I am not and have never been gazelle-like. Like my youngest daughter’s, my legs are are almost tank-like: broad quads almost matched by the calves they sit atop, kneecaps that look like robust sewer covers embedded in muscle. If you see me in shorts, you’d probably think I’m a decayed running back, not a second-half-of-life -- or “SHOL” if you’re angling for brevity -- runner. Now imagine that person carrying an extra 40 lbs: less tank, more teddy bear, perhaps, or muffin.
To call that first summer “running” is kind of an insult to what I now call running. But, thousand miles, single step, etcetera. A friend of mine lived out of town, and I decided that he would be a good person to visit. Without a car, that left my feet, direct or attached to wheels. As I was uncomfortable with the prospect of riding my Huffy roundtrip, I decided to run. Or, rather, run-ish.
I would run one or two flagpole separations -- having been back there recently, I can firmly say this is about 120 meters, plus or minus 60 -- then walk the same or a little more, eventually getting a couple miles from my house. My friend drove me home, though I don’t know how that worked during sophomore year, when he surely wasn’t yet 16. Maybe I just did those early days as an out-and-back with a break.
Either way, I turned into a little lost puppy. Habitually.
In those near-200-pound months, what I had dubbed the “sprint-walk” was a great workout. Unlike walking (which also takes forever), it brought up my heart rate and made my body adapt to the burst-stop conditions of playing lacrosse. And driving was a year in my future at that point, which meant the sprint-walks were also functional, in the way that the mid-19th century Thames was functional to Londoners who needed a drink.
I was, it probably need not be said, also a newbie to training. My knowledge of the running scene and training methods reflected that.
One of my friends once came over to talk about a conversation he had with a coach on how to get in shape for playing. By this time we must have discovered Play It Again Sports (where they sometimes had spare lacrosse equipment) and Harry’s lacrosse shop, since he was chatting up coaches. Let’s just say the Pacific Northwest wasn’t exactly a lacrosse hot spot, and there aren’t spare coaches lying around with keen insights into the inner workings of training. The coach had scribbled some notes as a pseudo-calendar, including “sp wk”.
“Sprint walk? That’s what I’m doing,” I said.
As most of you have probably already figured out, that “wk” meant “work” or perhaps “workout”, and in context the "sp" was more likely "speed", making the coherent training note "speed work". You know, improving top-end speed and endurance -- running in bursts on with longer periods off, slowly increasing the interval on, decreasing the period off, or both, until a sort of stasis is reached, usually around 4-to-1 slow-to-fast. (There's little consensus on this, and the optimal ratio somewhat depends on training goals. Some coaches insist on 90 seconds off for 20 seconds at pace; others angle for 60 seconds off for 20 seconds at pace; but in general they agree that the sprint should not be longer than 20 seconds and should be followed by either straight-up walking or the sort of shuffle a grandparent manages while pushing a full shopping cart.) In a way, I was doing speed work, just far more informally in pretty much every dimension. Consider it close enough.
While speed work/sprint work/sprint-walk is a good way to go for getting faster, it doesn’t get you much endurance. On the other hand, if you want to drop 20 pounds pretty quickly, doing that in conjunction with a drastic dietary change will get you there, assuming you’re coming from an excess of body fat. And boy howdy was I.
By the start of my sophomore year, I was noticeably smaller. I must have cut that hideous mullet, too, which -- and I say this as an objective observer of those years shortly after Saved By the Bell left the air (the legit one, not that crappy The New Class thing) -- should have been done much earlier.
Running that first summer never felt like all those running books make the beginnings of a running habit sound, though. It wasn’t like I’d found some wacky mysticism or a new lease on life or zen or whatever. There was no rush of adrenaline attached to every step, no higher power pressing me onward. It was -- and I say this as an objective observer of teenage years during Beverly Hills 90210 (the legit one, not that crappy remake) -- entirely selfish.
And as awesome as I am at it now, god did I suck at running back then, even though I kept on doing it. I sucked and kept it up -- and I say this as an objective observer of those years after Full House (the legit one, not Fuller House) -- like Full House actually sucked but we all watched it anyway.
Next Up: Let's call it riding, because it wasn't cycling.
Mash out. Spin on.
In high school, being the fat kid means you’re supposed to be teased a lot. And being habitually at the top of the class also means you’re supposed to be teased a lot. Maybe the PacNo -- not that anyone calls it that; I just didn’t want to get boring with the lingo here -- didn’t get that memo. I was reasonably well-known, generally well-ignored, and kind of did my own thing. The bullies had smaller fish to fry, the jocks had more annoying nerds to bug. I was in the sweet spot just near the top of each out-group.
My memory is too poor to recall when I turned vegetarian. My oldest brother probably did it during his junior year in high school, and it took a couple years before I caught on. That likely would have been during my freshman year. Let’s just say it was, because that’s the only way that I can see for this to make any sense. Unfortunately, the mists of un-newsworthy mid-90s history are a vast and virtually unnavigable realm, and this detail is sufficiently grey to be assumed unrecoverable.
The change was sudden. Both my brothers were vegetarian, and after only mild complaining from our parents, we managed to subdue their carnisaur tendencies and convince them that a person could actually live without consuming animals. At the time, of course, veganism wasn’t really an open concept, which probably made the entire enterprise more bearable -- especially for my cheese-lovin' dad.
Our parents always asked about protein. It happened probably twice a week, not in some clockwork fashion, but persistently and insistently.
At first, their objective seemed to be related to getting us back aboard the meat train: protein is necessary, or we don’t want to cook two meals, or just eat some meat again so I can stop having to explain this to other people. But after a few months, they resigned themselves to the situation and resorted only to the question, How are you going to get your protein? It was open-ended like that, and it almost always resulted in suggestions (from the parents) like “You should eat more beans!”
I have an excellent memory of trying tofu in elementary school. One of my classmates had just returned from Japan (I think it was Megan, who may or may not actually have an “h” in her name; shout out to Meg(h)an G!), and she brought in tofu for everyone to try. It was wet and slimy, a little bit sweet but largely tasteless. I don’t remember thinking it was disgusting, but it didn't make me beg for another bite. And we were in elementary school, where new things were only considered good if they were massively sugared up or absurdly sour. I guess candied tofu probably would have worked, but, shit, 25 years later and I can't even find a Japanese version of that to import. (Royalties from your future development of this product should be sent straight to my local beer vendor in my name.)
Alas, 8 years later even the most high-class stores in my area hadn’t caught up with the Japanese food craze, and I don’t think tofu was widely sold. We made do (or due, depending on whether you care about the history of that particular set phrase) with what we could get, so most of our protein really was, in fact, from beans (my father loved -- and still loves -- making bean stew) or cheese (mostly on pizza). I ate a lot of pasta. Just, you know, to set the record straight, we probably didn't eat enough beans.
There may be a country or two that I ate out of their collective caloric content during high school, proving that I was both a teenager and American. But for 3 years not a bit of it was from an animal carcass.
As time went on, this meat-free diet was subsumed into my identity. So I didn’t get pepperoni on my pizza -- just part of being a vegetarian in high school.
Now 20 years on, I’ve gone through periods of non-veg and veg, always preferring the latter. We'll pass through those on the way to the outhouse, I'm sure.
But I progress to the present, and I need to digress to what's past. Let's egress here, aggressively regress, then ingress where lacrosse and running introgress, I guess.
Next Up: Respawn as a runner!
Mash out. Spin on.
Every running story needs that great turnaround moment, that time when the protagonist first ran and decided, This is my zen. I won’t disappoint too much, but some of you larger types might want to skip this chapter, because I’m going to use the terms “fat” and “big” and “overweight” in ways that many people these days would consider flippant and possibly rude. Indeed, I consider these terms judgmental and rude, but it’s hard to be self-reflective without entering dark territory. So:
I started running because I was a fat kid.
The year was 1993. As a high school freshman, I tipped the scales at 200 lbs and bent the tape measure at 5’8” -- including my awesome late-80s/early-90s Zach Morris-with-a-mullet hairstyle. I was a happy-go-lucky kid with a good brain who didn’t consider athletics relevant. I reached high school with the intention of opting out of the PE requirement (that lobby was successful, but it came through 3 years later when I was already as gorgeous as The Thinker at dawn).
During what was both his and my freshman year, my oldest brother -- four years my elder -- started playing lacrosse. He was suckered in by a roommate or across-the-hall neighbor (my command of his living arrangements in college is sketchy at best, clouded by decades of alcohol and not finding it important enough to look into), who happened to mention that the team needed a goalie. A goalie! What possessed that goon to play in the net? Perhaps we may never know, because I refuse to send him that particular G-chat; instead, I’ll chat him about his fantasy football picks and carry on as though this question is unanswerable.
Though I cannot speak for my brother, what possessed me to play in the net was just my natural reflexes -- sharp as a Ginsu knife after cutting that tin can a few times. Oh, and my girth. Yes, that might have had something to do with it, at least at first.
After my brother came back from college over winter break, nothing would be the same. My other brother (one grade above me) and I got our friends together, and we started buying lacrosse sticks. It was a magical time, when you had to get things from catalogs. We may have bought our first plastic toss-around sticks from Sears, back when you could page through and ogle the air hockey table or beg your parents for the cool RC car without knowing that both products were as durable as...well, as a lacrosse stick intended for 6-year olds and used by high schoolers in careless full-contact, padless games in the back yard. (Still, that air hockey table would have been sweet.)
I think we each went in about $10 -- that was a couple pizzas back in my day, when we didn’t have the internet and flat screen TVs and DVRs -- for the first sets of sticks, and a dozen of us would rotate in to run around the yard with a tennis ball playing 4-on-4 plus a designated goalie. I was almost always the designated goalie. It...was...awesome.
I could take a ball to the gut.
I could take a ball to the knee.
I could take a ball to the head and still walk away.
I could also take balls to the balls.
You knew that was coming because this list can realistically only end up in one place. Yes, I doubled over and may have fallen down once or twice, but compared to getting hit in the wing-wang-doodle with a lacrosse ball, a 45 mph tennis ball doesn’t do much damage. (Side note: I was not the local goalkeeper who discovered the agony of getting a lacrosse ball straight in the groin without protection; that honor went to my freshman apprentice whose testicle, it was later related to me, swelled up to several times its normal size and caused him severe problems walking for a month or so. I do not envy the experimental path he trod.)
Anyway, listing all the parts of the body isn’t going to help you visualize just how crazy I probably looked as a mulleted fat kit standing in front of the shed door with a broken lacrosse stick while my compadres tossed a tennis ball around with green, purple, blue, and black all-plastic sticks -- many held together with duct tape or electrical tape -- and tried to hurt each other as much as possible without causing permanent damage. Those gorgeous spring days in the Pacific Northwest were the start of a new and exciting chapter for all of us.
There are plenty of running books out there, but one thing that’s a little short on the market is an entertaining romp through serious running results from an unserious process. There are serious runners writing seriously; there are unserious runners doing simple running unseriously and writing seroiusly or unseriously on the topic; but there are few unserious runners who have successfully turned out serious careers to be written of unseriously seriously.
Unfortunately, this book isn’t quite that either, which might just mean it’ll be more coherent than it sounds.
I’ve never been a professional, but (humblebragly, as they say these days; for the cred, yo, as they might have said 20 years ago and probably still have a version of) I have won a few races. These races may or may not have featured fewer than 200 participants each. I would look up the stats, but the effort required to figure out just how good I am simply isn’t worth it right now -- I’ll do that as I go through the story (also known as “when I get around to the research” or “not bloody likely”). Of course, the number of runners you’ve just crushed is never something to think about while you’re waiting for the slow ones to just hurry up and finish before you collect your trophy/medal/awesome gift certificate to a local restaurant; it only comes up when you’re reflecting on a race, or trying to justify your pure speed to some sucker who bought your book. (Kudos for your cunning if you checked this out of the library, or are reading it on a blog!)
Where was I? Oh yes, establishing my unimpeachable credentials at running. As a 20-something, I ran in a ton of races, hitting them every 2-4 weeks spring, summer, and fall. I ran snowshoe races. I ran trail races. I ran road races. I ran track races. Actually, I didn’t run track races because I thought they would bore me, but I’ve since run track races, and they do, indeed, bore me. I ran alone, with one or two others, and with small groups. I ran after running (and, transitively, also ran before running), ran on a whim in the middle of the day, ran because it was sunny or raining or snowing or cold or the wind sounded pretty cool. I’ve responded to the runner’s equivalent of a booty call...a boot call? I’ve responded to listserv requests for running partners, running route suggestions, and replacement runners for races.
Heading into my 30s, I became less competitive, because the place I moved to isn’t as conducive to that as the old college location. Oh, and the lifestyle thing, where I have actual responsibilities to others and can’t just tell my advisor that I’m “writing my thesis” and will have him a draft “soon”. That bought me peace of mind more times than I’d care to count in my 20s (and I’m sure my advisor both saw right through it and didn’t give two poops every time I used it). In my 30s, I’ve had to manage my time better and have come up with plenty more excuses for leaving work in the middle of the day or early or whenever I feel the need to get out. Unfortunately, those excuses don’t always work and sometimes lead to 4:30 a.m. runs that may or may not have involved bears or wolves stalking me. But we’ll get to those.
That isn’t to say I’m not a competitive runner anymore. I’m simply less competitive than I was, content to finish 6th in a field of 250+ rather than demanding 2nd or 3rd. To be fair, I’ve lately found myself drifting back more and more into competition mode, so maybe I am shooting for 2nd or 3rd. Unfortunately, a decade ago I didn’t time myself in many legitimately-distanced races. These days, a race that says “10K” is almost always a 10-kilometer USATF-certified course distance. I think most of the “10K”s I ran in grad school were somewhere between 9.5 and 11 km, sometimes with that little bonus distance thrown in just for good measure to make sure the runners were getting their money’s worth. Many of those 10ish km races also cost about 25 cents per kilometer, didn’t feature a swag bag full of advertisements, and maybe included up to 2 (!) aid stations, usually staffed by the race organizer and his or her family.
Different places, different times.
What was I on about? Oh yes, the introduction. You hold in your hand(s) or see on your screen(s) a book of running. A book of running anecdotes, tips & tricks. A book of extremely personal information about a guy whose picture you can find on the internet, if you do about 5 minutes of correlation e-stalking and figure out who I am. A book of perhaps inspirational stories that will maybe get you to lace up your shoes and hit the trails on a frigid winter morning instead of staying inside under the beautifully warm covers with your attractive bunkmate. If so, I’ve succeeded by failing you, so you deserve the punishment.
Next up: Fat Kid Running!
Mash out. Spin on.
This entire site is a vanity project, because really, almost nobody reads it. And those that do probably look at one of about 3 pages. So why am I adding a section? It's my exciting running book!
This blog started out about cycling and brewing. The clever name points to both those topics, as well as ideas of a mix of news and information. It is generally what I want it to be, nothing more though probably somewhat less because I don't devote daily hours to updating the different sections. But I've been trying to catalog my life a little better and figure out how I ended up where I am, in the hopes that it will give me insight into what makes me happy and what I want to do for the next 10, 20, 50, or 250 years, depending on how medical technology pans out.
There are a lot of books out there with a similar theme. Many of these books are uninteresting and poorly written, the kinds of things you would expect from high school creative writing classes. I, unfortunately, am an avid reader, which means I dive into my share of poorly written, uninteresting books on topics that seem like they should draw you in or could turn out to be fascinating. Occasionally the topic just runs itself down before you hit the halfway point; more often the author's tone or style is sufficiently grating or self-indulging that you absolutely can and should put it down. Of course, sometimes you find a gem -- I was particularly happy to have discovered Lantern Rouge, which could easily have been an overwrought piece of garbage but turned out to be an easy-reading look at the back end of the Tour de France, with all its angels and demons and bizarre history; likewise Geronimo!, a good diversion that manages to capture the range of sensations for a cyclist doing a poorly-planned self-guided tour through Italy on a precarious mechanical horse.
It's true that a fair amount of my reading comes from the sports section, and I've gone through all the library books on cycling (except for the 20 or so about Lance Armstrong, because holy crap do I just not care about that guy). Just to prove it doesn't all feature biking or running or caber toss or whatever, see the end of this post for more decent reads from the nonfiction aisles that are not about sports, even if some of them are found near the sports section.
Unfortunately, many of these sports books are the worst offenders in the "uninteresting" pantheon, falling back on -- I won't say tired cliches because "tired cliches" is such a tired cliche -- eye-rolling meditations so worn they've turned real. They focus on a particular figure -- the author or the athlete -- but often come across as preachy or falsely meditative. Sometimes the author is writing because he or she is a well-known sports writer, perhaps a contributor to Sports Illustrated or a noted blogger; sometimes the author is writing because the subject is a successful athlete or coach telling you Just How It Is or How My Life Is Awesome or Twenty Things You Absolutely Must Do To Be Fast Even Though There's No Way A Person With Less Than Six Hours A Day To Devote To These Activities Can Possibly Fit Them In. But almost uniformly, these clumsy reads imply that there's transcendence, that the author has discovered or unlocked the secret to happiness and if only he or she would write it down for you, otherwise incapable reader, you too could have the insights into how running or biking or mountain climbing like this person over here will change your life. There's almost always a string of inspirational cheerleader paragraphs saying "You can do it too!" but shaking the pompoms entirely too close to your face.
Not to say that all of these are terrible accounts, but I'm more intrigued by the idea of telling you that you've got limits, that every place you run or bike isn't so amazing just because you ran or biked there, that the athlete you hold in awe is probably a lot closer to you than you think no matter what the profile of their amazing life says, and that even though pros and people with tons of money use scientific tools to help them train, those tools aren't going to make you a better person. Most of what we get from running and cycling -- and getting better at running and cycling -- is (a) time alone to think; (b) a sense of accomplishment; and (c) athletic euphoria. Sorry kids, there are limits to these things.
But that doesn't answer the "What the hell is up with the book?" question. If there's so much drivel, why drivel more? Eh, I just kind of did, on my own, and now I've got a document with no home. I also think I'm a better writer than about 90% of the authors who've gotten these books published, which makes me wonder how they managed to sucker someone into taking their manuscript, or whether the publishing houses devoted more than about 20 minutes to editing. So if you'll suffer each day's or week's entry, maybe it will give you a smile for a couple seconds, or a good excuse to take a break from counting how many pallets of frozen hamburgers showed up at the warehouse this morning.
I've written this from the perspective of a person who did well -- and continues to do well -- athletically. But I'm not a professional, I'm not so devoted to running that every year I'll turn my life upside-down to do a 20-miler to close out Week 12 of my training program because the calendar says I should. Have I done that? Yes. Will I do it in the future? Maybe. Does that make me a good person, or a better person than someone who doesn't? Nope. (To find out why, read on!)
I've been well-known in various places as an athlete. If you ask my acquaintances, they'll probably tell you I'm a runner or a cyclist, but they might also call me a brewer or a rocket scientist. Not many people know that I'm still a sports writer (shh! it's a secret!) We're all a lot of things to a lot of people, and the subgenre of athletic endeavor writing usually tells us we're all athletes-in-waiting, or if we haven't discovered the meaning of life, the universe, and most other things through athletics, maybe we just haven't looked hard enough. I don't aspire to bring you to this position, though I also understand the appeal.
What will follow in this section's series of posts is my story of running, in which I, Some Guy With A Website, go from fat kid to skinny kid to kid that climbs on rocks. This will hopefully entertain in a way that cheery swill about how athletics bares the great mysteries of nature and unlocks our hidden potential and brings us closer to the true soul of the universe (or whatever schlock typically shows up in these contexts) falls flat/induces eyerolls/makes you want to kick the author (depending on how bad the writing is or what kind of mood you're in). Sure, I'll talk about how running has changed me, because it has. And sure, I'll inflate a lot of achievements and insult the reader, because I can. But don't think I don't love you, reader, because a writer without a reader is but a wisp of cloud behind a thunderstorm. (Or some other simile.)
In conclusion, not boring! (But do feel free to critique my style and content.)
Some entertaining reading that isn't sports:
Two Years Before the Mast
Looking for a Ship
QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter
The Barefoot Bandit
North Pole, South Pole: The Epic Quest to Solve the Great Mystery of Earth's Magnetism
Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes
Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City
My Korean Deli
The Napolean of Crime
Some runner person. Also perhaps a cyclist & brewing type. But for your purposes, a runner person.