Monday, January 31, 2011

127 Hours and the search for adventure

When I had to leave my home state of Kansas more than a decade ago, I chose Colorado for my fresh start.
Well, of course I did. That place meant more to me than any other place, even, by that point, Kansas.
It was the place where I felt most alive.
The need to feel alive is an urge I could never truly explain to people. I still struggle with that. But when people ask me why I feel that need these days, I'll just steer them to "127 Hours," the Aron Ralston movie.
Most everyone knows who he is these days, but if you don't, I'll put it crudely: He's the guy who cut off his arm to save his life. Oh, I can hear you saying. THAT guy.
A movie about that experience, I'll admit, sounds boring and horrific at the same time. His arm was trapped by a boulder, so you're watching a guy whose arm was trapped by a boulder. No car explosions, no shootings and, more seriously, no real climbing scenes either.
So why is it so riveting? Well, for one, the movie does a great job of showing you what he's up against, with its sweeping views of the vast landscape that's swallowed him whole. You can't even hear his screams a few feet beyond the constricting walls that have him pinned. The obvious tension comes from the fact that it's not hard to figure out he's on his own, and the only way he's going to make it out is by cutting off his arm. The natural question, of course, that comes from that is wondering if you could do it.
But by showing you that vast landscape, it also shows you, at least for me, WHY Ralston is so mesmerized by it. It shows why he's out there. I'm pretty sure that if someone told him there was a risk of him getting trapped by a boulder, he'd be out there anyway. In fact I know that.
I'm out there, after all.
I've written about this before, but in 1999, my first year of my fresh start, I was scrambling down some giant boulders in a steep rockfield when they moved and then went. It's the first time in my life I saw death - I even yelled "Oh God!" just like in the movies - and I rolled with the rocks. I somehow stopped myself after the third flip. I was beaten and bloodied, pretty badly, and had to walk with a cane for a few weeks, but 17 hours later I made it back to the trailhead with my father.
Just four years later, I was traversing on a ridge between two 14ers in the toughest climb of my life when I got a touch cocky and jumped every so slightly down from a ledge. A rock spilled out from under me and I rolled like drying laundry to what surely would be my death, 2,000 feet down to sharp rocks, when I managed to wrap my leg around a boulder three feet, or one more roll, from the end.
That climb lasted another 16 hours, and it's one of the five most memorable things I've ever done, out of more than 200 adventures. It was terrifying at times, but I loved it. Less than an hour after I was killed on that climb, I was loving it.
That's just the hold those special places can have over you.
Ironically, the movie, too, shows just how amazing those places are even if 90 percent of it is about his desperate need to escape it.
The beginning of the movie is a frantic, MTV-like montage, one of Danny Boyle's signatures (he uses the same technique to perfection in the Oscar-winner "Slumdog Millionare"), and as you struggle to keep up, you get a sense of what Ralston is trying to escape. All those lights. All that action. All the noise, noise, noise. Yet the city, for all its cacophony, supplies us with everything we need, ten thousand times over. Fresh, clean water out of the tap. Contact with others. Taco Bells. Leaving all that behind is a risk even if it's also fun. That's one of the best things about the peaks: They make you appreciate the simple creature comforts that we take for granted. By the end, Ralston is so desperate for water, he drinks his own urine. I just filled my water bottle after I wrote that. That line made me pretty thirsty.
You need to leave that comfort every once in a while, I believe, and Ralston seems to believe, in order to discover yourself. The movie seems to say that, too, and I can't see how anyone couldn't leave "127 Hours" without feeling the same way.
Ralston still climbs. He still gets out there. He, just like me, appreciates the risks a bit more now.
It's an incredible survival story. But it's much more than that. I took it as a movie that finally shows what it means to be alive.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Two products, one problem

Two products have caught my attention lately. One of them may just be downright disreputable about what it claims. The other is completely honest about what it is.
So guess which one is a poor reflection of our society?
 Power Balance recently admitted that, well, its bracelets really don't improve balance, strength or flexibility, at least not as much as it claimed, or, actually, there's really no scientific evidence at all that it does anything.
In a stroke of marketing genius, the company not only admitted that but has since used it in its commercials, saying that its Admits that its products have been worn during the World Series, blah blah blah.
So it sort of lied about its product, just like many companies do about their products. That's what some call "creative marketing" and what the rest of us call "lies." Dannon yogurt was recently fined $21 million for its "exaggerated" health claims.
On the other hand, Forever Lazy is completely honest about what it is. I really have no way to describe it other than to call it a Onesie for adults.
Yep. It even has a flap in the back so you don't have to decide between going through the incredibly difficult process of unzipping your fleece cocoon or shitting yourself.
If you've ever read "The Lorax," and if not, why not, a Forever Lazy looks exactly like a Thneed.
Forever Lazy does not claim to give you energy, make you a better person, give you bigger tits or ripped abs, make you thinner or even make you look sharp, sexy or sensual. No. In fact, it seems to encourage the OPPOSITE of any of these traits. It says one of the things you can do in it is "raid the refrigerator," and the commercial shows a guy with enough food in his arms to feed Idaho. It shows many people napping in their chairs, many others watching TV and all of them looking slovenly.
It makes me wonder if it comes with nacho cheese stains already built in.
Now I suppose in a way this is an admirable trait. Too many times we're faced with misleading marketing ploys that continually fill our heads with false promises that buying their products will make us thinner, better looking and general animalistic tigers to the opposite sex (or to the same sex if that's the way you swing, who am I to judge). All this really does is, one, make people rich because there many, many sad people in the world, and two, make those people sadder, because the ads remind us that we're not in the small percentile of people who belong on magazine covers.
But Forever Lazy just tells us that buying our product gives us permission to be lazy have the body shape of a rotting pumpkin and never, ever try to do anything to improve it.
So what's the better product here? In fact, what product do I own?
Well, if you read this blog, you've probably already guessed. I have a Power Balance bracelet. I will never, ever buy a Forever Lazy. In fact, if I ever see someone with one on, I will make fun of them.
My reaction to the Power Balance story was, honestly, who cares? Here's why. Being active is difficult. Yes, it hurts. Running hurts. But much more than that, it's a tough mental exercise to get out and stay fit. It means, for me at least, getting up early six days a week (even on weekends), dressing for at least 15 minutes, going out in fingertip-numbing cold and trying not to slip on the ice while I run. I do this so I can run races where I feel like my lungs have caught fire and a hippo is sitting on my chest and my legs scream at me to stop.
I can honestly see why people don't do it.
But when I feel like I want to quit, I look at my Power Balance. A friend, an incredible runner who just may make the Olympics one day, gave it to me, and when I look at it, I think of her and all the work she's doing, and that makes me think of my other friends who are out there, fighting the same battle I fight every day, and that puts me in my place. If they can do it, well, so can I.
I don't really care if the Power Balance is actually helping me with my balance or making me a better runner. I just THINK it is, and that's far more important to me than actual results.
When I look at a Forever Lazy, I just see our country getting fatter. I see us not caring about ourselves. I see us eventually looking like a bunch of elephant seals, lounging around in our heavy fatsuits, trying to remember what it was like to run or even walk.
And the danger is I think a Forever Lazy sends the same message that the Power Balance bracelet sends. "If they can do it, so can I."
What would you rather be inspired by?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Come Together

Probably the worst part about being a parent of 3-year-old twin girls and a 5-year-old is...well, let's be honest, there are lots of things.
But the worst, I think, anyway, is the fights.
A 3-year-old, at least in my experience, is pretty much on the verge of a screaming tantrum anyway. They are the aftershock of an earthquake. They are an eggshell with a crack. They are the next Windows operating system. Any slight fault and there's a crash.
Like, you know, when you want something and your sister (or, occasionally, your brother) has it. This is because:
1. The toy is some crappy little thing he/she got in a McDonald's Happy Meal and therefore it is the most awesome thing ever created. Even better than the Hope Diamond. Who doesn't want the Hope Diamond or the toy equivalent to that?
2. He/She grabbed it from you. You find this very upsetting, like someone just killed that new puppy you got for Christmas.
3. You were playing with it, but then you got distracted, like from those drug-induced hazes on Yo Gabba Gabba, and so you dropped the toy. When someone else picked it up, it was like he/she just broke a treaty and you recommended immediate nuclear retaliation. 
Fights, which, as I've hinted, are usually over crap like that, getting to sit with Mom (leaving Dad with the unhappy leftovers, but that's another blog post) or, very occasionally, either what to watch on TV or not being quiet enough to pass the hearing test of a Bordie Collie when a favorite TV program is on.
Fights result in screaming, more screaming, incredibly loud screaming, then considerable effort on our part to break it up, so they don't kill each other, even when you secretly wish they would just get it over with so you could go back to a time when your house was actually quiet. In the past, our efforts meant yelling at one kid to stop it, then the other kid to stop it, then putting one kid who hit the other kid in time out, then more screaming because said kid is now in time out (which is not the peaceful Alice in Wonderland that SuperNannyQueen or whatever the fuck her name is would have you believe), then stomping and grinding the thing they were fighting over into a very fine dust that could be sold as a stimulant (actually I'm making that last one up, that's more of a fantasy of mine).
It's probably no coincidence, then, that in the last few years, as I've been thrown deeper into the parenting well, that I've grown more and more cynical about politics.
Quite frankly, after being around my toddlers for these last few years, I'm finding it harder and harder to tell the difference.
I would love to say that the Tea Partiers and the right-wingers and all these angry conservatives are responsible for this. I do think to a degree that's true. But it's everyone, and I can say that with confidence because the Tea Party used our anger to its utmost advantage in these last elections and nearly swept every cowering Democrat away. So without all that smoke pouring from our ears because the economy didn't improve the instant Obama and his Democrats took office, well, stirring us up doesn't really work.
But I have to tell you, I really wonder if it's gone too far. You know what I'm referring to now. Jared Loughner found it fit to open fire on a crowd, killing six and injuring 14, because Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was in the middle of it.
I wasn't sure what to think of the shooting. I don't really completely buy the sheriff's argument that the political crap, and that's really what it all is, let's be honest, caused the shooting. I tend to think that "disturbed" people like Loughner, as he's been described in the no-shit statement of the year, will eventually shoot a bunch of people because they're disturbed, not because they listen to talk radio. Millions of kids were bullied, including me, before we had Columbine. If this happened in a post office, we'd be talking with very serious faces about how the postal service stamp increase may cause people to go nuts, and then, when there was enough distance, stand-up comedians would have a field day with the word "postal."
But believe me it did make me wonder. 
Perhaps that's because I'm in the media myself, and we media love to think after big events like this and then write (or the opposite), and if you think I'm any different, I (along with the copy desk chief) decided to run a piece just like that on Page 1 today of the Greeley Tribune.
But perhaps that's also because I'm a political cynic, and I'm really trying hard not to be. I don't want to be that way as an adult because I don't want to be that way as a parent.
It's hard for me, after all these years, to combat the burnout that I feel from all these squabbles. Things are to the point now where they (my kids, not the politicians) are super cute and affectionate and love their Daddy, God Bless their tiny souls, and I don't want the fact that they scream in the highest pitches over plastic shit made in China to take away from that. 
Strangely enough, we've gotten better at managing these fights, and that's because we - er, mostly I, as Kate knew this from the start - that managing the chaos means compromise and not yelling at them to knock it the hell off.
I know. It sounds like a lecture now, doesn't it? A letter from Dear Abby. A lesson at the end of "Blues Clues." Yeah. I know. We've heard it many times.
But are we listening? I'm not sure. I would say no. We seem to have gotten to the point where we enjoy the yelling more than the compromise. Those shows get higher ratings. We'd rather accuse and get angry and hurl insults at each other because I'm a Republican and you're a Democrat and we're all for cutting the deficit as long as it doesn't affect ME.
It's still hard to believe that someone would assume that the next step from all that would be bullets. But it's not as hard as it should be.
We've managed to soothe hundreds of tantrums of 3-year-olds. I can deal with them. But I have yet to figure out adults. Who is more mature? The jury's out. Show me.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Frosty Peak(er)

There are, honestly, very few times when I question why I'm out running. Running is hardly heaven at times, but it's very rarely hell.
Still, Friday, on New Year's Eve, with a fantastic dinner, a nice night with the wife (including an anticipated movie, "Black Swan," that we'd see in an actual theater) and a late-night poker tournament with friends waiting for me that night, I sat in my car as the wind threatened to topple it over and exchanged text messages with a running partner.
This guy was a three-time Ironman finisher. He'd battled high blood pressure, problems with his medication, back problems, issues with his legs and a recent sinus operation. And even he wondered why I was going to run outside.
It was snowing sideways, the temperature was lower than the age of my toddlers, and strong winds dipped the chill down to -23.
I was not sold on the idea just yet either. When another running buddy, my last hope, really, for company, a guy who does ultramarathons, including a few 100-mile races in his past, and therefore enjoys suffering, didn't show, I was left hoping I had enough hair metal on my iPod to keep me focused.
But I had faced worse. I think. Maybe. And I wore long underwear under my running tights and five layers up top and a neck warmer and a hat and a face protector. And so, the inconvenience I would surely face to take all that off and hit a treadmill, a torture device strictly designed and modified with the sole purpose of boring you to death, won out over common sense. I strapped snow spikes on my shoes.
"I'm going out," I texted him.
Just before I opened the door my phone beeped.
"Have fun," he wrote back.
• • • 
The hardest part of a run is getting out the door to go for the run. Seriously. It's not the hills, the exhaustion or the weather. It's getting your butt off the couch and doing it.
That's true 98.7 percent of the time, but about a mile into Friday's run, I really thought about turning around. I had reached that rare point in my training when I wondered why I was out doing it.
I wore runner's gloves, which, despite me wearing layers that gave me a coat thicker than a polar bear's, was doing nothing to protect my hands. These gloves have gotten me through many single-digit days, but the difference between a -20 windchill and a 0-degree windchill is the difference between 75 and 95. That's the difference between a day you spend on the porch and a day you spend inside with the air conditioner struggling to keep up. Every time the wind gusted, it hurt, and I cocooned my fingers inside my palm.
"OK," I thought to myself as I started up an icy, snowpacked hill. "I'm charging this hill. If I don't warm up, and my fingers don't feel better, screw it, I'm bailing."
No one would blame me for that. Hey, I tried. I honestly began to look forward to the car again.
But as I topped the hill, I did, in fact, start to warm up, and I had to smile. OK, fine, I thought. I'll keep going.
You see, I ran outside mostly for the same reason I climb mountains or wanted to do the marathon. I wanted to see if I could do it. I wanted to see if my body and my mind would respond to the challenge. I was curious more than anything. Sure enough, once again, both were responding. I honestly feel sorry for those who don't ever push either one to face seriously difficult circumstances. We really have some incredible equipment, far better than even an iPad.
The gusts of wind, along with the 6-8 inches of snow, had turned my normal running routes into chaos, so I did what I could to stick to the sidewalks and the roads. Normally that's a run meant to pound my joints on painful concrete surfaces, but the snow was good for one thing, and that was a nice cushion. The spikes worked beautifully to keep me from slipping. 
The wind was at my back as I headed for a park while dodging slippery cars, so I was somewhat warm. Warm-ish anyway. I wasn't in danger of hypothermia. When I went for a drink, my sports beverage had only frozen a little bit, turning it into a tasty but brain-freezing slurpee. When I went for a bite, my Sports Beans were hard but malleable. My iPod continued to work. Hey, what was I worried about?
Then I turned into the wind. 
Oh, yeah. That.
• • •
I knew the neighborhood, my old neighborhood where Kate and I bought our first house, actually, was only a temporary reprieve against the frostbiting wind, but I didn't care. You don't care about reprieves when you're in pain. You just want it to end.
I was tired at this point, but that's always the point of a long run, and I knew the snow and ice and cold would make me worker harder than normal.  My pace slowed, but I knew, too, that that wasn't just because I was fading. I really didn't want to hit the wind, and yet, I had to to get home. Fortunately it wouldn't be that long, for a mile at the most.
But man. Man oh man. When I did hit headstrong into the wind, I knew right away what few pieces of skin I had left exposed. A thin strip on my forehead that my hat could not cover. A piece of ear. A sliver of my wrist. The wind blasted over them, and the pain was bad, but the numbing sensation, like a shot of  narcotics, was worse. I knew I needed to get to the car soon or I'd possibly have some serious, painful thawing to do.
One last hill. When you're tired, hills test you in ways the last mile of a fast 5K can't touch, and the wind was pushing me back, like a bully, trying to prevent me from reaching the relative safety of my car.
I snarled, picked up the pace and bounced around like a bunny when I reached the occasional drift.
Downhill. A tree. The car.
People like to make resolutions. I'm all for it too. I cheer the people who crowd the gym, though the resolutionists, as I call them, rarely make it into March. I don't really make them, except for one. I resolve to continue to live my life, and that means not letting anything, even a polar blast that turns the wind into razor blades, keep me from my goals of being a good Dad, a good husband, a good friend and, yes, a good runner.
It's something I'll continue to remind myself of now that winter has finally visited Colorado. Tomorrow, in less than 12 hours actually, I start training for the marathon again, come what may.