Learning to Climb

This year, I’ve set some non-running goals for myself. It’s a good thing too. Because of some silly over-training on my part, I’ve come down with posterior tibial tendonitis (PTT). PTT is much less frequently experienced by runners than the dreaded plantar fasciitis, which I’ve also had, but PTT has proven to be just as pesky to get rid of. After 6 weeks of physical therapy, I’m still unable to run any distance pain free. I have learned over the years that in order to maintain my mental stability in a demanding workplace, I need to move. I’ve also learned that I do better when I’m moving outside. Last year in the summer, my cousin, her husband and I hiked to the top of Mount Chocorua and it helped to fuel a whole new fire in my belly.

I have some lofty climbing goals for the year. My cousin’s husband invited me to join his three-person group to summit Mont Blanc later in the year. At 4,810 m (15,781 ft), this isn’t exactly a walk in the park. While my fitness should not (at least before my self-inflicted injury) be an issue, it would be good to get more experienced on trails and in wintery conditions since the top of Mont Blanc is glacial ice year round. So, we have planned a couple of tune-up climbs. This coming weekend, we will – weather permitting – climb Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. While the altitude is not stunning at 1,916 m (6,288 ft), the climb is fairly technical and the weather can get downright treacherous. Some 150 people have died on Mt. Washington since record keeping began in the mid-1800s. As such, I’ve been taking a multi-faceted approach to training.

Getting Vertical

That’s me up in the purple zone. And yes, for you experts, it is an easy course.

Growing up in the foothills of the Appalachians, I’m no stranger to hills. I’ve even done a bit of ill-advised, inexperienced bouldering (rope-free rock climbing) in my youth. But on the whole I have very little experience going vertical. So, I’ve recently been going rock wall climbing at a local gym in town. We are very lucky to live in a metropolitan area with these kinds of options, since the tallest natural peak around me can be measured in the tens of feet. I’m finding that I love climbing. Much like running, it gives me a sense of accomplishment. While I’ll do it when I have to, I sincerely detest machine or free weight training for the sake of weight training. It just does not leave me feeling accomplished. Climbing on the other hand has everything I’m looking for: problem-solving, a great muscle work out, and some elements of cardiovascular exercise as well. I’m sure a seasoned climber would tell you that my technique is terrible, but still, I’m pretty reliably going upward and building in confidence. Even better, my wife agreed to join me on my last trip and it appears that this might be something we can do together. While I don’t intend to do any actual vertical climbing on Mt. Washington or Mont Blanc, getting experience well help me remain confident and sure-footed as we take to steep ascents on higher terrain.

Equipment Test

I learned this year that Mountaineering is chocked full of equipment. Extra stiff mountaineering boots, crampons, trekking poles, lightweight layered clothing, eye protection, and on and on. The acquisition of this long list of surprisingly expensive equipment has turned me into bit of a bargain shopper, as I’ve learned the ins and outs of various websites and specialty stores. Now with a tub full of equipment, I figured it was important to get out and try out some of the gear, as the first time I wear this stuff should not be on the mountain. So, I recently packed up and headed out on my local running trail for a 10k hike while completely over-equipped. I’m sure I was a real sight as I strode around a trail essentially designed for running while dutifully using my trekking poles and carrying a pack replete with ice axe. At least it was a little snowy that day so I didn’t completely look like I was off my meds. Here’s what I learned:

  • Super-stiff mountaineering boots are great for keeping your Posterior Tibial Tendon relaxed. These things are not too dissimilar to a medical immobility boot
  • Super-stiff mountaineering boots are, on the other hand, not great for my outer most toes during long-range hikes on mostly flat ground. Mine were both quite red and quite angry at the end.
  • Trekking poles are surprisingly helpful, especially when precariously balancing on rocks while crossing a stream in sub-freezing temps
  • There are many sharp points on an ice axe that, if not carefully positioned on your backpack, will in fact poke you repeatedly
  • Super-stiff mountaineering boots are also not excellent on ice in spite of what appears to be quite aggressive treads on bottom

Strength Training

I know what I said earlier about strength training, but I’m actually happy to weight train if there is a purpose. As I watched YouTube videos about climbing Mount Washington in the winter, I came realize that I’m in for quite a workout. And since I’m not able to run any sort of distance at the moment, I knew I would need to hit the weights. So, three to four days a week I’ve been working the major muscle groups. Squats, deadlifts, bench press, dips and pull ups have become my friends again along with a bunch of core exercises. For years now, I’ve been running at least an hour a day roughly 6 days a week. It hasn’t left a lot of time for weight training. As one might imagine, I have lost a fair amount of strength and muscle mass. But here’s the other thing I forgot. Weight training makes me ravenous. So now I’m gobbling vast quantities of food that I haven’t needed or wanted and my… ahem… waistline is suffering a bit. I’m resisting pulling the fat pants out of the closet, but I know from experience that I’m getting dangerously close to opening an embarrassing stitch line with one ill-timed stoop to pick something up off the ground. Let’s just hope I can keep my pants in one continuous piece until I can get back to running.

Sense of Purpose… and Impending Death

On the whole, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the shift in focus from running as I learn new mountaineering skills. It has given me a sense of purpose in my free time since I’m unable to log the running miles that I’ve grown accustomed to. I still have so much to learn, from knot-tying to belaying, to not having an ice axe come loose and stab me in the face. Yes, that last little number was a tidbit I picked up from reviewing the manual for my recently acquired ice axe harness. Apparently, mountaineering is a bit of a medieval sport.

This is absolutely part of the instructions that came with my recently acquired ice axe leash

Running My First 50k

I started this blog post the morning before attempting my first 50k run. The title of this post very well could have read, “My first ‘Did Not Finish’ (DNF) Race.” As I stated in an earlier post, Taking a Zero Day, I had some setbacks in my training routine running up to the race. Those setbacks lingered. And then lingered some more. My foot never really healed all the way. The most I had run at one time for the 3 weeks prior to the race was 4 miles, and my foot hurt every time. So to think I could make it 31 miles was pretty silly. But, somehow it worked.

Before the race, I took a mental assessment over breakfast of my physical and mental states. Here is what I wrote down:

  • Body feels good, well-rested and ready to work
  • Ankle pain 3 out of 10, worst when I flex the outer part of my foot upwards
  • Thinking about which wheel will fall off first: most likely my ankle, maybe my legs from a lack of running, least likely my cardiovascular system
  • Considering disappointment of being listed on the race results as DNF
  • Thinking about letting down Matt – my friend and running partner – whom I roped into this crazy idea
  • Given that it is a trail race, I cannot walk the required pace to make the cutoff time
  • Realistic probability of finish: 30%
  • Trying to quash the negativity, I am starting affirmations and visualizing a pleasant run in the woods

Then it was time to go. So I stopped thinking and put myself on auto-pilot. I loaded up my truck with my pre-packed supplies from the night before, and drove to the race start in the dark. When I say I stopped thinking, I put all my meditation practice into effect. I stopped assessing and ruminating. I stopped thinking about disappointments and pain. I used the skills I have learned in meditation to go through the motions and accept whatever came. Once at the race start, I continued to go through the motions. I met up with my friend, we made the decision to run light and rely upon the aid stations for food and drinks. Soon it was time to start.

The Rocks and Roots Trail Series at Alum Creek State Park in Lewis Center, Ohio, is one of the best organized I’ve ever experienced. It is a very small race, capped at 400 runners, and it is organized by runners for runners. I highly recommend it if you can get a spot. The leading picture for this post is one of the many stunning views you’ll experience throughout the two 10k loops of this fun and challenging course. So with some quick, no-nonsense announcements and an old-fashioned, “Ready, Set, Go!”, we were off at 8 AM.

I started off limping and then eased into a slow, methodical stride. A funny thing happened. My foot pain spiked early and then within 10 minutes subsided back to a 2 or 3 out of 10. I thought, “I can live with this.” So I just kept going. That’s how it went. Minute by minute, hour by hour, I just kept going. One foot in front of the other. 4 hours into the race, we had completed our first 30k (18.6 miles). If you’re doing the math, these are not fast miles, but that’s OK. We decided that this was a “just finish” race because it was our first attempt at this distance and, given that it was a trail race where we go up and down ravines and hop over downed trees, this was never going to be flat out. At 30k, the course was getting really boggy. There were significant portions of the course where the term “running” simply did not apply. Think, “ankle-deep pancake batter” and you get the picture. For these portions, we slowed to a walk and then picked back up on drier parts of the trail.

Somewhere around mile 29, I caught a root with my bad foot and it sent pains spiking through my leg. So I walked for a bit. My running partner and long-time friend – ever patient – walked along just in front of me, willing me forward. There was no stopping now. I had to cover the two miles back to the finish line anyway. So I walked on and used deep, focused breathing to let go of the pain. Soon I was back to trotting on drier spots and slogging through the mud.

And then it was over. We popped up out of the woods and came down the final stretch to the finish, where 20 or so people were cheering us on. Just over 7 hours of constant movement, and we had done it! Our first 50k. Matt and I crossed the finish line together, just as we had started. I want to be clear here that he could have gone ahead and beat my time by a good 30 minutes. But that isn’t who he is. After getting our medals and picking up our bags, we cheered the next 5 runners down the path. As the post-run chill sank in, we decided to call it a day and head back to our families, exuberant at our accomplishment.

As I put the finishing touches on this post, I feel great. My foot is a little swollen and tender, but I’m able to walk and be productive the day after a 50k (31 mile) race. I accomplished a major 2019 goal on day 6 of the year in the face of adversity. Perhaps I spend too much time on Zen Buddhism in my blog, but I will tell you dear reader that without my experience in sitting meditation, there is just about zero chance I would have attempted this race, let alone finished it. With that said, I also want to recognize the power of the team. Because without my friend Matt running along with me, I would have limped slowly across the finish line wondering what more I had left in the tank. Here’s to friends and zen!

Cheers!

Taking a Zero Day

In hiking parlance, taking a zero day means taking a day off. It isn’t often that I take a day off of running, especially with a long race coming up. I am preparing for a 50k trail race, which is the first time I’ll officially run longer than a marathon. To support the extra ups and downs of a trail race, I recently added 3 mile stair workouts with a weight vest and the change in training strained some muscles in my arches. I did my best to run through it, but the pain kept increasing as I put in miles on my other runs. So… time to take a break.

Taking a break from 6-days-per-week running after eight months should be easy in theory. As in, I could simply not run. But breaking a habit, even a habit that takes effort, is leaving me feeling adrift at the moment. This weekend, I found myself feeling stuck – almost paralyzed – and quite unproductive. It was like I had a computer program in my brain that said, “run” and when the “run” program didn’t execute, I struggled to figure out what was next. Instead of just skipping it and moving on to the rest of my chores, I sat stewing on the fact that I couldn’t run. I’d flex my feet and wince at the pain instead of simply moving on. What a wonderful opportunity to use a bit of mindfulness practice to overcome my faulty program!

First, sit with it. Instead of fighting reality, I took the opportunity to sit with the discomfort of the break in routine. I sat in meditation and worked on settling my brain. I found that I was stuck on repeat. “I just want to run. But I can’t. Stupid foot. Why did I have to overtrain? Maybe if I flex it, it will feel better.” Rinse and repeat. I thought through my attachment to the task of running. Really, I was attached to the expectation of being pain-free. I wanted things to be different than what they were right now. Instead of repeatedly berating myself to accept what was, I decided to focus on what I could do. Perhaps an anti-inflammatory or some ice or a bit of massage therapy? So after breaking the mental cycle of wanting to run pain-free, I decided to make a to do list. First, I’ll use a tennis ball to put pressure on the affected areas. Then I’ll follow that up with some ice. Finally, I’ll take some ibuprofen at bed time to calm the angry muscles. Satisfied with a plan, I was starting to let go of the attachment.

Second, take action on what I can do. I put my plan into action. I grabbed the tennis ball and put as much pressure as I could stand on the affected area. Rolling it over and over for about 5 minutes. The logic here was that I probably made the small muscles in my arch area “angry” with all the stair work and needed something to break up the knotted tissue. After some rather intense moments, I got an ice pack and applied 10 minutes on, 10 minutes off cold therapy for a half an hour. Nearing bed time, I took some ibuprofen and called it a night. The next morning, my foot was feeling significantly better.

Finally, accept the progress and use it as motivation to continue on the path to recovery. This morning, I decided to take another zero day. Two in a row? Yep. My wife and I took the kids skiing this morning for our second-youngest child’s birthday, so it served as a nice distraction. After we got home, I resisted the urge to attempt a run and – even better – resisted the urge to go back to stewing about not being able to run. Instead, I folded laundry, I tidied up the kitchen, I wrote my first blog post in a month, I caught up on televised soccer matches from the day, and this evening I’m going to watch a movie with my lovely wife.

Who knew a zero day could be so much fun?

Our Devices are Probably Listening to Us

You have probably seen the Facebook / cat food test on YouTube. Now, I am no conspiracy theorist. I don’t wear a tinfoil hat and as a law-abiding citizen, I’m not terribly concerned about Big Brother or Big Data or whatever the next Big thing is. But still. It is creepy to think about. In spite of Facebook’s continued assertions to the contrary, it seems to keep coming up for us. My wife – who has designated herself as our family’s Facebook liaison (more on this in a minute) – has observed it repeatedly in the last several months. She has a conversation about some product or service that we don’t currently use, and then she starts getting ads about the product or service on Facebook within 24 hours.

Listening Devices

Now let’s consider for a moment the latest fad in technology. The virtual assistant operating via a microphone and speaker. Alexa operating on the Amazon Echo, Siri on your phones and Homepod, etc. These devices are listening for you to command, oh I don’t know, “Play Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen.” In addition to taking you on a trip down musical memory lane, isn’t it in the best interest of their parent companies to listen to your conversations? Everyone wins when they provide you with deals on the products and services you’re considering, right? I have not seen the code and so I cannot comment on whether or not it is happening. However, at this point, I operate on the assumption that it is.

Tech’d Out

Some time ago in a morning meeting, one of my team members asked the question, “What future technology are you most excited about?” My answer: “None.” I know I’m starting to sound like everyone’s Dad here, but seriously – where does it stop? I feel over-marketed, over-surveyed, over-autodialed and over-emailed. I don’t feel like I need more. As mentioned earlier, my wife knows that I’ve grown weary of social media, so she has volunteered to be our “Facebook liaison.” I guess it means that she’s active enough for both of us. Love you, hon!

There is No Tech on the Trail

This past weekend, my marathon training schedule called for a long run of 16 miles. I’ve been pounding the pavement lately and my calf muscles are feeling a bit knotted up. So I opted to put my 16 miles in on the trail. With an elevation chart that reads like a saw blade, I got one heck of a workout. But you know what else? I got trees, dirt, mud, underbrush, spiderwebs (enough to stick my hat to my head), sun-dappled landscapes, lake views, and a whole lot of quiet. At the end, I felt great. I felt like I had put in some serious work and that I had gotten a reprieve from haptic alerts, pop-ups, and calls from New Jersey offering low cost health insurance. So… if you’re like me and getting a bit tired of Big Tech, I highly suggest getting outside. Happy Trails…

Let your hair down

Sometimes, you have to let your hair down. This is week three of my marathon training. Tonight I should have lifted weights while I let my legs recover from yesterday’s interval training. But instead, I came home, did a couple of chores, and then took my better half out to our favorite local eatery for Spanish wine and our favorite dishes.

Like the kid in We’re the Millers, I’ve got “no ragrets.” Not even one. We had a lovely evening and now tomorrow I’ll be doubly motivated to knock out my tempo run after another busy day at work.

Are you motivated after letting your hair down? Or are you more of an “inertia person” who once is at rest stays at rest?

Remember the Mosquito

If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.                                           – Dalai Lama

This evening I went for a training run at dusk. I was sore from the weekend’s running and had to push myself out the front door. While out there, I “ran” at a paltry pace through my full post-dinner belly and my weekend soreness. About three miles in, I started hitting these swarms of stinging bugs. They’d stick to my sweaty skin and sting me repeatedly. It reminded me of the Dalai Lama quote above, which of course made me smile. After that, I got a little smarter and started ducking and dodging the swarms. To the casual observer, I probably looked like I was off my meds. Again I smiled. These little 1 mm insects were causing me to run like Rocky while he was training for his fight with Ivan Drago. I ran anyway. We don’t have to be massive to make a massive difference.

What’s so great about 2:30 AM?

Seriously. It is currently 4:38 AM – not for you of course, but for me. I have been up for a few hours. Much like every night for the past two and a half weeks. So far, I’m coming to the conclusion that if you ever want to test your resolve and your sanity, become an insomniac. No wait, I don’t wish this on anyone. But the fact is I’m up. Again. So this early morning, I’m asking myself, “What’s so great about 2:30 AM?” What is going on at this hour that I feel compelled to wake from my restful slumber and take part in? Because on the surface, it feels like a whole lot of nothing.

What is in fact going on at 2:30 AM? Well, upon deeper inspection, not much. The fan in our bedroom is still running. The lights are still off. The birds outside aren’t making any noises because I assume that in their natural God-given nature, they know how to get a full night’s sleep. I will say that the trains that I can hear in the distance definitely run through the night. But I’m pretty sure that’s not a new development over the past couple of weeks. I’m also certain that there have been a few things added to the internet since I last checked, but unless the collective global digital brain can tell me how to get back to sleep, I don’t think I’m interested. Now there’s an idea. OK, Google, let’s see what you’ve got.

The Search

So as I lay awake while my wife has the audacity to sleep soundly beside me with her metered breathing and her neither tossing nor turning, I whipped out my trusty smart phone to see what the internet has for me.

OK, Google, Why do I wake up between 2 and 3 AM every night?

Here’s what we’ve got:

First, I learn that this is when my liver becomes active and processes the previous day’s nonsense that I threw into my pie hole. The reality is that I generally eat a pretty clean diet. Or at least I did before all of this started. I have to be honest with you my dear readers, After about a week of running on 3 hours of sleep per night, one’s resolve (or at least my resolve) to eat healthy starts to fly out the window. If when the alarm goes off, you are dead tired before you start your day, meal prep and for that matter what food constitutes a meal starts to get pretty loose. So while it may be a compounding factor at this point, I know I didn’t start there. OK, that’s probably not it. What else?

I learn that I might be harboring anger issues. I’m learning that when my liver kicks into action, if I’m harboring anger issues, I could be releasing adrenalin that will in turn keep me up. That sounds plausible. I know I’m certainly up. So let’s scratch the surface there. Am I angry about anything? Why yes, I’m angry that I’m up and that I cannot seem to be able to go back to sleep – every night, regardless of what I eat or drink and what my liver seems to be doing. Not so fast Daniel-son, what about the underlying anger? You know, that deep rooted stuff that only a therapist or Oprah could get out of you? Well, let’s give that a moment; heaven knows I’ve got a couple to spare. After repeated ponderings on this subject, I don’t think this is it. But who knows, I’m not done writing. Maybe something will pop out. For now, let’s see what else the internet can suggest.

Next, I learn that I might not be getting enough exercise. If the body doesn’t move enough, then basically it can blah blah… No, that’s not it. I have officially restarted my marathon training and I’m running a good bit in spite of my lack of rest. And weirdly, it doesn’t seem to matter. I actually went for a morning run the other day after just 2.5 hours of sleep in one night and I put in some quick miles. So no. Let’s keep moving.

Ghosts? OK, so I’m reading here that 2-3 AM is the chief witching hour for souls who can’t or won’t lay to rest. If I feel like someone is watching me, it is probably a ghost. Ponderous. Perhaps I will consider having the house exercised. But first, I really want to get the carpets done. Plus, I don’t feel like I’m being watched. I feel like I’m just awake. Painfully and stupidly awake while the rest of the world – including those in the afterlife – can seem to get some rest.

Dehydrated? Over-hydrated? Pituitary issues? Hypoglycemic? Don’t eat bananas. Oh wait, bananas can be good. Don’t lay in bed awake. Eat a little before bed, but don’t eat anything after 7 PM. Read before bed but not in bed. Limit my screen time. Don’t watch scary movies. Make sure my chi is centered. Try yoga. Sleepy time tea? Melatonin. Benadryl. Head injury.

Sigh.

Sadly, another half night of no sleeping has passed by. It is now approaching my “waking” time. So I’m going to get on with my day, prop myself up with Joffrey’s Latin Espresso from the break room at work and slog through another day as a zombie. I suppose the goal should be to find a silver lining. Well, if this keeps up, I’ll definitely become a more practiced – if not better – blogger. I’ll learn the limits of marathon training with sleep deprivation. I might even get to Inbox zero. And who knows, I might even figure out what’s so great about 2:30 AM.

Sweet dreams…