Monday, January 27, 2014

Family Fitness

When I was a kid, my father played squash almost every workday and tennis every weekend. He was fortunate. Working in the Pentagon, he was immersed in a culture that rewarded physical fitness, and he had access to a world-class fitness facility. This was the early 1970s. The "workout" craze of the ‘80s – Aerobics, Bally's Health Clubs, the running boom – was a decade away. But in my house, active adults were the norm. Not so for my friends. Few of the other adults in my neighborhood did much of anything.

On the other hand, kids were always active. We lived in a neighborhood with several large families on each block. Every third house had a basketball hoop and pickup football games were a daily occurrence. Packs of kids roamed the neighborhood on bicycles and there was ample wooded space to explore.

Today's world is very different. If I see someone running or bicycling around my block, it is much more likely to be an adult than a child. Many of the kids in town are active, but typically on sports teams in scheduled practices or games. Packs of kids don't roam. The woods behind my house are deserted. I rarely see kids in "pickup" activities, mine included.

Neither of my kids is inclined to play team sports. This is not too surprising, my wife and I gravitate towards solitary activities like running, cycling and swimming. Like it or not, kids learn from their parents. When parents do nothing, kids are more likely to do nothing as well.

Life-habits are learned as children, and I want my kids, all kids, to learn the habit of physical fitness. There are some bright spots. In my daughter's middle-school gym class, they start every session with a one-mile run. But gym class is only every fourth day. And kids are NEVER assigned gym class homework. I'm not sure why this is, but an assignment to lead their family in a few fitness activities each week would be a great way to keep kids moving through the week.

This isn't just about kids. County statistics show that kids are half as likely to be overweight as the adults around them. All kids and adults need to settle into a regular fitness habit. It doesn't have to be boring and it doesn't have to be the same every time. A fitness routine is an excellent opportunity to do something as a family – you know, "quality time with the kids".

For example, all through the summer, my wife and I, along with our two grade school kids, go for a walk around the neighborhood just about every evening. During the warm weather months, we try to spend at least one weekend morning riding bikes through the local park. Throughout the year we take time to go swimming at the Y's indoor pool. And regardless of the weather, we seek out interesting places to go hiking. When the snow starts falling, my kids start talking about hiking. It is impossible to determine what will develop into fond childhood memories, but I have a hard time believing that my kids' memories will not include hiking through snowy woods with their parents.

Wintertime can be tricky. With shorter days and polar vortexes, it can be hard to find a warm or lighted place to exercise. Fortunately, my family has a Y membership that provides us access to indoor space. This winter, our weekend focus has been "family bootcamp". We set up a series of exercises – each of us pick a couple -- and we each do the ones we want. Some are more adult, some are more kid oriented, but all get us breathing, sweating and building muscle mass. I can't remember the last time I did a 'crab-walk' but I now find it to be as good a triceps exercise as dips. When was the last time you did a wheelbarrow – remember that? Someone holds your legs and you walk on your hands. Pushups, shuttle-runs, broad-jumps, sprints. Often my kids are better at these activities than I am.

Initially, I thought this was going to be one of those activities that the adults want to do and the kids think of as a chore. But every weekend, I hear the same thing: "When are we going to do bootcamp?" They have truly embraced this as a fun activity to do with their parents. And all of us come home spent. The best work out of the week.

Because every family is different, each will come up with different fitness activities. Touch football, Frisbee, whiffle ball, hula-hooping, skating. Really the list is endless. It just comes down to commitment and sometimes a bit of compromise. Try out some of your kids' games. They may wind up being more fun and more challenging than you think. The important thing is to get moving, and to get moving as a group.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


Last Fall, I ran a 10K. I'm really surprised by myself, proud of myself. I hear people make comments like this all the time. "I just ran a half." "I've decided to train for a marathon." The community center where I work is ground-zero for area runners. I am continually surrounded by running talk. Marathoners, Ultra-runners, trail-runners, and people training for their first 5K. With many of these proclamations, people are taking about their first half, their first marathon. What makes my statement different is that I've run scores of 10Ks, and countless longer races, longer runs. The achievement of my race was that I opted for an easier, shorter distance. By-passed the 10 Mile race that started simultaneously. And I had fun.

I've been a 'runner' since 1984. I ran cross-country in high school in the late seventies, but it didn't stick, it just planted a seed. Through college, I went running with friends a few times a year, but this was usually after getting high and feeling bored and restless. A few times I got stoned just so I could put on a walkman with spacey, psychedelic music and run around the inside of the field house late at night and all alone. But over 4 years of college, I doubt if I even knocked out 50 miles.

My recent race was a trail-run. This was the "4th annual", and it is becoming a "thing". Catching on as a brutal event to cap-off the local running season. Held in a nearby nature preserve, it covers some pretty rough terrain – rocks, roots, logs, creeks. But by far, the biggest challenge is the hills. There are 2 of them in the 10K and one more in the 10 Mile. Well actually, both races are all hills – there is no flat, but these three hills are bigger and steeper than any other hills I've run. Last year I ran the 10 Mile. When I hit the hill at mile 5, I actually stopped for a couple of seconds to contemplate it. I had already been running up a fairly steep grade for over a mile. Coming around a bend, I saw what is essentially a tilted wall to run up. Fortunately, from the bottom, you can only see half of the hill. If I saw the whole thing, I might have quit right there.

Last year, my race-time sucked. While I ran in the middle of my age group (50 – 100), I was clearly a back of the pack runner. Unfamiliar territory for me. I was happy to have completed the race - serious distance runners give it the deferential respect of a marathon - but I was also embarrassed by how badly beaten I was by several of my peers, people I see around my workplace. Because of the terrain, mile splits are meaningless. Times are completely incomparable to road races or even many other trail-runs. The only gauge to track your achievement is how you stack up against others. For me, this isn't optimum. A large part of why I'm drawn to running is the ability to compete against myself. Train to a goal, achieve that goal. In theory, I try to avoid comparisons with other runners. Try to banish the thought of age-grouping from my mind. If it happens, great. But chasing a winning time, trying to out-run specific people, for me, that is the birth-place of injuries. When I focus solely on myself, I'm more likely stay healthy and injury free.

Theory and reality collide infrequently. Not only does the specter of age-grouping pop into my mind frequently as a race approaches, and so does the knowledge that my time will be posted on the internet. Others will see my performance, see my place. A bad race impacts my credibility as a runner, as a spin instructor. Getting stomped by my peers, my friends, just makes me look bad. So like too many runners, I take a very individual sport, a sport designed for self-actualization, a sport that uses the holistic term 'personal record', and I turn it into a competition against everyone else.

Although I consider myself a runner first and foremost, I actually spend very little time running. Over the past year, I've run a little less than once per week – and for me, that's a lot. For years, my typical yearly training would be to pick a fall or spring race, put in about six runs leading up to that race, perform reasonably well and then knock off all running until the next year. My lack of running is not laziness; it is injury, knee pain. Not an ACL tear like most people have. Simply bursitis. Anytime my weekly mileage creeps up to 8 or 10 miles, my knee hurts. Then it takes 2 weeks of rest and handfuls of ibuprofen for the swelling to abate enough to start up running again. This has been going on for 20 years.

But I also have a tendency to over-reach and push myself to extremes. Every few years, I convince myself that if I try again, this time it will be different. I'll add mileage slowly; never go beyond two runs per week. Never more than 6 miles at a time. I'll beat the bursitis. And every time I wind up frustrated and limping. Last year's 10 Mile race was a great example. I used my typical training routine. Six weeks before the race I tried out a seven mile run and it went well. Two weeks later I ran ten or eleven miles without injury so I signed up for the race. Two months later I was injured again, limping, angry, bummed. For the umpteenth time in my life, I swore-off running.

And then I read 'Born to Run.'

Right now, you may be thinking "What? This is just another 'Born to Run' testimonial?" Well, yes. One night at a party, my friend Annie gave me a copy of the book. At first I was dismissive to the point of rudeness. "The barefoot running book? I'm not going to read that." I thought she was passing on a copy she had read. When she told me that it was a gift she had bought me, I shut-up, thanked her and dove into the book. I was instantly hooked. I loved the story, the voice, and the author's need to run through injury. The characters were engaging, the race segments were motivating. And for whatever reason, the sections on proper running form, stuff I've heard and read dozens of time, finally made an impression on me.

I finished the book, and I started running again. This time, my running was all about form. After 30 years of heel-striking and foot slapping – a style so obnoxious that people frequently complain to me about how loud a runner I am – I knocked out 3 miles with a mid-sole strike. It took me over 30 minutes. For years, I've been running an 8 minute pace, a bit faster on shorter runs, so I assumed that I messed up on the mileage and ran longer than I planned. But the biggest surprise of my run was the pain in my calves the next day. The pain reminded me of the day after my first cross-country practice in high school – the first time I ever 'went running'. Over the next few months, I tried longer runs, increasing a half mile every couple of weeks. And every run was the same. 10 minute pace, sore calves. No bursitis.

As part of my devotion to 'Born to Run,' I've become a trail runner. I've always loved the solitude of running through the woods. It always seemed more 'real,' and more private. Like I was running for myself. But it was always much easier to head out my front door rather than drive to a trail head. My town has 10 miles of horse trails surrounding a public park. And while the park backs up to my house, there was no trail. Just a swampy mess of poison ivy and thorn bushes.

So like any obsessed runner, I cut a path. I've lived in this house for 9 years, and while I always wished we had direct park access, it never once occurred to me to make a path. In the winters, my family has gone on countless snowy hikes across iced over swamps, but once spring hit, the park was always off-limits. But after weeks of cutting and scraping, mulching and scratching at poison ivy rashes, we have a path of our own... And I have ten miles of running trails starting at my back door.

Over my decades of running, I've learned that many runners have obsessive tendencies. This is a large part of what takes a moderately athletic person and creates an unusually strong runner. Without a deeper glimpse into others lives, I can't tell if their obsessions extend beyond running and into other aspects of their lives. Mine do. I'm obsessive about running, and just about everything else. Once I decide that I want something, my mind dwells on that topic. I lay awake at night planning. I research, and slowly, I act. I'm thankful that my obsessive tendencies don't translate into compulsive behavior. My approach to all things is deliberate and well planned. I rarely start anything without a clear path to completion.

My recent 10K was no different. More than a half a year ago, I decided that I was going to repeat my trail race, the 10 Mile, but I was going to post a much stronger time. Some thing I could be proud of, something I could show off. For five months, I slowly increased my mileage and worked to push my pace back into eights. Holding myself to one weekly run, I determined the only way I could meet my goal was to rework the format of my spin classes. Every class was designed to focus on active recovery. Push to exhaustion, back off just enough to catch my breath, and then push some more. And in my training runs, I could see slow progress. My pace was picking up, and after hill-attacks, I could settle back into a tempo run with even-breath. The only problem was that every time I hit 7 miles, my knee would start to hurt. Not my bursa, not even the same knee. This was a totally different problem.

30 years of soccer, running and cycling have left me with obnoxiously tight Iliotibial (IT) Bands. For years, my only symptom was an annoying habit of punching at my thighs with the heal of my hand – an attempt to loosen my IT bands. My running form change seems to have sparked a full-blown case of IT Band Syndrome. And every time my run exceeded 7 miles, I was stopped cold by pain. Sometimes miles from home.

And then something surprising happened. I decided that I would skip the 10 Mile race and sign-up for the 10K instead. To most, this would seem an obvious move. To me, this was one of the more mature, thoughtful decisions I've made. An underlying subplot in 'Born to Run' is finding joy in running. Changing races gave me a chance to do this. It took the stress out of the event. Now I wasn't racing to finish, pushing through pain for a respectable time. Now I was set up to excel at a comfortable distance. I could go out and have fun with my 'brutal end to the racing season'.

In an attempt to race against myself rather than others, I set a time-goal of 60 minutes for the race. Without much to go on, I looked at last year's winning time and made some adjustments for myself. I missed my goal by 30 seconds, but I finished the race perfectly spent. I raced hard the whole way, and I had nothing left when I was done. It was the most enjoyable race I've run. And while I try not to care, I do. I'm happy to say that I won my age group.