Starting from Scratch

No one would ever choose it, but the silver lining of starting over after a long hiatus due to injury is that I get to review everything I think I know.

Quick background:

When I was about to turn 40 I shifted from long, slow running (did a few marathons and an iron distance triathlon) back to the track. I discovered masters competition and thrived in many ways for a solid 6-7 years. There were some bumps in the road, but after some initial adjustments I was able to get myself to a point where I eclipsed my high school age grade in the 400 meters, and running in the low 55s, had a lot of fun competing at events like the Millrose Games, Penn Relays and masters national championships.

If I didn’t make a new critical error at that time I might be writing a completely different blog post today, but I do believe this experience fits into the category of “everything happens for a reason.”

As I gradually increased my training capacity I began to spend more time in the gym. I had been doing a deadlift routine for a few months, and actually attributed that with dropping below 56 seconds. But then I took the advice of one of my high school athletes who also played football, and began to incorporate more Olympic lifts.

This might be better as a separate post, but to keep this story short, what I ultimately learned at the end of this chapter is that I never should have done those lifts, especially those that involved deep squatting. After developing the worst pain I’ve ever experienced that would wake me up from deep sleep in the middle of the night with a force that sent me to the ceiling, I learned via mri that I have a birth defect in the form of a hip impingement, a fairy common thing, and this made it almost inevitable that I would injure my hip labrums. (The extremely important coach takeaway I learned from this is that we should really never have athletes do heavy lifts involving a squat without getting an x-ray of the hip joints first, something no insurance company is going to approve.)

What I am trying to explain in brief and abstract terms was a 1-year ordeal that began with the usual attempt to remedy the pain through non-invasive, but aggressive pt, led to mri’s and a diagnosis of a sports hernia (which I came to learn is likely a totally bogus diagnosis — for another post!), bouncing around a few surgeons, and ending up with what I ultimately believe was the most accurate diagnosis and set of treatment possibilities. A surgeon who works on the hips of NHL players told me he could fix the labrum tears, and that it would take two years to get back to competition. He was honest that he thought my recent athletic history made me a decent candidate, but that it would also be a brutal process. With two young children and a need to show up to work every day, I took his second option which involved 6 months of total rest (he told me to avoid even kicking a soccer ball with my kids), followed by injections and then pt.

The whole process seemed to elicit the exact response from my body that was hoped for. I have been relatively pain free ever since. However, in hind site, the 6 months off was something I would never recommend, because by the time I finished up pt, I accumulated a total of almost a year of no training. The treatment plan worked, but at the expense of the routine I had developed over the previous ten years. On a side note, that reminds me of something Chuck Shields told me shortly after I joined Greater Philadelphia Track Club, which was that the secret to staying in the game was to never stop. I knew his advice made sense at the time, but boy has that haunted me ever since.

I am always quick to remind people I coach that there is always a silver lining to every experience of injury. That is so hard to accept in the throes of a derailed training plan, or three weeks out from Penn Relays (another post), but it is as true as the sky is blue. Or as the sky is actually not blue but appears that way to our human brains, which is really all that matters. One of the myriad things I learned from the hip labrum injury is that my training was intrinsically linked that of my wife. When we first began dating, our relationship evolved partly around the idea of training and supporting each other’s training. When our first kid arrived that was just one new hurdle to overcome as we were both totally committed, almost more to supporting each other than ourselves. This worked phenomenally well, and even added to our motivation. Going out the door to a workout can always be hard, but trading off baby duty to keep that appointment with the track added to the push. “My turn!” and then a roadrunner blur out the door!

Once I felt fully on top of the original labrum injury, I honestly attempted to get back into a training routine, but too many details about my life changed over that year. The kids were another year older and their activities had increased in number and complexity. My wife was used to taking time out for her workouts but seemed to forgot that I had a right to do the same. I was a year older and new physical issues were emerging, including a fair amount of weight gain. All the details seemed to simply add up to a series of stops and starts, and three years later I am literally back at the very beginning. More or less on the proverbial couch.

Actually, I’d say I’m at about an even place as I was when I started back to running and triathlons in my late 30s. Back then I had the benefit of age, but I really was sedentary for a few years before. Today, I’m significantly older, but I’ve been walking quite a bit for the last two years, and my diet has improved steadily over the years. I feel a new motivation to get back on the wagon as a result of dropping some weight by intermittent fasting.

So here I am, starting from scratch. No one would choose this. But I am enjoying the process. Back in September I started a cross country component as part of my youth South Jersey Track & Field Club, and I have followed the slowest progression of my life leading the kids on what is basically a couch-to-5K program. A few weeks ago I could tell I crossed a threshold, and it suddenly felt comfortable to run 3 miles continuously and at the same time I comfortably dropped my pace to a reasonable place.

And of course, just as I was celebrating that achievement, I woke up one day with knee swollen like a balloon!

No big deal, right? I assumed it was just a tight quad muscle, and did the work I’ve learned is usually a quick solution, but three weeks later I was still hobbling around. But it’s downright crazy how things happen and random events and decisions line up. I attended Greater Philly’s annual Harrier’s Ball last Friday night, and met a new member who just happened to hear me telling someone else about my knee. I followed up with the new member the next day to chat about club business, and he shared a link to a phenomenal resource. It sounded a bit like snake oil, but then again, reinforced what I already knew about muscle tension and joint pain, so I spent an hour working through a series of techniques and suddenly my knee felt fine. I hadn’t been planning to run that day, but did a quick 20-minute interval workout just to see what would happen. The workout felt good, and when I woke up this morning my knee felt the best that it has in weeks!

I will wrote a separate post about the website my teammate recommended, but here’s the basic information:

Gary Crowley was trained at the Rolf Institute of Structural Integration in Boulder, Colorado, and he runs this totally free website with very simple techniques that anyone can use to receive their own joint pain.

https://www.diyjointpainrelief.com

Back to the workout and where I am today. After all this time away from the sport I love, or rather, time away from my own training and competing, I know that I need some sort of regular routine to be truly happy. Tapping back into some of the things worked back when I was getting to know my wife, I know I need a goal, and I know for me, the goal needs to be a race.

I’m writing this now and posting it publicly really just to push the envelope — my goal is to make the 50+ 4×400 team for the Penn Relays next spring. It won’t be easy, and I’m a long shot, but it’s concrete, and that is what I need.

I will blog about this process on occasion as a way to share some things about the learning. Specifically, I’m interested in exploring what it means to go back to the beginning after years of practice. I’ve been a serious competitor, and I’ve coached people of all ages. I fight the tendency, but as a coach it is very easy to forget things, especially about the earlier stages of the training/fitness process. I’m assuming there will be all sorts of insights to emerge from the next few months of work.

Questioning Success, and Why I Prefer the 400 Meters

In response to a recent email I sent to a small group of track buddies announcing a special achievement by my West runners, one friend asked, “Why do you prefer the 400?”

A simple question, but one I immediately realized deserved some thought. I banged out the following statement after a good thirty seconds of contemplation:

I’ll tell you why I favor the 400. Good genes/talent mean nothing without hard work, and hard work is wasted without heart. When a kid works really hard for a while, and then one day actually digs deep enough to find his heart, the outward expression of personal triumph is priceless. At that moment, I think the kid might be permanently changed. You just don’t see that with the 100 or 200, and for a lot of kids the 800 and 1600 are unfathomable, so the 400 is the defining milestone of accomplishment.

It is definitely not that I do not like other distances. In fact, I am not sure “prefer” is the right word in regard to my take on the 400. I am very intrigued by the 800, and the only reason it might come second to the 400 is that I only recently began running the eight myself. The truth behind my preference for the 400 is that I have simply run it so many times, beginning in junior high, that the race has worn a groove in my brain like the first lane on an old cinder track. Although I am a sprint coach, and I enjoy helping kids get faster in the 100 and 200, my passion is converting that speed to the longer races.

In addition to my bold statements about the 400 meters above, I want to focus this entry on a more significant issue: the ongoing development of boys and girls, and the ways that a focused track program can significantly contribute to the accumulation of traits that will help them become healthy adults (and you thought my comments on the 400 sounded bold!)

I just intentionally avoided the word success. I am becoming suspicious of the concept, at least in the ways I have been hearing it applied to young people. We seem to be obsessed with success, and yet, as a society we still seem to be unsure what a successful life looks like. Personally, I want for nothing in life, other than an elf to show up now and then and mow the crop of weeds I call my lawn. I know I am very successful, but I also know no one is going to point me out to a class of graduating high school students as an example of success. As a college teacher, where I was supposedly hired to “assist people in becoming more successful in the workplace” I find myself more and more perplexed by what that means. I see dozens of extremely talented and motivated young people creating success for themselves, often in ways that seem strange and misguided. We can succeed in many ways, but we know success does not necessarily make life more enjoyable. Without digressing into an entirely different subject, I will simply finish this idea by stating that I am not sure, after 43 years on Earth, exactly what it means to be successful, which is why I avoid the word when writing about the influence of athletics on young people.

So instead of success, I think in terms of health (surely a subset of some measure of success).

Of the 25 or so boy and girl sprinters I am in charge of, every single one of them made significant improvement over the 10-week season. Some also ran winter track, and experienced improvement over five months. When I first took the assistant coaching job three years ago, I was only in charge of the boys and had about 15. That year, all but one sprinter wanted to run only the 100 and 200 (some didn’t even really want to run the 200, but must have felt that they had to do more than one event). I was able to convince two or three others to run the 400 early on, and by gradually requiring all of the sprinters to be able to run multiple, moderate effort 400s in practice, had enough kids interested in the distance to run a decent novice 4×400 at the end of the season, in addition to a below-average varsity foursome.

The following season, last year, I had a good group of kids who began running the 400 the year before, and came out to spring track assuming they would continue to do so. Big step. The varsity 4×400 ran a little slower than the previous year, but decreased the average split to about 55 seconds, an improvement if compared to having one kid at 50 point and a couple well over 55. The jv team again showed the real progress by coming in fourth place at the Cherokee Novice Meet at the end of the season with a time of about 3:44.13, just three seconds slower than the varsity team’s season best of 3:41.16.

This year, it seemed that just about every boy on the team assumed he would run the 400. There were a few kids who identified as 100 meter specialists, but it was clear that a new culture was in place — one that frowned upon only running the 100 and 200, especially if one was slower than most of the distance runners on the team. Most of the jv kids had begun to understand that if they were not blessed with pure speed, they could still enjoy a sense of accomplishment (dare I say success) if they developed some endurance and ran the 400.

I am not going to claim that my 20 boy sprinters have all made this transition in their thinking, but most have, and to me that is significant. What it means is that under my influence, a group of boys have, at the very least, begun the first part of how I explained my preference for the 400. These boys have made a conscious choice to take a risk and work hard at something that previously seemed impossible. Several of them achieved the next part — during one race they dug down to a place they had never been before inside their own hearts, and as a result experienced something very rare and special.

I now have kids asking me to run the 400 on a regular basis. There were meets this season when we assembled three 4×400 teams at the same time. And at the Novice meet a week ago, the jv 4×400 team ran 3:39, better than a varsity team has run in quite a few years at West.

This culture shift, this raw example of kids getting to experience something that will help them for the rest of their lives, can only happen under the direction of dedicated, knowledgable and caring coaches within a credible athletic program. Such a program can thrive within the context of a school district that values the kind of unique experiences that I have described. It has nothing to do with the superficial aspects of sport that are usually what gets emphasized by critics and supporters of high school athletics alike. It is not about triumphantly hoisting trophies or even about learning how to respond to failure. It isn’t about physical fitness or even self confidence (trust me, a lot of the confidence exhibited by high school students is also misguided and a little scary). It definitely is not about individual success. What is truly valuable about athletics, and what should be valued by school district leaders, is that the activity allows young people to find places in their heart that they didn’t know existed, and to experience what it means to tap those places and to feel the satisfaction of knowing what it means to try as hard as possible, or even to realize true potential.

In no other sport I can think of is this concept more precise than in track and field, and in no event more poignant than the 400 meters. The depth of accomplishment I am identifying can only happen within an activity as absurd as running around a track once as fast as possible. In that context the athlete is stripped of everything but his or her own body and the fitness he or she has achieved in training. A lacrosse player can put his heart and soul into a critical moment on the field, but it just doesn’t come close to the focus, determination and decision that has to be present when the runner executes a maximum effort on the track. And perhaps the key to my distinction between running and other sports, and the value for the athlete, is the decision; the choice. I have spent a long time coming to grips myself with the reality of training, fitness and racing the 400, and I have been slow to accept what I now believe true: fitness is critical, but much less important than the simple decision to go there. To go there, to run with reckless abandon, in the face of inevitable pain and possible failure, is perhaps what will have a greater impact on a young person’s development than anything else he or she could experience in sport. The training, like education, is abstract, and really only serves the purpose of making one confident enough to make an audacious decision. The choice and decision a runner makes to lay it all on the line will leave a permanent imprint on the brain and will inspire future such decisions. And we all know that to be successful in this world we have to choose to make tough decisions to act in certain ways that we know could lead us to failure.

So maybe that is success. Having the confidence, or even the audacity, to tap our true potential. That is the 400 meters. That is track.

Four Weeks to Penn Relays – My Training Plan

After peaking for Indoor Nationals a week ago, I planned to take a week off. Usually I am good at following through with my own workout schedule, especially when it calls for not working out, but for some reason I ended up going fairly hard this past week. I think it was due to a) feeling stoked about such a fun weekend in Landover, and b) feeling more or less still in tact and injury free. Sometimes, as I am learning, listening to your body means to NOT rest (how strange after having to learn the opposite in so many hard ways).

So last week looked like this:

Monday: Rest
Tuesday: 5×300 @ 1:00 with easy 500m jog rests (Steady state sub-threshold work)
Wednesday: Rest
Thursday: 3x2x400 (400-1:00 rest-400, with 8:00 rests between sets) @ 1:20/1:20, 1:15/1:15, 1:10, 1:10.
Friday: Rest
Saturday: 6×400 @ 1:20, 1:15, 1:10, 1:05, 1:00, 1:10 with about 5-6 minute rests
Sunday: Rest

Based on the success of last week, I am now planning to go fairly hard for two more weeks, kick back a little for a week, and then fine tune with some short speed work leading up to the Wednesday before Penn (racing Saturday afternoon). This formula has worked well for me in the past. I have found that its one thing to taper before an A race, but if I go hard until the week before, I am often too beat up to feel really fresh for race day. I discovered the formula, by accident, last year. Three weeks before Penn I strained my calf muscle. I took a week off, then spent a week working back easy, and then did three race-prep workouts. It was not ideal, but I felt awesome when race day arrived. I decided to experiment by resting for a week two weeks before my next race, and I set a new pr. I do not think this would be ideal for a younger athlete, but my 43 year-old legs seem to really appreciate it.

So here is my rough plan for the next four weeks.

Week of Monday, April 1:
Monday: Sit and Kicks: 600-300-500-200-400 @ 90% with last 100m of each rep at 100%.
Thursday: Speed and power drills, 3×150 speedmakers, 3×20-40-60.
Friday: 5x3x200 with increasing speed and decreasing rest. Set times: 34,33,32,31,30. Set rests: 1:45, 1:30, 1:15, 1:00, :45.

Week of Monday, April 8:
Monday: Splits: 1×100-100-100, 1×150-150-100, 1×200-200 all at goal race pace with 1:00 rests between reps, 8:00 rests between sets.
Wednesday: 3×600 with 200m segments @ 32-40-30, with 5:00 rests.
Friday: Speed and power drills, 3×150 speedmakers, 3×20-40-60

Week of Monday, April 15:
Monday: 5x3x200 (see above), with adjustments based on progress.
Wednesday: light jog, light drills, stretch
Friday: light jog, light drills, stretch

Week of Monday, April 22 (Race Week!):
Monday: Delvin’s Race Prep: 3×100 @ 15,14,13. 2×150@22,21. 1×300@42

    Wednesday: 1×300@39 (goal race split).
    Saturday: 54.75 split in 4×400!

    One detail that is not represented in the above plan is the speed work that I do with a metronome. This is very experimental, and I have not been able to find any research to support it, but on the days when I do the 150 speedmakers, and on my final race prep days, I will begin the reps with more of a focus on turnover (cadence) than time. For example, I will do the first 150 with an acceleration to c:110 (counting one leg), then bump it up to 115 on the next, and see if I can get to 120 on the last. Using Allyson Felix as a model (why not?) as well as a lot of good high school runners, a cadence of 115 seems ideal for the 400 meters. At this time, I am not even close to maintaining that for an entire race (the video from Millrose showed that I was at 107 at the 200 and barely over 100 in the last 50!) However, I am making progress, and I truly believe it is at least partially the reason I have pr’d four times in the last year. Another workout where I incorporate this concept is the one listed above for Monday, April 1 — doing various distances at 90% with a the final 100 meters at 100%. I will switch on the metronome to 115 when I began the final 100 and try to match it. To put this into perspective, last spring, every single kid that qualified for states in South Jersey Groups 3 and 4 (larger schools) was well over 115 in his last last 100 of the 400, and the places somewhat correlated to who maintained a higher cadence — not across the board, but enough to capture this coach’s attention. At first, one might think fitness is the issue; the faster runners are more prepared and therefore have more left at the end. However, training for cadence is much different than training for endurance; a person can run all the mileage he wants and still have abysmal turnover if he doesn’t specifically work on it. Turnover, or cadence, is more about brain wiring than physical conditioning.

    So that pretty much sums up my next four weeks. Feel free to comment here or on the Greater Philadelphia TC facebook page to discuss ideas, get tips, etc.

Thoughts on Fitzgerald’s Run; The Mind-Body Method of Running By Feel

First of all, I simply want to recommend Matt Fitzgerald’s book to any serious runner. I will not attempt an actual summary or review here, but Run; The Mind-Body Method of Running By Feel is full of insightful and inspiring ideas. The title implies a more specific theme than is actually presented in the book, implying that it’s a how-to guide for throwing away the watch and training by feel. In some ways I guess it is, but there is a lot of theory to chew on as well.

I also have to begin with a sidebar that I am very freely interpreting Fitzgerald’s ideas here. I am not so much trying to explain what he writes in his book, as I am playing out some of my own thought processes as a result of reading it.

To begin, here is a workout I completed today that was inspired by my recent line of inquiry and thinking. I have been experimenting with alternating deadlifts and sprints for a few weeks, mainly as a way to make mid-winter gym/treadmill workouts more engaging, but also following the common advice to keep weight training (for speed development) at high weight/low rep followed immediately by plyometrics and speed work.

I decided to call this workout Sufferfest, to be explained later:

3xDeadlift-high knee jumps-400m-:60 rest-400m
(400s are actually 100m @ 9:00 mile pace and 300m “sprint”)
5:00 rests between sets to allow lactic acid to process.
1. 245#x3 – 10 fast high knees – 300@5:30 mile pace/:60 rest/300@5:30
2. 235#x3 – 10 fast high knees – 300@5:15/:60 rest/300@5:15
3. 225#x4 – 10 fast high knees – 300@5:00/:60/300@5:00

The first detail of this workout to point out as a direct result of reading Fitzgerald is the back-to-back 300s on short rest. The goal of the workout was to produce a distinct level of stress on the second rep, for the specific purpose of training my brain to deal with the moments of doubt at key points in a 400 or 800 meter race. With this idea in mind, it is not so much a physical stress I am working for on that second rep, but rather the mental strain — the doubt or anxiety on the surface/conscious level.

The theory:
Fitzgerald posits that elite runners all show up to a race in excellent physical shape. They all do their workouts and develop high levels of physiological fitness. However, what determines who wins is which athlete has developed a higher tolerance for suffering. One could probably argue that very often runners at inferior fitness levels win races. We might even be able to argue that brain training trumps genetics — a genetically superior athlete might have an easier time getting to the Olympic Trials, whereas a less genetically endowed athlete learns to suffer more in order to get there. Fitzgerald provides lots of historical anecdotes of upsets and other victories that have defied logic, with logic simply being too much allegiance to genetics and physiological training.

I make sense of this idea by contemplating my experiences of race days. Unless I know I am showing up to a race unprepared, due to recent injury or illness, or whatever, I am always in great shape physically. Or perhaps I should say, in plenty enough shape to run fast for somewhere between 55 and 130 seconds, depending on the race. As I venture into the 800 I am aware there are different principles at play, but in regard to the 400, I know its more about my mindset on race day than my actual fitness level. I knew this in high school and college. After I retired from racing in the middle of my Sophomore year at La Salle University (shin splints became unbearable, and no one at the time had a clue how to rehab me), I ran a leg of the 4×400 in the Greek Olympics a year later. On next to no training at all, I ran a 53 second split. My normal 400 before quitting track was about 51. How was I able to run a 53 on little fitness? I am guessing now it was because I still had the brain fitness to handle a few seconds of intense suffering.

In regard to workouts, this shift in thinking from physiological training to brain training has a serious impact. Human perception is incredibly malleable — we can choose to alter the way we “naturally” perceive reality through all sorts of techniques, or simple decision-making. For example, all runners must know they have the ability to catch themselves thinking negative thoughts about a workout, and turn those thoughts on their head, or to cease beating themselves up about an injury and start thinking about what the injury is teaching them. By shifting your focus to brain training, the whole purpose, and then experience of a workout changes dramatically. The above workout is a good example.

If my focus is physical fitness, when I experience moments of intense suffering I tend to doubt myself, or at least have to wrestle with my self over continuing to push. However, in the same workout, if I am focused on brain training, when the same moments of suffering arrive I know that I am now achieving the goal of the workout. It is not something to push aside or tune out. Quite the opposite — it is something to absorb, process, maybe even relish. It is the purpose of the workout, to make my brain more used to the feeling so I am less likely to hesitate in a race.

Part of what is happening in the brain training context of a hard workout is the brain is accepting the idea that you are not going to die right away. Fitzgerald provides some excellent descriptions of how the human brain, through self-preservation mechanisms, begins to tell the muscles to stop working so hard well before the reality of death arrives. If it did not do this, we could exercise ourselves to death. However, the buffer zone of a normal, (mortal?) human brain is exaggerated; larger than necessary. All good competitive runners essentially have decreased the buffer zone by training and racing, but really good runners simply train their brains to push just a little closer to death before shutting down the machine. It is such a simple idea, and at first the idea of training the brain on the track may seem daunting, but it too is simple. My sense is that it really is just about shifting the focus of your running, or rather, shifting your focus on your training. You can apply this shift to an existing workout – just think about your goal differently. From there, you will very likely begin designing workouts differently.

A final thought: it is probably a good idea to only engage in serious sufferfests once a week or less. If you think about it, there are two types of burnout. Physical burnout comes from too much mileage. Mental burnout comes from over-taxing the cognitive brain. Trying to wrap your head around too many very hard, intense workouts will cause your brain to rebel. Developing brain synapses to support intense physical activity is a physiological process, but in order to do it you have to subject yourself to mental (cognitive) stress. All of us achieve physical burnout from time to time, and the symptoms are mostly getting sick and straining muscles. We recover from physical burnout (overtraining) relatively quickly. The burnout that causes a college athlete with crazy potential to quit running for 20 years is mental. It takes longer to induce, and much longer to recover. If your general motivation is waning, my bet is you are doing too many mentally challenging workouts.

If you shift your focus to brain training, you are probably much less likely to develop mental burnout, because instead of trying to tune out the suffering, you are seeking it, and therefore acutely aware when you are achieving it. By planning workouts with a purpose of brain training, you will be less likely to engage in it by mistake, or mindlessly. One very interesting effect of this on me is that I now am completely grounded in my easier days. I am now completely freed up, mentally, to run 5 miles as slow as I feel like, without thinking I am somehow not progressing or accomplishing something. Quite the opposite. With planned brain training workouts, I recognize the easier runs and workouts are essential pieces of my program.

That is a serious perception shift.

15 Degrees, Feels like 3

After a solid week of down time recovering from the flu, I made my first run to work on Tuesday, in the 1/2″ of snow that blanketed the entire region on Monday night. I didn’t even check the temperature; just thrilled to be back on foot and not feeling like I was going to die.

Today, however, I checked the temperature after what felt like the coldest run of my life! I took the old river route from 16th and Locust, but cut back east before the Art Museum because my fingers were burning in a downright scary way. A brisk 25-minute run and I barely broke a sweat. As cold as it was (15 degrees, felt like 3), I was still psyched to be back, and the overriding thought during the run, and more after, as my brain thawed, was this frigid spell makes for the perfect launch of my new run-to-work semester/phase. I had set a goal of running to work every day this semester, but only managed to do so on the first day before succumbing to the flu. But now I realize it was much too warm last week — the unseasonably warm winter weather we have had so far this winter has been great for track workouts, but this 20-degree week makes me feel a whole lot more grounded in the season.

The cold weather has presented a new logistical adjustment to my run-to-work program. All last semester I would just walk between buildings without a coat, but this semester I teach two classes at a building at the far corner of campus, about a 5-minute walk, and, as previously mentioned, it is freakin’ cold out. Now a hoodie has been added to the already cramped quarters of my tiny locker.

Now begins the work to get back to peak shape after the break. I am planning to run an 800 at the Armory on February 7, with a goal of 2:10. I originally planned to take most of last week off, so nothing like good timing, but being sick was not exactly the idea. But better to get sick during a planned rest week than a peak — way less frustrating.

The rest week two weeks before a big race is something I have sort of fallen into as a result of previous “set backs.” A few times now, when I thought I was building up and peaking for a big race, I ended up getting mildly injured. I would freak out, get depressed, accept the situation and then plot out my recovery (I believe these are the official stages of runner injury), and then, contrary to all the angst-filled thoughts, I would end up running a great race, if not a new pr. This is a great example of the trial and error process that mindful runners experience all the time. There is a great body of research, evidence and knowledge on how to train effectively, but ultimately we all need to figure it (the specific adjustments and applications) on our own. Sometimes mistakes or injuries lead to the the deepest insights. Lately I have been building a planned rest week (hopefully in lieu of an actual injury) because it is how I end up feeling fresh and in peak shape for a big race.

What’s a Second Worth?

Time gets measured in all sorts of ways. As a runner, I spend a lot of time thinking about the number of minutes and seconds it takes to run between two points, or in circles. As a master’s athlete, I rarely compare my times to those of others. I learned long ago there are always plenty of people who are much faster. Master’s athletes tend to compare themselves to themselves. The personal record is the measure of success or failure, and I spend an absurd amount of time comparing my current self to one that ran a 57-second 400 meters two years ago, or the one that ran a 19:43 5k last fall. At the age of forty-two I am quite lucky to still be chipping away at my times, but this probably has more to do with my late, and recent return to running. Then again, this is the heart of competitive running as an adult; as the aging process is painfully evident on multiple levels, intense, consistent training keeps some of the more insidious effects at bay, and as we age, we can also figure out ways to actually improve physically. Its no fountain of youth, but probably the closest thing to it.

In regard to measuring time, I have been looking at a number for the last few weeks that should be inspiring, but instead has me contemplating what it is all really about, this running. Over the last three years (three years and two months to be exact) I have dropped my 400 meter time from 58.8 to 55.7, a difference of 3.1 seconds. At 58.8 I was covering the track at 6.80 meters per second. At 57.7 that increased to 7.18 meters per second. That means I beat myself by about 22 meters. In a way, I like the sound of that, or better, the image. If the younger me was losing to the older me by that much in an actual race, I would really wish I was as fast as the older me. In fact, in the last 50 meters, I would be dying to be that guy, quite literally.

But a more sober way of looking at the numbers is that I never actually raced my slower self, literally or figuratively. I have enjoyed new prs a few times over the last two years. I believe I improved on the 58.8 by running a 58.2 a month later, then a 57.2 a few months after that in March, then a 56.8 in May, then 56.2 almost a year later, a 55.9 a few months after that, and finally a 55.7 a few weeks ago. In almost every pr race, I was beating my younger self by less than a second, or less then three strides.

This line of thinking leads me to ask myself what it is all about? What is a second worth? I have trained so hard over the last three years, and made countless sacrifices. In order to spend time on the track, other things have to go unattended. I make my wife and children my ultimate priority, so that pretty much leaves work to take the hit, or the home renovation started two years ago. I know I could accomplish much more in my work life, but I choose to run instead. If I didn’t run so much I could finish that damn bathroom tile . . .

So what is a second worth? In monetary terms, I would have to admit its worth about $10,000 dollars, as I know that is what I could fairly easily add to my annual income by working a side job or business. I gave up being a running technique instructor when I started training more seriously, and that was a fairly simple way to make that kind of cash. In time terms, a second is worth about 250 hours, as that is about what I figure I devote in a given year to running. I put a lot of focus on efficiency, so I probably spend less time training than the average athlete. If I combine those two numbers it comes out to $40 per hour, so that is probably fairly accurate.

But money and time do nothing to help me figure this out. Perhaps the value of a second is much, much more subtle. I am in better health. If I have a preexisting heart condition, or high genetic disposition for heart disease, being in better health means just about nothing, but if that is not the case, then I have significantly increased my life expectancy. With two very young children, this is huge. I would love to live long enough to see my own children grow into full-fledged adults, which, given societal evolution, means at least age 25-30, requiring me to live to 70 or so. Check.

But I could be in good health without killing myself over those seconds. Or maybe not. I simply would not currently be at my college weight if I were only running 5ks and marathons. The motivation that has come from toeing the line on a track and pushing myself to run 400 meters is what has led to really monitoring my diet. Being at the level of fitness I am enjoying right now actually makes me feel a little sad and concerned for the average citizen. Its not an ego thing, but rather a compassionate feeling for others, knowing that most people simply will not ever do what I do, and that if I didn’t go to the lengths I do to race I would be overweight and basically aging at a faster rate. This sport is not for everyone. Its a small minority of weirdos that compete in master’s track and field. Yes, there are other forms of intense physical activity, and the small minorities of people who engage in them can relate to what I am saying, and the majority of people simply will not put themselves through the type of exercise that leads to optimal fitness. I cannot even say I am optimally fit, or even close to the kind of physical condition that was enjoyed by most humans a thousand years ago. We simply have no idea just how sedentary we have become until we engage in a serious, consistent, high level training regimen, and then realize it is still just a drop in the bucket compared to early humans. If you think about it, going to the gym for an hour and a half every day is great, but what do you do during the other 22 1/2 hours? Early humans were likely moving all day long. And who actually goes to the gym every day? I don’t.

The health issue is awesome, and helps me grapple with the value of a second, but I am still not there yet.

The value of a second is a fleeting, thin, yet powerful experience of my authentic self. It is a soft glow, emitted by the slow burn of satisfaction after a good race. Running, or more specifically racing, provides the exact type of experience that Kierkegaard and Sartre describe in their existentialist philosophies. Racing provides a “pattern of directly confronting fear” that is consistent with the ideal of existentialism, which is to continually face life’s challenges in order to become the person you want to be, your authentic self (Fitzgerald, Matt, Run: The Mind-Body Method of Running By Feel). The challenge and fear of trying to run a pr is raw (not necessarily pure), and takes the athlete to rare and special realm of human experience. The pr is a reality, a concrete measurement and comparison, a clear indicator of success, and with every attempt, failure is a clear and present danger.

But its not even the pr, necessarily. Once I ran a good race, heard my time, a new pr, announced over a loud speaker, and then found out that the official time was a half second slower. Later that same day, the first time was posted as my official time. Official is official, so I ran a new pr, but the confusion completely robbed me of the experience I described above. Yesterday I ran a pr in the 800 meters (by five seconds), and I new it the moment I crossed the finish line. The resulting experience kicked in immediately and seemed to simmer longer than usual. I don’t think it was really the time, but rather the fact that it was the first 800 that I really raced. The pr was a given, waiting there, if I would just run the damn race the way its meant to be run.

The clock is just a tool that allows an easy, mindless way of competing against ourselves. If the clock says I ran a pr, I don’t need to think about what I did in the actual race. Was it a good race? Was it really what I am capable of today? Did I do something different or creative? This last question is the important one we might rob ourselves of when the clock takes away the thinking. The experience of authenticity I described above does not require a clock or a time, but it certainly must facilitate having the experience more often. It would be more challenging, and likely less frequent, if the experience always required a deep focus and mindfulness of the event. But then again, if we threw away the clocks and watches, maybe it would force us to make deeper connections to why we run. Its a fun thought, but I am not about to throw away my clock, because I really get off on prs!

Another Milestone

In August of 2008 I ran my first 5K as an adult in 22:15. Yesterday, more than four years later, I broke 20:00 for the first time, and finished in 19:43. I realize this is not a very competitive time, but it does push me just above the 70th percentile for my age grade, and as a confirmed sprinter I will take it as a good sign of progress. At the same race last year I ran a PR in 21:22.

Maggie and I discussed our results while walking home from the race. She ran 21:53, not a PR, but also not bad for five months after delivering our second child. I asked her if she ever imagined a few years ago that she would be running so fast, and she responded with, “I never thought I would care enough to run that fast.” I could not agree more with her statement. Both of us have become more focused on the 5K recently, and until this fall I really didn’t think I would ever want to train specifically for the distance with any seriousness. With that in mind, I am even more satisfied with my new PR, as I know I am not done improving, and I feel like I can keep the 5K on a shelf and return to it when I choose over the remainder of my running years.

So how did I drop 1:39 in twelve months? I believe the process began in the late spring when I began extending my speed endurance in workouts designed to help me bridge the gap from 400 to 800 meters. I knew I wanted to start focusing on the 800 this year, without completely abandoning the 400, and I knew this would require getting back to logging road miles, but I decided to hold off on the mileage until the summer track season ended. Instead, I just kept adding longer intervals and shorter rest to my track workouts. By the end of summer I was running a fairly comfortable 2:20 800; not event close to my goal of 2:05, but progress.

The next phase would begin in the fall after a a few weeks of rest. I decided to take my own advice and join the cross country team to start logging mileage, but I really was only thinking about the 800, not actually improving much in the 5K. Then the run to work experiment began, and by my first race of the fall I could tell I had a stronger base endurance than I have in years.

In a nutshell, the 1:39 fell away by running a lot of raid miles, with a couple 40-mile weeks, while still doing speed drills and track workouts about once a week. The road miles helped me drop about 10 pounds, and get my body fat down under 10%.

Hopefully the PRs will keep coming with the start of indoor track a few weeks away. I have been staying injury-free, so my only training interuptions have been intential rest periods. As a result of my good fortune and recent 5K times, I no longer have any idea what my new 400m goal is for the season! Last summer I was looking to run 55.0 this winter, but now I think I might see something a little lower. And I am holding off on a specific 800 goal for now.

Transition

With the first indoor track meet scheduled for December 27 at the Armory, NYC, I began making the transition from cross-country to sprinting a couple of weeks ago.  Instead of logging 40-mile weeks running back and forth to work, I began taking the train to 8th and Market and only running about 4 or 5 miles per day.  The first thing I noticed was how incredibly relaxing these commuting runs had become.  Compared to when I began the experiment in September, I can move at a comfortable pace and barely increase my breathing.  I also feel like I can control my exertion more, and if I choose to run a little faster I am completely in tune with the effort.  The distances getting back and forth from work are short enough that it feels like very little work, but long enough that I feel very refreshed and energized.  This makes me want to experiment with distance to see what creates the best sense of balance — no matter what, the work week takes its toll, so simply running further and further is not necessarily optimal for an overall sense of balance.

Along with cutting back on mileage, I have begun to do more track workouts.  We are developing a good core group of runners at the GPTC South Jersey satellite, so more and more of these track workouts are becoming more consistently high quality.  Nothing compares to having a group to run with on the track.  We inevitably end up going just a little harder and or faster than planned.  That can be a problem if it gets out of control, but usually its a good thing.

I can tell I am lighter, stronger, and maybe faster as a result of the road work.  It’s important to note that I never stopped doing speed work.  Slow road miles might have a negative impact on speed if that is all one does for an extended time (I am not convinced this is true), so I made sure to do somewhat regular sessions on the track, keeping up the drills and short bursts of speed.  The other night, four of us did a ladder workout of 3×300-200-100 and my third 300 was 46 seconds.  Not blazing fast, but a little surprising at this point in the cycle.  It was a hard effort, but I know I run much faster.  Today seven of us did 3x2x300 Russian Intervals with a 100m jog between reps and a 500m jog between sets.  We began at a warmup pace, hitting the first 300 in 62, and finished with a 43.  That was a confidence booster.  Again, the last rep was a hard effort, but it was our sixth and on relatively short rest.

It was ironic that I almost fell off the leader’s shoulder on the last rep.  Cayhun went out fast and hard so I had to make back a little distance on him in the first 50.  Then, on the curve, he took it up another notch and there was a brief moment when I almost let him go, but quickly buried the thought and with a couple of good strides got right back on shoulder.  I say this was ironic because I had just been saying to Bruce that I have been really preoccupied lately with that exact moment of a 400 race.  A month before the first meet, and I am obsessing over the small details, and a few days ago got stuck on thinking about that critical moment when I too often back off.  It usually happens at only about 50 or 75 meters, and I second guess my speed, and that quickly throw a race away.  If I learned anything from all the races I ran in high school it is that that moment is when I have to bear down and, if anything, crank it up a notch the way Cayhun did today.  If its going to be a new pr, I have just run the whole race “balls out.”
Running an all out 400 on the December 27th will be scary, but I keep telling myself to really see what all my work these last several months amounts to.  I am back at college weight, and my body fat is at 9%.  I feel like a lean, mean, racing machine.  It would be so pathetic to let fear keep me from testing this revamped machine!

Run to Work Experiment – Week 6 Review

On September 21 I began running back and forth to work as part of my daily commute.  Being honest with myself, and having accumulated a lifetime of failed endeavors, I began this experiment with an open mind.  I know from too much personal experience that no matter how good an idea seems at the start, I might abandon it at any time.  Although many consider it a myth, I told myself if I at least tried to do this for 21 days then it might become a habit.  Now that over six weeks have passed, here is a review.

Without trying to sound overly evangelical, I am, well, ecstatic.  The experiment has been a massive success, I have gained insights, on both my running and life in general, that I could not have imagined in advance, and the icing on the cake is I have experienced a bit of a miracle, or at least a piece of magic.

First, the miracle.  My traditional commute consisted of walking or driving to the Patco station (.65 miles), taking the train to 12th/13th and Locust, and then walking to Community College of Philadelphia at 17th and Spring Garden (a little over 1 mile).  The one-way commute took me about an hour on average, and included a 20-minute brisk walk. My new commute consists of running from my house to the station, then getting off at various stops, and running various distances to work.  Sometimes I take the train to the last stop at 16th and Locust, and run out to the Schuylkill Banks Trail, then up around the Art Museum before heading back to 17th and Spring Garden.  Other times I get off in Camden and run over the Ben Franklin Bridge.  I have also run all the way from work to home a couple of times (8.5 miles).  To explain the miracle, or magic trick, most easily, I will break down a 40-mile week.

First, I have to mention, 40 miles may not be worth much bragging, but for a sprinter who has not logged significant road miles since giving up triathlons about four years ago, it is a really big deal.

To complete a 40-mile week, I run from home to the station (again, .65 miles) and then run from Camden City Hall to CCP (3.5 miles).  A few hours later I run back on the same route.  It takes me about 50 minutes to go one way, including waiting for and riding the train — total travel time from point A to B.  Traditional commute: 1 hour.  Running commute: 50 minutes.  This means I am logging over 40 miles and not using any free time to do it.  Technically, I am actually saving about 50 minutes of free time by running.  For a married guy with a 3-year-old son and a 5-month-old daughter, this is truly groundbreaking.  My running career is significantly enhanced by having a wife that also runs, and together we work very hard to help each other get our workouts in, but it is still a challenge to find the time.  Instead of trying to “find the time” I have managed to simply convert time, from just commuting, to commuting and logging serious miles.

Now I ask, how many people say they would exercise more if they could just find the time?

So that is my run to work miracle, and I truly feel like I am somehow cheating the universe.  As I run across the Ben Franklin Bridge on particularly windy days I hope the universe doesn’t try to get me back by sending me over the railing!

Now I will explain some of the insights.

I told myself at the outset of this experiment to run easy.  Back in the summer I decided to follow the advice I give many of my high school track athletes and joined the GPTC cross country team.  I previously had decided to make an honest effort at the 800 meters this year, and everything I have read implies that I need to start logging some mileage off the track.  Even though I tend to agree with the philosophies that promote training at a fast pace, with my limited distance experience I decided it might be healthier to just do the miles.  I am also a huge proponent avoiding injury, and Gradual Progress (see I Ching, the Chinese book of change) is an ingrained part of my running practice, so taking it easy, at least at first, seemed to make sense.

On most of my commute runs, I just begin at an easy warm up pace, and then allow myself to settle into whatever feels comfortable at that time.  Some days I end up running quite fast, and other days I just bob along at a jog.  More important, I am regularly reminding myself that I am simply commuting; I am running as a form of nothing more than transportation.  This meditation has an interesting effect, as I can immediately sense that feel more centered, and then I relax, and sometimes I even go faster.  I run in a way that I compare to hiking in the woods; swiftly enough to enjoy the activity, and maybe break a little sweat, but not so fast that the activity takes my focus from the bigger experience of simply being on a trail in the woods (or a city street).  (I often stop running to take photographs.  I know, any serious runner can just stop reading now!)

The biggest insight to come from running with this kind of mindset is that I enjoy road running more than I ever have at any time in my life, AND I am increasing my endurance and speed more rapidly than when I have made either one my focus of running.  Oh, that sounds so quaint and hippy-like you might say, but I have also dropped my 5k pr by over one minute since beginning the experiment, and I am expecting to break 20 minutes for the first time in my life later this month.

Another insight is that I am more relaxed and focused at work than I have ever been, and I am enjoying my time on the train more than ever.  I arrive at work with about 20 or 30 minutes to shower, change, and get a cup of coffee before my first class.  I exchange my super minimal running shoes for a pair of super minimal dress shoes, and I float across campus in the state of mind that I used to only feel in my own living room after a good run.  I have a lot of students that can really push my patience in various ways, and somehow they just don’t bother me all that much any more, at least not early in my work day.

I used to get on the train in the afternoon to come home and collapse into a seat, too tired to do anything useful.  I would often play solitaire on my phone, and by the time I arrived at my station had sunken into an afternoon semi coma.  For some reason, the brisk walk to the station did not counteract this tendency.  As much as I enjoy walking, it never leaves me very revived.  Now, when I get the station after a run, I open up my iPad and return to whatever book I am reading.  Since September 21st when this experiment started, I have finished Born to Run (only took two years), and read Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run (awesome by the way), Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of the Universe, and Alberto Salazar’s autobiography, Fourteen Minutes.  I consider myself as much of a reader as I do a distance runner — always have the best intentions and wishes, rarely follow through.  I never make New Year’s resolutions, but last year I said I wanted to read one book a month for all of 2012.  By September I had read a few more pages of Born to Run (began in 2011) and a few chapters of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume I.  Pathetic.  But now I understand that when my brain felt like mush a lot of the time, reading was the last thing I wanted to do.  Running back and forth to work has somehow made my brain less mushy.

If you would like to learn more about running to work, check out some of my earlier posts.  There are a few logistical considerations, but also with a little creativity I think a lot of people could give it a shot.  Having a locker room and showers at your place of employment is amazing, but if you live in the city, there might be a reasonably priced gym within walking distance of your work.  I also recommend a running-specific back pack.

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie

“If you give a mouse a cookie, he will ask you for a glass of milk.” And so begins the children’s book by Laura Numeroff. Like all children’s books, this one is more about human nature, as a lesson for kids, than it is about mice or cookies. Today I was running down Fairmount Avenue shortly after leaving work, thinking about the food I eat, and a conversation I had with one of my former high school runners-turned track club teammates, John Vu. John graduated from Cherry Hill West, where I am an assistant track coach, last spring. He is now running cross country (for the first time) at Camden County College, and is also a member of Greater Philadelphia Track Club with me. He asked if we could meet last night for a run, and I convinced him to do a track workout. It turned out that was exactly what he needed, as he has been feeling burned out from the heavy, high-intensity mileage he has been doing, and wanted some guidance from me.

We talked about a lot of things while we ran 8×400 @ 1:30 with 2-3 minute 400m jog rests. We talked about what it does to you when you train full tilt every day without breaks, we talked about getting enough sleep, etc. But at some point, we ended up on the subject of food. I think he said something about how he eats a lot of fast food, but that doesn’t matter since he is running so much. I almost stopped running in the middle of the rep we were on. He said his coach has told him not to worry about what he eats, since he doesn’t have to worry about gaining weight. She has also told him to eat about 4000 calories a day. I would guess 4000 calories is about right, but it horrified me to think of eating 4000 empty, fast food calories.

I tried to explain that how we fuel our bodies is an essential part of our success, and that if he is feeling burned out he needs to first make sure he is getting eight hours of sleep each night, and second make sure he is eating nutritious high calorie foods.

As I ran through this conversation in my mind today, I thought about how I have actually gotten to a point where just about everything that passes my lips is highly nutritious. I still drink too much diet soda, and I am still working on getting the right ratios of nutrients into my system, but in general, my diet has improved immensely over the last few years. Why?

Simply by becoming a runner I think I began to make a lot of changes. Actually, it was when I was doing some heavy triathlon training that I established a common routine of cooking lean meats, whole grains, like rice and quinoa, and nutrient rich vegetables like collards, kale, spinach and broccoli rabe. But for a while I still ate crappy food out quite a bit, like cheesesteaks and pizza. Okay, I still eat a fair amount of pizza, but that is probably the worst thing I eat, and my portions have shrunk from absurd to maybe just a little more than normal.

But today a typical day’s menu looks like this:

Breakfast:
Homemade cereal:
Rolled and steel cut oats, soaked/fermented
Hemp seeds
Ground flax seed
Walnuts or almonds
Sunflower seeds
Chia seeds
Wheat bran
Yogurt
Frozen berries
Cinnamon
Skim milk
(600-700 calories)

Lunch:
Smoothie:
Skim milk
Frozen fruit
Banana
Yogurt
Kale
Nutritional yeast
Spirulina
(400-500 calories)

Dinner
Grilled, broiled or sautéed fish
Sautéed greens with garlic
Potatoes, rice, or quinoa
Spinach, mixed green or romaine salad
(600-700 calories)

Snacks
Popcorn with sea salt, 3-6-9 blend oil, nutritional yeast
Handfuls of raisins, dates, dried apricots, nuts
Fresh fruit
Carrots
Multi-grain pretzels
(300-400 calories)

If I could get John, the 18-year-old college runner to get eight hours of sleep and eat a diet like that I think he would be unstoppable. His coach recognizes his talent. As a first-year distance runner (ran 400m and under until half way though spring track of his senior year) he is running 8Ks at just over 30 minutes. Before he graduated he decided to “try” the 800 meters and ran 2:08 in his third or fourth race. This is on a typical teen-ager’s sleep regimen and fast-food diet!

I referred to the mouse and cookie, because I believe that like a lot of things, a simple turn of one’s attention, or a refocus can lead to eventual great change, but it usually happens slowly. I never decided to eat healthy. Actually, I tried that over the years and failed. Instead, what actually worked was simply turning my attention to a better way. If you give a mouse a cookie, he will ask you for a glass of milk. If you eat a healthy meal, you will want another.