Thursday, December 27, 2012

Answer the "why"

This sounds like it might be a self-help post, and I wish it was. Actually some may find it as such but really because they looked inside themselves and helped (thus, not because I did anything...and that's as it should be. It's said that nothing worth having comes easy. Well yes and no. Depends on your definition of easy I guess. Consider this. If you could do an activity, something that you can do without any significant instruction or effort to learn, and then just do it over a long period of time, would that be hard or easy? Even better, just avoid doing one thing, especially in a world where there is sooo much, possibly too much choice for alternatives. Is that hard or easy?

My thought: the activities, or lack there of, are incredibly easy. And yet so many people have such a hard time doing precisely this. Cleaning up a diet or exercising are very easy, even instinctual. Persisting the behavior proves to be daunting. And for me this comes down to the why. Why do it? Why exercise? Why eat better? As long as we're going there, why be faithful to a spouse?


I wish to be happy and relaxed. Running regularly helps me feel relaxed which makes me happy. I wish to stay healthy so I can be the support for my wife and kids. It's my role in my life. My strongest supporting thought is to be able to be at my kids' weddings. It is a more powerful image than any other. As someone who annually deals with emotional balance, it is vital to have the one overriding thought. No matter what else happens we stay on track for that.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Five fingers, ten toes

In the latter half of my "run streak," I treated myself to a pair of Vibram Five Fingers Bikilas. I'm not some crazed, go minimal or go home, runner but I was intrigued by a few aspects of barefoot, or rather near barefoot, running. As excited as I was to give it a go, I was also nervous about what might happen. Why? Hell I don't know. It's just different...unknown. The anxiety actually started before I bought them. As I quickly learned, there's more than one model of Vibram Five Fingers. What? Yup. There's thems for walking, and thems for running. Thems with laces, kangaroo hide, for cold weather, for hot weather. And then there's the Bikila, the one for barefoot running. Huh? Thought by design they all were for "barefoot" running. Apparently not though, or not as much. Well I wanted the barefoot experience. Hell if I was going to look like a baby Sasquatch out there, I wanted the fully Monty.

The first thing I noticed is that they're very difficult to get on. At least they were the first day. The sizing is based on the actual length of your foot and not your shoe size. For me this meant a size that's about two sizes smaller than my normal shoe in European sizing, ie a 41. And for me it was not that easy to get my toes in the little individual toes spaces. My toes don't like being separated and I struggled to get them on. It was a little frustrating at first. However once they were on they fit like socks. In fact at first I thought they were too small. However, after my first run I realized they needed to be that way.

The run:
The first run was at Prospect Park, aka the bunny park, with Laddie. The outer loop is about 1/2 a mile mixed grass and coarse blacktop, with some soft spots, railroad ties in the ground, and lots of branches as the park had not been fully cleaned up since Sandy. Here's the deal with these shoes, you instantly run on the balls of your feet. No gradual "promotes a forefoot strike". Let your heel hit, especially on the pavement, and there is a shock wave that races through your spine to your brain! However, this modified foot strike was easy to adapt, as if this was really how I was meant to run. It was cool. The first run was 1.5 miles and the thing I notice most at the end was increased fatigue in lower leg muscles. No pain, just fatigue. Over the next couple of weeks I stretched the length of the runs to about 3.5 miles, mostly on trails. I did run on the road a few times, but frankly I just don't enjoy the road and it has nothing to do with the shoes. After the "run streak" which was mostly trail, it's just not the same.
Then came the real test. I was not feeling the same degree of lower leg fatigue anymore, presumably because the muscles were adapting, so I went for a ~7 mile run, all trails, plenty of muck and standing water. The run was a loop and I contemplated having a change of shoes in the van if I felt I needed it, but then decided no. I was running the whole thing "barefoot" or I wasn't finishing the run. I was curious about two things: could I do it and would the pace be different than in shoes. Here's the run data (no heart rate, I need a new strap) -> . Bottom line, I have never run that loop that well. Granted I may have run it that well on that day in shoes too, but I doubt it. There was quite a bit of mud and standing water, and unlike shoes w/socks the Bikilas have so little going on they did not gain any noticeable weight. They had excellent traction. And remember that snug fit? They did not move around at all. The best words to describe the feeling of the run are "swift", "nimble", "fleet". I still am who I am and I know that shoes will not change my top end speed, but in this instance they allowed me to flow through the obstacles with ease.

A big concern for me was how painful would it be when I stepped on obstacles. I didn't want to spend entire runs on the lookout for debris. With two exceptions, they were fine. In fact they handled a packed gravel path, easily the most uncomfortable section of one of the trails, with ease. The path is sort of like running on a runaway truck ramp, but I cruised through it. I believe the reason for this, and for the improved traction overall, is that as your feet land your toes more or less wrap around whatever they hit. With shoes the angle of your foot is going to be whatever it is and so you may well hit in with a sub-optimal orientation. When your feet become and integral part of the stride, you are more "dynamic". As I mentioned there were two notable exceptions to the decent foot protection. The first was a branch that found its way between two toes. This is the most vulnerable spot of the Bikilas as there is only a thin piece of lycra between the toes. Yes that sucked. The second was a stray chunk of granite. I got me square in the arch. I believe I saw God for a moment there! :) However, had I hit that in my Sketchers Go Runs, I think it would have sucked almost as much. Anything short of trail shoes with a rock plate would have failed.

A month later I really enjoy running in these. Running through forests or through fields feels so natural, primal. That said there are still spots in my running shoe line up for traditional shoes. They have there purposes as well. But like a cyclist with lots of bikes, there is always a favorite, and these are rapidly becoming my favorites. Oh yeah, and for the first time in years I can spread my toes!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Are you measuring the right stuff?

(heavy geek alert!)

We have a saying in analytics: "The easier it is to measure the less valuable it probably will be." This isn't always the case, but a large chunk of the time it will prove to be true. Counts especially are one of my least favorite measures (as any and all of my co-workers will attest!). Case in point: We were building a new datamart at the bank. We had a group reporting that they had successfully loaded data for all but 3 customers. In other words, out of maybe 80k - 100k, only 3 had issues. The ratio was so great, hell, probably not even worth tracking down the others, right? I mean it would take more time than it was worth. Our set was good enough for management reporting... or was it? As the duly appointed namer of elephants in the room, I asked which 3 had not loaded. Two were insignificant, but one was the bank's 4th largest customer and by law had to be reported to Federal agencies. Uh, hmm, maybe this issue is a show stopper.

The moral here is that the easy metrics, the count, the loaded ratio, are worthless. When matched with the actual requirement even missing 1, if it was the wrong one, was a fatal error. Conversely, you could probably drop 30k of the smallest and still be fine. The measure needed to be based on something else, in this case customer ranking in terms of the bank's total credit exposure.

So how does this carry over to you, the athlete? Pace, distance, number of workouts (a count), even HR, all taken in isolation tell you very little about what you really want to know: am I getting better? They need to be taken in combination, cleansed for outlying activity, etc... My Garmin 305 tells me the average pace for my run. Today it told me 7:30/mi. A week ago it told me 7:06/mi. So I'm getting worse? Obviously we need to know more. Last week that 7:06 was over 7 miles. This week the 7:30 was over 15 miles. So was it better or worse? Uh maybe, but if I'm honest I have no idea. Sort of apples and oranges. So we standardize on workouts of a similar duration and compare again. A month ago I went 7:57 for 1:25. Today 7:30 for 1:52. Okay looks like I'm doing better. But honestly when building a metric I still like more relevance. 

Personally I sometimes have a hard time getting going on Saturday morning (it's that pushing 47 years old thing!), so I'll take the first 30min of the run and just go easy, whatever easy is for that day. This creates an outlier in the paces. In other words that first 30min is not indicative of where I am overall, just how I'm feeling that day. So for longer runs I tend to focus on average effort (HR) and paces AFTER the first 30min (in one mile segments). My run score measure is based on the relationship of pace, HR and time. And rather than focusing on the actual score, again something heavily influenced by things like a rough week at work, I'll focus on the slope of the score for the miles after the first 30min (Garmin autolap at 1 mile). 

So put more simply, the measure for long/endurance runs is as follows:
The change in run score after the first 30 min. The training scorecard is the trending of the average change in the run score measure over time.

I get that this is not in everyone's wheel house, so to speak. Hopefully it is something your coach would understand. I know many who do. And if your's doesn't? Well hmm, do you know any good data analysts? :)

PS: I also love trending average score for the final 3 miles of a long run over time (weeks/months). Correlates to the ability to finish out a long event!

Sunday, December 09, 2012

I may be crazy, but I'm not nuts!

Are you ready for it? Here it is: I have a secret man-crush on Justin Timberlake. Actually had it for a while. He's just so damn talented. And here's something else, something amazing I discovered, or more accurately re-discovered, over the past 5 weeks or so: I love running.
I set off on this little mini challenge, this quest, with no real expectations. The goal was simple: run every day for 5 excuses. The runs were not training runs. There were no "rules" for minimum distance, duration, etc... I just had to go out and run every day. Make time, even just 12min with the dog, every single day for 5 weeks. I had no idea what, if anything, I would discover. Frankly I figured there was a 50/50 chance I would get tired, and then get more tired, and it would feel like work and even if I made it that would be all she wrote. I did expect little nagging injuries to creep in. I expected soreness in my ankle and feet. Maybe numbness in my toe, the usual things I felt during my "training." To mitigate this I spent a large percentage of the time on trails, well for that reason and because I need to run more trails to get ready for the North Face Endurance Challenge at Bear Mountain, NY.
A typical week was a few runs in Fairhaven at lunchtime, a few runs with Laddie, one very long run on the Sakonnet Greenway, and a moderate run again in Middletown either road, trail, or mixed. Total mileage was roughly 25-30 miles per week, so nothing drastic. Mileage began to creep up towards the end of the 5 weeks as I started stretching the 2nd run of the weekend. Also towards the end of this time I decided to try full-on minimal running in Vibram 5 finger Bikilas. More on that in a future post.
So what did I discover? In short, Joy. Yes joy. It didn't happen all at once, in fact the first two weeks were the most difficult, especially Tuesday and Wednesday. I was getting more and more tired, though interestingly it was not the long Saturday trail run that left me the most tired. It was the faster runs in Fairhaven. It took me about a day longer to get 3.57 miles @ 6:16/mile out of my legs than it did 13 miles on the trail @7:55/mile. What the trail runs did tax far more than the road were my core and shoulders. By the end of the 5 weeks my legs more or less ran on autopilot, not even noticing the miles whereas I still feel fatigue in my core and shoulders because of the far greater stabilization requirements when running on the trails. That discomfort peaked in the third week. Other than that my body actually started functioning better, not worse as the miles accumulated.
The "Ah ha" moment occurred over Thanksgiving. I was out running on a wonderful trail in Shelton, CT. I was a bit fatigued and would have had no complaints if I had found a gel packet lying on the ground somewhere. Then I hit this section that passed through a large stand of pine trees. Maybe it was the lack of nutrition or maybe something else, but I suddenly flashed back to childhood. I mean not just a "I remember when I was a kid," but rather I was no longer a 46 year old running on a trail in Connecticut. I was backpacking with my Dad.
When my Dad and I went backpacking, or canoe camping, I would often run ahead down the trail to the next stopping point to see how far away it was, and then run back. There were no thoughts of conserving energy, avoiding bonk, etc... just the pure joy of being out in the wilderness. I liked getting to places where there were no more human noises and stopping and then trying to see how many distinct sounds I could hear and if I could locate the source of those sounds. I'd image all sorts of things. I loved those moments and I hadn't had one of those moments in literally decades...until that run in Connecticut.
It only lasted a brief time, only until the group of walkers with their dogs came around a bend, but for a moment all cares were gone. And the best part is "the hangover" from that run. I remember.
Equally significant was the run before that run. It was the first time in years that Leanna and I have run together, this time with Laddie. The last time was when we lived in Newport and we ran from our apartment to 1st beach. Didn't go so well. This one was different. It was very special.
The 35 days ended Wednesday. I took the next day off, but that was it. I've run the last 3 and will be going again today. I don't feel I "have to" go out. I want to. I'm not technically "training", though obviously this will transfer into preparation for Bear Mountain. My running stride is incredibly smooth right now and I'm very efficient as evidenced by the fact that despite all the miles I still gained a few pounds!
But I love going out on the trails, and am content. I'm actually passing on a running race today, to go run elsewhere. I'm not feeling the need to compete. Actually I'm not even feeling a "need" to run. I just want to...