More On Motivation

I have noticed a recent trend among the fitness blogs that I have been reading. We are all desperately waiting for spring to truly arrive. I think that with the official end of winter, our tolerance for cold, snow, sleet, and wind is at an end. I have further noticed that many of us are just venturing out and pretending that spring has indeed arrived. Last week, I went out in a long-sleeved shirt and wind vest thinking that I might be overdressed, since the thermometer looked like it was approaching the high forties (Fahrenheit). About a quarter mile into my run, I had the realization that I was pushing the season. There was more wind than I had anticipated; the sun, which had been briefly visible, was now behind the clouds and wouldn’t be coming back. It felt like the middle of January.

Around two miles, I was starting to bargain: “This is ridiculous. If I am doing this for fun, why am I still out here – this can hardly be called fun. Hey, I did something today and I’m keeping to the mantra of ‘doing something every day.’ I’ll just finish up with one of my short loops and call it quits.” The bargaining phase lasted for about half a mile and I soon found myself on a steady eleven mile run with a few surges thrown in. After three miles in the wind and cold, I warmed up and actually enjoyed the rest of my run. I’m still looking forward to running in shorts and short-sleeved shirt (sometime in June I imagine…), but my triumph over the elements has gotten me thinking about both the merits of warming up and the nature of training and motivation.

I find that if I can get through the first several miles on a cold and windy day, I’ll be able to finish an eight to ten mile run and actually enjoy most of it. I don’t think it’s a matter of merely warming up, although it does seem like it takes longer these days for my body to fully get into running. My better races are usually preceded by a two-mile jog, regardless of the distance, and when I am using the treadmill, I usually give myself a mile or two at ten minute-per-mile pace before I really start my workout. When I’m running outside in less-than-ideal conditions, I also feel that I need to get my head in the run. There are a lot of competing voices usually urging me to go back inside, even when I know that I will ultimately enjoy at least some part of the workout. I know that I’m not the only runner who loves to run, but also has to talk themselves into doing it – why is that? I remember reading an interview with Canadian masters runner Ed Whitlock – the first seventy-year-old to run a sub three-hour marathon and whose 2:54:48 at age 73 was an age-graded 2:03:57! – in which he admitted that he found his training to be “quite a bit of a drudge.” (http://www.runnersworld.com/elite-runners/interview-with-ed-whitlock)  Whitlock’s typical training day is doing 600-meter loops around a cemetery for three hours at a time, so I found it odd that he would spend all this time and effort merely to race well. He must find it worthwhile, but I get the impression that if he wasn’t racing, he probably wouldn’t be running. This might be almost the opposite approach of runners like George Sheehan and Bill Rodgers, who gave and give the strong impression that they would be out running even if racing had never been invented. I don’t think that this is merely an indication of their relative competitiveness, because both Rodgers and Sheehan were notoriously competitive when they were racing.

What I’m trying to get at here is an exploration of motivation. Would I be running if there wasn’t some future race on my calendar? I have spent years in the past running without training for a race, but I also didn’t improve and I found it easy to skip days. I felt a need to run, but I didn’t think too much about getting faster. I found a route that I liked and ran it day after day – never added too much distance and never ran it all that much faster. I told myself that I would start racing, “as soon as I got in shape,” but I never managed to convince myself that I was ready to race. It turns out that for me a looming race is a great way to keep motivated. I love running and would do it anyway, but I find that training for a race can be the necessary spur to get me outdoors on a really yucky day or that can get me on the treadmill (oh, joy). I have to admit that some of the motivation to train comes from the desire not just to run to the best of my ability in a race, but to avoid that horrible “I’m not quite in shape for this” feeling that can accompany a race. Every season I experience this to some degree. Last year, it was racing my first 5K of the season after taking a week off after HMRRC’s winter series races and then coming down with a series of colds. I didn’t realize I was undertrained until I took off from the starting line and kept waiting for the first mile marker. It took awhile to arrive. When you are desperately looking for mile markers in a 5K, it’s a really bad sign – you have stopped racing and are now surviving. This year, I have avoided illness, have remained injury-free, and have managed to keep my mileage up. During the last several months, I have idly wondered whether this is the year that I am going to experience problems associated with overtraining rather than undertraining. There have been times where I felt that I was on the verge of overdoing it – not just tired but kind of depressed – and wondered if I was getting a bit too close to the edge. I realized the other day, however, that you won’t know that you are overtraining until you are overtraining, especially if you are trying to stack up miles to get to another level.

More Motivation

More Motivation

Cupcakes

Additional Motivation

The problem, of course, is that the edge is different for every runner. If forty miles a week feels good, how would fifty feel? Sixty? I read somewhere that fifty might be the dividing line where breakthroughs are made. When testing limits, however, we also need to be wary of the breakdown line. I have the feeling that the two might be very close together. I guess I might soon find out.

 

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Motivation Strategies Gone Awry

I forgot to tell everyone about the insane (in retrospect, as I will explain) thing that I did in the middle of January. Merely as a method of motivation, I decided that I would forgo beer until I reached my racing weight goal of 155 lbs. I didn’t have any illusions that the calories saved through beer’s avoidance would be enough to take off the pounds. It was a rule implemented solely to provide some focus and discipline. Now, I’m not one of those runners whose main reason for running is so that they can drink large quantities of beer. There are, of course, running clubs that appear to have done exactly that through the successful merging of running and beer and there is, in fact, a documentary film on the horizon that examines one of the most famous of these clubs, The Fishtown Beer Runners from Philadelphia (http://www.runnersworld.com/general-interest/upcoming-documentary-about-running-and-beer). I’m a firm believer that Guinness is one of the best recovery beverages and that there is nothing better than sitting out on the back porch with a Newcastle Brown after a hard summer run. I thought that the threat of losing my recovery beverage would help to keep me on track for cutting those last few pounds before the spring racing season. I also have to admit that I had just upped my mileage, had immediately and easily lost two pounds, and assumed that the rest would quickly follow. That’s just not the way that diet works, is it? I should have known better. I lost a bit of weight and then I stabilized. I can only assume that the mileage increase also had the effect of improving my running efficiency. So, for the last several months I haven’t had a beer (I know, this is pretty much the definition of a first world problem…) and my weight has stabilized despite the increased distance. All, however, is not lost. I did manage to take slightly more than a minute off of my 4 mile personal best, so something seems to have worked. I really hope, however, that there’s not a true correlation between abstention and running performance.

If you race long enough, you'll pick up a lot of these. What to fill them with?

If you race long enough, you’ll pick up a lot of these. What to fill them with?

While I’m on the topic of diet and exercise, it looks like our friend Kevin Helliker from The Wall Street Journal has come out with another one of his fitness anxiety pieces, “Why Runners Can’t Eat Whatever They Want: Studies Show There Are Heart Risks to Devil-May-Care Diets – No Matter How Much You Run” (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303949704579461381883678174?mod=e2fb). Although Helliker once again cites his favorite cardiologist, James O’Keefe (who you may remember insists that a moderate twenty miles a week is all the running you should be doing) and strings together a slew of half-related studies and anecdotal evidence to almost construct a valid argument, I have to admit that the main point of Helliker’s article does bear (I almost wrote “beer” there) some thinking about, particularly for the masters runner. I first became cognizant of the fact that I couldn’t eat anything I wanted to, even if I was running a lot, when, more than a decade ago, I had upped my mileage and was still gaining weight. How was this possible, I asked myself? Well, I soon realized (OK, maybe not soon enough) that there was a straightforward calculus of calories consumed and calories expended of which one needed to be aware. There really is no way around this simple fact. It is also becoming increasingly apparent that what you eat – how is this surprising – also contributes to your overall health.  This might be the crux of the problem for the long-distance runner. When you are doing high mileage, moderate eating can be difficult – a scoop of ice cream turns into a really big bowl, a slice of bread becomes a loaf – you get the idea. You’re hungry – you need to fuel. Well, now it looks like we need to be careful about what we’re fueling with – less ice cream, diary, cheese, and cake (and…uh…cupcakes). Eat more fruit, beans, and vegetables and keep serving sizes modest. I think that most masters runners are probably already aware of the moderation mantra – we just need to be mindful of it.

Terrorism at the Boston Marathon: Running is About More than Running

In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, I couldn’t write. I knew that there would be the typical condemnations, accusations, and admonitions to not let a heinous and cowardly act diminish the freedom and self-improvement that the marathon represents. This is as it should be. Other commentators would warn us that the sport has forever changed and that we should all band together in solidarity. Again, a good sentiment. I really didn’t know what to think. I wondered what someone thought they could accomplish by killing and injuring spectators and runners at the Boston Marathon. There were, of course, no answers, so I did what many of us do when similarly stymied: I went for a run.

I went for an untimed run on my most regular route. The plan was to relax and think.  I found myself, however, churning and breathing hard. I was not relaxed and I was having trouble thinking. I noticed that among many of the runners I passed, there were looks of determination that I had not seen before. These people had also heard the news and realized that running would be their response and salvation. I think we all recognized that there was solidarity in running and a way to resist the implications of the bombing. I can’t say that it was a particularly enjoyable run; but it was a meaningful one, and it did, finally, get me thinking.

When has running ever been just about running? I would have to say never. It has always been about something more – a way of resisting and questioning rigid social values, a way of calling into question cultural assumptions, a way of celebrating both individual freedom, as well as community endeavor and solidarity.  Running means more than running.  This is one of the reasons why I was beside myself when I started reading about how the Obama administration was initially trying to avoid the word terrorism (To be fair, President Obama – in today’s morning briefing – has since recognized that this was a terrorist act.), a semantic gymnastics that other news media initially decided to follow. No, the Boston Marathon bombing is the very definition of terrorism. The individual or group responsible for this heinous and barbaric crime picked a target that brings together a variety of cultural values within a social context that really does symbolize the United States at its best. The Boston Marathon, a race steeped in tradition as the nation’s oldest marathon, was established directly after the completion of the first modern Olympiad in 1896. At its best, the Olympic movement has been one of the most visible representations of internationalism and the promise of pluralism.  The tradition of the Boston Marathon ties directly back to the highest ideals of humanity as symbolized by the Olympics. The fact that the marathon takes place on Patriot’s Day also connects it to an essential taproot of freedom in the United States. This is the day, after all, that celebrates the first shots of the American Revolution at Lexington and Concord. In addition, this was the marathon that was being run to remember and honor the victims of the Sandy Hook school shootings. I think it is essential to realize that runners frequently participate in marathons to remember family members that have died of cancer, to raise money for charities that battle the various ills and diseases that plague society, and for reasons too personal to accurately catalogue. The marathon provides runners with the opportunity to physically sacrifice for a greater good, to offer a personal challenge to an often uncaring, materialist society, and to remember those who are no longer with us.

Each marathoner has their own personal reasons for running, and yet they are able to strive for individual accomplishment within a supportive community. It is the idea of individual freedom contained in a larger supportive and protective society. Hardly surprising, then, that the Boston Marathon is much more than a mere foot race. It is, instead, a living symbol of America at its best, in the past, the present, and the future.  It encompasses the idea of the United States: people free to pursue their individual goals, to celebrate the self, but in the support of a common vision of community and society.  This is why the Boston Marathon became such an attractive target for terrorists, because its meaning reflects our highest ideals of Americanism, internationalism, and humanism.  There is an essential good in sacrificing for others and yourself, to push through impossible-seeming barriers, and to find a deeper meaning in your life. This terrorist attack, then, was an attack on our essential humanity.

The Boston Marathon’s rich history, cultural context, and meaning, may have made it an appealing terrorist target. However, these same attributes will make it impossible to destroy. Its success comes from individuals with a variety of motivations working in concert and solidarity to achieve something greater than themselves. The essential idea of the marathon – determination against the odds and overcoming adversity – means that it has the attributes to survive a barbaric and inhuman attack. The terrorist (or terrorists) correctly understood that the Boston Marathon is a cultural touchstone for the values that humanity at its best holds dear. They perhaps failed to recognize that these are also the values – collected in the symbol and reality of the marathon – that will ultimately spell the failure of this attack on humanity.  Running really is about more than running.

Are You Running Too Much? The Wall Street Journal Weighs in on Running

I don’t think I’m running too much here.

Like many who write about running, I felt compelled to comment on Kevin Helliker’s provocatively-titled, predictable, yet oddly written article, “One Running Shoe in the Grave: New Studies on Older Endurance Athletes Suggest the Fittest Reap Few Health Benefits,” that appeared in this past Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal.  Helliker’s article summarizes one of those periodical reports by hand-wringing cardiologists warning us about the dangers of excessive exercise.  The assertion that seems to have caused the most controversy among serious runners is the idea of what constitutes excessive: twenty to twenty-five miles per week and a pace of eight miles per hour – or 7:30 minute-per-mile pace.  This is not a lot of mileage, although the pace stipulation does logically lead to a future blog entry concerning how fast should we be running our long runs.  Helliker’s article reads like a typical throwback to the “exercise is actually bad for you” pronouncements that usually accompany the deaths of notable runners such as Jim Fixx and Micah True.  Men’s Health, for example ran an article on October 14, 2008, entitled, “Are You Running Yourself to Death?”  This is by no means a recent development. In the wake of the first running boom, cardiologist Henry A. Solomon foresaw several of the arguments of Dr. O’Keefe’s upcoming editorial in the journal Heart – in The Exercise Myth (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984).  At my most cynical, I would dismiss Helliker’s gloss of O’Keefe as merely a way to sell papers.

There are some interesting observations, however, to be made about “One Running Shoe in the Grave.”  First, it’s telling that O’Keefe’s recommendations to scale back under twenty miles a week and slow down – especially if you are over fifty – are being made on the basis of research that is only showing an association. There may well be some legitimate issues with the statistical significance of the sample size, particularly concerning high-mileage, high-speed elite athletes.  There was also no mention of the sex of the runners in the study. I’m sure we’ll find out more about research design when Heart is published next month. Ominously, I noticed that when questioned about his research, Dr. O’Keefe, rather than talking about methodology, accused his critics of being “chronic exercise addicts.”  Using a dismissive, catchy phrase to derail intellectual inquiry is a common rhetorical strategy of the academic under threat. I have the feeling that this report might be dead in the water once we get to take a closer look.  Academics confident of their numbers usually don’t childishly lash out against their critics.  It is also odd that Dr. O’Keefe bases his recommendations on his personal experience as a “former elite athlete” on a “sense” that his athletic regimen was aging him prematurely. I think he might need some evidence here to back him up. Most credible scientists get a bit skittish when talking about an individual’s “sense” trumping observable fact.  I want some numbers.  It will be interesting to see what people say when the full editorial in Heart is published.

There is another assumption that Helliker makes that is fully debunked in the accompanying comments to his article: everyone exercises to live longer.  In fact, most people do not take up running in the expectation that it might prolong their lives. Unsurprisingly, as many of the commenters explained, they run because it improves their quality of life, not the quantity.  At its most prosaic, it is great to be a runner for the stress release running provides, for the ability to walk up several flights of stairs without being winded, or for the ability to proceed through a busy day without becoming overly exhausted. But, as the devoted runner knows (and this is only reflected in the last quote of the article which is intended to point out that most serious runners won’t listen to this “sound” advice) is that running is fun and for many that have caught the running bug, racing is even more fun.  We don’t do this merely for the real and (possibly) perceived health benefits.  Here’s a dose of reality: longevity is never guaranteed. People die everyday in unanticipated ways.  Many, however, have realized that running makes them feel better while they are living.  I can’t stress enough the quality of life aspect of running, as well as what Dr. George Sheehan argued was the appealing “play” associated with running.  For Sheehan, at its core, running constituted a return to childhood play for adults – racing even more so.  So, the appeal of running – and this is by no means an original thought – far surpasses any quest for longevity.  The fact that these articles arguing that exercise might be bad for you come out on a predictable basis backed by the authority of cardiologists makes me wonder: why?  I think it has something to do with the popularity of running and some perceived threat that it poses to the status quo. It can’t be a coincidence that we have seen this type of article – ostensibly backed by reputable science – at the peak of several running booms.  There is more to be said about this, but it will have to wait for another blog entry.

Finally, I need to mention the “oddly written” part of Helliker’s article. Several commentators in the Wall Street Journal also pointed this out.  This is the story of Meghan Newcomer, a 32-year-old professional triathlete, who passed out during several races, and whom Helliker uses as an example of why 50-year-olds need to run less. Newcomer was told to triple her intake of salt, which solved her race-collapse issues. This looks like it was more of an issue of hyponatremia and certainly not a cardiac problem, so why the story? Yes, it makes that much sense.

Although this article has generated a fair amount of discussion, it is ultimately part of an old narrative that often rears its ugly head when running gets too popular – an old story verging on a non-story.  I think the real story here, is the opening up of a larger conversation about why people run – not as controversal, but ultimately more useful.