running return?

running return 04.08.14

Since December I’ve presided over the gradual decay of my body with mindful indifference. My slide actually began last July, when I tweaked my achilles tendon while running. After trying (unsuccessfully) to “push through the pain,” I ended up shelving running altogether, becoming a slave to the semi-circular, gerbil-on-a-treadmill monotony of the elliptical machine.

I diligently stuck with this for far longer than I humanly though possible. I plumbed depths of boredom I didn’t know existed. I listened to and then abandoned music. I listened to and then abandoned podcasts. I watched and then abandoned SportsCenter. Nothing – absolutely nothing – made or can make ellipticaling remotely interesting.

As 2013 wound down, my tangles with the elliptical machine became less frequent. I’m pretty sure by the end I viewed this piece of machinery with about as much enthusiasm as it viewed me. I started justifying my lack of activity by arguing to myself that my professional workload had escalated exponentially. December bled into January. January into February. My pants (and socket) got progressively tighter. Food that dropped off the end of my fork no longer made it to the napkin on my lap, but instead got swallowed up by the mound that passes for my midsection.

I hit the breaking point just over two weeks go when I saw myself in the mirror. The person staring back at me looked like an older, fatter, and more slovenly version of me. (When you’re starting from a best-case scenario as a short, bald, one-legged, pasty-white middle-aged male, seeing something  that looks markedly worse than that qualifies as nothing less than an outright horror show.)

I promptly did the one thing I never thought I’d do. I signed up for a gym.

*   *   *

I have always seen myself as fundamentally different from people who have gym memberships. Gym people willingly insert their bodies into contraptions that look like small prototypes for Pacific Rim. Gym people believe spandex makes them look good. Gym people stare at their reflections in mirrors as if the secrets to the universe lie within. I am not a gym person.

Except today I am.

It started when my wife, Cara, followed a dance instructor there. She came back with amazing stories of acres of high-quality equipment, friendly staff, and a location less than 15 minutes from our house. I weighed my “I am not a gym person” persona against the fat man looking back at me from the mirror. The fat man lost.

I now have a gym membership. I have an ID number. I have a webcam picture of myself that I’ve never seen but that impossibly young, beautiful people behind the counter view without visibly cringing whenever I come in. I pull small forests of hand wipes out of canisters 3 feet high and wipe down the equipment I sweat on. I lift medicine balls and throw them into a container while doing sit ups. And for the first time since last summer, I now run.

*   *   *

As I have chronicled many times in the past, I don’t like running. But not liking running isn’t the same as not wanting to run. Running was the first real “sport” I relearned after losing my leg. It made me feel like the athlete I always thought I was (but probably wasn’t) – a hugely important psychological step in my rehabilitation. So my post-accident life has been defined by the following dissonance: I need to do something I actively dislike in order to feel whole.

As I put on my running leg for the first time in nearly 8 months it was like stepping back into a better version of myself. There’s nothing that makes me feel stronger than stepping into that socket with that foot. When I wear it, I’m 10 pounds lighter and 2 inches taller. I can get away with wearing neon green shorts. I’m Tony Stark without the girls, the brains or the money (which actually makes me the Tony Stark fanboy working the TV van in Ironman 3).

So I walked into the gym yesterday for the first time in the two weeks that I’ve been a member there wearing my running prosthesis. I stretched out my achilles tendon hoping not to have a repeat performance of the last time I ran – less than 25 minutes and lots of pain – and then climbed onto the treadmill. I set the speed at a languid 3.5 MPH and began jogging slowly.

Running with an artificial limb is like riding a bike. You don’t ever forget how to do it, but if you try it after a long layoff, everything’s a bit wobbly. After 5 minutes of getting reacquainted with this activity, I took it up to 4 MPH,  a still-not-very-fast-but-not-completely-embarassing 15-minute mile pace. At 10 minutes I raised the speed to 4.5 MPH, monitoring how everything felt with every step. Around minute 12 I felt some discomfort in the back of my leg and adjusted my stride length. By 15 minutes I was pain-free and settling into a comfortable groove.

At 20 minutes a woman who understood a little about prosthetics (her mother is an above-knee amputee) and less about gym etiquette while someone’s working out came over and, after telling me that she didn’t want to disturb me, proceeded to disturb me until minute 25, peppering me with questions about my running prosthesis. I would’ve been angry, but she also complimented me about how good I looked running. Even though I’m pretty sure she’s totally unqualified to render judgment on such things, this statement immediately made her the smartest woman in the gym.

At 27 minutes I cranked it up to 5 MPH – 12-minute mile pace – and held it there for the final 5 minutes. I finished with more than 2.25 miles behind (under?) me, sweating heavily, and out of breath enough to remind me I’d had a real workout but not so much that I would classify myself as desperately out of shape.

It has been a long time since I felt that good. I hate running. And I can’t wait to do it again later this week.

elliptical hell

08.06.13 elliptical hell

My life as a runner has ground to a halt over the last few weeks. While on vacation in July, I noticed some nagging pain just above my ankle after one of my outings. I stretched the area afterwards, but otherwise kept to my normal “every other day” schedule. The pain escalated as I continued to labor under the tropical sun, eventually getting to a point where I couldn’t walk pain-free.

I took the weekend off. The pain subsided. Declaring myself cured, I hit the pavement again and everything seemed to be going well. Until I crossed a street and hit the curb with my sound foot. And there it was again, a jolt of pain signaling that I had tweaked the original injury.

Swearing under my breath, I slowed down until the discomfort subsided slightly, and then continued. Telling myself that working through discomfort is a key part of running, I sped up, willing myself to close strong. But after finishing and standing still for a few minutes, I realized that the pain was now worse than it had been before I shut everything down for the weekend. This wasn’t going away.

*   *   *

Doing what any responsible person would under the circumstances, I began perusing the internet to diagnose myself. I concluded, quickly, that I have achilles tendonitis. The solution? Ice, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, and no running.

And that leads me to the heart of this week’s essay: the joys of exercise that isn’t running.

*   *   *

We have an elliptical machine in our house. The first sign that using it must be a miserable experience comes from its name: the elliptical machine.

The machine you run on in a gym isn’t called a “running machine;” it’s a treadmill. The machine you bicycle on in a gym isn’t called a “cycling machine;” it’s a stationary bike. The machine you use to ascend imaginary buildings in a gym isn’t called a “stair machine;” it’s a stairmaster.

To put it simply, all of these devices either replicate normal human activity – running (on a treadmill); cycling (on a stationary bike) – or allow you to become an all-powerful superhuman – a “stairmaster” – albeit in a very limited domain. But then, sitting outside of this happy, traditional fitness universe is the elliptical machine.

We call it an elliptical machine because we can’t make it sound like anything that’s biomechanically normal. Moving your legs in an elliptical motion, sans impact, has the benefit of not destroying your joints on pavement, but it’s in no way a regular anatomical feat. You don’t hear stories about the ancient Ellipsis tribe, covering the savannah as they pursue their prey, their feet never leaving the ground while simultaneously moving their legs in wobbly circles in some kind of bizarre forward moonwalk. And that’s because moving your body in this fashion can only be done by using some kind of bizarre technology – a machine – that forces you to do so. It’s fundamentally unnatural.

Still, when you’re suffering from achilles tendonitis, subjecting yourself to this monstrosity seems better than doing nothing for 4-8 weeks, gaining weight, and losing all the benefits of the work you’ve done up to that point. And so, I now clamber aboard our elliptical machine virtually every morning.

I hate it.

*   *   *

Long-time readers know that I enjoy running because it allows me to unplug, to disengage. I intentionally don’t clock distance or time when I’m on the road. I just plot routes and finish them. The way I make running a sustainable activity requires me to shut off my competitive streak – “How fast?” “How far?” “What are you training for?” –  and simply do it for the sake of doing it.

But put me on an elliptical machine and the whole equation changes. First, I’m no longer outdoors. Instead, I’m trapped in a tiny room consisting of the mechanical behemoth I have to ride, some other fitness equipment, a TV, and a litter box for our cats to perform their daily necessaries. (Nothing highlights the awfulness of an elliptical machine like a box full of cat excrement.)

Second, once I’m using a machine – especially one whose sole purpose is to force your body to do things it doesn’t normally do – I can only measure what I’m doing in terms of a time and a (calculated) distance. Instead of unplugging, I’m now a slave to the digital sitting less than a foot in front of my face.

(Also, I find the whole concept of distance on an elliptical bizarre. Yesterday, I spent 45 minutes on the thing and covered 2.82 miles, as if there’s actually an analog for doing something that’s neither biking nor walking. Is the machine telling me that if I could somehow take it out onto the street and cover actual distance, this is how far I’d go? How did the people who design this figure out that algorithm? Did someone make a “mobile” elliptical and test it? Is there some kind of international elliptical distance standard I’m unaware of that allows for comparisons between different elliptical machines? (I think not, as different ellipticals have  differently shaped ellipses.) Or, as I suspect, does each manufacturer simply make it all up so people like me think they’re doing more than they actually are?)

Third, there’s simply no way that I can subject myself to this horrific experience without some form of distraction. On the elliptical, there’s only the wall in front of me, a digital readout, and the machine’s noise. In a (largely unsuccessful) effort to block it all out, I therefore don headphones and blast obnoxiously loud (and fast) music into my ears to make the experience slightly less horrific. (For those of you asking, “Why not turn on the TV?”, I have two answers: (1) unless the TV is directly in front of you (which mine isn’t), you end up with your body in one direction and your head in another for 30-45 minutes, which doesn’t feel so great; and (2) I can’t focus on the images and what’s being said while both sweating profusely and panting.)

In short, the elliptical machine violates every principle of exercise that I hold dear. I’d sledgehammer the thing if I didn’t disembark from it every day with my shirt soaked through, providing me the only objective evidence that I’ve actually done something with my life for the preceding 30-45 minutes.

On the bright side, my achilles feels better every day. And when I resume running, I’ll appreciate it a lot more thanks to this monstrosity.

a run in the rain

05.04.13 a run in the rain

It seems like only a few days ago that I completed my company’s wellness initiative, walking around with an unfashionable plastic disc attached to my belt for 3 months. I consistently upped my activity level over that time period, cracking 10,000 steps a day regularly the farther along it went.

And then it ended. Free from the burden of monitoring my activity, I became a lapsed tracker. Today, the plastic disc sits next to my bathroom sink, its blank face staring at me every morning, accusing.

My activity plummeted. Shockingly, from my perspective, my waistline expanded. I attempted to deny the undeniable, cursing at the mirror in my bedroom and refusing to step on the scale. I watched a photography video that showed me how to make my face look more angular when being photographed. (It works.)

But reality really hit when a shirt I bought online arrived and I tried it on. The phrase, “not even close,” fails to capture the gulf separating button from buttonhole. One would think that the horror of this event would motivate me to take immediate and decisive action. And it did. I made the decision to spend several weeks wallowing – easy to do at my then-current weight – in my own misery.

Memorial Day Weekend I hit bottom. After stuffing my face full of whatever happened to sit within my reach for 72 hours, I set three goals for the upcoming week. First, I pledged that meals would consist primarily of fruit, vegetables, and white meats; no fried foods, no ice cream, no candy, and no soda. (The recently-published study comparing the teeth of chronic diet soda drinkers to those of meth addicts helped with that last one.) Second, I set yesterday, June 3rd, as Day Zero, the day that I’d start running again. Third, I told myself I’d get new running shoes to appropriately kick off Day Zero. As any experienced runner knows, you can’t possibly start running again without new shoes.

Aside from the headaches that pounded through my skull for two days after abandoning diet soda, the food pledge proved relatively easy.

Acquiring the new running shoes was also simple, albeit entertaining. I entered the local running store with Cara. This particular shop has two separate entrances within 10 feet of each other, separated by a wall straight down the middle. I always walk into the door on the left, which deprives me of the opportunity to ever see what’s going on in the same store on the right.

The Staff on the Left, always helpful, welcomed us. For the first time in 7 years of shopping there, I asked, “What’s up with two doors, two stores, same name?” The answer, not exactly the exotica I had expected and hoped for, was that The Store on the Right was The Store on the Left’s “outlet store.”

Disappointed with this simple and obvious answer, I mentioned that I was looking for a minimalist running shoe. (For the uninitiated, this refers to a shoe that doesn’t have a 17-inch-thick foam sole designed to protect the user’s foot and body.) Cara, ever-supportive, immediately launched into a discussion with the 17-inch-thick-foam-sole-wearing salesman about how this struck her as moronic.

Her comments led to an animated discussion from Big Sole about the dynamics of running, the POSE method, and his personal experience using minimalist shoes. (Short version: not good, leading to broad statements of approval from my bride.)

But, ever the helpful salesman, he noted that he loved wearing minimalist shoes to walk around in, and if I dared acquaint myself with The Staff on the Right, a mere 10 feet down the street, I might find a pair at bargain basement prices. So, Cara and thanked him, walked out the door, and into The Store on the Right.

In no time, The Staff on the Right confirmed that they had not one but two boxes of minimalist running shoes in my size. After walking in the lime-green-soled shoes to the serenade of Cara questioning their lack of structural support – answer: “they’re minimalist shoes, luv” – I said I’d take them. The label on the outside of the box proudly proclaimed a price of $124.99, but I was in an outlet store. “How much?” I asked.

“$29.99.”

After quickly computing that current-year running shoes enjoy profit margins rivaled only by the drug trade, I told her I’d take both boxes in my size. Cara grudgingly admitted that minimalist shoes seemed a bit less stupid at $30 a pair.

Which brings us to Day Zero. Forbidding skies. Low 70’s. After waking up, driving Max to school, and working for 90 minutes, I followed Cara’s car down the street in my running leg, waiting for Caroline’s bus to pick her up. And upon its arrival and her departure, I cut in front of it to cross the street and began to run.

I felt like a million bucks for the first 200 meters or so. Sadly, my value dropped precipitously from there with every step.

The rain started coming down about 5 minutes into my journey. By the time I had gotten to the halfway point, I contemplated looking for a snorkel as I inhaled raindrops. The wind picked up, and I tried to lean into it – hard to do, it turns out, when you’re covering ground in time measures normally associated with land masses.

As I puffed my way up the last hill before my house, my increasingly-heavy shirt clung to my chest. My minimalist shoe, constructed to allow air to breathe in and out, took in water like a sinking ship. I could only hear my breath, asthmatic-sounding, as I inhaled.

And then it ended. (The run, not the rain.)

I staggered up my driveway and onto the porch, pulling my shirt over my head with a sucking sound. I leaned on the porch railing, sucking wind, watching the rain cascade down. I felt the water squishing inside my shoe.

And man, did it feel good.