Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Quest for Cadence:How improving my running form elevated my passion for running and life

“Your foot is slapping!” my running partner stated as we maneuvered our way along the sidewalks of the suburban neighborhoods near my home on a 5 mile run. To which I replied, “actually my foot is clapping and I’m giving you a standing ovation.” I used humor to disguise my concern but in my mind I was curious. She may not have the same caliber running resume as I do but she is smart and very much tuned in to the sights and sounds of her surroundings, more so than anyone I’ve ever met. I knew I occasionally slapped, but since I had become acclimated to it I thought nothing of it.  I have been a runner since high school and have accumulated a very respectable resume. Now at the age of 50 I am still running strong. Surely my stride must be fine I thought. Or was it?

Just how much slapping was I doing? I found out a couple of weeks later.  Not long ago I purchased a video camera with some cool features that appeal to my inner geek, one of them being slow motion video. I looked at my alleged foot slapping as an opportunity to use my new toy and do a self-analysis of form.  Several takes were done but one was really all it took.  It was all so very clear. My left foot was striking appropriately (on the mid and forefoot), but my right foot was going rogue. The heel was hitting the ground first, albeit lightly, but it was just enough to cause the forefoot to slap when it hit the ground. I had to face facts. I was, “gulp”, a heel striker. This had to change!

As both a coach and a runner I have devoted myself over the years to becoming educated on the principles of good running. So, I knew what I had to do, this was a job for the dreaded “D” word. That’s right, I had to do drills.  Most runners just want to run, putting one foot in front of the other letting their feet fall where they may. The idea of improving form and becoming more efficient sounds appealing, but because doing drills detracts (at least initially) from the joy of running on auto-pilot, not all runners are willing to do them.

Running is a natural movement, but the highly cushioned shoes we have today enable our feet to strike the ground in an unnatural manner, leading to an inefficient stride. If we stride inefficiently it’s less noticeable because the shoes hide much of the impact the body is experiencing. If this happens regularly the repetition of inefficiency leads to inefficiency becoming the norm.

Modern living also takes its toll. Things such as daily car driving, frequent use of computers, and excessive staring at smart phones can promote muscle imbalances. Muscle imbalances alter the natural movement of the body as stronger muscles work to overcompensate for the weaker ones. In a nutshell, we move more awkwardly. Not long ago this point was amplified to me while I was running on a local school track. While doing intervals I had to momentarily pull off to the far outside lane as dozens of middle school students came out to run 800 meters as part of their PE class. I couldn’t help but notice how, having not yet been exposed to several decades of modern living; each and every student completed both laps with absolutely perfect form.

Just as repetition of inefficiency leads to inefficiency as the norm, repetitions of efficient running motion ultimately leads to efficiency becoming the standard.  Drills may not be fun but they are effective at providing frequent and consistent exposure to the desired skills. In the case of running, they enable steady forward progress towards efficient movement patterns becoming effortless.

After coming to grips with the fact that drills were a necessary part of the prescription for efficient running, I had to decide which ones were worthy of my attention. I have learned many in my coaching and running career. In my 17 years as a coach I’ve learned that if the athlete has too many fundamentals to focus on at one time it can lead to feelings of frustration from feeling overwhelmed. This definitely doesn’t enable the right mindset for learning. I decide to practice what I preach and hand pick what I feel are the most beneficial drills for my situation.  I decided on these, which I acquired from various sources;

Keep stride frequency at 170-180 strides per minute: This is widely considered to be the most efficient zone to be in, with 180 being considered optimum.* That being said, we each have our own form intricacies that can cause a bit of deviation from this number. As long as the stride frequency is no lower than 170 it is generally considered to be at an effective rate. This is because if your stride frequency is below 170 it’s highly likely you are over-striding, resulting in heel striking.

To keep track of my stride frequency I chose to utilize a technique I learned in the classic book Daniels Running Formula by the legendary Jack Daniels, PhD. This technique involves counting every right foot strike for one minute and then doubling that number. By this method, if your foot strike count is within the range of 85-90 you are within that ideal zone. I do this periodically throughout my run, adjusting my stride accordingly based on the outcome. Over time these incremental focuses on stride rate will train the body to naturally and effortlessly run at the desired rate.

Run like you’re stepping on hot coals:  The reasoning behind having a high stride per minute count (or stride frequency) is that the feet are in contact with the ground for less time due to a quicker turnover. This leads to less stress on the body with the added bonuses of reduced likelihood of injury and a delayed onset of fatigue. In order to accomplish this high stride frequency it is helpful to think of the ground underneath you as being covered in hot coals.  In order to avoid being burned, you’ve got to stride quickly and lightly.

 Keeps the hips pressed all the way forward: The most common issue I’ve encountered in runners is excessive forward leaning at the waist. While a forward lean is necessary in order to use gravity to your advantage and not require as much power from the legs, the lean should come from the ankles. When doing so a straight line should be formed from the ankles to the shoulders. To get into this proper forward lean position a valuable technique is, when beginning your run keep a straight body and fall forward from your ankles. I obtained this information from the book Chi Running by Danny Dreyer (a great read which I highly recommend).

Once you begin your run the next trick is to maintain this forward lean position. This is where the hip position comes into play. The hip position emphasis is something I acquired from watching Without Limits, a classic sports movie about the legendary Steve Prefontaine (Pre). In the film, Bill Bowerman, Pre’s coach at the University of Oregon (played by Donald Sutherland) instructed Pre to press his hips all the way forward (albeit with an R-rated description) after watching Pre run with the aforementioned lean at the waist. After watching the movie I applied this technique to my own training and found it to be highly effective. I was definitely going to keep this one in the mix. If it was good enough for Pre it was good enough for me.

When first learning of the ideal stride frequency I of course had to count mine. I consistently came up with 170, but sometimes as low as 168. Yikes!  Okay, not bad really.  I was happy that on average I was at least in the zone, but I wasn’t going to rest on my laurels. I wanted to see if I could improve, so I kept at it, periodically working in some drills while on medium to long runs. Unfortunately, my efforts didn’t occur frequently enough to promote significant improvement.

Now that I was a bona fide foot slapper though, I was on a mission to eradicate the slap and run with utmost efficiency. During each run I would randomly and regularly practice a different drill. Press the hips forward for this minute, focus on stride count for that one. Then I would pretend the road suddenly turned into a bed of hot coals. I had no choice. I had to move efficiently across them. 

Little by little the pieces of the running form puzzle came together.  I hit 172 strides per minute. I took shorter, quicker steps bringing my stride frequency up to 176. At one point I even hit perfection with 180.  Woohoo!!  “Now I’m cooking with gas” I thought to myself, remembering the saying I often heard as a child when things were going right.

This 180 stride frequency proved to be elusive, disappearing as quickly as it arrived. But I had experienced the feeling of running at the perfect frequency. My body knew what it had to do to get there, making it more likely to return. Even though I have yet to make 180 my standard, no longer am I stuck at 170. My efforts have elevated me to an average of 174, but I’m not stopping there. I will continue my pursuit of excellence. 

My experiences with working on form emphasized to me how amazing of a sensation it is to experience improved skills. It’s so easy to think something is “good enough” and not try to reach the next level. As a result we miss out on the feelings of jubilation that go along with skill enhancement. My more efficient form has elevated my passion for running to a new level. Not only am I enjoying running more (something I never imagined was possible because I already love it tremendously) but all indications thus far point to me being faster as well. This passion has spilled over into my life as a whole as I contemplate what else I can accomplish. I can’t wait to find out!

I encourage everyone to never stop working on improving, in running or any other aspect of life. Do not deny yourself the joy and empowering feelings that accompany your accomplishments. You never know what hidden talents you may uncover. Keep your mind open to absorbing information from all sources and people: a tip you automatically dismiss could have been a life changer.

* Some elite runners cadence actually goes higher than 180. In the Nike Breaking 2 project, for example, Eliud Kipchoge's cadence ranged from 180-185 strides per minute.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

You've Got This! Redemption and a BQ at the 2017 VT City Marathon

“Follow me”, the race official says as he leads me to the entrance of the preferred starting corral at the 2017 People’s United Bank Vermont City Marathon. Because I had run a half marathon time that fell within the parameters of qualifying for a preferred coral spot, I was receiving a dose of what felt like VIP treatment. The start of the race was only 5 minutes away and I needed to get to the starting line-pronto!

I usually don’t like to cut it so close, but my arrival had been delayed by a much needed detour to the port-o-potty. Hustling through the crowd to get to the line and unclear of the quickest way to get there caused me to utter in frustration-“how the hell do you get up there!” The race official (God bless him) sensed my need for assistance and quickly responded. Now, here I am at the line, moments away from what I am hoping will be a redemption run. Redemption from 2 years ago when at this very race I experienced my first ever DNF (see my blog post Exposed to Kryptonite).


As I stand at the line in anticipation of the starting horn I feel optimistic (because my training had gone well), excited (it’s race day, how can I not be?), anxious (it’s race day, how can I not be?) and even though it might seem contradictory- at peace. The sense of being at peace was because I was placing no pressure on myself to run a specific time. Sure, I had goals--the primary one being to improve upon my Boston qualifying time of 3:20 from the 2016 Clarence Demar Marathon-but achieving that goal wasn’t going to be my sole measuring stick of a good day. I also wanted to enjoy the journey and have fun. I get to run today after all. Run in the beautiful city of Burlington with a stunning view of Lake Champlain and enthusiastic spectators. Positive energy is all around me.

At last, the horn sounds and we are off and running. The glorious sound of ringing church bells mixed with the energizing cheers from spectators make goose bumps appear. As we loop through the city for 3 miles I feel pleased with myself. Pleased because I feel I have been running smart. My pace is not too fast yet not too slow, putting me in a good position to better negotiate the challenges of the upcoming 24.2(can’t forget the .2) miles.

For miles 4-8 the course exits the streets of downtown and enters the wide open and rolling stretches of the Burlington Beltline (route 127). This part would be tough mentally if it weren’t for the fact that it’s out and back, allowing runners to encourage each other as they pass. Runners are also treated to the much needed energizing rhythms from a band playing Brazilian music at around miles 5 and 7. My effort is consistent throughout this section although my pace does waver some due to the rolling terrain. As I climb the hill that exits the beltline at mile 8, I am happy with both how I handled it and the fact that it is behind me. Upon re-entering downtown the energy from the spectators pushes me along like a strong tailwind.    

In the 2015 race mile 9 is where I felt the unraveling begin, with the wheels finally coming off at mile 10 as I slowed to what felt like a walk. Even though I’m very well prepared and my spring allergies haven’t reached threat level red like in 2015, I can’t help but have some flashbacks and feel slight anxiety. The voice of reason in my brain immediately kicks into damage control mode, making the proclamation; “You’ve got this! You trained. You’re prepared. Remember, you’re here to have fun.”

Suddenly, while descending spectator rich Church Street, a loud voice (not in my head this time) shouts-“Go Moe!” I don’t recognize the voice but it gives me a burst of energy and happiness. Further driving home the point the importance of enjoying today’s journey.

Turning from Church onto Main Street the cheers dampen momentarily as spectator numbers decrease briefly, only to return again as Main turns onto Pine Street, bringing spectators in abundance.  Energetic tunes blasted from a band on the corner add excitement to the moment. All this and the decline at the beginning of Pine Street provide momentum, pushing runners down this straight 1 ½ mile open stretch of the course.

As the course winds its way through partying spectator abundant neighborhoods, then through picturesque Oakledge Park, there is no shortage of positive vibes in the air. I soak it all in while staying alert to my pace. At Oakledge I cross the half marathon checkpoint in 1:33:57. I’m feeling good, running smart and having fun, right on par with my mission.  Spectators and athletes mingle in the vicinity of the half marathon checkpoint, which is also an exchange zone for the 2 person relay.  Once again, an unknown voice shouts from the group-“Yeah, Go Moe"! This bit of encouragement gives me just the extra boost I need to carry me through the miles leading up the biggest challenge on the course, that being Battery Street Hill.

It’s starting to get a little toasty as the temperature and the humidity start to creep higher. Not a crazy amount but it is taking a slight toll. I’m noticing my perceived exertion level is climbing a bit even though my pace is holding steady. With minimal shady spots until mile 21 it will be essential to take precautionary measures to stay cool. This will involve the periodic self-induced dousing with water when passing through an aid station (oh yeah, and drinking it too) and running through the water sprayer stations scattered about the course. I will also consume my power pills I have stashed in my shorts pocket.*

*Actually they are electrolyte capsules. Calling them power pills is more fun.

After a loop that includes Oakledge Park and some surrounding neighborhoods, the course reconnects with Pine Street, this time ascending it before turning on to King Street. About half way up Pine is a water spraying station, I leap through like a kid running through a sprinkler on a hot summer day. Gotta stay cool!

King Street is a downhill stretch which is nice change, but I know what is lurking around the bend-the infamous BATTERY ST HILL. Each foot strike brings me closer to this impending climb. From the corner of King and Battery to the top of Battery is ½ mile. It’s a straight ½ mile and looking into the distance towards the top can be a bit intimidating. It looks like you are running to infinity, never making any progress towards your goal.

As I turn onto Battery I hear the motivating beats of the Taiko drummers coming from their standard location just prior to the steepest section of Battery (the last ¼ mile). Despite their presence I know that looking towards the top of the climb could still be psychologically detrimental. When we have a goal sometimes achieving it can seem like such a lengthy process, making it appear overwhelming. However, if we break our ultimate goal up into multiple smaller goals the process becomes far more achievable. I take this approach with climbing Battery. My smaller goals are ascending the hill 10-15 feet at a time, which is where I keep my eyes focused. 

Before I know it I’m at the top. At the top of the hill I have a momentary flashback to 2 years ago. This is the point where I finally pulled the plug and dropped out of the race. “Not this year”, I think to myself, “I got this!”

Shortly beyond Battery Street is the 16 mile marker. I cruise past if feeling good but cautiously optimistic. A lot can happen in 10.2 miles after all.  As a precautionary measurement I repeat the affirmation in my mind- “You have strength! You got this!” There is some fluctuation in my pace but overall it’s pretty consistent.  My journey continues.

Just beyond mile 17 the course loops through Lakewood Parkway. Always a festive loop this community regularly wins the runner's vote for most spirit. Music fills the air, cowbells ring, cheers are screamed, and someone even took it upon themselves to make a kissing booth. On the final section of the loop the group Sciatica (the Burlington Marathon band) rocks out for some extra motivation. Or, as their description says on their Facebook page: Sciatica gives runners at mile 18 a sonic baptism of pure rawk. All these sights and sounds are great distractions from the unavoidable fatigue associated with having run 18 miles. Plus it's kind of cool to know I've been sonically baptized. 

The course meanders through various streets and neighborhoods until at last I cross the mile 20 checkpoint in 2 hours 27 minutes and 2 seconds. My average pace is 7:21 per mile. The increased temperature has definitely taken a toll as my pace has slowed from the first half in which I averaged 7:10 per mile. But, I’m still on track to achieve my primary goal. I give myself a mental high 5.

When getting close to achieving a goal the process usually becomes more challenging. It’s as if we are being tested by the Universe to see how bad we really want success. The marathon is no different. Miles 20-26.2 are the most challenging both mentally and physically. The finish line is near, but even when keeping the same pace every mile can feel like 2. It’s when this struggle occurs that our abilty to persevere is tested.  Perseverance is essential for success in any venture. This is one of the many ways marathon running is a metaphor for life.

To get through these final miles I typically use some mental trickery. When I have 6 miles to go, I don’t think to myself, “only 6 miles to go.” Instead, I think of it as six one mile runs. For example, since today I am averaging slightly over 7 minutes per mile I tell myself, “only six 7’s to go.” I focus on 7 minutes and then the next 7 minutes and so on. Running 6 miles at my current pace will take over 42 minutes, which in a fatigued state can seem like an eternity when thinking about it. But, surely I can run another 7 minutes. Time still seems to go by slower but at least mentally it is easier to deal with 7 minutes at a time.

My pace starts to waver as my energy ebbs and flows. 7:30 pace one mile, 7:45 pace the next, and then back to 7:30.  I don’t feel like I’m in danger of hitting “the wall” but my legs are feeling heavier, so I need to run smart.  Go too fast and I risk hitting the wall. Go too slow and I risk falling short of my goal. These final miles are dance on the line between these two paces.

At mile 24 I look at my watch and see that I am still very much on pace to be sub 3:20. How far below will depend upon how my legs respond during the final 2.2 miles. I estimate that at my current pace I should be able to finish with a time of around 3 hours and 15 minutes. As if on cue, the 3:15 pace group cruises by me on my left. “Keep them in your sights Moe and you’ve got this”, I tell myself.

My brain sends a command to my legs; “C’mon, cooperate for 15 minutes, then you can rest all you want.” My legs reply like Scotty in the engine room of the USS Enterprise; “We’re giving it all we got Captain!”  

The presence of a pace group in my sights acts like a slipstream. I am by no means running in this group, but knowing that they are in front of me helps me find another gear. I run strong and steady, my pace never wavering. Before I know it I am passing North Beach at mile 25, then I’m on the new stretch of bike path at 25.5.  Excitement builds with every step. My inner voice shouts out- “You’ve got this Moe. It’s yours! It’s yours!” I dig deeper into my energy reserves to knock off every additional second I can. Turning onto the chute to the finish I hear the race announcer call out my name. Giving whatever I have left in my kick to the finish to cross the line in a time of 3 hours 15 minutes and 18 seconds. 

Happily reflecting upon my race, I feel as though I ran one of my smartest marathons. First of all, I accomplished my primary goal, besting my previous Boston qualifying time by 5 minutes. Woohoo!! In the process I paced myself well, staying fairly consistent throughout the race; I made adjustments along the way to correspond with the conditions; and perhaps most importantly, I enjoyed the journey. I soaked up all the energy and excitement on the course and as a result I had fun. As obvious as fun’s importance may seem, it is often forgotten when we pursue our goals. It’s easy to become so fixated on the process that we overlook the value and importance of it. Without it we cannot become our best selves. It helps us relax, stay positive, and transmit that much needed positivity into our environment. 

Another important part of life is to celebrate successes. With that in mind, I thank my legs for getting me through and tell them now they just have to take me to the beer tent.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

A Runner Looks at 50

It finally happened. The big 5-0 found me. Well technically it was a bounty hunter hired by Father Time. The big 5-0 is his nickname. His mission is to make people succumb to the aging process. I was turning 50 and was scheduled to be his next target. I had heard rumors that he had been seen around town, asking people where to find me, conducting stakeouts waiting for me to unsuspectingly cross his path. Yet, despite his best stalking efforts I had managed to elude him. Until finally one day I woke up and there he was, staring me in the face with a cocky, victorious smirk on his face. Upon recognizing my acknowledgement of being captured he proceeded to read me my rights;

You have the right to slow down.

You have the right to complain about aches and pains. If you do not currently have any aches and pains, some will be provided to you by the stress of life.

You have the right to throw in the towel.

You have the right to settle for status quo.

You have the right to get fat.

You have the right to join AAR…

That’s it, I had heard enough! Before the letter P could be uttered I gave him a quick and powerful elbow thrust to the chest before jumping out the closed window in front of me. As shards of glass rained down I tucked and rolled, quickly springing to my feet.  Realizing I had managed to avoid injury I turned my head back to look at the Big 5-0. With a smug look on my face I shouted to him, “Get some rest 5-0, you look tired!” Extreme Ways by Moby played as I speedily fled off into the city.

 Okay so this is how it went down in my mind. In reality it was less dramatic. It didn’t play out like a Jason Bourne movie. I did of course run because I am a runner, that’s what I do. But its purpose was to clear my head of clutter and think about what turning 50 means to me, not flee from some pursuing character. Although really I guess in a sense I was. Running would hopefully allow me to flee from negative thoughts and leave them far behind.

Fifty is an often dreaded landmark age. An age associated with reaching the top of “the hill” and beginning the descent down the other side. But is it really? Does it have to be that way? These are questions that run through my mind as I run through the neighborhoods near my home.

I’ve always viewed age as just a number, a number representing how long I’ve been on this earth, but not dictating how I feel or act. Yet, the stigma associated with 50 is hard to completely ignore.

Life can be bittersweet. In our youth we have enthusiasm and energy on our side, but are lacking the knowledge and wisdom gained through life experiences. As we live life and gain wisdom we typically become less energetic and enthusiastic. It’s as if the universe is playing a cruel joke.

But I feel it doesn’t have to be this way.  In my 17 years as a health and fitness professional I’ve learned a great deal about the mind/body connection. How and what we think has a tremendous affect on our physical health and quality of life. In other words, if we think old and unable we become old and unable. If we think young and vibrant thoughts we age more slowly and live without limits.

 50 can and really should be an ideal age. If you’ve led a healthy lifestyle and have a positive mindset it contains a wonderful mix of maturity and youthfulness. You are old enough to have gained wisdom yet are young enough to still have many new and exciting experiences.

Personally, when factoring in both the physical and mental components of health, I feel the best I ever have right now. The anxieties I experienced throughout a great portion of my life have dramatically diminished, enabling me to approach each day with a greater sense of calm. I have developed a better understanding of how important it is (and how great it feels) to contribute to the world by giving back, having compassion and spreading positivity.

My experiences and accomplishments have elevated my self-esteem, resulting in a greater passion for life. These two things feed off each other. Having new experiences, taking on new challenges and learning new things increases self esteem, which increases passion, which leads to a greater desire to have new experiences. Passion is common characteristic in people who age slowly. They, simply put, have more fun. This passion for life lights up the brain leading to a healthy attitude and a healthy slowly aging body.

One’s ability to continue to perform at a high level athletically is often brought into question starting as early as 40, but more so at 50. However, despite common misconceptions, an endurance athlete (like me) can in fact, still perform and compete at a very high level. Research shows that if the 50 + athlete performs high intensity interval workouts on a regular basis, any reductions in aerobic capacity will be extremely minimal. 

One major reason why athletes experience a significant decrease in performance after 50 is that they tend to drift towards focusing primarily on long slow distance training (LSD). LSD training-while a necessity because it builds endurance- doesn’t help maintain or improve aerobic capacity. A higher aerobic capacity translates to being able to run, bike, swim a faster pace.

Also, the 50+ athlete often doesn’t strength train, thereby promoting the early onset of muscle fatigue. If the athlete is willing to do interval training and strength training –while providing adequate recovery from both-they can continue to perform well for years to come.  I am totally willing to do this!!

With this acquired knowledge and optimum state of health why should I waste it by just accepting the standard perceived limitations of age?  I decide I’m not going to.  I am looking at 50 as a new beginning.  My first 50 years involved building the foundation of the person I am supposed to become. Now I will make my remaining years my best in many ways and become the best person I can.

 Life is a journey not a destination (I heard that in an Aerosmith song although I’m sure it’s not an original Steven Tyler quote).  I will continue to learn and grow.  I will not just exist but I will live.  The only limitations I will have will be those I place upon myself, which I don’t intend to do.

I don’t know everything the future holds but I do know it involves me never using age as an excuse. It will also involve me working on my martial arts skills. Father time can be ruthless. I will be prepared should his bounty hunters return.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Assorted Thoughts Over 15 Miles

39 degrees is what my smart phone weather app tells me the current temperature is. But wait! The “Real Feel” is 37 degrees.  Guess I better put on that extra layer, I think to myself with a chuckle.  I realize the value of the “feels like” temperature, but sometimes it seems a bit humorous to think that when the difference is so minimal anyone would step outside and say; “Hey, hold on. It’s not 39, it feels like 37! I’ve been lied to!” 

I’m going for a run and with the high today expected to reach 57 I expect to warm up quickly, so I decide to skip the extra layer. Today’s long run route is spontaneous. By that I mean I planned on running but I don’t have a specific route mapped out. I’m just going to run and decide where to go at the time I’m presented with an option. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, when I come to a fork in the road I’ll take it.

My intent today is to build endurance. However, since it’s April and I’m experiencing a bit of cabin fever, my other goal is just to enjoy being outdoors.  I’m in the mood to zone out and not deal with traffic, so I decide that I will seek less traveled roads. 

My primary distance goal with today’s run is to do at least 14 miles, which will put me in a good position to perform well at the half marathon distance or to train for the inevitable fall marathon. I have brought along my ipod so I can listen to podcasts as a positive distraction and a way to learn while I burn (calories that is).  I insert my ear buds and press start, starting my first podcast while simultaneously cueing me to start my run.  I begin with an episode of the NPR’s TED Radio Hour. Today’s episode is titled “What We Fear”, it examines the pros and cons of fear, what causes fear, and how different people deal with it.

Fear is described as something that is both beneficial and restrictive. It is beneficial because we need fear for survival. For example, if we are out in the wild and see a tiger fear lets us know we should flee the scene for survival sake. However, it can be restrictive because our brain also allows us to be storytellers. When confronted with an uncertain situation, such as starting a business or changing jobs, we often tell ourselves the worst case scenario story. We devise elaborate thoughts of how things can go horribly wrong thereby possibly preventing us from taking action that will help improve our lives.

My journey takes me by the back entrance to the nearby fairgrounds. This is a less busy time of year there with most events taking place inside their event center, not in the outdoor sections. I’ve run through the grounds before under similar circumstances and it has been quite pleasant, so my internal GPS tells me to turn right and proceed into the fairgrounds.

I ascend up the primary roadway that goes through the grounds then turn left into the main exhibition area. If it was September this area would be filled with excited fair-goers while the smell of fried foods and cotton candy satiated the air. Today though, all the shops are boarded up with nothing but the crispness of spring filling the air. I run through the heart of the fairgrounds and then loop back around the backside of the grounds, following a dirt road that runs along a wooded section. 

Suddenly, my focus is pulled away from the road ahead of me as I see movement in the corner of my right eye.  Turning and looking in that direction I spy a fox about 30 feet ahead of me walking towards the woods. Because my unexpected appearance has startled him, after glancing my way he does a short sprint towards the safety of the woods before stopping to study me from afar.  The road I’m running on veers to the left away from the woods, so I continue on it so as to not disrupt the fox’s plans. Recognizing that I’m not a threat he continues about his business, which based upon his repeated wandering with his nose to the ground is looking for critters to prey upon.

My first thought is that this looks like a grey fox not the more common red fox. However, I know that red foxes can look like grey foxes upon brief examination. However, I got fairly close to to this fox and didn't see much that resembled red. I always appreciate wildlife sightings,but since I was able to get so uncommonly close I was especially appreciative of this moment, regardless of the type of fox.

(Upon returning home I looked up the differences between the two and learned that red foxes have black on their legs that kind of resembles black socks. I don't recall seeing black on its legs at all. It makes me wish I had a camera during my run so I could have possibly gotten a photo to look back upon and figure out what type of fox I  had the pleasure of witnessing. I'll have to remember that for the future).

Grey Fox

About 25 yards later I turn to look back towards the fox. He continues to walk back and forth along the woods, searching the grounds. He then sits down in the common seated dog position, with his butt down and front legs fully extended supporting his torso in an upright position as he looks out toward me. He appears calm, looking my way in a manner that indicates he is as intrigued by me as I am of him. Within about 30 seconds of this moment two fox pups emerge from the woods. It looks like the “he fox” may actually be a “she fox” and mama is keeping tabs on her young.


                                                                  Red Fox

I love having these synchronistic moments. It makes me feel like my day is unfolding the way it is supposed to.  If I had started my run 30 seconds sooner or 30 seconds later I would have missed being in this right place at the right time.  

I watch the foxes for about another minute and then resume my run, following the dirt road until it reconnects with the paved roadway as I head back towards the fairgrounds exit.  After exiting the fairgrounds I continue down a more well traveled road, with the plan to turn off onto a lesser traveled town road about a half mile ahead. This road also has a pedestrian path along the side of it which will allow for a more comfortable running route.

After a couple of minutes on the main road I pass a local small auto garage and car dealership. The cars on display are all used, or pre-owned to use current terminology. They don’t look new enough to have a rear view camera or brakes that are applied automatically by the car instead of the driver.  Some of them may even have, dare I think it, manual transmission. 

The thought of modern cars having so many features makes me dread the act of having to buy a new car, which hopefully won’t happen for a long time.  I don’t want all these features. I want to be the driver not the passenger. I want to be the decision maker.  I want to be the one who applies the brakes, who steers, who looks behind me as I backup. 

In the not too distant future cars are reportedly going to be able to drive on their own, essentially turning the driver into a passenger. I’m really not a fan of this. Driving should be an experience not a mundane task, there are already enough of those in our lives. I'm reminded of an ad campaign that Volkswagen had years ago in which their slogan was, " On the road of life there are passengers and there are drivers". I really like that slogan because I feel it is a good metaphor for life. People who are drivers are in charge of their life, they are taking their life in the direction they desire. Whereas passengers just let life happen to them. Cars that do the driving are symbolic of living life just as a passenger.

Also, being aware of and reacting to things in our environment (as is necessary when driving) is part of having a healthy body and mind. Having to do this contributes to helping us stay mentally sharp and improves communication skills between the brain and the body. Driving in itself doesn’t help with physical health, but at least there is that brain/body communication component. Take that away and there is one more factor in our world that contributes to poor health.

When I was in elementary school we were supposed to have jet packs by the year 2000. I’d rather have one of those than an automated car.

Making my way onto the pedestrian path the TED podcast ends and  I tune in to the next podcast in the cue which is “Garbage Time”, a sports and pop culture podcast from FS1 (Fox Sports) with host Katie Nolan. Her intelligent line of questioning and sense of humor make it a very enjoyable listen. This episode is an interview with Tom Werner, chairman of the Boston Red Sox whose resume' also includes time as a television producer.  He mentions that after working at ABC in the 70’s he was cocky enough to leave the network and become a producer (and a very successful one at that).

The word cocky can conjure up imagery of arrogance, which can have negative connotations.  However, he was using the term to describe his confidence based on previous success.  Having confidence is a component of success in any venture.  I think about how well this compliments the information from the TED podcast on fear.  Confidence is important for success but I feel a certain amount of fear is as well. Having some fear allows us to make smart decisions so that arrogance doesn’t lead to foolishness. 
At this point I’ve completed 13 miles and I’m feeling pretty good, so I decide to extend my run 1 mile further than I originally planned, making it 15 miles total. I do this by taking miscellaneous side streets.As I wind through the maze of suburban streets my legs start to feel a little heavy, so with about a mile and a half to go my run starts to resemble more of a fast paced shuffle. About 20 feet ahead of me a chicken walks across the lawn of one of the homes and begins to cross the road.  I’ve run through here dozens of times in the past and never encountered a chicken. Even though it is a small town it still seems like an unusual location for a free roaming chicken to appear, so I briefly think maybe I’m hallucinating. But I quickly realize it is a real chicken, which as I get closer completely crosses the road. 

Something I’ve noticed about running is that the longer I run the goofier my sense of humor becomes.  Today that leads me to think I should go to the chicken and say; “Dude, let’s end the debate once and for all. Why exactly did you cross the road?”  I laugh to myself as I think this. At this point I’m heading straight back home which is probably a good think so my goofiness doesn’t get too extreme. 

As I approach my driveway and slow to a stop I realize how happy I am that I didn’t have a pre-determined plan for today’s run. It allowed me to enjoy it so much more. Sometimes in life you just gotta go with the flow.


Monday, February 1, 2016

Flowing into Happiness

It’s 8 am. A fresh coat of snow blankets the earth and a light fog fills the air as I begin my standard Sunday long run.Today I’m running with my headphones for some musical inspiration. My musical selection is quite diverse but even with it set to shuffle I feel like my ipod can sometimes read my mind, as it often picks the right song at the right moment. As I tread lightly across the new fallen snow to get a sense of the degree of slipperiness, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata is the first melody that serenades my eardrums.

One might not associate this with a workout song but its cadence is perfect for warming up. And despite being about moonlight it seems to be fitting. Being early in the day on a Sunday the rest of the world seems to still be at rest, providing a similar stillness as the moonlight hours. It’s just me running through a silent snow covered foggy town. The song seems to be the soundtrack for this moment, emphasizing the so called loneliness of the long distance runner.

I love my long runs, they provide me with a form of meditation, an opportunity to get inside my head and clean out the gunk that has accumulated from a hectic work week.
Despite the fact that I’m running while listening to music I am still very much able to clear my head. In fact, exercising to music has been shown to induce a state of ‘flow’ or ‘getting into the zone’.

Flow is the point during an activity in which mind and body work in perfect synch, you are totally in the moment and movements seem to flow without conscious effort. Recent research at Brunel University’s School of Sport and Education showed that music can make the experience of cardiovascular exercise far more positive. Promoting a state of flow is a way in which this happens. Researchers concluded that music and imagery could enhance athletic performance by triggering emotions and cognitions associated with flow.  

While music certainly isn’t required for a flow state, sometimes it helps. Today is one of those days for me. As my strides take me over varied terrain thoughts of my week and daily obligations disappear. The rhythm from assorted melodies on my ipod and my breathing are all I’m aware of. I’m out playing in the snow approaching the day with a childlike enthusiasm.

Not long ago I listened to an NPR episode of the TED Radio Hour in which the subject was Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. In 1943 Psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed that healthy human beings have a certain number of needs, and that these needs are arranged in a hierarchy, with some needs (such as physiological and safety needs) being more primitive or basic than others (such as social and ego needs). Maslow’s so-called ‘hierarchy of needs’ is often presented as a five-level pyramid, with higher needs coming into focus only once lower, more basic needs are met.

One of the discussions during this TED radio hour episode was with Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (see pronunciation below). The “gist” of this discussion was that after a certain point, increases in material well-being don’t seem to affect happiness. Research shows that people who, regardless of what they are doing, become totally absorbed in the activity (thereby being in a state of flow) tend to be the most truly happy. This explains why I am feeling so at peace and consumed with happiness.

                                     Mihaly Csikszentmihaly; How do you say that?

His TED talk on the subject is here:

Recently, while perusing through television channels in search of something that struck my fancy I came across the film “Stick It”, a film in which the main characters are gymnasts. The description of this film from is as follows: 

After a run-in with the law, Haley Graham (Missy Peregrym) is forced to return to the world from which she fled some years ago. Enrolled in an elite gymnastics program run by the legendary Burt Vickerman (Jeff Bridges), Haley's rebellious attitude gives way to something that just might be called team spirit.

This film met with mixed reviews but it had some really interesting cinematography and some memorable scenes. One such scene stands out in my mind because I felt it really exemplified the power of being in a state of flow. Haley (the lead character) had a life that was in turmoil. She came from a broken home, had an unsupportive mother, and was viewed by many as being unable to live up to her potential. As a result she was rebellious.

Despite all this and the negative distractions that go along with them, when on the balance beam in this particular scene she tunes out her surroundings and puts her heart and soul into her routine. She stumbles at one point but doesn’t lose focus. From this point forward is where she achieves 'flow'. She gets right back on the beam, pouring her emotions into her routine using them as fuel to power her to a beautiful and flawless finish. My perception is that while she’s on the beam she feels that all negativity is gone and there is only beauty in each moment as she gracefully expresses herself through her routine.

Perhaps this is what the world needs for greater peace, happiness and an overall healthier state; more flow. We are so consumed by day-to-day tasks that often involve multi-tasking that we don’t take time out to lose ourselves in something, to completely immerse ourselves in one particular action. When we are multi-tasking, we cannot possibly devote all of our attention to one thing.

Flow is also far more likely to occur with mastery. By this I mean the more frequently an activity is done, the more skill you acquire. Skill improvement occurs as a result of an enhanced mind and body connection. Since flow is the point in which mind and body work in perfect synch, this enhanced connection leads to this perfect synchronicity.

Today there is too much of an emphasis on shortcuts. It’s difficult to master something if you are taking shortcuts. Also, it’s important to be persistent and not give up. More and more, people give up too quickly when trying something new. By doing this the meditative state of flow is avoided and the empowering self esteem building sense of accomplishment is bypassed as well.

All of these flow preventing factors can prevent happiness. A lack of happiness often leads to negative thinking which leads to poor health (both physical and mental) and negative actions towards ourselves and others.

Okay so maybe getting in the zone won’t cure all of the world’s problems, but it sure isn’t going to hurt. So my advice to myself and others is to slow down from time to time, take time to immerse yourself in something and work at mastering it. Play an instrument, write a book, do some woodworking, go for a run,... whatever. The activity doesn’t necessarily matter as long as it challenges you enough to require focus. I guarantee the action won't be regretted.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Ode to the Wall

On October 25th I ran in the LOCO Marathon in Newmarket, NH.  My goal for running this race was to set a new personal record and break 3 hours in the process. This course is very conducive to doing just that.  I’ve been running marathons for over 30 years and know the importance of proper pacing. That being said, it was also important to not hold back too much, otherwise I would risk having an excessive amount of ground to make up.  So I went at it with controlled aggressiveness, knowing that I would either be successful or “crash and burn”. 

Unfortunately I crashed and burned, which involved “hitting the wall” very hard around mile 20, something I haven’t done in 15 years. If you are an endurance athlete you are no doubt familiar with this term.  For those unfamiliar, “hitting the wall” refers to the point when your muscle glycogen (the body’s most efficient fuel source) is depleted.

While at first I was upset that it happened, it turned out to be an empowering experience. Having an extinct fuel supply, yet still having over 6 miles to travel with nothing but your feet to carry you, makes one find out how deep inside themselves they can dig for strength. It also puts life in perspective, making everyday stressors seem petty.

While I would have loved to have achieved my goal, I must say I am happy I hit the wall, as it recalibrated me. Despite the effort it took I was able to finish in a respectable, Boston marathon qualifying time of  3:20. Most importantly though, post race I am approaching each day with more passion, calmness and confidence, knowing I can handle anything life throws my way.  I also learned what I need to do in my training going forward, increasing the odds that my next attempt at a personal record will be successful.  This inspired me to write Ode to the Wall.

The “wall” represents more than just a runner depleting their fuel supply. It is anything in life that stands in the way of you achieving your goal. Therefore, it is my goal and hope that my Ode to the Wall is a source of inspiration for anyone who has had a setback in pursuit of their goals,athletic or other.

Ode to the Wall

The horn sounds and racing begins. With strength and speed the hills and valleys are effortlessly traversed. Hopes run high that this will be standard fare. Yet as time passes and heart rate rises, the threat of your appearance lingers faintly in the air.

Kilometers and miles pass with no credible hints of your arrival. My imagination erupts with visions of race day glory. Could I set a record, could I win!

I confidently run on.  I feel good, I feel strong, “Bring it on!”

Hold that thought. Stay cool. I think to myself. The experienced marathoner knows that after mile 18 is when you notoriously strike.  Like a lion attacking its prey, you wait until the moment when your victim appears weakest.

Miles go by, no indication of you in sight.  With cautious optimism I power on.

Mile 16, Mile 17, the legs, they start to feel a bit heavy, my pace begins to waver. 

Have some water, have some GU, that’s what I need to do. 

This process re-energizes me. It was a false alarm. My hopes and dreams return. I run on.

I cross mile 20, you waste time no more, with the velocity and abruptness of a snipers bullet you strike. A pace once mighty becomes feeble. The day’s hopes of glory segue into hopes of survival.

I dig deep within myself for the power to propel myself forward. The hare has become the tortoise. Seconds feel like minutes.

Walk, jog, run, repeat, just keep the legs moving. Your blows are powerful but I will not be broken. I can still finish respectably.  

After much perseverance, in the distance I finally see it, a sign that says finish. Is this for real? Or did I die and enter heaven?

It is in fact for real, yet they are one in the same. The finish is heavenly on this day.

Today I was your victim, but little do you know that your attack has made me stronger and wiser. I have learned more about your ways and what it takes to defeat you.  Mark my words I will return and it will be with a vengeance. There is a crack in your armor and I’ve got a hammer.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Staying Sane In An Insane World

"What a mistake that was!"  I think to myself as I turn off the evening news. Like anyone else I want to know what’s going on in the world, but 30 minutes ago I was in a good mood. Now, after hearing negative story after negative story, I’m a bit melancholy.  I decide I need a dose of endorphins, so I put on my workout gear for a little running therapy.

Dusk begins to settle in as I venture out into my neighborhood, beginning with a jog then progressing into a moderate paced run.  I sometimes run with an ipod, but not tonight. I’m feeling the need to be without technology, running with just the sounds of nature and my thoughts.

Having just watched the news my thoughts are of course on the world today and how easily accessible information is. Between television, radio, internet and even the endangered newspaper, from the moment we wake up to the time we go to sleep we are easily inundated with information. Unfortunately, much of this information is negative. Frequent news topics such as the growing concerns over foreign policy, foreign relations, the economy, health care issues, and school shootings can easily provide many reasons to feel scared, angry, sad, or hopeless. 

The media outlets, however, would not bombard us with this information, if in fact there was no demand for it. I’ve heard that various television networks have experimented over the years with a focus on positivity, which unfortunately resulted in poor ratings. People want to know, and certainly need to know, about the dangers in our world. That being said, while it may be human nature to want to know about the dangers and events in the world, it is possible to be overloaded, causing negative effects to both physical and mental health. Just as a boat only sinks if it lets in the water around it. Negativity will bring us down if we let it consume us.

But how do we prevent this? How do we make a difference in the world? How do we create positivity? Putting an end to all the stress and strife in the world is no simple task. Fortunately, there are things we can do which will have a positive effect on ourselves and our environment. Which, in the spirit of the expression “pay it forward”, will have a domino effect and lead to others benefiting as well.

Since I’m running, the first thing that comes to mind is exercise. There is a strong body and mind connection. By exercising regularly, both your brain and body become healthier.  Scientists have been linking physical exercise to brain health for years and there is compelling evidence that physical exercise helps the brain resist shrinkage and increase cognitive abilities.  For example, we now know that, regardless of your age, exercise promotes a process known as neurogenesis, which is your brain’s ability to adapt and grow new brain cells. Additionally exercise reduces cortisol levels, which in turn reduces stress and anxiety.  All of these factors combine to make a more positive state of mind.


Positivity contributes to happiness and research has shown happiness to be contagious. I recently read about research in which the researchers looked at twenty years' worth of data on more than 5,000 individuals and found that when any one person was happy, their friends became more likely to share that joy. 

Benefits spread out to three degrees of separation, meaning a better chance at happiness for not only their friends' friends, but also their friends' friends' friends. It’s been my experience that periodically challenging myself by stepping outside of my comfort zone, such as with a higher intensity or longer duration workout, leads to empowerment and as a result, greater happiness.

Getting outside also helps tremendously.  Studies by researchers in England and Sweden have found that runners who exercise in a natural green setting with trees, foliage and landscape views, feel more restored, and less anxious, angry and depressed than those runners who do the same workout in a gym or other urban setting.

I have personally found that running outside at different times of day is also great for creating a pleasant state of mind.. For example, in the early morning I get to experience serenity from the stillness that exists in the hours pre-hustle and bustle of the work day. In the evening, I get to eliminate the stress that accumulated during the day and sometimes see some magnificent sunsets in the process.

Expressing gratitude is a common practice for producing positive emotions too. It’s certainly worked for me.  Taking a few minutes each day to write down a few things we are grateful for in our life, whether big or small, brings on feelings of positivity.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about the health benefits of being creative and it’s quite fascinating. What I’ve learned, in a nutshell, is that the link between creativity and health has been well established, so anything that allows you to be more creative in your life benefits the physiology of your body and mind.  Creative expression releases endorphins and other feel good neurotransmitters, reduces depression and anxiety, improves your immune function, relieves physical pain, and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, thereby lowering your heart rate, decreasing your blood pressure, slowing down your breathing, and lowering cortisol.  I’ve experienced this first hand. Besides running, nothing puts me in the zone and helps me relax (or in the moment) like creative tasks. When I’m writing or doing home improvements, for example, the world is tuned out and I’m totally in the moment and stress free.

And of course, periodically disconnecting, as I have done for this run, is extremely important.  Being connected all the time to a smart phone, mobile device or computer means we’re subject to interruptions, we’re constantly stressed about information coming in, we are at the mercy of the demands of others. It’s hard to slow down when you’re always checking new messages coming in. Disconnecting also means avoiding TV and radio, thereby avoiding being flooded by more negativity.

Adding fun into each day is often overlooked because adults mistakenly feel there is no place for it in their life. But this belief is false,play is absolutely crucial for everyone young and old. Just because we’re adults, that doesn't mean we have to take ourselves so seriously and make life all about work. We all need to have fun.  Fun (a.k.a play) is a time to forget about work, commitments, and everyday stress.  In one of my favorite TED talks, DR Stuart Brown of the National Institute for Play, suggests that a lack of play contributes to shrinkage of the brain.  Sharing laughter and fun can also foster empathy, compassion, trust, and intimacy with others. It also helps us adapt and problem solve by stimulating our imagination. 

On this thought I conclude my run. As anticipated my mood has been elevated, I’m now happy again. As I do a cool down walk I promise myself to practice all the things I’ve been thinking about.  I hope you do too.  The world is counting on us!