Friday, January 31, 2014

In Defense of Running Outside

For a long time, I tried to run at a gym. I used ellipticals, treadmills, and indoor tracks; something that let me read a book or watch TV was ideal. But after enough visits, I would lose interest and stop exercising. At the time, this process helped convince me that I was not cut out for exercise. After eight months of running outside, however, I think I understand why it’s so much easier to stick to outdoor runs: texture.

Running at a gym is a microwavable dinner. Better yet, it’s like the cafeteria lineup in a dystopian future where all nutrients are eaten in paste form. And yes, gray protein paste and blue fiber paste get the job done, but where’s the fun? You need more than that to avoid the thought-police.

Okay, let me explain.

Distance running in place on a machine, or around the same track, is a smooth and flavorless experience for your mind’s taste buds. Sorry, weird description. What I mean is that there’s no flavor or variety, and thus no reason to keep coming back. You’re never going to bite the fork squeezing nutrient-tubes into your mouth, sure, but for every fork-bite while running there might be some new zest for your legs.

Please, let me continue unpacking this weird metaphor.

When I was running at the gym in front of a line of TVs, I confused two things that should never been confused: running and convenience. I tried to do something I really enjoyed to distract myself from exercise. If I can watch Maury when I run, I thought, I will have everything I want. I will be doing something good for myself while watching people publicly air their poor decisions. Maybe I'll read, thus improving my brain and body. Unless I’m reading transcripts of Maury episodes.

Words alone don't do them justice, though.
Here is what I learned: running cannot be convenient because it is inherently a difficult and ridiculous thing to do. It demanded my full attention, because fundamentally no part of my brain understands it. Are we running from a predator? Hunting? Chasing a food truck that has waffles? No? Then why is this happening to us? My body likes being at rest, and it objects to being put in motion. When I used a treadmill to “do” thirty minutes of cardio, running was a process that needed to result in something else. It was a loading bar that slowly filled up in completion of “exercise," and I thought I could ignore it. I needed to ignore it, because all I was doing was staying in one space in one four-walled room.

So at a gym, running became about distracting myself from the process of this bar filling so that I didn’t think I was running. But like the other woman in a melodramatic movie about adultery, running doesn’t like being ignored. If you make it a chore, it will be harder and harder to do it and your willpower will burn up. Now, I’m not knocking willpower. Sometimes we have to do things that we hate, like working a boring job or returning to your long-suffering wife in that same melodramatic movie about adultery (the other woman kills them both in the end, though). But running doesn't have to be a chore. In fact, running can GIVE you energy if you pay attention to it, and running outside forces you to pay attention to things. Some of those things will be muscle soreness, your quick heartbeat, and shortness of breath. Don’t tune these out. Run through them, and you will also see the world moving around you. Your mind needs this texture. Mine sure did.

Oh look, some kids playing street hockey with no skates. My feet hurt. Hi, woman jogging with a stroller. Is she going faster than me? Wait, what if she fell? Would the baby be catapulted skyward at a million miles-per-hour? Could I run fast enough to catch it? Of course not, I can barely breath. Have hearts ever exploded? Once, I ate an entire meat-lovers pizza and washed it down with a box of red wine. I bet my heart has been plotting its revenge since then. Yup, my heart is going to explode. Great, passing a sewer grate shooting poop-steam across the trail. If I hold my breath for the three seconds it would take to cross it, my lungs will join my heart in exploding. Got to just breathe it in…ack! Heading under a bridge. Hope I don’t get stabbed. Let’s see how much graffiti I can read as I pass…aaaand none whatsoever. Nice. Oh a doggie! It’s playing! Now, it’s spotted me. Approaching, approaching, don’t speed up or show fear…dog, where is your master? Oh, there he is. Hello!

If you pay attention to these things, the good, bad, and inconsequential, a wonderful thing happens. Running fades quietly to the background instead of being forced there by purposeful distractions. It becomes automatic rather than a chore. I’ll never forget the feeling of being completely in my own mind before remembering that I have also been running. I didn't shunt the inherent difficulty of running aside; I had worked through it and was in a symbiosis with the work I was forcing my body to do.

Is it still hard? Yes. But while you never start a run with this runner’s high, I believe it is best achieved by heading out your front door and running in the living, breathing world. Our minds need that texture to understand momentum and be truly comfortable with distance running. Gyms and exercise equipment are great for certain kinds of workouts, but if you want to become a distance runner, you need to run outside if you can. Distance running on a treadmill gives your mind nothing palatable, and you begin to resent the work. 

You need the texture that reminds you to enjoy the experience, not just the end result. Then, distance running will be easy to do.


Monday, January 27, 2014

How Winter in Chicago Ruins Everything

This morning at 6 AM, I ran on the park trail that goes by my home. At night, this unlit trail becomes the setting of a bad horror movie, one in which someone does something unrealistically stupid and gets a limb chopped off by a machete-wielding maniac. For me, the stupid was choosing to run in the dark at 6 AM, but since life isn’t a movie, I mercifully got to keep all my limbs. Funnily enough, though, I wouldn’t have noticed if I had lost a limb, since they were all numb from the cold anyway.

Anyway, let’s talk about winter weather in Chicago and running.

It is awful. There is no aspect of it that is not awful. The only defense I can imagine is that it will make you appreciate running in other seasons more. Before winter truly took hold, though, I was hopeful. There was a brief time, during my first run after a heavy snowfall, where I was momentarily struck by the beauty of my park’s changed landscape. Powdery snow ghosts, kicked up by the wind, danced on undisturbed snowbanks, and yellow streetlamps gilded the white tops of bare tree branches.

It took my breath away. Then it took my footing.

I hit a patch of black ice, playfully hiding under the fresh powder, and fell into a snowbank that, while cushioning my fall, also inserted about ten pounds of pure-driven snow into my jacket via the sleeves and neck.

Oh, I thought, so that’s how it is.

Since then I’ve considered winter and myself enemies when it comes to my running goals, and she has not done much to call a truce. Obviously there are her acts of direct aggression: snowstorms, negative temperatures in the double-digits, and long hours of darkness that turn every outdoor run into the aforementioned horror-movie.

Pictured: my morning run
But it’s the subtle aggression that so dispose me to hate her. For example, just two weeks ago, we had a light thaw. Temperatures soared into the high 30s, sunlight broke through the clouds, and everything in Chicago dripped for 48 hours. Great! I thought, na├»ve little runner that I was, my path will thaw too! Everything’s coming up Milhouse! However, when I stepped onto the downward-sloping start of my park trail, I immediately slid 14 feet forwards to where the trail leveled off. I wish I could remember the curses I yelled out as I slid, because the swears preceding physical injury are always the most creative. The kids playing nearby certainly looked impressed.

It turns out that my path doesn’t thaw. Instead, it develops a highly original method of breaking people’s legs. First, you have an un-thawed layer of ice over most of the trail. Nothing short of spring will strip that away. But then, since it is slightly warm, a filmy water layer forms to cover the already-slippery ice. These two elements combine to form a surface that has negative levels of friction. Stepping on this surface will shoot your foot off in a random direction at roughly 80 miles per hour.

But that isn’t the worst. If I came to the trail and saw a wall to wall wet-ice combo, I would leave. I’m not a masochist. It’s the fact that there are spots where the trail is clear. Where the concrete pokes through with its delicious dryness and firmness. That’s what made me run that day: hope. Hope that I could weave a path through the patches of terra firma without breaking my neck. That the dry concrete and wet ice looked almost identical to the naked eye was incidental. I was teased with the hope of winning, even in the face of insurmountable odds.

It was The Hunger Games. Except more dangerous, and without a boring, forced love triangle.

The other subtle way winter messes with running is in the clothing choices it forces upon you. First off, running is a beautiful pastime because it is so cheap. Got running shoes? You can run. (You should wear pants as well.) In the winter, though, all of a sudden you have to balance athletic with warm. I run in a discolored hoodie (I spilled drain-o on it once), gloves, sweatpants over my running shorts, and a ski-mask that both inhibits breathing and, I feel, makes me look like a serial killer. On one hand, this mask is great for keeping my face warm. On the other, it traps my warm breath under the mask, heating my cold nose and making it run like a faucet. Since I cannot wipe my nose during a run, the snot runs into my mouth the whole time. If that was gross to read, just imagine living it.

We also have the problem of warming up as you run. What keeps you warm when you start out will boil you alive when you get going. But if you start out wearing too little, you’ll end up like Jack Nicholson sitting frozen at the end of The Shining. And if you have any sort of cool down outside after you’ve finished running, you’ll be doing it in wet clothes, so again, you’ll end up as frozen as an alcoholic who chased his telepathic child through a frozen hedge maze.

It happens to the best of us
So, winter. I could go on about the ways it upsets me, but by now you’ve gotten the point. At the end of the day, though, runners don’t run because it’s easy. Adverse conditions make things harder, but the act of distance running is also adverse to my natural laziness. So that’s the other thing I’ll say in defense of winter running: you get a fierce and satisfying pride from completing your run when it is awful outside. I think it’s because the winter reflects how difficult distance running inherently is. Your brain must be harsh to your body to get it to run, and winter is likewise harsh to both of them.  Rather than being pitted against each other, your brain and body must work together to overcome the odds, growing closer as things get worse, until they win by working together to overcome the Capital…

It’s The Hunger Games. I’m talking about The Hunger Games again. Damn that Jennifer Lawrence’s natural charisma!

So much charisma!

Friday, January 24, 2014

The 10% Rule

I’ve just been sitting here planning my training for running a marathon. I find doing this overwhelmingly boring, so instead I’m going to procrastinate and talk about what I’ve already done.

I currently run 3.1 miles a day, six days a week. That’s a 5k a day, and it totals 18.6 miles a week. I’m proud of myself for this. This was my original goal when, last spring, I struggled to run half a mile, and since then I’ve been able to steadily increase my distance until I hit 3.1 at the end of November. I say I’m proud while writing this, but the fact is that at the end of a run, I usually don’t feel any better after 3.1 miles than I did after half a mile. I’m still spluttering and coughing and sore. The difference now, I suppose, is that I know improvement is possible, while last May I was sure that I was just a failure.

Will Smith once said that you have to approach any big job like you’re building a wall. You don’t try to build the wall all at once; you take it one brick at a time. I’m paraphrasing, but the gist was that you lay one brick perfectly, focus everything on that, and eventually you’ll have a kick-ass wall. Now he was also in Wild Wild West and made his son an actor, so his judgment isn’t exactly bulletproof, but I agree with him in that quote.

If I think about running a marathon all at once, I feel like the character in a movie that tries to pick a fight with a seated bully who seems a reasonable size, but then the bully stands up and is really huge and intimidating, so the first character gulps and tries to smooth things over but still usually gets punched in the face. What I’m saying is that a marathon is a little too big and scary to approach just now. Let’s back off and instead pick a fight with its smaller buddies.

This upcoming spring, I want to run 6.2 miles per day, six days a week. That’s a 10k a day, and it totals 37.2 miles a week. This is a LOT more than I’m doing right now. You math whizzes have probably already figured out that it is double what I’m doing now. So even though this isn’t a big marathon-wall, it’s still a huge brick. So let’s focus on the mini-bricks that form the larger 10k-brick’s foundation. Or…would it be the cement that is poured to form the 10k-brick? I’ve completely lost this metaphor. Sorry, Will. What I’m getting at is THE 10% RULE.

THE 10% RULE, so capitalized because every running blog or website on earth has something to say about it, states that you should not increase your total distance by more than 10% from one week to the next. This is so straightforward and lovely, isn’t it? But like any general rule, it must be translated for certain types of people.

Some runners are great. I love watching them. Their bodies are full of tight springs and straight metal rulers that result in hard lines and precisely calculated movement. Their form is fluid and beautiful, and in spandex you might mistake them for a costumed superhero. They can increase their runs by 10% or more every week, no problem.

Some runners, and by “some” I mean “me,” are full of soft cheese and wet paper. They’ll rumble down a trail, squeaking and flopping, until everything has become too difficult and they have to lie down. In spandex clothing, they resemble a tightly wrapped burrito both visually and olfactorily.* Any increase in distance risks upsetting the delicate peace their fragile bodies have made with physical exertion.

As I mentioned before, I fall into the second group. When I was increasing my distance the first time, I cut the 10% rule in half and increased by about 5% a week, which in the beginning was just running a couple of steps farther before collapsing. I quickly understood that increasing distance was like building a house of cards in a windstorm; add things carefully, because it’s all likely to collapse soon. I made it through by remembering two things: first, increasing even by two steps is a success; and second, as I mentioned last time, running any distance makes you a runner and you should be proud. Even if you smell like a burrito.

But for me, I want to be a springs and rulers runner. I want to end 5k’s, 10k’s, and even marathons with only a light sheen of sweat on my forehead and a spring still in my step. So when winter ends and I begin increasing my distance again, I’m going to increase it by 10% every week. I’m no math whiz, but I did the calculations, and this means that I will double my 5k to a 10k in 8 weeks. Damn.

It’s okay, though. A 10k is just a brick in a wall. It’s a normal-sized bully seated at a table. Totally manageable.

…The more I think about it, though, the more I suspect that the bully is actually huge, and when he gets up he’s going to smash me in the face with a brick. I’ll keep you guys updated!

* I don’t care if this isn’t a word. If it isn’t then it totally should be.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Impostor Syndrome

So let’s talk about how running outside involves the physical existence of other people, because, when I started, being in public during a run presented a big obstacle.

In a memoir by Haruki Murakami called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (which was an inspiration for this blog), the author speaks fondly of those whom he encountered while running and writes that, “without all of you, I never would have kept on running.” He is a thoughtful, gracious man.

Here’s a fun fact about me: I’m a socially graceless and awkward introvert. With that in mind, I would like to adapt Murakami’s words for my own experience: to everyone I have encountered on all of my runs, without all of you, running would have been a lot easier from the get go. How? Well, two ways.

First, just the physical presence of others on a public trail makes running difficult. My route runs along the north branch of the Chicago River, alongside a park with playgrounds, basketball courts, and even a pool. Here are some of the fun obstacles I can encounter on any given day:

1. Children playing catch across the trail, despite having fifty yards of empty park sitting next to them. Will they stop throwing for two seconds to let you pass? No. No they will not.

2. Running groups that, though I applaud them for their dedication to exercise, haven’t quite grasped the concept of running in a line. Their formation, resembling an oncoming stampede, usually forces me into the bushes as they speak loudly of how pretty everything looks and how quiet the trail is.

3. The weavers, who keep you guessing as you approach them on the trail, since they stray from left to right like a drunken sailor on a wet deck in a bad storm.

So yeah, this sounds kind of (really) petty, and of course it speaks largely to my own insecurities. It also leads into my next point. The second way that others can affect your run is purely by watching you go. When I first started, and even a little bit now, my runs were a shameful act, and I reacted to seeing others as a teenager would react to being caught masturbating: I was angry that they were witnessing something so private and, from my perspective, wrong.

It’s hard to unpack why I thought it was wrong at the beginning. In my case, given my years of inactivity and, well, high school in general, exercise seemed unattainable, something that just came easily to others. So, I felt like I was an impostor when I tried to exercise, and I felt like everyone who saw me could immediately recognize that. This impostor syndrome can plague anyone who is just starting a new job or hobby, but I've found that it was solved for me with one realization.

No one cares. Seriously. No one is thinking about you for more than two seconds after they see you pass, either positively or negatively. Moreover, the universe doesn't care. Thinking of yourself as an impostor attributes WAY too much importance to what you’re doing as far as other people go. An impostor is someone who is a mob boss’s daughter and infiltrates a wealthy family posing as a nanny to kidnap their youngest child for ransom, but then she falls in love with both the child and the brave single father who raises a family while still pioneering new brain surgery techniques. The decisions that person made? Definitely important to other people, especially when the impostor stands up to her mob boss dad to defend the child, but in doing so reveals to the doctor who she is and loses everything. Don’t worry! They get back together in the end when the mob boss develops a brain tumor and the only one who can save her is the doctor, who does because he loves the man's daughter and the movie fades to black as Coldplay’s Fix You plays over the credits.

Anyway. What you’re doing when you run is only for you. You’re not an impostor, because as soon as you take one step, you’re a runner. I know it sounds harsh to say no one cares, but for me it is empowering to truly understand that the universe doesn't have to care one way or the other for me to run. I earned the title of runner for myself with every stitch and gasped breath. So while some runners, like Murakami, might take energy from others during a run, I think distance running is actually tailor-made for us awkward introverts who like to avoid others, because even on a busy trail in the public eye, running keeps you alone. It allows you to express a determination that no one has. Sure, other people run, but they aren't you, and they didn't decide to be you and still run. What you're doing is all yours.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Informed Stupidity

So in my first post I may have misled you. I do have a lot of personal, feely-reasons for this blog (all of which, I feel, paint me as a sensitive and at the same time hilarious human being), but my main, more practical goal is that I want to write about my attempt to run a marathon. 

Let's be immediately clear: a marathon is ridiculous. It is ridiculous for anyone, really, but I’ll put it in perspective: I get tired driving 26.2 miles. The only comparable thing I’ve done is eating about 26.2 miles of 7-11 jumbo burritos, if you laid them end to end. I get bored counting to 26. By twos. So, you might be wondering how I deal with these discouraging facts. 

I ignore them. I'm writing this post because, despite all the high-minded introspection of the first post, I should emphasize that you have to be stupid and stubborn about your goals in order to become a runner. I want to run a marathon. I want to run a marathon. I can’t have weird, complicated reasons for my running goals, because ultimately it’s like a teacher who grades based on effort; if you give a student (in this case, my lazy body) any wiggle room, they’ll abuse the system. Imagine a student learning anything in a school that grades based on effort.

“No, I didn’t write the paper, Mr. Crochet,” (which would totally be the teacher’s name), “I instead drew this picture of a cat. I think it represents my main idea for the paper, which is brilliant in theory. Oh, an A for effort? Wonderful. For my final paper, I will add whiskers.”

See? See how my straw man argument holds up so beautifully to close examination? Most students resting state is to do as little as possible. Consequences mean pressure, and a healthy amount of pressure leads to forward momentum. My body, like a student, loves doing very little. If you have complicated or intuitive reasons for each and every run, you can argue with yourself.

“Oh my, I don’t want to run today. You see, I run in order to overcome a kind of existential hopelessness brought about by my generation’s crushed hopes for economic opportunity. Exercise exists as a specific type of self-abuse that expresses an impotent rage against both society and my own shortcomings. Going deeper, however, we can observe that I also run to escape a meaningless void of cultural milieu that fails to feed my artist’s soul. With all that in mind, I’m feeling decidedly present and existentially sound today. I won’t run. Instead, I will stay in bed all day and shotgun 7-11 jumbo burritos into my gaping maw. What’s that? Only 1200 calories apiece? Better have seven.”

No, that doesn’t work. Logic can be manipulated, complex reasons can have holes poked through them. A declarative sentence, however? You can just stupidly repeat that with your hands over your ears until people leave you alone.

I’m going to run a marathon. I’m going to run a marathon. I’m going to exercise today. I’m going to run today. Don’t go deeper than that. To me, deeper thoughts are like creating reasoned dialogues in pursuit of journalistic integrity are to Fox News: avoided at all cost.

So all of this leads to a couple of rules I’m going to have for this blog. First, I will not write an entry before I run on any given day. I tend to get up my own ass when I write about running, which, as you can see from the above example, usually just convinces me to do nothing instead of something. Second, I will stop getting so up my own ass when I write about running. I’ve always found the most boring and worthless writing to be that which over-examines motivation and human nature (see: philosophy), and it’s more fun to write about concrete things, like foot pain and ice and bikers. Oh man, do I have things to say about bikers. Not the leather kind, the push-pedal kind. We’ll get to them next time.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Light Exercise, Self-Loathing, and Me

So, I started running about eight months ago. In retrospect, it would be really nice to say that I had a revelation about health and wellness that led me to run, or perhaps there were some very dramatic happenings that sparked my interest. Like Forrest Gump in his movie, Forrest Gump, I might have been reflecting on lost love and shrimping boats before deciding to run as a way to express angst and insatiable desire.

But in truth, I started running because last spring I got a smart phone that came with a run-tracker app thingy. One day I opened it, said, “What the hell?” and strapped on some sneakers. The idea of satellites tracking my run and then showing me a little map of it afterwards appealed to me. I think it’s because it makes my life a little more like a video game, many of which track the stats of your character as you do certain things. Even eight months on, I’m not sure I’ve logged more miles in real life than I have as Link or Batman, but I do tend to value the real life accomplishment over the virtual one. If it’s any consolation to him, virtual Batman still has me beat in doling out justice. I have doled out very little in my life.

So, eight months ago I ran. And in that first run, I was introduced to what would become my longtime running companion: cursing. When you are as out of shape as I was eight months ago, running half a mile introduces you to new levels of physical and emotional pain. After only five minutes, my feet hurt, my chest hurt, my legs hurt, and even my back hurt, since for once it wasn’t bent laboriously over a computer screen. Worse than all that though, my pride hurt. Had it really come to this? I remembered being a kid on the playground, running for 45 minutes straight in games of tag and soccer, rocks in my shoes and scabs on my knees. Could I have imagined then doubling over in exhaustion after jogging, leisurely, two blocks? These days, I didn't even have the motivating factor of not catching cooties in a game of tag. So not only was I embarrassed now, my 8-year old self was embarrassed for me. And that was a kid who un-ironically loved 90s television, so his pity didn’t feel great.

Thus the cursing. Not out loud, mind you, but so loud in my head that I’m sometimes surprised others can’t hear it as they run or walk past me. Cursing at myself, the world, the tight feeling my chest as I try to draw more oxygen in than my weak lungs can handle. It usually sounded something like this, except with less family-friendly changes:

“Screw this, gosh darnit, screw this screwing stuff and screw screwlington too.”

My brain would blare these nonsensical obscenities over all else, and that was probably the hardest part. At the end of a run, when all pretense and energy had been stripped away, I had been diminished by something that I could not do, and those curses were all that was left. That was all I had to offer, at my core; they represented an exposed nerve of shame and frustration. It’s easier now, of course. At the beginning I was missing the most beautiful gift long-term runners have: perspective. I couldn’t look back and see improvement, and so I couldn’t look forward to more. My running journey had no narrative, and the only thing I could associate with running was this feeling, right now, that was so painful.

Maybe perspective is overrated, though, because as I look back now, eight months on, I went back the next day despite not having it. I'm not sure why I did. Again, I would love to say I was overcome with a noble sense of purpose, and that I really did enjoy the previous day's run, deep down. But I really did not. It took me a long time to start to enjoy running, and those first few weeks I hated it more than a social conservative talking about bootstraps.

But you know what? That was it. Spite. The hate I had for those first few runs was cathartic, and that’s why I kept going back. I was in the process of losing my job at the time, a job I didn’t really want anyway but was all I had but I should be doing something different…needless to say, it was a confusing time. So those runs gave me hate and self-loathing, but those were things I could own. They were self-generated. Every day, no matter how uncertain my future looked in the hands of other people, I could put my feet on the ground, and spit, and curse internally, and look at the run online afterwards and think that I’m running slower than Forrest was on the uptake, but god dammit this pain is mine

So that’s why I kept running. If I had been happier in my life, I probably wouldn’t have, and maybe that’s a bad reason to have started but I honestly don’t think it is. Progress should start from the bottom up. I thought of starting this blog because I want to share that perspective I mentioned earlier, and because when I run I keep thinking of funny things I could write about. Distance running is inherently graceless and awkward, and I am those things doubly-so. After eight months, I am still a baby in the running world, and it’s my ultimate goal to become moderately okay. Plus, I would love to read about someone as incompetent as me try to do anything.