This has been one of those weeks where I realize just how worn out I am. I have not had many moments like this during COVID, but the last two weeks have presented me with multiple reminders of events and gatherings I would have been enjoying in a pandemic-free world: the Towpath 10-Miler on Father’s Day, a Rolling Stone’s concert the Friday after, a series between my beloved Cleveland Indians and the cheating Houston Astros that would have been taking place this week, and a 10k in the small city of Medina that I have run almost every July 4th since I first started running. Then on Monday I received an email from the Columbus Marathon, one I expected, that this fall’s race would not be taking place either. In a year where so much has already been lost the hits keep coming.
I am also finding it hard to keep ahold of the positivity I felt at work where a slow start to June ended on a much more positive note. No, the restaurant I work at has not come close to reaching it’s pre-COVID numbers but their have been signs of improving business, progress that I fear could be wiped out as the country sees surging cases in the continuation of a first wave that never really broke.
I have much to be thankful for, I understand that. One of my co-workers lost her 25-year-old niece two weeks to COVID; I have faced no such loss and I knock on wood and pray that that will continue to be the case. Yet what was evident at the outset of this pandemic remains true: this is a world-shaking event that is reshaping life and will leave a residue for years to come. On many days I handle that reality well. In the last week I have lapsed a bit.
Sorry for that bummer of an opening.
I really do love this week’s newsletter. This past weekend would have been the running of the Western States 100, a race that has captivated me since I first read Dean Karnazes’s book, Ultramarathon Man, and the first link has a great feel good video on runners pushing to finish the race in the last hour before it’s 30 hour cutoff. I have an interesting workout/challenge you can attempt, especially in this time of cancelled races. I float two ideas, both applicable to running and performance, about giving yourself the permission to be bad at something as well as why fake toughness is not the ticket to conquering tough times. I let Kelly Starrett make a case for an evening mobility routine and I wrap up with something completely non-running related: how an overture about a Russian victory over the French in the 1800’s became synonymous with July 4th. Let’s dig in.
If you want a feel good running story in this year of mounting race cancellations, this is 17 minutes well worth your time. This short documentary follows several runners in last year’s Western States 100 who battle to complete the grueling 100-mile race within the last hour before the event’s 30 hour cutoff, the golden hour. Much like the Boston Marathon, the Western States 100 is an event one must qualify for and even then far more applicants qualify than the race can handle, meaning entry is not guaranteed. The runners interviewed make it clear the race is itself their reward often the culmination of years of training and waiting to make the field. The scenery is gorgeous; the course literally runs over mountains, and the last five minutes are gripping as we wait to see who will make the cutoff.
Speaking of race cancellations, I received notification this week that my fall race was cancelled and suddenly find myself unmotivated to train for a marathon and looking for a new challenge. This workout caught my eye because it is 1) different from any other sort of running I do, 2) a challenge I could use to pit myself against friends or to measure progress down the road, and 3) would allow me to estimate training paces for future marathon training. The workout is simple: find a flat course and run as far as you can for 12 minutes. The results will help estimate VO2max; in fact it was first designed by an Air Force doctor to do just that without the need for lab equipment. The article includes the formula for using your result to determine VO2max or a link to a website to do the calculation for you.
This article by Karen Rinaldi summarizes the message of her book, which I picked up a copy of last week, on the subject of daring to be bad at something. The message is one that could have spoken to me as a young soccer coach, as a runner who had just bombed his first marathon, and even today as I try to teach myself how to play the guitar. I wrote in last week’s newsletter about how I am trying to keep hold of practices and habits that I established or re-established during Ohio’s stay-at-home order and learning guitar is atop that list. When I had near unlimited time to practice it was easy to allow myself to be bad but now that time is more limited I feel a pressure to progress that has sometimes dulled my enthusiasm. Rinaldi’s point is worry less about this pressure and to enjoy the freedom to be bad at something if you enjoy it. That message takes me back to my early running days when I was enjoying the new practice of race training but often doing it poorly, running tempo runs too fast, arbitrarily increasing or decreasing mileage, sporadically performing strength work, and running poor races as I ignored pacing guidelines. I simply did not know what I did not know. Rather than worrying about perfection or beating myself up over poor performance (not too often anyway) I learned from being bad and slowly and steadily improved. Even now, in my tenth year of running, and with two BQ’s under my belt, I still see areas for improvement, or rather, still know that there are things as I runner I still suck at. But I still love it.
Mobility is one of the core areas of my running I try consistently attack though my discipline over the years has waxed and waned despite its obvious benefits. I would prefer to do my mobility work in the evening to relieve the knots and tension from the day’s workout and the impact of a tense shift on my feet. However, I often default to sitting down to a meal, a beer, and tv after work. Here, Kelly Starrett, who is my go-to person for mobility work, discusses why a nightly mobility program is helpful, not just for restoring health to soft tissues, but also for helping to prepare the body for a good night of sleep which can boost recovery and further enhance performance.
“Strength without flexibility is rigidity, and flexibility without strength is instability.”
I have been thinking about this quote often in the last few weeks as COVID-19 cases have once again climbed in the US. During the pandemic I have tried hard to keep an open mind about the theories I have seen friends and acquaintances float on social media. I remind myself that this is a once-in-a-century event that challenges our models about our control over the world and that it is reassuring to find conspiracies or scapegoats that can explain away an evolving and complex situation or to plug ahead with bullheaded thinking revolving around the idea that if we do not make a big deal out of COVID-19 it will cease to be a big deal. This has been especially prevalent in the debate around wearing masks, despite strong, mounting evidence that masks help prevent the spread of the virus. The debate seems to reflect a misplaced sense of toughness, which reminded me of Brad Stulberg’s excellence article on fake vs real toughness from several years back. I return to my understanding that this is a fluid, unprecedented situation and not everyone is going to suddenly walk in lockstep on what may appear to many to be common sense safety measures. However, during times of uncertainty the response cannot be to simply double down on a stance and call it toughness, end of story. When I was coaching soccer, if my team was hemorrhaging goals, it would have been crazy to double down on current tactics and training techniques and defiantly say that everything was fine. If your current training for a road race leaves you routinely dealing with injuries, it’s not being tough if you defy the notion that you must make any alterations to your training and run through the pain. Consistency, for a time, is needed to establish a baseline against which progress, or a lack thereof, can be measured. Eventually change becomes necessary if progress stagnates or does not occur. Then you must open up to new information and adjust an approach to a situation that is not working. These are uncertain times, I get that. Following a losing strategy in the name of looking strong is not going to make these uncertain times any easier to bear or end them any sooner.
In better times I would seeing the Cleveland Orchestra perform this weekend at the gorgeous Blossom Music Center, the highlight of which would be their performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. While you may be unfamiliar with the entire piece, you have likely heard its climax (you can listen to my favorite version of the full Overture here). What is odd though is this work, now synonymous with American Fourth of July celebrations, has absolutely nothing to do with July 4th or even America. Instead, Tchaikovsky’s piece is about the Russian defeat of Napolean during the Battle of Borodino. The interview in this article details the structure of the Overture (if you can ever see it performed live, I highly suggest sitting close to the orchestra as the Overture, which is a musical representation of war, appears to be a literal battle between different musical sections) and how it made the leap from a celebration of a Russian war victory to one of American independence. What does this have to do with running? Absolutely nothing. Ah the joys of writing your own newsletter. 😀
A Small Request
This newsletter is a labor of love and I would write it even if no one read it (as it is few people right now do). I do not write because I have all the answers but rather because the topics interest me and because writing about them allows me to further explore them, internally debate them, and work through them. I share these links because reading them and thinking about them helps me to be better in my running, in my coaching, in my relationships, and in life. If you read this newsletter and think it would benefit someone you know, I ask that you take the time to share it with them. If you have a question for me or a comment on how I can be better in this space, please take the time to reach out. Thanks.