So, How Many Hats Do You Wear?

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Pensacola, Florida, United States
Husband. *Dog Dad* Training Specialist. Runner. Triathlete (on hiatus). USATF Certified Coach. USATF LDR Surveyor. USAT (Elite Rules) Certified Official, Category 3. Observer Of The Human Condition; sometimes what I write is *smooth and drinkable.* Other times it needs a little bit of lime and salt.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Less Is More

Music was a constant in my house while growing up.  My father worked at a radio station and had a large record collection; both my maternal and paternal grandparents performed either on stage or in studio.  Even during his retirement years, my grandfather would pull out his old Gibson, sit on the couch and play the occasional bluegrass tune.  I developed an ear for melody, harmony and an appreciation of structure.  To this day I find live concerts (with extended jam sessions) irritating because I start to compare what was done in the comfort of the studio; a couple of artists get a “free pass,” sure, but I want to hear the arrangement duplicated as close to the original as possible.
I have discs from some big name groups which, once you hear the tracks which didn’t necessarily see the light of day, you begin to wonder the classic question “what in heaven’s name were they thinking when they did that!?”  Why, in the middle of a tune with a crunchy guitar riff and bass groove would you inflict a weenie keyboard solo?  The instrumental would have been better to fade out before that last fifteen second reprise of the tag.  Okay, I’m not a producer and I’ve never played one on television but sometimes you know like you know when someone’s added one too many things to the painting.
Like a hair barrette on the Mona Lisa.
I get the same feeling when someone training for a marathon tells me they have a 20-miler on the agenda.  Training runs of that distance, especially when run by first-time and relatively-inexperienced marathon aspirants, are a closer to four-hour journey than to three.  Add to the mix the low-level orthopedic trauma and the need for recovery – an easy concept to explain to spouses and significant others, difficult to explain to children. 
Hard to hear as Billy Ray Cyrus.  Or Miley, for that matter.
Two and a half hours of running at a pace closer to the desired pace on the marathon day is much better.  It is true that you’ll still be hit like a wrecking ball, and perhaps a little dragged out the following day, but you can repeat the process the following week.  Even better than a repeat is a slightly shorter long run, around two hours in duration which is a little faster, then do another 150-minute jaunt the week after that.  Not only do shorter “long” training runs done on a repeat basis make sense from the physiology standpoint, but more importantly from the mental.
Say you decide to do that twenty-miler and completely "crater" it.  If that training run is half (and in the case of some training plans, more than) your weekly volume and you can’t get it in, or you crash and burn it’s not impossible to imagine the mental state at which you’ll be.  "Soup sandwich" is a commonly-used term in my world.  Of course, it’s no guarantee that your mind will be in any less of a state of freak-out if you were to attempt and fail during two or three two-and-a-halfs.  (I had to bail on two sixteen-milers during my last attempt at the marathon, but it had more to do with unresolved achilles tendon issues – overtraining – than it did a lack of training.)
Shorter quality is better.  Less is more.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

One Star? Really?

"A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing." - Oscar Wilde, English author, playwright, poet (1854-1900)

An article came out last year about "one-star" reviews of national parks; natural wonders in my nation which were panned by travelers and the reasons they were not felt to be worth the entry fee.  Someone in my social media-verse posted it up last week.  After reading the article it's easy to see how, and even why people could easily, for want of a better term, "miss the forest for the trees."

Within these spaces I've made snarky comments about events which I've considered not worth the entry fee because the course was poorly laid out, or the awards were terrible, or the shirts were cheap, or there was no beer.  As a consumer with limited income and endless wants (the first law of economics) it makes perfect sense for me to seek out the events which provide me the greatest utility (happiness), based on the factors I find most important.

When it comes to sporting/endurance events, the best-produced events are the ones where the participant sees little or none of the inner workings.  Stuff magically appears and everybody goes home happy.  Folks who have worked to produce or support the production of a sporting event will tell you that things rarely go as smooth as possible; if you only have a "plan B" in your contingency planning you're likely going to have a bad day,  And when it comes to higher-level events the layers of production and collaboration are at a level which would boggle the mind of the average athlete.

It's like putting up a Disney theme park, training the workers, running the show, and tearing it down in a matter of days.

But let me go back to social media and missed perspective.  I've found the attempt to place additional perspective as an event volunteer, a race organization worker, or a low-level official of a national or international sport federation (Credentials which with $2.25 will get me a cup of coffee at Denny's in my hometown, should I decide to cross the picket line.) is like, as the saying goes, trying to teach a barnyard animal to sing.  Providing clarity in a social media bulletin board wastes my time and energy, annoys the person who's mind is already made up on who to blame, and exposes me to the question, "dude, are you speaking for yourself or for the organization?"  I've learned the hard way that most of the folks who are at the highest levels in the national or international federations - and can speak for the group - have learned to stay out of what might be seen as "kindergarten level" arguments.  Are they concerned about the opinions of the folks who participate in their races?  Sure they are.  But they're also at the level where they have more of the story.

What do I mean?  Well, take for example what's happened today in Thailand.  Today's edition of the New York Times was not printed there. The printer who receives the copy for printing was concerned about violating Thai laws having to do with offending the monarchy.  It's not the individual printer who's going to take the flack for the unavailability of the Times; that's most likely going to be aimed at the Times.  When it comes to big races and big events, while the national and international governing bodies - or promotion companies are the "face" of the event, there's a local organizing committee which actually pulls the levers, much like "Oz, the great and terrible...and by the way, stay away from the curtain."

They're pretty much at the mercy, sometimes, of local bureaucracies.  A city with two professional sporting events happening on a day are pretty much going to tell a local organizer and the federation to compress their schedule, limit venue locations, and so forth.  Unless they're receiving "Olympian" amounts of money, and then they might flex a little.  Add to this a little term called "force majeure," the classic "stuff that happens" that no deity would claim themselves as directly responsible for, and those "Times" parties receive blame for what goes wrong rather than having contingency plans down to "E" and at times "F."

So it's not that I want to recommend everyone who participates in large and high-level events to cower before the projected image of "the great and terrible," but take a moment before exercising what you might perceive as your entitlement as consumer, depositing the burning bag of "yuck" at the front porch of the people whose face is out front.  They might be doing their best to operate within the constraints which have been placed upon them by a higher authority.  It's like blaming the bus driver for the route which got changed because of street repairs.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Numbers and Measured Things

Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted. Albert Einstein, (attributed) US (German-born) physicist (1879 - 1955)

The fine folks who make exercise feedback devices - heart rate monitors, running watches, distance and activity trackers - do a great job at collecting and displaying raw data. The devices are smaller, more independent and able to learn what is quote-unquote normal for the individual wearer. 

Honestly, would anyone now put up with the first consumer GPS receivers? The first versions I saw my old training group teammates wear years ago look absolutely gargantuan when set next to the latest fitness trackers. And those big things couldn't track your heart rate. 

I think I raved about a year ago about the ANT+ wireless communication protocol and how I could communicate from my heart rate chest strap AND the stationary bicycle I was working on at my spin class. Naturally, that rave turned into a rant once I had battery issues and the inevitable (sweat-related) problems. Buy a less-expensive (read: cheap) Chinese-made strap, just to learn the age-old adage: 

You get what you pay for. 

Fast forward to the past month. Tracking exercise efforts based on average pace works okay if you're not in the need for really-granular information. And in the case of this old coach/guru, the less-granularity, the better. Until you decide, after a few months of running...without walking like an zombie the next day...that it might be time to dabble at racing. So there was a need - again - to know just how hard I was going, and more importantly, when to stop. 

Lately the fitness devices have; added stuff which you couldn't track without going to a laboratory and paying a couple of hundred bucks. I didn't need that information because I had a test about eight years ago; that sort of baseline data doesn't change much over time. At least not in a drastic manner. Even better was the fact I found a device which didn't need a chest strap. Great! That means in the event I want to scare off little old ladies and small children (by running shirtless like I used to, so long ago) I could get my "half-unclothed serious distance runner in training" on I could do it without looking like an absolute geek. 

Even with technology improving by leaps and bounds - providing everything to the point of estimating when you could repeat the workout which just finished kicking you in the butt - it's still a number. 

Repeat after me: Distance, pace, heart rate, vVO2, EPOC, training Intensity, and so on, are data. Numbers. 

The most important thing is to know what those numbers mean to your body. How does my body feel at a particular pace? How do my legs feel after a particular distance? How long does it take for me to recover from a workout at a particular effort level? If my heart rate monitor reads 'x' and my legs feel 'y' and my lungs feel 'z,' then which of the following do I trust and act upon? The heart is a demand pump. The oxygenated blood is sent to the places the body informs the brain it is most needed. That means there's a lag time between an effort is performed by the muscles and when the blood arrives to replenish the muscles...kind of the reverse of the way our automobile's carburetor works. Depending on hydration (or dehydration), weather conditions, fitness, etc., a particular pace effort can vary in heart rate. 

Feel "good" but the heart rate is higher than you'd like: If the workout is not planned as a hard effort, then I recommend backing off. A six-minute-per-mile pace is not always going to equate to a 145 beat-per-minute rate, just to give an example. 

Feel "bad" but the heart rate is lower than typical: So, last week I had a ten mile long run on the plan; based on where I turned around I ended up getting eleven, with the last four miles taking a great deal out of me. The next morning's run was supposed to be an easy 3.5-to-4 miles, depending on how I felt. I got two very dead-legged, chest-heavy, heart rate-light miles in and decided to call it a morning. That evening's run was a slog, as well as most all of the easy efforts during the week. Thought I had it figured out completely by yesterday morning's eight miles, but my body told me I was still fatigued by way of a high heart rate during a long easy walk. A trend of fatigue is pretty much a warning sign of overreaching. Push through that too quickly and the next stop is most likely overtraining. 

When gauging how hard your workouts need to be, or when it might be necessary to take an extra day of rest, heart rate is only one number to measure over time. How's your sleep, your work stress, your hunger and thirst, and your diet? Another data point to consider is how you feel going into the workout and how you feel mentally coming out of it. Not everything can be measured to that little device.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Define "Better"

A couple of weeks ago I read through the local running club's (e-mail) newsletter and learned a coach from the local college has agreed to provide free individually-focused weekly speed workouts at one of the local high school track facilities.

My first reaction was to say, "Honey, did you see this?"

After about ten years, off-and-on, of working with individuals and small groups - sometimes growth from individuals into small groups, other occasions small groups trickling off to individuals - I couldn't help but smile and say, "Finally!  The local run club is approaching what I think is their core mission." 

Since I've played in most if not all corners of the proverbial sandbox it's a given I have some strong opinions about the players which make up the running community; the roles and responsibilities, and the situations where they probably need to withdraw their nose so as to not get it bent out of shape.  And I catch enough hatred and discontent, enough "get over yourself, 'coach.'" 

With the term 'coach' used in a derisive manner. 

Usually by people who haven't read the 'blog title.  It's okay.  After all this time I see myself less as "coach" and more as "guru."  Besides, people like the transcendental nature of a teacher/guide more so than they like the hard-and-fast "do this" nature of a coach.

A guy who has a job working with athletes, who earns a paycheck based on academic or professional credentials, is (in my humble opinion) a welcome addition to a running community.  When talking about the "pie" (defined as potential users, money, recognition, whatever floats your proverbial boat...), more "pie" is good; more "pie consumers" not so much, at least not without more "pie."  And the arrival couldn't have come at a better time.  I've considered on several occasions what it would be like to not be a "pie consumer" (even of "my" infinitesimal portion), and almost completely stepped away a second time. 

When a national governing body for sport decides certifications (especially the process to maintain professional currency) can be an income stream but doesn't place equivalent worth...  I've said on many occasions.  "This certification, and $2.25, will get me a cup of coffee at a Denny's in Deming, New Mexico.  If I decide to cross the line of protesters."  Just because my Ni..., oops, USA Track and Field coaching certificate expires on 31 January 2016 doesn't mean I'll be less-effective on 1 February, should someone want me to help them be a better runner.

Define "a better runner."  Sometimes I cannot help but understand why folks who want to get off the couch and enjoy the fresh air and scenery at a pace slower than a drive but faster than sitting still.  Especially without all the political bologna; most of us have forty hours a week of political bologna, and that's without counting the television, radio or social media.  And those athletes who operate at the highest levels of performance aren't immune from it, either.  What a frustration it can be for a young man or woman who is forced to renege on a legally-binding agreement with the person who writes their checks, just because another person has a bigger ego, a bigger checkbook, and the inability to collaborate, compromise, develop a mutually-agreeable course of action, or at least a convenient flap on the jacket, a'la Reebok and the 1992 Olympic basketball team. 

"A fish rots from the head down." 

Which doesn't surprise me when those of us closer to "the tail" decide to run in "virtual events."  No timing, no schedule, no hassle.  Just sign up, run the distance, and pay for the finisher medal.  Sounds pretty simple.  Someone who wants to do those kind of events, or get up every morning and run for the sheer joy of the act, who might want to merely improve upon the "them" they were last week, last month, or even last year...perhaps that is the purest definition of "better runner?"

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

I Cried Because I Had No Shoes...

"I cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet." -- Author Unknown

The ache this morning tried very hard to stop me.

It was also a scheduled "rest day," but when you spend eight hours at a time in airline seats and concourse bars rather than on the trail something has got to give; I didn't want it to be my belt.  So the plan, at least what I told Suzanne over dinner yesterday evening, was to get in at least thirty minutes of easy running.

It's amazing how the good intentions (made of exactly the same materials as the pathway to the infernal regions) of the night before transform themselves temporarily into the excuses of the morning after.  It would have been so simple to turn on the coffee pot, crawl back to bed and grab an extra ninety minutes of slumber.  Like my old coach used to say, "one excuse is as good as another if you don't want to do something badly enough."

But then, I had a vision of a young man I met last weekend.  He was making his way up to the public beach in Belle Isle, an island in the Detroit River, smack dab in between Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario.  As if the three local ladies in full burqa on a mid-eighty degree afternoon weren't enough to make me think less about the slightly hot sand between my toes, this guy was coming up the sidewalk from the parking lot in full triathlon wetsuit.

Using nothing but his bare hands.

He was one of about 70 paratriathletes racing an International Triathlon Union race, with the intent of qualifying for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympic Games.

I prepared for my assignment by watching some of the swimming and track and field events from the ParaPan American Games on my internet television channel stream.  Suzanne sat and had a beer with me as I watched late into the evening.  She said she found many of the athletes to be inspirational and asked me whether I felt the same.

I told her "no" then, and after this weekend I would more likely use the term "humbling."

I'm swim-challenged at best, so watching an athlete who has limited muscle strength, paralysis, congenital deformity or limb loss swim about half a mile as fast as or faster than me is enough to bring on a sense of humility.  Right to the ragged edge of humiliation.  Top that with the ability to flat-out boogie, like I saw two of the US PT4 athletes (lack of or loss of a limb, in the case of these guys, lower) during the warm-up session on race morning.  They were moving at probably a five-minute per mile pace through the transition area.

The Team GB athlete standing next to me said something along the lines of, "save it for the race, mate."  My reply was, "no different than the last rep of a track workout."  The running segment of the triathlon was no easy jog for the Australians, Canadians, the Dane, the Frenchman, the Irish, Moroccan, Mexicans, or the Spaniards; they were all going hammer-and-tongs.  When Rio slots are up for grabs you might as well go all out.

No, I would not call paratriathletes "inspirational."  Most all of them are funny as hell and very approachable.  Independent to a fault, as evidenced by the PT1 (hand-cranked cycle/wheelchair) athlete who literally hoisted himself from his handcycle to literally hammer into specifications a misaligned part during gear check the day prior to the race.  Appreciative, no doubt, of the smart people who design and build the adaptive devices which enable them to race and get around.  But pedal a bike with one leg, as at least three athletes did...or steer - on a fairly technical course - with one arm, as I saw a Brazilian athlete do?  At 40-plus kilometers an hour?

I'm not inspired.  I'm flat-out humbled.

But you can't "broad-brush stroke," because there are too many variables in the background - the circumstances behind the limitation - that make them the way they are.  I will say that at the highest levels of competition they are comparable to the completely able-bodied athlete.

But when it comes to that certain, er, as my father used to say, "bad-[blank] in three easy lessons" quality, the ability to endure, adapt, adjust and overcome...that might be where the inspiration comes for me.  And perhaps the ability to summarily invalidate any excuse, outside of injury, illness or rest day, for not getting in a workout.

So I did four and-a-half miles and felt much better about myself.  And my shoes.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Thirty Seconds At A Time

High noon on Sunday is a dangerous time.  Especially for the guys I run with.

We got into a discussion about an upcoming triathlon event, and I asked one of the group perched at the bar whether he was going to participate this year.  Last year he was ill and not able to be part of a troika of walking wounded competing in the relay division.  In hindsight, he said, it was fortunate for the very reason the group never made it past the swim.  Working shoulders are often necessary, even for a distance of 600 yards.

"And [blank] can barely run; he's the only guy I know who's trained for a (half-iron) triathlon and gained weight in the process."

A perfect case of "in vino veritas."  And not always the truth which should be revealed.

I know the guy in question, and in his defense it would be difficult to tell the difference between adipose burned and muscle mass gained over the course of five or six months.  I've been (more) pudgy and I've dropped weight, and sometimes it's difficult to tell the two apart until one is out on a run.  Several coaches have opined that a one-pound difference in weight, excess, can add an extra five seconds pace per mile.  I'm not so certain about you but if I knew I could drop a minute off my 5K on the road by losing five pounds of excess weight...  

The hard part - well, there are a lot of hard parts - is avoiding the danger areas.  Two danger areas come together on Sunday noon in this part of the country, namely alcohol and food.  If I could completely drop beer and french fried [blank] it would be easy.  Naturally, nobody said it would be.

A couple of other things to remember:

Many folks can get by with guesstimating 100 calories of energy expended for every mile run or walked.  If you want to be honest with yourself you can take your weight and multiply by 0.75. Walking and easy running is going to burn less calories for every mile than the hard, steady run; kind of like how long you can stand to have your hand on the hood of your car.  If you're driving the four blocks from the house to the grocery store you'll probably be able to set your hand on the hood not long afterward.  Drive halfway across the state at fifty-plus an hour and you'll generate more heat after the car has stopped.

It's not a perfect analogy but it makes it easier to understand.  And men burn more calories than women because of the greater degree of muscle mass.  So you might benefit more from having a single beer for every two miles rather than every one.  Researchers studied the calorie intake and expenditure of men and women and learned that both groups overestimated how hard they worked and underestimated how little they ate or drank.

Want an eye opener?  Set up an account on a food tracking/diet site, such as FatSecret, and log everything you take in.  Even after a week you're likely to be amazed, not only at what a serving size truly is, but the amount of empty calories being dropped into your fuel tank.  Other sensations, such as thirst or cold, can be mistaken for hunger.  I bulked up while participating in masters' swimming because I felt like I needed energy after swimming for an hour in an 82-degree pool (mind you, if it had been the pool we raced in at Auburn getting warm again might have been an issue).  Hindsight being not only perfect but magnified, I probably would have been all right with the large coffee with skim milk and a couple of teaspoons of honey, plus a slice of toast and PB rather than that SuperSonic breakfast burrito.

Suzanne and I have started to grab a low-calorie sports supplement drink or some nonfat chocolate milk after our Sunday runs, which staves off hunger until we can scramble up a couple of eggs and toast some bread.  We're less likely to jones for that brunch with the mimosas; do it once a month and keep track of what we suck down.  And we don't drink anything but water for the run; I used to do one or more sports drinks religiously but figured out all I was doing was shooting myself in the gut, er, foot.

Running regularly enough and hard enough has made me feel better about how I look.  I kind of miss the hanging out at brunch every Sunday but the feel of my clothes (and my head) the next day kind of makes up for it.  Getting that old self back thirty seconds at a time seems to be worth the trouble.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

"Hair of the Dog"

I crawled out of bed feeling a little less-achy than I crawled into it the evening before.  I really like when that happens on my "rest" day.  I got just enough over the previous few days that the one-to-ten scale of "how bad am I hurting" was only a two, and not in a place I was used to feeling pain.  So I decided to take a little "hair of the dog."

Not "that" "hair of the dog," but a very brief aerobic workout.  Just a little "something-something" to make me feel less guilty about doing "nothing."

The problem, I've learned, is that any real increase in training volume has to happen in a very gradual and incremental manner.  Sure, I'm only doing 35 miles a week, but I need to be up to forty about three weeks from now.  With some speed training, too.  Which means stretching out three or four of my weekly runs beyond sixty minutes.

What to do?  My favorite (shaded) running route is on the opposite side of town; once I get near home after work I'm not inclined to go out far.  That leaves me the option of running on a shorter loop a few miles away or indoors on a treadmill.  Weather conditions being the way they have been - infernal or electrical - the treadmill has been my go-to.  I'm suicidal only one or two mornings a week; even then the morning run is as early as practicable.

Rare is the soul who can stand a treadmill for longer than sixty minutes.  Even the best gyms aren't air-conditioned well enough to keep the sweat at bay; there's going to be the need to "stop and mop" if you want to go longer.  What's a driven athlete to do when getting up at three o'clock in the morning is beyond unsatisfactory?

How about splitting the workout?

The time of day you best perform - and most runners who deal with time constraints have figured it out - is probably going to be the best time to do the "main" workout.  I once was blessed with the ability to be one of those "doesn't matter what time of the day" folks, but that had a lot to do with being very single, having a flexible work schedule and only one graduate school class.  Like Friedrich Nietzsche said "when one has much to put into them, the day has a hundred pockets."  Now it's a different story.  I can get the quality workout in the evening and get just enough in during the early morning hours (should I decide to do so) that I'm almost not dripping after the shower while rushing out the door to the car, cup of coffee in hand.

It might be the best strategy for guys who have physical or stand-on-your-feet-all-day jobs, but the sedentary desk worker can benefit from that little extra piece of workout 12 hours or so to the opposite of the main workout.  I wouldn't recommend splitting it up evenly into two halves unless it's during those seasons when the weather conditions are closer to arbitrary and capricious.  That way if the spit hits the fan you haven't lost much beyond half that day's workout.

The bad news would be that dirty workout clothes multiply at an astounding clip. And the shoes which need to dry.  Work out too hard on one workout and you run the risk of going into the second piece incompletely recovered...risk of injury awaits.  This strategy would merit making certain all efforts are easy, vary between hard and easy, or vary between running and low-impact activities like the elliptical trainer or spinning bike, swimming or bicycling, rowing machine, and so on.  Let your conscience be your guide.

Imagination and ingenuity, as well as self-knowledge, can help you figure out how to get those little extra bits of training volume in without doing damage to your schedule or your body.