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.

life’s been good to me so far

02.05.13 life's been good to me

My dad had been running for years. I remember him taking me out when I was still in grade school to try to keep up with him on quick jaunts around our neighborhood in the Berkshires. The only distinct memory I have of these limited forays into the world of adult exercise was my dad, slightly in front of me and to one side, saying, “Come on – just make it to the next telephone pole,” and then, upon reaching that distant object, imploring me even further while repeating the mantra.

Shaped by this experience, my attitude towards running was about as positive as George Carlin’s attitude towards golf, which he described as

a mindless game. Think of the intellect it must take to draw pleasure from this activity: hitting a ball with a crooked stick. And then … walking after it! And then … hitting it again! I say, “Pick it up [expletive deleted], you’re lucky you found the [expletive deleted] thing! Put it in your pocket and go the [expletive deleted] home!”

Why I would voluntarily engage in an activity that centered around me trying to repeatedly run to an object that wasn’t my final destination seemed plain dumb to my grade-school self. The fact that my father was kicking my ass the few times that I tried it didn’t make me all warm and fuzzy inside either. But then came 9th grade. And wrestling.

I only wrestled for a year in high school. But by midseason, I was in absolutely exceptional shape. Two-plus hours in the basement of our school every afternoon and the relentless pace of those practices left me rock solid. I’ve never been in as good shape, before or since.

So when on a cold Saturday morning in 1985 my father invited me to go running with him, I took him up on the offer. I figured I might be strong enough to finally hang with him for a while before he blew me away on the final climb back up to our house.

The run started with a long downhill. Predictably, I kept up with him no problem on this initial descent. We reached the long straightaway that paralleled the harbor on Long Island Sound and continued another mile and a half until we reached the turnaround point at the power plant that was an eyesore and a blessing (it kept property taxes in our town low).

As we started the return, I wasn’t really paying attention to much of anything – just running along like an automaton, feeling neither pleasure nor pain. As we closed in on 3 miles, I noticed for the first time how quiet it was. I always associated the end of a run with my dad encouraging me onward, repeating the old mantra: “Just get to the next street sign. Then the fire hydrant. Then the …”

But now I heard nothing. Crickets. I looked over to my left and realized that I was still going stride for stride with my dad. Now really paying attention, it hit me that he was quiet because he was out of breath, gasping to maintain the pace that I was holding without a care in the world.

The enormity of what was happening suddenly hit me, and being the devoted, loving son that I was, I immediately resolved to run the old man into the ground. The last quarter-mile of the run was a dead uphill, and I leaned into it, blasting forward, not looking back. I reached our driveway, hands behind my head, sucking wind and turned around to see my father still slogging up the incline 20 yards away, arms and legs pumping but his head looking straight down. Defeated.

We see this moment recreated in sitcoms and movies all the time, often played out not on neighborhood streets with running shoes, but instead on basketball courts with high tops. Son defeating father and coming of age long ago jumped the shark from simply a shared father-son experience into the realm of pop-culture cliché.

But losing a limb before my kids were born changed that for me. Max quickly learned that when I stood in front of a hockey goal, firing to my left would lead to a good result more often than not. He learned that if he could get me moving in one direction laterally, I couldn’t make up that ground when he quickly shifted gears. And I accepted that without complaint.

All of this came to me as I spent the weekend before last in Max’s room playing guitar on a song he wanted to record. He has taught himself the drums. He has been taking voice lessons for less than 3 months and guitar lessons for less than four. He has purchased the necessary equipment – mics, interface, etc. – to record multiple tracks and splice them together on his computer, another skill he has mastered without formal instruction.

As I heard the playback of the finished product from him – me on guitar, him on everything else – I felt slightly self-impressed. It wasn’t half bad in my estimation. “Old man can still keep up with the kid, at least on guitar,” I told myself.

That illusion lasted for only a week. Last week, Max played me the first track that’s his from beginning to end: music, lyrics, instruments – everything. When I heard the first arpeggios play cleanly through my ear buds, I asked him, “Where did you get the backing track from?” I knew it couldn’t be him on guitar.

Except it was.

In the space of a few intensely focused months, he has done what I did to my dad in the winter of 1985: surpassed me. If this happened and I had all my limbs, I’d still be proud of Max, I think. But there would also be an undercurrent of self-pity, an awareness that the superiority I grimly held onto to support my sense of self slipping from my grasp.

Thanks to my life with one leg, the only emotion that washed over me as his first self-written track came to a close was pride. Pure and unadulterated.

San Diego Triathlon Challenge 2012: the climb

Sunday, 5:40 AM

My alarm goes off in the blackness of my hotel room. I don’t fully appreciate it yet but it’s Summit Day. I assemble my gear – running leg, running shoe, race singlet, warmup pullover – and leave the hotel to drive the 1.5 miles to the starting line. One word about the race singlet: tight. As in, given my less-than-svelte body type, I-have-difficulty-breathing-in-it tight. I hope that this will be the greatest discomfort I experience over the next 7 hours of my life. I will be wrong.

5:50

The drive to La Jolla Cove doesn’t register with me. In retrospect, it will be clear that I’m plunging down steep hills towards the Pacific Ocean off the main highway, but the significance of this fact is lost on me in my early morning haze. I find my way to the area where I and others from my company participating in the race are supposed to meet at 6:30 AM for photos at sunrise. I locate Scout Bassett, who, given her energy level, may already be on her third Red Bull of the morning. Sarah Reinertsen and Jami Goldman soon join the group.  I realize that I’m standing next to 3 of the most accomplished female amputee athletes in the world. They don’t seem to be having difficulty breathing in their race singlets. I am.

6:30

As cameras click away I stand next to Jami, the only bilateral female amputee to have completed the 10 miles we’re going to run later in the morning. The previous night when talking to her about the course, Jami told me “there are some big hills but it’s really not all that bad.” When I pointed out to her that the phrases “big hills” and “really not all that bad” were mutually incompatible, she responded, “The course sucks but you just have to ignore it. It’s a mental thing.” Jami’s comments do nothing to assuage my fears.

I grin stupidly while the sun breaks the horizon and pictures are taken. I dimly wonder what exactly I’ve gotten myself into.

8:15

I make my way over to our company’s booth so that I can store my pullover someplace. I and 4 friends also all wearing the company’s skin-tight singlets spend a few minutes joking about how we will extract ourselves from them at the end of the day. I’m betting on the Jaws of Life. My friend Steve asks if any of us want to go for a little warm-up run before the race starts. I remind him that it’s a 10-mile course, so the concept of voluntarily adding another quarter-mile or longer to my day strikes me as borderline insane. Steve is a real runner, so he ignores me and jogs away.

9:05

We are in the third wave of runners sent out. We are joined by Heather, who if I understand her correctly, works for a local Fox affiliate. I learn that Heather is a marathoner who was supposed to accompany another amputee racer she can’t find. She asks if she can run with our group instead and we say yes. As we start out of La Jolla Cove, Heather tells me that she’ll accompany me on the run. Heather apparently suffers from short-term memory loss, as she lives up to her commitment for less than a mile, leaving me in her wake. While I didn’t really want to run with Heather for 2+ hours, the fact that she bailed out only minutes after committing to run with me – without so much as a word of explanation – leaves me slightly ticked. I then remind myself that I have this effect on most women and continue onwards. At the very least, Heather’s defection partially distracts me from the fact that the first half mile of the course is a dead climb.

La Jolla Cove’s streets are almost San Franciscan in their steepness. But it’s early, the adrenaline is flowing, and I pace myself up and out of the Cove, emerging on the main highway to enjoy a lengthy downwards stretch as we immediately make our way back to sea level again. I realize that this lovely stretch early in the race will reappear at mile 9 in quite a different form. This does not make me happy.

9:25ish (all times from here on are approximate, as I don’t wear a watch when running)

I reach the first water station. I’m in reasonably good shape. My sound foot, which I damaged last Monday and could barely walk on early in the week, isn’t hurting in any way that seems likely to indicate structural damage. I continue on, aware that the Big Hill awaits.

9:30ish

I begin the ascent. I’m following a small group of runners who come to a fork in the road and choose to continue straight. This turns out to be a poor decision. While the road we’re on eventually winds back to the actual race course, it adds a few hundred meters of length to our route, all of which are a steep uphill. I take the climb at a slow pace, convincing myself that if I just continue at this speed I’ll be able to make it up the whole hill. We wrap around a tight bend and re-enter the course. I look in horror at what’s in front of me. The hill continues upwards, the grade increasing the entire way, as far as I can see. I calculate that I’m less than a third of the way to the top. (In fact, I will soon discover that I’m probably only 10% of the way there.)

I quickly determine that I have a choice to make: if I continue to try to run this hill, the chances of my finishing the full 10 miles (plus the 200 extra meters courtesy of the directionally-challenged group I’m with) probably fall exponentially; if I submit to the hill, I may live to complete the race.

I submit.

Walking uphill on a running prosthesis isn’t fun, but it does give me lots of time to think. I consider the following questions as I slowly plod up upwards: is it legal to put a hill this long and this steep on a race course that doesn’t include sherpas and mules; why wasn’t I given a pickaxe and crampons at the water station; did I miss the checkbox on the race registration form that referred to supplemental oxygen?

I ask this and about 94 other questions as the climb continues. The road doglegs hard to the right and I gape in amazement – the climb continues with no end in sight. Cyclists, meanwhile, come blasting down at 40 miles an hour shouting encouraging things like, “Almost there!” It occurs to me that their perception of distance may be skewed by the fact that they’re approaching the speed of sound on their descent. I realize that I actually despise cyclists.

We take another hard turn to the left and I see the summit another 100 meters ahead. I reach it and wonder why there aren’t prayer flags and stones stacked atop each other. I break into a very slow jog. By my own estimation, it has taken me 19-20 minutes to cover the last mile.

10’ish

I reach the second water station at the 3 mile mark. I take the opportunity to not only gulp down some Gatorade and pour water on my hat, but to squeeze some energy gel into my mouth. It’s like swallowing raspberry-flavored chocolate syrup. So far, this is the highlight of the race for me.

10:05ish

I catch up with a man who walked past me while we ascended Everest a few minutes earlier. I’m now running. He’s not. He’s not looking happy. I slow down: “How are you doing?”, I ask. He replies that this isn’t exactly what he expected when he signed up. I tell him I share the sentiment and suggest that we take on the rest of the race together. He acquiesces and we continue our death march at a slow run.

10:30ish

We reach the halfway point. I have learned that my partner’s name is Mike. I have also learned that one of his peers told him this was a 10k, not 10 miles. We laugh in dismay at this misunderstanding.

Mike and I have survived miles 3.5 to 5 by arbitrarily running to mutually agreed-upon landmarks, then taking 30-60 second blows while walking. While this isn’t the way I planned to cover 10 miles, the ascent has so thoroughly disrupted any plan that I might have had at the beginning of the race that I am now in uncharted territory. The next 6.5 miles are not about running a race proudly to the finish; they’re about surviving. We run. We stop. We run some more. I have turned this into a series of runs to the election sign in the ground, the red Hyundai on the right, and the garbage can left in the driveway.

10:50’ish

Mike and I are now approaching the peak that nearly erased me earlier in the race. This time, I get to go downhill for close to a mile. Jami Goldman – who I later find out has run up the entire thing – comes past me, having started the run long after I did. I shout out to her, “Jami, that hill sucks!” She fires back, “Stop whining! Man up!” “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I yell as she runs away from me towards the halfway point. Mike starts laughing – “Did she just tell you to man up?” I confirm that she did. I’m past the point of feeling ashamed.

We start the descent taking it easy, trying to keep our legs underneath us. We pause only once going down for about 45 seconds and then break back into our slow run. We hit the final water station, manned by people from my company. As we stop to guzzle fluids, I introduce Mike: “Mike, [Company]; [Company], Mike! This seems extremely clever to me after 8.5 miles. As I’m about to take off again, I see a face I recognize standing next to my friend Russ. “Van?” I ask. He looks at me, slightly startled. “Yes,” he replies.

I have found the guru at the top of the mountain but today he’s standing at the base. In perhaps the most surreal moment of the day, I am speaking to Van Phillips, the man who created the running foot that Oscar Pistorius uses, that virtually every Paralympic athlete uses, and that is propelling me through this course. This is kind of like playing golf on a public course and finding out that your randomly-assigned partner happens to be Jack Nicklaus. I pause an extra 30 seconds to thank him and briefly describe my professional responsibilities. He graciously listens, probably thinking that I’m suffering from heat stroke. Then he’s gone, as Mike and I forge forward.

11:10’ish

Mike and I arrive at the base of the hill that was such a delightful descent 90 minutes earlier. Now it’s just another brutal climb at the 8.5 mile mark. We make a pact that we’re going to walk this to the top and then run the final half mile down to the finish in La Jolla Cove without stopping. I can feel my calf tightening up with every step as we approach the final right hand turn that marks the lengthy final downhill. We break into our final jog of the day and descend into the Cove.

11:25’ish

We can see the park where the race began. A woman on the side of the road shouts out, “You’re amazing!” as we pass. I tell Mike this is directed at him. We find this insanely funny. I tell him she wouldn’t be saying that if she knew how much of the course we had walked. We find this insanely funny as well. I have previously told Mike that I hate the shout-outs of “You inspire me!” from other racers that we’ve heard repeatedly throughout the day. As we enter the final 200 meters, I tell Mike that he inspires me. We laugh again.

11:30’ish

We turn towards the finish. I see “let’s-go-for-a-pre-race run!”-Steve on the left. He shouts out that I should unzipper my already unzippered-to-the-max singlet some more. I halfheartedly flip him the bird after I pass him and then see Cara, Max, Jackson and Caroline on the right. Max extends his hand and I give him a high-five. I’m now running as hard as I have all day. I am later told by anyone who saw me that I do not look at all happy. After viewing the video of me closing in on the finish, looking very much like someone struggling to complete 10 miles, I’m inclined to agree.

Mike and I hit the last 25 yards and I urge him to beat me to the finish, which he does. We stop, grin at each other, shake hands, and then hug. His wife, smiling, snaps photos of us right there in the heat of the moment.

I feel some vague sense of accomplishment, but the dominant emotion is relief. I have run races before. I have trained on hills. The degree of difficulty of the SDTC course is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

Later that afternoon I chat with Virginia Tinley, CAF’s Executive Director, and she confirms for me that the course is unbelievably challenging, even for runners with both their legs. I agree with her.

A Day Later

I’m on a plane back to New York. Nothing in the week leading up to the race or the race itself went the way I thought it would. On Monday afternoon I was using crutches thinking my foot might be fractured. The Hill from Hell erased any plans of running the entire course without stopping. I lost a partner in the first 10 minutes of the race who I didn’t want and gained one for the last 7 miles I never expected to find (or need).

I don’t keep trophies, medals, or any other kind of memoribilia. But I’m holding onto that SDTC bib (#52).

*   *   *

Thanks:

Though running is labeled an individual sport, completing something like this is most decidedly not an individual effort.

First, huge kudos to the team at Prosthetic Innovations, who keep me going no matter what. You’re right, guys: “It’s the fit!”

Major thanks to everyone at my company as well for their support and involvement. As I wrote about several months ago, I specifically challenged our Management Team to either participate in the race or, failing that, attend Sunday’s event. Everyone lived up to their promise. And even though I didn’t see all of you in person on Sunday, I did verify your presence. (I have sources!)

Thanks also to Peggy Chenoweth (www.amputeemommy.com)  and Scout Bassett, each of whom checked in on me, particularly over the last week, to offer encouragement and support.

less is more readers – you have suffered through post after post dealing with my training for this event. I’m not sure how interesting or enlightening it was, but I appreciate your sticking with me through it. I suspect reading about running for 4 months was more painful than actually doing the 10-mile course yourselves. I love writing this blog and appreciate your comments and loyalty more than I can express.

Challenged Athletes Foundation – this was a great weekend. The SDTC is a world-class event and I’m honored to have been a part of it! Special thanks to Virginia Tinley and Roy Perkins – it was great to see you both again and talk.

Finally, but by no means least in importance, thanks to my extended and direct family for all of their love and support over the last few months. Cara, Max, Jackson, and Caroline aka Bug – even though I apparently looked like I was going through my death throes as I approached the finish, it was amazing to have all of you there for this.

escaping the numbers

Anyone who knows me well knows that the world of numbers leaves me slack-jawed and drooling. Anything more complex than a baseball line score or a football stat sheet causes my math-averse brain to actually float up out of my skull and leave for a coffee break until a book or other text-heavy document finds its way back in front of my eyes.

Those of you who have followed my many posts about training for the upcoming 10-mile leg of the Challenged Athletes Foundation San Diego Triathlon Challenge know that I have taken my antipathy towards numbers and have applied it to my running regimen. Since running became a regular part of my life 18 months ago, I haven’t once tracked anything other than distance. (Treadmills are the exception to this rule, though I run on them infrequently. In any event, I’ve learned that treadmills vary so much in terms of how they track time and distance that the numbers flashing on the LED display in front of me really don’t mean much of anything anyway.)

When I started training for the SDTC, I continued my numbers-agnostic practice. But now, thanks to a move to a new home and town, I’ve taken it to another level.

In my old home, I clocked several different routes. I had 1.5, 3, 4.5 and 6.5 mile routes. I had a .5 mile extension that I could throw on to certain routes depending on how I felt. I always knew exactly how far I was going and could return to my house secure in the knowledge that I had covered “x miles” worth of ground.

But as I noted last week, the move to a new home threw my training schedule into disarray. Before Labor Day, I had spent most of the previous 3 weeks doing absolutely nothing. That left me with about a 7-week window to train for the hilly 10-mile course in La Jolla. One way to take on this challenge – probably the smarter way – would involve a calculated, hyper-aware processing of data to maximize the chance that I get through race day in optimal fashion. But I’ve chosen to take another path – probably the dumber way – because it’s the only one that will get me to race day psychologically intact.

When I ran in my new neighborhood for the first time, I did so without a pre-planned route. I left my house, took a right, and plodded along for what seemed to me like an appropriate amount of time. While the lack of numerical certainty gnawed at me during the run, I told myself that I’d clock it in my car later that day and accepted this less than scientific approach to training.

But upon returning home, I failed to climb in my car. And when I hit the pavement again after one day off, I took a slightly different route and eventually returned home having pledged to myself that I would clock both routes so that I could proceed with greater clarity on my next run. However, once again I didn’t find the time to do it.

This led to my third run, which – shorn of any knowledge about distance – morphed into a long fartlek workout. Since I didn’t know where mile 2 ended and mile 3 began, I kept myself interested by running hard to particular landmarks, then slowing down until the next flagpole or mailbox, and then speeding up again. Notably, by the end of this run, I no longer had a burning desire to understand the distance I had covered.

Yesterday, I took yet another slightly different route, focusing primarily on my form and breathing. Beyond adding a short loop that incrementally increased my total distance to 2 blocks more than the unknown mileage logged the previous days, I barely thought about how far I was running at all.

When I kicked off my running reboot, the adjective I used to describe my feelings about getting ready for the SDTC was “terror”. If I counted the number of days left that I had to run, the distance I was capable of running then, and the distance I would need to cover by late October, the math overwhelmed me. I had little confidence that I could get myself to a place mentally where I could complete the 10 miles.

But a little over a week later, stripped of any numerical basis, I know that I’m logging enough time and miles to prepare me for race day. I won’t be fast and I’m sure I won’t feel so hot by mile 8. But following the less (running) is more (distance) theory that my friend Axel espoused to me last week while simultaneously eliminating the one measure – total distance – that I had been clinging to for the last 18 months has reduced my anxiety level about the upcoming race more than anything else I’ve done.  Though I don’t think this is an application of the less is more philosophy that I’d choose to extend to any other area of my life, the less I know about my running, the more confident I am that I can handle 10 miles.

Real runners may be shaking their heads in disbelief as they read this. Phrases like “rude awakening” and “naive yahoo” probably float through their heads. I get that. To become an elite runner, to “improve” by some objective measure, you actually have to, well, measure what you’re doing. But that running worldview is diametrically opposed to mine.

I’m not running to improve. I’m not running for a time. I’m running because I believe, at age 43 – yes, the clock just flipped another year – that running is a good thing for me to do, both mentally and physically. That’s it. So I will continue my numberless experiment and apply it five weeks from now. And on a course where I will run by giant signs informing me how many miles I’ve run and wearing something on my shoe that measure my time with crystal-clear accuracy, I will remind myself that the numbers don’t mean anything to me: it’s just doing it that matters.

less (distance) is more (running)

This is why I don’t like running in events.

The 10-mile leg of the San Diego Triathlon Challenge that I volunteered for in a moment of temporary insanity is just over a month away. You might think that at this point I’m regularly logging 5-7 mile runs with a nice 8-10 miler planned for the beginning of October.

That would have been the smart way to prepare. It is not what I have done.

A few weeks ago I thought I was on track. I could knock off 5 miles so long as I jogged at the pace of your average tree sloth. I knew that the speed would come with just a few more weeks of regular running at this distance. I was confident that I’d be able to safely ramp up my distance so that I was in the 7-9 mile range at least a few times a week by the beginning of October.

Then life interrupted. Our house, which we had put on the market at the beginning of the summer, sold. In the space of just over two weeks, we needed to (a) pack our entire home, with a decade’s worth of junk in it, (b) find a new place to live, and (c) move into said new place. While we pulled off this difficult trifecta, stacking that on top of work was all-encompassing. Mix in  business trips to Akron/California – don’t ask; NY to Cleveland to Houston to Long Beach isn’t my idea of a fun cross-country jaunt – and Seattle into that 15-day time frame and the possibility of running disappeared almost entirely. (I think I did log a 3 mile treadmill session in California, but that was it.)

I thought I’d get on track last week at least. I faithfully brought my running leg with me to Boston, where I was attending a large industry convention.

On Wednesday night I didn’t get to bed until 1 AM. I had secured a training partner who was flying in from the West Coast and we confirmed that we’d meet at 6 AM Thursday morning. I awoke at 5:30 feeling like I’d been hit by a train. When my partner texted me with the news that she hadn’t fallen asleep until an hour earlier due to jet lag, it seemed like a valid basis for pushing running back one more day. We agreed on the same time Friday AM.

Unfortunately, I ended up working on a presentation that I and two peers from work needed to deliver on Friday night. I sent the updated presentation to them at 3 AM, Friday morning, quickly followed by a text to my running partner advising her that I couldn’t run on 2 hours sleep and then function for the entirety of the next day.

So Saturday morning seemed like a possibility. But then I had the opportunity to have dinner Friday night with two veterans, including Saul Bosquez of the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team. By the team we all got to the restaurant it was close to 9 pm. By the time I got back to my hotel room it was pushing midnight again. (To my credit, I know my limits. Saul and Jay, in true military style, hunkered down and went out after dinner. I was smart enough to know that trying to keep pace with them would end badly for me.)

So, to summarize, between Wednesday and Saturday, I logged a full 14 hours of total sleep time. This is not conducive to an early morning run. Perhaps an even more depressing statistic, however, is that from the time I arrived in Boston on Wednesday night until Sunday morning, I didn’t make it outside to breathe outdoor air once.

I drove back from Boston Sunday morning and returned home not to run, but rather, to break down 43 more moving boxes that Cara had emptied in my absence. For the first time in close to a week, I got a full night’s sleep.

For those of you keeping count, that means I’ve basically been a non-runner for a little over 3 weeks.

Staring down the barrel of a 10-mile gun, yesterday I showed the tiniest hint of self-discipline and run some undefined distance in some unmeasured amount of time. (I’ve not yet figured out any running routes near our new home, so this is currently a “make it up as you go along” exercise.)

As I dragged myself upstairs to shower I learned that a friend of mine from work, Axel, happened to be in town on vacation. Axel is a talented athlete who, about 18 months ago, decided that he was going to become a triathlete. And so he did. (Axel once told me that his favorite part of doing triathlons is completing them (quickly) and then sitting in a chair and smoking a cigar while other, less fortunate souls, stumble across the finish line.)  We met in town for lunch and after getting through the normal business-related chatter, I admitted to him that I had this 10 miler looming and that I was “[expletive deleted]”.

After laughing at my colorful description of my race readiness, Axel stared at me intently and told me that focusing on running distance at this point was a mistake. Trade distance for volume, he advised. In other words, run distances that I can handle more frequently than normal. While I already knew this intellectually – since running distances your body isn’t trained for is a primary cause of injury – hearing it from Axel meant a lot. In fact, I had been planning on doing just the opposite: running 2-3 times per week at longer distances (starting around 5 miles and working my way up from there).

Armed with Axel’s advice, I’m now locked in. I’ve got 40 days. I’ll be running 4 times a week between now and then, handling distances I’m currently comfortable with while gradually ramping up my speed. And I will trust that the less (distance) is more approach to running will pay dividends come October 21.