Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sympathy for our devils

I am not a foodie.
I like your fancy foods as well as anyone, but dropping a car payment on a meal is not my cup of tea, or $20 sniffer of brandy. I can't afford it.
Food's never really been a big part of my life.
Then why, oh why, do I have more and more days when I can't stop thinking about it?
Sunday night I got home from my weekly night shift and almost had to put a lock on the fridge to prevent me from eating a plate of nachos, ice cream and cookies.
It's an ever-increasing battle. I want to eat more than I burn off.
I shake my head at what I ate in college. I used to consume small pizzas for dinner, boxed pasta for lunch and maybe some breakfast. Fruits and vegetables weren't really a priority. Yet my weight stayed the same.
I was lucky, and I really didn't realize how lucky I was until I hit my early 30s. I remember trying on a pair of Dockers one day (because that's how I roll beeotch) and having trouble snapping the button.
It would be insulting to those who battle their weight to say that I battled it as well. But even as my diet had evolved over time, including servings of fruits and, yes, even veggies with every meal, that was the first time I realized that how much I ate actually could affect what I weighed.
Fortunately, that summer, I started running, and my college weight, about 180 pounds, returned to me with little effort.
Only now I'm almost 40. Almost! And now that I'm a fairly serious runner, trying to set PRs, I'm as restrictive in my intake as I've ever been in my life.
And it's shed some light on our obesity problem. There is a general consensus that 75 percent of us will be overweight in the next 20 years. That's three-fourths of the population. That's pretty slovenly. If this were the old days, the Vikings could work us over pretty well because I doubt most of us could get off the couch to fight.
But this is not the old days, and that's precisely the problem. Here's my ultra-amazing-scientific discovery  thanks to my own diet: It's HARD not to be fat.
As a country, we work pretty hard. Most of the day. Sometimes more. Many of us adults have offspring, too. We struggle with this, and we don't even have a commute.
That means you either need to study, learn and read how to prepare quick, easy and healthy meals or spend whatever free time you can muster on cooking said meals.
Is that all? That's not all. Temptation is around every corner.
Seriously, sometimes I feel like a heroin addict with easy access to clean needles and a cheap high on every corner. When you're trying to watch what you eat, that's exactly what fast food restaurants look like. And our grocery stores are full - stuffed, if you can excuse the pun - of high-fat, high-salt crap.
There are whole AISLES dedicated to calories, and all of it looks pretty good.
If you do have offspring, as we do, said offspring likes to have cookies and candy and sweets around the house. Yes, you can limit what they eat - and we do, pretty strictly, I think, to the point where the kids consider frozen blueberries and yogurt a treat - but you're probably not in the business of completely taking sugar out of your kids' lives. I STILL remember the resentment I felt because my parents would not let me have sugar cereal, and even today, I have trouble not putting Fruity Pebbles in my cart because of that.
And our society seems to believe in having food around at all times. How many snacks and sweets are just....around at your work? Or has vending machines? Even a cup of coffee can be full of calories.
I can't imagine being on a diet with all that temptation floating around. Those who actually do lose weight must have the willpower of Ghandi.
Is that all? Well, no, of course not. Most of us spend all day at our desks. I do. That's not gonna help you shed pounds. So exercise is the thing. And, yeah, as many of you know, I've got that down.
Yes, I do, but I run 35-50 miles a week, some of it pretty fast, and spend a couple hours a week lifting. And I still have to watch my diet. So is the 20 minutes many spend on the Stairmaster really enough? Well, it's definitely better than nothing, but not really. And most of us do nothing, mostly because we don't know how to get started, and when we do get started, we generally overdo it, find out it hurts and stop.
There are solutions to all of these problems. I know that. I'm proof of that actually. But it's not only a struggle just to get started on them, it's a constant, evolving struggle. Let's say, for instance, I get hurt. I've been really lucky. I haven't been hurt in my five years of running. But it's probably inevitable at some point. When I do, will I exercise as hard if I have to give up running for six months? No. No way.
I used to look at fat people with a mild form of disgust. I could never understand why someone would do that to themselves. But I've since become a parent, become older and struggled with my own diet.
I'm not fighting the same fight as many of you. But I am fighting it. And it's harder than it should be.
I wound up having some of that ice cream Sunday night. I couldn't fight the temptation.
But I punished myself the next day with a hard tempo run. And then I thanked my own fortune that I had the opportunity to do it.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Denver Half Marathon

The time just sang in my head. 1:41. It was like the gold that drove men to chase metal in the mountains.
I had my eyes set on a PR, and not just any PR, but a personal best of almost four minutes.
It was, of course, very aggressive, and probably not within my reach. But I didn't care. I was going to go for it.
The plan, Sunday, was to hang with my training partner as long as I could. It's something I've worked on this year in my race. It's OK to let people pull you. Someone as fiercely independent as me always believed that I should rely on my own fire rather than let someone else stoke it for me. But that's not only stubborn, it's a little foolish. The best runners pace off others. Going at it alone, in fact, is considered foolish until the end.
OK, but I knew it was going to be tough, if not almost impossible. I'd had a tough year. Even though I'd done many races, including a marathon, the Pikes Peak Ascent and the recent trail half, none of them seemed to go particularly well. I had cramps in the marathon, nausea in the ascent and wilting heat in the trail half marathon.
A PR is like fool's gold. All courses are different, and I was getting too wrapped up in times this year. So I decided to enjoy this one. But enjoyment, for me, is going after a goal and attacking it. Maybe that's a little sick of me. It's probably more than a little sad.
It's also who I am.
• • •
We got in the elevator to head down to the starting line from the hotel and were joined by a mother and what looked like her two older daughters. I was struck by the different cultures that exist even in the running world.
They had on sweats and jackets. We had on shorts and a tank top with arm warmers and a light pair of gloves.
The message was obvious. They were hoping to finish. We were hoping for a PR. They were hoping for a good time. We were hoping for a good time. They're probably happier people, I said to my partners.
We slipped into the second wave (out of many) and waited.
I love those last few minutes before a race. Runners bounce up and down like kangaroos. They stretch. They shake their hands. They snuggle up against each other against the chill, and no one files a sexual discrimination suit. They listen to music. They hug good luck and give strangers fist bumps. And then the Star Spangled Banner starts.
You don't really realize what a beautiful anthem we have until you hear it moments before you are preparing yourself for pain and suffering and fun all at once. I always remind myself how fortunate I am to be there during this time, and that's meaningful on so many different levels. And then, almost right away, the gun goes off and the stampede starts.
I was worried about the 1,000 people ahead of me, but they moved forward quickly. I'm not an elite runner, not really, but I am fairly fast, and it's amazing to me to see so many people moving as quickly as me in a long race. It's heartening, actually, and a good balance to the constant, depressing news about our obesity rates. There are SOME people who still care about their bodies, I thought to myself, and wished all the other fellow runners behind me good luck for they were there, too, even if they were not as fast, and hoped the ones kicking my butt already wished the same for me.
The race went fine. It was a good day and I was moving quickly without much effort. The temperature, probably 40 at the start, helped a ton, as I would not have to stress about drinking a lot of fluid. I still haven't really got that, and if that sounds stupid, run for a mile at a fairly hard pace, then grab a cup of Gatorade, keep running and try to drink it.
The trouble - there's always trouble, isn't there - came at mile 4 or 5, when we crested a big hill. The hills came like paper cuts, and by the time that big hill hit, I was bleeding oxygen and unable to catch my breath. I can handle that for a while, even all 6 miles of a 10K, but I thought to myself that I still had 7 or 8 miles to go. And that's when I made the painful decision to let them go.
It was tough, but I knew it was a stretch, and honestly, I don't know if I'm a 1:41 runner. Not yet. I may never get there, and that's OK if not. I have improved every year.
Still, these are thoughts that don't come to you when you're in the heat of a run. I was discouraged, and any sense of discouragement is deadly when you're trying to run hard because all your body wants to do is quit.
Still, I looked at my watch and this time, the tough part of me won the mental battle against the Troll and told me to relax, settle down, have fun and, oh, by the way, YOU CAN STILL PR.
Oh. That's right. I wasn't dead or even bonking from the aggressive pace. I was just out of breath. It was a cool day, with a great atmosphere, and I had friends along the course all day.
So I looked for someone else to pace off. I traded positions with a couple people all day, but they didn't seem right. The metal in my head helped, but I still needed some motivation. I found it on the back of a T-shirt on the back of a 20-something guy.
"You'd better dig deep because you're falling behind," the T-shirt said.
I battled waves of nausea - I almost puked twice - and the occasional cramp as I pushed on, but they always were just waves, not tide pools (huh?), and I kept the T-shirt in my sights.
I passed him at mile 12.
Still, I knew it would be close after I plodded up a mile-long hill. I was proud not to have to walk this year, but a hill a mile long is always a killer when you are close to red-lining it anyway.
I was needing a fast, last mile, and I didn't know if I had it in me. I inched up to a 7:30 pace, a half-minute past my normal pace of 8-min miles, and hoped for the downhill to take me.
That's when I saw three of my good running friends, friends who are way faster than me, heading up the hill.
And I knew, when they settled by my side, that I was going to be carried to the finish.
It's unreal how much that helps, and my pace crept up to 7 minutes per mile and beyond. I was flying, and I felt OK. I was ready for the finish.
The last tenth of a mile is always the easiest and the hardest in a race, and it was almost as if the racing Gods were screwing with me, as the course was a bit long. Still, I sprinted in at the end and crossed the line a minute ahead of my best time.
That's 1:44:32, or a 7:59 pace, if you're scoring at home.
It's a good finish - 600th or so out of 9,000 runners - but it's nothing to brag too much about. Some of my friends are now invited to elite races. My running partners finished in the teens in their age groups. I was 87th out of about 600.
But this was my race, my good race, and the feeling you get from it, the good feeling, is overwhelming the soreness I'm feeling today.
Well, now it is, anyway. The aches, I'm afraid, may start winning here tonight.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Beta Challenged

We didn't go for the tropicals, the ones with the sharp fins and the striped bodies in three or four colors. Or the fish in Finding Nemo's tank. Or even the goldfish.
Those fish, we were told, required care. Salted water. Fancy food. Perfect temperatures. They were sensitive. They were not for the fish challenged.
We needed a beta, we were told.
Betas were easy, we were told. They could survive in all conditions. Sure, you could only have one in a tank, which was a bummer, but our tank was more of a trailer than a home anyway. It wasn't made for a school. It was made to be on top of my son's dresser so he could gaze lovingly into it and see the wonder of life.
And so we got a beta. And, yeah, he was pretty easy. Jayden named him Nemo, which, I thought, was pretty appropriate. Nemo was red. He was kind of pretty actually and pretty easy-going too (probably, truth be told, the most mellow in our family).
After about a year, he was looking a little gray. Well, the sad truth is, the life of a fish, while exciting, vivacious and thrilling, is not long. Fish believe it's better to burn out than fade away, and Nemo, sadly, faded away for good.
Jayden was sad. Then he asked if he could get another fish. Well, sure, we said. After all, by this time, we were fish experts. We kept a beta alive for a year! We were great fish parents!
Now we were cocky as all get out.
So we got another beta.
And he died in a month.
Oops. OK. Well that didn't go quite as well. But, you know, we went to a corporate pet store, and surely those places have some bad fish, sort of like the occasional pack of Chicken McNuggets that make you sick. It happens.
So we got another fish.
A beta.
This one was beautiful. He was pearl white, with a rainbow tail that seemed to change color every time it caught the light.
I found him floating in the water, his skin like ash, his tail green as pea soup, after two days.
OK, well, I felt bad about that one. So we cleaned the tank and scrubbed the rocks like volunteers at an oil spill and I changed the filter pad, and we got a new fish for the shiny, almost-new-like tank, and we put the fish in there after the water was conditioned, and he died two hours after we put him in the tank.
We had been exchanging the fish at the pet store - there's a two-week guarantee, apparently - but at this point Kate did not take the corpse back or else they might think we were dipping the poor creatures in Clorox or watching them flop around on the sink while we laughed like Jack Nicholson poking his head through a splintered door.
We waited a week or so, then went to the other corporate pet store. Our faces weren't on the wall yet at that place, and we bought another beta (half price, score!).
And it died in three weeks.
So we went back to the other store again, and they looked at my wife funny but gave her and Jayden another fish, and Brewster V (or is it VI, let me count, gimmie a second, OK, yeah, Brewster V) was home. I kept suggesting to Jayden that perhaps Brewster wasn't that great a name. Nemo worked pretty well. But he kept naming it Brewster. I think he's a little stubborn. I'm not sure where he gets that.
ANYWAY, the fish lasted a couple months, but sure enough, he was looking gray and then he died.
When my wife asked the fish guy at the pet store what was going on - maybe something we should have asked a few fishes ago - he asked how much I was feeding them.
As it turns out, I maybe, might, possibly have been overfeeding them a tad.
It turns out that fish are like most Americans. They can overeat.
Now I felt bad. Really bad. Sure, I doubt I killed all of them, but I no doubt killed some. And so I thought we were done with fish for a bit. I cleaned out the tank, dumped the rocks and let things chill.
Then my wife came home on Sunday with frogs.
That's right. Frogs. And shrimp.
The frogs, I thought, were a good idea. A change of pace. Surely we could not kill frogs as much as fish. Plus Kate bought shrimp, and shrimp were a great idea because they would eat the extra food on the bottom. Just, you know, in case I overfed them.
So I went in today, just to check on them. The frogs seemed fine. The shrimp seemed fine.
When I got home today, Kate had a plastic bag.
One frog was fine.
But it was time for another exchange.
We're on our third frog in two days now, and you have to wonder if, at some point, we're like the little girl in Finding Nemo. The one all the other fish were scared of. Maybe I'll wander in the pet store in a week or two. It is Halloween, after all, and everyone, even fish and frogs, deserve a good scare.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Blue Sky Half Marathon

It's a strange thing to look forward to a race.
I doubt if you asked an evil king's prisoners if they were looking forward to the day, you'd rarely get a yes, even on Fried Rat Day. No one looks forward to, say, the torture rack, do they?
And yet, despite me being a tiny bit facetious, racing really CAN be torture.
Now, sure, you could be one of those 5K runners who enjoys a nice jog through the crisp morning air during your city's annual Turkey Trot (and yes, I'm pretty sure your city has one of those). Hey, I love the Turkey Trot too. But that's not racing, and I'm not a casual joggers. I train too hard for that, and besides, I'm anal and competitive and kind of a jerk. Those qualities aren't the kind that fit with runners who like to high-five spectators.
It's funny, too, because I'm not out to win. I would be, if I had better lungs, legs and 15 years off my body. But I am out to beat my own time. I compete with myself, and I'm not happy when I leave a race unless I've given myself a good fight.
Even so, despite all that, I looked forward to the Blue Sky Half Marathon, even when I knew I would suffer.
This race, even if you do want to just jog it, demands suffering. It's not a turkey trot. In some ways, it's hell.
It's a half marathon (or a full, if you're really a sick fuck) on a dirt, somewhat rocky trail that climbs over a few giant hills and many small ones. If the big hills sap most of your energy, the smaller ones greedily snap up what's left. There's one aid station, about halfway through the course, so you carry your own fluid. It's dusty and there's always another hill to climb or dash down, even when it's almost over.
It's also beautiful, gorgeous, even, run by a small crew of volunteers who want others to love trail running as much as they do. They yell your name when they see you - they have to check your name off a list so they know you're not out there, lost or dying of a rattlesnake bite - and their personalized encouragement is nice to hear as you're trying to bust through the seventh circle of runner's hell. I did the race last year on a lark, just another half to do before the more "important" races, like the Denver Half, and I loved it so much that I swore I would do it again and take it more seriously.
After a couple months of long runs, the Pikes Peak Ascent, a few climbs and some trail running, I did, indeed, believe I was ready for it.
And as I started the race, it felt like I was right. I didn't feel great. Finding the magic on race day this year just doesn't seem to be in the cards. But I didn't feel horrible, either, and after the first two miles over somewhat flat terrain, I felt good about my pace, my stomach and my legs. I felt ready to fly even as I took it carefully, trying to reserve my mojo for the hills that were coming.
I didn't have any music with me - it's not allowed on a single-track trail marathon - so I would have to rely on my spirit, and not a screaming metal god, to get me going.
When the hills hit, I attacked them a bit at a time, telling myself that I would walk if I had to, but also that I would try to avoid walking as much as I possibly could. It's a tough balance. Walk too much and you lose your rhythm. Walk too little, and you go into oxygen deprivation, and then you're walking whether you want to or not.
I was thrilled, then, when I topped out around 6 miles, without walking at all and facing down the first big challenge and heading for the aid station.
And then the sun came out.
The temperature threatened to creep up beyond 80 degrees even before the sun hid for a while behind the clouds. The clouds did their best, but they could not hold off the sun's punishing rays forever, and sure enough, just as I began the toughest climb of the day, they came out and started baking my shoulders.
This is when I made my biggest mistake, my only real mistake, actually. I romped up those hills as best I could, crashed down the back side of the hills and even passed a few people as I charged up the road that led me back to the trail home. But I finished off my bottles, and then, when they asked me if I needed more drink, I said no.
As I made my way back over the big hill and headed for home, I had three miles left to go. Three miles seems like such a short way to me. It's a lark, a 25-minute run, and that's if I take it easy. I was still on pace to run two hours, or at least break last year's time by at least five minutes, and I didn't want to take the time to get fluid, even with someone right there with her pitcher.
Around mile 11, I knew I had made a big mistake. Around mile 12, I started shivering, even though I was hot, not cold. I'm no medical expert, but shivering, I knew, could not be good.
This was the time to dig deep and keep running, even if it wasn't as fast as I had hoped. Last year I finished off the race running 8-minute miles, but last year was cool, almost cold, and I didn't sweat much.  By the time I reached mile 12, my hat was soaked and my brow was salty.
But the difference between this race, and others, was my attitude. I've worked on my attitude a lot this year. They tell you to think of a word to say, over and over, during the tough moments, a word you can draw on when you need to push past the pain and go to work. My word, not surprisingly, is "fight."
Fight against the trolls in your head telling you to quit. Fight against the doubts in your head. Fight against your mistakes, even if they are stupid ones, like not drinking enough on a hot day. Fight against that heat. Fight against my own past, when I was picked on others for not being athletic and believing them even when I was.
Fight against all that. And when you go out with the intent of crossing a finish line, go kill it.