Monday, December 21, 2009


The solstice is come, the first day of winter arriving in high style, cloaked in white. I always feel a subtle thrill at this time of year, when the daylight hours reach their nadir; when all seems still and quiet, when the season has slipped into its deepest slumber. And yet there is the knowledge that, with every day, the light waxes anew, at first imperceptibly, but with ever increasing speed. The light will increase to a flood, the sleeper stir and wake, the white cloak be cast aside, and the Season will spring up to meet the vernal equinox, and we with it.

It is probably too early to be thinking about spring.

The solstice also ushers in my 9th week of marathon training. When I began this project I sketched out a loose schedule I found online, and then proceeded to systematically ignore it. If I were to compare my progress in the previous week, I'd find I was a little behind in mileage, but 3 miles ahead of the proposed long run. I'm not too worried about that schedule -- it belongs to the "20 mile peak" school of thought, and I am increasingly of the "run so far in training that a marathon feels like stopping early" philosophy." I ran 20 miles last saturday, and am pleased to report that it was unremarkable. Not that it was easy mind you...but it didn't feel like an Olympian feat. I hope to increase my long run by 2 mile increments over the next 5 weeks, and we'll see where I go from there.

There is this to be said for endurance running: when you're running for speed, every additional second shaved off your PR comes dearer. Dropping your mile time from 6 to 5:45 is infinitely easier than dropping it from 5 to 4:45. But with long runs, each additional mile becomes increasingly insignificant. The leap from 20 to 25 miles does not daunt me nearly so much as the increase from 15 to 20. While I'm not there yet, I'm beginning to see on the horizon what I can only imagine is a kind of "breakthrough", a point after which the runner has no max mileage, as long as he can equalize the calories he's burning with the calories he consumes.

I started the new week with an easy 5 miles in the Vibrams. The snowbanks lining the roads are shear right now, and the sidewalks are plowed, but still covered in snow-pack, and in some places the wind has built up impressive snow-dunes. I left the prints of a barefoot runner in sand as I glided along. It's not cold; the sky is blue and the sun is shining brilliantly on the fresh snow-cover. What a happy run! I am all smiles.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

"Hard Focus"

One of my housemates sent me a blog link about hard focus, saying she had thought of me when she read it. This was flattering, but not very accurate. I was going to write a post about the connection between Hard Focus and running until I revisited the blog and saw that the original source of the idea had been lifted from Haruki Murakami's "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running", in light of which there's not much for me to say. I'll add only this thought: running is the easiest Hard Focus you'll ever get to do. There's no distractions and generally no excuses. There's a clear line between holding your focus and losing it. And, in the event of the latter, there's sometimes a long walk home.

That blog post resonated with me, starting with the term itself: Hard Focus, capital H, capital F. If you clicked that link above, I'm sure you know what the author is talking about. You have some project, maybe it's for work, maybe it's for yourself. You sit down to get it done, and there are a million things fighting you. A multitude of alternate occupations suddenly obtrudes on your attention: you could check your email, browse blogs, make a snack, anything but that one job. Battling that headwind to reach the steady plane of effort where real things are accomplished is indeed Hard, with a capital H.

So's running long distances though. I think that's what I like about the connection between running and focus. You don't just go out and run for two, three, four hours. You work up to it. You train, and your training is at least half psychological.

This made me want to try a little Hard Focus mojo on something besides running, and today at work I had a good opportunity, since I had a somewhat tedious job (testing out a new component I had written in a manner involving some tedious setup) that I was not especially looking forward to. I decided to treat the exercise almost like a workout. I filled up my water bottle, hit the head, took off my headphones, and I set my timer for two hours. For the duration of that time I did nothing but that one project; no email, no music, no web browsing, the bare minimum of interaction with co-workers. With 13 minutes to go, I had finished my testing and found that a part of my original design had been pretty naive, and that what I had wasn't going to work. That would usually be my cue to sigh and distract myself for a few minutes until I was ready to reconsider, but instead I kept my head down, and after 13 minutes passage I had a new design roughed out.

It worked pretty well, in other words, although by the time I relaxed my concentration at the end I felt rather "blown", unready to gather my focus for another round without some rest. Fortunately it was around quittin' time anyway.

I wonder how trainable this attribute is. If I could Hard Focus for 8 solid hours in a day I think I could accomplish pretty much anything.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Lost Week

I phrased this blog as the documentation of an experiment in minimalist running and long distance running, and like any experiment there are bound to be some rough patches. This last week has been one of those. In the last six days I've gone all of five and a half miles, owing to pain in my left foot that did not clear up as expeditiously as I could hope. It hasn't been debilitating, but it's got that "wrong" kind of feel, and I reluctantly made the decision to scrap my mileage plans and rest it.

How infuriating that is! I hate these periods of low-to-no mileage. It affects my mood and my appetite, not to mention leaving me restless, as the remaining 95% of me is crying out to get moving, go somewhere, do something. All last week I kept wanting to stand up, shift all my weight onto the outer edge of my left foot, then gradually roll inward until my balance was on my big toe. About half-way across--there! Like rubbing your tongue against a sore tooth--it's obscurely comforting to be reminded that yes indeed, it still hurts.

This experience might be seen by some as a rebuttal against the argument for light-weight shoes. I am looking at it as a reminder not to jump into things too fast. All those blisters on my toes and the balls of my feet should have been sign enough that I had made a major change in where the stresses of each running stride were most profoundly felt. The day my left foot started to hurt, I had gone out for 5 fast miles in the Vibrams. It felt positively delicious, flying over the sidewalk in the pre-morning darkness, not so much a speed workout as an undisciplined series of panting, happy fartleks, running hard as the mood took me. Alas my feet weren't ready for it. I am coming 'round to thinking of barefoot running as a potent medicine, best taken in small doses.

Today I ran three miles and the pain was less. I think I can run on it now without preventing it from getting better (maybe complete rest would be smarter, but in this case I fear physical health and mental health are not in congruence, and the former is going to have to take one for the team). I hope everyone from the club who ran today had a good race! Sorry I wasn't there. Truth to tell I rather expected to be pulling a shift at work, but was reprieved at the last minute.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A day of mist and rain.

I am in my hometown of Simsbury, CT today in consequence of our national turkey-eating festivities. It's a cool, drizzly day outside with no hint of sky to be found, but inside it is all the more cozy for alll that! Our familial feast is on for tomorrow, which has left me today to get in my long run for the week and then ruminate about it publically.

I stepped out the door at 6am, looking to run 18 miles -- the second time I've gone that distance. I was running with a pack containing a vest (in case I played out and had a long walk back home), a bladder with half-and-half gatorade and water, and about a box worth of granola bars. My initial plan had been to run up to the Heublein Tower and then down through Penwood state park, but I chickened out a bit at the thought of the long ascent up 185 followed by the access trail to the ridge-line, and headed towards Tariffville to pick up the ridge-line trail there.

The fog and drizzle were such that the dawn came on almost imperceptibly. Everything was quiet, except for some early bird-song caroling out from the river banks. I had some soreness in my left foot, but hoped it would go away after the first few miles.

Once up on the ridge I was treated to a really beautiful view of the valley filled with mist, the far hills across the way just barely visible as islands above a white sea. My spirits rose, but alas I wasn't to be treated to many more such views as my recollection of the trails was poor and I missed the upper ridge trail. When I checked my watch for the first time I found I had only gone 6.8 miles! seemed I had been running much longer than that. I had a granola bar at mile 9 and felt better.

Foot continued to be sore, but it stayed manageable. I made it to Rt 185 in good shape and spared a regretful look for the access road up to the Tower. Some other time! Around mile 12 I fished out another granola bar, but try though I might my clammy fingers wouldn't open the foil wrapper. I tried my teeth too, but without success. Eventually I gave up, but the episode was too funny to be discouraging. I started trying to guess where I'd hit mile 15, deliberately low-balling so I wouldn't be disappointed later by finding out I wasn't as far as I thought.

A few more miles brought me into Stratton Brook Park, and I actually managed to catch some joggers ahead of me (I had been running 9 minute miles up on the ridge, but I suppose I picked up a little speed once back on the road). The springy trail was a great relief, but my foot was still bothering me and I was trying not to favor it. From there it wasn't far to home; I started a new lap, and my pace dropped down below 8 minutes again.

The run came out to almost a perfect 18 miles, and I felt like except for the foot I probably could have done another two or three in pretty good shape. Foot is now quite sore and I'm thinking I'll take tomorrow off.

Lesson learned: Open granola bar wrappers ahead of time!

Mileage tracker:
M: 9
T: 5 (vffs, some speed mixed in. Foot starts to hurt).
W: 9
Th: 18

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Turkey Trot Race Report

I woke up this morning feeling a bit sore and not particularly fast--reminders of yesterday's 16-miler. The race started at 11 though, so there was plenty of time to loosen up. I spent about half an hour in the back yard doing spring forms and generally prancing around, and by the end of it the idea of running a speedy short-distance race had become conceivable again.

I got to the race site plenty early and registered, putting down 'GNRC' as my club name (turns out that was wrong, but it ended up not mattering). Bumped into Mike and then Meredith, which was a nice surprise since I don't think I've seen her at a race since the Gilio 5k. Eventually a bunch of the others trickled in--including Don and all 3 Jeffs--and we ended up making a pretty good club showing.

I accepted the customary "you have to beat Don!" reminder, but was actually thinking you grand prix leaders might have been SOL, since I didn't have a lot riding on this race, and no reasons not to experiment by going out hard and seeing what happened. I slipped on my Frees, having briefly toyed with the idea of racing in Vibrams. However, my last attempt at speed in those things resulted in a 74s quarter (supposed to be the first quarter of a mile!), followed by complete O2 debt -- I decided not to get fancy and stuck with shoes.

Eventually we queued up for the start and were cow-belled off. One thing immediately became clear: HFC had brought the guns. Two went out with the lead pack with a third trailing closely, and then me with HFC #4 and another guy 20 or 30 yards back. Most of the first mile is a shallow downhill and we clipped right along, passing the 1 mile mark in 5:26 or so, and more or less fulfilling my intention of going out hard. By the time we started the uphill in mile 2 I was blowing hard and needed to slow down, losing contact with my little group. Mile 2 passed in 11:24, meaning I slowed down practically to a 6 minute mile!

I was running alone at this point, but I could hear footsteps behind me. Halfway into mile 2, HFC #5 passed me, ushering in my one race regret: by this time I had gained back most of my wind, and I think I could have made him fight a bit harder for the place. We doubled back on the race course and it was nice to see all the other runners coming in the opposite direction. I think mile 3 passed in seventeen twenty-something.

As I rounded the turn to take the final hill to the finish I caught a glimpse over my shoulder of the lead female and another runner not far back. HFC #5 was ahead of me by a few hundred yards, but by this time our displacement was pretty much fixed. I was accelerating up the hill, and so was he. I had enough left for an iddy-bitty kick for the chute, and that was it.

Results: 13th overall, 3rd AG.
Time: 23:23 (PR!)

I was pretty happy with that, but still a bit sad that I didn't crack HFC's 5-man monolith. Train hard, you guys. I'll be looking forward to next year :-) Also, I won this excellent cup, full of candy!

(The candy is no longer with me, except on a molecular level).
See Mary? You doubted there would be swag!

Other random ruminations: the limiting factor in this race was definitely oxygen uptake. My muscles all felt really strong, newly enhanced calves especially so. While I should probably stick to worrying about pushing out my blood lactate threshold in anticipation of my marathon, it got me thinking about doing more speedwork: 5:20 mile intervals, maybe. Anything to leave me gasping at the end. I bet I could take 10s a mile off pretty easily.

Daily mileage:
Fr: 8.3
Saturday: 16 (ran to Needham and back. Good times)
Sunday: 2M Warmup + 4M race.

Marathon Training Week 4 mileage: 47.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The searing competition of the Turkey Trot

I was planning to do the Norwood Turkey Trot this year if I was healthy, and I'm feeling pretty healthy right now so I guess it's on. I was looking at the finish times from last year, and you know something? Hurtin' for Certain put 8 men under 6 minute mile pace, and 3 under 5:30. I have to say I'm a little impressed; for an allegedly "challenging 4 mile course" that's some smoking times. I'd like to say I'd be running with that top pack, but unless I get bitten by a radioactive spider tomorrow I'll have to settle for beating Don, so Mike and Jeff don't lynch me (this is GNRC club grand prix silliness -- Don is only a few points out of contention for the top spot and he would gain ground if I came between him and the others in the finish order).

Incidentally, looking at the google results for the Norwood turkey trot, I see runputt is #5, and no actual race page higher up the ranking. We are apparently spending more verbage on this race than the race itself.

Just to keep score, while I'm writing anyway:
(T)-- blister rest day.
(W) -- 4M / Frees (w/ socks --feet much happier)
(Th) -- 4M / VFFs (bleeding stopped; feet happier still).

I would like to do 7-8 tomorrow and then a long run Saturday, race notwithstanding.

Monday, November 16, 2009


Sunday: 1.5M WU, 4x800, 2:40-2:55.
Monday: 8.7M.

I think today closes the book on my short-lived experiment in sockless running, an experiment whose results were probably fairly predictable to anyone but me. As the arch of my foot flexes to absorb shock it's coming into contact with the lip of the inner part of my insole, which over the course of the last two long-ish runs has carved rather handsome crescents into the sole of each foot, each capped by a loose area of saggy skin about the size of a quarter. I took a visual aid but...actually you don't need to see that.

Feeling those hotspots building up, I decided to stop early, slipped off my shoes and walked barefoot for a while in the grassy marges, which were delightfully cold and wet with the morning's dew. As I was reluctantly slipping my shoes back on to walk the rest of the way home, three ladies ran by and asked if I was OK. Ignominy! At least the slow return treated me to a pretty sunrise.

Sunday's speed was fine, except I intersected with one of the last little-league touch football games of the season ("Packers vs Patriots", if I understood the infield chatter correctly), and the track was busy with parents and kids throwing footballs, killing time and awaiting their turn on the pitch. Dodging kids wasn't so bad, but whoever left that nerfbat and softy ball in lane 1 right at the 300 yard mark? Really now...

I think I'll stick to nothing more than barefoot striders for the next day or two while my feet heal up a bit, and then try another long run on Thursday, with socks. A ply of coolmax can take the fall next time.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

new kicks. 12 miles.

I should have liked to run with the club this morning, but I didn't feel up to a long run in VFFs, and I didn't have anything else I wanted to run in. So! An excuse for new shoes. I stopped by City Sports this morning and picked up a pair of Nike Frees:

The morning pickup was a good plan as City Sports is one of those stores where you more or less have to be waited on, and in the am the staff haven't yet been grated down to bare masses of nerve endings by the constant abrasive scrubby sponge that is consumer America. Anyway, the Frees have an interesting slipper-like feel, more like racing flats than regular sneakers (though the midsole is more substantial). When I put them on at home, running socks seemed to be an unnecessary imposition; I shucked them and tried again in bare feet.

As I stepped out the door it was alternating between a steady deliberate rain and a lighter mist. It had been absolutely pounding earlier in the morning and I wondered if anyone from the club had been out in the middle of it (the hardy fools). Got sync with the gps satellite constellation and went.

First half mile read 6:50 pace. Thanks Garmin! I dialed back, but somehow for the entire first 1/2 of the run I couldn't get my average pace much over 7:04. Here's a new problem then: in these light shoes I can't comfortably heel strike, and without heel striking I'm unsure how to run above a certain pace. It just feels awkward. Nonetheless I don't expect to be doing training 20 milers at 7 minute pace, so this is something I'm going to have to learn!

Another unexpected discovery: I'm really looking forward to ascents now. Not because I relish the work so much, but because an ascent means an absence of uncertainty about form. When a hill comes, I know exactly what my job is and it's just a matter of doing it. The rest of the time I'm still searching for that sweet spot that lies somewhere between heelstriking and prancing along on my toes.

I finished the back half of the run in 7:16 pace, and felt fairly good when I finished. Still, it was too fast. I won't be able to do that when I'm running 15 or 18 miles.

Catching up the last few weeks

Quick overview of the last few weeks. The weekend after the Canton Fall Classic, and the very next day after the aforementioned 10-miler discouragingly reminded me what a breakable human being I am, I set out to the local track and ran two miles barefoot on the infield, dodging the ropes, cones and assorted debris left over from most recent football game. It felt great. There's really no other way to run barefoot but on your toes. You don't even have to try--your body just does it. In retrospect it's weird to me that I've never run two barefoot miles before. It seems like such a natural thing, but once I started running seriously, it was shoes shoes shoes all the way.

I got a pair of Vibram FiveFingers and started longer runs on pavement (and one brave excursion into the network of trails that runs outside my house). My calves were soon immensely sore, and it was pretty clear that if I seriously wanted to stick with this minimalism thing, it would be a long, slow hall cranking my mileage back up to what it used to be. In many respects it was like learning to run all over again: I was hurting in unexpected places, uncertain of how much and how hard I should be running, and even unsure of exactly how I should be running. Minor questions of form pestered me: how much should the ball of my foot precede the heel? Should my heel be taking any weight, or should it barely kiss the asphalt before springing up again? How much should I let my feet roll with each foot-strike? It was a lot easier when I just ran, without thinking about it.

Something else rapidly became clear as well: running in naked feet, or close to it, is great. It is, quite surprisingly, as good or perhaps even better than running in trainers. But it has its own limitations. Descending a steep grade is tricky--you have to extend your forefoot quite far to make leading contact with the ground, and then the braking motion as your leg slows the trunk of your body against the force of gravity seems less natural. Longer runs are difficult. After a recent 8 miler on pavement I felt like a car with a reamed-out suspension, absolutely no bounce left in my ankles and calves. And the knee pain is not gone entirely, though it has abated somewhat.

A recent run in Vibrams last Thursday made me pull back and reevaluate. It was hill repeats with the club, which meant a bright and early start (up at 5am and running by 5:10). The uphills felt grand, my feet flickering upwards like butterflies. It seemed to me I was blowing less wind and recovering faster at the top. But the downhills...hmm. The downhills weren't so good. It was that braking motion I mentioned earlier. My knee definitely let me know about that. Maybe I'm doing it wrong? Maybe I should be sprinting down the hill, so I don't have to brake so much? Maybe I could jog down backwards! Don't know, but the way I was doing it was certainly not working.

Later that day I thought of a tentative plan: VFFs for short runs and speed work. A lightweight trainer with a low profile outsole for long runs. I could alternate back and forth and get some benefits from both worlds. Of course I actually needed a trainer that fit that description, and I wasn't feeling too keen on going back to the Kayanos.

The next post has a write-up about the new shoes I picked up, and my first 12-miler in them.

why this blog

"Why this blog" seems like a reasonable place to start. To answer, I need to scroll back a few weeks, to the Canton Fall Classic 10k in late October. The short story about that race: it was good; I PR'd by a lot and was pretty happy with my time. But when I finished, I had discovered a wholly new pain in my left knee, this time on the outside--a weird, dull, disconcerting kind of pain that made itself known whenever I bent my leg. This was super-frustrating after having spent the last several months getting over a nagging pain on the inside of that same knee, it felt like I was right back where I started. I wasn't even running in racing flats, but my trainers: asics Kayanos with not all that many miles on them. I ran a short 30 minutes the next day and the pain was still there. I took the next four days completely off, then did my long run of 10 miles the next saturday. Within a mile, the pain showed up like an unwelcome guest.

This ushered in a period of experimentation. I read up on minimalist/barefoot running and some of the ideas took hold. It occurred to me I didn't need to be a sports medicine doctor to explain why a toe-strike in bare feet would transmit less force to the knee than a heel-strike in expensive running shoes (in the former, the force is absorbed over centimeters as the heel travels downwards, but in the latter case, there are only the few millimeters of compressing foam). And if you always ran on the balls of your feet, as many runners advise, then what exactly is that exquisitely engineered heel strike zone in your running shoe doing for you?

I read Chris McDougall's book "Born to Run", and one line in particular stuck with me:

Running was the superpower that made us human-which means it's a superpower all humans possess.

Of course I've been running for a long time, but Chris was talking about something more specific: endurance running, the kind our ancestors did when they were persistence-hunting antelope on the open savanna. For all the running I've done, I've never gone more than 18 miles at a pitch. To the protagonists in Chris's book, for whom a long run would be 30,40,50, one hundred miles, that's pocket change. I'm really wondering how they do it. How do you run 40 miles? Is it something any reasonably athletic person could do? it something I could do?

Here we come to the purpose of this blog. This is intended to be a log of my attempt to discover whether I have a little of "humanity's original superpower" in me too. In addition it will be a narrative of my experiments with minimalist running and my attempts to get really, truly, completely healthy. To timebox the effort, I'm signing up for the Hyannis Marathon, February 28th. Not only do I mean to run 26 miles, I mean to run them, light quick and smooth, and I'm going to enjoy every last one of them.

How's that for a marathon goal?