Saturday, November 24, 2012

Why Are You Staring At My Shoes?

"Determine never to be is wonderful how much may be done if we are always doing" - Thomas Jefferson

Just about every Sunday when I run with my marathon training group, somebody just has to make a comment about my Hoka running shoes, such as "What are those?". I tell them "these are my big-boy Vibrams".

In the running world, all you have to do is utter the word "minimalism" and suddenly everyone has an opinion. And the argument can get sort of spirited, usually ending with something along the lines of "your mother wears combat boots!".

Although many would say "The Book" has been a primary driving force behind the burgeoning minimalist and "barefoot" movement, the fact of the matter is that modern-day running shoes have endured many trends over the years--from light and basic to big and clunky and everything in between. When you look at what many runners, especially in the 1970s and even 1980s wore (pretty low-profile racing flats but nothing like Vibrams), what folks wore in the 1990s and early 2000s (big, clunky shoes) and what's hot these days (Vibrams and barefoot running), you could easily argue that what we're experiencing now is really "minimalism 2.0 on steroids." My first pair of "real" running shoes were Nike Elites which fit me like a custom-made glove, had absolutely no support, and gave me the most clinically perfect case of Plantar Fasciitis.
So, now with the minimalist movement, shoe stores are full of Vibrams, and the similar versions put out by New Balance, Nike, and the such as they jump on the "less is more" bandwagon. And then along comes the Hoka One One, a European company that has introduced innovative--and super-expensive($170)--shoes that appear quite bulky and heavy and are sometimes dissed as looking "clown"-like. Ah, but looks can be deceiving. As almost any proud Hoka owner would attest (I'm on my THIRD pair of Hokas with another new pair sitting in the closet and will likely be a lifer), Hokas are anything but bulky, heavy and Bozo-like (Ok, maybe they ARE Bozo-like). Yes, they have a lot of EVA, but EVA is light (10 oz.), soft and protective. The uppers are pretty simple, contributing to the relative light weight of Hokas. On top of all this, despite the purist-minimalist folks calling the Hokas the equivalent of the Anti-Christ shoe, they have a very low heel-to-toe drop (4mm) making them a shoe that helps to deliver your foot to a midfoot plant rather than the dreaded heel plant. So, they are a light, supportive, low heel drop shoe that has a lot of cushioning. Yes, I can't feel every daggum pebble I step on, but what's wrong with that?

Many of the minimalists contend that we have been sold a bill of goods by the "big shoe" companies that want us to believe more support is better and will help prevent injury. But, Hokas DON'T offer more support, just cushioning. We are, the minimalists say, born to run barefooted, and so why impede the natural movement of the foot with tanks like Hokas?

For whatever it's worth, here's what I think: We weren't born to run per se. We were born to be active and work hard for what we need. It could be said that running was to "prehistoric" beings a means to an end. In "prehistoric" times, when there weren't Publix and Winn-Dixies around every rock, we put a lot of physical effort into hunting and gathering...because our lives depended on it. Meat was a big deal; you had to work super hard to kill an animal, sometimes running dozens of miles until the exhausted animal DNF'd, collapsed, and died. But that was only part of the effort. You had to work almost just as hard bringing the dang carcass back to your loved ones and defending your catch from invaders. And animals weren't just a source of food; furs and hides were used for clothing. And when you weren't eating, you worried about things like fortifying your shelter, staying warm (or cool), protecting your family and friends, finding clean water, figuring out how to use the wheel, etc. All of that required some level of activity, including running and hiking.

But our ancestors didn't run for fitness. If a "caveman" ran 20, 30 or 40 miles, it wasn't training; it was to chase down a deer, evade capture, maybe deliver a message or get back home. And those who did the running were usually the best athletes, i.e., the ones who were the most physiologically gifted. Being fit was part of survival; the best athletes reigned supreme and brought home the dinosaur bacon. Also, they didn't have paved roads like we do. Their pursuits took them across pastures, meadows and calderas, up and down mountains, along treacherous ridges, and over downed trees and big rocks. Well-groomed trails were rare. Their feet, unlike ours today, were conditioned from childbirth to withstand tremendous punishment and were strong in muscle and connective tissue. Our feet today are none of that, in large part because we've been wearing supportive shoes since birth, sitting down a lot, driving our cars to Publix for food instead of chasing down and/or picking our grub, living in relatively low-maintenance shelters, etc.

All of that said, no one really knows for sure whether minimalism today is a good or bad thing, or even the "natural way." People who run in Vibrams, New Balance's line of minimalist trail shoes, and the like swear by them. By the same token, people who run in Hokas (like me) believe their way is the best way for what they need. I believe they saved my running when my ankle pain was so bad I thought my running days were very numbered. So essentially what shoes you wear, if you even choose to wear shoes, is a matter of personal preference. Me? My preference is Hokas. I'll take the ribbing, but my feet are saying "Good Boy!".

No matter what you wear, I'll see you all on the roads - AL

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

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Walking Through the Rooms of My Mind

"God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December" - J.M. Barrie
Last Sunday, I was running along with my friend, Mark, and we got to talking about what we think about when the road or trail gets long and you're just traveling along. I don't mean one of those runs like I had this morning where I was just gutting it along and just about every step got my full attention. I was NOT in love with running this morning, but that was just between me and my ankles. Tomorrow will be better. Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, where do I go to occupy my mind when I don't want right-left-right to be my only thought. I've talked in several posts about solving all the problems of the world, carrying Pi to a hundred decimal places,  or trying to figure out  how the heck the Alabama politicians, at any level, were actually ELECTED! I mean, one of them this week actually said this..."I will stand my ground till the cows come back to Capistrano"!!!!

Ok, back to Running With Al. During my formative years, we moved just about every year. I think my parents were in the Witness Protection Program. Then during my summer vacations from school, my parents would ship me away for a couple of weeks with my Aunt Frances and Uncle John in Massachusetts, which I was not crazy about, and then about 6-8 weeks with my grandparents in South Florida, which I was crazy about because I had 4 cousins down there that were like brothers and sisters. It was just acting crazy and young for 2 months. So, during all this moving around, I lived in many, many houses, and so, sometimes along these runs where I need to find a mental diversion, I retreat to the deep recesses of 50 years ago and try to recreate the floor plans of these houses. I'm not talking about a quick walk-through...I actually can see me walking through the front door and then picture, clear as day, what room was to the right, what closet was to the left, what was down the hall, how was the kitchen set up. If you really sink it to it, you get engrossed in seeing the whole house, the windows, the doors, the chairs, even the smells and the "feel" of the house. I mean, ALL the details. The miles go by and you have some wonderful memories. Take your time and I think yu will really enjoy the trip.

Couple of months ago, I was running with my son in Boston, and we began talking baseball. This was right before the playoffs and I asked what teams have been in their parks the longest (it's the Red Sox of course). That involved just trying to come up with all the teams in each league - we're talking 15 teams in each league! And some of these teams moved around more than I did when I was a child. Washington to Texas, Montreal to Washington, Kansas City to Oakland, Philadelphia to Kansas City, St. Louis to Baltimore, and of course the curse of curses, 2 teams from New York to California! But, the point here (not at the time) is that this totally consumed the mind in a task that was doable while your legs just took over and moved you down the road. It's something that you dive deep into. It's not the shallow end of the's seeing how many layers you can peel away of those years.

If you've been running races for a while, here's one of these tasks right up your alley. Go back to your first few races and try to reconstruct the course in your head. Not just the overall start and finish - try to picture the turns, where the aid stations were...don't just say there were hills, try to feel and picture those hills...not the pain or the fatigue, but just the undulations of the course. If you've run Mercedes for years, we've gone through 4-5 course changes - try to remember as many of these courses as you can. Picture going up Montclair Road at mile 21, or conjure up the twists and turns through Crestline Village...see it! Like those rooms in my Grandparents house, try to be there. Heck, I can go back to the old Vulcan Marathons of the 80's or even the Magic City Marathon in the late 70's running through East Birmingham (Crap! I'm old!!). What you're doing is seeing how far back you can regenerate those memories that haven't been lost, but are buried under years of other memories. Maybe I can call it reverse visualization where visualization is trying to picture what will be...this is trying to relive what was. 

You can play this little memory game during a run with what ever you want - an old neighborhood, a school, even an old job. But, sink into it and try to invoke as many small details as you can, the colors, the smells, the people you thought you may have forgotten. It's all still there, but sometimes it takes a good long run to remember where you've been, not just take you to where you're going.

I'll see you on the long and winding roads - AL

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

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Ying &Yang? Nah, Just Dirt and Pavement

"Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. wisdom is knowing not to put a tomato in your fruit salad" - Unknown

Back about a year ago, one of my posts reflected on my choice of road or trail (read it here) and I touched on a few differences. Having just come back from putting in a couple of pleasant hours on the trail this morning, I thought I would put down a few specific differences between the dirt and the pavement.

In marathons, we eat gels and shot blocks.
In ultras, we eat chicken soup and PB&J sandwiches.

In marathons, we run on pavement and roads with thousands.
In ultras, we run on trails, mostly alone and cross rivers/streams.

In marathons, you could walk up to any starting line on race morning and pretty much have no worries that the course is USATF certified to be 26.2 miles long
In ultras, the distance advertised is most of the time more-or-less a guide. If the advertised distance is within, say 10% of the actual distance, there is no basis for any complaint and there is no extra charge for running the extra distance.

In marathons, we run according to pace & measure training in miles.
In ultras, there is no set pace and training is measured in hours.

In marathons, you carry as little as possible to try to be as light as possible to save energy.
In a 50k, you strap yourself down with 20oz water bottles, energy gels, bars, dried fruit, toilet paper. Basically, you carry a bunch of crap in case you need SOMETHING!

AT Aid stations - In marathons, you slow down, grab a cup of water, crimp the cup so you can drink on the run, and promptly spill half of it on the front of your shirt or up your nose.
In ultras, you lose tons of time in aid stations as you peruse the buffet of anything you could possibly want, as a volunteer fills your 2 water bottles (one with gatorade and one with water).

For marathons, you run 10k's for training runs.
For ultras, you run marathons for training runs.

Marathon shoes are designed for lightness and lack of frills. Just enough cushioning to get you through the 42,000 steps it'll take you from point A to point B. You may be going up or down, but your foot strike always hits a flat surface.
Ultramarathon shoes can be anything from wafer-thin Vibram Five Fingers (ouch!) to my favorite, the "clown shoes" Hokas. You may be going up or down, but your foot strike is always going to be unstable and "banana peels" are always waiting to trip you up.

In marathons, you worry about what the starting temperature is going to be and what the temperature might be a few hours later at the finish.
In ultras, you wonder about the low temperature for today, the high temperature for today, AND in some cases, TOMORROW!!

In a marathon, you will probably hit a down patch with your energy.
In an ultra, you will hit a down patch, an up patch, a down patch, an up patch, and so on till the finish.

In a marathon, the finish line will usually have cheering spectators, your name blasted over a loudspeaker, a medal placed around your neck, finish line photos, and fruit, bars, chips, gatorade, and all sorts of snack-size goodies.
In an ultra, sometimes you have to tell the race director you just finished (because he's been out there for half the day - I mean 12 hours!! - and not very attentive), you might get a finisher award, but there is always bar-b-q, sandwiches and plenty of beer.

In marathons, you expect volunteers at every twist and turn on the roads to point the way so you don't take a wrong turn and lose valuable minutes.
In ultras, you are directed by little colored, fluttering ribbons or tiny construction flags, that if you miss one in your tired, confused, energy-depleted state of mind, could mean hours!

In a marathon, when you finish, you feel like you have accomplished something that will make you proud for the rest of your life.
In an ultra, when you finish, you feel like you have accomplished something that will make you proud for the rest of your life. 

My personal preference these days is the trail, but it probably reflects my forced slowdown physically from bad wheels and my mental slowdown saying "Don't push it, man!". There is gold in both types of races. They both involve right foot...left foot...and repeat till somebody says STOP. I'd love to hear the comments of you that have done both races, and especially if you any more differences to add to the list.

In the meantime, I'll see you both on the roads and on the trails - AL

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

Friday, November 2, 2012

Tragedy Trumps a Marathon

All day today, I have been collecting information for this week's RWA. I was going to write a post about whether it was right to continue with plans to run the New York Marathon or cancel/postpone it. As my post was pretty much composed (at least in my mind), the Mayor of New York has just (5:00pm CST - Friday) cancelled the Marathon. So, I thought "Well, there goes that post", but I thought I would still proceed and present some of the arguments and give my slant on them. I must say, I am glad they did cancel it, but, on the other hand, I know that thousands of runners who probably went through holy hell to get to NY, must be crushed by the decision. 

I must admit, I am not totally looking from the outside. I am a runner who has done over a hundred marathons and ultramarathons. A long distance runner does not want to hear any reason to cancel a race. In marathons that have been cancelled in the past due to heat or cold or wind or whatever, we always hear of large groups of runners that go out anyway and complete their planned run, and I'm sure some will still try to do an unofficial version of this one. No, I have never run New York, but that has been my decision to never even try to get in the lottery. 

But, in addition to being a runner, you see, I was born and raised in New Jersey. I was personal with the Jersey Shore decades before it was a TV show. See all those videos of torn-up Seaside Heights? That was our High School go-to place. Walked many, many miles on those boardwalks that are now floating someplace in the cold Atlantic. Yep, rode that Roller Coaster that is now sitting 100 yards off the shore, isolated in the ocean. It breaks my heart to see all these little beach-front towns destroyed that I knew so well as a young child and later as a nothing-can-happen-to-us teenager. I have an emotional connection to that area, the same as anybody has to an area they grew up in. I still have 2 sisters, along with precious nieces and a nephew that live in Northern Jersey, but except for being cold and inconvenienced by still not having power or gas, they are all safe and have tons to be thankful for, and for that, so do I. We see on the TV news everyday areas that are torn apart, and then we look to see what else will be on TV that night...that is, unless it hits closer to home. 

Loss brings emptiness, so try to picture what these folks hit by Sandy (too nice a name for such a monster) are going through. Staten Island was one of the hardest hit areas in New York and apparently one of the areas slowest to receive relief aid. Staten Island is where the Marathon was to start, closing the Verranzano-Narrows Bridge, forcing any first responders or relief efforts to go miles out of their way, through New Jersey to get to Staten Island. Plus, the marathon would close over 20 miles of roads to any traffic. It just didn't seem right on any level to have a huge "runner's party" while so many were suffering losses beyond any of our senses. The mayor said earlier this week that no resources to the relief efforts would be compromised by putting on the race. C'mon Mayor, if you're gonna say something, say something believable. I understand it takes about 1500 Policemen to man the Marathon (that comes to 57 police per mile!!) and that would have had to put a big strain on these poor heroes. Yes, I'm a serious runner, but it didn't seem right.

The NYRRC said they were donating $1 million to the relief efforts and sponsors also put up another $1.5 million. I hope this wasn't contingent on the race going on. I can imagine the terrible ramifications this does to all the efforts put into staging this race. Planning for this race, I'm sure, begins as the final runner comes across the finish line last year. Runners, sponsors, exhibitors, volunteers, plus all the businesses that benefit from the $340 million dollars the race brings into the city are severely affected and to just say "Sh*t Happens" is extremely cold. These are real folks that are affected, but it is nothing to compare to folks that Sandy tore apart. Holding a non-essential event through the storm-ravaged city literally blocks from where people lost their lives and their possessions would have been totally wrong. This is not a place to fill the streets with thousands of cheering spectators and runners thinking The Wall is 'the worst thing ever". This tragedy is less than a week old. You cannot forget THAT soon. I remember runners doing the Marine Corps Marathon 6 weeks after 9/11 saying how quiet it was when they ran by the Pentagon - only the sound of running shoes hitting the ground. That heaviness affected every runner doing that race. And that was after SIX weeks. This is five DAYS. People are still reeling, wondering which direction their life will go from here.

I feel for all involved in this tragedy. Because this is a runner's blog, I write this from a runner's view. I don't want to go into the logistics of moving the runners around the damaged areas before or after the race or the many resources used to put on the race that might be used to a much more sympathetic need. No decision is 100% correct, but I think the decision to cancel was the most correct and the most compassionate. I'd like to hear your views. Just leave a comment below (I think I fixed the bug that previously "bugged" me).

I'll see you on the roads - AL

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