TOJ's Top 10 Sorta-Resolutions for 2010

2010, this will be the year! I can feel it. Today I packed a snowball. Before I threw it, I vowed, "If it hits the ground, this will be the best year ever. Health, fitness, prosperity, peace, happiness. "

Sure enough, after a short arc through the cold air, down it went, hitting the ground! So with great confidence in the future based on that good omen, here are a TOJ's top 10 (you understand: it always has to be 10...Top 10 Movies of the Year, Top 10 Athletes of the Year -- I only had 7, but made up 3):

1. Eat more vegetables. (I'll try. I used to not eat them, but have learned to actually like some. The evidence is overwhelming that the more and the fresher and the rawer, the better. The complex nutrients in vegetables are better for you than almost any supplement -- and cheaper.)

2. Exercise less. (I keep running into this message. Latest is an article about Melody Fairchild in Colorado Runner. She was a child-phenom distance runner in high school who struggled in college. She realized, maybe too late, that less is more. Rest and recovery are the necessary yin of the exercise yang that enable health and even better athletic performance if that's what you're after.)
3. Drink less beer. (Ummm. I'll have to have a stout and think about that. Alcohol in moderation is supposed to be good for you, but there is countervailing evidence that beer gives you an insulin spike and contains empty calories. On the other hand, beer has also been shown to lower homocysteine (an amino acid that is considered a risk factor for heart disease) levels. Might have to have two stouts and think doubly hard about this.)

4. Stretch more. (I like stretching less than I like vegetables. I've never had an injury that stretching purportedly prevents. I like to do a few yoga positions, mostly along the lines of those in John Capouya's Real Men Do Yoga. For a TOJ it could make sense because as you age, tendons and ligaments tend to lose size and elasticity. A resolution needs the force of a goal: ok, I'll stretch at least 5 times this year.)

5. Warm up more. (Actually, I've gotten better and better with each year. Not before runs, because starting slow is a warm-up. But definitely before lifting weights. Joint sockets need to get lubricated and muscles warmed to avoid pulls and tears, both of which this TOJ has experienced. It takes only a few minutes to rev up your feet to your neck.)

6. Drink less caffeine. (I will go to Starbucks only on weekdays, weekends, and holidays. That's a promise.)

7. Drink more water. (Caffeine is a diuretic so it makes you lose water. Exercise makes you lose even more. Expresso and beer are not substitutes for pure H2O. Being properly hydrated helps your strength and stamina because you pump more blood easier and deliver nutrients and oxygen to cells more efficiently. Sure, you pee more and feel bloated. Tough.)

8. Sleep more. (There's a better chance this TOJ will eat more veggies. When I see recommendations for 8-9 hours for optimum recovery and health, I'm skeptical of the evidence. It seems too long. I'll take my 6-7 and a catnap here and there. Who's the rock star who said, "I'll rest when I'm dead?" Is he still alive?"

9. Take my fish oil. (I am fish-phobic due to childhood trauma from visits to the fish market in Tokyo. I strongly believe that we evolved from the ocean onto land to escape from fish. But the scientific evidence is overwhelming that the Omega-3's in fish oil (the refined stuff with the PCBs and other environmental pollutants removed) are good for both your physical and mental health. I cringe every time I swallow that pill knowing what's in it, but I won't be eating much fish in this lifetime, and this is one pill worth popping.)

10. When stressed, exercise harder. (This is as easy to me as eating chocolate. Whether little stuff at work (and remember problems at work are always minor in the same way most politics are banal) or the big stressors like war, global warming, terrorism, flu pandemics, disease and mortality, you cope better when you work up a sweat.)

Here's to a happy and healthful 2010 for you! Hope to see you out there!

Once Upon a Time a TOJ Discovered Trail Running

I remember my first trail run better than my first kiss. In the early 70s, we lived in an old house in Laporte, Colorado. With my two black Labs running around chasing squirrels, I'd walk for a half mile on a trail winding along the river, under a canopy of scraggly cottonwoods, then cut off at a fork in the trail to a junior high with a quarter-mile cinder track. There I'd do a regimen from Dr. Ken Cooper's Aerobics -- try to run two miles (8 laps) in less than 12 minutes (something like that, you got cardiovascular "points" for speed and distance).

In those days, running was done almost exclusively on oval tracks. Few people even hiked on trails, much less ran on them. REI was still a tiny co-op in Seattle, selling climbing ropes and ice axes to hard core mountaineers. The only trail runner I'd ever seen was in a film clip of Kip Keino, the great Kenyan distance runner who beat American world record holder Jim Ryun in the Olympic 1500 meters in Mexico City, then won a couple more Olympic distance medals four years later in Munich. In the film clip, Keino ran up sand dunes and across a vast stretches of desert. His running seemed so effortless and free-spirited.

Late one fall afternoon I was on the trail, headed to the junior high to run some laps, when, for no reason, I started to jog. The dogs found it so unusual that they stopped hunting to come see what I was up to and trotted along with me for a couple of minutes as I hopped over a few downed logs and mud puddles. I took the cutoff, ran my laps, then ran back.

A couple days later, as soon as I got on the trail, I started running. I stayed on the trail and ran right by the track for a couple more miles. It was challenging, less monotonous than running laps on a track, and the sound of crunching leaves and the river seemed to carry me along. I found myself totally absorbed in navigating the rocks, roots and windfall, and watching for wildlife. That was it, I was hooked. Trail running had called my name.

Since that time, in all kinds of weather, I've run trails all over the West -- in the Tetons, Gros Ventres, Valhallas, Never Summer Range, Indian Peaks Wilderness, Flat Tops, Wind Rivers, Cascades, Elk Mountains, Rocky Mountain National Park, even into the back bowls in Vail.

My generation didn't invent trail running. Humans ran for many generations before they ever raced, and there does seem to be something primordial about it. Many books on running begin with speculation on why we run, whether as hunters pursuing prey or prey fleeing predators. It is so natural that you have to wonder why something so natural and exhilarating seemed to go into hibernation in modern industrial societies as social stature increasingly equated with the amount of time you spent sitting on your butt as your body atrophied.

When it comes to exercise, each of us discovers what we like to do best. I enjoy other workouts besides trail running, but it will always be my favorite. I think about the poem by Robert Frost that goes, "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood..." That's how it was for me. I took off running on the one less travelled by, and it made all the difference.

You Gotta Have Heart

A heart rate monitor is to a TOJ what a telescope was to Galileo. It provides another insight beyond speed, reps, weight, or distance to measure exercise intensity.

While elite athletes use heart rate monitors as a precision instrument with which to train their bodies the the their max, this TOJ uses one because it is fun to explore how heart rate correlates to the spectrum of sensations experienced between exertion and exhaustion during intense or prolonged exercise.

I've made some interesting discoveries with my Polar heart rate monitor. I was surprised to find that when trudging up a mountainside my heart rate rises, but rarely gets as high has it does on the flats. Even more surprising was the tremendous drop in heart rate coming down. Though my thighs throb, my heart rate drops into a zone where it's not clear there's much training effect, at least according to the conventional calculations for the so-called aerobic zone. My heart also beats slightly harder on a bicycle going uphill than when I run.

Whenever I do intervals where my heart beats close to its maximum rate, I watch to see if it drops a minimum of 30 beats within a minute after completion of the interval. That's a reliable indicator of a good fitness level, and when it doesn't drop that fast after an interval, I'm nearing exhaustion. Sometimes when I workout hard several days in a row, I leave the monitor on after the workout to see how long it takes for my resting rate to return close to normal. If it doesn't return to normal within an hour or so, from my experience, that means I've not recovering between workouts, and that can lead to inflammation and a weakened immune system, making me more susceptible to colds and flu.

Typically heart rate monitors are used to determine some number, based on age, close to maximum heart rate and then the aerobic and fat-burning range between 65% and 80% of maximum heart rate. Truth be told, determining optimum aerobic zones is an inexact science.

For years, dogma was that your maximum heart rate is 220 minus your age, but the calculation has become more elaborate than that. In fact, it's difficult to determine exactly what your max heart rate is, although if you sprint to the point of exhaustion and capture the highest value on your heart rate monitor, you'll be close enough. (Note: Make sure your doctor has cleared you to exercise at that level of intensity, especially if you're a TOJ.)

Online you'll find a plethora of heart rate/aerobic zone calculators. One included a factor that differentiated between the rates for men and women. Here are three good examples: the Mayo Clinic, a fitness site, and a gear (like heart rate monitors) site. I found the gear site correlated the best with mine. Yours may be different.

Using a heart rate monitor during any kind of exercise will make you think about all kinds of things. Recently the NY Times had a good article that raised questions about whether it's best to train in the morning or in the afternoon. The author had discovered a pattern: according to her heart rate monitor, her heart rated tended to be lower in the morning and higher in the afternoon when doing the identical exercise. Some chrono-biologists chimed in that the body may be more primed for hard exercise in the afternoon.

By itself, heart rate is not very useful because it is affected by age, temperature and humidity, how rested your muscles are, what you've been eating, among many other factors. But I've found if you frequently wear one, you develop a sense of how all these are related and reflected in that number. WebMD has an informative summary of the myths and facts regarding heart rate, including the fact that your maximum heart rate declines 7 beats per decade of life. If you really want to learn a lot about it, check out Joe Friel's Total Heart Rate Training.

If you've been a good TOJ this year, ask Santa for one. It's a perfect recession gift -- good for your health and cheaper than a new pair of running shoes.

Merry Christmas!

The White Dragon

Early one morning, I was waiting at a gate in Denver International Airport for a flight to San Francisco that had been delayed because of snow. To pass the time, I was on my computer looking at running and exercise blogs. A man, whose hair was tied back in a long, dark braid, sat down beside me. He was wearing a black North Face jacket over some kind traditional garb tied by a colorful sash at his waist. He had knee high boots that appeared to be made of wool.

I noticed he had a pair of brand new trail shoes tied to the handle of a brown canvas carry on bag. "You a runner?" I asked. His age was hard to guess. His Asian face was ruddy, lustrous, and weathered, with eyes, surrounded by vague crowsfeet, sparkled like black diamonds. He nodded with a warm smile.

I asked him where he was going. "Home. Tibet," he said.

"Wow, I bet that's a tough place to run. The altitude," I said.

He shrugged. "High not so bad. White Dragon. Yes"

I thought about what he said. "White Dragon?" I asked, not understanding. He grinned and pointed to the snow swirling around the airplane outside beyond the window. "Ah, yes, now I understand. Yeah, snow can be tough."

"White Dragon tough," he offered. I asked him what he meant. In his broken English he explained that his ancestors taught him that there is a White Dragon that abides part of the year in a cave on a mountain near Mt. Everest in the Himalayas. Sometimes the White Dragon lives in the sky, but when it is in its cave, there is snow, which is like its skin. I asked him to tell me more and he gave me these laws of the White Snow Dragon. He said if you heed them and say a quick prayer to the White Dragon before each outing, you can run safely all winter long.

First Law: White Snow Dragon Hides
There's always some mystery when you run on snow because you don't always know what is really under your feet. The snow may be thin, but hiding a layer of ice. Deep snow can conceal rocks, roots and curbs. Start slowly to get the feel of the snow and surface underneath, watch for lumps and dimples where you are about to step. Run more upright with short strides and come down more flat-footed that you do in dry conditions.

Second Law: Stay Quiet So White Snow Dragon Sleeps
Be light on your feet. Float like you are on thin ice. You will not slip as much, or break through hard crust. If the snow is more than a couple inches deep, you take one successful stride at a time, not reach too far or gain the high forward momentum you attain in summer. If you slip, forward momentum will turn you into a comic figure.

Third Law: Fight White Dragon, White Snow Dragon Wins
You cannot overpower snow. If you push too hard with your foot, you will not turn the force of your muscles into kinetic energy, but dissipate it in the snow. That's tiring and why when you run on snow you will never run the same distance as fast as you do when its dry. Plan on a shorter, slower run. If even the most powerful athlete tries to attack a run in deep snow , s/he will collapse with exhaustion within a minutes. Submit and relax.

Fourth Law: White Dragon Centers All Beings
Find your balance by running with a low center of gravity. Balance from your core. If you r on ice or on a steep hill, keep your hands low and slightly away from your sides. The steeper, the lower. Enjoy the burn in your lower legs and ankles as they seek to find balance on an unstable surface.

Fifth Law: If White Dragon Wakes, Kiss the Earth
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you will fall. Relax your body as you go down and roll to minimize the shock to any one part. Keep your upper body strong so you can use your slightly bent, outstretched arms to soften the pull of gravity. If you don't hurt too bad, have a good laugh.

I had a hundred questions to ask him about the White Dragon, but they called to start boarding our flight. What about gear? What about different types of snows? Lots of trail runners retreat to gyms for the winter to escape snow and cold and jump on treadmills and other contraptions. But a TOJ on a treadmill is like a prisoner looking through the prison bars at the world going along outside. This TOJ loves snow because the best trails are less crowded, more big mammals are hanging around, and the running is challenging.

His zone was called to board, and I stood up to thank him for his advice and shake his hand. He was short, but sinewy and powerfully built. I glanced down at the trail shoes dangling from his bag. They we heavily lugged and had a high cuff, perfect for the deep snow where he was headed.

I thought about giving him a tip that if was going to run on ice a lot, he might want to get some 3/8 sheet metal screws and insert them around the outer edges of the shoe, maybe set them in a little Shoe Goo. That works as good a studded snow tires. But then I realized he might not have access to a hardware or running store, and just said, "I hope you have many happy miles in those shoes and don't wake the White Dragon."

He smiled. "Oh, no, I sell to a tourist in Kathmandu for fifty bucks. I run these," he said pointing to his wool boots with a Yak hide sole. "They stick like snow leopard."

As he disappeared down the Jetway, I was still smiling.

Breaking the Time Barrier

A wonderful thing happened -- the wristband on my Timex Ironman watch broke. So my watch stayed behind when I headed out the door with my dog just before dusk to run my favorite local trail.

I was primed to get outside and run because I had just returned from a several days of travelling in a car and sitting around a conference table discussing contentious stuff like health care reform. Before I started up the trail, I reflexively pulled back the sleeve of my windbreaker to reset the stop watch function, having forgotten it wasn't there.

I time runs out of an old habit. I keep a notebook log where I record the place, distance, time elapsed, time of day, temperature, and other noteworthy events, like animals sighted. But I didn't need the watch. I have run that trail so many times that I know the approximate times, plus or minus 30 seconds or so, that I will arrive at a certain tree, rock, or turn.

And I hadn't run too far before I realized how nice it was to not have it. It was great to just be out there running. The sun was setting, throwing dark shadows on the mountainside and chilling the air. My feet crunched rhythmically over a thin crust of metamorphosed snow from a storm a week earlier. I passed one trail marker after another oblivious to the time.

Athletes in general, and runners in particular, tend to suffer a little obsessive-compulsive disorder when it comes to time. You pick up a Runner's World and the pages are riddled with references to race times, splits, interval targets, and records. People are introduced by name, age, and his or her PR in the 10K or marathon. Much of the information, whether on training or nutrition, is mainly intended to shave minutes and seconds off a race time. Many of the interviewees are happy or sad based on time or eagerly looking to the future to see if they can beat a time.

On the cover of Trail Runner magazine, you always find a runner passing trough a spectacular landscape, like the Dolomites in Italy or vast aspen stands in Colorado. It conjures visions of stories about beauty and adventure waiting inside, but most of the pages are devoted to recaps of ultramarathons and finish times. Pain, injury, and disorientation from sleep deprivation or dehydration are frequent topics. It is the only magazine where you'll find the exact time it took a guy to run all the way around Grand Teton National Park or through Death Valley. In its pages, ultrarunners bag distances like hunters bag trophy elk heads.

It dawned on me as I trudged along the trail that a focus on time can be a barrier to the sheer fun of just running. Time can put unnecessary pressure and expectations that lead to disappointment. I recalled that I have found myself pushing harder up a hill to reach a marker because the watch indicates I'm off a certain self-expected pace. Running can lose its stress-busting magic if you create additional stress by focusing too much on time. Looking at a watch distracts from enjoying the beauty of a place, its contours and attractions.

And no doubt many injuries and illnesses (including mine on occasion) are caused people pushing too hard, day in, day out, to cover a certain distance at a pace that is too fast for them. Healthier runners are probably slower runners. Obviously competitive athletes need to train hard for events that are measured in seconds, minutes, and hours to win scholarships, money, and endorsements. But most of us are better off keeping the time obsession in check, especially TOJs, who should know better because any high stakes are purely imaginary.

Running without a watch let's you tune into your body, detached from the monotony of measured time, and find a pace that ebbs and flows naturally with the terrain, distance, and your biorhythms. Your body is rich with sensory information that goes far beyond numbers blinking on a screen. You can feel when to run hard and when to back off. It doesn't take a watch to know how you feel.

Back home, after my dog and I finished the run, I opened my log. In the column where a time is usually entered, I put a quick slash. I'll get a new band for my watch sometime soon -- don't want to late for a meeting! But nearing a new year, I resolve to run more without it. Each slash will indicate runs that were fun and timeless.