Friday, February 17, 2017

Earth, wind, and fire. (And water. So much water.)

It’s been over three months now since I ran the New York City Marathon, and it’s strange to still not have anything else on my calendar. I usually take a month “off” after every full marathon – still running, but just at whatever distances and paces feel good, and without letting myself think about what's next. A forced physical and mental break, during which time I tell myself that “I’m going to use this ‘down time’ to get back to yoga again,” and instead just read a lot of books.

This time around has been a little different, because even before I ran NYC I was signed up to do a Spartan Race at the end of January. So when my month-long break was over, the timing wasn’t quite right to sign up for another marathon, not being totally certain I’d still have full use of all of my limbs come February.

For those who aren’t familiar, Spartan is a brand of obstacle course racing (OCR) that bills itself as “The World’s Best Obstacle Race.” I have no frame of reference by which to judge this assertion, but let’s go with it. Spartan Race is much more than the race itself for most participants, who call themselves Spartans. It’s a community, a philosophy, and for many, a way of life. “You’ll know at the finish line” they say. I know it sounds cult-y and weird – and in some ways it totally is. (The CrossFit strength and conditioning program has essentially evolved as a means to train for Spartan races and other OCR activities. And we all know about CrossFit, amiright? I KID I KID. PLEASE CROSSFITTERS DO NOT TRACK ME DOWN AND KICK MY WEAK ASS.) When it comes to healthy living, far be it from me to criticize anyone’s methods. If you’re going out into the world on a regular basis doing something – anything – that makes you a stronger, healthier, happier person, then I am behind you 100%. Even if it’s a little cult-y and weird.

If nothing else, the Spartan experience
got me back together with this girl. Tracy
and I lived together in college, but
she's lived in Montana for the last 16 years.
My former college roommate, who now lives in Montana, reached out to me over the summer and told me she was coming to California for the SoCal Spartan (the "Super" distance), and suggested that I join their team. I had heard of Spartan Race, and assumed that if real people that I actually know have survived such a thing, then surely I could too. I’m a marathoner, for crying out loud! I did a triathlon once. I've even raced up and down a mountain while tethered to a donkey. Surely I can handle whatever this is that Tracy has signed herself up for. She’s also a lifelong runner. And a generally reasonable person. So sure. Count me in. 

Training for a Spartan Race certainly
changed my perspective on my
familiar running routes.
I joined the team and paid my not-insignificant registration fee, careful not to read the website or its indemnity clauses too carefully. I didn’t allow myself to watch any of the 7.5 zillion YouTube videos out there describing in living color exactly what Spartan is all about, knowing full well that if I did I would turn tail and back out of it. I trained for and then ran the New York City Marathon in a blissful state of denial about the upcoming Spartan Race, asking as few questions as possible. But by mid-November, it was time to face the music. I bought myself some training supplies (a bucket, some sacks of concrete, and a rope), signed up for a few group workouts, and started integrating weird new elements into my morning runs, to try to get a little stronger. Every mile or so, dropping and doing a dozen burpees. Swinging and hanging on the park jungle gym. Finding logs and rocks and carrying them up random hills, and doing jumps and lunges on the park benches. After a few weeks, I'd gotten a bit stronger, and had some nice calluses forming on my hands. I was in no condition to do something like a Spartan Race, but was reassured by my teammates' promises to help me over, under, and through anything I couldn’t do on my own. (Which would be everything.) So, I didn’t drop out.

Right on cue, flu season arrived, and with three weeks to go, I got knocked out. I was totally incapacitated for a week, and then slowly came back to life just in time to roll up on race morning in about the shape I was in before I started any training at all: able to run ten miles slowly but comfortably, and basically unable to do anything else. Spartan is all about being strong, agile, flexible, balanced, gritty, and resilient. I’ve got endurance and a demonstrably high threshold for pain, but not a lot else in the Spartan department. I can barely touch my toes, and couldn’t do a pull-up if my life depended upon it. But lucky for me, I had one heck of a team, made up of some of the strongest women I've ever actually known in real life.

Lots and lots of this. (And no, that's not the lake.)
If my Spartan Race experience were a movie, I would call it equal parts comedy, horror, and mud. SoCal Spartan weekend took place January 28th and 29th, which turned out to be a notable week in Southern Californian history, because it was the week – the very week – that our local six-year long drought was officially declared over, after weeks of torrential rainfall. The race was set in Lake Elsinore, a flat and usually-arid city in Riverside County (about an hour north-east of where I live in San Diego). It does, in fact, have a 3,000 acre natural freshwater lake, but as it turned out, the race organizers had plenty of other water to work with. Come Saturday morning, we had beautiful clear blue skies overhead, and knee-to-waist-high water pretty much everywhere else.

One of the unique challenges of Spartan racing is that you do not get information about the course in advance. I knew that the Super course would be 8-10 miles long, with 25-30 obstacles. There are a few obstacles that appear in nearly every race: wall climbing, spear throwing, rope climbing, barbed wire crawling, tire flipping, and fire jumping, to name a few. But otherwise, it’s anyone’s guess, and the organizers take full advantage of the natural terrain, building every unique course from scratch. I can only imagine their delight to find half of the land that the city of Lake Elsinore had set aside for our race underwater when they arrived.

The Spartan story is probably best told through photos, but of course I didn’t have a camera or phone with me out there (which turned out to be a good thing, since I wound up underwater twice). So my tale here is told mostly through official race images of people that are mostly not me.

First of all: would you look at this day? 

Mid-60s, blue sky, some dry Santa Ana winds, and a beautiful view of the snow-covered mountains. I had zero athletic deliverables for my team of visiting Montanans, but at least Southern California came through on the weather. 

Before the race even begins, the athletes jump a 4' wall just to get into the starting corral. My teammate Shauna was true to her word, and helped me with every bit of this race, starting with that very first hurdle. But when she tried to help me over it, my brain misfired. I jumped at the wrong time, and got nowhere. Off to a good start. I can only imagine what Shauna was thinking ... but she is the very definition of a good sport, and after a minute of laughing at me, we tried again, and things went a little more smoothly from there. Lesson #1: learning how to accept help. 

The early obstacles were mostly a series of walls of varying heights, with a few hurdles thrown in. Here's not-me scaling one of these walls the way one would if one were strong and awesome:

Me getting over these walls, however, looked more like this:


After the walls there were a few obstacles I was actually able to do on my own. (There were a few.)

The Atlas Carry, which involves picking up huge, smooth, round rock, carrying it a short distance, dropping and doing five burpees, picking it back up, and walking it back.

The Plate Drag, which involved pulling and then dragging a metal plate full of rocks through a trough of mud.

The Z-Walls. Kind of like sideways rock-climbing, but on walls that turn corners.

The Barbed Wire Crawl. Here's not-me demonstrating how that's done:


This is called the Stairway to Sparta, and was the first obstacle that I had to just scrap altogether:


Physically, I know I'm capable of that climb, but I am terrified of heights, and it was too much. I just walked up and touched it (which counts as an "attempt"), and then walked over to the "burpee zone" to start my 30-burpee penalty. Many have asked how many burpees I did during the course of this race, and I honestly can't even fathom a guess. The number was big. Huge.

A few more crazy obstacles that I could barely even look at would follow, including this ridiculous inverted set of bars that you were supposed to jump onto, scale up, and then climb over:


Here's not-me on "The Twister," which was like a sideways set of monkey bars with handles, that swiveled when you grabbed them:


Because monkey bars aren't hard enough? I MEAN COME ON. Just point me toward Burpee Town.

A sandbag carry:


This was a few miles - and a lot of burpees - into the race, and I was feeling it. Somewhere around here we encountered a big wall with a printed list of words and numbers. A memory test. The task was to look up your assigned word-number combination (based on your race #), and to memorize it. It wasn't clear when or where we'd be tested on that, but of course we dutifully ran on, each silently reciting our own code until it was committed to memory.

Oh, and on the subject of running: there's plenty of that taking place between the obstacles, too. Here's not-me doing some of that:


Our course was about 9 miles long in all, with lots of dirt and rocks, and a few mid-race miles that were nearly entirely underwater. Here's not-me in one of many very cold water crossings:


It was cold, slow, and really uncomfortable. But at least I couldn't feel my aching legs anymore. During one of the water crossings I got my foot caught in a root and fell up to my neck in that water. And so hey - for a while there I couldn't feel my aching arms, either! Thanks to a lot of help from my amazing teammates, it wasn't until about mile 5 (20 or so obstacles in) that I really started breaking down. Things got ugly in those final few miles, though, which included:

The Tyrolean Traverse: making your way along a taut horizontal rope, hanging upside down and using your hands and ankles. (The resulting leg bruises from this one were a thing of beauty!)

A set of inclining/declining monkey bars. Because, again, monkey bars are apparently just not hard enough? By this point in the race, Tracy and I had just gone ahead and named ourselves the honorary mayors of Burpee Town.

The "multi rig," which was like yet another set of monkey bars that are traversed via a set of hanging rings. Sure. Yes, let's do that.

The Bucket Brigade, in which you fill a construction bucket full of rocks, carry it for an ungodly distance, and then empty it back out. If you're cool, you dump your rocks into the empty bucket of a Spartan who's just approaching the obstacle, and save them a little work.

A SECOND AND MUCH LONGER BARBED WIRE CRAWL. This pissed me off more than anything else about the Spartan Race. And a lot of things about the Spartan Race pissed me off.

A crawl up and down a super-high cargo net. I gave it a try, but got too wigged out from the height and had to back myself down, leaving poor Tracy up there on her own. But she did it!

A tire flip. Which is harder than it looks.

The Olympus, an inverted wall to be scaled sideways, using holds, holes, and chains to grab onto, but nothing for your feet. Here's not-me demonstrating how one might do that:













A spear throw - hurling a metal-tipped piece of wood into a bale of hay. My spear didn't even make contact. <sad trombone>

A rope climb. This was the biggest bummer of the race to me, because I had actually learned how to climb a rope and I know I'm strong enough to at least have gotten most of the way up. (Unlike most of this other BS, rope climbing is done mostly with your legs, so it's one of the few things I can theoretically sort of do.) But it came late in the race, and by the time I got to it I was too tired and weak to hoist myself even into a starting position.

The Herculean Hoist, where you're lifting and then lowering a ridiculously heavy sandbag using a rope and pulley system. I was completely cooked by this point, so Shauna basically just stood over me and did it (after already having done it on her own, by the way) while I laid on the ground making vague pulling motions.

Somewhere in there, we got stopped and asked by volunteers with clipboards who made us tell them the codes that we'd been asked to memorize a few miles earlier. "JULIET 319-5877." It had been a while since I'd gotten through an obstacle without either help or penalty burpees, and in addition to being weak and inflexible, I also have a pretty poor memory (I AM SPARTAN!), so this little victory was sweet.

And a few other things I can no longer remember. We looked at the map afterward, and counted up 31 obstacles. So I know I'm missing a few things here. But you get it. 

The finale was a rolling set of three mud walls that we climbed up and over, into a waist-high slop of muddy water.  Wallowing around in mud is something I'm totally and completely capable of, and although it was disgusting, this part was actually really fun. Here's not-me doing some of that:

Unfortunately, when we slid down into the third of these mud slops, we found ourselves facing a big wooden wall. And the only way over it was ... under it.

(Also not me.)

After a final climb up and over the Slip Wall (so named because you're soaking wet and trying to scale a wall covered in mud), we found ourselves front of the famous final obstacle: the Fire Jump. Here's actual-me and my team, clearing the logs before making our way to the finish line:

Annie, me, Laine, Shauna, and Tracy. Note that I am the only one wearing a hydration pack. I was deeply concerned about being out there for several hours without access to adequate snacks. So, in the absence of any strength, skill, or ability to complete most of the obstacles, I instead contributed food, extra sips of water, and comic relief. 

“So, Amy, would you do it again?”

No. Absolutely not. Nope. I am not a convert. I really do understand the appeal of the Spartan Race and the lifestyle, and I wish I could say that “I knew at the finish line.” But this is not my sport. I had a great time out there with my friends, and am still laughing at some of the ridiculous antics that got us through it. The memories made with my old friend Tracy (even if they were made while crawling under barbed wire and doing burpees in rocky dirt) are gifts for which I'll be forever grateful. I loved watching the amazing things that strong human bodies can do. And in an era of so much unrest, strife, and struggle, it was awesome to see teams and even groups of total strangers coming together to solve problems and conquer obstacles. I get what people love about this stuff. But it’s not for me. I gratefully “unfollowed” the Spartan Race Facebook page last weekend, and have settled happily back into my life of long and leisurely runs, and occasional trips to the gym. I come away from the experience determined to improve my strength and flexibility, but with a goal of being a healthier lifelong runner, and not because I need to carry a damn bucket full of rocks. I learned a lot about myself out there, and am grateful that my brain, my heart, my body, and that superbad pack of ladies got me through the challenge intact. But I know where my happy place is. And it isn’t at the bottom of a mud pit.

~~~~~~~~~~

                                      
Team Health Habits dropping the mic. 


Not dead. Not injured. And also not ever doing this again.


The finisher's medal comes with one-third of a "trifecta" medal attached. When you complete one of each of the three Spartan Race distances within a year (the Sprint, the Super, and the Beast), you are said to have completed the trifecta. I kept my finisher's medal, but that little extra piece? RIGHT IN THE TRASH.

Dry clothes. Beer. All is forgiven.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Training with the 3-lb weights

I spend a lot of time thinking about health: my health, your health, and the health of people I will never know. I’m a geriatric social worker and public health educator whose current work is focused in the area of dementia care, and am of the opinion that, right behind global warming, the Alzheimer’s disease pandemic is one of the greatest threats that we face today.

Wait, isn’t this a running blog? Hang on, hang on. I’m getting there …

I’ve been running since I was a kid, but while I’ve always understood that running is “good for me,” its health benefits have never been my motivation. When I started, it was just something that I could actually do, as an awkward and uncoordinated kid who was bad at everything else I tried. And after so long now, running just feels like a part of my genetic code. It’s a habit I’m grateful to have cultivated, as a person who cares deeply about personal and public health, but it’s just one option among many paths toward good health. And let’s face it: the physical act of running alone does not a healthy body make. As I wade deeper into my forties, I feel this more acutely than ever.

Our diet matters. I naturally gravitate toward a plant-rich, and reasonably healthy diet, but now feel much more directly the impact of my moment-to-moment choices. One less beer when I’m out with my friends now means an easier time getting up for tomorrow morning’s workout, and a few less calories for this less metabolically-efficient body to burn off. Our strength and flexibility matters. My lungs and heart love me for my running habit, but three decades of doing little else has left me with arms about as strong as boiled spaghetti noodles (and leg tendons and ligaments that are about as rigid and brittle as the uncooked ones). And my balance? An embarrassment. As an aging runner, I’m trying to pay more attention to those muscle groups that are easy to ignore when we run, to improve my strength, bone density, and balance. And perhaps most importantly of all: the health of our brain matters. Our brains are our three-pound control centers, and quality of life, as most of us would define it, relies heavily upon their proper functioning. Running has well-documented mental health benefits for people who struggle with depression, anxiety, or sleep disturbance, but as with these other areas of overall health – running alone is not enough.
Your 3-lb control center.

I spend most of the waking hours of my days thinking about, writing about, and talking about brain health – and how we can best support the 5.3 million Americans currently living with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. There is currently no known cure, treatment, or means of prevention, and the effects of these lengthy and fatal diseases are emotionally, physically, and financially devastating to families, communities, and our health care system. We’ve got to do everything we can as a nation, and as the individual owners and operators of our own brains. And the keys to reducing risk, according to the limited data currently available, are diet, exercise, quality sleep, social engagement, and intellectual stimulation.

For those of us who love to run, our sport allows us to check off a lot of these boxes. But it’s the last one –  intellectual stimulation – that I’ve been thinking about the most. Training and racing is a mental challenge, but I would not classify running (at least at the level at which I do it) as an intellectual pursuit. Except for when I’m doing those complex pace and mileage calculations in my head in the rough late miles of a long run (How fast was that last mile? How much longer to go?), I’m not typically doing a whole lot of cognitive work out there. It’s mostly just a lot of heavy breathing.

I love throwing random challenges into
my daily runs, in preparation for my
upcoming obstacle race. I never noticed how
many logs and rocks there were on the trails ....
I recently signed up for my first obstacle race, which will take place at the end of this month. The training I’ve done so far (minimal, I admit) has required me to incorporate learning, problem-solving, and strategy into my daily runs, looking at my familiar routes in new ways. I’ve recently realized that I’ll not only have to gain strength and flexibility in order to climb a rope or hurl my five-foot self over a six-foot wall, but I’ll also have to learn how to do these things. Turns out, these skills don’t come naturally to me. 


I didn’t sign up for this race for the mental challenge; as with most things in my life, a friend suggested it and I just immediately said “YES!” without really knowing what I had gotten myself into it. But now that I’m knee-deep in bucket-carries and burpees, I’m keenly aware of the benefits that my body, my heart, and my brain are reaping. I’m still not convinced that I’m not going to die during this race – but assuming that I don’t, I feel confident that I’ll emerge from the training a stronger, more creative, and more engaged runner and human. These races are not designed for weak, inflexible, uncoordinated 40-somethings with a paralyzing fear of heights, and I know that I am out of my element, in every sense. It’s the first thing I’ve ever signed up for that I’m pretty sure I can’t actually do. But learning from failure is the ultimate cognitive challenge, and (at least at the moment), I’m game to try. Ask me again in a couple of weeks.

I'm still too afraid of heights to actually climb
all the way over this jungle gym near my house.
But I get a little closer every day.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

16 things that suck

It’s Thanksgiving, and I should acknowledge some things. These days this holiday is mostly an excuse to eat some of my favorite food, a reason to experiment with new cocktail recipes, and an annual source of motivation to break out our vinyl copy of Arlo Guthrie’s epic Alice’s Restaurant. I’ll admit that I don’t always spend a lot of time on Thanksgiving contemplating the things for which I am grateful, but in my defense: I’m pretty grateful most of the time. I don’t have everything I want in this life, but I certainly have everything I need, along with a clear sense of what I’m doing here on this planet, and I don’t take those things for granted.

But I also have to acknowledge: the past year has sort of sucked. Both literally and figuratively, it has torn me up, and I know that a lot of you are feeling the same way. So this year I thought that a brief exercise in giving thanks would serve me well. Here’s a list of 16 things that have really sucked about my 2016, and why I’m grateful for them.

1.     I tore my gastrocnemius. I started 2016 badly injured and unable to run, and three months with nearly no physical activity made for a rough start. But it did also create a lot more time and space in my life for pleasure reading, and during a year that would require a lot of moments of escape, this turned out to be a helpful new habit.

2.     My favorite uncle died. We lost my beloved Uncle Lynn unexpectedly this time last year, and in no way whatsoever is the world a better place without him in it. We started out 2016 consumed by grief, but a year later I can look back with gratitude for the opportunities to celebrate and remember him with my family and his huge community of friends.

3.     David Bowie died. Several artists who have been important to me personally died this year, and this was the first. As was his life and his music, David Bowie’s death was an inspiration to me. He faced terminal illness with courage, love, thoughtfulness, and poetry, and went out in a flash of brightness and color. May we all live and die so well.  

4.     My condo flooded. For the third time in two years, a pipe in the walls of our condo burst, causing extensive water damage and an expensive, time-consuming headache. You’re probably wondering (as does almost everyone I know) why we don’t sell it and move. But we love where we live, and don’t wish to give up our spot in this great little corner of San Diego. This third “test” reminded us yet again that great neighbors and a vibrant community are more valuable than gold. Or new copper pipes!

5.     Prince died. Another icon, an artifact of my childhood, gone. Watching the country mourn in vibrant shades of purple taught me a lot of about the power of our grief rituals. And noting that my generation’s heroes are getting older and dying was a poignant reminder that I’m moving up in the tree of life.

6.     Gord Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. The front man of one of my favorite bands, Canada’s The Tragically Hip, made the announcement in May, and when the band announced a last-minute, brief, and final tour, my sister and I scrambled to make our way across the continent to watch them play their final show in their home town of Kingston, Ontario this summer. I’m forever grateful for this once-in-a-lifetime experience with my sister, inspired by another of the world’s greatest poets.

7.     Charlotte McKee died. Charlotte wasn’t famous. And I didn’t even know her. But when she died after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease this year, her husband Jon channeled his grief into a cross-country bicycle ride that raised funds and awareness for the non-profit where I work, Alzheimer’s San Diego. I’ve long hoped to cross this beautiful country on foot someday, and this summer Jon McKee inspired me to get serious about that goal.

8.     The National League lost the All Star Game. This was my husband’s and my first season as members at Petco Park, home of the notably horrible San Diego Padres. Through the season we lost a lot of games and traded away most of my favorite players. But, we had a whole lot of fun and since Petco was the home of the 2016 All Star Game, at least we got to be there to watch us lose!

9.     Gene Wilder died. This joyful, quick-witted, blue-eyed wonder starred in nearly every movie that I loved as a kid, which would have made his death hard enough. But as a professional advocate for persons living with Alzheimer’s disease, it was particularly hard to know that he and his family suffered this journey in silence. His death further strengthened my resolve to bring memory loss and dementia out of the shadows of stigma.

10.  Big Sur caught on fire. Life in California means wildfires. Like traffic jams and the “sunshine tax” they are part of the price that we pay to live here. Watching some of my favorite parts of our central coast (which are, in fact, some of my favorite parts of this planet) burn this year was particularly wrenching, but we were fortunately able to make our visit this summer as planned. Never have I appreciated more the beauty of a run than that one.

11.  I had to work on my birthday. I love birthdays, and traditionally take the day off and indulge in a spa day, a favorite indulgence. But as it happens, my birthday also happens to be World Alzheimer’s Day, and as you are surely gathering, the cause of dementia-related education and outreach is now a big part of my life. So this year I worked on my big day – as I suspect I will for many years to come – but did so with gratitude for the opportunity and the platform to be a voice.

12.  My transmission went out. I hate cars almost as much as I love birthdays, but the nature of the work that I do requires a lot of driving, and I can’t really get by without one. It’s always a hassle when your car breaks down, but a blown transmission while you’re out of town is a particularly nightmarish hassle. (Death and hassles: the emerging themes of my year.) But in keeping with the task of looking for silver linings, it did at least break down just as we arrived at the venue of my dear niece’s wedding, where we spent a magnificent long weekend with family and friends in celebration of one of the greatest couples I know. And we didn’t have to miss a thing.

13.  I just missed getting into a rally with President Obama. While I was out in Nevada in October canvassing with the Clinton campaign to encourage voter turnout, a last-minute organizing rally with President Obama at a local high school was announced. I decided to extended my stay, and stood in line for hours to try to get in. I was gravely disappointed to not make it inside, to just miss my chance to see one of the great orators of our time speak in person. But I’d invested the time, so I decided to stay anyway and watch the rally from just outside of the high school on a big screen that was set up for us. To our surprise and delight, the president came outside and spoke to us first before the rally started, and it was just as inspiring and energizing as anything I could have hoped for. A great reminder that showing up is always worth it.

14.  Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election. She shattered one important level of the glass ceiling, and unfortunately a lot of us got damaged in the shards. But the wounds are mending, and we’ll all emerge stronger for the fight.

15.  We forgot the 20th anniversary of our first date. Amidst the fatigue of having just run the New York City Marathon, and then the chaos and confusion in our lives surrounding the presidential election, my husband and I both plum forgot when the 20th anniversary of our first date rolled around earlier this month (a date we usually remember, and celebrate in some way). But the next day, some great seats at The Sound of Music at the San Diego Civic Theater dropped in my lap, a perfect opportunity for a much-needed night out together, and a great way to celebrate two decades of his putting up with my nonsense.


16.  The water crisis in Flint, more mass shootings, Brock Turner’s six-month sentence, more police shootings, continued war and humanitarian crises …. sadness has piled up on us heavily this year. Nearly all of us have felt torn up in some way or another, and I’ve seen a lot of ugliness emerge. But I’ve also seen us engage in thoughtful argument, and find ways to laugh together in the darkness. I for one intend to just keep running toward the light at the end of this tunnel.