A Semi-Monthly Blog Post

(Maybe if I just tell myself that updating my blog every other month is a fine goal to have, I’ll stop feeling like a blogging failure?

Anyway, I managed to write a thing that felt like a blog entry, on running and crutches. This whole post is one long subtweet, yes it is.)

In a lot of sports and sports-like activities, particularly ones where adults get involved to “challenge themselves” and “reach their potential,” (anything that involves SCIENCE and GEAR and THE SCIENCE OF GEAR, plus a certain percentage of participants with a certain amount of disposable income), there are plenty conversations in forums and stuff about what’s the Best Way to do the thing. Which shoes? Which heart rate monitor? Which bicycle? Which weight lifting routine? And most of these conversations are fine and fun to have (and essential for newbies and the empowerment of newbies). But sometimes they tip into this weird space where people start buying into some objective “best” way to do the thing, rather than understanding that “best” is whatever way works for you, individual person who is doing the thing. They talk about things like “finding the limits of the human body” and “being my best self” and avoiding “crutches,” like there is this space where the human body can operate outside the constraints of space, culture, and learned human experience. They talk about things being Optimal.

When I first started running, I didn’t have a smart watch or a smart phone, and was without a reliable way to measure my speed or distance. I downloaded a Couch to 5K app to my iPod, so I had audible cues (in the form of a very nice British lady) that told me how long the next run would be, when to start, when to stop, all that. But since I was using an iPod, which has no data plan and thus no GPS, I had no way to track the distance I covered on my runs. I just stepped out my door, started running when the lady told me to run, turned back toward home when she said we were halfway through, and stopped when she told me to stop. I made a very specific playlist that was arranged in a certain way to supplement the app’s audio cues. Eventually I transitioned away from running with the C25k app, but by that time I’d imprinted on the playlist, and continued using it for years.

The first song was “The Foggy Dew” by the Chieftains, with Sinead O’Connor. There’s tension in the song, but it’s slow, and it’s almost five minutes long. It was my walking warmup song. This was immediately followed by “Swagger” by Flogging Molly (the studio version off of Drunken Lullabies). “Swagger” is when you pickup your feet and start running. (The song is mostly an instrumental, with the only words being in the chorus: “Tell me where are you going? I don’t know where I’m going,” which seemed apt.) Somewhere in the middle of the playlist there’s always a song either by Koko Taylor or the Blind Boys of Alabama–upbeat enough for me to keep running if I wanted to, but if I was really struggling, it was a song where I could stop and walk for a few minutes. Immediately after the “take a break” song, though, is “I Am The Doctor,” the Eleventh Doctor’s “action theme” from Doctor Who. You do not walk during the Doctor’s song. Not ever. Pick up your feet and go.

Second to last is “Graffiti Worth Reading,” by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, which starts with the trombone player yelling, “The end is near!” Last song was “Walking Is Still Honest” by Against Me!–another song that I could run to if I wished, but if I was wiped out, I could walk to it too. Walking is still honest, as Laura Jane Grace says.

I added songs in the middle, as I got better and better at running and was setting out for longer/farther runs, but the bones of it–beginning/middle/end–stayed the same for years. I have a pavlovian response to certain bits of it now. “Swagger” is always a song that makes me want to pick up and run, for example. Same with a lot of Doctor Who music. If I listen to one of the songs, my brain will automatically cue up the next one on the list.

At some point, I started getting a better sense of my pace, and also the circumference of a lot of the parks in my city, so I no longer have to approximate distance based on the length of my playlist. Now when I leave my house, I plan on doing a certain number of laps of the park, not a certain number of songs.  I’ve even branched out musically! I’ll listen to the Hamilton soundtrack and just imagine it in my head as I run. Act I, at least, is great for running. (Not so much Act II where there’s multiple songs that make me cry, but I’m a really slow runner so I can go for five or six miles before Act I ends.) I’ve been trying to get back to my running playlist so I don’t overplay Hamilton (can you overplay Hamilton? Unsure). I don’t have unlimited data so I still don’t run with playlists from Spotify or whatever. I make them in my music app.

I like running to music, clearly. Making playlists and such is a way for me to interact with running outside of the actual part where I have to leave my house and put my feet to the pavement. And it’s also–especially as my listening time gets more and more dominated by podcasts–often where I end up listening to music, these days, instead of to podcasts.

There’s some that say that they don’t want to run with music because it’s a “crutch,” like a run that you do with headphones is somehow less legitimate, or not as big of an accomplishment, as one done without music. I would posit that Crutches Are Good Actually? Literal crutches are a tool that gives increased mobility and stamina to people who don’t get enough of either of those things from their bodies. If it gets you out and running (or walking) that’s good. Using aids is good. If you’re new to running, you should definitely experiment and see which works better for you (some folks run better without music), but with music or without, neither is inherently better than the other. (Unless your music is so loud that you aren’t aware of your surroundings and you get run over by a park attendant in a golf cart. That’s bad.) If you’re the sort of person who hates running without music, don’t subject yourself to it just because you’ve bought into some weird paradigm that running without a tool is better than running with one. There’s nothing about running with music that makes it inherently worse than running without–there’s only what works for you, an individual person.

When I first started running, I was depressed as hell. I was living in New York City and doing a lot of exercising because a) I had access to a gym for free and figured I should use it because when do you ever get free gym access, and b) you’re supposed to exercise when you’re depressed because exercise makes you less depressed (I understand that the actual argument/science is more nuanced than that, but in my depressed and nonthinking state, that was basically the extent to which I was able to explain it to myself). I do remember trying to build a running routine in Colorado before I left, so on some level I was carrying on with that, but also I was running explicitly because I knew that running was Good and binge-watching entire seasons of The Biggest Loser on my computer before falling asleep was Bad. I didn’t even have real running shoes (just vegan saucony jazzes) or shorts (just these cotton cargo pants from Old Navy with an elastic waist). I remember running at night through Columbia’s campus, or up and down the Riverside Park. I never felt like I was going fast. I never felt like a runner. I don’t remember ever feeling a “runner’s high.” I ran because it was supposed to be good for you. In my memory, I never even got my feet off the ground. I just…puttered. That’s my memory colored by depression, though.

When I moved back to Colorado, I tried again, this time with my roommates’ dog to help motivate me. I finally built up some momentum, and finally started running regularly and building a habit. I still had a pair of tights from when I’d played soccer like 15 years before, and umbro shorts. A pair of cotton yoga pants. I bought trail running shoes (for running in the park and on the roads), and that was my gear. That first year, I wore out the crotch in the old soccer tights. I bought new running tights, on clearance at REI, and that’s how I ended up with a thick, winter-weight pair. But I ran in them anyway, in all weather. I ran a mile without stopping, then I ran 20 minutes without stopping, then I ran a 5k. Then a 10k. Then a half marathon. I ran to Wash Park (a few miles from my house) and back.

(Then last year, I got tendonitis in one knee, and something else made the other one hurt, and then I stopped going to the gym to lift and then the pandemic happened and my running slowly petered out. Every time I try to run right now, my knees/legs hurt for the first mile and a half.)

I still don’t have a smartwatch. I had a fitbit for a little while, but it made my wrist itch and I never used the information in a way that actually helped with my training or made me faster. I still don’t have a heart rate monitor. I still buy all of my running tights on clearance, and my running shirts are all the free ones that you get when you sign up for a race. I splurge on running shoes, but that’s because I’ve learned that lesson the hard way. So I have this one running playlist, and my semi-fancy shoes. Those are my crutches, and if I thought anyone was actually going to take them away from me or even cared that much, I would say that you can pry them from my cold dead hands.

If an NBA player listening to a specific playlist to hype himself up before a game, is that a crutch? Or a baseball player who wears the same socks throughout the playoffs? Or a hockey player growing a playoff beard? What point of expertise do you have to reach before crutches/routine/superstitions are no longer frowned upon, but are just cute and quirky? Or part of being a professional?

tl;dr: Just run. Do the thing. You don’t have to be fast. You don’t need fancy tools. You can run with crutches, or not. Anything that gets you out the door is a good thing. Are you doing it for fun? Let it be fun, whatever that means.

2015 Backcountry Half Marathon–Highlands Ranch, CO

bcwhr
Straight up stole this picture from Google.

I originally wrote this to post on a running forum, but I’m reposting it here.

Let us first cover the many ways in which I am a dumbass, which will hopefully lead to people understanding that I know that I am a dumbass and maybe not call me a dumbass in the comments too much.

  • I was barely half trained for this half marathon. My longest training run was 8 miles. I got caught by time, mostly (and my own dumbassery). I ran my first half in May of this year (Colfax Marathon in Denver), and over half-trained for that half. Maybe even three-quarters trained! If nothing else, I now have a couple of race times that should be easily shatterable if I ever get around to wholly training for races.
  • I noticed like 4 days before the race that it was a trail run with a 900 ft change in elevation. Did I do any of my training runs on hills? I surely did not. So on the one hand, this made me feel better about my 8 mile pitifulness, because clearly even if I’d gotten all the way to a 13.1 training run and done an amazing taper and nutrition plan, I would’ve been unprepared. On the other hand, I can’t recommend enough that you read the fucking packet and materials they send you. Like, even just once. (I was a little bit thrown by them calling themselves the “Backcountry Wilderness” half, when it was neither backcountry nor wilderness, but rather suburban open space, but still. Read your fucking race materials, people). Luckily I have an older pair of trail running shoes so I wore those (for stability) and just resigned myself to blisters (which I got. I tried to head them off by using Dr Scholl’s moleskin. Don’t use that stuff. Total garbage. Fell off my feet before I even took off. On the bright side, at least I didn’t try to run with moleskin floating around in my socks.)
  • Failed to fall asleep early enough the night before.
  • Forgot to bring a coat or any extra layers to wear while I was hanging around before the race waiting for the start. I was fine once I started running, but it was 30 degrees with a nice crisp wind.
  • Didn’t bring hydration with me. I don’t usually bring hydration, even on long runs; I hate carrying stuff when I run so I make sure I’m well hydrated before I leave my house and then I drink water when I get home. But I definitely would’ve benefitted from carrying a water bottle yesterday. I spent a little extra time at the aid stations drinking water (slowly) and even drank the free Gatorade even though it is sweet and gross and tastes like syrup and makes me more thirsty.

By contrast, the group that organized the run, the HRCA (Highlands Ranch Community Association) was quite efficient and organized and on top of it. This is the 7th BCWHM, and they sign up about 1000 runners (I was number 1089, so probably one of the last to sign up, which I did in early September). Leaving the starting line was pretty casual and easy (they had us sort ourselves into 4 heats, which worked well for me and the rest of the tail-end charlies, anyway, I don’t know how the fast runners felt about it. There were timing mats at the start and the finish and chips in the bibs). The first two miles or so were on road/pavement, but then after that we got into the cow pasture/open space, and by mile 5 it felt like how I imagine “trail runs” (that is, a hiking trail, going through trees and up and down hills and stuff). Race volunteers had gone through a day or so before and put up lots of orange cones with arrows to keep everyone on the correct course, mile markers every mile, yellow cones over gopher holes, hay over the worse mud holes, bright pink ribbon over tree roots half obscured by autumn leaves. There were only 3 aid stations (I could’ve used more, due to my previously mentioned dumbassery), but those stations all had plenty of water, preemptive S&R guys and paramedics, and a fair number of people saying lovely encouraging things. Also I was glad they were still cheering and encouraging people even though at that point they’d been doing so for at least two hours, because of how near the end of the pack I was. (Seriously, if you’ve ever been the person standing on the side of the road clapping and cheering, thank you for that. I don’t usually acknowledge it because I’m concentrating on running, but I hear it and appreciate it.) The only hiccup I saw was that they didn’t order enough portapotties to be at the starting line, with the result that the line was really long and they delayed the start of the race by about 5 minutes to give everyone a chance to get through it. I heard some runners saying they were just going to walk home, pee at home, and come back, because that would be faster than waiting in line.

The people who were running around me were also great. People were running in little clumps and taking turns leading. Someone would step off the path to walk for a bit and I’d pass them, and then we’d trade places when I started walking and they had started running again. I noticed that when I passed people, a lot of them would say (with however much breath they had available at the time), “Good job, go, go, you’re strong,” which was a little weird but also really encouraging. I guess I respond a lot to people saying I’m doing good.

I swung in and out of my “zone,” as it were. There were times when I felt like i was on a regular run, had good energy, was pacing myself, and could run forever. Then I would just as quickly swing back down into “this is hard this is hard why did i do this it’s too hard i am a dumbass.” A lot of this was related to the hills. Much of the first five miles were uphills with some flats or short downhills; then around mile 5 there was a big fucker, then it went back to ups/downs until about mile 9 when there was a REALLY big fucker that me and almost all of the other tail-end charlies that I could see around me walked up. Mile 10-13 was when I finally felt like we were going more down than up. By that time, I was still running because every time I stopped to walk I felt sort of quivery and hollow inside, and the feeling wasn’t as bad when I was running. I tried to listen to my body and walk a little bit even early in the race (because I knew I’d have to walk eventually and didn’t want it all to be the final 4 miles), but still, probably pushed myself a little too hard.

It was so pretty! The leaves here are still turning, so everything was gold and red, and it was a little on the crisp side, but the sun was bright and the sky blue blue blue. When you got to the crest of a hill there were clear views of the mountains (as well as of Denver and all its suburban sprawliness). I also really like when you get to the top of a hill and you can see a lot of people running in front of you. And it was quiet except for the breathing noise of me and my fellow runners.

One of the most hilarious moments was when I was running through a stand of trees around mile 7 and heard a noise from somewhere in front of me. It sounded like Chewbacca, and for a second I was afraid I was going to run up on some kind of rogue moose (there’s moose in Colorado, though I don’t think I’ve ever heard of one coming down from the high country the way the bears and deer do). So I run along, prepared to take evasive action, and I come around the corner of a stand of bushes, and….yep. Totally a dude in a Chewbacca suit, standing on the side of the trail, doing a most excellent Chewbacca roar and high-fiving runners. I saw him later, walking back to his car, still wearing the suit but having taken off the head. He had a Corgi on a leash.

My time for my first half (in May) was 2:33. My time for this one was 2:46. So, lots of room to improve, but also not nearly as bad as I thought it would be, considering my training level and my level of hill preparedness. Post-run lunch was biscuits, gravy, cheesy grits, and beignets from Lucile’s. Then there was a beer and watching of Battlestar Galactica and drinking water  for most of the afternoon. I feel pretty good today, sore in my quads, but not nearly as old-man-staggery as I’ve sometimes been in the past. The times report that I saw this morning said that 870 people finished (out of 1000 or so), 460 females and 410 males. The winning time was 1:17:29 (male) and 1:30:33 (female).

I would really recommend this race for any Colorado runners, especially if you want something smaller but still really well-organized, and with a motivated (though also smaller) crowd to watch. And especially if half marathons are your thing (they don’t have any marathon/5k/etc options, at least not that day. I believe the HRCA puts on other races of other distances, and a mountain bike race). My suffering was all of my own making. I now want to train on some hills and come back next year and truly conquer the course, which I guess is how runners get sucked into continuing to run.