Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Thank you Dad

When pinpointing significant moments in my life, the tendency is typically to go right to the traumatic events leading to the "birth of the machine." However, another moment, more positive in nature, came back to me this past week.

I was 16yrs old and very much a teenage boy. Growing up I had been my Dad's buddy on fishing, camping, backpacking, and canoeing adventures. And yes they were adventures. My Dad had a knack for planning the big trip down to minute details, but struggled when the plans got derailed, often opting to attempt to stay on the schedule despite circumstances. I, on the other hand, had more of a knack of adapting on the fly (thanks Mom!). It made us a pretty good team. Well during my 16th summer my Dad had planned an ambitious canoe/camping trip in Algonquin Park (Ontario) with a good friend of his and a number of other people. He asked me if I'd like to go and I said yes...until I decided to go all teenager. I mentioned I was 16, right? And you know about girls, right? Well I had a girlfriend, maybe, I thought, I don't know (I was 16). Camping with Dad...not cool. Hanging out...cool. Sorry Dad, can't make it.

As I sit here typing I can't believe what a douche I was to my Dad. This isn't a day trip around a local lake. This is a week roughing it in Canada. My Dad must have been obsessing on the details of the trip for months. It had to be a huge event for him (he'll deny this). I know, because if I were to plan a similar trip now with Dylan, it would be a huge event for me. A coming of age kind of event. And here was some 16yr old dismissing it like it was nothing.

My Dad left for Canada without me, and my "girlfriend" dumped (can you be dumped if you're not really going out?) me. And it dawned on me that I had made a big mistake. And yet the story didn't end there... adapt to the moment. As it turns out my Dad's friend John knew of one member of the group who was joining late. Pittsburgh was a slight detour for him, but these were good people (better than me at that time) who cared about others. We reached him (no cell phones kids, so this was no small feat) and he detoured and picked me up. We met up with the rest of the group around Buffalo I believe.

It was a physically demanding trip. You only had what you could carry. You carried your canoe between lakes. Lots of paddling. Lots of walking. Lots of carrying. The first couple of days I could not carry a canoe by myself. By the end I could. By the end I would run the trails with the gear then go back and get a canoe so others wouldn't have to make two trips. I had started to think about assisting others, not just taking care of myself. I also had begun to appreciate that my Dad, a week earlier the source of endless embarrassment, had some skills and had indeed taught me many of them. In some of the more technically challenging sections of water, I discovered that my paddling skills were as good if not better than anyone's, except Dad. And while he still had his "moments" (searching for his Instamatic camera while we floated into a HUGE bull Moose in the Tim River comes to mind!, trying to just flat out pull a very large leech from between my toes...salt helps...and fire!), he was really the leader of the expedition and someone I wanted to make proud.

So while it's more than 30 years late, thank you Dad. Thank you. Thank you for your patience with a me. Thank you for teaching me. I still hope to make you proud.

Love, Joel

PS: Sorry about Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

When a 5k is more than a 5k...

I raced yesterday, a total of 3.1 miles. Oooh! Hardly a noteworthy achievement, right? I mean it was only 46.9 miles less than my beginning of the year goal. That's pretty close though. But if I told you I was genuinely concerned going into the race, would you believe me? The night before I still considered not running. Leanna would have none of it though. "You need to do it." So I did.

I run the trails used for the Aquidneck Land Trust "Race for Open Spaces" literally every week. I know every step cold. So what's the big deal. The deal is that I hadn't raced since July 2012, and I hadn't finished a race since June 2012. I've been through a string of injuries since then and am still not 100%. And 5ks hurt. Jam your heart up into your throat for approx 19-20min hurt. And I was afraid. Yup, there I said it. I was afraid that on my home course with my athletic background I'd get my ass handed to me by any number of people. I worried about the wheels falling off and a steady stream of people coming by me as I limped in to the finish.

It's a very deceptive course. Almost 1/2 of it wraps around a cornfield/cow pasture. It's gradual up and gradual down. If you've never run on soft pasture land, even the semi packed edges, it's a frustrating experience. You push so hard into the ground and get so little in return. And the slope of the hill is gradual enough that you need to try and maintain a regular flat land stride as opposed to shifting into a hill climbing gear. It all makes for a really difficult effort on something that looks really easy...and that is a mindblow.

I was really wound up pretty tight before the start, but finally relaxed when droves of kids jammed to the front of the starting area. And I mean kids, 7-15 yrs old. It was funny and helped put things back into perspective. This was fun.

From that point on the race unfolded like a script. I executed as well as I've done any race in a number of years. The adults (and a couple of kids!) around me were legit runners, if not all sub 17min speedsters. Solid runners who would pass me if I screwed up. The start was chaos as everyone sprinted across a field and towards a gate only two people wide. I made the gate in 8th, passed a couple of people during the next .25miles, and then settled in behind "the race" as we hit the pasture. The cows were mooing at us in an angry, agitated way. Again, pretty funny. At the one mile point I eased past the 5th place runner (*note: his 15yr old son would take 2nd, pretty awesome), tried to get my breathing under control going back down the hill, which again is a lot more work than you'd think a downhill would be thanks to the soft, rutty ground. Just before the woods at almost 2miles I made the next pass. The woods are windy, rooty, there are 3 bridges, and it's hard to go superfast. The guy stuck on me and I wasn't feeling super strong. On the final bridge, a .25mile boardwalk actually, he was literally right on my heels and I expected him to repass. I didn't push knowing we had a long gradual uphill slog coming and I figured I could pull away there as I had climbed the pasture better than he. Sure enough I started opening the gap. From there it was keep some tempo until the final straight and them push hard enough that nobody was coming around me. I did hold on, though with far more grunting than I've ever done in my life. Not sure what was up with that!

So the story of the day was not that I am in some amazing condition, but that my mind is my worst enemy or my best friend, whichever I choose. I can still execute. Much to my satisfaction my competitors didn't wilt. I was pushed the whole way and had I eased off, my nightmare would have been realized.

Though 47, I can still get it done.

Results


Monday, October 21, 2013

Never let the facts get in the way of a good argument.

I still have nagging aches and pains. Right foot issues. Left hip issues. I've been taking it easier all year and the plan calls for more of the same. No racing. But boy do I miss having a goal, something to think about other than work. The family time is great. I only run long-ish (90min currently) every other week. The odd week is a one hour run, short hill/power whatever kind of workout. I also run a couple days at lunch, between 3 and 4 miles. It's been easy to talk myself out of hunting for races until I saw this today:
Granted these two segments are short, so if I needed further evidence, well there's always this (trail runs greater than 8 miles since March, the foot injury taking place on March 30, hip flaring up June 1):
Okay, so the facts kind of call bullsh-t on the whole "my fitness is too far away to even consider a race" excuse. True I feel it is legitimate to say I don't have ultramarathon-like durability currently, and I can't even wrap my head around the thought of a painful 5k, but it's starting to look like I'm not an overweight, crippled, has-been either.

So do I stick to the "no racing" or do I find something, albeit "the right thing"? I still have occasional numbness in my left butt cheek, hip area. I (finally) got a foam roller and have been rolling the hell out of the piriformis and IT Band (you might have heard the screams). First thing in the morning I walk down the steps like an old man. I have a nearly impossible time finding shoes which feel comfortable on both feet. Is this just how it's going to be, and does it really matter? I can still do (almost) everything I choose. Sitting in a chair and/or sitting behind the wheel of a car are the worst experiences going. I have actually started standing in meetings. Once warmed up, I'm pretty "diesel-like" these days so warm-ups matter and they take longer, but after that I can crank it pretty well. And all while carrying 10lbs more than my Ironman race weight.

And on the flip side, work has been occupying too much of my brain lately. Who knew counting golf balls could be so stresssful. And you know what, that's the problem! They're friggin' golf balls, and people behave like we're handling cruise missiles! So yes, some stress relief is in order, but racing is not the only way, it's just always been my way.

So what's a fella to do? Do I stick with the original plan or do I try and find a race to run (you know if I don't do well I'll get all moody and grumpy moodier and grumpier)?

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Soccer mom triathlon

That was yesterday. With Leanna heading to Connecticut for some R&R, I got to spend some dedicated daddy time with Alex and Dylan (yes it does seem 'Alex' is becoming the approved shortening of her name). Because I'd be flying solo until Sunday afternoon, it meant long run Saturday. This was followed by Dylan's soccer game, lunch, Alex's soccer game and dropping Dylan at a birthday party (concurrent events), two hours of downtime, dinner out and a movie in.

Never disparage a single mom. And a single athlete mom, well, wow. The day went well. Other than a minor trauma, a lost earring at the soccer field, and general apprehension about eating out for the first time since her allergic reaction episode last Sunday (it was scary, more than just daughter traumatized), everything was fine. More than fine actually. I really enjoyed my time with them. I've been working longer hours lately and not spending quality time with the pair, just get them ready for school in the morning and check homework, jammies, and bed at night.

And amazingly I'm finding time to write again. Yeah the kitchen needs to be cleaned and the lawn cut, but that'll get done at some point. Yesterday was the Ironman World Championships, and yes per tradition I followed along, though not obsessively. An Ironman athlete tracker is like watching paint dry, in realtime. And per usual, what may well have been the most exciting finish of the day was missed completely by all apparent coverage. Let's hope a moto caught it so it can be aired next month.

So it was a day of reflecting on who I am now. I'm not currently a triathlete. I may or may not be able to return to it, especially at a reasonably high level. I'm a dad who goes running. I dabble with other "more intense" workouts but find I have little appetite anymore for the intensity. I have a feeling I'm viewed as the annoying soccer dad, yelling and cheering during the games. Texting the play by play to Leanna. I'd like to compete again but like Alex and eating out, I'm quite apprehensive about what would happen when I returned. I really like the thought of trail races...long ones. No sprinting, no lactate threshold, lungs on fire, puke fest. And while the duration of Ironman is about right, I would struggle to find the time to train and really have no desire to battle 3000 people for a patch of water. And I'd probably have to drop money on a computrainer because I am that uncomfortable on the roads anymore. Hell I rarely road run. Nothing relaxing about wondering which car will hit you. I'll take my chances with the coyotes.

I guess I'm a soccer dad...who runs a little (feed on left!).

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Life after the machine

Been a tough six months or so physically, which of course means a tough six months or so mentally. About 3wks after my last post I had my best, and last, long trail run (http://www.strava.com/activities/46457923). Something went awry in my right foot. Derailed the ramp up. There was some sporadic running/struggling during April while I was in denial about the implications of the injury, and then in May I finally shut it down completely, which of course meant missing my ultra debut at Bear Mountain. Needing the mental and physical release, I made my way back to the bike and started some time trial efforts. Sad as they were, improvement followed relatively quickly, until June.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not feeling sorry for myself (well maybe a little). I've never had to struggle through injuries daisy-chained to each other. The hardest part was putting my deep seeded fear of being unable to come back due to age out of my head while I made the decision to cross every race and goal off the list for the balance of the year at least, and really until further notice. No timetable. No pressure. Since August I've been gradually improving. Still some weakness, occasional pain and or soreness in left hip/butt area and right foot, but as form improves I last longer before aching occurs and it does not persist the next day. I'm being fairly conservative in the rebuild as well as changing the routine to try and build a stronger base on which to build. My long runs are only every other week, and I'm adding in strength training to try and correct some of the imbalances. Too early to know when I'll be back, but today I did break 80min for a run and held a respectable pace for the trails (http://www.strava.com/activities/85750201). When you compare today to the beginning of August signs are encouraging (http://www.strava.com/activities/71828526), and at the time that one, though difficult, was encouraging on its own.

Outside of picking up my physical pieces, it's been work and family so it's not like I've been sitting around. Swimming was a big focus until school started, but with Alex having to be ready by 7:15am, I can't get to the ocean in the morning, and I don't get back from work in time to go after. So it's run or take a class, do the family thing, and eventually wrap my head around pool swimming again.

I do follow friends and their successes and/or failures. And I work a bit a lot, but unless you are really interested in Information Management and Analytics, that's all I've got for you there. 

It's odd not having any racing plans (I do have some long term goals) and I know I'll be a different athlete when I once again return to a starting line. I can pretty safely say it won't be a triathlon, which is yet another departure from my past. Have I seen my last podium/PR/whatever? Perhaps. But today Alexandra and I did a little run on one of my trails, her first foray. She liked it. She'd like to eventually build up to running the whole Middletown loop of the Land Trust trails (~5k). I told her anytime she wants to go I'll go. Pretty cool. (http://www.strava.com/activities/85767257)



Saturday, March 09, 2013

Unrunnable

I've had about a 1/2 dozen titles for this post. The one above is simply what I happened to think at the time I started typing. It's been 5 weeks since my last venture on the Sakonnet Greenway Trail. Life's been busy. February's ALWAYS the toughest month of the year for me. Sh-t happens. But the latest Nor'easter had passed and it was clear, albeit windy, and I NEEDED this run to regain my emotional balance. I started off okay this last week, but it started to go downhill and by Friday I was done. Rather than risk an unfortunate comment to my family last night, I opted to avoid and go to bed at the same time as the kids. You see I needed TODAY.
Well I got to the trail head and sure enough my head was telling me, "You can't run that! It was crusty snow over snow drifts separated by muddy marsh-like stretches of muck and all in 20mph winds. I had not gone a quarter mile and serious thought about calling it. Maybe put the road shoes on and run road. NO! Just get tot he bottom of the hill. It's probably better (it wasn't). But I got to the bottom and actually had a very normal turnover albeit at a slower pace.

"Okay, let's keep going."
"No not sloppy wet feet!"
"Shut up head."

And that was the thing, it was my head. My body, if this makes sense, didn't mind the circumstances. Snow drift? Don't puss out. Drive your foot in like a man! Much better footing. Much better control and rhythm. Water? No worries. There's solid footing underneath it. And so it went, and as I let go I kept extending the time I planned to be out there. First it was try to make 90min. Then 100. Finally, screw it I can make the whole trail in 120min. And I had given myself the extra time this morning to fit that in, so that "I have to get home to take the kids" excuse was just bunk.

This run was amazing. I had the only human footprints on many parts of the trail. There were LOTS of coyote tracks. Absolutely fascinating how they travel single file and step EXACTLY in each other's prints. You can't tell how many there are until they finally separate and you see 3 or more distinct sets. And the birds, I've always loved birds of prey, far and away my favorites. They were out in force because the crystal clear skies and fresh blanket of snow must have made this a hunter's paradise. I came around a corner and there was a giant barn owl on a branch in front of me. There was a pair of red tailed hawks circling above. And a couple miles later, something bigger than the red tails. And to think I almost missed all this because my head was telling me "you can't."

http://app.strava.com/activities/43711073

And that's the point. There's so much of life just there to be seen if you will just ignore the voice saying you can't. My head thought this trail was unrunnable. My body and spirit thought otherwise. Thankfully I listened to them!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Training your mental core

Most people think of "mental toughness" as conscious thoughts which you can use to help control or persevere in a situation. By conscious thought I mean things like "Say to yourself you've done more than this is training, so I can do this here." And while those conscious thoughts can help you during extreme efforts, I've always found they are not enough. So how do you improve mental toughness? Consider this:

I can improve as a runner by working on my legs and other running specific activites. More miles, lifting exercises for legs, calf raises, etc... all make me more efficient. And then I take it to the trails: snowy, muddy,  soggy trails, and guess what? I get torched. My shoulders ache. My posture is poor. I'm scuffling my feet because I can't lift my legs up. Sure I can still drive them down all day long, but I can't get them up to drive them down in the first place. The problem here is despite having leg strength, if I don't have core strength eventually I will hit a situation where I cannot succeed. Where everything breaks down and goes to sh-t. The core gives you the platform from which you can use those peripheral muscles to excel.

So what's the analogy?

You need to strengthen your mental core, and for most people that means understanding and find it in the first place. My mental core is that area where I just "Know" something as opposed to "know". It's the area that seems to defy logic at times. Numbers, figures, HR, miles, any performance measure you can imagine: those are the domain of the head and the lower case "k" know. What is the upper case? Belief. I've said it before, to find your true mental strength you need to find that thing in which you have full, unquestioning belief. And this can be tricky because it can be different for everyone. In fact some people may have unwavering belief in the numbers, for others (such as myself by the way) there needs to be something else.

At work my belief, as egotistical as this may sound, is my unwavering belief that when dealing with logic based systems I can always fix anything I break, if I break it. It gives me great freedom to be creative and use my higher brain functions because worst case scenario is that I have to fix it, and I can ALWAYS fix it. A similar situation exists racing. My favorite Ironman ever was Lake Placid in 2008. I clearly recall going over my race plan and estimates with Tim before the race day. Based on all my numbers, the relative brevity of my preparation (I had focused on the Boston marathon that spring so didn't start Ironman prep until May),  he had my projected race performance at 10:50ish. I looked right at him and said, "I'm going under 10:30." I knew I would. I had no doubts. It didn't matter what the higher brain told me, what the facts and figures said, in my soul I knew I was going to bring it. On race day I went 10:22.

So how do you train the core? I can't really prescribe exercises. I don't think it works that way. Rather the challenge is identifying that core belief. That unshakable something. It might be your coach, or yourself, or your religion, whatever, but you need to find it. Maybe numbers are your religion. That is fine. It can be anything. And the way to find it is to look deep inside yourself for the thoughts that make you calm not tense. You can use race visualization here. Picture a situation. Run it through your mind over and over handling it differently each time. Find the one that brings you calm and ease. That's the one in which you truly believe. Your training races and performance numbers allow you to change or increase the number of scenarios you visualize, but it is the calming visualization that points to your mental core strength. Build towards that.

People say I'm good at pacing a race. This is why. By race day I've "raced" hundreds of time. I typically follow my own strategy, the one which leads me to a sense of calm. I'm analytical so the strategy is based in realism, e.g. if I start the swim very slowly I'll create a deficit I'll need to make up elsewhere. My visuals of race legs are relax/cruise, stalk, hunt. Because at the end of a long day I truly believe, I "Know", damn few guys my age can outlast me on foot. Doesn't matter what the numbers said. I won't break. Over my lifetime I too have been through some things, and this is nothing. I know pain and distress and can handle it. Physical pain is easy. I believe.