Sunday, June 26, 2011

Vita Activa vs. Vita Contemplativa

If you live in Cedar Falls, you know that the summer's main event is Sturgis Falls. I've been here for two years, but had never been to the festivities because of traveling. The celebration is typical for midwestern municipal summer festivals: a parade (shout out to T.D. for his award-winning Pump the Viking float), live music, dangerous folding carnival rides, food on a stick (photo documentation of a Jurassic dog is needed!), beer, and a running race. I've been to more than a few of such festivals, many somewhat disappointing, but CF does a nice job with this one. We get not only tribute-to-Bon-Jovi and Journey bands, but also pseudo-Johnny Cash. And the racing tradition is older than the Twin Cities marathon by three years! This year marked the 33rd running of the half-marathon. I had signed up for it as a training event for San Francisco. Despite my mental categorization of it as a training race, I had some trepidation as the race approached. I had pushed the weights on Wednesday, immediately followed by a 16-miler Thursday. Combined with not a lot of sleep, I was hurting by Friday. Turns out though, that rest and fun sets the stage for PR!

I was interested to read this morning a NY Times opinion piece that challenges the current privilege our society places on extroversion. I must of course, frame this--and my training--in Renaissance humanist terms. One of the debates among humanists in early modern Europe was whether the vita activa (active civic life) was more virtuous than the vita contemplativa (contemplative scholarly life) or vice versa. This debate had more to do with courtiers advising their princes about how they could best serve their polities (going back to ancient Greek and Roman philosophers' theories, if you want to go there), but I'd like to co-opt the terms to frame why I think I had successful race. I found balance between activity and rest, between extroverted sociability and more introverted sensitivity to myself.

My body was wasted after that long run Thursday. So I scheduled a massage--quiet time for me and my muscles. This was followed by beers with my colleagues (social time), and a good 9 hours of sleep and a complete rest day from workouts and social engagements on Friday. Saturday I felt great, and I was psyched that I had the whole day to do whatever I wanted because my husband was out of town. I didn't plan on going out. I had little interest in the music downtown. I'm an academic. I cherish my alone time to think and work uninterrupted. But around happy hour, an invitation for socializing stood open. I thought long and hard about staying in. But I decided to go out, just for an hour (I had a race to run the next day!) But that one hour turned into five hours and a really fun time with good friends in a community sparking with good will.

The good will carried over into the race. Much of my run was quiet, but there were five other women with whom I jockeyed positions between miles 6 and 12. It was at mile 10 that I asked two of the women whether they were training for anything. I did so just to make conversation, really. I mean, we had been running pretty much together, sometimes one ahead, sometimes another, for a long time. It seemed that it would be the nice thing to reach out and acknowledge our shared experience. I was also impressed that we had been running a pretty good pace, and pushing each other, no doubt, to stay at that pace, and I wanted to acknowledge and appreciate that. We chatted a little, and agreed it was nice to have each other to push ourselves. After mile 11, I dropped the two. I felt great, and in fact, the conversation had amplified my mental state, and my confidence. I felt comraderie, and shared purpose. It might sound oxymoronic that I felt comraderie with them and still left them behind, but that was exactly what we were doing for each other--providing incentive and a goal for each other. And in fact, with 400 meters to go, the woman who I talked to the most passed me. We both huffed a "great job." I like to think that that woman was as amped as I was by my reaching out to talk to her about marathon training and acknowledge our shared hard work. It helped take our minds off our bodies during those last few hard miles.

I ran 1:43:33--seven minutes faster than my half-marathons last year. That is huge for me. It must be because I rested and stayed inside when I needed to--and because I went out and had fun, and chose to reach out during the race too.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Sweet, Sweaty Secrets

I have a secret. I ran extra this week. I ran extra twice, actually. I always get my running workout or crosstraining in before work in the mornings. I do this 1) to make sure it gets done 2) I like to shower after sweating 3) I get antsy and am less focused on my intellectual tasks if I don't exercise first. But even after a morning crosstraining session, I broke my own rules, and the unwritten social rule that says you are crazy competitive and/or crazy body-conscious or just plain crazy to workout twice. But I ran extra anyway. And it never felt so good.

Tuesday night was beautiful. Seventy degrees at 8:45 pm, the sun low, the atmosphere magical in that way only twilight can be, where one feels solitude and calm, whether in a city or on a deserted beach.

I had finished working on my book for the day. I felt good about what I had accomplished. I felt energetic. The dog could feel the crackling in the air, was also bewitched. I laced up my shoes, just for another 1-2 miles, I told myself. Just to get out and enjoy the night air. For the dog, I justified.

I ran five and a half miles. The breeze felt so fresh, my feet felt light, quick, almost effortless as I bounced off my toes. The dog was in sync with me, easily. I was following Newton's first law of motion. I was compelled to continue as the dusk turned to dark. Why not? My body was loose, relaxed. My mind was totally free. I was aware only of the light pressure of my toes to pavement, mediated by cushioned soles, the sound of my dog's happy panting, the click of her claws, the wind in the trees' leaves, the punctuated sparking of fireflies, of my being able to breathe deeply. Along the river, the goose turds glistened in the dim path lights.

Back at home with a tired and happy dog, I was refreshed and more energized than I had felt all week. And it lasted. Wednesday afternoon I also felt ready to just go, pound out the workday. It was 5 pm then, and the dog and I only enjoyed two and half miles in the sun. But the sweat and the heat of the day also were welcome, cleansing.

These extra runs were gifts not often given me by my body, and I took them, gratefully.

Tomorrow we'll see how that extra freedom shapes my 20 miler.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Battling Boredom

I know a lot of people who find running boring. I too, sometimes fall into that category. However, I have tried-and-true strategies to battle running boredom. The kind of boredom that is worse for me is the boredom brought on by modern society. We live in a time and place where so much is taken care of for us by machines, computers, constant connectivity, that we, like our machines, are always plugged in and if not cruising on autopilot, at least humming along in "powersave" mode. A lot of pundits have commented on the busy-making, stress-inducing gadgets that are supposed to make life easier, and the loneliness inherent to a mostly virtual social network. To be sure, I wouldn't want to give up my facebook friendships (some friends are better virtually) or my email. I, like many post-boomers, prefer electronic communication to the telephone. I also love socializing in person. What I'm concerned with is how we social beings deal with boredom--or don't deal with it, as the case may be. What's wrong with being bored? What's wrong with being alone? Or rather, simply not being busy or surrounded by people, virtual or flesh-and-blood?

To be honest, breaks are hard for me. REST is hard for me. Be it thirty seconds, 10 minutes, a week, or a month, I prefer to be busy, to have structure, to have routine. If I were stripped of pen/paper/computer/phone I would still try to "keep busy" by, planning, strategizing, and thinking about what could be. Certainly that goal-oriented, prepare for all contingencies gene is something that has done me well over the years. I am reminded of a maxim (appropriately, from the Stoic philiosopher Seneca): "luck is where preparation and opportunity meet." And I'm extremely "lucky" to be paid to overthink. As a professor, it is legitimately part of my job description! But sometimes I just want to turn my brain off. Drugs and booze are obvious go-to remedies there, but as an overthinker, of course I've already weighed the possible physical, emotional, and professional pros and cons. Only sometimes is it worth it for me to go that route. More often, I just go to bed. Or graze in the kitchen  (scoops of peanut butter, handfuls of almonds, a waffle or two...). Or graze in the kitchen and then go to bed. Clearly, none of these remedies are actual solutions, and in a way, are detrimental. Boredom is the emotional reaction to lack of structure, to time devoid of imperatives from oneself or one's social surroundings.

First to address the boredom of running: If you get bored running, it's probably a lack of intrinsic motivation--the time spent doing something with no force behind it (no imperative from a friend running next to you, or from your own will). For me, it's an imperative from my core being to stay fit, to not tank in races, to give time to myself by exercising etc. etc.--in other words, I have created multiple imperatives to keep me continuously intrinsically motivated to run. When I do get bored because of the tedium of repeated routes or the length of time is numbing, I try to find someone who will run with me (a social pressure to get out!), or I resort to covering up my thoughts with someone else's. My older brother was right when he said a few years ago "my ipod changed my life." I actually don't run with anything in my ears very often, usually only for the runs over 50 minutes. But for those long runs, it has been useful. I listen to the Savage Love podcast, This American Life, and as of late, when I'm running at 6:30 am, the local NPR news station broadcast. When I get tired of other people's monotone, I listen to music.

It's when I'm not running that the boredom gets to me. The boredom I'm talking about is something between loneliness and transitioning between tasks after my brain can no longer be productive. On teaching evaluations I am often criticized for being overly brief, and my husband notes my impatience as well, although perhaps not as forcefully as my family members who are not really kidding when they call me the "little piranha." Deep down, it's my fear of rest, of taking time, and experiencing time, and being okay with not doing. Some people like yoga. I often get annoyed at yoga (it's too hot, this pose is taking too long, what's that smell, etc.), more so than if I wouldn't go, and so for me, what is meant to be mindful is sometimes actually counterproductive. But I do work on my impatience and my over-valuation of time in other ways. I like to take deep breaths, get massages, take long walks. But I suppose all that is still doing. And so goes my overthinking, circular argument, because I'm back to where I began: I run because it's during that time that I am most calm, relaxed, and happy. That I am, even though moving my body, "just be-ing." Perhaps not unlike a monk in perambulatory meditation.

It might not be running for you, but cycling, yoga, or walking that helps you to breathe deeper, smile inside, and connect with your self. Boredom is a disconnection of self from purpose. It's cliche now, but it boils down to mindfulness. Appreciate the slowness of a second (they can be slow in long races!) or the speed of a three-and-a half hour run, or the five minutes petting your cat or dog, or the two-second kiss with your spouse, or just sitting on your couch staring out the window.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Lubin' It Up

In certain conditions, physical activity will be more enjoyable with the powers of lube. Many may not be aware that products like Body Glide and nipple guards exist. But if the air is hot and heavy and you're really goin' at it, you might need these products. Don't get physical without protection!

Burt's Bees Coconut Foot Creme
Be Prepared! So goes the motto of the Boy Scouts, and Planned Parenthood too! Today's blog is about learning how to properly prepare for maximum enjoyment of sustained physical activity. Like Planned Parenthood, I'm just trying to provide a bit of education for newbies so s/he can prevent unwanted effects of an active lifestyle.

Properly-fitting equipment is the first step to prevent unwanted effects of physical activity. I am not kidding when I say that proper-fitting, moisture wicking sports bras, shirts, shorts, and socks make all the difference in the world. If you're still going for long runs in cotton tees and no socks, you might be a masochist. Which is cool, if that's what you're into. But for me, I was non-plussed by the dime-sized rashes caused by an ill-fitting sports bra.

Properly-fitting shoes are also very important. Still, many of us get callouses or gnarly toenails from the many miles logged in training. Certainly ill-fitting shoes exacerbate foot problems. So does not trimming your toenails (that one's a message to the men folk out there). I like to get pedicures. To maintain pretty feet and massage tired arches, I also rub in Burt's Bees Coconut Foot Creme one or two nights a week.

The second important aspect of preparation is fueling. This is really a form of preventative care. I had 18 miles to run today in pretty humid conditions. Knowing this, I had my camelbak with water to prevent cramping and dehydration (electrolytes help there too), and two gu packets to prevent bonking (as a general rule, one needs 100 calories every hour). Runs less than an hour probably don't require you to take fuel along with you, but this is something individuals learn for themselves as they become more experienced.

The final step to fully enjoy your physical activity is proper lubrication! Okay, seriously, chafing is a huge problem for runners. It is caused by something (fabric, skin) rubbing against moist bare skin. Of course, since running leads to sweating, chafing can be an issue for many logging more than a few miles. The constant sweating and rubbing can scrape skin away and then sting like hell as sweat or water in the shower goes back into the wound. Another factor exacerbating chafage is typical midwestern weather. At this moment, the temperature is 79 degrees fahrenheit with humidity at 50% and a dew point of 60 degrees. I just ran 18 miles with minor issues, though--just a slight rash the size of a quarter where my camelbak rubbed against my shoulder blade. However, last weekend when I ran the 10 mile race, the temperature was only 60 degrees but the humidty was at 72%. Unlike today, I was unprotected. I know, I know, forgetting or not having protection with me in the heat of the moment is not an excuse. Trust me, I felt the consequences between my thighs for the next couple of days. I'm still referring to chafing my friends. Between the legs is a common place for chafing to occur because our legs rub our shorts as each leg alternates in forward motion. Less common, perhaps, is chafing under the breasts. This unhappy phenomenon I also experienced last weekend, for the first time. As per above, the boob-chafage was not so much a consequence of running unprotected, but of poor fit. Today, I was smart. I was prepared. I slathered on the body glide. And all that physical exertion was more more enjoyable because of it.