Dreadmill , The Progress in Going Nowhere

“Butch Cassidy: Is that what you call giving cover?
Sundance Kid: Is that what you call running? If I knew you were going to stroll…”
– Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (1969)

I’ve been happily estranged from the film industry’s wares for a pretty long time. Nevertheless I’m still confident when I say that the greatest Hollywood creation of all time has to be the mismatched buddy movie. You know the ones. Two people with vastly different backgrounds or beliefs are unwittingly paired together where their obviously incompatible natures come into immediate conflict. They don’t understand each other. They can’t possible like each other. And there is absolutely no way in hell that they could ever work together.

Well, that is until some unforeseen circumstance persuades those polar opposites to set aside their differences and join forces to resolve the situation or accomplish the common goal. Comedy and/or drama ensue.

Hollywood is so creative. Can I get an extra squirt of artificially butter flavored oil on my popcorn please?

“It’s not about how fast you go. It’s not about how far you go. It’s the process. As we run, we become. Every workout reveals new truths and releases new dreams.” – Amby Burfoot

I ran ten races in 2013, ranging in length from 5K to my first full marathon. As a newbie runner, every one of those events was a milestone. And I experienced some level of self-discovery in accomplishing each of them. But the true joys and revelations were found in the hundreds and hundreds of miles I ran training for those relatively short-lived events; 966.28 miles to be exact approximate.

Do you know how many of those miles were logged on a treadmill? Neither do I, because I only stepped on the damn thing one time all year. And all I can remember is how hard it was just to stay on it for a measly half hour.

I forget what my initial goal was. But I remember that only 10 minutes after pushing the start button, I made a deal with myself that if I could battle through 30 minutes without losing my mind, then I could stop. I’d already adopted the practice of running outside no matter the weather, and logged many wonderful miles in the rain, snow, heat, and cold. I have no clue what I was doing on a treadmill that day. But I hated it.

It was boring. I clumsily struggled to keep from stepping off of one side or the other. The lack of air movement felt stifling. It was tedious. If I wasn’t about to trail off the back I was running into the console. I couldn’t feel the sun on my face, hear dogs barking, smell honeysuckle flowers, or see a single bird. And, oh yeah-Did I mention that it was mind-numbing?

Even without knowing what I wanted from it in the first place, because I hated it so much I’ve unapologetically referred to that gym clutter as a “dreadmill” ever since. Cliché runner joke or not, that’s how I saw it; an endless vinyl path to insanity.

“So I stay out in the streets, Hoping to find you anywhere
Now that I understand, The woman you need to be
I can feel you in the heat, I can taste you in the air
And I can’t help but find your face in Everything I see”
Dawes, Moon In The Water

I spent 2013 running through the surrounding neighborhoods, rarely seeing another runner. But after my ankle crapped out on me last December, I would see one every time I drove around a curve. I swear they were everywhere. Each twisting the knife in my back, reminding me that I couldn’t do the one thing I could rely on for relief…or all too often, escape from a winter season I’d made way too dark. (Note: A healthy crutch is still a crutch. And crutches suck!)

If seeing all of those able-bodied jerks out on the road wasn’t hard enough, there were always a dozen or so people wearing out the dreadmills at the gym. I’d never really paid much attention to them. But as soon as I wasn’t able to run, they became pretty much all I could see.

“Look at that lucky bastard. Goddamn I wish I could go run right now.” – Me, every single day of winter.

It’s amazing what you notice when you’re forced to slow down…or worse, to stop. I never stopped my cycling or strength training exercises. And between sets at the gym, I’d catch myself zoning out into a total stranger’s running style. I saw people screaming along with a heel strike so sharp, it made my legs hurt. I saw others with a stride so vertically bouncy that I thought they had to be joking. There were runners whose upper bodies were so rigidly immobile that I don’t know how the twisting didn’t strain their lower back. And of course there were the gazelle-like superstars with the smoothest, most gracefully fluid running form you’ve ever seen. They’re the worst.

Maybe the most important observation was something I’d accepted as truth without actually witnessing it. Treadmills bounce. Of course I don’t mean like a trampoline. But no matter how clumsy or smooth the runner’s technique, the belted pathway gives more than any outdoor surface I’m aware of. I’d often read that treadmills could reduce running’s impact on the body. But not until I was forced to just sit there and watch did I actually see its flexibility under the stress of all types of runners. And seeing that bounce forced me to accept what I’d long feared; if I really wanted to heal and get back out on the roads, I was going to have to make friends with that “gym clutter.”

“Martin Riggs: Hey, look friend, let’s just cut the shit. Now we both know why I was transferred. Everybody thinks I’m suicidal, in which case, I’m fucked and nobody wants to work with me; or they think I’m faking to draw a psycho pension, in which case, I’m fucked and nobody wants to work with me. Basically, I’m fucked.

Roger Murtaugh: Guess what?

Martin Riggs: What?

Roger Murtaugh: I don’t want to work with you!

Martin Riggs: Hey, don’t.

Roger Murtaugh: Ain’t got no choice! Looks like we both been fucked!” Lethal Weapon (1987)

I was reluctant in our relationship for sure, but I’d avoided it as long as I could. I took several weeks off with no running at all. Then I eased my way onto an elliptical machine; which I also don’t enjoy. After a couple of weeks substituting my three weekly runs with that arm swinging, cross-country-skiing-meets-stair-climbing silliness, I finally stepped back on the dreadmill. And I did dread it, except that I didn’t. After not being able to run for so long, I couldn’t help but see that whirling nightmare in a slightly different light. It still looked mind-numbingly boring. But it also looked like the only doorway back outside. And I desperately wanted to go outside.

In addition to the presumed lesser impact, I also thought the treadmill would keep me from running too fast. In my earlier efforts back from injury, I would hit the road for “easy runs” and end up going too fast for too long, always distracted by some modest, but ultimately insignificant, mileage goal. I wasn’t focusing enough on healing. I wasn’t listening to my body. And as a result, I aggravated my injury and hindered my recovery. I do stupid shit better than a lot of people do anything. If I wanted to run faster on a treadmill, I’d have to consciously change the speed setting. I thought that might rein me in a little.

My first treadmill sessions had no goals, only limits. I wasn’t worried about mileage or speed at all. I just wanted to get some time in. I would run until my ankle told me to stop. But if I made it to 20 minutes, I’d stop regardless and finish my 45-60 minute daily cardio goal on an elliptical or bike. I stuck to that routine for a thousand weeks (What? It felt like it), slowly adding a few minutes or a little more speed as my body allowed it. But if I ever felt even a tinge of pain in my Achilles, I’d stop. It was frustrating beyond words.

After several weeks of battling the boredom of those runs, I let myself out on the road for a short run, only with the understanding that my other two runs that week would be back inside. Eventually I started taking my Saturday “long” runs to a local trail where I could get a softer surface AND still be outside where I belong. But again, if I did my long run outside, my next run was on the mill. Patience is key. Slow is fast. Baby steps. Blah blah blah. It was excruciating. But I think it’s working.

It was brutal out there.

It was brutal out there.

A couple of weeks ago, I finally ran my first race of 2014. It was my slowest 10K to date and maybe my most satisfying race ever. I’d just taken another week off after some worrisome outings the previous weeks. And my prerace warm-up was not at all confidence building. I approached the start already conceding that the only goal for this race would be to enjoy the spring weather. Once it started, much to my surprise, I actually ran well. It was the first time I’d run “fast” in six months. After the cluttered crowd navigation of the first half mile, I zoned out. I’m not a speedster at all, nor am I very competitive. But for the next six miles, almost without realizing it, I slowly crept by one runner after another; steadily reeling in each next person without paying much attention to it. It was awesome. I finished the race with negative splits throughout, only a few seconds slower than the same race last year, and most importantly with zero ankle issues. I felt good, which felt great. And as much as I would’ve loved to buy into the “Greg’s back” sentiment expressed by my friends, three days later, I was back on the treadmill. Why? Because I want to run a marathon this fall. And I won’t be able to do that if I do something stupid this week.

“Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” – George Bernard Shaw

During those agonizing months of slow recovery running I was tweaking every aspect of my form; my foot fall, my posture, my stride, everything. Those adjustments brought with them the general aches and pains that come with all change. And those discomforts complicated my ability to measure my progress. “Was that pain Achilles-related? Or was that normal (and less worrisome) soreness of a flatter foot strike?” I swear I can complicate anything. But I always had my new friend waiting for me at the gym if I needed to slow down and evaluate something in a controlled environment. And that helped a lot, whether I always want to admit it or not.

Do I love treadmills now? Nope. But I’ve been reminded that a bad first impression is not always the fault of the impresser. As a child I hated beets and brussels sprouts. Now I love them eat both almost every single day. A year ago I said that until they classify bacon and pulled pork bbq as vegetables, that I could never be a vegetarian. I haven’t eaten either one in a year, and now thrive on an almost completely dairy free, plant based diet. Two years ago, I’d have told you that I hated running. Now I can say without hyperbole that I believe it saved my life.

My resistance to new things has stolen so much from me over the years. Some of those things I’ll be able to get later, some I won’t. But first I need to avoid falling victim to the “I just don’t like change” mentality. The only people that should ever comfortably say that are people 100% satisfied with every aspect of their existence. Otherwise, refusing change is to refuse the possibility of achieving something greater.

I ran like shit on a treadmill, so I blamed the treadmill and built a whole argument about how awful they are. Then I realized that like any tool, you have to learn how to use it before it can work for you. I bought into many of the bullshit arguments against a plant-based diet. Then I tried it and discovered that it works incredibly well for me. I perform better without meat and dairy products. I recover faster. I feel better. I run better. And running has without a doubt made me better.

I’ve been wrong more than I’ve been right in my life. And my default settings are still to misplace blame, exaggerate my displeasure, and too often embrace the negative. I don’t know why, but those things just come easy to me. But I’m working on it and slowly making progress. I feel good. I like changing the things that don’t work for me. I’m learning that all of that might be as simple knowing when to change my mind. Happy Wednesday. Go outside.

Checking In From the Long Cut

“When a train goes through a tunnel and it gets dark, you don’t throw away the ticket and jump off. You sit still and trust the engineer.” – Corrie Ten Boom

Wow! It’s been a while. I wish I had some exciting reason why I haven’t posted in so long; maybe some wild tale about my adventures battling dragons on the open seas or traveling with a ninja circus through outer space.

Because seriously, what lie story isn’t made better by adding a dragon or a couple of ninjas?

That’s right! None!

The mythical-reptile-free truth is that I’ve just been a little busier, largely uninspired, and I couldn’t justify making time in an already frenzied schedule just to force something crappy onto the web. If I post something crappy, I want it to be genuinely inspired crap.

Obviously, I’m still a ridiculous person.

“It is the merit of a general to impart good news, and to conceal the truth.” – Sophocles

I’m inclined to say that so little has happened in the last two months that writing about it would’ve wasted more of my time than reading it would’ve stolen from you. It’s basically been weeks upon weeks of the same ol’ shit: Go to work, go to the gym, cook dinner late, meditate, not enough sleep, repeat. Nobody parties like I party.

I continue to refine my diet: still plant based, no meat, no dairy, very little sugar, and currently reducing both oils and gluten (not all fats, just oils) while increasing consumption of unprocessed whole foods and those rich in probiotics. I’ve even started making my own kombucha and salad dressing; tasty practices that I can already tell might spin out of control.

I hear it's not bad w/ a little vodka or bourbon either.  Just sayin'.

I hear it’s not bad w/ a little vodka or bourbon either. Just sayin’.

I still try to meditate every day. My success is mixed but improving. And I definitely feel better when I make the time to just sit, focus on my breath, and slow the rattling in my skull. I don’t have any magical stories of transcendence. All I know is that when I don’t do it my mind knots up quickly and the tension is palpable.

I am running (thankfully), but nowhere near as much as I would like and way too much of it on a spinning rubber band surrounded by walls and televisions and loud shitty music; all things that suppress my spirit far more than encourage it.

(SIDE NOTE: Why is it, that in a place where literally 95% of people wear headphones, the gym feels compelled to play the music so loud? Seriously, no one is listening to that noise. Turn it down…or off.)

Managed to steal a trail ride before the soaking month of rain and snow.

Managed to steal a trail ride before the soaking month of rain and snow.

The closest things to actual “news” around here are: I’m lining up my first yoga session in the coming weeks. A buddy’s martial arts experience continues to tempt me in a jujitsu direction. And because my nagging running limitations have reduced the time I get to spend with my friends sunshine, rainfall, birdsongs, and barking dogs, I’ve started riding my bike more.

It’s not the same as running. But it does help with the withdrawal symptoms of not being able to run as much as I’d like. So until I can safely get my long runs back, I’ll ride. If you can’t be with the one love, love the one you’re with, right?

We’ll see.

“There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.” – Beverly Sills

I still haven’t put any races on my 2014 calendar. I don’t mind that so much except that it means that I don’t have a training schedule either. And I miss the training more than the races.

Honestly, I miss my long runs more than anything; two plus hours running alone on a Saturday morning with nothing but my haunted thoughts. That might not sound like a good time to everyone, but I miss it like crazy…and might seriously be going crazy trying not to force myself back to that place too quickly.

Typical of my nature, impatience has complicated my recovery. I got hurt. The second I felt “better,” I charged out and re-aggravated it. Lesson learned. Don’t rush it. We’re not going for better. We’re going for healed. Baby steps are the answer. I can do anything. Blah blah blah.

I truly believe all of that, but I was still missing one important point. Having the answer wasn’t going to help if I kept asking the wrong question; aiming at the wrong target.

“Just as nailing a PR isn’t easy, recovering from an injury isn’t easy-it takes dedication and hard work. And… you can’t expect to get better if you give it less than your best.” – Kate McDonald Neitz

Through this whole debacle, I’ve been striving to get back to where I was before; always looking way beyond the next step and thinking instead about the marathon on the horizon. Have you ever tried to reach out and touch the horizon? Chasing it won’t get you any closer.

As my hopes for a spring 26.2 slipped away, I thought maybe I could salvage a half before the higher heat and humidity forces long races into summer hibernation. No? Well, how about if I can get back to running (insert any number) miles a week. Sure, that’ll make me happy.

I wasn’t focusing on simply letting my ankle heal, and heal fully. I thought I was. But I’m often full of shit. I’d take a couple of weeks off. Then maybe a short, slow treadmill run, staying aware of my form, and making sure to stretch properly. You know, doing everything “right.” But as soon as I saw even the slightest flicker of light at the end of the tunnel, I’d immediately kick the engineer off the train and push the throttle.

“Today felt pretty good. Finally. I’m back! Time to start building my mileage back up. Maybe I can squeeze in a half marathon before summer.” Nope. I’d just go too hard for too long and bang myself up again. Two steps forward, one step back. Story of my life. No road like the hard road. Arghhhhhh!

A full recovery is the only “race” I should be training for. And I’m trying to be as dedicated to that goal as I was while training for any of last year’s races. But last year, “dedication” meant pushing through newbie discomforts in order to break new ground. This year, it means, trusting the engineer will get me through this tunnel if I’ll only stay out of the way.

It feels like it’s taking forever, but I have to remember that I don’t have a lifetime of athleticism to fall back on. A year and a half ago, I had a combined total of zero years of athletic conditioning. I think that might be important. Those with a more substantial foundation of physical activity might be able to endure a short time on the sidelines and have their bodies rebound quickly.

When I got hurt and essentially took 8 weeks “off,” that equated to almost 10 percent of my total life as a runner. And because I’ve got over 38 years of experience being a hardheaded dullard, I completely forgot all of the things I learned while training last year. I’m going to have to start small again. Not from scratch. But smaller.

“It is the neglect of timely repair that makes rebuilding necessary.” – Richard Whately

8 miles at sunrise last Saturday = longest run in months. Felt so good.

8 miles at sunrise last Saturday = longest run in months. Felt so good.

I’m grateful to be running again, even if much of it is on the dreadmill. But my runs are a little bit more like work right now; work that I love. I’m concentrating on and adjusting every aspect of my form: my foot strike, my breathing, which muscles I’m using, my posture, keeping my core engaged, everything. I think about all of those things constantly in fact. Whether I’m walking across a parking lot or sitting at my desk, I’m always paying attention to my body’s overall alignment and posture.

I’m trying to learn more about how my body works and then incorporate those lessons into my gym routine each day. I’ve increased and expanded my cross training during these weeks and I can tell that my endurance is as good as or better than it’s ever been. I’m determined to come out of this tunnel stronger than I went in.

“We’ve been in a deep rut
And it’s been killing me
If you wanna take the long cut
We’ll get there eventually”
– Uncle Tupelo

Anyway, I just wanted to check in to say that I’m still here. I’m trying to avoid misleading short cuts, focus on the next step instead of the horizon, and be steadfast on the more reliable long cut back to a full recovery…and eventually back into a race bib.

I know I said at New Years that I wanted to increase the frequency of these posts, but I’m at a loss. I didn’t realize how long my recovery was going take and maybe didn’t fully appreciate how many of my blogs over the last 18 months were sparked and/or drafted while I was out pounding the pavement. I don’t know if those runs were my muse or my workshop. But without my time in whatever that place is, I’m stuck simultaneously experiencing a feeling of both emptiness and suffocating clutter. And I don’t really feel like writing about either of those things right now. So I’ll just keep moving forward at whatever pace I can. And I’ll write ‘em as they come, whether that’s next week or next month. Hell, if I’m going to take the long way around, I better at least see something interesting along the way.

Wish me luck. I can feel it and do appreciate it. Happy Wednesday.

Slow Is Fast: Importance of Baby Steps

I haven’t laced up my running shoes and hit the road since Christmas Day. Why? Because on that supposed jolliest of days, when I got dressed up in silly looking red clothes (my least favorite color) and headed out into the cold to celebrate my first run in weeks, I overdid it and re-aggravated an injury that had already been driving me crazy…maybe literally.

My triumphant return to the roads instead turned out to be a rebirth of pain.

“Life is short and if you’re looking for extension, you had best do well. ‘Cause there’s good deeds and then there’s good intentions. They are as far apart as Heaven and Hell.” – Ben Harper

I had been battling the world’s most persistent throat infection since Halloween. I ran my first marathon in mid-November, while reluctantly accepting my second consecutive prescription of antibiotics. Just after Thanksgiving, my old buddy Strep Throat flexed its muscles even stronger than before, and left me completely exhausted and unable to sleep, think, or breathe without excruciating pain.

Hooray! Back to the doctor.

A few days after being issued my THIRD script for even more horrible meds, I pushed through a lackluster but much appreciated six miles. That weekend, I knocked out a decent 12. I knew I wasn’t 100%, but I did feel better. And it was so good to be out there. I needed those miles. I needed those minutes alone on the road.

Then BOOM! I laced up for my regular Tuesday run. And for no reason I can conjure, my heel hurt from the very first step. In less than a mile, I knew I was finished. It wasn’t going to work itself out. My left Achilles tendon was killing me. “Confused” doesn’t begin to describe how I felt. I still don’t remember injuring it.

I tried again on Thursday.

No dice!

It hurt just as bad, so I stopped running even sooner. “I’ll be smart” I told myself. “Don’t make it worse” I said. “You need this.” I may have uttered a few profanities (a lot of them actually; the bad ones). I don’t know what happened, but I had to let it heal. So I promised myself that I wouldn’t run again until my ankle was completely pain-free.

Long

est

twelve

days

ev

ver.

I did my best to take it easy: no running at all, easier efforts on the bike, even tried to figure out that elliptical monster I’d seen people wrestling with at the gym. I also let myself skip a few workouts all together; something I am never comfortable doing. Never.

By Christmas Eve, I felt like shit mentally, but my ankle felt better. And I was determined to run the next day. As I shared a couple of weeks ago, I’ve suffered through recent holiday seasons more than I celebrated them, and last year’s bout of Santa-time sadness was getting particularly worrisome. I desperately needed my asphalt therapist back. So while the rest of the world sat in piles of paper around indoor trees, I hit the road.

I thought I was being modestly optimistic. If I could get just three short miles in, I’d be happy. But if I could get all the way to five, I’d be stoked. I was supposed to be training for a spring marathon. Five miles meant that I might be able to adjust my goals and salvage my training plan. If I couldn’t get to three, I might have to reevaluate my entire running plan for the coming year.

“With all these forks in the roads of our path, why do so many choose to take the knife?” – Anthony Liccione

It felt so good to run again: atypical sub-freezing temperatures, a bone numbing north wind. You know, Perfection. I was running well, maintaining a decent pace, feeling a hint of happiness, and of course constantly monitoring how my left foot was landing and how the ankle was holding up.

One mile in, I can only imagine how blissful I looked rounding those corners through my familiar neighborhood course. At two miles when I had to make the decision to turn left towards my apartment or right along my usual route, I felt the slightest tingle in my ankle. I turned right.

Wrong.

At three miles, I knew I’d fucked up. I was never going to make it to five. I should’ve stopped at two. And I was doing more harm than good. So I angrily turned to track the most direct route back, and conceded to a slow walk soon after that.

I was so aggravated. Why didn’t I just turn left? Why didn’t I run slower? Why is this happening to me? I just wanted to run. I just wanted to feel better.

Merry Christmas to me. I felt worse than ever.

“You can make bad choices and find yourself in a downward spiral or you can find something that gets you out of it.” – Ray LaMontagne

I’ve heard many people claim frustration with the inability to reach a certain goal as quickly as they’d like, or annoyance with the unexpected difficulty of achieving it at all. It’s that time of year I guess; a time for change. Some people want to eat better. Others might want to exercise more. Maybe someone just wants to read more comic books. Basically, everybody is trying find a way to feel better, be better, or both. And all of it’s totally possible as long as we’re willing to work hard and keep a realistic perspective.

It doesn’t really matter what the ambition is. Almost every time I hear someone feeling discouraged and beating themselves up over some small setback, I want to remind them that even small progress counts. Nothing happens overnight. Biting off more than we should can be discouraging and maybe even lead to disheartening aches and pains (or injury). Not turning obstacles into a reason to give up is the trick.

You want to eat better? Do it. You don’t have to throw out all of the food that’s already in your pantry. You can. If it’s all total junk food, you probably should. But you don’t have to. Just change the smallest, easiest part. Leave the chocolate syrup off of your ice cream at night. Switch to low fat milk in that morning cereal. Pack your lunch on workdays to prevent fast food slip-ups. Eat a salad with dinner. The more good stuff you eat, the less room you’ll leave for the bad stuff. And you will feel better. If you mess up and eat something that you know is horrible for you, don’t give up. You didn’t lose the war. You can’t lose as long as you’re still fighting it.

If you want to exercise more, do it. You don’t have join an expensive gym or dedicate two thirds of your garage to some ridiculously complicated torture device (that often ends up covered in laundry). Just go for a walk. Run around the block. Ride your bike to the store. Move your body. Accelerate your heart rate. You will feel better. I promise. If you planned to go to the gym (or for that walk) three days this week, and then only went twice, congratulations. That’s two more than zero. That’s progress. You nailed it. Next week you’ll get all three. If you didn’t do anything at all this week, next week seems like a great week to try again. Shit, what are you doing tomorrow? Tomorrow’s a good day to have a good day.

There is no benefit in the idea that just because you missed a step today, that the entire effort is no longer worthwhile. That’s bullshit thinking. If you messed up, acknowledge that you did yourself a disservice, try to figure out why, and then make the next right move. You’ve got the rest of your life to get it right. And every small victory can put a few extra seconds on that timeline.

Within our larger ambitions, it’s important to establish smaller, more achievable goals. Accomplishing them will build confidence into the next slightly larger objective. And we should celebrate every victory. Each is a step in the right direction. Baby steps are still steps. Steps are movement. Movement is progress.

It seems so obvious when I’m looking at someone else.

“The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on. It is never of any use to oneself.”
– Oscar Wilde

That stupid mistake I made last month has forced me to rediscover my appreciation for small victories. I’ve harped about the value of baby steps a hundred times. But I’m a hypocrite. I want to make long strides. I’m impatient. I want to move. I wouldn’t want the fact that I don’t know where I’m going to keep me from charging into the darkness at full speed. I want to go now!

My Christmas debacle was my last run of 2013. The next day, my ankle felt worse than ever. I was so mad at myself. I wanted to run my first sub-four-hour marathon this March. I’ve had to accept that that will not happen. I missed my first race of the year a few weeks ago. I’m going to miss my second race this Saturday. I’m relatively clueless about how this year’s race plans are going to look. But I can’t distract myself with that stuff. I need my foot back first. I need to focus on this moment.

Christmas was also my last day of antibiotics. And whether it is coincidence or not, I did feel like my body was healing and recovering faster within days of swallowing that last stupid pill. I’ve upped my intake of probiotics, both in supplements and food sources. And I think I’m on the mend.

Unlike the first time, my ankle felt better within days. But instead of immediately trying to run, I restricted myself to a short, low intensity stint on an elliptical. If I felt anything in my ankle, I’d stop. But I didn’t feel anything. I’ve spent more time stretching my ankle. I wear compression sleeves on my ankle and lower leg A LOT just to help stabilize the whole area.

After almost two weeks without running a step, I allowed a very short and excruciatingly slow treadmill run. It sucked. But it didn’t hurt. And that was awesome. Baby steps.

I’m still restricting myself to the dreadmill. But I have been able to run a few times a week over the last two weeks. My speed and endurance is slowly coming back. It is a constant battle not to push myself. And I cannot explain how much I want/need a two or three hour run in the sun…or rain…or snow. I don’t care. I just want to be back outside. But I’m sticking to this cautious path.

My run journal has become a total exercise and wellness journal. And in addition to workout and meditation notes, it’s also littered with reminders like: “DO NOT PUSH IT!” “I WILL NOT PUSH IT THIS TIME!” “STAY CAUTIOUS.”

(Of course, not so cautious that I didn’t strap my feet to a board and repeatedly throw my clumsy ass down a snow covered hill yesterday. But hey, it doesn’t snow in southeast VA very often.)

I’ve so often commented on the importance of viewing baby steps as simple tools to stay motivated or as consolation prizes within a larger game. And I believe they can be both. But in this case, I’m learning that those small cautious strides might be the only way that I will ever get back out on the roads where I belong. I hope I actually listen to myself this time. Wish me luck. Happy Wednesday.

Can’t Run? Volun-Cheer

“He puzzled and puzzled till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. Maybe Christmas, he thought… doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps… means a little bit more!” – Narrator, How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Well the holiday season is once again upon us. And as usual, I’m ashamedly not nearly as full of good cheer as I feel like I should be. Believe it or not, I don’t like being a grumpy Grinch-like asshole every Christmas. But the holiday season is almost always way more stressful to me than its worth. I say it every single year, but Christmas is just Thanksgiving with the additional unnecessary stress of excessive consumerism.

And this year’s season of spending seems even more frustrating because instead of focusing my attention on twinkling lights and shiny paper, I’m exhausting myself battling the most persistent bout of strep throat I’ve ever had, which means I’ve spent the last six weeks doping my entire body with antibiotics just to (so far) unsuccessfully kill an infection that’s only in my throat.

I swear the streptococcal infection loves me more than any woman ever has. And, like any self-respecting stalker, it refuses to go away quietly. As a result of this long term dysfunctional relationship, I was sick through most of my marathon tapering, I’ve been consistently more fatigued both prior to and since that race, due to that weariness I’ve been unable to maintain my run/workout routines as I’d like, I’m obviously not enjoying the therapeutic release that those workouts would normally provide, and because of the antibiotics’ negative effects on my digestive system, I’m also not absorbing food nutrients as efficiently and therefore not recovering from workouts as well as I normally would. Basically, I just cannot wait to get these drugs out of my system so that I can stop medicating and start healing.

Oh yeah. And now I can’t run.

Yep.

I can’t run. And it’s seriously driving me crazy.

When I was prescribed my third, much stronger antibiotic my doctor said that it may cause some tightness in my joints and tendons. He was right. I ran a few times after starting the new scrip and I felt good. Then after last Saturday’s 12 miles, my left achilles tendon started to feel a little tight. No worries. It wasn’t to the point of being painful or anything. I thought it was fairly normal soreness associated with being so sick and not running very much that week. But when I tried to run on Tuesday, it hurt. It hurt enough that I stopped after a whopping one mile. I rested it, stretched it, and on Thursday tried again. It still hurt. So I stopped again, only sooner. I didn’t even try to run today. It sucks.

Not sure what I’m going to do next week. Other than my ankle, my body feels good. And I want to run so bad that it’s killing me. But I’m still on meds and I really don’t want to injure myself just because I’m too stupid to listen to by drugged up body. Ugh, I hate to have to say it, but I’m slowly accepting that I may not be able to run again until I can get this poison out of my system and let my body get back to its normal functioning capacity for healing and recovery. Have I mentioned how much this sucks? Well it does. A LOT!

It’s borderline depressing in fact.

“Push yourself again and again. Don’t give an inch until the final buzzer sounds.” – Larry Bird

Throughout the last month and a half of dealing with my old friend, Strep, and griping about my inability to maintain my normal exercise routines, I’ve received similar advice from many of my friends.

“Give yourself a break Man.”

“Don’t push yourself right now.”

“Just take it easy.”

While I am 100% sure that every one of those sentiments was shared out of genuine concern and with the best intentions, I don’t think everyone fully appreciates how conflicting those things can be for me.

I’ve spent my entire life never pushing myself, taking the easiest way out of every single situation, and ultimately ended up unsatisfied with the results. Deciding to push myself and to expand the boundaries of what I incorrectly thought possible has been the key to moving beyond a past existence that I don’t miss. And I believe continuing to do so is the only way of ever becoming my most authentic self and to get where I’m supposed to be.

Now, I know that my friends aren’t asking me to stop running or to give up any of my healthier lifestyle choices. They just want me to feel better. But I have such an addict’s view of my past sedentary lifestyle that I have trouble balancing the risks of battling through hardship with the opposite risks of sliding back into a way of life where mediocrity was good enough. It isn’t.

I see thoughts like “Go ahead, skipping one workout won’t kill you” in much the same way that I imagine recovering addicts might view “C’mon, one drink won’t hurt.” I know that might sound ridiculous, but I’ve got first hand experience with how easy it is to break healthy habits. And even while I fully recognize that I’m a much different person now, I still cannot stomach the idea of letting myself give up a single inch to that lazy fuck that I know is still inside me somewhere. I won’t do it. I’ve got way too much I still want to do and time is constantly running out.

“We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal and then leap in the dark to our success.” – Henry David Thoreau

The day after I got back from running the Philadelphia marathon, I immediately sat down at my computer, opened up my Philly training schedule, deleted all of the time/pace recordings, and renamed the file “Shamrock Training.”

I haven’t registered for the Shamrock Marathon yet. But I technically started that new training cycle the week after Philly. Unfortunately, my body is not cooperating. If it was just my ankle, I’d be okay. I know I have time to recover from that. But because I’m having such a hard time clearing this infection and my tonsil is still swollen, my doctor has not yet ruled out the possibility of taking my tonsils out; a surgery that could have me out of commission from several weeks up to a month AND of course taking even more antibiotics with additional drugs for the supposedly excruciating pain. I hate even the idea of putting all of these foreign chemicals in my body. Shit, I won’t even take Tylenol.

I was, and am, happy with my time from my first marathon, but I’m certain that I can do better and I still have every intention of doing so in March.

BUT (isn’t there always a but?), I’m still sick.

And now I can’t fucking run.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” – Mahatma Gandhi

I was completely pissed and somewhat lost without my favorite crutch this week. What am I supposed to do with myself if I can’t run? The answer came in an email a few days ago.

One of the other things I did not long after getting back from Philly was to sign up to volunteer at a 50K race being held next weekend. I’d actually considered running it, but after running my first marathon I decided that I had pushed myself enough for this year and that if I couldn’t run it, I would volunteer to work it instead. And a few days ago, as I was becoming increasingly aggravated with my foot, my throat, and my inability to get my body back on track, I got the email with my volunteer assignment. I was actually pretty stoked. I’ll be working one of the aid stations.

I’ve never volunteered at a race before so I’ve obviously never worked an aid station either. But I’m excited to see a race from the other side of the equation. And I’m really happy to be able to help execute a race that some of my friends are running. I’m expecting to have a good time. And without sounding like a total shithead, I suspect that cheering for and supporting my fellow runners as I hand them cups of water or just pick up the crumpled empties that they leave behind will feel significantly more rewarding to me this holiday season than anything I could possibly do at a shopping mall.

I might not be able to run. But I can still volun-cheer. And I think that might be as close to Christmas cheer as I’m capable of this year. Merry Christmas, happy holidays, or whatever else makes your lights twinkle. Have fun. Happy Saturday.

One Step More (J.O.G.T. 9)

“If you can do something, you can do one step more too.”– Me.

Well, I’m late as usual with my Jar of Good Things update. And really, most of the best things in the jar were from my Colorado trip which I shared last week. But I was still a little surprised to find a few unexpected gems hiding in the bottom. Here they are:

Sep 01. PR’d the Rock n Roll half marathon, then made it out to Munden for a round of disc golf, then spent afternoon/evening playing games with family. All to come home and find out that my blog picked up the most new followers in a single day. Cool day.

I feel like I came out of the gate pretty strong in September. September 01, 2012 was maybe the worst day of my life, so I was pretty determined to make 2013’s better and hopefully avoid celebrating the darkness of that anniversary. Luckily my good friend, Running, swooped in and served up another win on all accounts.

I’ve shared before that I originally signed up for the Rock n Roll half marathon as a goal race to motivate me to keep running through any summer distractions or discomforts. I’d read about how miserable summer running can be, and I really didn’t want to give the excuse maker still lurking inside of me any room to breathe. Eventually I will suffocate him altogether. **shakes fist in the air while laughing maniacally**

As it turned out, I didn’t hate summer running at all and made it through the season without even the slightest temptation to skip a run or workout. I mean, yeah, it’s hot and muggy and harder and slower. But even in the heat and humidity, running brought more peace and quiet (and laundry) to my life than anything else I can imagine doing for myself.

Not long after I registered for the Rock n Roll, I pulled the trigger on my first full marathon coming up this November. That decision, and resulting training schedule, essentially reclassified the Labor Day race as a training race instead of a goal race. The basic difference being that I would not be tapering for the Rock n Roll. And the lack of a taper, together with my inexperience running in the heat, led to modest expectations.

During the newly branded “training race” I learned valuable lessons and still exceeded my expectations, making the whole event a win-win in my book; the only book that matters.

“The expectations of life depend upon diligence; the mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools.” – Confucius

I haven’t run very many races, so my main goals were basically to run hard without recklessly overdoing it, and get some more experience at the simple execution of a race: getting pre-race routines ironed out, testing in-race fueling, negotiating water stations, etc. The Philadelphia Marathon is a big race with over 11,000 finishers last year, and just under 11,000 more half marathon participants. I thought if nothing else, running a race like the Rock n Roll would give me some practice dealing with crowds that large. And it did.

It also showed me the importance of sticking to my plan. What good is a plan if you don’t follow it?

The Rock n Roll was the smoothest overall race routine I’ve pulled off. I set myself up for success the best I could. I ate a familiar pre-race dinner, went to bed early, had everything I needed staged to go in the morning, ate before I left my house, got to the race on time, and even knocked out a solid warm-up before entering my corral. All I had to do then was run. I know how to run…I think.

I started the race a little fast, but nothing crazy. And after four or five miles of unsuccessfully trying to slow to nine minutes, I settled into my 8:50 pace and just zoned out. Inhale for three steps, exhale for two. High five the cheerleaders along the way. Say “thank you” to the volunteers. Piece of cake.

I clearly don’t like cake. (actually, I really don’t like cake)

I was running pretty strong and felt great through the first 10 miles. I’d eaten one half of a Vega endurance gel before the start and proceeded to eat them, one half at a time, every 15 minutes along the way. They’re my favorite in-race fuel so far and they were working just fine. When my watch read 1hr45min, I was around mile 12 and still feeling good. So for no logical reason at all, I consciously decided to skip what would’ve been my last half of a gel. “I’ll be done in less than 10 minutes. Just finish this thing.” In that last mile, I completely tanked and fell apart.

I knew I had enough seconds in the bank to literally stumble to a PR, but I felt like ass. After running over 12 miles without even the temptation to walk, I was now crumbling fast. My legs were heavy and my will was shot. I stopped to walk in front of the last water station and may not have gotten back out nearly as fast if a darling elevenish year old volunteer (read: young punk) hadn’t thrown a cup of water on me and woke me back up. After that, I finally managed through the ugliest 3/4 of mile I’d run in forever.

Even after that brutal last stretch, I ended up running an unofficial 8:49 min/mile pace for 13.26 miles (Official 8:55 for 13.1, for PR of 1:56:50). I had been questioning myself in the previous weeks, wondering if I let my inexperience with summer heat make me too conservative and not push myself enough during my training. After the Rock n Roll, I think I probably did. And with summer now gone, I know I need to push a little more. Boston isn’t going to invite me to run its marathon just because I’m pretty. I’ve got to run faster. Or at least get a whole lot prettier in case I’m wrong about that first part.

Running faster seems a better plan. And I definitely won’t be skipping any more gels. My new running motto: “Stick to the plan Dipshit.”

Sep 24. First double run day. I think this is going to be the best way for me to get the miles I need without running more than three days a week. Seriously considering adding a run day to next training cycle. I love this shit.

I realized about a month ago that the training schedule I pieced together back in May had some serious mileage deficiencies if I was going to maintain a slow manageable increase in mileage each week and eventually achieve my goal of running 26.2 miles without dying. I had frankensteined a couple of plans together and then tweaked them to fit my desire to only run three days a week.

While visiting my brother in Colorado, I finally sat down and recalculated the mileage totals for the remainder of my schedule so that each week’s mileage would increase between five and ten percent of the previous week’s totals. And when I did that I realized that doing that was going to be very difficult in the coming weeks without essentially running three long runs a week. That seemed stupid, and didn’t allow for my speed training on Tuesday. I was going to have to add another run day. Or was I?

Now, I’m actually all geared up to allow a fourth run day after this training cycle. But for this race and my newbie body, I’m also pretty dedicated to my four non-run days to allow my legs to rest. So what am I to do? I decided that I could run twice on Tuesdays. My intervals on Tuesday are usually not very high mileage workouts. And if I add the extra run in the morning, keeping the intervals in the afternoon, I don’t have to worry about trying to pile those extra miles onto sore speed-stressed legs. Tuesdays are now mid-distance runs pre-dawn, and intervals in the afternoon. It gives me four runs per week AND four non run days. Win:win.

I don’t know exactly why I couldn’t just pick a preset training schedule and follow it, but I know that I like building my own. And maybe by the time I’m really ready to make my charge at a Boston qualifier, I’ll have the kinks ironed out. But for this numbers nerd, building a plan and then achieving success following that plan provides just a touch more punk-rock, do-it-yourself pride in crossing the finish line.

Sep 16. “If you can do something, you can do one step more too.”- Me. Stu & I fucked off all day (disc golf, town stroll, beers, and MOOSE) and ended the day trading yoga poses and chatting up the joy in challenging ourselves. Who am I? Me, that’s who.

Oh, I caught hell for it when I share my brief yoga experience with my loving and supportive buddies. But this was a pretty solid day even before I learned that I can do a plow pose.

Stu and I spent the whole day doing nothing in a hurry. And after playing some disc golf on the first consistently sunny day of my trip, having a few beers with a semi-flirty bartender from Iowa, and then unashamedly veering from my plant-based diet to enjoy a delicious moose tenderloin, we somehow (I really don’t remember how) ended up goofing off in the floor of his living room like a couple of little kids. He did some pose he learned from a yoga book he had. I thought I could maybe do it. I tried. I failed. I tried again slower. I failed again slower. I tried again even slower, breathing slower, moving slower, with more control. I failed again. Then I did it all again and pulled it off without breaking my neck or any furniture. I’m 6’4”. Once I get my body standing upside down, it’s going to destroy something if it falls uncontrolled. But it didn’t. I slowly and with full control lowered my legs into a plow pose. Hooray me.

As I was flailing around working on that, my show-off little asshole brother was repeatedly throwing himself into perfect headstands all the while voicing support for my clumsy attempts. I’m pretty sure he was just being nice to prove he could still talk casually while doing his pose (yes, I’m kidding).

But as is his nature, he quickly bored of the simple headstand and, for reasons unexpressed, decided to try and pick up a 10 lb medicine ball with between his ankles while inverted in that position. He tried with no success a few different times, getting it off the ground, but always tumbling over trying to get that weight up over his head whole upside down body. That’s where a wise big brother comes in.

With all of my vast 15 minutes of yoga experience, it was only fair that I offer my expertise. Here is the sum total of my help.

“Try to do it with your knees first.”

“My knees, huh?”

“Yeah. Instead of trying to pull the weight all the way up with your legs, try to grab it with your knees first.”

Yep. I’m pretty sure that makes me a certified yogi.

Within a few minutes and only a couple of tries (dick!), he’d pulled off another headstand with the medicine ball held firmly between his knees. And once he’d figured out that middle ground of balance and found the muscles he’d need to focus on in order to pull off the pose, it wasn’t long before he was able, with significant focus on balance, strength, and breath, to position himself into a fully erect headstand with a 10 lb medicine ball between his ankles.

I’ve always envied his physical coordination and ability to pick up new things so quickly. But I’ll never tell him.

“I like the challenge of trying different things and wondering whether it’s going to work or whether I’m going to fall flat on my face.” – Johnny Depp

Is Stu’s headstand feat going to save the world? Probably not. Is my running a marathon next month going to cure cancer? Nope. But pushing yourself to do something you’ve never done before or something that you might not even think you can do is important. It can show you that you’re stronger than you think. It can show you that things thought impossible might be much closer to reality than you think. It shows you that you can be wrong about something without being broken. Even in the unsuccessful attempts, the effort changes you. It makes you feel better. And feeling good is contagious. So maybe in the long run, it can save the world. But I suggest challenging yourself just because it feels good. Be selfish. Give it a shot.

Happy Friday

Here’s a photo montage that a friend of some friends put together after the Rock n Roll Half Marathon. It was a good time. And if you don’t blink around 2:45 and if you keep and eye out for a huge monkey’s paw of a hand, you’ll see what my face looks like as I’m about to run out of gas. Sheesh!

Rock And Roll Half Marathon Virginia Beach 2013 from MCMCQ on Vimeo.

Colorado Trip Report…Finally!

“Where we love is home – home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts” – Oliver Wendall Holmes

Well after being back for almost a week now, I’m finally getting close to my normal level of chaos. I’m down from the mountain and have been busy as hell settling back into my rut groove the best I can and quickly realizing that these next couple of weeks of training are going to be insanely time consuming. Come on taper.

Despite some crazy travel woes on my way west and some unusually persistent Colorado precipitation, I enjoyed a very relaxing stay in the Rockies. It was great to really visit with my brother and sister-in-law and to catch up with them on their side of the world for a change. It had been far too long.

I didn’t do anything crazy while away. I managed to maintain my marathon training without any major issues. I meditated first thing every morning, which was awesome. I was introduced to some new food and drink. I enjoyed running in a new place, especially one so beautifully different. And it was great to just break from the grind of reality to take a deep breath and look around for a while. I’m putting my trip in the “win” column.

I actually like how you can see the rain coming from so far away

I actually like how you can see the rain coming from so far away

“People deal too much with the negative, with what is wrong. Why not try and see positive things, to just touch those things and make them bloom?” – Nhat Hanh

It has always seemed odd to me when someone returns from a vacation and is most eager to share a two hour story about the pitfalls of air travel. I’ve flown before. Those stories are all the same. Yes, the drinks are expensive. Yep, it sure is hard to find a place to smoke. Wait, you’re telling me that you thought the seats were uncomfortable? And the food wasn’t great either? Hell yes, I would love to hear your political opinion about the ridiculous security checks. Just hold on a sec, while I make a cup of hot tea to wash down this handful of valium.

In the spirit of trying to listen to my own griping, I’m going to skip the travel details of my trip. I will say that east coast lightning storms lead to flight cancellations, long delays, missed connections, and separation from my luggage on the way west; where torrential rain caused flood and rock-slide related road closures that made my travel a bit…um…”slower” than normal. But I did eventually get there. And no matter the annoyance of those detours and delays, it was still much faster than walking across the country.

Looking back at the whole trip, I’m happy to say the realization that the three “different” restaurants I experienced during my stay in the D.C. airport all served the same vegetable-deficient menu of burgers and fried appetizers was not the only thing I learned. I discovered all kinds of stuff. Here’s half a dozen of them.

“Well, lucky for you, it’s only raining in two places in the entire country; where you are, and where you’re going.” – My brother (Stuart), during phone conversation deciding that he’d pick me up in Denver.

Car camping is the best way to catch up with family you haven’t seen in a while. As I mentioned, my west-bound travels weren’t exactly glitch-free. But after the initial hiccup, I was able to foresee some of the inevitable hurdles to come. And once it was obvious that I was never going to make my connection out of Denver, Stuart graciously agreed to make the three hour drive to pick me up instead of letting me wait 14 hours for the next day’s flight. He’s cool like that.

Unfortunately, the weather was not nearly as cool. I’d regrettably scheduled my trip during what would become the deadly Colorado flood of 2013. Along with washing away bridges, roads, and homes, the flooding rains also caused more than a few rock slides. And those rock slides caused road closures. And those road closures resulted in us sitting on the side of Highway 70 just one hour away from the Denver airport: ignition off, seats reclined, hats pulled down, and shooting the shit while we decide whether to accept sleep and wait it out or take one of two long-ass detours all the way around the state.

A few hours of good quality brother-time allowed us to catch up on all the basics. Mom’s this. Dad’s that. Work is work. What’ve you been up to? Blah blah blah. And after shooting the shit for a couple of hours on the side of the road, learning that Stuart’s learning guitar, discussing some of my lifestyle changes, taking a very short nap, and assessing the travel options; at 4:30 a.m. he decided to take the southern loop around the state of Colorado. That decision turned out to be very wise. The road we were waiting for didn’t open until after noon. And we later learned that the northern option was washed out and would’ve left us stranded again. Have I mentioned what a lucky traveler I am?

Because we got all of that cumbersome “talking” crap out of the way first thing, we were able to spend the rest of my trip on the important stuff like trading music, guitar noodling, and catching up on my reading while Stu continued to dominate the world of Candy Crush (ugh). Oh, and we might have enjoyed a couple of beers here and there as well.

Stu's backyard has such a shitty view

Stu’s backyard has such a shitty view

Gold? maybe. Coal? For sure. But there aint no oxygen in them there hills. Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration. I thought heading out there that I was going to be running my longest distance to date while at an elevation roughly 6000 ft. higher than what I’m accustomed. Then I learned that Oak Creek, CO, where my brother lives, is actually closer to 7400 ft. above sea level. Woohoo! Who needs oxygen anyway?

Stu was confident that the altitude wouldn’t be that big of a deal, especially if my fitness level had improved as much as he’d been told. Technically, he was right. It was not at all debilitating. But it was noticeable, and because I could see the difference even during my warm-up, I was able to compensate for it early.

I’m not always good at it, but I try to run my long runs based on a fairly casual pace (approximately 20 seconds per mile slower than what I hope to be my race pace). But while warming up and stretching in the back yard, I noticed that my heart rate was already increasing faster than normal. That’s pretty much all it took for me to decide that if I was going to run 16 miles in an unfamiliar area at unfamiliar altitude, I’d probably be better off running to exertion instead of pace. There would be absolutely no backup plan if I got 8 miles out of town and bonked, or ran out of water, or both. Oxygen is one thing, but there definitely aint no water-stops in them hills.

That decision to run to heart rate instead of pace is probably what allowed me to complete and even enjoy my run. It was raining when I started, and I did have to turn around early to go back for gloves. But once I was sure my hands weren’t going to fall off, I had a satisfying run down (and up) the rolling hills of highway 131. I got some weird stares from the horses that I passed on my trek overlooking the valley of sprawling ranches and railroad tracks. And I had to stop a few times to dump rocks out of my shoe. But for the most part is was just a nice, slow, nearly three hour romp through the gray morning of a state still a little too resistant to the sunshine. Despite the previous days with such spotty travel food and very little sleep, I had a good run and was happy to have my biggest schedule obligation out of the way. Finally, we can party, bring on the beer and hookers…

…Okay, just the beer then.

(Side note: Later that night, two of the 12 people in a local bar recognized me as that guy they saw running “way out” on 131. Fame is easy to find in a small town.)

I ran a trail all the way around this lake, but you'll never see pics.

I ran a trail all the way around this lake, but you’ll never see pics.

It’s time for me to step up into five years ago. In a recent online exchange about peoples’ favorite places, I mentioned that Steamboat Springs, CO was a beautiful and active community that I thought the person would enjoy. And when he suggested that I post some pictures, I thought that would be easy considering I was planning on a visit. Then came the rain. And fog. And drizzle. And mud. All of which nearly hid any evidence of the “scenic, active” lifestyle I’d mentioned. Murphy’s law I guess.

But I still tried. On the first day with just the suggestion of sunny weather Stuart, his wife Rachel, and I even took the gondola to the top of the mountain to look around at some bike trails Stu was building, maybe go for an easy hike, and take some pictures.

Guess what? As soon as we got to the top, a gray fog settled, a storm rolled in, it started raining, and lightning strikes in the area shut down the gondola stranding us at the top. Oh well. There’s a bar. One bloody mary please.

That was just one instance where my desire to take a couple of pictures was derailed. All of the the others were while out on a run and because I didn’t have a camera. I had my phone, but no camera. What? Yep. I’m the last man on earth without a camera phone. Because of security restrictions, I can’t have one where I work. But it occurred to me while running on a lake trail last week, and wanting to take pictures of…the lake, the mountains, the random cow standing on the trail, whatever, that I have ridiculously decided to limit my ability to conveniently capture moments in my real life just so that I can put a cell phone that never rings on my desk during my work life. I’m going to fix that soon. I don’t need my cell phone at work. And soon, I won’t have it there. Hooray for technology! Say “cheese!”

Russia has great asses. After waiting for the shuttle to climb the mountain and carry us back to the bottom (at which point the sun conveniently came out again), food was definitely in order. So we rolled over to a local restaurant for a late lunch and I was introduced to one of the best drink surprises I’ve had in a long time: The Moscow Mule.

Except for my standard pre-race dinner’s dirty martini, I’m generally a beer drinker. But I do enjoy a good vodka drink. And the Moscow Mule is one helluva vodka drink; simple, strong, and refreshing. It’s just vodka, ginger beer, and lime juice served over ice in a copper mug. The place we went also muddled some mint leaves in it, but other bars did not. I like the mint, but the copper mug is definitely the larger part of the magic. We made some at the house. They were good, but definitely missing that…something. And those mugs were so “popular” that one restaurant even required an I.D. deposit when you ordered their mule as a guarantee that they’d get the mug back. Damn thieves ruin everything. If you get a chance, try a mule. They are tasty.

“If you’re going to keep to this vegetarian vegan path, then you have to try this before your body starts rejecting meat.” – Stuart again

I’ve had Rocky, but Bullwinkle tastes way better. When I was maybe 11 years old, I remember trying squirrel meat for the first and last time. I remember thinking it was good. But if memory serves, it was country fried. And at the time, I would pretty much eat anything that was breaded and fried in grease.

When Stuart suggested we cook moose tenderloin for dinner, I was skeptical for almost 30 seconds. He’d seen me skip every opportunity to eat meat for days and gave me zero grief about my preference for a plant-based diet. I don’t want it. No one needs it. And he didn’t give a shit what I ate any more than I did about his food choices. But he also knew I’d like moose. And I trusted him to actually be considering what I would genuinely enjoy instead of just assuming that if he liked it then everyone should. So in another attempt to try something new “before my body starts rejecting meat,” I happily accepted the offer. And I’m so glad that I did. It was absolutely delicious.

Moose is incredibly lean and dark. It looked almost purple when it was raw. He soaked it in a soy-sauce based marinade. And because moose is so lean, he wrapped it in bacon before oven roasting it to medium rare. Stu insisted that if he wanted bacon, he’d have just made bacon, so he removed it before serving. And though I like bacon, I’m glad he did that too. The moose itself was so incredibly tender that you barely had to chew it at all. I cannot fairly describe its flavor. I wasn’t “gamey” at all whatever that means, but it wasn’t like beef either. Honestly, it was the closest thing to sashimi tuna that I can imagine being found on land. If you ever get the chance to have wild killed Bullwinkle tenderloin and your diet preferences allow it, please treat yourself. It’s way better than Rocky.

It didn't rain every day.

It didn’t rain every day.

Home is a subjective word. I’ve said in the past that no matter how awesome any place I’m visiting is, after about five days I’m usually ready to go back home. I didn’t feel that way this time. I wasn’t miserable to have to leave Colorado. I love it there and I love Stuart and Rachel. But I felt like a visitor, and visits come to an end. I also wasn’t relieved to get back to Virginia though. I like where I live. It’s a chill spot where I have a good job and know so many good people. But for whatever reason, when I was contacting people on my way back, I found myself avoiding the word “home.” I’d say “I’m back in Portsmouth” or “I’m on my way east” or simply “I’m back.” I’m still doing it.

I’m not miserable where I live. I don’t feel trapped. In fact, whether it feels like home isn’t an issue to me at all right now. There’s a battle being fought here that I can’t support from afar, and I’m glad I’m close. I’m grateful for all that I have in this place. I truly am. It was just weird walking through my hometown’s airport and not feeling quite ready for baggage claim.

I was there. Now I’m here. Someday; here, there, or somewhere, I’ll feel at home. And it’s probably got little to do with location. Happy Wednesday!

Altitude Training

“Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.” – Maya Angelou

I’ve decided that I deserve some downtime up in the great Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Yep. I’m skipping town for a little while to go visit one of my heroes (aka, my brother). Should be excited right? Well, I am. But, as my flawed mind works, I did try to sully my trip by worrying about stupid shit. I tried. I failed.

I’ve done really well over the last year and I’m proud of the strides I’ve made. I’ve gone to the gym at least four times a week, every week for the last 51 weeks. I haven’t even been tempted to skip a run, though I did have to miss a few against my will due to an ankle issue in March. In fact, I haven’t really wavered at all on my diet or exercise routines at all since deciding I needed to find the best, most authentic me possible. For an admitted creature of habit, you’d think that I’d find comfort in finally building such strong, healthy habits for a change. And I do. But I also know that healthy habits are the easiest to break. And that awareness has been a huge motivator and reminder of how important it is to remain diligent and dedicated to the path.

I know from experience that it only takes a few slip-ups and skipped workouts to completely sabotage what was a reliable exercise regiment. You skip a session for some seemingly legit reason. You notice that the world didn’t end. Then you skip another one the next time it’s not as convenient as you’d like it to be. Hell, it’s never super-convenient work all day, rush home to change clothes, and then go sweat through them in a concrete room full of strangers; in most cases strangers that I’d prefer stayed as such.

First step: “Oh I don’t feel good today; I’m going to skip the gym.”

One week later: “It’s Friday, I deserve a break. I’ll kill it next week.”

Two weeks after that: “Three days a week is still more than most people, and I’m crazy busy right now.”

Sitting at happy hour a month later: “Yeah, I need to get my ass back in the gym.”

I have performed this play before. And the complete lack of interest in ever doing so again is a huge part of why I always make myself go workout. Even if I don’t want to. Even if I feel like shit. I go. I might not go as hard as I wanted. I might not stay as long as I planned. But I always go. If nothing else, I go to continue reinforcing the habit itself. It’s a habit I actually want to keep.

So as I’ve been getting ready for my trip, I’ve had three minor concerns to tackle so that I can go and fully enjoy myself without letting the poison of paranoia fuck it up. How will I maintain my plant based eating habits? How will I keep up my workout/cross training routines? Where will I run?

“It’s hard because it’s supposed to be hard. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be worthwhile. Am I going to be fighting this fight for the rest of my life? Yeah. Am I up for it? Hell yeah. It’s worth doing man.” – Mishka Shubaly

These three issues are by no stretch of the definition difficult challenges for a normal person. But I often compare my past tendency towards laziness to a recovering addict’s penchant to that substance of choice. That happy-to-do-nothing excuse maker is still in me somewhere just waiting for me to give in and pay for cable television, stop wasting so much time out on the roads, and to eat a fucking hamburger already. He’s in there. And I know it. But he’s getting weaker from neglect and I intend to starve him over time.

With only a little planning and research, I’ve settled my mind on my hang-ups and cannot wait to get out west again. Of course that doesn’t mean I still don’t have a shit load of packing to do before my ride to the airport gets here. Still working on that procrastination problem. Slow work in progress I tell ya.

How will I maintain my plant based eating habits? Quick answer: The same way I do at home.

I’m not going to sub-Saharan Africa. There will be grocery stores. I’m staying with my brother. He and his wife are not cave people. They have crazy shit like a stove and a skillet. I may not be able to pack my blender for my daily vitamin smoothie, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to survive this wild adventure into…total civilization and convenience.

The initial concern was more based in how much I don’t want to be “that guy” while being a guest in their home. But he called yesterday to ask if I needed anything in particular and to see if I was “eating anything crazy” that he should pick up for me. I did what I suspect everyone with a pickier diet does, I downplayed it. “I eat an almost vegan diet, but I’m sure I’ll be fine. Really, I just eat a shit-ton of sautéed veggies and salad most days.” Upon hearing that, guess who’s been growing a garden all summer. That’s right. My little brother’s got fresh vegetables leaping out of the ground and crowding kitchen counter tops just waiting for me to come take care of business. And I will.

Non-existent problem solved. I’ll stop by the store when I get there, buy the staples I live on at home, and carry on like I always do. It was stupid to be concerned about it in the first place. But I do a lot of stupid stuff.

“…there’s no such thing as overtraining, only under-recovering.” – Brenden Brazier

How will I keep up my workout/cross training routines? Quick answer: I won’t.

This one was a little harder for me to rationalize. I like my weight training and cross training routines. If you’ve read some of my other posts, you might have seen me refer to gym sessions as “sweatitation.” Sure, I initially started going simply to help improve my running, but it has hollowed out a small little spot of it’s own in my long term wellness plan. It’s important to me in its own right. It makes me feel good. But I’m leaving it at home on this trip.

I’ve been burning the candle pretty hot lately and probably not giving myself the proper amount of rest. And by “probably not,” I mean “absolutely haven’t” been getting enough rest. I aggravated an elbow tendon in the spring that would’ve healing twice as fast had I stopped re-stressing it every time it got even a little better. And I’ve had some right shoulder issues for way too long. I don’t think I’m overtraining. I think I’m under-recovering. So in that spirit, I will be guiltlessly taking it easy while out of town.

Will I still do some resistance and body-weight exercises? Maybe. But I don’t think I’ll be able to do my cycling sessions, and I’m okay with that. After all it’s not the time in the gym actually breaking our bodies down that builds muscle and increases performance. It’s the time afterwards when the damage from those stresses gets to heal and mend stronger than they were before. The recovery is just as important as the workout itself. Bring on the recovery time…and maybe a beer to wash it down.

I do have to admit that I’m kind of playing mind-games with myself on this one in order to accept it. Because of my traveling schedule I’m only going to miss two cross training days. Shit, I got up early so that I could get today’s session done before I go to the airport. Eventually I just had to realize that unlike my previous efforts to keep an exercise regime, I have two better and more reliable motivators: 1) I genuinely enjoy the release of the workout. I actually want to do it. 2) I love running and that love is worth all of the baggage that comes with it. And while I know that If I’m going to get my ass to the Boston Marathon’s start line some day, I can’t afford to routinely skip workouts. I also know that missing these two certainly won’t kill me. I’ll be fine.

Where will I run? Notice I didn’t say “How” or “If I will” run. I knew I was going to run. I just didn’t know where.

I intentionally aimed for a visit post-summer and pre-snow so that I would be able to run during my favorite season in one of my favorite places. I was no kind of athlete at all when I lived in Steamboat Springs over 12 years ago, and I definitely wasn’t a runner. Hell, I was probably still telling that “I only run if I’m being chased” joke that runners never hear. What a fool I was, because according to the little bit of research I’ve managed to do, there are running trails everywhere. I should’ve known that. It’s such an active environment. When I lived there, I think there was a law that all new construction in the town had to be connected to the bike path. The whole community is just more fit and engaged in so many varying physical pursuits. Of course there are places to run.

I won’t make up my mind until I get there and talk with my brother. But if all else fails, there is an eight-point-something mile trail around a lake near his house. That sounds perfect for the 16 miler I have on my training plan for this Saturday. Am I concerned to be going for a new distance PR while running an unfamiliar trail 6000ish feet above the sea-level I’m accustomed to? A little. But I’m more excited to be able to run in what I know is going to be such a beautiful place. I’m grateful that I even get the opportunity. I’m calling it “altitude training” and I’m stoked about it. I may even try to take some pictures for you guys. It’s going to be a blast.

“I think of myself as something of a connoisseur of procrastination, creative and dogged in my approach to not getting things done.” – Susan Orlean

Well, as usual I have a lot to do before I head out the door. Plane leaves in a few hours and I haven’t packed a single thing so please excuse any glaring grammatical and spelling errors. I’m running late.

Fall is coming. Get out there and enjoy it. I know I will. See you soon.

The Lemonade Stand: Baby’s First Runbirthday

“You can spend days, weeks, months, or even years sitting alone in the darkness, over-analyzing a situation from the past, trying to put the pieces together, justifying what could have or should have happened. Or you can just leave the pieces on the floor behind you and walk outside into the sunlight to get some fresh air.” – Marc Chernoff

On September 5, 2012, I walked out of my apartment a very lost and damaged human being, and took off running down the street towards Who-Gives-A-Fuck; having no clue what the hell I was doing. Roughly 0.2 miles later, I was walking. I was sweating, breathing heavily, and walking slow. When I caught my breath, I started running again. I didn’t know why. I wasn’t a runner. All I knew was that I really wanted to get to Who-Gives-A-Fuck in a hurry. I wanted to get anywhere else as fast as I possibly could. So, if I could run, I did. When I couldn’t run, I walked. But for twenty-something sunny afternoon minutes and almost 1.5 miles, I did not stop.

When I got back to my apartment, sadly having not found the door to that wonderful world of Who-Gives-A-Fuck, something was different. I knew it immediately. I didn’t know what had changed, or what it meant. But I knew I was transformed. And that feeling was indescribable. I was reborn; a new man; right then.

Like any newborn, I didn’t know shit. I was moving on instinct; alone in a world I didn’t recognize and with so much to learn in order to survive in it. I had to grow up. But what did growing up even mean? At the time, it meant trying to find a light in the dark, warmth in the cold, or at least comfort in the absence of both.

I’m still working on that.

Hey, gimme a break. I’m only one.

On September 4, 2012, there was only one thing I knew for sure: I felt like total shit. I had never felt so physically and spiritually suffocated by pain in my life, or more incapable of dealing with that hurt. I was dead. I don’t mean that I was sad and wanted to die. I didn’t. I mean I was already dead; cold; lifeless. The fire: out. The fact that I was even making it through my work day still amazes me. I don’t think I said more than two words to anyone for days, and can’t remember if anyone had spoken to me at all. Dead.

In the days after my rebirth on the road, my new still blurry vision and simple newborn mind was now sure of a staggering two things. 1) When I wasn’t running, I felt like total shit – as described above. 2) When I was running, I didn’t feel like total shit. And with that simple and lone understanding of my new world, I began to run as much as I could.

“Sometimes you have to kind of die inside in order to rise from your own ashes and believe in yourself and love yourself to become a new person.” – Gerard Way

It’s interesting to me looking back at those days because I started tracking my running from day one. I do not know why. I was living entirely on raw impulse. I ate only when my hunger got strong enough to cut through my thick mind-fog. I was drinking water less aware of my need for it, and more because it was the only thing conveniently piped into my home. I slept whenever I was remotely still because why not be asleep. I wasn’t living. But even in my undead zombie-like state I was still marking each run on a calendar on the wall. Eat, drink, sleep, run. The answer is in there somewhere.

100_6694I started putting little check marks on that calendar for every day that I’d run. When I joined a gym two weeks later, I started adding a “G” to the square for each day that I would workout. Seven weeks after my first sloppy trek outside, I started recording the length of each run, and eventually adding the time as well. Without a whole lot of foresight, my numbers-nerd personality was starting to track my pace. Why? No clue.

I didn’t know it at the time, but what I was viewing as a simple activity to ward off a mental breakdown was becoming the first part of a personal experiment in wellness. The foundation of my “Me” experiment was unfolding without my full understanding. I knew running made me feel less shitty. I liked feeling less shitty. So I needed to run more.

“What do I have to do to be able to run more?”

“I have given up many things in this becoming process. None was a sacrifice. When something clearly became nonessential, there was no problem in doing without. And when something clearly became essential, there was no problem accepting it and whatever went with it.” – Dr George Sheehan.

Seeking the answer to that simple question has cascaded into areas I could have never predicted.

For several weeks after my first run, I went out almost every day. And after noting no perceivable improvement in performance, it was time to read. I started with online resources, and within days had purchased my first Runner’s World magazine. Of course, I subscribed immediately after reading it. I researched everything from running form, to proper dietary fueling, to cross training, to strength training. What do I have to do to run more? I wasn’t sure, but I was damn sure going to find out.

I learned that new runners should not run every day; that without rest days, the newbie body cannot recover. And running on sore, overworked muscles leads to injury. Injury means no running. And the idea of not running at the time left me paralyzed with fear. It still does. So, after almost four weeks, I finally started taking regular rest days. Surprise! My running improved.

Those rest days became dedicated cross training days at the gym. I originally joined the gym in case it was raining and I really needed to run. Little did I know that I would rather run outside in the rain or snow than inside on a treadmill. But cycling and weight training at the gym gave me another way to get my blood moving every day. It’s definitely wasn’t running, but in a pinch, a solid workout would even help with that “feeling shitty” thing I deal with. Both running and gym workouts were becoming sweat-meditation; “sweatitation” that I valued greatly. I still do.

As my activity levels continued to increase, my diet became a serious bastard to figure out. I needed to eat more, but I rarely felt hungry and only wanted to eat what I really needed. I had already cut out processed food. If I didn’t know what was in something, I didn’t eat it. I felt better instantly, and had noticeably more energy. In fact, as I’ve kept cutting out this food (meat, pasta, dairy) and adding that one (a lot more whole raw fruits and vegetables), I’ve ended up with an almost vegan diet. And I feel great. I’m running better. I’m getting stronger. And I am recovering faster. Food is supposed to give us energy. It is supposed to make us feel good, not make us want to take a nap.

“Learning about what you’re made of is always time well spent.” – Henry Rollins

Because I was consciously using running and exercise as therapy during that difficult time, I’d obviously become somewhat aware of the connection between physical and mental health. That connection is something that I probably would’ve accepted long before I actually explored the reality of it. It just makes sense to me. And with every step made towards a healthier body I also noted increased occasion of spiritual clarity.

It should be noted that “clarity” is not always a pleasant experience. There is a reason some people seek to numb their perception of themselves. Clearness of vision is sometimes just that break in the clouds we need to see all of the mistakes we’ve made, all of the negative habits we’ve collected, all of the toxic people and practices we’ve allowed to settle into our lives. Seeing these things just created new obstacles to traverse if I’m ever going to become my most authentic and whole self. But I can’t clean up messes I can’t see, so clarity is a positive thing, even if uncomfortable.

As I enjoyed strides towards better physical fitness and continued to research, discover, and experiment with different ways to improve those gains, it became increasingly clear to me that keeping a strong body was not the be-all, end-all solution to mental wellness. I’d experienced the direct connection between the two. But I was only actively working to improve one side of the equation, foolishly assuming that being physically fit would magically drag my spiritual self into a healthier well lighted place as well. It doesn’t work that way. If a strong, well-tuned body was the secret to mental health, then professional athletes would be the most balanced and spiritually centered people on the planet. You won’t have to search the web very long to debunk that idea. Cough, cough…Aaron Hernandez.

The spiritual self needs to be cared for and exercised as much as the physical self. This is an area that I have only recently started to explore. And as I approach this new thing with a beginner’s mind, I’m again researching and finding my way anew. Different people find balance in varying ways. I’ve adopted a daily meditation practice, and so far noticing small but appreciable benefits. I’m a newbie with a ton to learn, but I already feel less stress, calmer of mind, and generally more present. Life seems to move a little smoother and I seem to handle the bumps better. It’s new, and we’ll see how it goes, but I’m going to keep doing it. I think it is going to help me find some kind of balance. It’s the least I can do.

“When I crashed and found the wherewithal to get back on the bike and finish; that was what I learned about myself. If that hadn’t happened and everything had gone perfectly, I certainly wouldn’t have learned as much about myself as I did having to struggle with misfortunate and setbacks.” – Rich Roll

While catching up with a friend way back in February; discussing how my training was going and chatting about some of the other positive changes I was starting to observe, she noted that I may not have made any of those adjustments, or even started running at all, if I hadn’t experienced such a painful loss last year. I quickly replied “It’s lemonade.”

“Huh?”

“It’s the lemonade” I repeated. “My running and working out is lemonade. When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. All of this is just lemonade.”

She was not trying to make light of my feelings or to rationalize the true tragedy of my loss, but instead was simply recognizing it as a catalyst to this new phase in my life.

I don’t care for lemons. I don’t want them in my water at restaurants. And I don’t particularly like lemonade either. But no matter how shitty the realities may be, I refused to continue approaching so many things in my life with the internal negativity I’d ignored (or even embraced) in the past. I would love an occasional cantaloupe or some fresh blueberries, but if those sweet luxuries are not in the cards for me, then I will continue to seek out and develop the world’s greatest lemonade recipe. I might not be able to control a lot of the things that happen around me or even how I feel about those things. But I can certainly control how I respond to the hand I’m dealt.

“The human capacity for burden is like bamboo- far more flexible than you’d ever believe at first glance.” – Jodi Picoult

The human animal is incredibly resilient. No matter how far gone we might think we are, or how low we feel, very few things are unrecoverable. We can lose the weight, learn the new skill, move more weight, prevent and cure diseases, and just fucking feel better if we dedicate our energy to our own wellbeing and focus on our goals. We can do anything.

In the last 12 months, I’ve become healthier than I have ever been. I eat better and exercise more than I ever have. I stopped smoking cigarettes after almost 15 years. Along the way, I’ve gone through three pairs of running shoes. I’ve logged 730 miles on the road, run nine races, including two half-marathons (each under two hours), and I’m in week 14 of my training plan to run my first full marathon later this fall; with bigger plans beyond that. And while I believe that weight is a sometimes distracting and over-celebrated metric in the pursuit of true health, I’ve lost 70 pounds too.

And my run journal is still growing strong as well.

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I’ve made a lot of lifestyle adjustments this year and discovered a confidence in myself that makes my hunger for change even stronger, the slow pace of it even more frustrating, and that frustration can be incredibly distracting. I’m finally learning to make the effort to live in the present, aim at the next step instead of the goal, and accept that stumbling is part of traveling.

Am I still lost? I don’t know. Technically, I know where I am. But the vast majority of the time, I do feel completely out of place in the world. That’s an odd sensation to walk around with every day. But I’ve made my decision in the “yellow wood” of that Robert Frost poem, and I have faith that I’ve chosen wisely. I’m confident that if I continue to run along this healthier path up the mountain, that I’ll eventually find the place where I belong and fill the void that still stings inside of me. The answer is up there somewhere.

Am I still damaged? Eh, I can’t tell anymore. Unfortunately I pick scabs, heal slowly, and wear thick scars. I think I’ve just acclimated to whatever this new grayer feeling is and don’t know how to describe it. I’m not damaged. I guess I more “haunted.” I probably always will be to some extent. It is what it is.

After only one year, I’m not even a toddler in this new healthier lifestyle, but I’m up on my wobbly legs, moving slow, and looking to get into all sorts of shit. Look out world! I’m only going to get faster.

This is one of my favorite songs by my friend Derek Smith. He’s one of those guys that drive negative people nuts with his positivity and general good nature. I like knowing him. And I appreciate that he plays this song for me almost every time I get out to see him live. “I took a gamble on this thing called love. I got just what I paid for, but not what I dreamed of.” I hope to someday look back on this time from wherever my “Best Years” are found and just laugh at my silly ass. Happy Thursday, it’s my rebirthday.

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Next Right Move (J.O.G.T.8)

“Meditation is painful in the beginning but it bestows immortal Bliss and supreme joy in the end.” – Swami Sivananda

I took a quick look into the Jar Of Good Things for August and had to accept that I didn’t have a helluva lot to say this month. It was full of a lot of simple pleasure one-liners with a couple of elaborate bits that I’ve either already shared or should remain private.

Running came up a lot as my marathon training is starting to ramp up and move me into new territory, which is kind of exciting I guess. I got lost on my first trail run. And I ran my longest distance ever. But those individual stories are relatively uneventful, and I don’t know how interesting it would be if I were to share just how many times my good thing was “felt good after gym today” or “nice (insert number) miler today.” I might be wrong about that. But I’ve been wrong a few trillion times before. Another one won’t kill me.

I also managed to catch up with a few old friends throughout the month. But those were mostly just a quick drink here or a dinner there; and in one case, through a wonderful online message. Again, I enjoyed those all-too-rare moments. But while I haven’t always hesitated to discuss the business of others; unless you want to know that Josh still makes a really solid dirty martini, Ronnie started eating chicken again, or that Crissy is still kicking ass in Africa to make the world a better place, I’m not sure what to share of those exchanges, other than the truth that I value them.

Well, Josh did also hook me up with some new music too; which is always cool and so appreciated. Check this out.

Aug 14. Took the day off to get some work done on my car. Feel like I got a little work done on me too. Allowing a lot more quiet time. Sat in silence for 30 minutes before going out for early bridge club.

I touched on it a few weeks ago, but I think the most significant and oft mentioned topic that I saw in The Jar was my recent embrace of quiet. Since first finding that calm in an auto repair shop’s parking lot on the 14th, I’ve adopted what has become a daily practice of something resembling meditation. I still feel way too inexperienced and sloppy to comfortably use that word. But I am working on it, and it is definitely helping me better deal with my clutter, both materially and spiritually. And that clutter management seems to be manifesting itself in every other area of my life.

Aug 17. Ran 14 miles this morning. Longest run ever. Felt good to break new ground again. Sat down and really meditated for about 30 minutes. I’m going to keep doing that.

I’ve whined too many times about how busy I keep my schedule. I get up at 5:30 a.m. every day so that I can cook and eat a nutritious breakfast before going to work. I’m fortunate enough to have a regular full time job. I run after work two days a week. I go to the gym after work five days a week. I cook myself a dinner of unprocessed whole foods every night. And to do those things in any kind of an efficient manner, I have to work in a couple of grocery store trips each week, a night or two of bulk cooking, and god isn’t even sure how much laundry…but rest assured there is always a load going through the process, and a pile waiting to be folded.

Oh, and I’m always trying to find the time to write my blog amid that chaos. Can’t forget the blog.

It is very unusual for me to be finished with my day and settled before 7:30 or 8:00. It can get insane. And because I have not always understood the importance of being balanced, the smallest disruption would put me on tilt. It drives me crazy for example, when I’ve worked all day, run a long evening run, gone to the gym, stopped by the grocery store on the way home, and then find out that I forgot something and will have to go to the store again the next day. I know. That’s fucking ridiculous. But because I like to tell myself that there aren’t enough hours in the day, that “only because I’m an idiot” extra trip to the store is time stolen from myself. Time I will not get back. Time I cannot afford. Or that’s how I often saw it anyway. As I said, I’m not as centered as I need to be. But I’m working on it.

“You wanna build your IQ higher in the next two years? Be uncomfortable. That means, learn something where you have a beginner’s mind.” – Nolan Bushnell

In that earlier post, I expressed my belief that me trying to explain meditation would be like a wobbly legged new born giraffe trying to explain the mechanics of walking. I still feel that way.
I have almost no clue what I am doing when I decide to shut down my computer, turn off my phone, sit myself down, and close my eyes. I only know that it makes me feel better.

Over the last few months, as I observed the negative effects of my poor stress management, I also noticed that the topic of meditation kept presenting itself to me. And not by the stereotypical patchouli hippies that are so often associated with such practices. I was reading books and magazines about running; nutrition and health food blogs; and listening to podcast interviews with endurance athletes and personal trainers. And over and over again, these different people from diverse backgrounds and lifestyles kept bringing up some appreciation of meditation. Each person’s connection varied in intensity and/or methodology. But every one of them expressed a belief that, when they dedicated the time to a regular practice, they felt better in their skin and life generally seemed to flow more smoothly. And conversely, when they slipped from that practice, tension would again enter the frame of their lives. I know it sounds silly. But shit, who was I to judge? I was getting pissed off because I forgot to buy beets.

Aug 19. After listening to Charlie Knoles interview on Rich Roll podcasts, had a really relaxing meditation session. It almost felt like bricks settling as my body would adjust and release more tension with each inhalation.

A few days after my first attempt at whatever I was going to call it, I listened to an interview with Charlie Knoles. He’s the son of a famous meditation instructor and is now a celebrated instructor himself. It was a podcast that seemed to present itself at just the right time. When I saw the show description, I was leery about how much I would enjoy the interview. I’m obviously open to the idea of meditation but I still don’t always connect well with some of the more “new agey” personalities out there. Some come across as so pretentious that it is nearly intolerable.

Charlie was not like that at all. Instead he was a pretty down-to-earth sounding Australian discussing his unusual childhood, life experiences, beliefs, and methods. And overall it was just a really nice introduction to the enormous world of meditative practice. I can’t remember everything he covered in the two hour interview, but in the course of the discussion he shared a few very simple breathing techniques, what they were intended to achieve, and the biological science behind how they work.

Learning that my breathing was very likely the cause of my ankle issues back in March, and adopting a rhythmic breathing pattern to correct and prevent those same issues has made me very aware of the many unusual sounding connections within the body. If how I was breathing could cause and then prevent so much physical pain, it wasn’t that much of a stretch for me to believe that it could also help me to unwind and clear my head. I’m not sure why anyone would find that difficult to believe.

Aug 21. Even after only a few days of daily meditation I can feel the difference in my mood and alertness at work. I think I might be onto something.

I don’t think you have to worry about me routinely ending my blogs with “Namaste” any time soon. First, I don’t even know what that word means. But I believe my embrace of quiet is going to help me be a better runner and ultimately assist in my search for my authentic self.

My fledgling meditation practice is already noticeably helping me find some kind of balance. It’s only been a couple of weeks. I haven’t experienced any kind of transcendent moments or anything miraculous like that. But I do feel a difference. I feel it when I catch myself running in circles to get my shit done and suddenly notice that I’m not stressing out over the bumps in the road. Whether it be at work or during the Monday night kitchen dance, I’m often running in the same crazy circle I was the prior week, and the week before that. But I’m running that circle smoother and getting things done just that tiny bit more proficiently because I’m calmer and more aware of what I’m doing; or what I’m not doing.

Taking that additional time out of my busy day to unplug, disconnect, and be still in silence has helped me to get more done with the time that I’m not still. And I find it much easier to say “fuck it” when I see that I’m getting overwhelmed. I can only do what I can do, and I do it better when I’m not stressed out. I’ll get the blog out when I get it done. I’ll get those beets tomorrow. I’m driving by the store every day anyway. No biggie. Sure, I know that we’re never guaranteed tomorrow and no one is more aware of my weakness towards procrastination. But that doesn’t mean I should ruin today stressing about what I didn’t get done. Take a minute, settle down, recover from mistakes, and then make the next right move. I’m finding that if I do that, everything does get done. And I feel better too. Maybe this is the next right move in my ongoing “me” experiment.

I’m a newbie at this, so if anyone out there with more experience, knowledge, or understanding than me (that means EVERYONE) has any suggestions about different methods or practices, I’m more than open to suggestions. Leave them in the comments or email me at thatguywithbeard@gmail.com. Thanks. Happy Saturday.

This was the record that I wanted to listen to after my sit this morning. I don’t know why…or care.

Honorable Mentions:

Aug 10. After getting lost and running out of water of my first trail running experience, had a very quiet and super relaxed evening with the Hills. Just sitting on the balcony and talking with both of them for hours. Very cool night.

Aug 13. Ran hill repeats for the first time, and tested my new (and 4th) heart rate monitor. High Street Bridge “hill” isn’t very tall, but it’s long. Couldn’t get my HR up as high as I expected. We’ll see how it goes until I can find a real hill.

Aug 24. Awesome 12 mile run this morning, then got a really great message from Crissy about all of the exciting stuff happening in her life. It was really great to hear she and Steve are doing so well in Africa. Made me feel good. Had dinner with Van, Amanda, Wesley, and Josh. Fun to just chill and chat about food and music.

Aug 31. Wrote my blog sitting out in the sun on my front porch. Beautiful day for some rambling.

Sitting: The Next Step?

“We will be more successful in all our endeavors if we can let go of the habit of running all the time, and take little pauses to relax and re-center ourselves. And we’ll also have a lot more joy in living.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Whew! Looks like I got lost last week. Honestly, it felt pretty good. I wasn’t totally sure if I was going to make it back this week either. Not because I have nothing to share. I do. But it became apparent that I needed a reboot.

Looking back at the last couple of months, I saw that I spent most of the summer swinging back and forth from cautious enthusiasm to utter dejection. And unfortunately, I was sometimes more than willing to whine about it at length. Sorry ‘bout that. Here’s a flower.

Are we cool?

Are we cool?

I’ve always said that I write this thing as a release mechanism for myself. But I never intended that as an excuse to melodramatically rehash the dark side of my diary onto the web. I’d rather share stuff that might actually be useful to someone, or maybe some of the things that inspire me; something at least more interesting than my mood updates. Hell, I might even want to chat about running every now and then. I am still doing that believe it or not. Still learning. And still enjoying the hell out of it too.

So, I needed a break; a “time out” of sorts. I even made myself sit in the corner, seriously.

“The only difference between a rut and a grave are the dimensions.” – Ellen Glasgow

If there was any consistency to my summer posts at all, it was that no matter which end of the spectrum my mental pendulum swung closest, I was always stressed to near exhaustion. Whether it was anxiety from excitedly running too fast into the sun, or from being burned by hastily getting so close, I just couldn’t calm myself down. I knew it. I know it. And I know it’s completely unhealthy. Stress kills people. And more importantly, it’ll fuck up your running. I’m training for my first marathon dammit. I don’t have time for that shit.

A couple of weeks ago while texting my mom (who can—surprise!—almost always tell when my fuse is fried), I mentioned my awful mood and how I thought I could actually feel the elevated cortisol level in my blood. And I could. I felt like shit. For weeks I’d been sleeping poorly, cognitively sluggish, running bad, recovering slow, and underperforming at the gym. Oh, and did I mention that I felt like shit?

Cortisol is referred to as a “stress hormone.” It’s involved in maintaining blood sugar, regulating blood pressure, controlling the inflammatory response, and affects proper immune function. It’s kind of a big deal. Cortisol has come up a lot in my reading and the effects can vary depending on the situation and duration of the higher levels.

Short spikes aid in the body’s flight-or-fight response. It enhances alertness, helps provide quick bursts of energy, and reduces sensitivity to pain. If I was trying to fight off a bear, those benefits would be great.

But I.
am not.
a bear fighter.

On the other hand, prolonged increases of cortisol levels in the bloodstream hinders quality sleep, disrupts blood sugar levels, reduces bone density, increases blood pressure, and on and on. Decreased bone density, reduced muscle tissue, and shoddy blood glucose levels don’t exactly spell running success. In fact, if unchecked, prolonged increases can develop into a wonderful downward spiral of overall health. Sounds awesome doesn’t it?

“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” – William James

Well, I knew what was wrong. I’m an idiot. Now, how do I keep my favorite stress hormone in check? The most consistent answers I found can all be summarized in: eat a healthy diet (check), exercise regularly (doin’ that), get quality sleep (workin’ on it), and well…just relax (um…uh…). After diet and exercise, I’d see mention of more specific things like playing with animals, laughing, “mindful breathing,” practicing your art, sex, kick a hobo (maybe not that one). But they all just add up to “relax,” or at least “release.”

Take care of yourself and calm down. Find balance. Sounds easy enough…for someone who doesn’t insist on doing everything the hard way.

I’ve noticed that when I let myself run too far down the rabbit hole of self doubt or distraction or overwhelming frustration, the world will move to balance itself, whether I’m ready or not. Something will happen to remind my dumb ass to look around and note that there are people looking down the barrel of a gun much scarier than a scattered mind and general discontent. Sometimes that wake-up call is a subtle whisper. Sometimes it’s loud like a bomb. The difference probably lies in how much or little I’m actually paying attention.

So last week, when I received that message and realized I could no longer tolerate my mind heckling me along the path and ruining my focus, I sat it down, got on my knees, and quietly sang this little ditty right into its meddlesome little face.

“Music is forever; music should grow and mature with you, following you right on up until you die.” – Paul Simon

Because I didn’t make a conscious connection to music or start actively seeking to deepen that relationship until I was well into high school, I’ve often said that there wasn’t a lot of music in my life growing up. But looking back on it, that’s not true.

My mom has a wonderful singing voice. I was seven years old when my parents divorced, but I still have vague memories of them singing folkier church songs together in the living room while my dad played guitar. Both sang in choirs. And I remember more than a few days at the beach with my mom listening to Casey Kasem’s Top 40 countdown on the radio. Who doesn’t love some Billy Ocean? Phil Collins? No? Okay.

Like a lot of music nerds, I have an older cousin that found his connection to music very early and exposed me to all kinds of music ranging from early 80’s “metal” bands when I was young to the more underground “alternative” bands as a teenager. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard a bare foot nine year old running around singing Twisted Sister songs or Quiet Riot’s “Cum on Feel the Noise.”

On weekends hanging out with my brother and another cousin, we’d listen to just about anything on the radio; rock stations, pop stations, whatever. It was something to listen to while we never-quite-learned to skateboard. Sometimes we’d just search the dial. “What station do you want to listen to?” I didn’t care. The radio was king until that magic time when I started working and finally had the money to venture into the greatest places the world has ever produced: record stores.

With the help of friends and magazines, I discovered that there was so much more out there. And that was essentially my undoing. Pop music is fine, but who cares? We’re all going to hear it. It’s inescapable. I wanted to hear the rest. I’d hunt down shit I’d read about. I’d order stuff from local stores. Then read all of the bands mentioned in the “thank you” section of a CD’s artwork and find those artists too. I wanted it ALL.

I started listening to music pretty much constantly; in the car, at home, at the beach, at parties, at work, everywhere. And by the time I got a job in an independent record store, I’d essentially eliminated all quiet from my life. Silence was a waste of time that could be occupied rocking out to that new Modest Mouse record. Or Son Volt. Or Mastodon. Hurry up, push play.

“The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes — ah, that is where the art resides.” – Artur Schnabel

A really long time ago in a land too far away.

A really long time ago in a land too far away.

The last two decades of collecting, discussing, sometimes playing, and eventually recording music started to characterize me a bit. And whether accurate or not, I was cool with that. I love all types of music. I listen to all types of music. If it’s good, I’ll listen to it. And luckily I enjoy a life where I’m able to listen to it throughout most of my day: at work, in the car, at the gym, on a run…all day, every day. It’s become a given that whether it be CD, podcast, or the radio, something will be playing.

For the vast majority (read: “all”) of my adult life, I have even maintained the silly habit of leaving my home stereo playing all day, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. If I’m at home, the radio is on. If I’m not at home, it’s still on; playing quietly to no one and ensuring no chance that I’ll be greeted by that chilly handshake of silence upon my return from wherever. I don’t know if I’ve ever bothered to think about why. It just is; or was.

I may have subconsciously been telling myself that the constant flow of sound into my life was like having a window open to the breeze of the world, whether it was the news and current events or human interest shows and new music discoveries. All the time missing the strong likelihood that it could’ve been more like a hole in the roof flooding my life with suffocating amounts of noise and drowning my own thoughts.

Last Wednesday, I turned my radio off.

It’s off right now.

“Nature’s music is never over; her silences are pauses, not conclusions.” – Mary Webb

Last Wednesday, I had some unexpected car issues to take care of. I would love to live a life where I don’t need a car. But until then, I need to keep mine in working order and last week it made me take a minute to show it some love. Eh, it happens.

I dropped it off at the garage by my gym so that I could workout while they fixed my car. When they weren’t finished when I was done exercising, I decided to go buy a magazine to read while I waited. Of all of the rags in the grocery store, I end up sitting outside in the sun in sweaty workout clothes reading Health & Spirituality magazine, dedicated to different people’s meditative practice. I don’t know why. Yes I do.

I’d meditated a few times in the past, but as I got increasingly frustrated with my body’s escalating stress response, my inability to control it, and how it was affecting everything else in my life, I considered experimenting with a more regular practice. And once I’d planted that seed in my mind, I couldn’t get away from it. It seemed to be constantly in my face. My favorite health websites were posting articles, my favorite podcasts had been sparking my interests for weeks with one endurance athlete or nutritionist after another all commenting on the benefits of taking time out to just sit and breathe, or hum, or chant. Each person would swear by the practice. I couldn’t help but be intrigued. And sitting in that parking lot in the middle of an asphalt wonderland, reading about all of the different ways that people were finding quiet in their lives, and how that quiet directly benefitted them spiritually, I couldn’t help but want to try it. I wasn’t totally sure what “it” was, but I knew I could do anything.

So when I got home, I turned my radio off. And I just sat there. For a really long time. The next day, I did it again with my eyes shut, listening to my breath, for a shorter amount of time. I’ve done it every day since. Not the same way each time. I’m experimenting with different breathing patterns. But every day, I turn off my phone, cut out the lights, and just sit in total silence. It’s fucking awesome.

“Remember, you get to decide what fills your head and shapes your thoughts. Only you can clear the distractions and focus instead on what matters most to you, so stop letting clutter interfere with your meaningful path.” – Erin Rooney Doland

Probably because of the epiphany experienced on my first time out, I’ve always considered myself a “meditative” runner. It’s relaxing. It always makes me feel good. But prior to last week, I’d only run without music about four times. I ran my longest run ever (14 miles) last Saturday with nothing to listen to but my breathing, my thoughts, and the pats of my feet on the ground. Yesterday, I had to take my ear-buds out in the middle of my run because I was struggling and couldn’t concentrate. Maybe it was a poor music choice (it was), maybe it’s because I’ve been listening to podcasts lately, but that music had to go. It was fucking me up. I needed to think…or not think. It’s hard to tell. But I settled immediately after taking them out, and that run ended way better in the quiet.

Did I stop listening to music? Of course not. But now when it’s on, it’s because I turned it on and I’m actually engaged in the experience. I’m listening instead of just hearing. Do I wake up every day now feeling some special “connection” to my earth mother, or my spirit animal, or some other hippie bullshit? No. I have not “transcended” anything…yet. But when I open my eyes after a session, I feel incredibly peaceful. In only nine days worth of paying attention, I’ve noted a difference. It’s subtle, but it’s there. I’ve had instances where I felt a surprising ease in a previously perceived stressful situation. I haven’t been as easily upset or distracted. I’m more alert to my surroundings. I feel more connected to myself. Basically I just feel better.

I’m not going to try and explain exactly what I’m doing or give any kind of instruction about what I think is or isn’t working. I feel like at this point that would be like that wobbly legged newborn giraffe trying to explain the mechanics of walking. I aint there yet. But I do think as I’ve been battling to live in the present and keep myself focused on the next step of the journey instead of the goal on the horizon, that this may very well be the next step…or at least how I get to it.

I rebirthed this blog last fall when I realized that “I gotta run.” What I’m now coming to recognize is that if I want to continue to discover and eventually release the best me that I have to offer, then there is a really good possibility that “I gotta sit” too. We’ll see what happens.

Happy Friday, you should’ve seen this one coming. Enjoy.