So, How Many Hats Do You Wear?

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Pensacola, Florida, United States
Husband. "Dog Dad." Training Specialist. Runner. Triathlete. Masters' Swimmer. USATF Certified Coach. USATF LDR Surveyor. USAT Certified Official, Category 3. Observer Of The Human Condition; sometimes it's smooth & drinkable. Other times it needs a little bit of lime & salt.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Wrong Questions?

"If they can get you asking the wrong questions they don't have to worry about the answers." - Thomas Pynchon

Not surprisingly, being a coach of (adult) runners is not what pays my bills.  I possess a (small) mercenary streak; my relationship with the running/multisport world provides more emotional and psychic income than it does direct compensation.  Analysis in one form or another, for over three decades, has been my thing.

Situation - Question - Isolation - Solution - Action - Resolution.  Sounds easy, right?  Only if the incentive for "resolution" is in the best interest of the person...or the organization...enduring the situation.  If incentives don't exist, trust doesn't happen.  And the analyst is seen as a pain in the back side: a person you steer to ask questions you don't mind answering or to justify your own planned action.

So, when I got a "do this-or-that" question from Angela she had the question partly right.  She asked it in terms of workout; the problem was that she'd been wrestling with one nagging illness after another.  And as if motherhood wasn't challenging enough, her husband Chris is a trainer at the organization where I work.  Doesn't matter what level of education you're in, a school is a petri dish.  Most offices are that way, too, but schools are the exemplar.  One sick kid leads to two dozen others...a "gift" to teacher which keeps on giving.  And that's what happened.

I had to tell Angela that it wasn't a "speed work-versus-long run this weekend" choice, but a "recovery-versus-stupidity" one.  (She's not stupid, just driven, like most every other runner looking into a marathon.)  Sick or injured?  Your focus no longer on training, but on getting better. Once you're better you can go back to training.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Pace and Patience

What does it take to become a good runner?

I guess that all depends on the definition of "good."

Coaches - nearly all of whom are much smarter than I, most have personal bona fides which exceed my own - are likely to say that outside of being blessed with genetically gifted parents it is absolutely necessary to have courage, a teachable spirit, and a work ethic that borders on masochism. A sense of humor, a sense of perspective and the ability to think when necesssary doesn't hurt.

Dale Fox, my coach back in the days of the Emerald Coast Racing Team, often reminded me "running is a sport of pace and patience." If he was reminding me in an e-mail the first quality would be spelled in all capitals. The second had the first quality capitalized within it (for those who have a hard time visualizing..."PACE and PAtienCE"...). The two are inextricably entwined, especially in championship-level racing.

Last month's NCAA Track and Field Championships were object lessons in the benefits of pace and patience, taught by men's 1,500 meter champ Mac Fleet, and Edward Cheserek, the men's 10,000 meter champion. The women's distance events were almost as tutorial, but Cheserek's performance in the men's 10K was patience exemplified.

Texas Tech's Kennedy Kithuka tried to force 'an honest pace' for the first eight kilometers, but he did not want to be in the unenviable position of front-runner. Cheserek, Oklahoma State's Shadrack Kipchichir and Wisconsin's Mohammed Ahmed patiently wore Kithuka down and spit him out at the ninth kilometer, after which point Cheserek only had to remain...yes, patient...for another 600 meters before dropping the hammer on the more-experienced Oklahoma State and Wisconsin competitors.

One of the best reasons to engage in a speed training regimen, in my opinion, is not that the runner develops raw speed. Over a period of time they also develop a sense of pace discipline. The first five or six weeks' worth of workouts - especially during the summer heat and humidity - lays a base foundation from which the athlete and coach can move. The athlete learns the coach's expectations and idiosyncrasies; the coach figures out strengths and areas which may need remediation.

Sometimes there are glaring, easily-noticed form issues which can be fixed without risk of injury. What are the changes in stride and body mechanics as the workout progresses? What is the athlete's endurance level? Do they need to have the reins pulled in early on so they can finish the workout on a high note?

Cheserek's pace during the race did not vary by more than two seconds from one lap to the next...save for the last one, when he ran a (completely insane) 53-second 400 after (648 feet shy of) six miles at 69 seconds a lap. For those of you playing the home game, that's about a 4:35 pace.

(I've done 16 times 400 meters, with 100-to-150 meters of walk recovery, at 72-to-75 seconds before. Eight more would have, on a good day, put me a lap to two laps down in comparison. However, it is more likely the effort would have put me in the hospital.)

That sort of work is the end-product of the genetics, courage, teachability and masochism I spoke of earlier. Not to mention five years of solid training. Probably lots and lots of 53-second quarters; the kind of stuff which makes 24 back-to-back 69s seem pretty darn, er, simple.

That's where the "genius factor" comes in. Lots of runners are capable of running 5:47 miles, or 86-second quarters. The genius part is tying three -- or twelve -- and-small-change of them together without fail to run that elusive sub-18-minute 5,000 meters on the road. Marathons, too, are a test of consistency; can you stay patient through the first hour when everyone feels hunky-dory, hooting and having a great time?

To do well in distance running often means learning what the "red line" on race day ought to be. Once you've figured that race day top end, then you collect efforts beyond that red line in small, manageable pieces. Once you have enough of those small manageable pieces, then you learn to put them together like a building block castle. At times it falls apart; you have to pick up your blocks and start over. Other times you find you didn't have enough blocks to finish the job.

But when it all comes together, ain't it a pretty sight?

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Does The Vehicle Always Win?

I can't blame this one on the heat. Definitely not the heat.

About thirty minutes into one of our easy, breezy Sunday morning long jaunts I was starting to feel...rather normal. I already told Charley and George, my two run companions for the morning, that I would engage in a brief walk period a half-hour in. They were still close, between fifty and one-hundred yards immediately behind me, traveling up a two-lane, tree-lined road on the back side of our "international" airport. I had just been passed by a pick-up truck going the opposite direction; not a new occurrence, as several entry-level aviators and their instructors often come up that way early on Sunday.

About five seconds later I hear curses, oaths, vulgarities, epithets and the like being exchanged back and forth. Charley and the motor vehicle operator are jawing at each other. I turned back to watch and heard the word 'gun' bandied about. This cannot bode well. The two continued to exchange "pleasantries" for another minute or so.

The operator, convinced in his own mind of the correctness of his driving -- and probably late to his job, decided to move on. At that particular point I was more concerned for the safety of my loving bride, who was no more than five minutes back. Was the guy going to take his frustration out on her? Those stress hormones aren't all that helpful when it comes to rational thought and judgement. Next thing you know I'll find the missus as an unintentional hood ornament. Bad day. 

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, pedestrians were one of the few groups of road users to experience an increase in fatalities in the United States in 2012, totaling 4,432 deaths. NHTSA also estimates that sixteen times that number (76,000) were injured while walking, jogging, running or hiking during the same year. If you're male, older than 45, running between 8 and 11 pm, in an urban area, during clear/normal weather conditions the chances of being injured or killed in a collision with a motor vehicle operator are higher than the average bear. 

So, does drunken driving play a role in who gets hit, hurt or permanently harmed? Not as much as we would guess. Drivers involved in a pedestrian accident were found to have blood-alcohol concentrations above the legal limit in only 14 percent of the cases, whereas the pedestrian was twice as likely to have had more than one drink in their system when they were struck by a car.

An April 2014 NHTSA document on Pedestrian Traffic Safety provides the usual common-sense important safety reminders:

"Walk on a sidewalk or path whenever one is available. If no sidewalk or path is available, walk facing traffic (on the left side of the road) on the shoulder, as far away from traffic as possible." In our case, we were on a shoulder-less stretch of road.

"Keep alert at all times; don’t be distracted by electronic devices, including radios, smart phones and other devices that take your eyes (and ears) off the road environment." Perfect sense to me. How many times have I harped on runners with headphones? Don't ask, says my wife.

"Never assume a driver sees you (he or she could be distracted, under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, or just not seeing you). Try to make eye contact with drivers as they approach you to make sure you are seen." Yeah...I usually wave in their direction when I can clearly see their face. 

"Be visible at all times. Wear bright clothing during the day, and wear reflective materials or use a flash light at night." Great idea! I wish more persons who walked or ran would consider this, especially the ones who get their miles in during the early hours of the morning.

"Avoid alcohol and drugs when walking; they impair your abilities and judgment too." Very well; I'll save the beer drinking for when I hash.

In spite of the commonly-quoted dictum: "when a pedestrian goes up against a motor vehicle, the motor vehicle always wins," I hope my motoring friends remember that in this age of cell phones and (increasing) surveillance cameras, the motor vehicle might win but karma can also come back to take a pound of flesh (with added percentage points) from the motorist.

It's not the heat (of the moment), but (occasionally) the stupidity. More pedestrian traffic statistics and information can be found at the NHTSA site, http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811888.pdf.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Let's Talk Christmas...In July

How many of you received a pair of running shoes as a holiday present?  A quick show of hands, if you please.
How many of you can tell me when you bought your last pair of running shoes; once again a show of hands?
Those of you who raised your hands for the first question or couldn't raise your hand to answer the second...it's high time for us to take a trip to your local running emporium.  Let's take a stroll through the accessory section; look at some items which you can use to trick out your kicks...
First, how about a nice pair of replacement insoles?  There's a variety and range from the most simple replacement sockliner (more-or-less the technical term for what passes for original equipment) to borderline semi-custom orthotics for the biomechanically less-than-gifted.  Doing a lot of long distance runs?  There's an insole just for you, too.  Personally, I love the silicone rubber ones because they last a long, long time.
Ooh...what are these here?  Elastic laces?  One of the last pairs of triathlon-specific running shoes I bought (outside of the fact they were louder than a Friday night in the French Quarter) came with an optional pair of elastics.  While distance runners don't necessarily feel the need for speed...when it comes to lacing 'em up (not unless you're like me and constantly running behind for the Sunday morning meet-up) the elastic shoelaces are a wonder, especially if you have feet that tend to swell after 60 or 90 minutes of running.  No more ache in the instep or need to re-tie the shoe to lessen the pressure.  And you don't have to worry about your shoelaces coming untied or flapping about during a big race.
You got something that looks like it will work, huh?  Let's go up to the check-out counter.
Stop.  For the love of Pre, stop.  I cannot believe you would do this to yourself.  You still need a pair of shoes.
I've met many a runner who have decided to be penny-wise and pound-foolish; deciding to stick a forty-dollar pair of insoles into a shoe that's had six months or 500 miles of use.  In a way, that's like putting new tires on a car with a wheel alignment issue.  Just because the outer sole - most often good, firm rubber - may not look worn, but the midsole is what takes the brunt of the banging when we run.  Nearly every runner I've talked to who has complained of soreness in the ankles, knees or lower back usually has stayed in a (favorite) pair of running shoes longer than the effective lifespan.  Once the shoes have been changed out the problem subsides.
We have EVA, ethylene vinyl acetate, to thank for shock absorption.  That spongy stuff comes in a variety of firmness and lasts for a fairly long time, but it doesn't last forever.  The difference between the "give" when you push your finger into the midsole of a brand new running shoe (after you remove the sockliner/insole) and one that's had a couple of hundred miles put on it is noticeable.  Even a pair which has been out for longer than six months (one where the rubber doesn't have that mild vinegar smell) is closer to the end of its effective lifespan than the former.
A runner who still feels a sentimental attachment to a pair of shoes can stand to wash their shoe, put a new insole in them and keep them around, but the shoe is best for emergency use; walking or mowing lawns.  Better yet, consider being a little less sentimental about that pair of running shoes; donate them to one of the many charitable groups which pass good, workable shoes along to persons in need.  You can call it re-gifting, if you so like.  Personally I'm not opposed to that form of re-gifting.
Christmas...in July.  And those accessories are still a good idea.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

We Make The Path...By Walking

Social media can be our best friend and our worst adversary, depending on our state of mind and the motives of the people with whom we choose to interact.

Keep those last few words in mind, if you will, from 'with whom.'

This week I originally planned to talk about the (relative) benefits of walking when compared to running.  It's one of those topics that I don't think I've considered (much) as a coach of runners, much less as a "self-coached runner."  Physician, author and ultra-runner Timothy Noakes dedicates two solid and introspective pages to it in the "Developiing a Training Base" chapter of his seminal work Lore of Running.

For those who have not purchased or accessed the book (one of those "if you were stuck in a place with only x number of books at your disposal" tomes) that is less than a "blip on the radar screen" in the grand scheme of the entire (800-page) work.

Runners don't like to talk much about walking because, Noakes writes, walking is what runners do when they can no longer run or have "failed" during their race performance.  The American ultra-runner/writer (and founding member of the Road Runners Club of America, if memory serves me correctly) Tom Osler first recommended walks as part of run training; it's (the disciples of?) former Olympic 10,000-meter runner-turned-running author Jeff Galloway who brought the walk interval to the mainstream running consciousness.  As I age I am less likely to deride Galloway for the democratization of running, save for the (highly-mistaken) assertion that every person can do a marathon.

As in the words of a good friend:  Just because you can doesn't mean that you should.

Not to mention the fact Galloway's statement humans were not meant to run long distances flies in the face of evolutionary biologist (and barefoot running heretic?) Daniel Lieberman's postulations in the pages of Christopher McDougall's barefoot running manifesto Born To Run.

This is starting to sound like one of those "the adversary of my adversary is my ally" realpolitik arguments.

But back to walking.  Which is how I spent my Sunday morning.  A rest day, mind you, but one where I felt someone (since my loving bride was out of town) needed to be out at the group run/jog/walk/traipse/shuffle/skip/amble/ramble...you get the picture without all the "slashing," I take it.  Just in case there was a walker.

So I did a solitary five miles out on the same course my companions would run, taking time to listen to the birds, squirrels and automobiles passing.  It was a nice change, relatively speaking.

Most every person understands that running and walking are not the same biomechanically, calorically, or cardiovascularly.  A 160-pound guy who runs a mile burns about 20 percent more calories than if he were to walk a mile, which might have something to do with the biomechanics of springing off the legs rather than extending from one leg to the other.  Or the effort taken to cool the body, perhaps.  A five-mile jaunt run rather than walked, then, adds an additional 100 calories "to the good" of our hypothetical 160-pounder.

But the varying biomechanics between long-distance walking and running might not be such a bad thing.   While running beats the beejeezus (there's a technical term which needs to enter the physiological realm) out of people, in most cases walking - unless it's done in extreme terrain - is less-likely to do the damage that running does.

Top this with the slower pace, which means the ability to observe, listen and ponder the myriad of sensations surrounding one's self...should one decide to not shove headphones into their ears...and the relative loss in single-occasion training benefit (negligible) might be compensated for by spiritual and emotional rejuvenation.  Of course, the proviso is that this activity be done in a solitary manner.  I've done more than my share of (longer) walks where by the end of the course we had ALL of the world's problems solved...but forgot to write down the solutions.

Nuts.

Monday, June 2, 2014

(Hide-) Bound to Get Past The Plateau

All right. I'll admit it. I am a creature of habit.

Were I to suddenly become the target of surveillance, for any particular reason, the person or persons assigned to snoop on me would quickly become...well...bored.

They would quickly learn what my closest friends and my wife have described as "the Tao of Bowen."  The "Tao of Bowen," as described by the first observer, an old friend/roommate, was - not surprisingly - completely the opposite of the Army infantryman's credo: 'Why run when you can walk, why walk when you can stand, why stand when you can sit, why sit when you can lie down.'

I stick to a few, well-planned workouts which I know have good effect.  It takes a lot of prodding before I try a different long run course on the weekend, or during the week.  My rest days (at this time) are at a regular interval; my cross-training and my strength workouts are on specific days of the week.  And, worst of all, I still try to control as many of the variables as possible.

I don't think it's necessarily a sign of an unhealthy mind; it's not a case of obsessive-compulsive disorder or any form of abnormal psychology.  I know some of it comes from a perceived lack of control over some things when I was younger, but there's some of it which comes from the analytical side of me, the side which desires to maintain balance and harmony, regardless of cost.

Why does this need exist?  Perhaps it has something to do with what the existentialist author, philosopher, and journalist Albert Camus was reported to have said (according to Dean Karnazes) "We are at home in our games because it is the only place we know just what we are supposed to do."

Co-workers have gently kidded me about my memory for little details, a'la Dustin Hoffman's "Rain Man."  When I watched the movie it was a little disturbing to see Hoffman's Raymond react to the slightest variance in the daily routine.  Oh, my...how many times have I sat in a (truly useless) meeting staring at the clock, saying to myself, 'I've got to get to the gym in 15 minutes so I can get the run in,' then be delayed by 15-to-20 minutes, get to the gym and have my run turn out to be total...junk.  My head wasn't in it because I was frustrated by the delay.  Or...I get to the gym, it's a pace interval workout on the treadmill, and all of the televisions are set to a particular television channel I cannot stand.

So there are days, sometimes weeks or even months, where you feel like all you're doing is whacking your head against a wall on a daily basis.  Frustrating is not even the beginning of how it feels to me when I reach a particular plateau.  There are at least two paths to take when you find your head is the part of your body which hurts the most - figuratively - from such wall-bashing.

In the past I've considered a variation in my training: rather than run, for example, a little under five miles - two sets of twenty minutes at eight-minute-per-mile pace, perhaps I'll intersperse five one-minute walk recoveries and go for 45 minutes.  If I have a good day with eight minutes of running, one minute walking, then I'll add another minute of running...slowly increase the total distance, etc., etc.

Lately, though, there's only so many times you can tack on an additional five minutes.  It's not wrong, either, to stay at one place for a while and either work it until you succeed (yes, just like the old adage).  You can also consider backing off to a point where you were making it through the workouts without too much difficulty...stay there for up to three weeks, and then charge the wall one more time.

Either way, you're bound to get past the plateau.  I'm not certain which means is "prettier."

Monday, May 26, 2014

Time Is The Final Currency, 2.0

(NOTE:  This is an update to a topic I originally wrote almost three years ago.)

Mother Nature appears to have bet "all-in" on her hand this weekend.  We were lulled into complacency by the past three weeks of very humid running.  Today she flipped the switches; turned off the humidity and turned up the thermostat. Our intrepid little group of running enthusiasts had to change tack; no longer were we working to develop our "gill slits," now it was time to make a classic Hobson's choice:  Choose to run (up to) three percent farther on the long run by staying in the shaded areas of our course, or risk thermal annihilation by traveling the shortest possible distance between two points.

Angela, our recent import from Maryland, was just starting to get used to the humid, but in her rush to get everything else in her life (mother, spouse, community advocate, etc.) under control forgot to bring along her "shoulder-fired hydration system."  Six miles without water is not going to kill you. Six miles in the mid-eighties might make you feel miserable, but it is not going to kill you.  On the other hand, it might make you want to commit seppuku, or dive off the bridge into the bayou. Fortunately for us the country club driving range - the mid point of our run - had three large jugs of cool water.  Bless you, boys.  I take back every evil thing I ever said about golf.

Almost every evil thing.

We chatted about the conditions and obstacles to the present training - long, easy runs on the weekend, easy runs during the week as often as possible between now and when marathon training begins in earnest for us in July.  Angela's challenge has become that of time management.  How does a person with so many irons in the fire make enough time for quality training?

In fact, how does the average American?

I bet the data hasn't changed much since 2010, when the US Bureau of Labor Statistics found 22 percent of American men and 16 percent of American women over the age of 15 engaged in sports, recreation or exercise activity.  When the amount of activity was divided up equally it averaged to a little under 20 minutes a day for the entire population of America.  Wasn't that "twenty-minute-a-day" threshold (more or less) recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine in 2008 the lower end?  The floor?  The least of an unacceptable standard?

The government survey data reinforces something my wife often reminds me when I become frustrated at a runner's absence from workout sessions:  We invest our time, finances, and resources into the things we consider the most important.

An athlete, pressed for time, needs to realize the training is not necessarily a zero-sum game: 'I have a sixty-minute run on the schedule today, but I don't have an hour to spare; I'm wasting my time if I do less.'  Sometimes, especially for people whose lives revolve around the suddenly-changing needs/wants/desires of others, it's impossible to set a consistent block of time aside to dedicate to a workout.  Without a "typical," "normal" sleep schedule.

If the athlete is focused on shorter race distances, two-or-three high-quality workout sessions of 30 minutes (with at least 20 minutes of the workout at the desired intensity for the training period) might do the trick.  While some physiologists have opined that anything less than 20 minutes of aerobic activity is probably not going to provide a benefit, I don't think there's enough data to support the claim.  From personal experience I can say my strength training workouts are not much longer than 35 minutes; unlike the bodybuilders I'm a "get in, get my three sets of each exercise, get out" kind of guy.  No lollygagging in the gym.

There are benefits to splitting a workout, especially if your life is one where stuff often pops up at the last possible moment.  A little bit is always better than nothing. A 30-minute run before I go to work, or during my lunch break is three-and-a-half-miles I got done. I haven't beat myself up too much; there's that calorie burn as my body is winding down from the effort, and I'm stimulated as much as if I sucked down a cup of coffee. Even better, if something suddenly comes up in the evening which requires my non-running presence I'm less likely to feel guilty.  Also, there's a fatigue factor which comes during the second workout; unless the effort is dead-easy I end up going into the second run already fatigued.

Are there down sides to splitting runs?

The first drawback may be when it comes to endurance. Running two 30-minute pieces a day may work well for a runner focused on races up to 10,000 meters, but for longer events some of the training still need to be anywhere from 8-to-16 miles.  The physiologist recommended top-end of two-and-a-half hours for long run is a fine splitting point for runners using training plans with scheduled long runs which are longer than 16.  Two-and-a-half hours of running on Saturday morning (or afternoon), followed by (up to) 60-to-90 minutes on Sunday, is more likely to keep my wife and family members happy as marathon training grinds into the later weeks of the plan. 

In our household, the dirty clothes already multiply at an astounding clip. Two runs a day means dirty running attire accumulate at twice the rate, unless you are the kind of person who can tolerate running in funky attire...with training partners who can also tolerate the same...or you run all your workouts solo.  Add the sweaty shoes which need to dry or need time to dry; you'll either spend time shoving newsprint inside the shoe, money to maintain a running shoe arsenal, ingenuity in learning how to make wet shoes less wet in as little as eight hours.  Or you develop a tolerance for damp running shoes.

Lastly, splitting runs in two means more attention to the (brief) recovery period available. When running twice a day run efforts ideally vary between hard and easy, or all of the efforts are relatively easy. A good diet, portable self-massage devices, regular hydration and even sports supplementation also become more important during the period between runs.

"Time," David Crosby wrote, "is the final currency." We can only spend what we have available at a particular moment. It doesn't necessarily mean the time we have during a day for running is absolutely limited to one unbroken 60-minute period (and bless those of you who have more!). With a little discipline and the desire to do what is absolutely necessary, even the time-constrained runner can achieve the goals they've set for themselves. It all boils down to will.