Saturday, February 27, 2010

Back to the Riverwalk

Back in 2007 when I trained for my first marathon and then again some last year, I spent a lot of time making long runs on the Columbus, GA Riverwalk. If you have ever been in town running this is a great place to do it. The city/county government got together several years ago to plan and develop this 15 mile walking/biking path that winds in a north-south orientation all along the Chattahoochee River on the Alabama-Georgia state line. The project was well planned and resulted in a beautiful and easily accessible location for enjoying the outdoors in west central Georgia. For a portion of the year, it is really quire pleasant down on the river; especially in the spring and fall. A few months in the summer can be rather stifling but that's life in the South.

The new training program I am following calls for only three runs a week, incorporating a fast track workout, a mid distance tempo run and a long, slower paced run. Today was my day for the long run and I decided to revisit the Riverwalk. I was to do 8 miles and frankly, I have been tired of all the hills around my house. The Riverwalk is somewhat hilly but they are long and gradual and much easier to negotiate than the steep ones in Midtown Columbus. With air temperature still hovering around freezing this morning at 7:30, I parked at a convenient spot by a marina, got out, stretched for a few minutes and took off. Oh, before I started, I met a friend of mine who was just finishing up her Saturday run. We have been friends for a few years and have enjoyed seeing each other at our local Toastmasters club and on certain Saturday runs at the Riverwalk. She and her running partner get to the river a but early for me on Saturdays. She is usually there and on the run around 5:00 am...too early for a Saturday. I do enough of that during the week.

The day dawned gray and cold and if I was doing anything but running it would have been dreary. But, anytime I can get a run in, the day is anything but dreary. Thanks to those endorphins, a run can turn the nastiest of days into a bright and cheery experience. Today was no exception. The first half of the run was quiet and secluded. I didn't see a soul until I turned around and headed back where I passed a couple of folks and saw another of my friends who is back in town for a while from an extended assignment in Montana. His influence on my love for running is another example of the benefits of the running community and the positive benefit it can have on ones' life. Thanks, Mike, for being such a good running role model.

I have many good memories of running down on the river. I have run anywhere from short, fast four or five milers to long, arduous ones spanning over 20 miles. I have managed over the years to progress from a 220 pound, out-of-shape pavement-pounder to a 190 pound running athlete. I am proud of the transformation. I am glad to be back running at the river.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Just the Right Tempo

In the running online community one can meet a wide and varying array of individuals. One of the helpful and interesting aspects of getting to know these fellow athletes is the benefit of learning about trials and tribulations without actually experiencing it yourself. So many events in our lives have a way of turning out good despite an unfortunate beginning, as evidenced by the following episode. Several weeks ago one of my friends expressed frustration and disappointment following a running injury. In the course of describing the injury, she made the comment she was in the midst of training in the FIRST or Run Less, Run Faster program which has been touted among other places in the Runners' World magazine. She had been following the training program when an injury put her out of commission for a spell. It is always disappointing when a fellow athlete has to endure the pain of an injury and the resulting decrease in fitness level when training is interrupted. But, if we can learn from their experience, it turns failure into success.

As I explored possibilities for my training I took a look at the program my friend had been using and even purchased the book at a local book retailer. The authors of the book and founders of the Furman Institute of Running & Scientific Training (FIRST) make the point that one does not have to run a lot of miles to get in proper shape for a running event. What the runner must do, however, is run efficiently and at the proper tempo in order to properly develop one's cardio-respiratory system. The idea is to mix weekly running sessions with cross training sessions so appropriate running muscles can rest and recover. Some die hard runners may refute the worth of the program on the basis that running less interferes with a true runner's desire to run at any given opportunity. Despite this, however, there seems to be a growing interest in this type of training.

In my personal running experience I have suffered various injuries I feel have come about because of over-training. Though I have taken in pride in logging a 55-60 mile week, I have often been left with a bittersweet aftertaste because of pain and soreness. The FIRST program appeals to me for this and other reasons. So just two weeks ago, I began training for a 10K using the program. One of the premises of the programs detailed in the book is that runs are done at a fast pace. No more of this going out and doing a 9 to 9-1/2 minute mile. The philosophy of the FIRST program is to develop a runner's ability to run faster and then give them a chance to recover the next day. The point is made repeatedly throughout the book, however, that just because there are only three runs a week doesn't mean they are easy runs...not by a stretch.

So, this fine late winter morning, I found myself on a planned 6-7 mile run trying to keep up the tempo as ascribed in the training plans for a 10K race. Today's scheduled run called for a 1-2 mile warmup run and then 4 miles at an 8:15 pace and then 1 mile cool down run. Some of you seasoned runners may laugh at the idea of running a paltry 8:15 pace but for us slugs this is a major accomplishment. Armed with my Garmin Forerunner strapped to my right wrist, I made an attempt at trying to maintain this pace. There is a huge difference between running an 8:15 and an 8:30, that I promise. There is a significant output of energy required to keep a body moving at 7.3 mph versus 7.1 mph. My winded self can testify to that fact as I struggled to keep up the tempo. My "gas" mileage for the morning took a hit as I burned energy at a much faster rate.

It remains to be seen if I can properly train for races this way. My plans are to do a late spring 10K, two or three summer triathlons, a fall marathon and an early 2011 marathon. Until I discover otherwise, I am going to continue the FIRST programs and find out if running less can get me to my goals. In the meantime, if on a visit to Columbus, GA you come across a seriously beleagured runner struggling to keep up the right tempo, know you have found me, aiming for that next PR.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Once you learn to swim, you never forget...

Can one make a statement that once you learn to swim you never forget? Or does that only apply to riding a bike? I learned to swim many years ago as a very young boy and have always enjoyed it. I have enjoyed it so much that I continue to come back to it as a way to exercise and experience some measure of accomplishment. I enjoy it so much that I have managed to push way back into the recesses of my mind the traumatic experience of my first summer swimming competitively.

I can only remember flashes of that fateful day. I am sure my parents could elaborate with much more flair the events that unfolded. As a six-year-old standing on the starting blocks at Eastside Swim Club in Birmingham, AL it was most apparent to all those attending the meet that day I had serious doubts about diving into the deep end of that 25 yard pool. It might as well have been the rushing Amazon or the shark-infested waters of the Great Barrier Reef into which I was diving. Those would have been more welcoming. I had joined a neighborhood swim team at the insistence of my parents and after a couple of weeks of practice our first meet was being held. After much coaxing from my coach and parents I managed to climb the three wooden steps to the diving platform. Once atop the block, I stood, surveyed the water ahead and the crowds all around and decided swimming was not for me, at least not competitively. After several tearful minutes of protest, the gun sounded, I dove in the water...and sank to the bottom. My coach was the closest to the side of the pool and made the dive to save me. The trauma of the moment has blanked out the rest of the day. I don't remember if I swam anymore or just how embarrassed I must have been, but that painful day was the start of a life-long passion for swimming that I hold still.

On Monday of this week, I re-enrolled in a Masters' swim program at our local YMCA. I have gone through this program in the past and enjoyed it immensely. As spring is approaching and I contemplate triathlon participation it is time to whip myself into shape. If any of you think yourselves to be in good shape, do a little swim training under the tutelage of a zealous Masters' swim coach. It will amaze you how poor your condition really is. I may have not forgotten how to swim but I sure have lost what unique abilities I once had. It is more than humbling to struggle 25 yards down the length of the pool and find yourself too tired to even hang onto the side in winded desperation. As I inwardly critique my sloppy and choppy stroke in the water I am amazed at the smooth and effortless motion I see in so many seasoned and conditioned swimmers. The proper way to swim is truly a thing of beauty. Maybe some day I can find myself back in that kind of shape.

No, you never forget how to swim. But swim well...that's another matter.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Not Like Mom Makes

Following a recipe to the letter never guarantees success. There are nuances to preparing a food dish that just can not be captured on paper. Like most situations in life, there is simply no substitute for experience. We have all heard and used the saying, "The older I get, the smarter my parents get". Well that is certainly the case when it comes to trying to replicate a recipe my mother has perfected through the years.

I awoke this cold, crisp morning determined to make pancakes for breakfast. It had been a while since I had attempted the task and for some reason, I had a craving. The recipe for the dish was not too difficult to follow and I know it probably lacked that one ingredient that would have made them great. I forged ahead anyway, mixing milk and eggs with baking mix. I am certainly not a purist, as I stop short of mixing the dry ingredients from scratch. Baking mix is all ready to go requiring only the eggs and milk to make the batter. How much simpler could it be?

There are a myriad of variables that come into play that combine to have an effect on the outcome. Adding basic ingredients in just the right proportions, mixing them with the right amount of energy, properly adjusting the temperature of the pan in which they are cooked; these all must be done just right. Anyone who has ever enjoyed a pancake could tell the difference between good and bad. Light and fluffy is how I would describe a good one and the way mine turned out today is how I would describe a bad one. A stack of eight cakes should stand taller than 2 inches. But, when a key step in the process has been skipped or handled clumsily, this is what you get.

There are times when I wish I could tap into the resources my Mom has to offer. I can promise you she could describe perfectly how to make the perfect pancake so help should be as close as a phone call. But, somehow I get the feeling its not that simple. Kind of like getting Monet to give instructions on creating a beautiful scene on canvas.

Should it be a big deal that my flapjacks were really "flat"jacks? When you are as passionate about eating as I am, this is serious business. The next time I get a craving for a light and fluffy pancake, I believe I just may jump in the car and make the three hour drive to Mom and Dad's and experience once again the handiwork of a master. Thanks, Mom.

Monday, February 8, 2010


"Take your seat on the stool here and let's see how you're doing," my physical therapist directed and my fourth visit in spinal rehab was under way. Normal procedure on my previous visits have included a session whereby the PT feels the movement of the lumbar vertebrae as I bend and twist my back to the left and the right. He claims he can feel if there is dysfunction in the movement and hence a condition under which my overcompensation in other areas creates over use and hence PAIN. "Now just what exactly is my problem"? I have probably asked him the same question on every visit, and I think the answer finally sank in. Because of bad habits or possibly an injury in the past my lower vertebra have moved unnaturally and caused me to alter the way I move my hips when I walk, run, lift, etc. This dysfunction has caused the vertebra facets to impinge and irritate nerve endings in the general vicinity of my lower back and create PAIN. Evidently this condition is one which has developed over long periods of time and will take an equal amount of time to correct. The bottom line, however, is I am making progress.

The therapist proclaimed I had graduated and asked that I return for one more session only if I felt it was needed. I asked the appropriate and pressing question about a return to running and he acquiesced that I could SLOWLY get back into the activity. "You're not out of the woods, yet", he said "but well on your way". That permissive statement was music to my ears as I finally contemplated getting my running affairs back in order.

The past six weeks have been tough. There have been moments when I loathed the sight of my PT because of his diagnosis. I realize now, though, that this was a needed sabbatical in my training routine and I am going to be a better runner because of it. It is amazing how God works. His wisdom so overshadows ours and is everlasting and true. I pray I can glorify God in a more profound way as I explore the limits of my athletic abilities.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

It Takes a Community

Several years ago a certain well known politician who is married to another well-known politician wrote a book about their philosophy of child-rearing. I never read the book and therefore am not qualified to give a review of it but from what I gathered from other reviews of the book and from comments the author had made, I didn't exactly agree with the point the author was trying to make. Maybe it was because I felt a social agenda was hidden in its pages, though I can't say for sure.

Despite my general distaste for the author and the general theme of the book I had pause a few days ago to reflect on a social phenomenon that has created in my mind a similar tone. Various forms of social networking have become immensely popular in our society and despite detractors from their worthiness, I have actually found satisfaction and joy from using them. You have to understand some of my underlying psyche to appreciate the fact that networking of any kind has always made me extremely uncomfortable. So, to think I would spend even the slightest ounce of energy on Twitter or Facebook is surprising. I guess I have to admit the past few years I have managed to crawl out of my shell.

So what does the book "It Takes a Village" have to do with the use of social networking devices? While I strongly disagree that children need to be raised by groups in our society I have developed a strong opinion that there is a place in the life of an athlete-in-training for support and encouragement from others. Coming from someone who enjoys spending time by himself, it is a bold step to admit there is real benefit from interacting with others. During the past couple of years it has been a startling realization how much it helps to get and give encouragement to those experiencing similar life challenges on the journey to athletic accomplishment. To read a runner's post about a recent injury and how it has devastated them and being willing to offer a word of encouragement or a suggestion for treatment is fantastic. To share in a friend's jubilation over a recent personal record in a race creates a wonderful feeling. I have been bowled over by the support given me by individuals I have never met face-to-face. To reach out across hyperspace and connect with a struggling athlete is therapy that can't be measured.

Lest you think I have become a fanatic over the use of social networking, I proudly admit there has never been nor will there ever be a substitute for those in my life nearest and dearest. I have been blessed with a wonderful family that give me all the love and support I need and want. I am so thankful, however, for the eye-opening experience of getting to know others I will never personally meet who live in places I will never go.

Does it take a village to raise a child? That is certainly debatable. Does it take a community to make an athlete? Not really, but, I believe it takes a community to to enhance and develop the experience of training. It takes a community to lift up and support those who are struggling. It takes a community to reach out across the miles and proclaim the message that you feel their share in their feelings of elation and help lift up their banner of accomplishment.