Saturday, May 28, 2011

But It Means Something To Me

"Races are the jam on the doughnut, not the doughnut" - unknown

When you've run for over three decades, been competitively active through SEVEN age groups, and are virtually a pack-rat, you accumulate things. For a runner, those things are most definitely shirts. You're almost guaranteed at least one at every race you enter, never mind finish. And it's gotten to the point that no self-respecting race director will give anything less than a technical shirt - I mean cotton? C'mon! We accumulate drawers full of shirts, some designated for running, but a precious few are given the special prestige of "wear-to-the-mall" shirts, or "Saturday" shirts. Although you have a drawer full of shirts, these treasured shirts are usually limited to a precious few.

Then, if they're attractive, you might also keep the race bibs that adorn you during the race itself. And we have hats and patches and cups and glasses. And occasionally, if few enough folks show up at a race and you're one of the top three in your age group, then you can scarf up a trophy. These are all things that don't usually mean much to anybody else, but have tremendous meaning to you. You worked, you sweated, and you have this piece of memorabilia that can bring on a wave of emotions.

The other day, I was thinking about this and trying to figure out how do we decide what is so important to us, that we cannot bear the thought of parting with them. Sitting in my tiny office at work, I can look around and on my bulletin board, and crowding out important Usernames and Passwords and telephone numbers to supposed superiors, are remembrances from days gone past, but definitely not forgotten. I have color reproductions of all 5 bib numbers from my Boston Marathons, two finisher's medals (Boston - my favorite, and Georgia - my last "competitive" marathon), a 5-year finisher award from the Oak Mt 50k, various training schedules and pace charts, a champion chip from the Marine Corps Marathon, and a plaque given to me by former co-workers when I finished my 100th marathon.

Why do I display these? Why do I pick out the shirts I do to wear here and there? Is it to (in my mind) impress others as to who I am, or was? Do I need it to periodically whisk myself back to those thrilling days of yesteryear? Am I afraid of losing that part of me if I don't have this materialistic blanket around me? The answers are yes, yes, and yes!

At home, I have a room that used to be our son's until he went away to college back in the early 90's. He then continued his education adventures away from home in San Diego and now is in Boston with his family, but his room will forever be "Michael's room". So, in a corner of Michael's room are displayed some of the trophies and medals I'm most proud of or because they are unique. I simply DO NOT want them to wind up in a drawer only to be found like photos in Grandma's attic years after I'm gone.They mean absolutely nothing to anybody but me. Occasionally we'll have a guest spend a night with us and they are put up in Michael's room. Man, they are going to be SOOOO impressed. Nope, never do they inquire about any of the trophies or the medals placed on or dangling from the bookcase. Well, maybe they might say how "cute" my Disney medal is....Good Grief! Don't they want to hear how I ran down my adversary, Charles Thompson, in the last 5 miles of Boardwalk and Epcot to get that medal? No, they don't!

One of my favorite trophies is from the Atlanta 24 Hour Run. It was the National Championships for that year and somehow I actually finished 13th with 109 miles. Not only does the trophy have meaning as being one of my proudest running moments, but I like it because the race was held at the Atlanta Water Works (you ran around a reservoir) and the trophy had an old time water faucet on top (like the Monopoly card). That was a big-deal trophy. A little-deal trophy was from the River Edge 10k. You see, I was brought up in River Edge, New Jersey and one year, some 40 years after leaving River Edge, I went up there to see my sisters and here was a race in my hometown. I finished 3rd in my age group and that trophy has a permanent place in the Al Hall of Fame. Again, it means nothing to anybody but me.

These days, many marathoners pick their races based on what the finisher's medal looks like. I'm not that picky, but I do have strong opinions about my medals, but most of them have found their way to an old shoebox - too hard to display - but I look at them once in a while and each one has it's story, but to me alone. I have all my Boston medals out on display because that race is in my blood. I love history, and the history and tradition of that race gets my blood a-boilin'. But, after the Boston medals, the one I would grab in a fire would be my Pikes Peak medal. It's a small, dinky medal - no overnight guests would EVER notice it - but when I see that medal I am transported back to the race I am most proud of. In a future blog, I'll go into more detail of the race itself, but even as I write this, I feel the emotions welling up. A major portion of the runner that resides in me was defined that day. Do I need that medal to be displayed to remind me of that day? It certainly means absolutely nothing to anybody else. However, to me, it is not that I necessarily "earned" that medal - heck, everybody got one - but that medal, these trophies, those dozens of shirts, represent a part of ME to me. We can look at these materialistic remembrances and it individually means something to each and every one of us and THAT is a big deal.

Have you noticed that this Wednesday is National Running Day? To most of us that's like National Breathing Day but I guess the exposure is good. I just think it's funny that next Friday is National Doughnut Day! Wonder which one will have more participants? Ok, this has gone on too long. Have safe Memorial Day and I'll see you all on the road - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"

Saturday, May 21, 2011

If the Shoe Fits, Why Not Wear It?

"If the shoe doesn't fit, must we change the foot?"
Gloria Steinem

Ok, I have to admit it to you all. I don't know if it's the beautiful weather here in Birmingham, the fact that my running is SLOWLY getting better (my parameters), or the giddiness I feel when the Mets beat the Yankees. Possibly, it could be that the world is supposed to end in a few hours and I'm not thinking clearly. But what I have to admit is that I am having writer's block. So, I'm going to write about a subject that has been bugging the living stew out of me. It's not that big a deal. It just bugs me.

You see, I'm a Physical Therapist, and so I'm asked occasionally about my take on barefoot running. Honestly, since I'm pretending that you asked, I'll put it simply. I think it's much more advertising hooey than it is based on fact. Years ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote The Tipping Point (great book!) and I think this is a perfect example of an idea taking off like a rock rolling downhill with no specific cause except that Chris McDougal wrote Born To Run (good book, but not a great book) about the perception - or mythology - about barefoot running curing all shoe-caused running evils at exactly the right time to feed an accepting public. No, as a PT, I can't say I've seen more injuries with or without shoes. But, I also feel that although the Indians communicated pretty good with smoke signals, I have to admit the phone is better. Translated, I mean the technology that has developed to protect your feet and lower body from having to absorb 3-4 times your body weight a thousand times for EVERY mile you run seems to be something that would be good. But, barefoot running enthusiasts are very passionate about their,, whatever, and so I'm not going to make this a soapbox stand against it.

But here's the funny thing - I’ve been running for 33 years. I’ve never been a professional distance runner, but I have run 129 marathons or ultramarathons and have raced in many US and a few foreign cities. Although I didn't exactly run with them, I have observed many elite and professional runners doing their best for both fame and money. This is their livelihood! Not one time, not at a single competition, have I seen a professional athlete run barefoot. In fact, I’ve never seen a professional athlete do any percentage of serious training without that evil, injury-causing invention of a modern day running shoe. Years ago, one of my TNT trainees was asking me about the virtues of bike riding to help his running. My answer to him was "When was the last time you have seen a Kenyan on a bike?". So, when was the last time you saw a Kenyan run barefoot? You may be tempted to argue that in rural parts of Africa, they don't wear shoes and they run pretty good I would say! That's true, but I have to think it's mostly because they can't afford them. Looking at ALL the professional African runners here in the US - running roads each weekend - all over the country - they wear shoes. Shoes protect their feet AND they run faster with shoes. And in 2010, Kenyans won 126 of the world's top 156 marathons! It just seems to me that a professional runner will do anything - sometimes illegal - to run just a small percentage faster. They change their blood or they inject chemicals in their bodies, for Pete's Sake. Some will risk their lives! Thank goodness, most are honest and revert to good ol' sweat. But, don't you think that if running barefoot would help them, we would at least see SOME of them doing it?

Some people need more support on their feet than others. It doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t run or go for a jog or stay fit by running. It just means their body naturally overpronates more than usual – and a supportive running shoe will offer a bit of support to correct that overpronation. The modern running shoe, believe it or not, is a good thing. The modern day running shoe is not the cause of injury. After being in the sport for over 3 decades, and more importantly, as a Physical Therapist, I can suggest that there are likely other reasons for many of the knee, ankle, and foot injuries caused from running. Too much weight and lack proper base training comes to mind real quickly.

If you get hurt wearing a particular shoe, try a different shoe. Here, in Birmingham, The Trak Shak will go to great lengths to find a good fit for your body style and level of running. It may take a couple of trips – but I promise a good fit does exist.

A quote from George Sheehan I often use in this blog is "We are all an experiment of one". Find what floats your boat and sail with it. But, don't get caught up in a fad because somebody wrote a book that hit that tipping point. Educate yourself, ask around, observe the serious guys at races. I'm obviously not a fan of barefoot running, but that's not what gets me stewed - it's these shoe companies going crazy trying to make up your mind for you.

OK guys, time is running out on this end-of-the-world thing and I've got a bottle of wine in the fridge that I refuse to let go to waste. Hope I didn't offend anybody with my barefoot opinion. Send me your comments. I'd love to hear success stories - really. Barefoot or not, I hope to see you all on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Go Tell It On The Mountain

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go. ~T.S. Eliot

One of the activities that I really enjoy is reading. Unfortunately, I never get enough time to do the reading I would love to do. I have months of running magazines sitting on the end table in my living room and several books that I want to read, but by the time I get through the Birmingham News and USA Today each evening, I usually fall asleep in the chair. If I drag myself upstairs to read in bed, that's a time-proven joke as I never get past 2 pages before I'm out, AND THAT'S READING SOMETHING I REALLY WANT TO READ!!

However, years ago, and then again recently. I read a book that, as an endurance runner, had me mesmerized. It's called The Marathon Monks of Mt. Hiei by John Stevens. You think running around Anytown, USA for 26 miles is a big deal? When I started running marathons more than three decades ago, if you ran more than two a year, you were an endurance animal! Now, the limits of endurance have spread far beyond what we thought possible even just a few years ago. Well, on Mt. Hiei, for over ten centuries, the monks have pursued enlightenment by putting themselves through the most incredible and dangerous feat of endurance. These men might be the world's greatest athletes.

The Monks of the mountain outside the old Japanese capital city of Kyoto have a quest to serve Buddha through many duties, but this Tendi sect is unique in using their physical running endurance as a vehicle to seek that enlightenment. There are many different disciplines the "gyoja" can use as a process of self-denial to attain this enlightenment, but if you're a nut like me about examples of endurance, then hold onto your trousers and listen to this.

The Mountain Marathon is called a Kaihogyo - this is the practice of "circling the mountain". The monk is given a white robe and a rope is tied around the waist that holds a knife. They have 80 pairs of straw sandals for this first 100 day term. In rainy weather, these sandals turn to wet hay! Talk about minimalist shoes! Anyway, for 100 days in a row, they awaken at midnight, have a small meal and around 1:30, they run 40 kilometers (just short of a standard marathon). They are allowed to sit only once during their daily journey. Then, when they return in the early morning, they go to service, eat, and attend to their normal daily chores and go to bed around 8 or 9pm. Up at midnight and repeat this for 100 days in a row!

Now, this was actually the "Fun Run" of the Kaihogyo. If they complete the first 100 days, they can petition the the senior monks to complete the remaining 900 days - this whole process can take up to 7 years to complete. In the first 100 days, withdrawal (DNF) is possible, but from day 101, that's it - if they can't complete the Kaihogyo, they have the choice of hanging themselves or using the knife to take their life (remember the rope and knife that was "given" to them at the starting line?). Sorta puts your commitment on the line, eh? ONLY 46 MEN HAVE COMPLETED THE 1000 DAY TERM SINCE 1585!

If you are accepted to continue with the challenge (kind of like a good news/bad news lottery I guess), the next 2 years are spent continuing to run 40K per day for 100 consecutive days per year. Then, in the 4th and 5th years, the ante is upped to where you run for 200 consecutive days. Complete this, and you've hit the big time - you get to use a walking stick and where a special hat!

After completing the 700th day (5 years), the hard stuff begins (What? Holy Crow!!). The gyoja must survive 9 days without food, water, sleep or rest. This is called a Doiri. I'm sure it's called something else, but not by a holy man! During this 9 days, they repeat a chant 100,000 times. On the 5th day, they are allowed to rinse their mouths out with water. They must stay awake and maintain proper posture at all times and at 2am every night, they must get up and fetch sacrificial water from a well 200 meters away. He always has two monks by his side to ensure he doesn't cheat - like fall asleep in 9 days!

In the 6th year, it's good news/bad news again. They reduce their consecutive days of running to 100, but the distance increases to 60K (36 miles). The final year of the 1000-day term is divided into two 100-day terms. The first consists of daily 84K (52 miles) runs, which usually take 16-18 hours to complete, and the FINAL 100-day term is like the original one done 7 years prior - 100 days of 40K runs. They are now declared as Daigyoman Ajari, which is "Saintly Master of the Highest Practice". I hope they also get one heck of a finisher's medal.

How come we hear on the news or read in Runner's World about some guy in a snail's outfit doing a marathon in 15 days, but you have to literally stumble across stories like the Marathon Monks? Simply amazing...that's about all I can say. I may kid around a lot while posting this story, but I honestly have nothing but the most highest admiration for the Marathon Monk's dedication and commitment towards their beliefs, and as an endurance athlete, I am absolutely awed by their obvious ability to push their bodies to physical and spiritual limits far beyond our horizons.

Whether you're running around the block, or around the mountain, I'll see you on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Howdy Stranger!

Strangers are friends you have yet to meet

Last time I was in Boston, I was running on Beacon Street, and noticed a runner on the other side of the road. Now, I always hear about (from non-runners) that runners are always serious and never seem to smile. Personally, I think that's a lot of bunk - there have been many times, running with my buddies, when we actually had to stop running because we were laughing so hard. I mean, stomach-hurting laughing. Sure, huffing and puffing up an 8% grade for a mile probably isn't going to get many yuks out of me, but generally, I'm in a good mood. OK, to get back to Boston. So, I see him coming, he sees me coming, and as we get close, we cooly give a wave and a smile. Do I wave at folks walking on the street? - no! How 'bout people sitting on park benches? - maybe a quick nod. But another runner is a bond formed in the netherworld. I don't know squat about him, he doesn't know squat about me, but when two strangers discover the other is a runner (on the road, at a party, after you rear-ended him, etc) they instantly share a connection. Think about when you're at races and in the starting corral. Do you stand there in your own little world? Are you plotting out your pace or your aid station stategy? Probably not because you've struck up a conversation with a total stanger. You could be at your hometown 5K, getting ready to tackle Boston's hills, or staring at Pikes Peak. We are wishing "good lucks" to others that we know have trained like us, nursed their niggles and knacks like us, had those same ups and downs. They probably cursed getting out of bed in the dark to train and overdressed on cold mornings...just like us. They've had their runs that have been so bad they felt like they had never run before and they've had others that were so good, they wondered where the heck that came from. We don't know them...but we KNOW them! This is more than mutual support and encouragement. There is an acknowledgement of shared passion and drive. No matter if it’s a 5K or a 50K, a 2:30 marathoner or a 4:30 marathoner, we are all there for the same reason. We love to run.

When doing a long run, one where you can actually breathe enough to a half marathon, marathon, or ultramarathon...9 times out of 10, sometime during the run, you're going to talk to a total stranger - "how's it going?", "more hills than I thought", "pretty hot, eh?", "you're looking great". It will usually strike up a deeper conversation. When I was running trail ultras, you could practically learn another runner's family tree you have so much time. If you've run several endurance events, the percentage is pretty high that the stranger you've started yakking to has done some of the same runs as you in the past. I absolutely love this - you're running in California, start talking to some guy from Wisconsin, and find you both did the same race in Tennessee the same year! Instant bond.

Do other sports have this bond? I don't know. I don't do other sports. I guess cycling might be close. They seem to bond to each other, but there still seems to be more "singleness" to it. And it seems with biking, they're always talking about gear ratios and seat hieghts and the technical side of their sport. In running, as soon as we finish a race, we will turn to the closest finisher to us, stick out our hand and shake theirs - "good run". We've both been through the same battle, slain the same dragon. Yep, good run, my brother! It's more than mutual support and encouragement. It's that bond to what drives us. We share in victories and defeats. The lonliness of the long distance runner is not really ever that lonely at all.

Whether you are my best friend that I've known for a hundred years, or you're one of my future connections to the six degrees of separation, I hope to see you all on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"