Letting Up the Pressure – Running and Walking Through the Holidays

Mt. Elbrus from the Baksan Valley

I started running in 2014. We had just summited Mt. Elbrus, but I felt I was too slow on the descent and needed to increase my cardio training. True, some of it could have been due to the third degree sunburn I had managed to achieve. But, regardless, we knew there were a number of higher mountains in our future – the Ecuadorian volcanoes were on the burner for 2015 – so the cardio was essential.

Making our way up Cotopaxi

I started slowly; fast I am not. And over the next several years I worked my way from a 5k to a bit over 7 miles. There were times I felt I could have gone further, but I just didn’t. My standard was a 5k on the treadmill Wednesday nights before yoga and a 5 to 6 mile run on Saturday mornings.

But all things change. This past summer we actually achieved our goal of summiting an over 20,000 foot mountain – Stok Kangri in Ladakh, India. My Wednesday yoga class time was moved up to 7 pm, making it practically impossible to get a 5k in between yoga and work. And more importantly, I felt I was getting slower and slower.

For Type As like me that means that Friday nights started to be filled with an existential dread (ok, not quite that bad) of how my run would be the next day. Could I achieve under 12 minute miles consistently? Why didn’t I ever get an under 11 minute like I used to? What’s wrong with me? Can 4 years of aging make a difference? What does this say about my next climbing or trekking expedition? You get the picture.

Then, a few weeks ago, I just stopped. I simply made the conscious decision, somehow justified in my head, that what I really needed to improve was my general walking speed. So I would just become a fast walker.

I started with a very brisk three mile walk to meet a friend for (of all things) a stroll through a “fairy door” exhibition in a nearby park, and realized I could keep my “splits” at 15 minutes per mile or less. After a few sessions of that, I decided to “walk” to the Y before a Saturday yoga class. And as I took off down the road, on what felt like a crisp day, at least to us Floridians, I suddenly realized I wanted to run. So I did. And it felt good to let my legs move freely without obsessing about what my Fitbit was showing. I’d run to the end of the block or the next tree or whatever the mark was and then keep going at a walking clip for a while – and then run again, whenever I felt like it. And ironically, I discovered that when I run I’m running faster than I did and overall end up with 13 to 14 1/2 minute miles and a decently elevated heart rate.

I’ve been using this run- walk technique for a few weeks now. And I’m looking forward to my Saturday morning training sessions again. Friday nights aren’t filled with worry. As I wend my way through the neighborhood, I’m noticing more things – a new home renovation project, which trees are blooming, the latest development in the never-ending series of drainage construction projects by the lake where we live.

It was like letting the air out of a balloon. But not in a disappointing way. Letting up on all that pressure let me enjoy it all again. I’m going to try to remember that as we enter the upcoming Thanksgiving to Christmas marathon.

Seen on the edge of the lake
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Running – The World is Flat After All

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What's up; what's down
What’s up; what’s down

As I plowed uphill on the first half of Saturday’s seven miler, I reveled in the knowledge that the backside was going to be all down. I was running a new route – through “downtown” College Park, our area of town, all the way up Edgewater Drive, past the public high school, the Catholic high school, an abandoned juke box store (who has thought of those for a while?), a gun shop, a driftwood designer, and assorted and sundry other small establishments.

But after I turned around at the half way mark, to my utter horror, nothing but uphill faced me. I kept running along, confident that at some point I was bound to find the downward trajectory of the long hill I was sure I had climbed. But none was to be found, at least until I reached the very short half block leading down to our lake.

I’ve been punked like this before. Mt. Elbrus has a fake summit that after several hours of climbing looks like the real thing. And on the long slog down, the random metal structures that dot the slopes of Elbrus all resemble the barrel huts we were staying in. Not to mention our explorations of the buttes around Sedona, Arizona where I was convinced that each arch must have been the one that would lead us out of the vortex and to the parking lot that housed our rental car and escape to civilization.

I can’t risk thwarted expectations on the way up Cotopaxi, much less Chimborazo or whatever other mountains we end up climbing. They stop you in your tracks; they bring you down – figuratively, and in the case of climbing, literally. I just need take each step in the moment, so that when that summit finally appears, or the refuge hut out of the winds can be seen, it’s a wonderful surprise.

And maybe it’s not so bad not to have the downhill stretch. There’s either an optical illusion where long flat stretches ahead of you appear to rise up in a gentle swell – or, it could just be the fact the prescription in my sunglasses is wrong. But the real point is that maybe something that can feel so hard is really easier than you’re letting yourself believe. Maybe the world is flat after all.

Training and the Power of the Shoe

The Power of the Shoe
The Power of the Shoe

For several years I have had a semi-inflexible yoga schedule. What I call “regular” yoga on Wednesday nights and Sunday afternoons, with some cardio thrown in on the step mill or treadmill, accompanied by Bikram on Saturday afternoons. But all things change, and my long beloved 4 pm Bikram class is, at least for now, no longer. What’s a girl to do?

True, I could go to a 10 am class, which I have occasionally done, but I find my balance is not nearly as good in the morning. Somehow I need the day to be underway before I have the necessary focus.

So, without making any commitments one way or the other to what my new Saturday routine will be, yesterday morning I ventured off to a high end running shoe store. It’s one of those places where customers are called guests, and you’re assigned a salesperson (although I’m sure they call them something else) as soon as you walk in. The process starts with extensive foot measurements, followed by a video of you running along the sidewalk in front of the store so they can frame by frame analyze how your foot strikes.

At the end, I was the proud owner of a remarkably expensive pair of Asics, together with super feet insoles. But I don’t mind spending money on those things – the cost of shin splints or otherwise wrecking your feet, legs, or back is way too great when you have mountains to climb.

And it turned out to be worth it. Fall finally fell in Central Florida and my new shoes and I went for a 4 1/4 mile run around the lake we live on. The difference between running in 90 and 65 degrees should have been self-evident, but I was still surprised by it. There was a decent breeze that was behind my back for a bit, not a cloud to be seen, and the pink seed casings of the tabebouia trees served as a very acceptable substitute for fall leaves.

Ok, so my left hip now hurts and maybe I really shouldn’t have used my new insoles for the first time on a four mile run against instructions, but whatever. ¬†Letting go of one training routine and opening up some new possibilities – I think that’s the flexibility it’s going to take to get up all 19,500 feet of Cotopaxi.

 

Why I Decided to Run (Sometimes)

I have hated running for as long as I can remember. It started in junior high or high school when our gym teacher decided an appropriate way to avoid the mutual torture that comprised our gym classes was to require each student to do an independent series of workouts for about six weeks. Every week we each had to accumulate a certain number of aerobics points after which we were free to return to eating Pringles, drinking cokes, watching Star Trek and I Love Lucy reruns, and the other activities that made up our generally somnolent 1970s lives. I’m pretty sure the book upon which this brilliant exercise in avoiding actually teaching (much less seeing) your gym students was Kenneth Cooper’s The New Aerobics.

I would stagger around Duke’s east campus in the hot North Carolina afternoons, convinced that I must be running at least 3 or 4 miles. It was only much later I found out it was barely two miles door to door. But my aerobics points were much higher when I self reported the greater number of miles, and hence my completion of the task much sooner.

In any event, it was those memories that faced me each time I thought of running as a form of training. But as Elbrus has drawn nearer and nearer, the fear factor ever increasing, and the conflict between the time needed for other types of training and my work responsibilities seemingly sometimes insurmountable, running has occasionally seemed like the best solution. Hence, off I have gone, Pandora radio plugged in, and at a steady 11 1/2 minute per mile pace. And very occasionally I have actually hit that point where your stride feels rhythmic, breathing even, and you feel you can keep going indefinitely. I have to admit that the purchase of real running shoes as opposed to what we wore in the ’70s has also made a difference. I’m certainly not into speed – in fact, the few times my much taller husband has run with me he claims my pace is impervious to topographical features. But in my view you shouldn’t have too much fun running downhill – I figure that it’s the sheer mental endurance that may be the most needed quality for the long slog up Mt. Elbrus.

So, I will now grudgingly sometimes go for a run – and maybe even enjoy it (but not too much!). Nonetheless, I must point out that Jim Fixx, the author of The Complete Book of Running dropped dead of a heart attack at 52. Need I say more.