Transitioning beyond the small pond.

Our company, Castle Worldwide, was recently purchased by Scantron. Scantron, in turn, is owned by Harland Clarke, which should be familiar to you if you write checks: their name is on the bottom-left corner of every check I’ve ever seen. Castle had been a 30-year-old privately-owned company  with a very small number of individual owners and with around 80 employees. Now, we are part of a big company, which is owned by an even bigger company and which has many, many thousands of employees all over the world. 

There’s a lot of positives to this transition. The main one is that we keep our offices in Morrisville and continue to do what we do, albeit with more oversight. For my department, Business Development – we do the contracts and proposals and drum up business – it means getting more approvals on things like pricing, etc. It’s all good, and understandable, and we are learning to adjust to new timelines and new processes, which are being created as we go and figure out what works. 

The more stressful transition has been figuring out all the new HR stuff. HR, payroll, and other things are managed by Harland Clarke, which has many, many companies under its umbrella. I’ve been used to the comfort of a small company where I can go over and ask our awesome HR person any question and get it handled. 

My particular stress lately has been over Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) processes. FMLA, which was implemented during the Clinton administration, “entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons with continuation of group health insurance coverage under the same terms and conditions as if the employee had not taken leave.” In other words, if you have someone sick in the family that you have to care for, you can take unpaid time off to do it and your job is protected. 

We had some health issues come up in the family a couple of months ago that are ongoing (to be written about in a future blog entry), so my awesome Castle family advised me to go ahead and file for FMLA. This included getting a federal form filled out by the doctor, who outlined the medical issue and the kind of time I’d need to have to support the family member. The process, once completed, relieved a lot of fear on my part that I’d have to use up my PTO. I’ve been able to use a couple of hours here and there to go on doctor’s appointments and save my PTO for vacations.

Now that I’m under new management, and given that this week I needed to use FMLA time for an appointment, I needed to figure out the process under Harland Clarke. We had the Scantron HR person in the offices this week to help us learn about our new log-in systems for doing our time sheets, requesting PTO, and other things, so I asked her about how to log FMLA time (e.g., is it under the PTO or under time sheets?). She directed me to someone else from Scantron, who called me to walk me through it. 

However, during the call, she explained that I needed to call another company (UNUM) to start the process. I immediately had images of being put on hold forever and having people from this new company not know who I was or what I needed. I began to get a little panicky. I’ve always had a fear of being just a number and getting lost in the shuffle, which is why I attended small private schools my whole life and gravitate to smaller companies like Castle. Like the song from Cheers, I want to be “where everybody knows your name,” and where I know everyone.

I avoided making the call for a bit, then finally sucked it up and called. It turns out that UNUM is a big benefits company that other big companies (like Harland Clarke) use to manage their leave for things like disability and FMLA. I was on hold waiting for an operator to help me for about 15 minutes, then a young-sounding man came on the phone and started asking me my name, my social, my employer, my date of birth, etc. He didn’t explain why he needed this information (was he using it to verify my identity, or to steal it?), and I was too cowed to question it, so I gave it all. 

I wrote in another blog how I would rather do things online rather than talk to a person; in this case, my feelings were amplified because I had to spell everything out. My street address has a weird spelling, and my last names (maiden and married together) are super-confusing. Wouldn’t this be easier if I could do it online and not have to literally spell everything out to a person? I decided to entertain myself by turning it into an exercise in trying to remember the aviation alphabet (“H as in Hotel, A as in Alfa, N as in November….”), but found myself getting it wrong half the time (“is it Y as in Yellow? No, Y as in Yankee….”). Although it doesn’t really matter if I get it “wrong” (as long as the person on the other end gets what letter I’m trying to spell out), I like to try to get it right because I’m that anal. 🙂

After about a half hour on the phone, we were done with him collecting all the possible information he could have on me, and he indicated my account was created and the claim request begun; I’d find out if I got approval in a couple of days. I again internally panicked – IF I got approval? However, I decided not to panic with this guy, as every time I’d asked a question that deviated from his script, he was clueless. (E.g.: “I already had the doctor fill out the federal form for FMLA – will UNUM accept that one, or do I have to have the very busy doctor who is trying to save lives fill out another one?” “I don’t know, they will tell you want they need once they review your case.” Uh, ok.) At some point, I will know IF they accept my claim, and if they do, whether the doctor has to fill out another form.

I do understand the need for UNUM’s services, given how big Harland Clarke is. It makes perfect sense. But it’s a transition that is challenging me to be ok with knowing that indeed, I’m now a number (and that it’s an 8-digit number that begins with an A as in Alfa). It’s time to stick my toe in the big pond and deal with my fears that I’ll be lost in the shuffle and/or that I can’t handle figuring out HR or other policy stuff.

The thing I’m most proud of here? I’m shutting up my questioning, panicky voice that makes me crazy whenever I encounter new things like this. Rather than raging against the machine, I’ve accepted that it is what it is. I will follow the procedures, and if/when things don’t go right, I will trust myself to figure out the next steps. I’ll take it as a growth opportunity and transition from being a scared small fish in a big pond to a fish who trusts herself to handle things as they come. 🙂

No, my abs aren’t weak – they’re just sleepy.

This past week I went to see a sports massage therapist (John Stiner of Stiner Massage) to look into the issues I was having with my painful right hip. I went to John because he’s not just a massage therapist; he’s someone who looks at your whole body to diagnose what’s going on and then provides exercises to help you fix the issue. 

John tested my muscle strength in different parts of my body by putting his hand on an arm, leg, etc., then had me match or resist the pressure he was applying. I did pretty well until we got to the abs. I was lying on the massage table and he had me lift my legs up so my legs were at about a 145-degree angle (like in the picture below). He put his hand on my shins to push the legs down and asked me to match his pressure. Down went the legs! 


I sheepishly said, “Yeah, I have weak abs.” He looked at me and said, “Not necessarily.” He asked me to lift the back of my head to bring my chin to my chest, then do the opposite motion of tilting my head back so I was looking behind me. He then had me lift my legs again and match his pressure. This time, the legs stayed up!

I was astounded – what happened? John indicated that my abs aren’t “weak” – they are just asleep (i.e., not firing). The muscles on the back of my neck are tight and overstrained (desk job, anyone?), and the action of tilting my head back released the neck muscles enough to allow the abs to wake up and do their job. 

John found two other areas where a tight muscle in one area was resulting in another muscle not firing – and in all cases, the one that was not firing is a big important muscle that should be doing the work that the little muscle was overstraining to do. The hip pain I’d been experiencing while running was caused by a tight right iliacus muscle (one of the hip flexors), which was trying to do the work of my sleeping right glute to propel me forward during running. 

The iliacus muscle spoons neatly into the ilium bone (the big shell-like bone in the hip).

The third area of imbalance he found was a tight outside set of leg muscles called the fibularis longis and brevis muscles in my right leg. These are apparently trying to do the work of my sleeping left oblique muscle (the side abdominal muscle). What???? How could a leg muscle impact an abdominal muscle?

Here’s why: a band of muscle criss-crosses our bodies and goes down through our legs in what’s known as the spiral line:

The spiral sling.

I was astounded by all of this, mostly because I always believed I have “weak abs” and “weak glutes.” But what I was hearing from John is that my core (and my glutes) aren’t weak. They are just asleep. Doing core exercises without dealing with the actual problem – an overly-tight smaller muscle that is trying to do the work of the bigger muscle – is not going to solve anything. I’ve been trying for years, and it hasn’t worked. 

So what’s the solution? Retrain the brain to fire up the sleepy muscles. That requires a three-step process that John taught me: Release, Activate, and Move (or RAM).

First, you Release the tight smaller muscle by triggered massage in that area (e.g., for the iliacus, I massage into that area). This is where the Muscle Hook I wrote about last week is amazing.

Next, you Activate the larger muscle (e.g., for the glute, it’s one-legged bridges; for the abs, it’s leg lifts). 

Standard one-legged bridge.

Finally, you Move by walking around briskly for 2-3 minutes (John said to pretend I’m walking through Atlanta airport in a hurry). Then repeat. Do it multiple times for each pair of muscles: iliacus/glute, leg muscle/obliques, and neck muscles/abs. 

So far I’m seeing good results. When I activate the abs, for example, my plank is much stronger and I stand straighter. When I massage the iliacus and activate the glute, I can feel it firing – POW!

The sound of my glutes firing. (I would like to edit this sound file to just one second, so let me know if you know how on a Windows computer.)

Note: it’s going to take a lot of RAMS (and using my stand-up desk daily at work so I don’t encourage the bad muscle habits that are caused by sitting at a computer for hours) to undo this. I have years-long brain patterns that have learned that the smaller muscles should be doing the work of the bigger muscles. My job, then, is to wake up those bigger muscles and have them take over from my poor, abused leg, illiacus, and back neck muscles, which keep trying to make my body stand erect, but can’t (as it’s not their job). 

So if you have been told you have “weak” abs or glutes, maybe they’re not actually weak – maybe they are just asleep!  I thought this information was worth sharing, as I had never realized this. 

Do you have any body imbalances that you’ve found, and a cure for them? 

Amazon vs. Shopping Local.

We Hansleys are spoiled by our Amazon Prime membership.  Personally, I love being able to get whatever I want delivered within a day or two without having to drive anywhere or having to talk to an actual person. Its only limit is groceries, even though Amazon now owns Whole Foods and allows you to order groceries online for pick-up at your local store. However, I like to pick my own produce. After all, how can I count on a store lackey to know how  ripe or unripe I want my avocados?

In the back of my head, I knew there had to be a downside to the greatness of Amazon. How are they able to keep prices and delivery so low and so efficient? Easy: they treat their warehouse workers like crap. Here’s a short list of articles for you to read if you haven’t heard all about it:

As with several things in my life (e.g., I love bacon, but feel horrible when I see the piggy truck going down Interstate 40 as they are led to the slaughter), there’s a whole lot of cognitive dissonance going on here. 

Oh look, bacon seeds!
This is a horrible, horrible meme, and I am a horrible, horrible person.

I had the opportunity to break away from Amazon today, and LORD DID I TRY. I need to buy a massaging stick that was recommended to me by my PT/massage therapist yesterday during my session to figure out my hip issues (I’ll write on that another time). He had something called the Muscle Hook (here I go, linking back to Amazon! I’m incorrigible!), which is an amazing tool that helped me get right into my iliacus muscle and beat it into submission. 

The Muscle Hook. (Get your mind out of the gutter. Oh, wait, that was me…)

My massage therapist told me I could pick this up at my local Target – huzzah! Here was my opportunity to provide money to a local (or at least more local than Amazon) store and workers, versus continuing to line Jeff Bezos’ pockets! Off I drove to the Target at Southpoint, which was a terrible idea because the traffic from RTP to Southpoint on I-40 was horrible after work. Still, I was proud of myself for wasting time and gas to go not support Amazon!

Guess what? They didn’t have the damn hook. (But they did have some spectacular avocados. I bought three.)

I was unwilling to give up, so I drove to the Target off of 15-501. Guess what? They didn’t have the hook either. (But I did pick up a red pepper to make some gazpacho, since the other Target didn’t seem to have any.)

I’m now home and grumpy. And guess what? I am, in fact, going to buy the darn Muscle Hook off of Amazon after I post this. Because I tried to be good, but there’s only so much pointless time-wasting I will do to find something local. It doesn’t make me feel happy to purchase it from Amazon, but at least I’ll be able to work on my hip muscle in approximately two days (thanks to free two-day shipping). 

Question: what would you have done (or have done) in this circumstance? If you use Amazon Prime, are you troubled by it? Or is it just me?  Inquiring minds want to know!

Lessons from a 12-miler.

I did 12 miles at Umstead yesterday. It took me almost four hours to do those 12 miles, thanks to hip pain that manifested itself halfway through my out-and-back run.

My slowest 12-miler ever.

The worst part wasn’t the physical pain; it was the mental calisthenics my brain put me through as I tried to deal with the disappointment of not being where I want to be.  During that long walk of shame, I had to contend with two competing truths: while you can do anything you set your mind to, sometimes it’s not going to happen the way you planned it. Your body can be a limiting factor, and you have to contend with that reality.

This 12-miler is part of my training for the Richmond Marathon in November. I signed up for it to start preparing for my bucket list race: the Umstead Trail Marathon, which is held at William B. Umstead State Park in the Triangle area of North Carolina. A trail race sponsored by my running club, Carolina Godiva Track Club, the Umstead Marathon has a cut-off time of 6 hours (or a 13:42/minute mile pace). One would need to be able to run a road marathon in 5 hours at most (an 11:42 pace) to complete the Umstead before the cut off, since trail running is slower than road running. 

My last marathon was the Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco in November 2009. I ran it as part of Team in Training to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. (That race no longer exists, but here’s someone’s blog post about it from the last time it was run in 2013). My time was 5:59:02, so to run Umstead in under 6 hours, I have to be able to run a road marathon an hour faster than I did nine years ago.  


Nike marathon in SF. Working hard to get back into the shape I was in then, and better. 

I set a goal for myself: since I did Nike for my 40th, I would do Umstead for my 50th. When I set this goal in February 2017, I was 40 lbs heavier than when I’d done Nike and a lot slower. But it seemed a reasonable goal: since I turn 50 in August of 2019 and would do Umstead Marathon in March 2020, I’d have three years to lose the extra weight, build up to longer races, do trail running, and get faster. I was confident I could do it.

I started off well. Over the course of 2017, I trained for and ran two half marathons in October (Hillsborough Half, which I’m doing again this year, and Bull City Race Fest). My times were not great (3:01 and 3:04, respectively), but I was happy to be going the distance and finishing strong.

Post-Hillsborough half.

Feeling good about my road running, I signed up for a bunch of trail races for winter 2017-2018 (the Tough as Trails series from Bull City Running). I did the first of the trail races, the six-mile Eno River Run, and had a great time; I even managed 16-minute miles, which was a good start toward my goals. At that point, I thought I was ready to sign up for a full marathon for the following fall. I picked Richmond because I’d heard great things about it and wanted to use it as an excuse to visit Richmond.

Then injury struck: knee bursitis. Ironically, it wasn’t caused by any of the running. It was me jumping up and down on a hard concrete floor during a boot camp class. The running then aggravated it. The bursitis lasted all winter, but I managed to complete (wearing knee braces and mostly walking) the other three races that were part of the Tough as Trails Series: the 10 mile Race Across Durham, the Uhwarrie 8-miler, and the Mountains-to-Sea 12-miler, where I finished dead last. (Yes, dead last finish trumps did not finish or did not start. But still – I’ve never finished dead last in a race before, and it was a little humiliating to realize that the race directors called Bill when I hadn’t made it to the end by the time they expected me to finish.)

So here I am, starting over post-bursitis, with the Hillsborough Half scheduled for October and the Richmond full for November. I’ve been doing my training runs (2 short runs during the week and one long run on Sundays). The schedule I’m following goes up and then down every weekend so you rest each weekend a bit following your increase. I started with 6 miles, dropped to an hour, up to 8, down to an hour, up to 10, down to an hour, and then did 12 yesterday. 

During that long slow gimpy walk to the car, I was thinking a lot about my plan. What had gone wrong? I should have been able to do this, right? I was doing all the right things and working my plan. So why was it that since my 8-mile long run, things started to fall apart? On the 8-miler, I felt gimpy at mile 7, but still finished. Then two weeks ago, for the 10-miler, same thing happened: the hip started to hurt around mile 7. This hip pain at mile 7 wasn’t new, then. I should have paid attention, but I thought that if I followed the plan, it would all be ok. 

I like to believe that I can think my way out of anything and achieve anything I set my mind to, but sadly, reality got in the way. My body obviously has a mind of its own, and its little mind (which appears to be angrily and painfully residing in my right hip) apparently trumps my frontal cortex. I have to face it: my body is not ready for a marathon. And it doesn’t matter why that’s the case. It’s just not ready.

I’m thus going to drop from the full to the half for Richmond, and will still do the Hillsborough Half. I haven’t given up on my dream to complete the Umstead Marathon. But at this point, I’m not setting a date. I’m meeting my body where it is – going to PT and massage therapy to figure out the hip issue and train safely for a distance that I know I can handle. If for some reason I can’t work out the issues with the hip to do the halfs this fall, I will drop them, but at this point, I am planning on doing them and will keep doing the training. 

But I haven’t given up on doing a marathon during my 50th year, even if it’s not Umstead. Richmond Marathon 2019, anyone? 🙂