Thursday, November 28, 2013

Where I live

Today's the big day. The one we set aside for sharing food with people we love, running "turkey trots" to raise funds for our hungry neighbors, and resting up in preparation for the holidays. And somewhere between the football games, the turkey naps, and the serving of the pumpkin pie, most of us take a few minutes to reflect and share with one another our thoughts of gratitude. Every year, Thanksgiving makes me feel like maybe - just maybe - humanity is not doomed after all.
How cute is this?
Turkey trotters are super cool.

It's not hard for me to tick off a list of things for which I'm thankful. This blog is really my version of a gratitude journal, an outlet for lots of yammering on about how wonderful life is, cloaked in stories about running. So as any good marathoner would, I decided to turn this year's gratitude exercise into something a little more challenging, and force myself to think thankful thoughts about something I'm feeling not-so-positively about.

My next marathon is now ten days away, and I've struggled all year with some really poor training. Nothing is physically wrong with me; my body simply does not feel good, and I'm sick of it. I'm not injured, but I ache. I'm sleeping well, but I fatigue quickly. And I'm doing my yoga and stretching, but I still can't touch my #@&%ing toes! So, looks like it's time to turn those warm, fuzzy feelings of gratitude toward this old, creaky runner's body, and show it some head-to-toe love. It may not be perfect, but it's where I live. And there's no place like home.

Thanks to my head. It's full of crazy thoughts, but also lots of good ideas. This year I got to see some beautiful sights running on the Big Island of Hawaii. I get to smell the fragrance of my neighbors' roses and trumpet flowers every day as I pass by. I get to hear the quiet sounds of my own breath on those long solo runs. I get to taste the delicious "run cookies" baked with love for me by a friend. And I get to feel the happy, sticky mess of a good sweat.

Thanks to my arms. I try to keep them strong, and they help me up those monster hills when I need it. This year they've also let me hug dear friends and family in celebration of new marriages, and of course they helped me hold on tight to my pack burro's lead up and down that Colorado mountain trail.

Thanks to my heart. Sometimes it hurts. I miss my family, mourn the loss of an old friendship, and it broke this spring for the city of Boston. But it's strong. It works hard for me for hours on end during those marathon runs, and it's frequently so full of love it renders me speechless.

Thanks to my liver. Beer is, hands down, my favorite recovery food, and I've spent many a happy afternoon with friends over some delicious brew. So thanks to my liver for all the hard work.

Thanks to my legs. They bear the brunt of my passion for running, and I love them for it. In February, I got to race again for the first time after a seven month layoff due to a freak swimming-related calf injury, from which these legs made a full recovery. They took me all over San Diego County during this year's 39-mile 39th birthday running, swimming, biking, and hiking adventure. And after a good run later today, these legs will carry me to the homes of friends and family to celebrate this day of thanks.
"Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn't learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn't learn a little, at least we didn't get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn't die; so let us be thankful." - from Leo Buscaglia's Born for Love

Friday, November 22, 2013

Fitness for duty

This being the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, I've spent the last week watching and reading a great deal about his personal and political life, as many of you probably have. Born over a decade after he was gone, he nonetheless had a profound impact upon my generation not only through his acts as president, but through his cultural influence upon my parents, who were teenagers when he was in office. Long before I understood why, I felt sadness and mystery when I heard the phrase "JFK."

President Kennedy is remembered mostly for his foreign policy, but he had some important domestic achievements during his short presidency. As a runner who started from elementary-school age, one of my favorite of those achievements was his development of the President's Council on Physical Fitness. It was created by Eisenhower in the late 1950s, but expanded in the 1960s by Kennedy, who understood that improving the physical fitness of our citizenry would be essential in winning the race to the moon.

Many of us can remember taking the council's "Presidential Fitness Challenge" (or some iteration of it) as grade school children, and today this important entity still exists, now known as the President's Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition. Never a very athletic kid, I was always intimidated by these tests, and they certainly had their intended effect. I never had a problem with the mile run, but would have to "cram" in the weeks before I was going to be tested, so that I could at least make the minimum standards in the other categories: sit-ups, push-ups, and stretching on my bedroom floor at night, after my homework was finished. Mission accomplished, Mr. President.

As an adult, I now understand very clearly this connection between my physical activity and my ability to think creatively, and work productively. When planning out my week, I pay attention to the intersections of my training and work schedules, and make sure that the "big days" (those that will be long and intellectually or emotionally draining) always include a run, or some other type of a good sweat. 

Every day, I think we're seeing the effects of a citizenry that, on the whole, does not adequately tend to its own physical well-being. People are tired, and they don't feel well. And it shows in how we're performing, producing, and governing ourselves. The personal is political, as they say. I appreciate First Lady Michelle Obama's focus on the physical health of our children, and believe it to be a critical investment in our future as a nation.
"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and to do these other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win." John F. Kennedy

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The art of slow

Three weeks from today I'll be running the Tucson Marathon: my sixteenth marathon, in the fourteenth state as I continue my journey of running the country. I'm not anticipating too much from this race, other than a fun long weekend in the Arizona desert. I'm hopeful for a PR, but at best will shave off a minute or two. There are no expectations about qualifying for Boston this time around, and I've made my peace with that. Maybe next year I'll be ready to tackle it again, but for now I've been enjoying the break from the pressures of pace goals. After my last marathon in June, I spent the summer running for the pure joy of it (see: pack burro race and birthday adventure), and when I decided to do this December marathon, I chose an abbreviated 12-week training plan. It's a very different program from the one I've been using for the past few years, and integrates a concept I've never tried before: the short, slow recovery run.

"What is the point?" I thought when I saw these weekly 3-5 mile runs on the training schedule. At first it just seemed like a means to tacking on extra mileage, and as a big believer in the value of rest, I questioned it. But I decided to trust the professionals who wrote the plan I had paid for, and give it a try. [Note: I am a professional geriatric care manager, so I understand this tendency. Families frequently pay me for my advice, and then completely ignore it.]

You can learn a lot from a turtle.
Time will tell whether this will have been an effective strategy for me, but what I know for sure is that I've learned to love those little recovery runs. I very quickly learned how much easier it is to get out of bed for an early morning run (a major weakness of mine) when all you're doing is a few slow miles, compared to an intimidating 10-mile tempo run or 18-mile long run. Just as important as accomplishing the major projects on your to-do list, there is great value in ticking off easy tasks you can get done in a few minutes. Initially, I found it impossible to maintain good form while running slowly. I caught my reflection in a building and saw my slumped shoulders and shallow shuffle; it looked like my form in the final miles of a long, hard race, although I was only a couple of miles into a very easy, relaxed run. I picked my head up and straightened out my stride, and involuntarily sped up. It took a fair amount of adjustment, but I eventually figured out that you can run relaxed without running poorly, and that the benefits of a slow but mindful run are legion: you can think even more clearly than you can when you're physically taxed, and you'll catch even more of what's going on around you as you pass by. A great lesson in moderation. I became more effective at work when I no longer allowed myself to put in 12-hour days. I learned to keep my home clean without giving up precious weekend days spent scrubbing on hands and knees, and am more inclined to keep up with it if I pace myself. (Okay, I'm still working on that one, but I know the potential exists. I am even worse at keeping a clean house than I am at waking up early.) Slowing myself down doesn't have to mean doing or being "less than." And in fact sometimes doing less makes it possible to do even more.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

O Brother, Tough Art Thou

In spring of this year, my brother-in-law Ian surprised and delighted me with the news that he wanted to train for his first marathon, the Dick's Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon, next May. (I was super excited about this, and wrote all about it here.) Flash forward six months, and I am bursting at the seams with pride at all that he has already accomplished -- and the marathon is still six months away! My own running and training has been slow and frustrating of late, and his success and enthusiasm has been just the shot in the arm that I've needed to stay upbeat.

Turns out, I've really enjoyed being a coach. Of course, this is coaching in its most limited sense - from a distance, and with only one athlete. But given the demands of work, my own marathon training, and all of the miscellaneous challenges of everyday life, it’s just the right speed. I love being accessible and available to answer questions, celebrate successes, or even just provide a little cheerleading on a tough day.

We started with a slow and steady build-up of mileage, which frustrated him at first. When he was ready, I added in some speed work, hill repeats, and tempo runs in preparation for his first 10k (in September), and the complaints that I was going too easy on him disappeared. Ian not only completed that 10k – he killed it, finishing at an average pace that was nearly 30-seconds per mile faster than I’d predicted. And my favorite part: he enjoyed it! This was his first race ever, and he kept a great pace, felt strong, and recovered well. So, after a week of rest and easy running, we charged ahead with training for his first half-marathon.

Look at this awesome form, finishing today's half-marathon!
And today I’m happy to report: Ian is officially a half-marathoner! He finished this morning in an amazing 2:11:40, rocking a huge negative split, with every mile getting faster throughout the race. He’s filled with well-deserved pride at the accomplishment and (I think) feeling confident and physically ready to tackle the full 26.2. But for now: we celebrate. Right now I’m withholding the next phase of the training schedule – my only requirement is that he rest and revel in his accomplishment for a couple of days. After about two weeks of easy running, we’ll start slowly increasing his mileage again, and then once the holidays are over: it’s on, brother.

This has been such an exciting process to watch, and I find that it’s nearly as exciting to be a part of someone else’s athletic triumphs as it is to experience them yourself. I could get into this. Ian is getting faster and stronger, staying healthy and injury-free, and learning about all kinds of fun stuff along the way: running nutrition and hydration (what is Gü?), compression socks (free hospital-grade compression socks work, too!), how race packet pick-ups work, and the thrill of race day (read: port-a-johns). And most important of all: he’s learning how to balance the requirements of training with the joys of being an engaged and involved father of a very active young son. Every day, I am impressed, inspired, and excited to see what’s next. Thanks, Ian, and cheers!


Do you have any advice for Ian as he prepares to train for his first marathon? Please feel free to share!