Thursday, March 24, 2016

A Running Life

I used to be a runner. Years ago.

I made it through high school with almost no sporting activity or vigorous exercise at all. I was not involved in any sports (I tried football in junior high, and was on the swim team in either 9th or 10th grade--neither of which were congenial to me). Playing drums was about my only physical activity. In my younger days I had been an avid downhill skier and a water skier, and I had lived on my bicycle. But that was about it.

When I got to college I began dating a woman who was a jogger. This was immediately threatening to me as 1) I knew I was in terrible shape, and 2) running seemed about the most impossible thing for me to attempt. And, if I'm honest, 3) the fact that a girl was able to run and I wasn't seemed to REALLY shine a spotlight on my lack of fitness.

(I've since learned, of course, that there are legions of women in MUCH better shape than I'll ever know, women who are much faster and stronger and who have much greater endurance and coordination than I'll ever be able to muster. But at the time I thought a certain strength and / or fitness was bestowed upon me automatically by my gender. Thus are life's hard lessons absorbed.)

Well, my girlfriend's--my future wife's--running spurred me to give it a try, and I managed to keep at it pretty steadily for most of the next decade and a half. I was never fast--I think a 9:00 mile was pretty typical--and the term "jogging" was much more accurately descriptive than "running." But over the years I managed to run some pretty long distances consistently. For a while there I ran eight or nine miles as my standard run, four or five times per week. I managed a handful of times to run distances in the low teens, but these were exceptions. I had a good friend near my house--"C-E"--who had been a runner long before I started (and continues to be), and we began doing daily runs in the woods where we would hash out the world's problems. This went on for some years and is one of my fondest memories of life in MN.

Part of my incentive to keep running was my continuous struggle with my weight. Running was a way to burn calories and keep a baseline fitness that helped me keep from ballooning upward. But as I got older and my running faded, my weight (as I would predict) followed its own runaway program and I was soon too fat to run much. And before I knew it, 15 run-less years had passed. In the interim (as documented on these pages) I had bariatric surgery to cope with my weight issues, and I even did a little running as my weight post-surgery decreased. But I didn't keep at it, both because I was not sure if I could consume enough calories to support this level of activity (that, as it turns out, would not be an issue) and also because I felt that if I didn't KEEP running afterward then I'd be almost guaranteed to put my weight back on.

But I always knew that fixing a MENTAL issue with a STOMACH procedure was likely to only have temporary effect. I knew I'd probably always struggle with my weight, and so it was not surprising (if still disappointing) that my weight began to creep back up almost as soon as I'd reached my minimum post-surgery.

A friend of mine (ironically, the new-ish husband of my running ex-wife) had the same bariatric surgery as I a week or so before I did. But he used his liberation from the prison cell of obesity to change his lifestyle completely. He turned to competitive endurance cycling and has kept at it now for four years. This has enabled him to remain trim and also to be in the kind of condition he probably never dreamed of in his past life. For a number of reasons I don't think cycling is my thing. But I certainly note with envy his daily exercise, and I can't help remembering a time when more vigorous exercise was a part of my daily routine as well.

And so I decided to strap on the running shoes again.

But not so fast, Fat Man. There are a couple issues. One, I'm kinda old now. Even when I was running regularly I noted the change in how my body responds to the mini-traumas of exercise. When I was in my 20s I could roll out of bed and run five miles without a second thought. By my 30s I needed to stretch a little and use ibuprofen. With the few runs I did in my 40s I had to take time between runs for recuperation. Now, at 53, I expect More Of The Same And Then Some. Two, I'm back to being fat again. I'm not near my highest weight, certainly, but I'm at least as heavy as my heaviest weight back when I was running. And there's no question that this extra weight complicates EVERYTHING. It makes my running slower, the trauma to my body greater, my recuperation from each run longer. And three, I'm obviously in worse shape generally than I've been in the past. 15 years of a not-very-good diet and a hard job schedule-wise; I fear these things coupled with my weight and my age make me a prime candidate for injury.

Though my past running life has been fortunately free of any serious injury issues, I think I still need to be vigilant about hurting myself going forward NOW. (My buddy C-E has always suffered from debilitating shin splints, and age has brought a number of new injuries to his running life as well.)

A few weeks back I heard a TED Talk by Christopher McDougall about barefoot running. This is not a new concept, but it's one I had never considered. His basic argument is that our feet and legs are designed for running. The ability of our bodies to absorb shock is built into our bone and muscle structures. That's maybe not a surprising thing to say. But he argues that by our adopting cushioned running shoes (something that followed from the inevitable monetization of a national fad) we have become heel-strike runners rather than ball- or midfoot-strikers as our anatomy would dictate. And the consequence of this tendency to heel-strike is injury. He himself was always plagued by injury, and he claims that his ditching his running shoes solved his problems entirely.

It's a controversial notion, and not one entirely supported by evidence. He cites some obscure Mexican or Central American people, a barely-known and untouched-by-modernity tribe that runs great distances as a normal part of their social life. They, he claims, know no running injuries whatsoever. But other research done since his book have been far more equivocal. Modern runners who just shed their shoes--especially fast runners or distance runners--will almost certainly suffer injuries for it. And tests of people running with and without shoes do not unequivocally bear out his claims. But neither do they seem to categorically rebut them.

As a person for whom running injuries have not been a significant part of my past experience, I was both fascinated by his notions and also aware that I didn't really have a problem to which his solution might apply. But I also thought that if I were to take up running again it might be worth trying his barefoot approach to see what it was like. And if I think I'm perhaps more vulnerable to injury now, this could be a way to go.

Enter the Vibram FiveFingers.

These are those very minimal toe-shoes one sees (less now than about five years ago), kind of a glorified pair of socks with a layer of rubber on the bottom. They've become kind of the single-handed embodiment of barefoot running. The very fact that they are occasionally lambasted from a fashion perspective virtually GUARANTEED that I'd try a pair out.  

(OK, I'm not ready to let that fashion angle go yet. Is it ridiculous to have shoes with the toes delineated? Why? Are feet ONLY supposed to be protected by hiding their actual form? And if my feet look a bit silly now--a fat guy running on little mincing stumps where big, blocky running shoes might have been expected--how much of that is just an arbitrary expectation? Why can't women shave their heads? All right, I confess I don't really see ANY advantage coming from having my toes individually liberated; but it doesn't change the fact that 1) I HAVE toes, and 2) this is the closest I can get to NOT having shoes while still giving me a good bit of protection. So THERE--he says to his wife who chuckles derisively every time she sees him in these glorified rubber toe socks.)

But you know what? They're kind of awesome! Yeah, unexpectedly so. (Nyah, nyah!)

One consequence of the minimal shoes I noticed right away is that if we don't heel-strike we shorten our stride a bit. Just a little. (And a running coach friend of mine says that with competitive running that loss of stride distance would simply not be workable; to run competitively is to REQUIRE heel-striking.) But after a few seconds of jarring heel-striking as I start my runs (even the habits of 20 years ago creep back and must be countered) I find I can make a small adjustment to how I'm running and I don't think of it again. I don't think my running gate was ever a pounding one, but these shoes definitely make one run in a kinder, gentler manner.

I've been at it now for about a week and a half and I'm already going a very easy three miles and have had almost no pain whatsoever--and certainly no pain related to my choice of shoes. As I say, at my age I expect to need recuperation time from almost any physical endeavor, and I've been running every other day as I slowly make my way back. But again, I've had zero difficulties. I take an Aleve after each run with some food and that's it.

We'll see if the honeymoon lasts. Meanwhile, my bud C-E is sidelined with running-related aches and pains. Perhaps we'll see if a pair of FiveFingers fixes what ails him. A sample of TWO!


Karlo said...

Good for you! I'm also trying to exercise more (running on the treadmill while studying Japanese vocabulary in the gym). This next month is to average around 35 minutes a day. The argument for the running shoes is a bit odd since traditional people didn't run on pavement, but keep us informed on how it goes.

William Stachour said...

Howdy! I seem to have missed this when you posted it. (I must have my notifications turned off; the blog is so quiet these days).

Well, my enthusiasm overtook me and I managed to develop a plantar's fasciitis on my left heel--presumably because of the overstress to this joint from my uncushioned shoes. And it's taken me literally a year to get my walking feet back. I managed a 21-mile walk in Qingdao a week or so ago and it's a year since I had one that long.

So no running for this last year, and walking only sporadically. But I'm on the mend! (I love the language lessons on the treadmill! An excellent idea.)