Running up, over and through the cogs

Archive for December, 2011

To Tune or Not to Tune, That Is the Question

Nothing polarizes a roomful of otherwise friendly runners more than the listening to music while running debate.  Take a side.  Fine.  Someone will still always be pissed off.

Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Pains and Sorrows of outrageous Monotony,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of boredom,
And by opposing with Music end them…

I have been on both sides of the debate, so I feel like I can offer a bit of rationality, a trickling of reason, LOGIC.  When I first took up the sport, it was in order to get fit.  I had no other reason.  I was tired of the frumpy, lethargic piece of apathetic crap I had become, and the quickest way to turn my physique was through running.  I had dabbled in it during my youth.  My father was a runner.  I knew it was possible.

But as much as I looked forward to change, I was equally terrified of the actual work I knew it would require.  From what I could remember of my adolescent/teenage running days, I knew that, for me, running was a) boring b) painful c) BORINGPAINFUL.

So from the beginning, I used music to get me out the door, to keep me going.  And it worked.

But a funny thing happened on the way to getting fit: I FELL IN LOVE WITH RUNNING.

Hooked.  Addicted.  I couldn’t get enough.

It wasn’t boring, it was exciting!  It wasn’t monotonous, it was exhilarating!  And sure, sometimes it was painful, but most of the time it left me feeling FANTASTIC.

For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.

Before I knew it, the music I used as a crutch to get me going in the morning became unnecessary.  It became an obstacle to my complete running experience.  I found that as I grew as a runner, the music became a distraction from the constant mind/body checking-in I felt was necessary for my own well being.  I began leaving the iPod home on my easy recovery days.

Those easy, music-less recovery days morphed into days of great discovery.  Without the Rocky theme setting the cadence or the trance melodies keeping me company, I found myself noticing interesting things along my route: the old lady watering her flowers, the taxi driver setting off for a long day’s work, the air temperature relative to the humidity.  Not to mention the countless injuries/wrecks/collisions I avoided with traffic, people and dogs.

That was just the start.

Nowadays, I don’t run with headphones on at all.  To be honest, the idea repulses me, but only because I enjoy experiencing the run with all my senses.  Having lived most of my life previous being completely unaware of all that surrounds me, I don’t ever want to live like that again.

But that’s just me.  That’s my opinion.

I will never chastise those who prefer the music-aided run, just like I will never chastise those who prefer minimalist shoes, or shin sleeves, or pink shorts.  Do what ya gotta do to experience the run as best you can.

And thus the Native hue of Resolution
Is sicklied o’er, with the pale cast of Thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
With this regard their Currents turn awry,
And lose the name of Action. Soft you now,
The fair iPod? Nymph, in thy tunes
Be all my sins remembered.

The run is what is important.  The run is above all else.

In racing situations, I will say that being aware is a responsibility that falls upon all of us — the music-aided and the music-less.  If one can be aware of his/her surroundings during a race while wearing headphones, then that’s great.  But if someone spits on me one more time having no idea I AM RIGHT BEHIND HIM because he is zoned out to Led Zeppelin, then I’m gonna go all Zapotek and stomp on his ass.

The 20 Miler

A 20 mile training run is the highlight of my training, for any race.  I think, for me, it’s the perfect distance.  It’s a long enough distance that it is going to get me that happy wasted feeling that leaves me fatigued, but not long enough that I’ll have Frankenstein legs the next day.

I can run it on trails, on the road.  Fast, slow or something in between.

The Goldilocks run!

Nowadays I’m hittin’ a 20 miler at least once a month, sometimes more, depending on where I am in my training, but it didn’t used to always be like that.  Here’s my log entry for my very first 20 miler:

Time: 2:51:25
Location: Lakeshore Path, Chicago
Notes:  1st 20 MILER!  Boy was it tough.  Mostly cuz cold, wind, rain. 1st 10 miles was okay, but coming back had 20 mph headwind. Got drenched. Splashed by a car on Lakeshore.  Wanted to quit but I stuck it out and finshed very strong.  Hot dog!!!  Chilling rest of day.

Boy did I chill.  My legs hurt like a bitch.

That day was more about conquering the elements and having to go to battle in order to survive.  I recall channeling my inner Walter Payton, focusing on his indomitable will on the field.  One guy couldn’t tackle Walter.  Two guys couldn’t either.

Go back and watch Walter Payton highlight reels and focus on how much he looks like the bad guy in an old western flick: he gets shot but keeps comin’… gets shot again, keeps comin’ still… shot again, same thing.

You couldn’t kill him.

After that run, I knew nothing could kill me out there.  Not snow, not wind, not cold… not heat, not rain (maybe lightning), no intangible of any kind could ever stop me from enjoying going long.

Somehow I attached that epiphany to 20 mile training runs, so they sorta come with the anxiety and exhilaration of a race.

Sometimes it’s just about tricking my mind to be up for something that could really suck, so when it eventually DOES really suck it’s not that big of a deal.

But most of the time, a 20 miler, for me, is the perfect distance to run on instinct and just let ‘er rip.  We all know that the last 6 miles of a marathon is where most people have to crawl inside their own brains to find out what can and can’t be tweaked.  Manipulated.  Overridden.

That’s where shit really starts to hurt.

So avoiding that is always a welcome charge.

Share My Daily Mile: Running and Social Networking

Humans have lost the battle against online social networking.  It will never go away.  Those who haven’t started yet may have convinced themselves they’re receiving a gift in living off the grid, but their resistance is futile and those of us who have a head start will definitely be more apt to survive the eventual (possibly forthcoming?) singularity.

People are asking me these days, “Hey, Jeff, you on Daily Mile?”

“On wha?”

“Daily Mile.”

Two minutes, three seconds and one Wikipedia entry later, and I had gathered that the Daily Mile is a social networking site for runners where users post their workouts.

And so… what’s the point of this?  I asked myself.

Is there a point?

What does it matter to me, a 3:20 marathoner, what Jack the 2:59 marathoner or Mitchell the 5:40 marathoner are doing in their workouts?  Why do I care?  How can their workouts possibly be of any interest to me?

They can’t be.  Not for me anyway.  But they are useful to some people, so I hear.  That’s why they exist.

But not for me.  I treat my log books like ancient fortuitous oracles — penned spells of lucid wisdom with magical properties.  I can remember a workout almost as soon as I read the entry for that day, whether it was a year ago or yesterday.  I take mental snapshots of each run and that’s what I record.

Ya can’t quite share THAT with the folks on YouFace and BookTube.

Goddamn You Swirling Wind or When Is It Too Cold to Run Outside?

Training in Chicago will put hair on your chest.  Big, gnarly, Tom Selleck strands.  The Chi may not be the ideal place to train for a mountain race, but it will make sure you can run in Antarctica, should that ever come up.  Oh, you need to be ready for that Death Valley nonsense?  Yep, we can make sure you run under a roasting sun too.

Chicago has it all.

And when it comes to extreme temperature running, I will always prefer cold over heat.

Personally, my body regulates temperature rather well in the cold.  I’ve always been able to withstand more of it than the average joe.

I like to think this is because when I was a child, an army soldier once told me “if you tell yourself you’re not cold, kid, you won’t be cold,” which triggered this “ah-ha!” moment that led to some superhuman X-Men shit I had stored deep down inside.
*End Tangent*

Running in the cold is all about layers, so with a strong base layer you can’t go wrong.  I like skin tight merino wool.  I also make sure to wear a beanie and gloves (don’t skimp on these two items), then tights over my legs.  I choose a jacket based on the weather.

Being the psycho-sadist obsessive compulsive freakazoid that I am, I never leave the house without checking the weather.  If it’s really windy, I’ll make sure to wear a windbreaker over the top.  The one thing I fear the most about running in the cold is my manhood freezing up.  I fear it because it happened once and it was the scariest damn thing I’ve ever gone through (I fully recovered, thank you).  Not only do I wear tights, but I also stick some plastic bags down the front of my crotch to act as BACKUP wind breakage.

It’s working splendidly.

The problem is that the wind in this city changes direction like politicians lie.

When your smartphone weather forecaster said NW 15 MPH, it also meant SE 35 MPH. Or IT’S A TWISTER!

If it’s ever too cold for me to run outdoors it’s because of the wind.  That goddamn Chicago wind.  I hate it.  It literally gets me screaming “Ahhh f*** you, wind!!! F*** YOU!!!!!!”

That being said, in the last two years I have only exchanged winter runs for the treadmill twice, a fact I am very proud of.  Because if I hate anything more than running with frozen balls in a swirling windchill, it’s running on a treadmill.

I can’t handle running like a hamster.

Going the Distance: Hypersensitivity As Injury Prevention

As a 32-year-old runner, if I’m going to go long and far often, I need to be in tune with my body.  It’s important that I understand and know its capabilities and its limits.  I don’t have much room for error.  I can’t screw this up because I’m one of those runners — the addicted type who has to do it to survive.  You know, the runner you know whose sanity CANNOT AFFORD injury.

Serious injury means serious time not running.

And that is unacceptable!

I know because I’ve been there.

This past spring, after a few months of careless overtraining and a blatant disregard for my body for the sake of doing something I probably wasn’t ready to do anyway, I had to sit my running addicted ass down.

For six weeks.

No running.  For six weeks.

I swam.  Hated it.  I biked.  Hated it.  Oh, and I pouted too.


After that, I made it my mission to stay healthy first, consider performance second.  And it’s working.

In fact, I am recognizing twinges and pulls and knots — all possible warnings of injuries that could come without immediate action.  I am understanding my body in innate, primordial ways.  It’s like being aware.  I’m becoming conscious of what is going on.

Also, the following:

I avoid NSAIDS except for after really hard races where I’m expecting 3-4 days off from running for recovery.

I ice everything.  If it even HINTS at aching I ice it.

I massage.  Foam roller.  The Stick.  My own two damn hands.  I’m working out knots like a boss.

I eat well.  Whole foods.  None of that corn syrup shit.  No fast food.  Just healthy and DELICIOUS stuff.  Fish.  Rice.  Fruits.  Vegetables.

I sleep.  A lot.  7-8 hours every school night and 8-10 hours per night on the weekends.

And of course, if there’s ever a question that something will get worse if I run on it, I give it a day off.  Yes.  And I don’t get all pissy about it and act like a goddamn baby anymore.

I finally realized that one or two days off in a row isn’t going to hurt me.  And if I think I might need to take a day off, then I just take a day off.  I mean, if I even have to consider it then I just do it.

No questions.

I’m doing all this and I’m also getting faster, stronger and more confident about where I can take myself.  It’s hard to complain about that.

The 2011 Schaumburg Half Marathon Race Report

Thanksgiving and running go together like baseball and hot dogs.  And while most people enjoy the casual Turkey Trot 5K as a way to compensate for the inevitable overeating, my own brand of gluttony requires a much longer distance.  Enter the Schaumburg Half Marathon — a fun (and growing) event out in the ‘burbs that makes it okay to eat an entire pie (or two) and not feel guilty about it.

I ran this race last year and had a fantastic time.  I even set what was then a P.R., so I was hoping I might be able to run my way to another speedy finish, if the setting was right.

The morning was chilly (low 40s) and overcast with a chance of rain, that would later come about halfway through my race in the form of a heavy, annoying mist.  Besides having logged a 50K fun run just seven days before, I thought my legs could still get me a sub 1:34 time, which would be a personal best.  All through this latest training cycle, I have been routinely plugging away 6:50 to 7:15 miles, so I thought doing something special was not outside reality.

In fact, prior to the start, I forced the issue by lining up with the 1:30 pace group, intent on hanging with them as long as I could.  A quick look around the group and it was obvious I was the odd man out.  Sure I had on all the right gear and the demeanor of one sure-as-hell determined son of a bitch, but my 5’8 frame — which is somewhat hobbled by a muscular build (something I’ve been unwilling to abandon thus far) — wasn’t nearly as lean and speedy looking as all the rest.

I didn’t care.  Just stick with the group.  For as long as you can.  That’s what I told myself.

And then we were off…

Mile 1.  Check.  Mile 2.  Awesome.  Mile 3.  Damn!  We’re running a 6:15 pace!  Mile 4.  Look, Mom!  I’m hangin’ with the big boys!  Mile 5.  Oh shit.

That’s all it took.  Five miles and I was blowing up.

How do I describe the feeling?  For me, it was sorta like back in my partying days, where I’d be straddling the line of being super drunk and having a blast to being super drunk and feeling like death.  Without much warning, I went from great to awful.

I had to pull up.  I kept running, but it turned into a slog.  I looked down at my Garmin:

8:45 pace… 8:55 pace… 9:20 pace…

Bleh.  Well, now you know what that feels like, Jeff.  Let’s just finish the run.  You only have 8 miles to go (HAHA!) and feeling bad isn’t the end of the world.

And suddenly, I didn’t feel that bad anymore.  I took a gel, cranked the legs back up to a comfortable 7:30 pace and moved on, reflecting on how my body felt despite what I had just put it through.

Mile 6.  Mile 7.  Mile 8.  I was smiling again and high fiving folks on the out-and-back sections.

Mile 9.  Mile 10.  Mile 11.  I’m gonna finish this in 1:36 and change.

Mile 12.  Mile 13.  And we’re done.  And I’m freezing!!!

I finished in 1:36:30, a pretty decent time for me but not close to what I’m capable of.  Doesn’t matter though, because for me, running isn’t always about the time on the clock at the end; it’s about what it does to me as a human being — how it makes me feel, how it makes me a part of something, how it makes me grow.

The people who organize this race are extremely friendly and accommodating, the aid stations were well placed, and the medal/schwag were all worth the entry fee.  But for some reason they changed the course from last year’s and the last five miles put runners through one hell of a clusterfuck as the walking 5k’ers got in the way of the finishing half-marathoners (I can only imagine the traffic horrors the elite runners faced as they were trying to run the gauntlet of 5K participants in their way), but I’m sure race management will fix that for future events.

Barring any turkey over-consumption issues, I will be back in 2012.

Marathon Speed Training: Plugging Through the Long Run at Race Pace

For the longest time, my weekly long run has been the one run I look forward to the most.  I’m a distance runner, and going the distance is what gets me charged.  You couldn’t get me to sleep in on a Sunday morning because all I wanted to do was get out there and run long!

That was, until I began seriously targeting a speedy marathon finish.  After a personal best 3:20:49 at Chicago in October, I realized the potential for a 3:10 or 3:05 is actually there — that I could get there as early as January if I really applied myself.

To put things in perspective, my first marathon was a 3:52, and less than a year later I cruised to a 3:20 on a hot day, with plenty left in the tank.  In fact, I realized that if I really got serious about training, I could even break the 3-hour mark, something that two years ago I would have laughed at!

Of course, I knew that any significant time shaving would entail some real pain and suffering.  The only question was: ARE YOU WILLING TO GO THERE?

The answer was yes.  I was/am willing.  But that also meant that my love affair with the long run would have to adapt, because if I want to run a fast marathon, I have to train at a faster pace.  Besides a weekly tempo and VO2 max run, every two out of three weeks requires me to do my long run at race pace for at least 80% of the run.  That means logging 7 minute miles for 12-17 miles at a time — a huge difference from the previous 8-9 minute paced long, slow runs I’d previously fallen in love with.

I have found that getting myself up for one of these painful long runs is hard.  I mill about and stress not hitting my marks before I even leave the house, continuously thinking I don’t know if I can do this, this is silly, I should just run slow and not worry about my time — all thoughts that have their right place.

But then I get out there… and if I’m feeling good, I just let go.  I just… run.

I get in a rhythm.  I find that pace and stick to it, as hard as it may be.  I try not to think about how much it hurts sometimes and instead focus on being better than my mind thinks I’m capable of being.  Because, really, to me, that’s one of the greatest joys running has to offer: OUTPERFORMING THE MIND.

The mind has all these rules.  You can’t do that, Jeff.  You’re not good enough to do this, Jeff.  You’ll never reach that goal, Jeff.

And as painful as the marathon race pace long run can be at times, it’s always worth the satisfaction of telling the mind to fuck off.

The 2011 Rocky Raccoon 50K Race Report

…And there was Dad, slowly plodding up the trail to greet me.

I was close to the halfway mark of the Rocky Raccoon 50K and the sun was really shining now.  My arm warmers and skull cap were soggy messes when I ripped them off and handed them to him.  I slowed to a walk so I could talk to him for a second.

“How do you feel?” he asked.

“I feel great!”

I did feel great.  It was my first ultra distance race and all of the anxiety that normally comes with a big event (will I get that PR? will my stomach act up? will I have to stop and pee fifty times?) were nonexistent.  I was just out there having a good time.  That was my one and only goal going into it.

Mission accomplished.

“Everyone’s so nice and friendly, Dad.”

“Yeah, well, that’s what people who run these types of races are like. They’re nice.”

When the race started it was cold and pitch black.  I had a headlamp and a handheld flashlight to light my way, but this would also mark the first time I had really done any significant running in the dark.

The Rocky Raccoon course isn’t much in the way of elevation gain, but it is one rooty minefield, so I had no choice but to go gingerly slow until dawn broke.  What I wasn’t prepared for was how running in the dark would alter my sense of time.  When I finally glanced at my watch, I expected to see something like 10 or 11 minutes gone by, instead, I saw that I’d been running for 30 minutes!

And that would set the tone for the rest of the day.  Big lush green forest with rolling trail, charming wooden bridges and the occasional calming lake or pond greeted me all throughout, muting any allegiance to time.  I couldn’t stop smiling.  I was just so… happy.  I was so happy to be there in Texas, close to my dad, experiencing the 50K distance for the first time in such a welcoming environment.

So when Dad was there waiting for me close to the halfway mark to check how I was doing and switch me out some dry clothes, I knew the rest of the day was just going to be icing on top of icing.

It was.

Yeah, my glutes seized up on me a few times, but all I had to do was stop and stretch for a couple seconds and I was back at it.  And yes, I did have a brief stomach scare around 3 and a half hours, but it wasn’t anything a Ginger Chew couldn’t cure.

Nothing could keep me down.  Running that race and meeting the people I met and watching the landscape change from pitch black cold to warm, bright and inviting was an honor and a pleasure.

The hug I got from my dad once I sprinted through the finish line…


Running Saves

Running saved my life.

At a time when I really didn’t know how to be happy with myself, I looked to exercise to help me manage my stress, to temper my depression.  My dad had always been a runner, so I thought I would give it a shot.

It was my very last hope.

I started out slow.  But determined.  And it didn’t take long for the depression to disappear, for the stress to never be an issue, for me to know joy and peace for the very first times.  Before you could spit, running became synonymous with me.

I am running.

Running is me.