At Cross Purposes (The Long Run 2011 Mar)

crossAs a runner, when you think of cross training, what springs to mind? Cycling or swimming, surely. After that, probably some form of rigorous hiking, say a slog up the infamous Manitou Incline. For you gym-goers, perhaps the spinning bike, elliptical trainer, stair stepper or rower is your cross-training bliss. As runners, we are ever watchful of our cardiovascular fitness. And we should be. It is our bread and butter, after all. But one can’t live by bread alone.

Being a writer for the Long Run, it makes sense that I’m a runner. For ten years I’ve mixed in running circles. During that time I’ve discovered that runners are very fine folks: bright, healthy, happy people with an infectious verve, and really quite sane–refreshingly sane–despite the claims of non-runners who don’t get us. But I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up something I’ve frequently observed about runners that has left me scratching my head. With runners, I have sometimes detected a note (and occasionally a thunderously struck chord) of cardio-snobbery, a kind of air that looks down its sun-blocked nose at weight training. Perhaps it’s largely the fault of weight training’s farcical media image: an image that has tried, with the aid of legitimate fitness crusaders, to distance itself from Muscle Beach, but is still, I contend, essentially alpha male, eternally teenage, steeped in testosterone, vain, and able to lift a Volkswagen while at the same time unable to run around it. Rather like Neanderthals, weight lifters have never quite cast off the primal yoke and gained the respect of enlightened modernity. (A glance at the latest line-up of grocery store muscle magazine covers may provide a clue as to why).

Being a writer for the Long Run, it doesn’t necessarily make sense that I’m a weight lifter. And yet it is so. I’ve lifted weights uninterruptedly for 18 years. Having heard my share of gym talk, I can say that hard-core weight trainers are apt to view runners as willowy breatharians who would not only be crushed to death by the workloads under which a weight lifter daily labors, but who lack even the strength necessary to change a tire (assuming they even deign to drive an automobile) or turn a wrench on a stubborn nut.

Touché.

And so I find myself feeling somewhat like H.G. Wells’ time traveler, caught between the Eloi and the Morlocks of the contemporary fitness landscape. And since I can’t flee to another time (say, 50 years in the future when fitness routines seamlessly meld the virtues of weight-training and running), I—and other hybrids like me—must work the ground between these two fitness subcultures who sometimes like to hurl poisonous barbs at each other.

So who has it right? In my view (and in the view of many experts) both sides are right—at least insofar as they regularly embrace the practices of the other side. Here we do well to remember the term hybrid vigor. Originally a term used to talk up the virtues of genetic variety, the term has wide applicability. Applied to sports physiology, it speaks to the healthfulness of mixing it up—and I don’t mean mixing up barely differing forms of cardio training. Now if we put the term hybrid vigor in one corner of the training philosophy ring, who do you suppose we’ll find in the opposite corner? Here our good friend specificity of training is ready to rumble. Specificity of training. It sounds complicated but it’s not. In fact, it’s charming in its simplicity. If one wants to excel at something, one does that exact thing again and again and again until it becomes easy (or until it feels like Chinese water torture). Want to run a fast race on the weekend? Spend your weeks running fast. Do anything else and you are just wasting energy and time required for…you guessed it, running fast. My gut feeling is that specificity of training can be maintained for a limited period of time: for a cross-country season, say. And maybe it can even see a naturally gifted runner through a high school and college career. But for one who means to take running into his or her thirties and beyond, specificity of (cardio) training paired with the cumulative neglect of an aging musculoskeletal system is an unwholesome and unsavory recipe. I personally know runners in their 40s and 50s whose cardiovascular systems are vastly superior to my own (and to those of runners 20 and 30 years their juniors) who are literally on their last legs owing to bad knees caused by, I believe, weak quadriceps, patellar tendons and patellar ligaments. (This is the equivalent of a high-performance motor on a rusting chassis.) Many more runners are plagued by hip and lower back problems most likely stemming from weak glutes or core muscles. None of this even mentions osteoporosis, the onset of which can be significantly forestalled by a steady regimen of weight-bearing exercise.

I have heard serious runners object to weight training on the grounds that any extra muscle weight they carry equates to lost seconds of race time. My personal experience is that even significant gains in strength do not necessarily translate to gains in muscle weight. They haven’t for me. If weight training has ever detrimentally affected my running performance, it has been on account of its energy demands siphoning reserves necessary for fast running. Thus I don’t advise weight training in the several days prior to a race.

I’m arguably a better runner because of weight training. And even if I’m not, I’m certainly a healthier runner because of it. For a sensible strength training routine, visit http://www.fitnesssports.com/Strengthtraing.html

(Comment: This article had potential with the Eloi/Morlock analogy but went too far in relating the animosity between the two parties. My point might have been made without graphic accounts of the more juvenile forms of virulence to which I have on occasion been privy. In recent years I have found that far less strength training than suspected is necessary for optimal health and injury prevention.)

The Joke’s on Me (The Long Run 2011 Jan)

ageIt’s New Years. Time to trot out my annual joke. Resolution talk always gives me the perfect segue. Jim says, “This year I’m going to get a better job.” Al avows, “This year I’m going to fix up the house.” Jane announces, “This year I’m going to put in more volunteer hours.” I add, “This year I’m going to get in shape.” I say it with a straight—and rather gaunt–face. For a second or two my remark goes unnoticed, it being just another of a billion similar vows made at this time of the year. It takes a moment for folks to process the remark and consider the source. Then it hits them. An eyebrow draws up and they give that “Are you serious?” look. I crack a smile. For the past 10 years I’ve maintained single-digit body fat and a personal fitness trainer’s build. How could I be serious? They laugh with me (sometimes it’s a strained laugh).OK, my joke (if you want to call it that) is a bit flippant. I’m careful with whom I share it. Most who make get-in-shape resolutions make them in earnest. For some, a resolution will be the crux of a miraculous physical transformation. And for a few, a resolution to shape up is the equivalent of choosing life over its untimely opposite. My joking avowal is, on the other hand, nothing more than a refuge. Staying in shape is just something I’ve been good at for over a decade. Cracking a resolution joke has been my way of shirking the responsibility of a real resolution.But this year will be different. Well, a little different anyway (it’s not like I’ll resolve to read the Encyclopedia Britannica or learn origami). This year when I resolve to get in shape, I’ll mean it. No joke.

Now before rumors that I’ve hit the skids reach the ears of my two or three competitors (you know who you are), I still look exactly the same. And I still run 30 miles a week and hit the weights. But I know the difference. My heart and lungs sure know the difference. Only I can attest to the effort I’ve put into my training (and more importantly, the effort I haven’t put into it) this past year. I’ll just say that I wouldn’t want to tangle with any of my ghosts of New Years past (not the latest ten releases anyway). But give me eight weeks of dedicated training…and voila. I’ll take them all on! Or at least I’ll be ready to tangle with the competitors in my age bracket. I just need to resolve to do it. And what do you know? It’s New Years Day, aka, resolution day.

OK, my getting out of shape didn’t happen by accident. To quote Pee Wee Herman—a first for me–, “I meant to do that.” I’ve read that once every decade a runner should take a year off from hard running (or any running—yikes). For most of 2010 I was 44 years old. 2010 seemed like the right year for taking a year off, coming at the back of the 40-44 year old age bracket. I raced very little as a 44 year old. Now I’m 45 and I need to get in shape–racing shape–to beat or lose to folks pushing the half-century mark. Don’t laugh too loudly all you 20-somethings; you’ll get here—it’s just a matter of time. So how hard can it be? I mean, I can cut myself a little slack, right? Folks will put it down to my having lost a few steps, right? Wrong, thanks to the concept of age-graded standards. These standards are designed to hold aging runners accountable for giving maximal effort; they keep us honest. Having found running late, I PRd in the 5k at the fatherly age of 37, grabbing a 19:24 on a certified course at front-range altitude. According to the age-graded math, this suggests that a 19:04 could have been mine had I taken up running in my 20s. At 40, I hit 19:48 on the same course, suggesting a 19:03. A second better, but essentially the same. At 43, I crossed the line in 20:08. In age-graded parlance that’s 18:50—a new PR by a long shot! A new PR until 2011, that is. Excuse me while I go to the age-grading calculator and see what I have to pull off this year for a new “PR.” OK, it looks like 20:30 will do the trick. Really? I let the program crunch the numbers again. Same result. I may be deceiving myself, but that sounds easy. Surely I can do that. Who said aging isn’t fun? Now I have a number to shoot for. No self-respecting resolution-maker plies his or her trade without an achievable numerical goal. I’m feeling pretty good about the resolution thing. But wait . . . here comes that if-it-sounds-too-good-to-be-true-then-it-probably-is feeling. Self-doubt creeps in and next thing I know my parade is being called off on account of a slanting deluge. There’s no way it can get easier to set “PR”s the older I get. I get the feeling that the age-graded calculator is the brainchild of some trickster over 40—who hates to concede. I long for the days when I compared myself to my glory days and felt badly about it. If “science” won’t hold me accountable, then this year I’m going to do exactly what I did (without a resolution) every year before 2010: train as hard as I can and hope to break 20 minutes. And maybe I really will take up origami in 2011.

(Epilogue: In April of 2015, at the Drake Relays in Des Moines, Iowa, I ran a 20:33 5k at age 49, suggesting that I could have run an 18:07 in my prime. Age-graded, this was the strongest performance of my entire 15 year running career. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether I lost or “gained” a minute in 12 years.)

In a Word (published Dec 2010)

santaI am writing this piece in a downtown café. Outside, folks pass by sporting shorts and flip-flops for what might be a final summer fling. It is a sunny 74 degrees. These carefree folk stroll and sip lattés under trees growing at city-planned intervals between streetlamps. In this block at least, the color of the trees’ abundant leaves range from the most verdant green to Yellow-Cab gold. Here is a picture that might be entitled—though not very cleverly–“Downtown, Late September Day.” Shabby working conditions, right?

I am mesmerized by the splendor of the scene. I nod off into a late-summer reverie. I am thinking that it’s almost time to start covering the tomatoes. I start wondering whether I’m in shape for the Fall Series and whether the Broncos will be good enough to make the playoffs this season. I stare into my page and think, So, why am I writing a Christmas piece for the Long Run? Then it comes back to me. It is the sixth of November. The tomatoes are off the vine. I’ve elected to let someone else win the Fall Series this year (kidding, Logan Wealing). And the Broncos are—well, the Broncos.

So what’s with all the leaves, the shorts and the flip-flops? They shouldn’t be here. But they are here, like they didn’t get the memo about packing it in for the year.

By the time you read this piece, it will be December. And who knows what the weather will look like (like October, I venture to guess). But tell me, doesn’t it feel like just yesterday it was summer? Without taking sides in the global warming scrum, I will pronounce that we’ve had more than our share of lingering summers in the past decade. And few, I venture, have lollygagged like the past summer.

Whether or not this spells doom for the ski industry, it makes the holidays feel like guests that–while always welcome–have rung our bells unfashionably early. If Christmas once had a way of creeping up on us, it now tip-toes through the sunflowers and takes us unawares in shirtsleeves sipping mojitos under tiki lamps. Those TV ads that boasted of “Christmas in July” were unconscious of their prescience. It’s all enough to make one feel—well, Australian (they have Christmas too, you know).

But this is good for our December running, right? Warmer days. Less snow and ice. Fewer potholes. According to the Global Warming Interactive Simulation, Colorado runners should be enjoying 7.58 more outdoor running days a year.* December running has never been better. Right? Think again. When nature herself acts confused, you can bet we’ll act confused. The fair weather will undoubtedly have tricked us into falling off our ordinary holiday schedules–way off. So what do our behindhand December schedules look like? In a word (and I mean the expression literally), they look like decoratinguletidingbakingcraftingshoppingwrapping or some equally condensed, frenetic and unspeakable variation on that theme. (And by the way, my spellchecker just blew a gasket.) It is worth noting that running is nowhere to be found among the “ings” of my Greek loanword. Furthermore it doesn’t look like you can squeeze running in no matter how economical your handwriting (or pace) is.

But running is a luxury, I hear the voice of Reason say. It can go on the back-burner for a month of—um, merriment.

And with the voice of Reason, I respectfully disagree. Like a massage, running is something we need most when we have the least time for it. In the right measure and executed at the proper pace, running will leave us more alert and energized for December’s challenges.

Like a teenager, I despise the word chore. It has negative connotations that reach far beyond drudgery and paltry–or in most cases, no–monetary reward. But sometimes there’s just no escaping the fact that we must do our chores. When I was a personal fitness trainer I used to–as a stop-gap measure–implore clients who were struggling with workouts to approach them as another one of the chores they wouldn’t think of shirking. The holiday season will come and go and we’ll still have taken out the trash, vacuumed the carpet, cleaned the car, gone to work, etc. We will have maintained our homes, cars and finances. Why not our physical–and mental–health? More than one wise person has held that our primary duty is to cultivate our minds and bodies, for these go with us everywhere, unlike our abodes and trappings, from which we often step away. And to my knowledge no wise person ever said a word about it being our primary duty to trim the tree and garnish the roast beast.

So for a month, why not make running a chore—if you can’t make more of it, that is? Better than a discarded luxury. And besides, the more calories one burns the more holiday calories one can consume without penalty. Take that, voice of reason! And if you’re wondering, the Holiday Goody to Fitness Event Conversion Table states that a single glass of eggnog is equivalent to the calories burned during an ultramarathon!

Now take a second look at that word decoRatingUletidiNgbakiNgcraftINGshoppingwrapping. It’s the same as before. But this time try to form the word running from its letters. You’ll see that running was in there the whole time. You just have to look at it differently. So what do you say we put the figgy pudding on the backburner and promote running to its proper place. Or at least put it on our chore lists.

Falling Down (The Long Run 2010 Sep)

fallI ordinarily resist drawing analogies from so thin a thread as a single homonym.  Take the following word with one sound and two (actually several) meanings:  fall.  There is the season fall.  And there is a fall from a higher to a lower state.  It doesn’t take an etymologist to understand how very different these words are.  No self-respecting writer would make much of the connection.

I thought of the word fall.  I thought of drawing an analogy between its diverse meanings.  I was briefly embarrassed at my thought.  And so I moved on.  At least I tried to move on.  Until the analogy recommended itself in terms of my laughable martial arts foray (or should I say folly?) and the practice of fall detraining.  I couldn’t resist.

The term fall detraining will no doubt elicit envious snickers from more than a few readers.

For the high school and collegiate cross-country runner, his or her time to shine is September and October: the heart of cross-country season.  And marathon runners routinely train and taper well into autumn in quest of a 26.2 mile PR time.

But it is usually otherwise with the recreational runner, free as he or she is from the structuring influence of a coach, accountability to a team-in-training or that $100.00 registration fee that shall not have been paid in vain.  For the runner whose goals are never loftier than racing half a dozen 5 or 10ks from May to August (as if that weren’t lofty enough), September may be viewed as the month to put the “recreational” back into his or her “recreational runner.”

To a considerable extent, this reaction is healthy, anticipating the plan of nature herself, which soon enough will denude her trees of fruit and leaves and lead her fauna in an ever-slowing metabolic dance.  We need only think an instant about the word recreationto notice that it contains the word recreate, whose meaning is to refresh.  And recreate and refresh we runners must.  And no less than nature.

But certainly we need to recreate no more than nature.  And on no more aggressive a plan.

What a perfect pacer nature is.  She begins the winter work in August when diminishing daylight becomes perceptible in marginally cooling temperatures and that gloaming start to the 6 am run.  She begins her work in no particular hurry and seems, like a negative-splitter, to pour it on in the home stretch as autumn falls under winter’s sway.  We do not find nature’s streams and rivers one day bubbling and flower-rimmed and the next day thick with ice and the detritus of summer glories.  The plan of nature is a plan of gradualism, whether she is gearing down for winter or revving up for summer.  And if we are going to join in her dance then we ought to pay attention to her footwork.  We should match her step for step.  This means that we should not let our star fall too quickly.  And most of all we should not forget that nature does not let her domains go to waste in winter.  No winter—even in Colorado–was ever so forsaken as Narnia under a curse (or even as cold, Mark Twain might quip, as a summer in San Francisco).  We needn’t be naturalists to understand that vital processes and even a good deal of growth take place while nature is in her winter slumbers and that though she sometimes assumes the appearance of the dead the breath of life is ever present in her steady, easy respiration.  She does not repair by ceasing all operations.  She keeps her domains in a state of healthful readiness for easy marshalling in March.  And so we must follow suit.  Our Brooks and New Balances, while accumulating mileage at a gradually slower rate must not, beginning in September, be relegated to the nether regions of our closets under the flip-flops.  And throughout the season (we are jumping ahead) when white and bare describe the ground and trees, the pages in the latter third of our running logs must be anything but white and bare.  They should continue to tell an uninterrupted story, one with a different narrative pacing, it is true, but a story with color and purpose nevertheless.

One of the first—indeed, one of the only—things I learned from my martial arts experience is that there is a right and a wrong way to fall down.  A bad fall—one resulting in too abrupt a letdown and a complete discontinuance of motion–and one may have difficulty springing back into action.  The key to falling down properly is to remain in motion throughout the fall (and it doesn’t hurt to have an appreciation of slapstick either).  Falling down is an art.  If I learned nothing about the martial arts from my Sensei (my fault), at least I learned something about running.

The Taming of the Shoe (the Long Run 2010 Aug)

tameTextbook form. You’ve heard the expression. If you’re one of the lucky ones, you embody it. But odds are you’re not so lucky. So how important is it, really? Very important, if you read the running books; not only does it decrease the risk of injury, but it leads to improved performance. Yet observe any high-profile race from the sidelines, and you’ll get the feeling that a lot of great runners aren’t doing their homework. For every example of textbook form among elites, there seems to be at least three examples of—how shall I put it?–more vernacular form.

I’ve watched, like a kid peering into a candy store, the elites at the Bolder Boulder. Short striders. Long striders. Heel strikers. Toe runners. A lot of spitting. Oh, and it goes without saying, a lot of flat-out jaw-dropping fast times. I saw elites wearing expressions more befitting of a soak in a Swedish bath—while stringing together sub-5 minute miles! I saw others who looked like they were passing a kidney stone—through their airways. I saw some with the focus of a petawatt laser. And I saw others with distracted, far-away looks, like their minds were running on a calculus problem.

So what can one take away from the viewing of such a motley parade of world class humanity?—aside from pangs of inadequacy? As I took in the gamut of running styles on display at Folsom Field, a few axioms suggested themselves. To thine own self be true. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. Different strokes for different folks. But what came most to mind was relief.

You see, I’d been working at correcting my own reproachable form for years. It was my version of finishing school. I choose treadmills in sight of mirrors, so that, with governess sense, I might right my ailing form whenever the urge to be human overtook me. When I wasn’t analyzing my gait, I was counting footfalls per minute. While trying to steer my leaky raft between the Charybdis and Scallya of impeccable form, there was the bugbear of belly breathing to do battle with. The Ps and Qs of the foot strike hadn’t even been added to the curriculum. I was like the king—mentioned in Thoreau—who set himself on a course of correcting his faults, but couldn’t find the end of them. And while trying, my performance faltered and my running had become joyless, as learning becomes joyless under the tutelage of pedants and ruler-wielding nuns. Was it worth it to cross a finish line with first-lap form and a look of tranquility on my face, if I crossed that line a minute later than with stooping and grunting form? Some, who always stand on form, will say yes. I say no.

I remember the joy I felt when I PRd in the 5k. With abandon, I had burst from the gates, flying in the face of negative-split wisdom. By mile two I was rattling apart and red-lining like SpaceShipOne puncturing the ionosphere. My forward tilt was teetering on a topple. My arms were beating a front crawl in a wave pool (where the only waves were those of my gathering nausea). My hands were convulsively clutching at the grail of personal glory. The textbook was in tatters. The only book that mattered now was the record book. The Conservation of Energy—that weighty tome–had been ditched for a page-turner named the Call of the Wild. The Book of Numbers had trumped the Book of Judges.

Stand on form? Or stand on the winners’ platform? Ultramathoner Dean Karnazes said it well in this paean to his junior high coach: “Coach’s approach to running didn’t come out of any textbook; he simply instructed us to run as fast as we could until we crossed the finish line.“ That’s what I call street smarts.