Monday, September 23, 2013

Negativity splits

(Third in a series.)

So much of running is an individual pursuit that the fear of running in isolation doesn’t seem to make much sense.

Yet there it is.

Not isolation while training on a breathtaking trail. That’s bliss. The issue here is isolation of the race variety. Watching the pack pull away right from the start, your confidence escaping into oblivion like a lost helium balloon. Or even worse, the idea—even the faintest possibility—of being flat-out finished before the finish line, dragging across with a gasping lack of decorum as polite bystanders try to look away.

These are not views brimming with optimism. So taking a turn for the positive by trying to adopt the tactic of running negative splits makes sense. Except that nothing in this sport is as easy as it sounds.

“Don’t go out too fast.” Yes, I’ve heard that one. And contemplated it. And tried to practice it. But fully grasping the concept of slower, even if just at the outset, remains tangled with the enduring quest to be faster.

This has Zen koan written all over it.

Experience, I hope, will help resolve the paradox. After only two Downtown Miles and a few timed miles at TRF practices, embracing both ends of the distance is still as elusive as that “two trains going in opposite directions” algebra problem I never solved. Each time, I try to run the first half slower, but it’s faster, and the second half is more like the second three-fifths.

Yeah, that makes sense.

Zen. Algebra. I think it’s time for a run to clear my head. I’ll try starting out a little easier … .

Sunday, August 25, 2013

That’s why they call it running

(Second in a series.)

Sometimes that voice within knows what it’s talking about.

About the tenth time I mentioned in passing to other runners that “I really need to get out on the trails more often,” and noticed that they simply moved on to another topic, the point became clear.

They were politely, through their silence, saying, “Yes, you do.”

It was pretty much what I had been saying to myself, but ignoring. For the better part of 18 months, my running consisted of Tuesday nights with TRF and a Saturday or Sunday morning run up the hill to Buffalo Park, around the loop and back down.

That routine was mostly aimed at exploring the persistent and universal newbie question, “Am I a runner?” Some days felt like yes. Others answered no. Finally, over time and repetition, came the long-sought affirmation. But my satisfaction with it didn’t last long. Soon arrived the nagging tug of another question. Why am I not getting any faster?

Some fairly obvious thoughts came to mind. Most of the runners passing me during workouts, I reasoned, probably went a little easier on the pizza and PBR. (And please, please correct me if I’m wrong.) But I knew something else, as much as wanted to pretend I didn’t. They ran. A lot.

Stubbornly, I didn’t. Yet, in the end, a few lines from a book broke through the resistance that guilt and doubt couldn’t penetrate. In Running with the Mind of Meditation, Sakyong Mipham helped me understand that I was still “building a base.” That after months of running, my muscles and bones—and mind—were still becoming acclimated. And there was only one way to finish the base and begin striving for the next level. Run more.

So I added two mornings—a little more than four miles—a week. And after a few weeks, something happened. Running seemed less like a dispiriting effort. Bends in the trail and on the track felt more like grooves, pulling me around. A distant magnet drew me to the end. I was running.  

Am I fast? Not even close. But I’m more comfortable, and sometimes, in the early morning air among the pines, an unfamiliar and elusive sensation briefly appears: enjoyment.

I think I’ll keep running after it and maybe start catching up a little more often.

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Eric has written and lived here and there.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Over the hill on the way up

definition: over the hill. 1. past one’s prime; 2. to run to the top of the next hill, and the next, and the next

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Age has a way of defining us. When we’re young, we measure it in fractional increments, eager to show that at 4-1/2 or 9-1/2 we are nearly the next age, full of anticipation and confidence. Then, after our teens, we become 20-something or 30-something, which leads to being in our 40s or 50s before outright attempts at reversal—60 is the new 40, and on up the scale.

As a fledgling runner 18 months ago, and being new to Flagstaff, I quickly learned one of the fundamental lessons of this place: age may be a category in competitive runs, but it’s not an excuse. Or a qualifier. “That was a pretty decent time for a guy my age” doesn’t mean much around here.

Such a realization was intimidating, to be sure. But also motivating. The trail doesn’t care how old I am, and neither does the clock. So neither should I.


What’s going to follow in this series of posts is not a chronicle of how a 55-year-old, who didn’t really start running until he was 53, is fairing at 7,000 feet as the clock tick-tick-ticks. Certainly, there have been satisfying accomplishments and frustrating obstacles over that brief time, but the point is to convey the deeper experience of running—something that is shared by young and old at every level. 

The trail leads up for all of us. How each of us gets to the top of the next hill tells an individual story of mind, body and will that runners universally can appreciate.

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Eric has written and lived here and there.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Chest pain journey leads to peace of mind

I talk about what’s on my mind, especially when running, and the more I talked about my recent chest pain, the more of you I heard from about the same symptom.

It seems in this day and age of heart healthy guidelines being published, people are still reserved about such things; perhaps many keep what scares them to themselves. Here is my journey. Perhaps it will help you.

As a teenager, I was diagnosed with mitral valve prolapse—probably something I was born with. The valve from my atrium to ventricle (deoxygenated to oxygenated blood) is a bit misshaped and doesn’t close perfectly, causing some regurgitation, some floppiness to the valve itself and a host of symptoms including irregular heart beat and sometimes pain. I was told at the time it was not a life-changing issue, and to continue living normally.

Over the years I had some pain in times of stress, but I ignored it. As I got older, I began running daily, and in my 30s found a renewed interested in racing.  I never had chest pain while I ran and I didn’t much consider it.

Recently, though, the chest pain increased to twice daily, happening while I was running and while I was resting. My fear increased dramatically and I decided to go in for a checkup.

I underwent a battery of tests: ECG, ultrasound imaging, stress test with ultrasound and finally a CT image of my chest. Being a long time runner I was an anomaly in all of them. Physicians and technicians were curious about my low blood pressure, low resting heart rate, low weight, my ability to max out the stress test machine, and finally the lack of any heart disease. They were downright elated to see such clear images, quick recovery, and good anatomy.

They were also a little frustrated.

This led to my final test, a CT image of my chest for concern that I might have an aneurysm. This appointment was going to be my most challenging; articles of famous runners who died of cardiac events flashed through my mind, voices of family members cautioning me that “people die all the time from running,” memories of my most recent race the Gore-Tex Kahtoola Agassiz Uphill with alternate endings of me bleeding out on the fresh white snow … ok I was officially freaking out! And my follow-up appointment was weeks away.

A girlfriend of mine (thank you, Kristina) suggested that instead of waiting, I should request my test results at the hospital. I did just that and discovered that I do not have an aneurysm. A subsequent appointment also revealed that I was downgraded from mitral valve prolapse to mitral valve regurgitation, meaning my valve is not in danger of weakening as I age, but it still doesn’t close perfectly. And I am very healthy.  Beyond this, there was no explanation for my chest pain. (My condition could be described as “Broken Heart Syndrome,” a stress-related weakening of the heart after a period of high stress, which makes sense to me as I recently had a death in the family). I was dismissed from the cardiologist with the phrase “I don’t think you need me.”

So the journey continues. Would I do it again? Definitely! And I would advise anyone with chest pain to go get their heart checked. I have spoken with many of you who had chest pain and in the end discovered one of these outcomes: esophageal reflux, out of alignment rib, sleep apnea. Ease your mind and your symptoms by finding out what the true problem is.