Sunday, February 16, 2014

When did Running become so complex?

    I love watching my grandchildren run.They run with such reckless abandon, not with the goal of running, or even getting anywhere, but just as a part of playing.   It reminds me of great times as a young whipper-snapper when running was an integral part of daily activities like playing tag, capture the flag and of course street football and baseball games (and yes, they had footballs and baseballs when I was young).    
When I first started running marathons it seemed equally simple.  You bought a pair of running shoes (you had 2 or 3 different brands to choose from), pair of baggy grey cotton sweats and if you were really into it, a watch with a timer.   Getting ready for a run was simple, you rolled out of bed, threw on the sweats, laced up the shoes and 10 minutes later you were running.   Adjusting to the weather was as simple as deciding if you needed the sweat pants or if it was sub freezing maybe a hat and gloves.

Over the last 35 years, life has gotten more complex and it has dragged running along with it.  Technology, social media, and YouTube of everything has changed running from a natural activity into a fashion runway decked out in the latest Best Buy techno-toys.  Gone are the days of “who cares what I look like” or “enjoying the peaceful Zen of a run on a country road”.   Now it’s about designer clothes, day-glow shoes, space age headphones, GPS watches, organic food and phone apps.     
Don’t get me wrong, I like some of the new stuff.   The other morning when it was sub zero and my breath was forming a layer of ice on my mustache and eyebrows I said a little prayer of thanks to the Under Armour inventor whose product was protecting certain vital organs.   At my age I don’t generate a lot of heat doing the “geriatric shuffle” so staying warm can be a challenge.  I once had a nightmare that I was going so slow that they found me actually frozen to the road mid stride.  I’d drag a heater along if I could figure out the logistics of a 5 mile extension cord.   Given the aging population there is probably a patent and a trip to Shark Tank in there somewhere.

I’ve tried to adapt to the changes over the years.   I got a GPS watch (actually my daughter and son-in-law bought it for me), I received new running clothes (from my son and other daughter/son-in-law), more clothes from my wife (the aforementioned under armor…she said she had a vested interest in protecting certain assets), and a postage stamp size radio/MP3 player (also from Pam) to replace my 12 year old cigarette sized FM radio.  OK, so maybe my family dragged me into the 21st century.  But regardless, the outcome is the 10 minutes it used to take me from bed to road now takes me 20 minutes just to “gear up”.   And of course we have to add another 10+ minutes to “get the kinks out” so when I hit the roads I don’t look like a refugee from a nursing home that forgot his walker. 

In relative terms I’m still in the dark ages.  I don’t have any of the noise cancelling ear buds guaranteed to never fall out while running, the mini-heart rate monitors,  the energy boosting shoes,  the compression lycra shorts/leggings (frequently a frightening sight if you happen to be behind the wrong person),   or the fitness apps that turn your phone into a coach.   It will even remind you when you are running too slow by vibrating (unverified rumors speak of a version that replaces vibration with electrical shocks for a little more motivation).   In the latter case, the running aspect is actually leaking into everyday life.  There are wrist bands that will not only track your running, but  how many calories you burn walking around during the day, measures your sleep quality, and wakes you in the morning to start it all over again.     In case having your every move monitored is not enough, it will transmit it to your computer so you can compare it with the stats from your phone app that has been monitoring what you eat.  
It won’t be long before the latest technology innovation (the Internet of Things…basically every device talking to every other) co-ops running as well.   You can easily imagine a scenario where you miss a few weeks of exercise and your bathroom scale notices you’ve gained a few pounds so it notifies your phone which changes your ringtone to start haranguing you about exercising every time it rings.  Meantime the refrigerator (which is tracking what you are eating) replaces ice cream on your grocery list with low fat yogurt and notifies your doctor’s office to schedule a checkup.   When my running watch or phone starts waking me up early with a reminder I need to go exercise or starts coaching me to run faster, it won’t be long for this world. 

There is a reason I kept my old running watch.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

“Do or Do Not! There is no try.”

If you have seen Star Wars you may remember this phrase from the Grand Master Jedi Yoda when he is training Luke Skywalker.     The message was clear, commit yourself to the effort or don’t bother, there is no in between.

We all have our favorite phrases that stay with us long after we see the movie and get reused in daily life to drive home a point.    Who hasn’t heard the Arnold Schwarzenegger phrase from The Terminator (“I’ll be back”),  or snickered at Tatum O’Neil responding to her con artist father’s statement that he has scruples (No, I don't know what it is, but if you got 'em, it's a sure bet they belong to somebody else!).   There are so many great lines/scenes in the movie Parenthood.   Steve Martin asks his sick daughter  “Do you feel like you wanna throw up?” and she responds “OK” and proceeds to do so all over him.   Or when a teenage dad to be talks about how his father beat and tortured him saying “….you need a license to buy a dog, to drive a car - hell, you even need a license to catch a fish. But they'll let any #@$%&#  be a father”.

But my favorite comes from Cloris Leachman in Spanglish.   Speaking to her daughter who realizes her affair may ruin her marriage  “Lately your low self-esteem is just good common sense.”.

But I digress…forgive me, it’s an age thing.   So back to Yoda.    While one could argue Yoda’s philosophy on attempting new challenges is not appropriate in all situations,  it certainly is a mantra for a successfully completing a marathon.   You are either all in or you’re not, there is little room for maybe.     Oh sure, you might hear people in the midst of training for a marathon say they are “attempting” to run one but behind the scenes they are either committed or they aren’t.    No rational person committed to running a marathon (and I use the “rational person” loosely in this context) gets up in the wee hours of the morning,  when it is cold and dark,  and runs for a couple of hours because they are thinking they might TRY a marathon. 

 The commitment comes with the goal, you are either focused on completing it (and willing to put in the work) or you might as well save yourself some grief and stay in your warm bed.   I’m afraid there is no half-way.    In the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “Believe you can and you are half way there”.   The reverse is also true.

I’ve mentioned in the past that I believe a marathon is as much mental as physical.    No matter how good or well trained you are, there will be a point in the race where your mind says go and your body says no.    The combination of running out of fuel (no matter how much energy Goo and drink you take), the breaking down of your shoes, and the atrophy of your muscles will combine to make every step a significant, if not painful, effort.   What keeps runners going at this point is their mental strength, their ability to ignore the signals from their body telling them to stop or the goblins in their head that are telling them they can’t do this.  

 I’ve heard healthy, mostly well-adjusted, reasonably intelligent people tell me there is no way they could run a marathon.    Despite the fact I have said repeatedly that anyone can complete a marathon, I agree with them.   They have defeated themselves before they ever started and as long as they hold that mental image it ain’t happening.   

So, what gives the ordinary middle aged person who has never run a race in their life the motivation to run a marathon?   There is a story behind every marathoner and most are pretty interesting.   For some it is the glory of the race, the attempt to be among the elite, either overall or in their age group.  For some it may be to test the limits of their physical strength, competing not with the rest of the runners but with their own personal goals.  For many it is just proving they have the mental and physical fortitude to set that goal and make it to the finish line.   These runners are often running for more than themselves, carrying with them a cause of helping someone else or keeping a memory of a loved one alive.  Some wear their story on their t-shirts on race day, running for a cause that may be universal (cancer, liver disease, Heart Association, our lost military brothers etc.) or personal (in memory of my dad, mom, brother, sister, son, daughter etc.).   Regardless of their cause they have one thing in common, all are committed.   For them there is no “try”.

There was a time many years ago when I was among the first two groups, running Boston for time and glory.   Those days are long gone, obliterated by age and years of accumulated injuries.   Today I run with the third group in memory of my son Nick who can’t, and to help others whose current life challenges dwarf running a marathon.    And on Patriots Day, God willing, I will be joining 36,000 other committed runners who for many months have laced up their shoes, left doubt at the doorstep, and headed out to make crossing the finish line a reality.