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.

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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.

Reset Recap; I’m Back

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Go ahead.  Push it.

Go ahead. Push it.

“This is only my second week doing it, but I’m starting to like my two-run Tuesdays. Five miles before sunrise this morning, and just finished 8.75 miles of yassos. 13.75 miles closer to Philly. Happy Tuesday.” facebook status, Tuesday, Oct. 01.

“My run today was so crappy, I’m not even sure if I’m going to admit it really happened”facebook comment, Thursday, Oct. 03.

“I had another HORRIBLE fucking run this morning and was so angry at myself that I was fully prepared to write a scathingly angry self-deprecating vent-blog all about the stupid shit I’ve done in the last two days to set myself up for failure.” facebook status, Saturday, Oct. 05.

Two weeks ago, after confidently expressing how much I loved my new “two-run Tuesdays” and feeling pretty strong for completing both runs and my workout for that day; I quickly lost my damn mind, threw my hands high up over my head, and roared onto a three day roller coaster of misplaced priorities. It was awesome. There were loops, barrel rolls, laughing, maybe some screaming. Life is short. You can’t have too much fun, right? Not exactly. Not me anyway.

Now I didn’t do anything too crazy. I wasn’t snorting cocaine off of a hooker’s belly or drinking bottles of whiskey with the Rolling Stones’ grandchildren. Nor was I mindlessly pounding buckets of fried chicken and chasing them down with ice cream sundaes and chili cheese fries. I just got way too lax with my routine and didn’t make adjustments to self-correct as soon as I should’ve.

I’m still a newbie, but I’ve been conducting this healthier experiment on myself for roughly a year now. It started with running, branched out into regular gym workouts, slowly evolved into a plant-based diet overhaul, and only recently crossed its legs into a daily meditation practice. And with each new step towards a cleaner, more in-tuned existence, the more I notice the negative effects of unhealthy variables like going too long without proper rest or nutrient dense food.

When I veered off track two weeks ago, instead of acknowledging the risks early and correcting course, I muscled through workouts despite a near total lack of sleep. Then I tried to “get back” some of the time I lost during my detour by making food choices based on convenience more than nutrition. Less sleep slowed the speed of recovery after my workouts. Poorer nutrition further reduced my energy level going into the next workout. And the cycle continued to spiral downward right into the weekend, including two horrible confidence-crushing “runs” to finish the training week. It was ridiculous.

I’m in the last leg of training for my first marathon. The miles are ramping up. The race is getting closer. This is absolutely not the time to get stupid. I’m asking more from my body than I ever have before. I’ve got less time to recover from a major mishap. And I especially don’t want to force myself to accept failure due to an error caused by a careless lack of focus. Getting lazy now is completely unacceptable.

“Excuses are a time thief. Have a goal, accept responsibility, and take action!” ― Steve Maraboli

About a month ago, while out on my Saturday morning run, a car turned onto the road towards me. As we approached each other, the driver honked and reached across his passenger to noticeably point at me as they passed by. I was well out of the way and didn’t recognize the car or the driver, so I just waved and carried on along my way.

A few days later, a coworker mentioned that he’d seen me and that it was him that honked that morning on his way to his son’s baseball game. Then he said that when he answered his wife’s question about who he’d just pointed at, she commented that I looked like a “totally different person” and how great it was that I was taking such good care of myself. To which he allegedly responded, “That’s what happens when you don’t have a wife and kids and still have time to go to the gym.”

Now I’ve only met his wife twice, several years ago, and couldn’t pick her out of a line-up if I had to. So maybe she said that, maybe she didn’t. But no matter the facts of the tale, I found his supposed response to be a fantastic transfer of blame and responsibility for whatever dissatisfaction he may have with his own fitness. I couldn’t imagine blaming my family for my perceived short-comings. And I certainly couldn’t imagine doing it while sitting in the same car with them. I hope it didn’t happen.

Whether it did or didn’t, I don’t live under the delusion that anyone but me is responsible for my actions, both failures and successes. Yes, it’s true that being a single non-parent may allow a certain amount of schedule flexibility not enjoyed by everyone. But I go to the gym every day. And I see many of the same people there every day. I see thousands of people at races. I see them with their spouses. I see them with their children. There is no way to make the inference that being single and/or without children is a marked benefit in the desire to be healthier. It could be argued that it really means not having that in-house support system assisting with time-consuming errands like grocery shopping, meal preparation, mountains of laundry, or whatever other tasks people share with their families. I really don’t know. But I’d wager that my coworker and a lot of other people inclined to similar excuses would enjoy much more support than they think for healthier changes, if only they’d make those decisions known, dedicate themselves to them, and then actually take action instead of making excuses based on silly assumptions about the color of the grass in someone else’s yard.

Life is complicated for everybody. It’s just complicated in different ways. If something is truly important to you, you’ll find a way to do it. If it’s not, you’ll find a good excuse. There are piles of both all around us. We are each responsible for our own condition. I wanted to change mine, so I did. Did I have help? Sure. I’ve enjoyed overwhelming support from my friends and family. But I started this journey alone and without counsel. And I was going to do it with or without that support. It’s my journey. I’ll make no excuses if I fail because I know that’s a waste of time, and it’s my responsibility alone to get the fuck up, make the next right move, and work harder until I get it right. There’s always tomorrow…

…until there’s not. If you quit before then, the blame lies in your bathroom mirror.

plot twist

After getting my ass kicked on my long run two Saturdays ago (a run that was two miles shorter than the previous week’s), I was so disgusted and angry with myself that I really was close to releasing that rage-pressure through a “self-deprecating vent-blog” about how stupid I am and how sickened I was that I’d just wasted my incredibly limited time even bothering with those runs. The weeks when my long run decreases in length are weeks when I expect to perform a little better at a previously accomplished distance and hopefully bolster my confidence going into the next week’s new and longer goal. Getting crushed on my 16 miler fucked all of that up, and I was beyond pissed…and at least temporarily tempted to dwell in that bog.

I sincerely contemplated repeating that week’s training, but I eventually calmed down and let my anger subside a bit. I’ve enjoyed pushing myself out of my comfort zone and striving to reach a higher standard throughout this experiment. But I sometimes forget that stumbling is part of traveling, and pushing myself is going to require a balanced understanding of those inevitable slip-ups.

I’ve read enough forums addressing runners returning to training after a lapse of some kind, whether due to injury or illness (or utter foolishness). Most seem to agree that a week missed isn’t anything to freak out about. And I didn’t really “miss” my week of training so much as I “messed” it up. I still got in my speed training. I still managed to collect over 38 total miles. I just executed a huge chunk of them so poorly that I felt guilty claiming them in my training log.

Besides, I had my last practice race coming up, and didn’t have time to reschedule my last few and longest runs just because I had one bad week. So instead of hastily repeating my training, I decided to declare last week as my “Reset Week” where I would rededicate myself to the cause. I’d gone off the rails. It was time to get back on track.

“What do I mean by concentration? I mean focusing totally on the business at hand and commanding your body to do exactly what you want it to do.” – Arnold Palmer

My sole focus last week was simple; get my shit together so that I could get through my first 20 mile training run with some semblance of self-respect. So, other than going to work, I put no real emphasis on anything else. I didn’t worry about trying to write my blog (obviously). I didn’t commit to any social outings. I put off any non-running related items on my to-do list. If it wasn’t going to get me through my first 20 miler, then it wasn’t important.

What did I believe was going to get me through that run? Executing all of my training runs like I knew what I was doing, giving 100% on all of my cross training and weight training workouts, getting some fucking sleep, and eating only the food that I knew would benefit me in those other ventures. It’s not that hard. All I had to do was the same things I’d been doing for the last four months. And I’ll go ahead and tell you that it worked.

My two-for-Tuesday runs were a fast five miler in the early morning with an almost nine mile run that afternoon; which happily included the last speed workout (9 hill-repeats) of my training plan. On Thursday, I ran my longest and most consistently paced zone 2 aerobic run ever. And last Saturday morning, I set out into the rain for my first 20 miler. Luckily it only rained for the first 16 miles of it. And just over three hours and two socks/shoes changes later, I was done. I finished it with only minor tightness in my legs and zero aches or pains. It was a very good feeling to see how quickly simple corrections could positively affect outcome.

“Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” – Winston Churchill

I know no one is going to run my marathon for me. And that’s where the satisfaction in it comes from. It’s my goal. Only I can make it happen. I appreciate all of the moral support. But all the heavy lifting is on me. And I like that. No one else can run my training miles for me. Nobody is going to do my boring cross-training rides for me. God knows, no one is going to help with all of the laundry. And If I’m going to keep fueling my body with fresh whole foods, I’m also going to continue ending long training days standing in my kitchen cooking all of my meals. I’m cool with all of that.

There is no one else I will be able to blame if I fail. And I don’t wish that there were. In my experience, almost nothing good just happens. Everything worthwhile requires effort. And that is why I was so annoyed with myself for what many would see as a fairly minor hiccup a couple of weeks ago. I know I can do this. I know it. But only if I’m smart.

My reset week was a success. The current week is already proving to be a challenge too, but I feel strong again going forward. I’ve only got two more weeks of training before my taper. They’re going to be my longest, most hectic weeks, but I can see the light at the end of this tunnel. I liked doing it, but I’m glad that my speed work is done. These last weeks of training will be dedicated to killing my last practice race (not coincidently in my home state of North Carolina), logging one more long run, finding my race pace, and getting my body settled into it.

Taper starts in less than two weeks. My marathon is one month from tomorrow. I’m stoked about both of those things. Happy Wednesday.

“We didn’t come this far just to turn around
We didn’t come this far just to run away
Just ahead, we will hear the sound
The sound that gives us a brand new day”
– Fucking Mastodon \m/

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!

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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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.