers and mine–while I can barely remember that I can’t eat wheat the night before a run.

“Did you eat gluten last night, Andrea?” Lindsay often inquires to the closed doors of porta-potties that sit on empty construction sites.

“Nooooo,” I call from inside, indignant.

And then: “Wait, yes. Crap.”

If you’ve been keeping up with my whining, you know that this usually stellar path to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half has been tarnished by injuries and illnesses. Then, Sunday morning I woke feeling like I swallowed thumbtacks–the same day Lindsay finally finished up her round of antibiotics. Naturally, I want to blame the plan–the first I’ve ever done that calls for a significant amount of speed work.

Lindsay also distrusts the plan, as demonstrated by the series of questions she rapid-fires around the midpoint of every run:

“Do you think we’re running too much?”

“Do you think we’re running enough?”

“Are we going to fast for a tempo?”

“Are we going to slow for speed work?”

“Are we going to peak too soon?”

“Should we run further than the plan says?”

And inevitably: “I don’t think this plan is working.”

It’s ironic that she poses these questions to me since I don’t even know the plan, and also because my approach to running is a little more … organic.

“It’ll all work out.”

And it has. Or at least it’s starting to. By the grace of Hal, the next 10 miles of that long run were swift and painless. We ran negative splits and came in hot; our last mile was an 8:50 (or so I kinda remember–Lindsay can edit).

“I think the plan is working!” we squealed, like only people who wear arm warmers and compression socks can.

We’re three weeks out from the race. Past experience should tell me that this is the time I start to see my running goals as attainable. Three months ago, not so much. It’s easy to forget. And it’s easy to doubt that all those days of training, slowly adding mileage and speed, add up to one (hopefully) spectacular moment. Even the setbacks–the ugly runs, the injuries and illnesses–are part of the equation.

Today we held an 8:07 pace for four-miles of speed work. When we stop, I say what we’re both thinking: “This plan is totally working.”

How running with others has made me a better runner—and friend

Strange things start to happen when you run with others. Long miles spent sweating, complaining and rejoicing accomplishments only another runner can understand (negative splits!) lead you down roads you don’t expect. You hear things that can’t be unsaid—usually, “this f**king sucks”—and you see things that can’t be unseen—I mean, I have a gluten sensitivity after all. These are the kinds of things that fall into the category: “We must never speak of this.”

Eventually, you start to show up for runs dressed alike.

Eventually, you even start to show up for runs dressed alike.

Take my running partner Lindsay, for instance. Our kids had gone to the same preschool, but we never really connected. Two years ago she happened to be on the same trail and I asked her to join me out of courtesy, fully expecting that she’d decline.

She didn’t. Those first two miles we ran awkwardly together, each taking turns downplaying our ability in a tiresome, self-deprecating exchange:

“I’m sorry if I’m slowing you down.”

“No! You’re not! I’m the one slowing you down.”

“No, really, you can totally go ahead if you want to.”

“No, I’m not kidding. This is my pace.”

Blah blah blah blah blah…

But by mile 3 we settled in, dropped the insecurity dance and just ran.

Since that first run, Lindsay has seen me fall flat on my face, cramp, cry, heave, PR and medal. I’ve told her things (“I used to be fat”) and shown her things (“Is this staph?”) that few others have had the privilege of knowing. And as a result of our almost daily runs together, we’ve all become very close.

I’m fortunate to have a strong, steady core of running partners that you’ll come to know in the digital pages of this blog. I’ve come to see them as essential to my running—and overall wellbeing. They push me, encourage me, and perhaps most important, they listen. (I also have a theory that talking for an entire 9-mile run is similar to training at altitude.) Running partners are the people with whom you can do dorky things, like wear compression sleeves, give each other high-fives, text our workout results to one another, and emit random “woo-hoos” and our own meagre accomplishments.

Post-race Bloddy Mary's with my girls.

Post-race Bloody Mary’s with some of my girls.

Yesterday, after a rather successful speed work session, Lindsay and I texted and called one another throughout the afternoon, basically asking what is now a rhetorical question: “I mean, how awesome are we?”

In the grand scheme of things, we aren’t very awesome. We’re age-group runners looking to PR an upcoming half marathon. But to each other, we’re pretty damn special.

Because when you run with people, things happen. Friendships happen.

Lindsay and me, post-run glow.

Lindsay and me, post-run glow.

How (not) to pace your friends

Claudia, me and Lindsay: Friends at the start

Claudia, me and Lindsay: Friends at the start.

Things were going mostly as planned. My running partner Lindsay and I were 3 miles into the Azalea CrimeStoppers 10K run and holding steady at an 8:20 pace. She was on-track to run a sub-52 minute PR and first-ever age group win. It was a first for me, too—as a pacer. Lindsay and I had been running together for two years, and I’d seen her get consistently faster but she had yet to earn a medal—that non-precious junk dangling from a chintzy wrapping ribbon that most grown-ass women stopped lusting for around the age of 10, and yet, here we are. Because regardless of how poorly designed the medal, or how silly we think it is to hang one around our necks for anything less than an Olympic achievement, we all want one. And I was certain that if Lindsay were able to relax, turn on autopilot and let me set the pace–like I’d done when my friend Claudia paced me–she would crush her goal and get a medal. And I wanted to be right next to her when she did.

Well, just behind her.

See, in my yet-unwritten book of running partner etiquette, when you sign up to pace, you forfeit the win. There’s no glory in encouraging your partner steadily along a course only to out-stride them in an in-your-face sprint to earn a finish she already knew you were capable of getting. Unless, of course, you don’t like having friends.

Pacing isn’t about putting anything in anyone’s face. It’s not even about you.

I could tell that while we were holding pace, mile 3 wasn’t being kind to Lindsay. I know this because of the choice words she used to tell me. So I spent the second half of the race running through a bevy of ridiculous and annoying “you-can-it” affirmations to the point where I couldn’t even handle my own cotton-candy coated grossness.

“Looking good!” (She did.)

“Only 3 miles left—my mom can do three miles!” (She can’t.)

“You’ll feel great as soon as it’s over!” (Astute revelation.)

Then, with only a mile to go, Lindsay declared: “I’m going to walk.”

“Hell you are. I don’t walk.” (Cotton candy dissolved.)

She didn’t. In fact that little firecracker perked up and started picking off women I determined to be in our age group.

I knew the PR would be close, but the medal was all but guaranteed. The last 25 yards, Lindsay sprinted to the finish while I sat on her heels and cheered her across the line, just a few seconds behind. She got the PR, but we’d have to wait on the hardware.

They announced third place in our age group, giving it to a woman we passed near the finish. Then…

“Second place: Lindsay Thompson.”

I assumed my chip didn’t register. I assumed I somehow got disqualified. I assumed too much.

“First place: Andrea Goto.”

I look incredulously at Lindsay, who deadpanned, “You can’t even let me win.”

But she did win. I saw her tiny little booty cross the line in front of me. Unless my bib magically flew off my shirt and across the finish, I was clearly behind her.

And there I learned my first lesson in pacing: don’t cross the start line two seconds in front of your partner and finish one second behind. It’s basic math, which I’ve never been very good at. Now I’m not much of a pacer, either. As far as friends go, that’s kind of up in the air, too.

“Proudly” showing our hardware (Claudia’s came shortly thereafter).

Lindsay laughed it off, but it still haunts me. I’m so proud of her for getting a PR and her first medal, but she deserved first. She went home and showed her son, and he teared-up.

“Imagine what he would’ve done if she got first place,” my husband said, always a source of support.

I refused to hang that albatross around my neck for too long for fear it would weigh down my conscience or choke me. I can’t even place it in the shelf next to my honest, hard-earned medals.

Maybe I’ll put it on the shelf of hard-earned lessons.