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.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The best medicine

I thought I knew the sport pretty well when I entered the lottery for the New York City Marathon in January of this year. I'd completed 19 different marathons in 19 different cities, and17 states across the country. In Estes Park, Colorado, I'd run at 8,100+ feet with 148 runners. In Chicago I'd run what the next year would become one of the World Marathon Majors in a field of 33,0000. And across the country I'd seen marathons of a range of sizes and varieties in between. Over the years I've had a few good races and a few terrible races, and while I'd never claim to know what to expect on any given day, I generally felt that I understood the 26.2 mile distance and its impact on me. When the lottery opened I was only one difficult month into what I knew was going to be a long recovery from a painful calf tear, and still prohibited from running for another several weeks at that point. But my brother-in-law really wanted to run NYC together, and figuring there's no way I'd actually get in on my first try, I went ahead and entered the lottery. Naturally, we were both struck with beginner's luck this year, and on March 8th learned that we were in. I had only recently been able to start running very short distances by that time, and was battling chronic compartment syndrome in that damaged calf, but still I couldn't help getting swept up in the excitement of the day. The Huffington Post ran a cute piece on The 11 Emotional Stages of Getting Accepted into the NYC Marathon that featured one of my tweets that was, naturally, focused on the subject of what I would be eating in New York City:


Fast forward through the eight months of rehabilitation, training, work, travel, and life that ensued, with an apology for having neglected this blog during that time. There's a slew of reasons for it, none of which really matter. I'm back. Hi.

The marathon expo (Friday November 4th),
at the Javits Center in Manhattan. Glass ceilings and all.
The week of the race was a jarring, disorienting, exhausting carnival ride of a week. The night before we left town, we stayed up late celebrating as the Chicago Cubs won their first World Series in 108 years. (For those who don't know me personally: I am a huge fan of the game of baseball and do not take the World Series lightly!) The night after we returned, we stayed up late mourning as America elected its 45th president. (For those who don't know me personally: I am a huge fan of Hillary Clinton, and was an invested volunteer on her campaign.) There were highs, there were major lows, and then there was a trip to New York City and the experience of the world's largest marathon stuck right there in the middle of all of it. 

The NYC Marathon is an expensive and time-consuming proposition. Between the race entry, the cross-country travel, lodging, food, and the cost of boarding the dog .... I don't even want to do that math. But whatever that total turned out to be, I can say with total confidence that it was worth every penny. I admit that I didn't expect it to, but the 40th running of the New York City Marathon lived up to all of the hype. It was unlike any 26.2 I've run to date, not only in terms of the sheer number of people -- a record-breaking 51,388 finishers and a million spectators lining the course -- but also in terms of its incredible organization and thoughtful amenities. The course is a breathtakingly beautiful foot tour of all five of the boroughs of the city, and is just as challenging and filled with energy as everyone says it is. As you enter each borough, you're greeted by residents, local businesses, and volunteers filled with neighborhood pride, screaming wildly. "Welcome to Queens! Welcome to the Bronx! Shout if you love Brooklyn!" I actively seek out and fully enjoy small-town and small-scale racing, where local cross-country kids help out along the course, and all of the funds that are raised will stay in the community. I love a good screaming crowd, but also appreciate the quiet miles in the outlying areas of those smaller races that afford runners an opportunity to chat with one another, or run in silent meditation. NYC doesn't give you much in the way of quiet time, though, beyond a few less raucous moments on the bridges (where spectators can't congregate, but still the police and construction workers are cheering you on). Crowds line the rest of the course, several people deep in most places, and the famous "wall of sound" as we turned onto 1st Avenue was utterly overwhelming, in the most perfect way. The final miles through Harlem and then through the rolling hills of Central Park were difficult but strangely almost painless for me. I can hardly remember any discomfort, but can recall with unusual clarity the rows of yellow trees, smiling and high-fiving with countless strangers, and the pleasant dizziness of the finish line. Thanks to the energy harnessed by the people of New York, I managed a steady pace through those final miles, awestruck and numbed by the best analgesic there is: love. 


In a period of my life and our history as a country that's so filled with conflict, anger, fear, and hatred, I am clinging to these memories of the NYC Marathon for my life. For my sanity. As I rested under my blanket in the starter village on Staten Island that morning, I watched and listened as runners from 124 countries, and all 50 of our United States spoke our shared language - advice, encouragement, and our mutual appreciation and respect for the great human challenge that is the marathon. For all of my hesitation about the crowds and logistical challenges, the NYC experience was one well worth having, and I'm eternally grateful to my brother-in-law Ian for talking me into it. To any extent that I helped inspire him to become a marathoner, his enthusiasm and curiosity about the sport has helped me infinitely more. 

So many thanks. To my husband and friends who supported me through my training and out there on the course. To the friends, family, and colleagues who contributed to my fundraiser for Alzheimer's San Diego. To the staff, sponsors, and volunteers that make everything happen. And to the people of New York City for letting us take over your town for the day. 

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Here's the race, in a few pictures.

Oh nothing just me and Ian with American distance running goddess supreme, KARA GOUCHER, at the expo. We had her sign our bibs for good luck.

The runner graffiti walls at the expo were beautiful.

Everyone has their own pre-race ritual. Saturday night at Adrienne's Pizzabar, in Battery Park. We stayed in Lower Manhattan for easy access to the Staten Island Ferry on race morning.

Even with the extra hour of sleep due to the time change on Saturday night, race morning sure came early. Zombie-selfie on the 6am Staten Island Ferry! I sat next to an awesome runner named Paul who has run NYC many times, and provided me lots of interesting insights. (Hi Paul!)

And then, all of a sudden, the early morning wake-up was worth it.

At the starters' village on Staten Island, getting my first look at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, where the race begins.

Lining up on the Verrazano-Narrows, ready to head out of Staten Island. We were led in a huge chorus of "New York, New York" before the national anthem.

Waving to my awesome crew, somewhere in Brooklyn. 

Beautiful view of the long stretch of 1st Avenue, after just having passed the "wall of sound" that greets runners after crossing the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan. Look at that perfect, blue sky, 57 degree day!

Sarah, Tiffany, Marc, and Mike, killing time on the mean streets of New York. I was so grateful to have them (and Josephine, not pictured!) cheering me on, as well as the friends and family who tracked my progress on the marathon app.

Shout out to everyone who contributed to my fundraiser for Alzheimer's San Diego! Together we raised over $1,900 to help fund education programs and supportive services for families impacted by Alzheimers' disease and other types of dementia.

The RUNNER'S HI rocks the Bronx! Somewhere around mile 20.

The finisher's walk to the meet-up area, aka the zombie apocalypse. The fleece-lined poncho (for runners who don't check a bag at the start) is such a nice touch.

I generally crave a cold beer at the end of a marathon, but all I wanted was this warm cup of coffee! The 10 am start time was so disorienting.

My brother-in-law Ian crushed his second marathon! He said then it would probably be his last for a while, but I knew the truth. He's already looking at the spring calendars. #junkie

Friends Steven and Josephine (and Jojo the chocolate lab) hosted us at their beautiful apartment in Newark for the most magnificent post-race feast you've ever seen!

New York City Marathon
November 6, 2016
4:20:47



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And the rest of the trip was pretty fun, too!

Ian after we shoved him into a subway car. 
New York is crowded.

Katz's Deli!

Wrenching visit to the 9/11 Memorial Museum.

The 9/11 reflecting pools.

World Trade Center.

Being in New York meant the chance to reconnect with several friends.
Beautiful pre-race stroll through Central Park with Marissa.

Steven and Josephine:
Support crew extraordinaire, on the course and off!


My husband and I spent a fun day visiting with my very oldest friend, Melina.

Took a lovely ride on the SeaGlass Carousel!

Battery Park.

I prefer to carbo-load after the race.

With the marathon behind me, thoughts already turning to training for a January Spartan Race .....

Aftermath. Homeward bound.