Tuesday, March 22, 2011

How I Kept My Brain Warm During the Winter Months

Now that -- too use a clichĂ©' -- spring has sprung, my winter reading list recap is overdue. I don’t make new year’s resolutions, but some time ago, I did resolve to try and read at least one book a month. When you are the business of brevity and bare bones facts – which TV writing often is – I find it helps to be constantly reading something of substance. It’s easier to see the big picture on everything when you examine all the pixels on a regular basis. That makes sense right? This is also an attempt to prove that I do, in fact, know how to read. Although there is no proof but my word that I actually completed the following books.

Touch the Top of the World: A Blind Man’s Journey to Climb Farther Than the Eye Can See (Erik Weihenmayer)

I wonder why anyone would want to climb Mt. Everest let alone a man who is completely blind. Yet, Erik Weihenmayer makes a pretty strong case. Actually, this book is less about his climb on Everest than it is about the training it took to get there and other death-defying climbing adventures. Fortunately for the reader, Weihenmayer could see as a child so he is able to paint vivid pictures of his experiences based on the perception he got from his other senses. Admittedly, the only thing I knew about this guy before I picked up Lauren’s signed copy of his book was the embarrassing TV blooper involving his live appearance on a Tuscon television station.

Life on the Run: The Wit, Wisdom, and Insights of a Road Racing Icon (Bart Yasso)

I met Bart Yasso at the marathon expo in Richmond. Before then, he was someone I never really got excited about meeting nor did I understand the reason for his fame in the running community. After spending a couple of minutes with him, my opinion changed. Yasso was genuinely interested in who I was, the Charlotte Running Club and my goals for the next day’s race. When I saw him on the course at mile 20, he cheered for me enthusiastically. His book is a much lighter read than Weihenmayer’s, but still very interesting. Yasso is a true ambassador for the sport, and the fact that he is a not a 2:10 marathoner is a big part of the reason why. I enjoyed and related to his adventures, was fascinated by his transition from alcoholic smoker to marathon runner and took note of the mature way he is handling not being able to run anymore as he ages. This book won’t be winning a Pulitzer, but it’s one every runner should have on their shelf.

Into Thin Air (John Krakauer)

Oddly, before reading this book, I had read Krakauer’s other three subsequent books (“Under the Banner of Heaven”, ‘Into the Wild” & “Where Men Win Glory”). I had been itching to read this one, but had trouble finding it in the book store. I got it from Kristy for Christmas and started reading it on a plane two days later. Despite having no desire at all to climb mountains, I am strangely drawn to books about those who do. This story of a tragic summit of Mount Everest strengthened my convictions to stay relatively close to sea level, but I could not put it down. Krakauer, who was involved in an ascent that killed 11 people, tells the story with such page-turning suspense and detail that I would have read it all in one sitting if I had a day to dedicate to the book. Now, many of the details of Krakauer’s account are disputed by fellow climbers. The late Anatoli Boukreev wrote his own version of the disaster which openly questions and calls out Krakauer. But, raw emotion, anger and grief clearly played a big role in Krakauer’s storytelling (“Into Thin Air” was written just months after the deaths on Everest) and I could understand how in such tragic and long chain of events people could remember things differently. What I don’t like about the book is the blame game that takes place in the afterword, Krakhauer responding to Boukreev’s book. I still want to read “The Climb”, but Everest books are on hold for a while.

In the President’s Secret Service (Ronald Kessler)

This behind the scenes account of the presidential security detail was interesting, but overly political. Kessler, who is a conservative pundit, doesn’t hide his personal disdain for every Democratic president he writes about. While I am sure not all of them were saints, I refuse to believe that every one of them was an inconsiderate, rude and condescending person. I also refuse to believe that the only presidents that had extra-marital affairs were Democrats. What makes it harder to believe is his contrasting practical canonization of every Republican President. The elephant d-bag to donkey d-bag ratio must be a little more balanced. Still, as someone who is intrigued by the goings-on at the nation’s most famous address, I did find some value and interest in this book. Also, Kessler’s bi-partisan message is clear: if we continue to cut the funding for the training and resources of the men and women tasked with protecting our president, we can only assume there will be a disaster.

Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand)

Let me start by saying that when I finished this book, I declared it to be the best I have ever read. Granted, there are a lot of books that I have not read, but this book was simply fantastic. I asked for it for Christmas because I knew it was about an Olympic runner who ended up a prisoner of war in World War II. It turns out not be about running at all and instead the most gut-wrenching, awe-inspiring story of human spirit and survival you will ever read. Louis Zamperini may not be a household name, but what he endured in the name of this country ranks up there with the greats. His life was meticulously researched and told by Laura Hillenbrand who’s ability to tell a story is unparalleled (see “Seabiscuit”). One of the things I really liked about this book is that just when I thought it had reached a crescendo, there was a whole new struggle for the book’s central character. Not surprisingly, a major movie studio has bought the rights to this book and it won’t be long before it hits the big screen. Do yourself a favor and read it first because there is no way any director can capture the magnitude of this story like Laura Hillenbrand did.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Aaron Ralston)

For being a stubborn, selfish idiot with a silver spoon stuck between his lips, Aaron Ralston is a pretty decent writer. That is assuming his book detailing the time he spent wedged under a rock wasn’t ghost written. I wanted to read this book before I saw the movie (“127 Hours”) because in my experience the book is always better than the movie (exceptions: “To Kill a Mockingbird” & “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” are at least equally as good as their written predecessors). Not that I needed the tale of another tragic accident to deter me from climbing/hiking/spelunking, but this book did just that. It is as much of a story about someone who is unprepared as it is about someone who gets caught (literally) in an area so far off the grid that no one would ever possibly find him. He didn’t tell anyone where he was going and didn’t bring nearly enough food. I’m not spoiling it by telling you Ralston cuts his arm off to escape. Everyone knows that. Yet, it’s still a tough part to read – very graphic. I am not sure if I was supposed to come away from the book liking Aaron Ralston, but I didn’t. Not that I wish this sort of experience on anyone, but with a past of putting innocent people in very dangerous situations, he sort of had it coming to him. Then again, he’s probably made millions of dollars off his story. I still haven’t seen the movie.

Again to Carthage (John L. Parker Jr.)

“Once a Runner” is the bible for anyone who ever ran a competitive race in high school or college. It’s the tale of Quenton Cassidy and his quest for Olympic gold. Not long ago, the book was out of print and runners desperate for a copy were either stealing it or paying big bucks for it on eBay. So, it’s surprising that its sequel, “Again to Carthage” was released with little fanfare. Some friends had warned me that it wasn’t nearly as good, but I wanted to see for myself. About 150 pages in, I was ready to agree. Basically, it was a book about a guy who used to run and now makes a lot of money being a lawyer in West Palm Beach. He does young single lawyer things like drive his boat to the Bahamas to skin dive, eat fancy lunches outside and have sex with single women who are attracted to a young fit guy who is not only an eligible lawyer, but also an Olympic silver medalist. However, the second half of this book more than makes up for the first half. In fact, it justifies it. Quenton decides he wants to make a run at the Olympic Marathon Trials. But, without knowing how far removed he is from the sport, you don’t really understand the magnitude of his endeavor. Once he starts training again, that “Once a Runner” magic comes back. The long runs, the workouts that sound superhuman, even an injury. The description of the actual race is the best fictional description of a marathon I have ever read, and the feelings and thoughts Parker writes about are as accurate as it gets. The book has a twist of an ending that wraps up these beloved characters well. I was sad to know that I was saying goodbye to them for the final time.

Profiles in Courage (John F. Kennedy)

John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize winning book had been sitting on my book shelf for two-and-a-half years before I finally pushed myself to read it. I am glad I did. It was a good lesson in American history and a look at how the senate has evolved at least from the time of our founding fathers to the time JFK served in the 1950s. I have been constantly frustrated over the inability of our lawmakers to compromise and the perception that they are campaigning from the second they are elected. It was slightly comforting to know that this practice has been happening since Daniel Webster served. Webster is just one of the eight courageous Senators Kennedy claims stepped outside the political boundaries and voted for what was right and not what was popular. The issues these eight men sacrificed their careers for ranged from relations with England to succession in the years leading up to the Civil War and the reconstruction in the years following. It’s a sad reality of our political process. Just because you make the right choice does not mean you’ll be hailed as a hero immediately or even years later in history. Some of the names in the book are names I had never heard before and probably will never hear again. While I think this is an important book, a warning: it’s not a page turner. I fell asleep reading this a couple of times. Fortunately, it is segmented well and when you reach the end of one story, you start anew. My only other problem with this book is that it is a bit insincere. In all likelihood, Kennedy wrote very little of it. In fact, one of his speech writers admits to accepting a large sum of money to do all the work. For me, that taints it as a piece of work only released to enhance Kennedy’s chances of winning the presidency. Ironically this is a complete contradiction to the honesty and courage Kennedy, rather his speech writer, preaches. JFK may be the only person to win a Pulitzer Prize for a book he didn’t write.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Confession of a Rebel Recovering Runner

I don’t follow the rules of the faux road. That is to say, the treadmill. Let me explain. I am on my second return from injury/to running in as many months. Unlike the last one, this one is a fault of my own stupidity, impatience and immaturity as a runner. Also, unlike the last injury, I am coming back from this one slowly. While I thought I was being conservative in February, I was in fact, not. That brings us to this week. Following a week of nothing (literally, nothing. I wrote a blog entry called “Living Lethargically: A Non-Training Log,” but decided not to publish it) and a week of biking and pool running, I have advanced to a run/walk every other day schedule. Jay from a month ago would have scoffed at the mere suggestion of such a pedestrian program. But this is a new me. This is a me that has spent the last three Sunday mornings at physical therapy, learning must-do daily strengthening exercises for my weakened left muscles. This is a me that has spent one hour a week on an acupuncture table, needles sticking out of my head, arms, legs and feet (a practice I was previously skeptical of). It’s worth noting that none of this was free.

Pride be damned. If I’m told to walk/run, I’m going to walk/run. If I must do it on the treadmill, I’m going to do it on the treadmill. Monday was the first day. The plan was 10 minutes run, 5 minutes walk times four. It was raining Monday, so the YMCA was particularly busy. I found an open treadmill and hopped on, adjusting my speed to a 7:15ish pace. When 10 minutes was up, I reluctantly cranked down the speed to a brisk walk. I looked around to see if anyone noticed. I wanted to explain to everyone what I was doing and why I was doing it, even though they definitely didn’t care. As the end of my second walk approached, I ran into a problem I have never experienced before (because my rule in the past has been, unless there is a tornado outside, don’t run indoors). My 30 minute time limit was about to expire and there was a line forming to the left. People had written their names on the white board to secure a spot. Heck, there was a sign on the treadmill that clearly stated I had 30 minutes. Of course, I wasn’t going to quit my run halfway through. I hadn’t run in three weeks, and I wanted to take in all I was allowed to take. I started thinking of ways I could fool people. Once the belt stopped, how long could I run in place before someone noticed I was running on an non-moving treadmill? Would it be enough time to get it started again?

As the belt slowed, people began to perk up. They could sense the silence of my treadmill. Slowly, they got out of their stretching positions and moved toward me. My legs kept moving. I was furiously pushing buttons. The stupid screen kept flashing “Great workout!” and “Workout summary…” I tried to clear it. It wasn’t working. There was a guy next to me now, waiting. I kept my iPod on, pretending to be oblivious to anything but the music and the movement. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he moved on and I finished my run.

Why am I writing all this? I guess it serves as a confession. I feel guilty about acting so inconsiderately and wanted to get it off my chest. The happy ending is that the gentleman that so patiently waited for my treadmill didn’t have to wait much longer. Scarred by my actions, I decided to alter my schedule. This morning when I was unexpectedly woken up at 4:55am, I decided that since I was up, I might as well just go run then. In another hour, the crowd would filter in. So I did, and there was no one waiting.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Running on the Moon

The following is the full text of an article I wrote on the Alter G Treadmill for the Charlotte Running Club newsletter.

Spring in Charlotte. It's 65 degrees on a Sunday morning. The sweat on the brow of your running partners has not even had the chance to dry following their two hour leisurely run through the trails. No doubt they talked about everything from who's dating who to the controversy over teacher unions. You, on the other hand, were not there. You were looking for alternate ways to pass the time so routinely filled by the long run. An hour long pool run is planned for later today. You'll follow it with 45 minutes on the bike. If you're lucky, someone will stop by and chat with you for five minutes before moving on to the next machine. Worst case scenario, you count the lights on the cieling one more time -- just in case they added one -- or watch golf on TV. This is the lonliness of the injured long distance runner.

As competitve or recreational harriers, we all have or someday will, live this reality. Whether, it's days, weeks or months, nothing about it is fun. It's an exercise in mental tenacity. Running is our outlet right? How do we get our endorphin fix?

I have been on the injured reserve on and off for the better part of four months. First, with a stress fracture in my ankle and a little later with an acute strain of one of the muscles in my back. If there is an exercise to be done that increases my heart rate or fitness level and does not involve pounding on the aformentioned body parts, I have done it. So, when Queens University Cross Country/Track and Field Coach and American Distance Project Coach Scott Simmons emailed the Charlotte Running Club to tell us a public use anti-gravity treadmill was now available at the Charlotte Running Company, I could hardly wait to get in touch with him.

Through a partnership with Scott Dvorak, owner of the Charlotte Running Company Dilworth location, Simmons brought the $30,000 machine to Charlotte. According to Dvorak, his store is now the only running store in the United States to offer the relatively new technology to its customers.

What is it? Why is it so expensive? Simmons explains it as the opposite of the workout equipment you would find at the International Space Station. While treadmills for astronauts add gravity to allow those in space to maintain bone density, the anti-gravity treadmill, known properly as the Alter G, does the opposite. A runner can reduce their body weight by up to 80%. For example, a 100 pound runner can simulate the impact of a 20 pound runner. This is achieved by using a pressure controlled chamber from the waist down that gently lifts the runner. Currently, Alter-Gs are found at the training compounds of some of the best distance programs in the country. U.S. Olympian Kara Goucher and Marathon World Record holder Paula Radcliffe famously used the treadmills to stay in shape during their pregnancies. Thanks to fundraising, there is also an Alter G on the campus of Queens University.

But Simmons stresses that this endeavor is separate from his work at Queens. He hopes it will be a selling point for competitive runners to choose Charlotte as their training ground. Simmons, who has coached four U.S. Olympic Trials qualifiers and Fernando Cabada to the American 25K record, aknowleges that Charlotte is not as attractive as distance hot spots like Flagstaff, Boulder and Eugene and he says the Alter G is one step toward enhancing the Queen City's profile.

For Dvorak, the investment is worth the potential pay off. "Honestly, when Scott Simmons came to me and asked me if I was interested in partnering my immediate reaction was 'why not?,' Dvorak says, "It's something that's innovative, and it definitely has a coolness factor." Both Dvork and Simmons want to shake the perception that this machine is simply a tool for elites. "I think it could potentially be for anyone," Dvorak, himself an Olympic trails qualifier in the 5K, says. "If someone has invested a lot of time and effort in training for a marathon, and they get a small injury or strain, the Alter-G could potentially allow them to train through the injury without too much loss of fitness."

Petra Simmons, Scott's wife and an Olympic hopeful agrees. "You get aches and pains when you run at a certain level and it doesn't have to be fast or slow," she says. "It's just whatever you can handle." Mrs. Simmons, who is also a runner and staff member at the American Distance project says the Alter G is not just for injured runners. She uses it as a preventative tool. Training to qualify for the Half Marathon World Championships, Simmons says she does a lot of her tempo runs and faster long runs on the Alter G to minimize the pounding on her body. "I don't take too much weight off, maybe 10 pounds, and I am doing things I was doing ten years ago," says Simmons, 37.

Intrigued by what I had seen and heard, I slipped into the special shorts you have to wear before zipping into the pressurized chamber. They're tight and a bit constricting especially for men, which I can see getting a bit irritating on longer runs. However, I am somewhere between a small and a medium and the small size may have been a bit too snug on me. The machine calibrated my weight and once it had locked in, I was free to begin running. I started by reducing my 150 pound weight by about 20 percent. Since my injury is muscular, I thought the more weight off, the better. By a quarter mile into my run, I had reduced myself to about 30 pounds. At first, you feel like you are going to fall, but you quickly become used to the unnatural feeling of weightlessness. A little more than 2 miles, and I was done. Two miles at just below 7:00 pace left me sweaty and feeling like I had actually just done something.

My only reservation was that I sensed my gait had been altered. Petra Simmons confirmed my suspicion. She recommends watching your form, or having someone watch your form for you when you first run on the Alter G. She warns that runners have a tendency to change it up if they are not paying attention.

With $30,000 spent on the equipment, Simmons hopes to make the investment back and then raise money for his American Distance Project, a non-profit. Runners will be charged $70 for an individual session (1 hour) and $175 for a monthly pass (1 hour a day). Sessions can be booked online and are available currently during store hours (M-F 10am-7pm, Sat. 10am-5pm, Sun 1pm-5pm). Runners can use the shorts provided by the store, but are encouraged to buy their own for $75.

Realistically, it is a lot of money for the casual runner to spend, and Dvorak doesn't think it will mean big sales for merchandise in his store. But, that's not the point. "I don't expect it to be a huge draw to the store, but it could certainly help create some buzz," Dvorak says. "I have tried it briefly, and I'm intrigued. It'll be interesting to see how it all plays out."

The Charlotte Running Club plans to have an informational night and session with the Alter G. Stay tuned for details!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What you don't know can, in fact, hurt you very badly

Before last week, I didn’t even know I had a quadratus lumborum. Now, I am acutely aware. In fact, I have assembled a team of experts who are also acutely aware and working to stop it from rebelling against the rest of my body.

So, that’s the diagnosis. A large muscle that stretches from my spine to my pelvis is tightened and possibly spasming. It causes an intense pain with each fall of my left foot. Until today, I found myself in a familiar place. The pool. Sunday, I aquajogged for 90 minutes. Ask me how that went. I was beginning to get used to and maybe even enjoy the smell of chlorine pouring from my skin.

Monday and today, I started off my mornings with a fairly vigorous swim. As I climbed out of the pool this morning, a thought popped in to my head. “What if this is making it worse?” I thought about all the twisting one does while swimming. Then, I debated internally over whether to share this bit of knowledge with the PT that is treating me. I did, and his answer was both what I expected and what I feared. He told me to shut it down. No exercising until the pain goes away. None. I am going to live how the other 90% of America lives for a while; inactively. I don’t remember the last time I went two weeks without exercising. It’s been at least 10 years. At least. I thought my eight weeks of no running were bad. This is a new kind of death sentence.

In hindsight, this is probably my fault. When I started running after my stress fracture, my hamstring and glutes were both tight. When the tightness went away, maintenance went by the wayside. Little did I know, the pain only went away because that trusty old QL stepped in to carry the load. It held on, God bless it, for dear life until one night, five miles into a run, it didn’t want to work that hard anymore. Now, it needs a little TLC. What it is going to get is a LOT of TLC. There’s already been massage, active release, physical therapy and tomorrow, acupuncture. I’m going to kill it with kindness.

Before anyone has a chance to think it, I know how to put things in perspective. I don’t have terminal cancer. I haven’t lost a loved one. People are dealing with much worse decks. But our personal tragedies are relative to who and where we are in life and this is a big one for me. I am grateful for all the things I have going, and am not asking for an “it could be worse” line. Of course it could be.

Fortunately, there is more to life than running and I am not talking about cycling and swimming. In the midst of all this self-pity wallowing, extended time in water, painful poking and prodding and needles sticking from my body, there’s been some interesting news.

Lauren got into General Theological Seminary in Manhattan. She was stunned. While I was VERY EXCITED, I was not stunned because I knew all along that she would be accepted. I was only surprised that they didn’t drive down to North Carolina and demand she come this instant. Of course, the natural follow up question is, “Will you also be moving to New York?” The answer is “yes.” I just won’t be moving there as soon as Lauren. She starts school in August, and I am contractually bound to Charlotte until the end of March. We’ll be doing the long distance thing for a while, including two months after our wedding on December 31st. And of course, I have to find a job.

In other wedding news, a lot of the planning is done. When you have a wedding on New Year’s Eve, you have to get all your ducks lined up early. I can tell you that our wedding party consists of Aaron Linz, Richard Austin, Stephen and Pierce Robbins, Sloan Crawford, Caitlin Chrisman, my sister Julie and Erin Donovan. I know my ushers are Paul Mainwaring, Jesse Contario, Peter Chambers and Nathan Thomas. The rehearsal dinner will be held at Providence CafĂ©. The guest hotel is the Hampton Inn & Suites at Phillips Place in South Park. We are still trying to nail down the official time of the ceremony, but we’re almost there. We’re still hammering out the guest list, but it will be limited to keep costs down.

I’ve been meaning to write that book recap, but I fear this post is already far too long. Instead, I’ll end with a quote that’s gotten me through my slump.

“Resentments are the rocket fuel that lives in the tip of my saber.”
 Charlie Sheen