Why Should Running Be Normal Right Now?

One of my colleagues works and lives in Beijing. In January, he travelled to Hubei Province (home to the city of Wuhan) with his family, and to this day they have not returned to Beijing. Their condo in Beijing has been sitting empty for half a year.

Today in a phone meeting, he said “Good news! They are back down to zero cases per day in Beijing, so we might be able to go back home in two weeks.”

I thought I had misheard — “You mean zero deaths per day?”

“No,” he said, “zero cases.”

The Gathering Storm

In the sweet “before time”, back when we are all starting to be on edge but the impact of COVID19 on the U.S. was not yet clear, I had a conversation with friends about whether we should cancel our weekly run. I had just returned from a trip to New York City. There was something about air travel in those naïve days of early March — the looks in the eyes of travelers and staff, the barely perceptible uptick in people wearing masks (up from zero), hotel concierges expressing joking concern about us coming from Washington state — that made what was happening clear to my wife and I a bit earlier than those around us. I knew before I got home that I would not be going to any club runs for a while. But this was before anywhere in the U.S. was locked down — an intervention which at the time would have sounded crazy.

Ultimately, those who met for the run that night decided to meet at a park instead of the normal running store meet up. Two days later, all runs for our running club were cancelled until further notice.

Photo by Samuel Silitonga from Pexels

If It Benefits Others, It’s a Loophole — If It Benefits You, It’s a Right

The Washington Stay Home Stay Healthy [March 23rd] order was clear:

All people in Washington State shall immediately cease leaving their home or place of residence except: (1) to conduct or participate in essential activities, and/or (2) for employment in essential business services.

… but there were all these vague exceptions:

Essential activities permitted under this Proclamation are limited to the following:
<among other things>
… Engaging in outdoor exercise activities, such as walking, hiking, running or biking, but only if appropriate social distancing practices are used.

Pretty simple, right? I’m a runner, I run for exercise, therefore my activity is essential and I can do it as long as I socially distance. At the time, I asked a friend, “sure… but what if everyone does that?” They said, “be realistic! not everyone is a runner!” Stranger still, our trails and parks started shutting down, but that didn’t mean you couldn’t use them!

If an individual is part of the essential workforce and needs to commute for work or if an individual needs to accomplish essential tasks (ex: grocery store) by using King County’s regional trails, they are allowed to do so.

So let me get this straight…

The trails are closed, unless you’re using them for an essential activity. Exercise is essential, so I can run wherever I want. But walking is exercise, so it’s fair to say that 100% of the use of a trail involves some kind of movement and exercise, and therefore any use of the trail is permitted. It’s a loophole large enough to run the entire field of the Boston Marathon through.

From my social feeds, runners didn’t seem to want to hear it. I heard “my running is essential, and I’m following the rules.” It was rare to hear “what steps can I take as a runner to help protect the community?” or “it may be an overreaction, but here’s what I’m willing to sacrifice to help…”

Lockdown orders across the United States were not often popular… but most people grudgingly accepted them. However, assuming that the spirit of such an order doesn’t have some impact how and when we can run assumes that we runners value our running more than a walker values their exercise… more than a family out for a stroll needs to breathe fresh air and enjoy the sun. It doesn’t make sense to me.

The Lane Between Two Yellow Lines

Don’t get me wrong: Exercise is essential, and under all the lockdown restrictions I’ve seen in the U.S. we are explicitly allowed to continue exercising. We also all should be following social distancing guidelines, and as a runner, I’ve gone out of my way to create space between myself and others — I see it as my responsibility to do so whether or not I’m sick. For example:

  • I run in less dense areas.
  • I run in the street or often in the middle of the road to give walkers a very wide berth (I am fortunate to live in an area where I can do this safely — I’ve only been honked at a couple times!).
  • My pacing is more staccato than normal, as I speed up or slow down to avoid other pedestrians.
  • I have awkwardly turned down opportunities to run with others.
  • More recently, I’d started bringing a face covering with me on runs and trying to slip it on whenever I’m within 20 feet of someone.

Is this overkill? I sure hope it is! Over 13 MILLION people infected globally, on pace for a million deaths at least — doesn’t it make sense to overreact a little?

Many of those around me don’t seem to notice the ambulatory acrobatics I perform to socially distance while running, and they don’t typically return the favor. Walkers rarely typically choose a particular side of the path, bikers pass me as aggressively as always. I know runners in more urban settings who have it worse — contending with groups unaware that walking three or four abreast makes life very difficult for everyone around them now.

We All Become What We Pretend To Be

Once the recommendations for wearing masks came out, I saw a vigorous debate in the running community over the merits and flaws of wearing them while running.

“No – You don’t need to wear one if you can maintain 6 feet social distance!”

“They can’t enforce this — it’s an empty threat!”

“Doesn’t wearing a mask decrease your oxygen intake? Is it safe for runners?”

The debate was rather one sided — almost everyone who responded to the announcement led with some form of “here’s how I am going to minimize the impact of this policy on my running.” I saw very little introspection. Very few asked:

  • What if I expect to be able to maintain social distance during my run, but cannot?
  • What if 6 feet isn’t a magic distance outside of which all transmission of the virus drops to 0%?
  • What if by not wearing a mask, I’m causing anxiety for anyone who sees me outside?
  • What if by not wearing a mask, I’m reinforcing the curse of American individuality and the perception that it’s OK for everyone to shit all over the commons as long as it’s supporting their preferred lifestyle?
  • If I cannot wear a mask while I run due to personal preference, physical limitations, or any other reason, is there a possibility that maybe the best thing I can do for my community right now is to put a pause on running?

Freedom Isn’t Free

Unfortunately the U.S. never had a real shut down during the pandemic — everything was half measures. There was a near complete lack of accountability, and even in locales where harsh measures were enacted, enforcement was basically non-existent. And I empathize with the public response — it doesn’t feel fair to be compelled to sacrifice something for a cause that may not benefit you directly.

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

Freedom does give us awesome latitude to speak, act, and think as we want, but it doesn’t mean we should act on all our desires. Andy Slavitt put this well:

I’ve been thinking a lot about that coworker in China — the one who has been away from his home for six months, and still won’t return to Beijing even though cases in the country have been in the low tens per day for months. It’s basically the best possible situation I can imagine given what’s happen, and he’s still going to wait 2 more weeks, you know, just to be safe. It’s such a different mentality than what we have in the U.S. — the patience, the prudence, the ability and flexibility to differentiate between what one needs and what one wants. Can you even imagine it?

I don’t mean to be down on my fellow runners here. Please, keep running, stay healthy, and stay sane. Running is a critical part of physical and mental well-being for so many of us. I basically get depressed when I don’t run. I know how important it is to so many of us.

At the same time — be prepared to adjust, even when it comes to your favorite athletic pastime, and perhaps even more than you have already adjusted. Be prepared to sacrifice even if it seems like an over reaction. Think about what you may need to let go of, for now, and how you can reimagine what running means to you.

Because the fun-run we all thought was a 5K looks like it’s going to be a grueling ultra marathon.

Of Mickey Mouse and Men

May the 40th Be With You did not happen.

I was mostly on track, and then everything changed. I’ve lost my motivation to run, and I’m in a near constant state of questioning what’s important in life. Every day I walk a few miles with my wife, and I find I enjoy that a lot more than a run on my own.

This week, I did try to run a half marathon. It was fun, the weather was amazing. My heart was not in it, and my legs did not cooperate.

I had to walk a couple miles towards the end.

I wish I had something inspirational to say. I’m just not sure what comes next.

The Loneliness of the Socially Distanced Runner

February was the best month of running I’ve had in ten years. I could feel all the miles I’d banked accruing interest. Yes, at over 40 miles per week, I was constantly exhausted. Yes, getting up on Tuesdays and Thursdays before dawn, and then finishing a full workout before dawn, was daunting. But it was worth it for the fitness gains I started to see in every run. I looked forward to my upcoming races with not only confidence, but hunger.

Late in February I got a bit thrown off schedule; I took a three day trip to visit my alma mater in Ithaca, NY. Ithaca is in middle-of-nowhere New York, and there are no direct flights there, or even to the nearby mega metropolis of Syracuse, from Seattle. So I spent an entire day traveling, one day braving the frigid Ithaca winter, and than another day traveling back to Seattle. I got back onto schedule as soon as I returned. Today, I chuckle when I recollect feeling miffed about small disruptions in my life such as a three day trip.

My Strava training calendar.

Now, in a world brought to the brink by COVID-19, I daydream about the alternate timeline where my training plan proceeded as scheduled. In total:

  • Both half-marathons I had planned to run in the Spring were cancelled (Disney held out for a while but I think it was pretty clear a couple weeks ago that they would cancel).
  • My running club has cancelled all runs through March 2020. I’ll be shocked if they pick up again 10 days from now.
  • Even small group runs of 2-3 people feel awkward at best and dangerous at worst.
  • I’ve been working from home since March 4th.

The circumstances above might be interesting if they were not so ubiquitous. It might make sense to complain about any of these things if our entire way of life wasn’t being irrevocably changed as I write this.

But running is my outlet, so I write about running.

For about two weeks after COVID-19 started getting out of control in Washington state, I felt like I was just reeling from daily news and couldn’t bring myself to get out there and run. I hadn’t really adjusted to working from home and ended each day feeling sore just from sitting around too much.

This week I started forcing a shift. I have run the last 4 days, and I’m glad to be catching the perfect Spring weather. I’ve always thought of running as a social sport: I run to make friends, I run to hang out with people outside of work. Now, with social distancing as our civic duty and gyms closed to boot, I find myself thankful that I have an athletic outlet which I can pursue on my own.

Off Tempo

Why are tempo runs so difficult?

The Hansons Half Marathon Method plan defines tempo runs as race-pace runs at a shorter distance than the race. They are touted as a proving ground for learning control, pacing, and pace maintenance. I don’t get what makes them so mentally/physically difficult for me. A five mile run at your half-marathon race pace doesn’t seem like it should be that hard. I’ve been focusing on the purported benefits recently to try to get more mentally into it:

The benefits of tempo work include:

// helps you to internalize half-marathon goal pace

// teaches you to control and maintain pace

// chance to experiment with nutrition, hydration, gear

// improved running economy at goal pace

// improved endurance

Hansons Half Marathon Method, Ch. 3, “Training Program Components”

It makes sense that practicing longer and longer runs at race pace is a good way to get used to what you will put yourself through on race Day. That’s why it’s pretty disappointing that I’ve been struggling with this part of the program more than any other. Even the slog of running six days a week has been easier to achieve than hitting my goal tempo paces; I don’t think I’ve hit my goal pace since very early in the program on the first 3-mile tempo run.

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

It’s been an awful and history rainy season in the Seattle area. This Thursday, I woke up at 6AM hoping I’d knock my 5-mile tempo run out early. It was cold, dark, and raining unusually hard. I just couldn’t bring myself to leave the house, and I committed to running just after work. But running after work wasn’t great either. It was still raining, and the park I chose to run at was muddy and soft. I was tired and hungry; I felt out of gas 1 mile into the run, and basically gave up 2 miles into the workout. I cashed out early and moped through the rest of the day.

On a more positive note, I made up for it the next day, slipping a full 5-mile tempo run into what was supposed to be 6 easy miles. Yet the pace was still at least 20-30 seconds slower than my goal.

So what’s going on here?

  • The obvious culprit is that I set a bad goal — If I had chosen an appropriate goal, I’d be able to hit the paces consistently, right? I don’t want to believe this one even though rationally I know it’s the most likely explanation. There’s still a part of me that reflects on my running life and sees that I always run faster on race day than my training paces would indicate. But that feels like a copy out.
  • I’ve had a history of dogging practice in a variety of aspects of my life. From faking slide trombone practice logs as a fourth grader to cramming for exams at the last minute through college and grad school, self-discipline with practice rituals has never been my strong suit.
  • Maybe I haven’t fully adjusted to cumulative fatigue?
  • Maybe I don’t rest, hydrate, or eat well enough to support my increased running load?
  • I did just come off of twelve days of being sick. Maybe I’m still expecting too much too soon?

I’m not sure, but for now I guess the best first step is to scale back and reset expectations again.

How do you think of tempo runs as a part of your training? What’s your secret to hitting your goal for this style of workout?

Action Shots from the Bridle Trails Winter Running Festival

I don’t think I’ve ever been happier with a set of photos from a race than those taken by Takao Suzuki at http://www.runners.photos. Please check out their site for some more great photos from the Bridle Trails Winter Running Festival.

A Race of a Thousand Miles…

My relationship with race starts has evolved over the years.

  • My early races (high school) were nerve wracking. I’d spend the day or two before a race trying to psych myself up by listening to my favorite racing songs on repeat. The team would have pre-race pasta dinners. Our coach would encourage us to spend time meditating before the race. We did affirmations. It was all a bit much and left me anxious and stressed by the time I got to the starting line.
  • In college and early adulthood, I learned to garner a sense of calm before races, but the uh… physical symptoms of anxiety stayed with me. As tranquil as I feel mentally, my digestive system always seems to be a wreck the day of a race. More often than not, I’m frantically running to the start from my third or fourth restroom visit.
  • More recently, I seem to better at getting my mind and body relaxed before a race. I think part of that is in giving up on having any stakes at all attached to my performance. Maybe there’s also a maturity factor.

Throughout this evolution, I’ve found it interesting that any pre-race anxiety always drains away once I’m actually on the line. There’s a nice zen focus that sets in once I enter the coral. I transition from being anxious about racing to being eager to start running. Once the starter sets us off, I’m usually pretty relaxed and happy right away. At the recent Bridle Trails Winter Running Festival I got a cool snapshot of what this actually looks like. I am not used to being at the lead of a race at the start, so this short clip my friend Paul took was a treat (caveat: this was actually the second wave of the start).

Uncharacteristically ahead of the pack. I’m number 9 throwing the “peace” symbol. Gotta love that bounding step!

On reflection, this start was just about as happy and fun as it looks. Contrary to a lot of my races earlier in life, I didn’t feel any nerves in this one, and I hope to recapture that vibe in future races even if the stakes are higher.

Twelve Days Lost

Altogether I lost 12 days due to illness, travel, and travel-based-exacerbation of said illness. Technically it was 10 training days as two of those were planned “off days”. I went out for 4 miles today and even though I still occasionally have minor coughing fits I think I’m ready to come back. But how does one come back after missing a huge chunk of a training schedule?

Hansons Half Marathon Method says this about missing 7 to 10 days:

Taking a week and a half off from running definitely necessitates serious schedule modification; however, that modification depends on the point in the plan at which the missed block occurs. If it occurs before the strength portion of the training program, then the runner won’t have to make any major adjustments to race goals…

Upon your return to running, you should run easy for the same number of days that you missed. If you lost a week, then run easy for a week. After that, go back to the last training week that you were able to complete and repeat it, then run the week that was originally missed, and from there pick the schedule back up. So, with a week missed, it takes 3 weeks to get back on track.

Hansons Half Marathon Method, Ch. 5, “Program Modifications”, (emphasis mine)

This calculation doesn’t make sense for real racing scenarios. I mean, yes, ideally I would complete the whole plan. And it makes sense that I wouldn’t just pick up where I left off; rather, I should back-track a bit and work back to where I stopped. But this presupposes that I have a flexible race date, that I can just push my half marathon off by a few weeks while I safely catch up to where I should be. Races don’t work that way, especially those with hefty pre-registration fees.

When I started down this path, I got really lucky that I had exactly 18 weeks between when I was planning and the race in question. I literally laid it out in a grid:

Back-calculating my path to the Disney Rival Run 1/2 Marathon

It doesn’t feel like I have 3 weeks to play with here. I also wonder if the Hanson’s advice in this case is focused more on the case of injury and how to prevent re-injury. It’s not quite the same as an illness (I’m not likely to relapse on a sinus infection while still being on antibiotics… right?). On the other hand, picking up where I should be in the schedule as if I didn’t miss 10 training days doesn’t feel right either.

So, here’s my compromise: I’ll pick up where I left off in the schedule, but I’ll drop back the intensity, essentially scaling back my race goal for 2-3 weeks of recovery. Depending on how that goes, I may readjust my race goal again. Practically, this means that this week I’m still on week 7 of the Hanson’s plan. At the same time, I’ll adjust my paces for runs as if I’m targeting a half marathon that’s 2 or 3 minutes slower.

What do you think? Is this the right approach? Or am I missing another strategy that would be safer given that I’m coming off of being ill?

Bad to Worse, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Nasal Rinses

Damn.

For a variety of reasons, I’m still not running. Yesterday I was diagnosed with a sinus infection — the kind that’s necessarily making you actively sick all the time, but is just sort of lingering there and then emerging every 6 weeks like a swarm of nasal cicadas.

I’ve had problems with sinus infections for… most of my life. It’s not awful, I just get them more frequently than I want and they last longer than I can stand. Nothing abnormal has turned up when I get my sinuses scanned by ENT wizards. So I don’t know what to do about it.

At this point, I’ve probably lost a lot of fitness. It’s depressing, and I’ll need to think carefully about how to resync into my training. One thing I know for sure — I’m making the NeilMed Nasal Rinse a very regular part of my routine now (daily, at least). The price of getting sick for many times a year is just not worth it.

Discontinuity

I’ve never completed a training plan without getting sick or injured, and now I know that the approach to my April half marathon will be no exception. The beginning of this week has been head-coldtastic, but I optimistically hope to be back on my feet on Friday. Nasal and sinus infections are becoming a frustratingly regular occurrence in my life, so I’ve spent some time reflecting on on this bout to try and understand if there is something I should have done more or less of.

  • On Saturday, I ran the Bridle Trails Winter Running Festival with the awesome Eastside Runners Club. I was on a 3 person relay team (~10 miles each). It was the muddiest, sloppiest course I have run on in my life. The run itself felt good and warm — I wore a t-shirt and shorts and felt completely comfortable. Waiting for my teammates to run the final 20 miles was frigid (even tho I was bundled up), and standing in the cold may have played a role in coming down with a cold.
  • On Sunday, I did a 4 mile recovery run to round out my 14 miles for the weekend. Maybe that would have been a good day to skip?
  • On Monday, the Puget Sound area got one of its rare snow storms followed by uncharacteristically cold weather. Not wanting to miss a day, I did a 4 mile easy run in the snow. It took about 50% longer than normal due to the conditions. But it was so fun and I wouldn’t give it up easily. Could a run in the snow have sealed my fate?
  • Monday I also spent about 1.5 hours shoveling show (divided between the morning and the evening). Shoveling immediately after the run in my wet running clothes may not have been a great idea (though I felt warm the whole time). Monday night I noticed that my throat had started to hurt. I started to get that feeling I always get right before I get sick — a cranial fogginess coupled with a tingling sense of impending doom in my face. Before going to sleep I used a nasal rinse.
  • Tuesday morning I woke up with a sore throat and did another nasal rinse, but by this point I was down for the count. I stayed home from work and slept most of the day. I used Alka-Seltzer Cold to ease the symptoms so that I could sleep, and also had two more nasal rinses later that day.
  • Wednesday I woke up early for a flight to Boston (going to the MIT Mystery Hunt) and as I type this I am on an airplane surrounding by people sniffling and coughing. Granted, I am one of the sick people on this plane. Maybe I am my own worst enemy,
The cleanest part of the course. Classic Pacific Northwest running. Photo by Takao Suzuki posted at Runners.Photos

I find it impossible to attribute a particular cause to getting sick. Maybe I was out in the cold too much? Maybe I passed someone who was sick two weeks ago and it just took a while to surface? That said, I think I’ve learned something about how to handle it when I do get sick. Assuming I follow through on this upswing and feel better by tomorrow, this will be one of the shortest head colds I have had in years. I don’t really believe in Cold Eeze and the like anymore, but I do believe that nasal rinses played a role in keeping my cold relatively tame.

A couple months ago, I saw an ENT specialist about my sinus issues. Their evaluation revealed nothing abnormal, and he sent me away with the advice that I should do a sinus rinse every single day. At the time I thought the suggestion was ludicrous and committed to trying to hit one per week. I picked up a new NeilMed sinus rinse (it turns out that replacing these occasionally is important) and renewed my efforts. After this relatively short cold I’m willing to let correlation be the better part of valor and start doing the rinses more regularly.

As soon as I started getting cold symptoms on Monday, I also checked in with my copy of Hansons Half Marathon Method to review what they say about taking time off due to illness or injury. Unsurprisingly, they seem to err on the side minimizing time off, and emphasize how much fitness will be lost for N days off from running. Their advice seems more geared towards injury situations (along the lines of “it’s OK for you to hurt a little bit”), but I will try to get back to it on Thursday or Friday of this week.

The Hansons Method: Mileage

In my last post, I mentioned that the Hansons Half-Marathon Method consists of five components:

  • Mileage
  • Intensity
  • Balance
  • Consistency
  • Active Recovery

In this post, I’ll be discussing mileage, or “strategic weekly volume.” Early in explaining their philosophy, Hansons says:

The biggest problem with many half-marathon training plans is that they are tailored to fit what the average runner wants, not what he or she needs.

Hansons Half Marathon Method by Keith and Kevin Hanson

… and that’s it, that’s where they got me. Over the years and decades, my training has centered around what’s easy, what’s convenient, and what those around me are doing. For example:

  • I’m busy during the week? Better load up on that Sunday run so that I hit my mileage goals.
  • Running short on time? I’ll guess I’ll just run as fast as I can muster and jump directly into my car immediately afterwards to get home ASAP.
  • My friends are running 3 minutes per mile slower than I normally run, or doing an insane hill workout? Well, running is a social activity, so that’s what I’m doing too!

Hansons has encouraged me to take a step back and consider what I need to do in order to get what I want… And that means 6 running days a week right from the start. Note, however, that this is strategic mileage, so you have to do it at a pace and schedule that makes running that much possible. They prescribe pretty specific mileage goals for each week. The plan I am on starts at ~33 mi/week and tops out at 50 mi/week*. I remember thinking 4 weeks ago that it would be impossible for me to hit the mileage goal in even the first week, let alone the goals for week eighteen. So far I’m pleasantly surprised. Their program “works to bring you up the mileage ladder one rung at a time.” *Note here that I am using the “Advanced” plan which has more mileage than the “Beginner” or “Just Finish It” plans, but they all run 6 days/week.

I can see how this program would not be for everyone – many people I know are just plain bored when they run and would loathe doing it so often. I have always loved running, but at the same time I’m sick of feeling like running is so hard. Paradoxically, it seems that running more may be the key to feeling each run less. Plus, it’s an investment that pays off when you race — mileage is straw that you put into building an elaborate thatch hut. Months later, the race is when you burn that hut to the ground.

What is your mileage philosophy? How do you decide how much is too much and how much is not enough?

Next up, Intensity.