Running for the Rest of Us. Brought to You by Northwest Runner Magazine

Running for the Rest of Us. Brought to You by Northwest Runner Magazine

Monday, January 14, 2013

What Are You Running From?

Not so long ago, in response to my telling him I had been running for the past two hours of the day, a friend responded with the ever witty, never funny, “Who was chasing you?”

I was reminded of that exchange this week when I happened to hear the story of Diane Van Deren, the ultra runner who started running to combat her seizures and whose surgery to remove the part of her brain that was causing those seizures took away her ability to conceive of the relative nature of time. Having no sense of the passage of time, Van Deren just keeps running. Those moments the rest of us have when our brains tell us we’ve run long enough, we’ve run too far, we have too far still to go, are completely foreign to her.

This got me to thinking about ultra runners in general. Are they simply programmed differently than the rest of us? The women and men who lace up the shoes and run 50 or 100 miles or more able to do so because of something in their brains that we just don’t have? Or is it something we have that they don’t? Many of the ultra runners I know, for example, are recovering addicts. Did their youthful transgressions chip away at a piece of their brains that would otherwise tell them to stop running at a reasonable point?

Not wanting to resort to heavy drug use or have part of my gray matter removed from my skull, I wonder if there is a way to train your brain to get into the zone Van Deren describes, where she only remembers the last few steps she’s taken and can only imagine the next few she will take.

And all of this leads me back to my friend’s not funny attempt at running humor. Evolutionarily we are all runners. We had to be, because the food was running away from us and things that thought we were food were chasing us.

I have a completely unsupported theory that says we are all running from something. Something is chasing us all the time, and that is why we keep going.

My most productive running period was during a particularly dark and challenging time of my life. I was very definitely running from the circumstances that were causing that darkness. I realize this is a very pessimistic take on distance running, and I realize that it would be just as easy to spin it as running to something rather than running from something, but I am curious about it. Were our ancestors running away from the predators or running toward the prey? Is one instinct more imperative than the other? Think about that for a minute. Are we more efficient, effective runners when we are being chased or when we are chasing? Tapping into the right instinct might help us be better runners. I, for one, hope that the answer isn’t  in the flight instinct, because I don’t want to have to sustain negativity in order to promote better running.

New Year: New Goals
Yours truly met a couple of his running goals this year. I finished an ultra, I logged more miles than last year (1,276 when this was written), and I stayed mostly healthy. Not bad.

Now I am faced with the new year and I need a new set of goals. I’m still developing my list, but I want your ideas to help me plan 2013. Follow me on Twitter @GregVanBelle or visit the Real Running page on Facebook and let me know what goals you would like to see me set and meet (or not) in the coming year.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Playing Hurt

In order to make the point I want to make this month, I have to first confess that I do sit around most Sundays with various friends and brothers in law watching American Professional Tackle Football*. Make of that what you will. On a recent Sunday the various dudes on couches in my living room watched as a kick returner got hit by about five men at the same time, and we cringed as we watched the replay of the runner’s ankle rolling over so far his shin bone was on the ground. I could almost hear the soft tissue tearing right through the screen.

The runner went down in a heap, and after they peeled the other team off of him, the trainers attended to him and carried him off the field. His team started their offensive drive without him. Five plays later, he was lining up as a wide receiver.

That same injury – minus the 250 pound linebackers beating me to a pulp – kept me out of running shoes for 2 weeks. A sore foot will sideline me for a week. Heck, even a bad cough can sideline my running plans. As I watched this player hobble back on the field with twenty dollars worth of athletic tape on his ankle, I started thinking about playing hurt and the decisions we have to make as recreational runners when it comes to pushing through pain or stepping back and letting our bodies heal.

As I get older I find myself listening to every little twinge or ache as I run. A little pain that I would have ignored ten years ago is suddenly cause for alarm, and it isn’t because I can’t take the pain. Like most distance runners, I am pretty good at gritting my teeth and working through pain. For me it is increasingly about longevity. I don’t need to meet my daily or weekly goal nearly as much as I want to be healthy for the whole year. And the year after that. So when I rolled my ankle on a tree root a few months back, I probably could have finished my planned ten miles, gone home, and suffered the consequences. Instead, I tightened my shoe, turned around, and walked the two miles back to my car.

How do we know when to stop? When to push? Which injuries have potential long term ramifications and which are just aches and pains? When do you see a doctor and when do you just surf the running message boards for similar symptoms? How many rhetorical questions can I write in one paragraph?

For the football player the lines are clearer and the decisions simpler. In fact, in most cases it isn’t his decision to make. The trainers tell him if he can play, and the coach tells him if he will play. Plus, chances are he has a few million bucks on the line.

Despite the differences, there is a model in the way football players deal with injury, however. For them it is all about game day. An injured player is held out of practice, given special training programs, and basically allowed to heal rather than practicing with his team. It’s all about game day.
This is all reinforcement for my theory that you should always have a race on the calendar. You should always be training for something, and that event should be the focus of your running energy. If you have a half marathon in two weeks and your knee hurts a little, back off a bit. Maybe take an extra rest day. Save yourself for the race. If you push in training and get hurt, the race is ruined. If you push in the race and get hurt, you just need a little longer to recover from the race than you otherwise would have.

It is also reinforcement for my theory that we all just need to be running more often than we do. The more time we spend on our feet, the more we learn which twinges and aches are serious and which are not.

*I should also confess that I purposely schedule my rest days on Sundays so I can spend the entire day watching football and obsessing over my fantasy football team.

It's All Connected

I write this with an icepack wrapped around my right knee. But I don’t remember ever hurting it. I didn’t twist it, I didn’t hyper-extend it, I didn’t land on it. I have just been running. So when the doctor asked what I did to it, I had nothing to say except that I have been running and one day it hurt.

She gave me a look that suggested she didn’t believe me and asked me to describe the three runs prior to noticing the pain. Nothing remarkable, I said. I nice long trail run, an easy afternoon of loops near home, and tempo run the morning I first noticed the pain and swelling.

She gave me that look again. She figured I was holding something back.

Then she started testing things. Twist, turn, bend, etc. Stand on one foot and do a squat.

She gave me the look again and started manipulating my ankles. No problems. My ankles don’t hurt.

“Are you sure you didn’t twist or roll your ankle recently?”

Well come to think of it, I sure did. On that long trail run. But it’s my knee that hurts.

“And you did it early in the run?”

Well, yeah. About halfway.

Her look changed. Now she was a disappointed teacher who clearly thought I understood anatomy better than I do.

Without resorting to a chart or singing that song about the bones all being connected, she treated me like the mental toddler that I can be and explained that in rolling my ankle early in the run, I transferred the stress to my knee, and likely favored my ankle for the rest of the run.

“Did your hip hurt after that run? Your lower back?”


“Your knee will be fine. You need to strengthen your ankle and your core. Call me in two weeks.”

This is a mistake I’m sure a lot of runners make. We get very strong and fit in one direction, with one set of muscles, often neglecting the rest of the body. So once I’m done icing this knee, I’m going to go to the gym instead of hitting the trails.

I hate the gym. I love the trails. You can see how I get myself into these situations.

Who Are You Kidding?
By now both of my regular readers know of vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s less than accurate assessment of his marathon performance. Real Running doesn’t want to be political, so I will leave Mr. Ryan’s case aside here. Sort of.

This came up with a colleague of mine a few years ago after the Seattle Marathon. He was skeptical of a friend’s claim of a 3:15:00 finish time and did a little digging. In pictures late on the course, his friend looked remarkably fresh compared the runners around him. And there was no finishing photo of him. I suggested he look at the split times or the finish times of the runners around him in the pictures. My colleague ultimately didn’t care whether or not his friend had cheated, but wondered aloud: why on earth one would fabricate a finish time in a marathon?

Dude, you’re the psych professor, you tell me.

All I can come up with on this front is that for so many people marathon training is a terribly public endeavor. Especially when training for our first 26.2, we employ family and friends. They support us, talk to us about running, and wish us luck on race day. So to fail would feel like you are letting others down. Otherwise what would be the point? Unless you are simply a pathological liar…which I suppose is always a possibility.

There is also another level to this. If you haven’t yet read the story of Kip Litton and his graduate-level marathon cheating, you should. I will link to it on my Twitter feed for both of you. Spoiler alert: When you fabricate an entire event, including fake runners, so you can claim a fast time, you might have a problem. See also: Donald Crowhurst. Seriously. Look him up.

In summary, there is no good reason to lie about a marathon time. Which leaves very few ways to explain why one would do so. Worse, it is a little disturbing that one would try to get away with such a fabrication in the technology-saturated running world we live in.

Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @GregVanBelle, where I won’t lie to you about my training runs, injury status, race plans, and various other topics.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Welcome to Fall. Give me Money.

Fall Colors Breaking Out in the Cascades
There is a brief window each fall when the days are still long and warm, the kids are back in school, and my pesky little job teaching young writers hasn’t yet started up for the year.

Setting aside the fact that I happen to love back-to-school shopping (office supplies and new jeans for everyone!), fall is simply the best.

Let’s start with the fact that in the Northwest there is no better weather than in September and October. It’s not exactly sunbathing and headed down to the old swimmin’ hole weather, but for running the cool mornings and warm dry afternoons are perfect because it lets me use more of my unnecessarily complex running wardrobe. Early morning runs require a lightweight windbreaker (of which I own three, in different colors and in three slightly different styles). In the afternoon I can decide between sleeveless, short sleeved, or lightweight long sleeve depending on temperature (and mood).

And the marginally maintained school bus pulling away from the corner in a cloud of diesel smoke means the kids are off the streets, off the trails, and out of the corner booth at my favorite coffee shop. No more getting run down by mountain bikers in Mad Max armor. On the first day of school, I ventured out to the Real Running Super Secret Trail Running Test Grounds, which are somehow always crowded with people despite being super secret. I made my way around my usual 4 mile loop twice before seeing another soul, and that was the park ranger, who was wandering around the woods befuddled by the lack of teenagers smoking and making out on the picnic tables. It was perfectly awesome.

Fall also gives me a chance to dig into the bucket of running gadgets I have stashed under my desk. Reflective bands, blinky lights, headlamps, running packs (to carry the other assorted gadgets I might need). It’s an accessory hound’s dream!

It’s fleeting, though. In a few weeks fall will give up and winter will take over. If you’re looking to mark it on your calendar, it’s the day before the Seattle Marathon.

Race Season
Speaking of the Seattle 26.2 mile foot race, marathon “season” is upon us. The usual suspects in Portland and Seattle are coming up soon, and if you haven’t started training yet, you might want to get started. I usually run in at least one of the major local races each year, but this year I’m on a small race kick. This year I’m on the lookout for any race in a town I’ve heard of but never been to, any race for a cause that is only marginally a cause, and any race that has a distance with a “plus or minus” after it. So come on North Yelm Approximate Marathon Distance Running Race for Feline Depression! I’ll buy that t-shirt.

Whatever your pleasure, do yourself a favor and sign up for at least one fall race. The calendar is jammed, and as the weather turns you’re going to need something to get you out of the house and log your miles.

Yes, I’m that guy who is always running with headphones on. But despite my rock and roll exterior, I’m not always listening to . Am I the only one who is listening to old podcasts of “Car Talk” while I run? Honestly, the podcast has revolutionized my training. I don’t need two and a half minute bursts of energy from . I need forty-five minutes of distraction from pain and suffering. As a bonus, I get my training done and sometimes I learn a little something about colors, or pain, or fetal maturation. Thanks Radiolab!

Best Column Money Can Buy
Last night we watched the Morgan Spurlock documentary “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” the premise of which is the effect of product placement and overt advertising on filmmaking. This got me to thinking about how to continue to fund the ever-expanding budget of Real Running. What I need are some sponsors.

How easy it would be to casually mention my BRAND NAME shoes or the refreshing flavor of BRAND NAME hydration right here in this column! I could go on about my great BRAND NAME watches, or BRAND NAME compression shorts.

Heck, I’ll even promote products that have nothing to do with running. For the right price. And the right price is free stuff. Ahem. I know someone who works for someone who sells, promotes, manufactures, or distributes running products is reading this.

It took me a while, but it happened. I’m on Twitter. Follow me @GregVanBelle. I’ll even promote your product there. You know, for the right price. See above.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Running Your Age

Sooner or later, usually sooner, every runner faces some variation of this question: why do you do it?

Why do you torture yourself? Why do you put up with those nasty black toenails and the technical shirts that smell like the floormats of a teenager’s Honda? Why do you get up at dark-thirty and spend an hour trudging around in the rain?

Here’s the thing about these questions: they don’t really want to hear the real answer. Anyone asking a question like that isn’t interested in the real reasons behind your passion. The person asking the question wants you to say something that is, in their minds, equally as crazy as your commitment to running in the first place so they can brush you off as insane and go about their day.

So don’t waste a second coming up with a good answer. There isn’t one. A good answer would poetically dig down and express the joy of effortless miles. A compelling answer would convey the beauty of a mile of winding singletrack with nothing but the sound of your shoes hitting the dirt. The best answer would make the questioner want to lace up the shoes and head to the track.

No such answer exists. I just shrug and say, “I don’t know. I guess I’m just crazy.”

Here are some other stock answers you might want to have pre-loaded for the next time someone asks…

“I’m part Kenyan. It’s just in my blood.”

“I’m not good at any other sports.”

“I’m staying fit in case I have to run from the cops.”

“I save a lot of money on gym memberships.”

“I just like to hurt myself. I’m into that. Wink.”

Then just walk away.

Every time someone asks me any variant of the “why do you run?” question, I do reflexively ask myself the same question. What’s in it for me? I think the simplest answer is that I run so I can eat whatever I want. That might be all there is to it.

However, once you get beyond basic health maintenance – which is for most the only reasonable excuse for running – what is the reason to keep going? Weight management and fitness only requires a few miles a day. So why does my training log show so many 60 mile weeks?

I don’t want to speak for both of you, but I have come up with a pretty decent answer, and it came to me on my 40th birthday.

For no good reason, I decided that for this landmark birthday I would challenge myself to a mile for every year of my life. 40 for 40. Try explaining that to your family and friends.

It was during my (failed) attempt at 40 miles on my 40th birthday that I finally figured out, for me, what this running thing was all about.  We have established that I will never win a race. I will likely never be faster than I am now. I have no extrinsic motivation to lace my shoes and run.

Maybe it is just a variant of the classic mountain climbing excuse “because it’s there,” but when I filter out every other possible motivation to keep running, I do it because I want to see what this old body can do. I run distances because I can. And I want to see just how much I can do.

Human endurance is an incredible thing, and in the western world, we live largely free of circumstances that require us to really use it. We read remarkable tales of survival and sea or in the mountains, and they are remarkable precisely because they are so rare. 

I don’t want to be stranded in the mountains (been there, done that) or adrift in the ocean on a dismasted yacht. But whatever force gets people through those situations is precisely the force that makes me want to see just how far my legs can run. It’s a survival instinct that I hope to never have to actually use.

It’s that force that took me around my first marathon course, and it’s why I found myself at the Redmond Watershed recently in an attempt to run 40 miles on my 40th birthday. I came up short with an injury, but I’ll be back next year. 41 for 41.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

My First Ultra!

Be warned, new runners. 7 years ago I struggled and cramped my way through a 10k race and finished feeling like I had just climbed Everest. A few weeks ago I found myself standing ankle-deep in a puddle in Bellingham thinking it was reasonable to run 50k in the rain, snow, mud, and wind. It will happen to you.

I mean, if you can do 6.2 miles, why not 13.1? And certainly if you can run 13.1 miles once, you can do it twice. So why not sign up for a marathon? And so it goes.

When I ran my first marathon I really didn’t even know that there was such a thing as a longer distance than that. I crossed the finish like feeling like I’d just climbed Everest and figured I’d done it. All that was left to do was run 26.2 miles faster.

Then a funny thing happened. Every time I tried to get my body to go faster, it just broke. So my marathon times never really changed. Well, I said to myself, if I can’t go faster, I can do more. So I set goals of doing more marathons. Two things happened with that plan. One, I went broke paying entry fees and booking hotel rooms. Two, I got hurt more often.

On a doctor’s advice, I started running on “soft” surfaces more often to reduce the impact injuries I was suffering. I’d be out running 4 miles on the trails and groups water bottle carrying athletes would bound past me and bounce uphill over the rocks and roots. These strange creatures are ultra-marathoners.

Ultra-marathons? I didn’t know there was such a thing. But once I knew there was a distance goal above 26.2, I just had to have it. Because I’m an idiot. And I hang out with idiots who think such things are reasonable.

So back to the starting line. I was trying to be serious about what I was about to do, but I looked around at the 300 other people in my starting group and noticed that they all had silly grins on their faces. Some of them were even laughing and joking around. Are you people insane?

Yes, they are insane. And I was now one of them. So I grinned and made a lame joke to person standing next to me. And before I knew it, Scott Jurek was telling us to have fun out there…Fun?

Running any distance is ultimately about seeing what your body can do. It’s about testing your fitness and your mental toughness. I was about to find out what I could do. I had never run anything over 27 miles in my life, let alone with thousands of feet of climbing on muddy, snow-covered trails and fire roads.

A mile into the race I started noticing a few things. In most marathons, we all queue up and put our heads down, waiting for the starting gun. Then we huff and puff our way quietly through the first few miles. In an ultra, people are smiling, patting each other on the back, talking about training, asking about friends. Someone running near me noticed that my shoes were the same brand he wore. Cool man. Nice kicks.

At the second aid station – which emerged out of the snowy forest like some sort of frozen, tented oasis, one of my ultra-running friends was manning the water pitchers. He couldn’t run this race, but he came out anyway to be a part of it. He recognized me as I came in, gave me some advice about the course, smiled and kicked my butt out of the aid station and up the hill. That doesn’t happen at your local 10k.

In the middle miles I fell in with a small group of men and women and we ran together for a while. I slowed down a bit on a steep climb (it felt steep to me, anyway) and a woman I don’t know and had never seen before the race stopped and kicked my butt to keep running. You don’t get that in your average half marathon.

And eventually my watch ticked over 26.2 miles. Then over 27. 28. I was in new territory. My longest ever run, and it didn’t kill me.

I dragged myself across the finish line, eventually. Two more of my ultra runner friends who couldn’t run this race were there, directing traffic, high fiving finishers, and basically hanging out having a good time. I dwelled on the fact that I had just finished an ultra marathon for roughly 30 seconds before one of these “friends” asked me when I was going to sign up for a 50 miler.

Be warned. It will happen to you, too.

How to Die in the Woods

Back in my more adventurous days I was unfortunate enough to spend several unplanned nights in the wilderness. These were usually mountaineering efforts gone awry, long approach hikes washed out by bad weather, or rare instances when a climbing partner got hurt. But that was mountaineering, and we openly talked of that risk. It was a known entity. Climbers dismiss such nights as a quick “bivvy.” It’s part of the adventure, and over time you learn the difference between an inconvenient night on a rock ledge and a life-threatening situation.

Having given up any real vertical aspirations, I assumed I was pretty much done with the unplanned wilderness overnight adventure. But on a recent trail run, as things started to spiral out of control, I was smacked in the face by the reality that running in the wilderness is no different from climbing in the wilderness. Things can go wrong, and if you make enough mistakes, you can die on a trail run just as easily as you can while climbing a mountain…Using my recent experience in New Zealand to illustrate, I’m here to tell you how to do it:

1.     Go alone. This way no one will be there to see those embarrassing last moments as you slowly die from exposure or a head injury.
2.     Ignore the Weather. The run in question was in a national park known for being both the rainiest and the sunniest place on the north Island of New Zealand. As weird as that sounds, it should have at least registered in my brain as a variable in my plan. When I woke that morning, heavy rain clouds were racing in from the ocean. The mountain I intended to run the flanks of was shrouded in mist. But instead of using my actual senses to assess the situation, I looked at the online weather report, took the optimistic high temperature, and dressed for that.
3.     Don’t research. I had already glanced at a 100 word description of the track I was going to do. Most of the trails I’d been on in the week or so before this had been very well marked and logical. I hadn’t once used one of the maps carried. And I was still riding the high I was on from the day before, where I just randomly happened upon a brilliant track that wasn’t on any maps or in any guidebooks. Just go for it! So I left for the mountain with no maps.
4.     Be in a hurry. This is important if you want to die, because when you’re in a hurry, you forget things. You forget to charge your GPS watch, for example. Or you forget to refill your hydration pack. Heck, you even forget to grab a fresh pair of shoes because you know there are some shoes in the car already.
5.     Don’t tell anyone where you’re going. The very kind woman at the parking lot near the trailhead was a little concerned about my plans. I was going to do what they considered to be a 2-3 day tramp in 3-4 hours. As I stood there shivering in my shorts and tank top (see #2) she asked whether anyone would miss me if I didn’t return. That’s exactly how she phrased it. Umm, yeah. Eventually. If I don’t get off an Air New Zealand flight in a week, people might miss me. But no. I hadn’t told anyone my plans.
6.     Be cheap. The well-meaning ranger suggested I purchase the official topo map of the mountain before I set out. These maps are unbelievably good and are produced by the New Zealand government to keep people from dying in the woods. But fourteen dollars? I’ll be fine with this promotional map I got from a brochure on guided summit expeditions, thank you.
7.     Be proud. A mile into this trail and I knew it was going to be a struggle. Steep climbs, slippery descents, treacherous stream crossings, and waist deep bogs were the order of the day. When my under-charged GPS watch died at mile 6 (see #4) I had already been struggling on this trail for almost 2 hours. Do the math. But rather than turning around, I kept pressing on, and before long I was past the halfway point. I think. I didn’t have a map (#3, #6).
8.     Take risks. Sure, there’s an easier way to cross that river about a half mile upstream, but this is a more direct route. This is the logic that almost did me in. Leap to one rock. Solid. Breathe. Leap again. Miss. Slip and fall into the freezing river. Narrowly miss smashing your skull on a rock. Watch in slow motion as the rock you jumped to starts rolling toward you. Think about 127 Hours. Panic.

I eventually dragged myself out of the forest and back to my car, of course. But I spent over half of what turned out to be 21 miles talking to myself like a crazy man, worrying that I was hopelessly lost, and cursing myself for being a moron.

Be careful out there. I need both of my readers to keep this thing going!